Old Testament vignettes [3]: Ishmaelite Connections in Song of Solomon

Editorial Note: This is the third article in a series of three by Dr. Tony Maalouf that focus on Old Testament vignettes telling the story of Ishmaelite Arabs in key Biblical contexts. We urge the reader to consider how modern day cultural influences have shaped our collective understanding of the Arab peoples, and perhaps as a result, our posture as the church towards her descendants, both Muslim and Christian. We are confident you will find the context of Ishmael’s birth, Job, and the Song of Solomon an encouraging corrective in today’s politicized landscape of fear towards the peoples of the Middle East.

A word should be said (in the discussion of Ishmaelite vignettes in the Bible) about the Song of Songs. Hitti has suggested an Ishmaelite origin for the Shulammite in the book. With her being “black” (or “dark”), associated with “the tents of Qedar” (Song 1:5) from extensive exposure to the sun in the wilderness (1:6), and coming from the desert as a bedouin perfumed with all the spices of Arabia (3:6; cf. Ps. 72:10-15; 1 Kings 10:10; Isa. 60:6-7), there may be some evidence that Solomon’s beloved was an Arabian Ishmaelite.

By Aharon April, CC BY-SA 4.0, Song of Songs-Last

Moses’ wife was an Arabian from Midian (Exod. 2). Furthermore, the great affinity of the descriptive similes used in the book with nomadic hymns of love and Arabian erotic poetry may be a further indication for such a proposal. However, the book also presents affinities with other ancient Near Eastern literature, and Hitti’s suggestion for the Ishmaelite origin of Solomon’s bride, the Shulammite, though it may offer an explanation for the Arabic name of his daughter (Basma), is beyond proof.

However, a case may be made, as Seale argues, for the literary affinity existing in the book of Songs with desert Ishmaelite culture. Thus this piece of inspired Hebrew poetry reflects, together with Job and Proverbs 30-31, a positive atmosphere between Israel and Ishmael during the united monarchy.

Studying these vignettes in the Old Testament that portray Ishmael and his descendants in a positive light, as recipients of promises, and blessed by God, should be a primary frame through which we see the Middle East and his descendants today. Tempting as it is to allow modern events to color our understanding of a whole people, for Christians, the Bible, with its overwhelmingly hopeful charicatures should hold a greater weight.

This post is excerpted from Tony Maalouf’s book Arabs in the Shadow of Israel.

About Tony Maalouf

Dr. Tony Maalouf was a professor of World Christianity at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and served as an adjunct or visiting professor at numerous other institutions across the globe. He sadly passed away in 2020 after a long struggle with brain cancer. His areas of interest in teaching included Arabs in biblical history and Muslim/Christian relations. Dr. Maalouf wrote extensively on Ishmael, including a book titled "Arabs in the Shadow of Israel" about God's plan for the line of Ishmael. We deeply grieve his loss.