Monday, December 21, 2015

Book Write-Up: Solomon's Song, by Roberta Kells Dorr

Roberta Kells Dorr.  Solomon’s Song.  Chicago: River North, 2014.  See here to buy the book.

Solomon’s Song is the third novel by Roberta Kells Dorr that I have read.  The other two books that I read are Abraham and Sarah and Sons of IsaacSolomon’s Song is a reprint of Dorr’s 1989 novel, Shulamit.  Shulamit is the female protagonist in the biblical Song of Solomon.

I have had questions whenever I have read the biblical Song of Solomon, and I was curious about how Solomon’s Song would address them.  The Song of Solomon is about a romance between a man and a woman.  People in the woman’s family try to hinder that romance.  The man in the book appears to be in a state of vulnerability.  The main questions in my mind have been: How could this man be Solomon?  Would anyone be able to hinder Solomon, a powerful king?  Why would Solomon have to sneak around to see a woman he loved?

Of course, there are other ways to interpret the Song of Solomon.  Some say that the Song of Solomon is about a woman and a shepherd, and the woman chooses to be with the shepherd rather than the glorious Solomon.  Others may say that the Song of Solomon was simply a poem about love (a wasf), and it was later attributed to Solomon.  There are others who view it as an allegory of God’s love for Israel, or God’s love of the church.  I am still curious about how one can interpret the man in the Song of Solomon to be Solomon.  And, since I enjoyed the previous two Dorr novels that I read (especially Abraham and Sarah), I decided to read Solomon’s Song to see how she approached this issue.

Essentially, Dorr in Solomon’s Song conflates three Bible stories.  First, of course, there is the Song of Solomon.  Second, there is the story in II Samuel 21 about the Gibeonites and the hanging of Saul’s sons.  There has been a famine in Israel for three years, and King David learns from God that this is because David’s predecessor, Saul, killed Gibeonites in his zeal.  This violated an oath that Israel swore to Gibeon (Joshua 9).  The Gibeonites ask David for permission to hang seven of Saul’s sons, and David lets them do so.  The mother of two of these sons, Rizpah, protects Saul’s hanging sons from the birds and the beasts.  When David learns of Rizpah’s act, David gathers the bones of Saul and Saul’s son Jonathan, as well as the bones of those who were hanged, and he buries them in Benjamin, in the grave of Kish, Saul’s father.  V 14 says: “And after that God was intreated for the land” (KJV).

The third Bible story is in I Kings 1-2.  David is old, and his servants decide that he needs a young virgin to keep him warm.  They search the coasts of Israel and find Abishag the Shunammite.  Abishag serves the king and keeps him warm, but they never have sexual intercourse.  Meanwhile, David’s son, Adonijah, is plotting to take over the throne, even though God (II Samuel 7) and David promised that David’s son Solomon would be king.  Adonijah is gaining powerful allies.  David anoints Solomon king, and Adonijah fears for his life.  Solomon spares Adonijah, but Adonijah later goes to David’s favorite wife, Bathsheba, and asks to marry Abishag.  That is a power play on Adonijah’s part, and Solomon has Adonijah put to death.

In Solomon’s Song, David’s servants look for a woman so that King David can sleep with her and thereby end the famine, since there is a Canaanite belief that the fecundity of the land depends on the sexual virility of the king.  Bathsheba leads the search, and Adonijah and Solomon accompany her.  They go to Northern Israel, where there is a rich shepherd.  The shepherd hides his daughter, Shulamit, since he does not want to lose her.  Adonijah wears his royal apparel, but Solomon dresses as a lowly shepherd.  Solomon meets Shulamit, and they develop a rapport.  Shulamit takes Solomon to see the cave where Saul met with the witch of Endor (I Samuel 28).  Shulamit is not yet aware that Solomon is a prince.

Bathsheba decides that Shulamit will be the one who will marry King David.  Shulamit is known as Abishag by her brothers, because they see her as their father’s mistake: their father’s favorite wife had only a girl, but no sons.  (In terms of the Hebrew, “Abi” means “my father,” and the verb sh-g-g and sh-g-h can relate to an error.)  Shulamit’s father agrees to let her go, in exchange for a piece of Solomon’s vineyard, which is in the north.

Shulamit is initially enamored with Adonijah on account of his royal prestige, but she comes to dislike him due to his conniving character.  She loves Solomon, and King David agrees not to sleep with her on account of this.  Bathsheba is not particularly happy about the bond between Solomon and Shulamit.  Bathsheba wants for Solomon to marry a princess, since that would give Solomon more credentials for the throne.  Solomon marries the Ammonite princess Naamah (who would later be the mother of Solomon’s son and successor, Rehoboam; I Kings 14:21).  Solomon thinks this is a wise decision, since then the Ammonites would allow Israel to use the king’s highway, an important trading route, rather than forming an alliance to block Israel’s use of it.

How does the plot in Solomon’s Song mesh, or not mesh, with the biblical Song of Solomon?  Solomon and Shulamit are cut off from each other, due to misunderstandings and Solomon’s desire to fulfill his mother’s expectations.  That is how Dorr accounts for the times in the Song of Solomon when the man leaves the woman, or the woman searches for the man.  Solomon initially dresses as a shepherd, and that is how Dorr accounts for Solomon being the lowly man in the Song of Solomon.  Adonijah forms an alliance with Shulamit’s seven brothers, which could be Dorr’s way of explaining how the seven brothers were trying to inhibit the relationship between the man and the woman.

Solomon’s Song also adds political intrigue (or political considerations) to the story in II Samuel 21 about Saul’s sons and the Gibeonites.  Saul killed the Gibeonites so that he could establish God’s sanctuary in Gibeon, which is where the Tabernacle came to be (I Chronicles 21:29).  Adonijah supports executing Saul’s sons because that could eliminate competition for the throne.  The problem is that this alienated the Benjamites, so God told David to bury Saul, Jonathan, and Saul’s sons as a way to appease them.

I did like Dorr’s approach of trying different biblical themes together.  Dorr also explored a theme that appeared in her other two books that I read: how does one know that the God of Israel is the true God, whereas the gods of other nations are false?  On the negative side, I found the romance between Shulamite and Solomon to be a bit shallow.  It could have been executed a lot better than it was, but, as it stood, it did not really tug on my heartstrings.  I did not entirely understand Bathsheba’s problem, since Solomon could have easily married Shulamit and a princess, a point that is acknowledged in the book.  The book was somewhat scattered, and the characterization was not always as consistent as I would have liked.

Dorr’s epilogue was interesting, though, because she was offering her own ideas about the Song of Solomon.  She speculated that Solomon may have married the hundreds of women whom he married because he was trying, in vain, to replace Shulamit.  She also speculated that Solomon may have written the Song of Songs as a way to unite the north and the south.  Many scholars say that the Hebrew style of the Song of Songs is later than the Hebrew of the time of Solomon.  Still, perhaps there is a reason that a romantic story set in the north became a sacred book in ancient Israel.

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