Over the centuries, many have found the book scandalous, while others have have given it superlative praise. Although it doesn’t even mention God, back in the 1st century of the Common era, Rabbi Aqiba, said of the Song, “Had not the Torah been given, Canticles would have sufficed to guide the world.” This is an astonishing claim for a Jewish rabbi to make. That what appears to be an erotic poem is enough to guide the world.
In this 20th century, Rabbi Kook, chief Rabbi of Palestine penned his own poetic tribute to the Song:
There is one who sings the song of his soul,
discovering in his soul everything -- utter spiritual fulfillment.
There is one who sings the song of his people.
Emerging from the private circle of his soul -- not expansive enough,
not yet tranquil -- he strives for fierce heights, clinging to the entire community of Israel in tender love...
Then there is one whose soul expands
until it extends beyond the border of Israel,
singing the song of humanity... his spirit spreads,
aspiring to the goal of humankind, envisioning its consummation...
Then there is one who expands even further
until he unites with all existence, with all creatures, with all worlds, singing a song with them all.
There is one who ascends with all these songs
in unison -- the song of the soul, the song of the nation, the song of humanity,
the song of the cosmos -- resounding together,
blending in harmony, circulating the sap of life,
the sound of holy joy.
Again a remarkable tribute. For Rabbi Kook, The Song of Songs is the song of the soul, the song of the nation, the song of humanity, all the song of the cosmos, all rolled into one very remarkable text.
The Song of Songs is regarded as Wisdom literature and is traditionally attributed to Solomon. The book, as it stands, is believed to have been compiled as late as the 4th century BCE. Scholars believe elements of the Song date back to the Solomonic era, and perhaps even earlier, but other elements are regarded as post-exilic. If we ascribe to the various theories regarding the dating of the Song, it would seem that it was not composed as a single work, but instead represents a collection of poems finely edited together.
Scholars are divided as to how many poems might be contained within; 4, 14, 18, 28, 31, or 44 poems have been suggested. For the text to evoke so many suggestions, only one thing is clear: that the demarcations within the Song are not blindingly obvious. Further, scholars are divided on the number of people in the text. Are we reading about one loving couple, (Solomon and his bride) several loving couples, or is it a love triangle – Solomon, his bride and his bride’s lover? In deciding, the translation we read can be crucial. Some translations take it upon themselves to clarify the text. To do that, the interpreters must make a decision based on what they think is going on.
In the Middle Ages, Jewish scholar, Saadia Ben Joseph, well described the Song of Songs as a lock to which the keys have been lost. Over the last two thousand years, few books have received as much attention as the Song, and none have been interpreted so diversely. In this lecture we are not going to look in any detail at the various arguments according the different forms of criticism. Instead I want to look at the diversity of readings resulting from those criticisms, as well as the readings of the pre-critical period.
To look at the different interpretations of the Song, we will first examine some of the allegorical accounts in the first half of the lecture, and the literal accounts in the second half.
Allegory is a fictional narrative or artistic expression that conveys a symbolic meaning that is considered to be more important than its literal meaning. To give you a contemporary example, Bryan Appleyard read the Teletubbies as a communist allegory intended to spread discontent and revolutionary sympathy amongst the children of Great Britain. He argues that the teletubbies are idle simpletons who do nothing but frolic and play, and this clearly corresponds to the British upper classes. He describes each of the individual Teletubby characters as representing particular social groups in Britain. He then draws attention to their dietary habits. Apparently, Teletubbies eat custard and toast with smiley faces on. Appleyard says the key to the custard symbol can be found in the french translation of custard: creme anglais, or the cream of English society. Clearly, he would say, the toast represents the self-satisfaction of the upper classes, toasting themselves smugly. You get the idea?
The idea of allegorical interpretation may seem very strange to many of us today. We live in an age not noted for its poetry; we pride ourselves on calling a spade a spade. But over the centuries, allegorical interpretation has dominated both Jewish and Christian understanding of the Song of Songs.
Allegory was prevalent in ancient times. It is believed to have originated with the Greeks as they grappled with their own treasured writings – most notably the odes of Homer. From reading religious and philosphical doctrines into ancient myths, to the expression of doctrines in metaphorical and mythical language, the tradition of allegorical thought and interpretation grew. Hebrew scriptures are also rich in mythical and metaphorical language.
EARLY JEWISH INTERPRETATION
There was great dispute over the Song of Song’s inclusion into the Hebrew canon. Even in those early days there were many who saw the Song as an erotic poem. Indeed, Rabbi Aqiba was strongly critical of those who sang the Song in a bawdy manner in taverns. Instead, he argued, “all the ages are not worth the day on which the Song of Songs was given to Israel; for all the writings are holy, but the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies.” Rabbi Aqiba saw the Song as a celebration of the relationship between God and Israel, and this helped secure the book’s place in the Hebrew Bible. It also set the framework for interpreting the Song.
The idea that God could be represented by the male lover and Israel by a young woman was not foreign to Hebrew thinking or Hebrew scriptures. The relationship of God and Israel has been likened to that of lovers or as husband and wife throughout scripture. For example, in the book of Hosea, God tells Israel he will take her as his wife. (Hosea 2:19-20) And similarly in Isaiah 62:4-5. But the Song is seen as more than just the declarations of love between God and Israel. The poetry of the Song was thought to represent Israel’s salvation history.
At first glance it may be difficult for us, as unfamiliar as we are with allegory, to see how the Song of Songs might encompass Israel’s salvation history. So we are going to look at a brief outline of some of the details recognised in the Song of Songs according to the Targum to the Song of Songs – an early Jewish interpretation. We will not be examining each verse here, but I have selected just a few to give you a taste of traditional allegorical interpretation.
Verses 1:2-3:6 are believed to represent the Exodus, Sinai, the sin of the golden calf, the construction of the tabernacle and entry into Canaan. “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth” was understood to allude to the Oral Toral given to Israel by God. Vs 3:6 “What is that coming up from the wilderness, like a column of smoke, perfumed with myrrh and frankincense, with all fragrant powders of the merchant?” was seen as Israel’s triumphant entry into Canaan.
Verses 3:7-5:1 are believed to concentrate on the Temple. Ch 4, verses 6-7 “Until the day breaths and the shadows flee, I will hasten to the mountain of myrrh and the hill of frankincense. You are altogether beautiful, my love; there is no flaw in you.” was understood as God’s promise of protection as long as Israel remained faithful.
Verses 5:2-6:1 refer to Israel’s sin and repentance, and includes the experience of the Babylonian Exile. Indeed the anguish of the exiles may be well reflected in the pain of the female lover when she wakes to find her beloved gone, and is abused as she searches fruitlessly for him. “I opened to my beloved but my beloved had turned and was gone. My soul failed me when he spoke. I sought him but did not find him; I called him but he gave no answer. Making their rounds in the city the sentinels found me; they beat me, they wounded me, they took away my mantle, those sentinels of the walls. I adjure you, o daughters of Jerusalem, if you find my beloved, tell him this:I am faint with love.”(5:6-8)
Verses 6:2-7:11 commemorate the post-exilic reconciliation of God and Israel, and the rebuilding of the Temple. The Shulamite’s declaration “I am my beloved’s and his desire is for me” rings out as a response to God’s declaration (Ex 6:7a) “I will take you as my people and I will be your God.”
Verses 7:12-8:14 mark Israel’s exile in the Roman empire and look forward to an ultimate redemption. The Messianic tradition is said to be represented by 8:2, “I would leave you and bring you into the house of my mother, and into the chamber of the one who bore me.” In the final verses God receives the prayers of Israel as Israel awaits her final redemption.
It needs to be said that this is just one way to interpret the Song allegorically. Other interpreters will see similar themes but the distribution throughout the Song will be different.
EARLY CHRISTIAN INTERPRETATION
With the Christian idea of the church as the ‘new Israel’ it is not surprising that Christians adapted Jewish allegory to interpret the Song of Songs in terms of Christ and the Church.
But the adaptation is not merely a mechanical imitation of the Jewish approach. Early Christians were also strongly influenced by Plato through the Gnostics, and later, Middle Platonism. Middle Platonism was in turn influenced by 2nd C Stoics and Pythagoreans. They all used allegory as an interpretative tool and Middle Platonism developed it even further. In addition, various forms of Platonic thought carried the idea that that physical love is debasing and venerated celibacy - something that was not true of Hebraic thought. It was in this interpretative climate that Christian allegory was born.
The earliest surviving Christian exposition of the Song of Songs was by Hippolytus of Rome. Like Jewish interpretators, Hippolytus saw the Song through a salvation-historical hermeneutic but he regarded it to be a Solomonic prophecy of the end of the old covenant and the beginning of the new. But it wasn’t a total replacement. The two testaments together were regarded as a unity, as signified by his interpretation of 1:13 “My beloved is to me a bag of myrrh that lies between my breasts.” Hippolytus understood the breasts of the [male] lover to refer to the two testaments – that is the Hebrew Bible and the Apostolic writings that Christians call the New Testament. Many translations attribute that verse to the female.
Origen, a contemporary of Hippolytus, wrote a ten volume commentary on the Song of songs. He adopted a Christological approach to all Hebrew scripture and purged them of material he found morally offensive. He was also keen to show scripture to be compatible with Greek philosophy.
Origen saw the Song of Songs as the third book of Solomon, and equivalent to the third branch of learning. Proverbs delivered Moral learning, (ethics) Ecclesiastes delivered learning of the natural world, (physics) and The Song of Songs delivered contemplative learning (enoptics). Thus, Origen saw the Song as an advanced course in spirituality, teaching that communion with God is to be found though love and charity. One must first learn moral values, keeping the commandments, then learn to distinguish between what is non corruptible (spiritual) and what is corruptible (earthly) and so renounce the world and everything in it. Only then is one suitably prepared to contemplate the mysteries of communion with God without fear of corruption. The Song’s purpose is to instil into the soul the love of things divine.
Origen recognised that the Song can easily be read as an erotic text, and thus warned anyone who had not fully withdrawn from the “corporeal nature” not to read it. He himself sought to withdraw from his corporeal nature by castrating himself as a young man.
Origen described the Song of Songs as (an epithalamium) a wedding song written by Solomon in the form of a drama. While he suggested a few possible settings for the plot, he wasn’t terribly concerned about it. What was important to him was that the Song be theologically relevant . In his works, Origen developed the symbol of the bride as a portrait of the church on one level, and the individual soul on another level. So the Song explores the nuptual relationship of Christ and the church, and the individual human soul in communion with God. The Word’s marriage is at once a union with the whole Church and the individual soul.
Athanasius also saw the Song as an epithalamium, but he offered a slightly different slant. He saw the Song as a jubilee song of the church, celebrating the incarnation of the son of God. Christ is the bridegroom, and human flesh is his bride. The many dialogues within the Song were variously understood to be between Christ and humanity, Christ and Israel, Christ and the church, Gentiles and Jews, and angels and men.
JEWISH INTERPRETATION IN MIDDLE AGES
In the Middle Ages, traditional interpretations of the Song of Songs continued to prevail.
Like the Targum, Saadia ben Joseph (892-942)recognised Israel’s salvation history reflected in the text of the Song of Songs but his exegesis was somewhat different from that of the Targum. In midrash the Song of Songs Rabbah explains the Song as a metaphor for the love between God and Israel. The idea of the passionate text is not just listen to, or read, expressions of ectasy, but also to generate them. Rabbis of the Middle Ages reported that the intimacy with God that the Song both signifies and generates, enables its listeners to see the world and their own lives in terms of rapturous praise.
At the time of Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac (Rashi) (1040-1105), Jews in Europe were experiencing another era in the wilderness as they suffered persecution by Christians. Rashi called Israel the widow of a living husband. During this period, the Song served to recall the love between God and Israel, and held hope for God’s continual support and the promise of a new age. (Rashi saw 1:13 as Aaron and Moses.)
One method of interpretation that supplements the allegorical approach is numeralogical interpretation which was popular among some mediaeval Jews. In this method a arithmetical value was given to letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and calculations were made to search for deeper meanings. To give you an example, in the line 1:2b “For your love is better than wine,” the word 'wine' is spelt yyn. Giving y the value 10, and n the value 50, yyn adds to 70. This was understood by some exegetes to refer to the seventy nations ie all nations other than Israel. The verse was thus interpreted as affirming that Israel is more precious to God than the rest of the world.
The Middle Ages saw a resurgence of mysticism affecting biblical interpretation. A number of Jewish scholars saw the Song of Songs flavoured with Jewish mysticism. The Song was said to refer to the “mysterious harmony of the universe” or “the union of the divine soul with the earthly body.”
In the 13th century Joseph Ibn Caspi believed the Song to portray the union of [male] active intellect with [female] receptive intellect. The active intellect is that which stirs the receptive intellect into action. The active intellect was seen a primary cosmic principle, in some cases equated with God, or at least God’s prime emanation. It was this active intellect that allows people to realise their intellectual capacities.
A number of scholars took up this interpretation throughout the middle ages, and some went so far as to disparage traditional allegories as being fixed in the material world.
Immanuel ben Solomon (17thC) divided the Song very differently to those who follow the traditional approaches. He basically divided it into three sections, each describing different kinds of people.
Verses 1:2-2:17 describe humanity before the fall, and this was believed to refer to young minds. Verses to 2:7 described minds that knew God from tradition but had no wisdom. 2:8-17 described the young mind that has studied physics and mathematics.
Verses 3:1-5:1 describe the man who has found a virtuous wife and represent a mind that has developed its potential. The sentinels in the city (3:3) are the intellectual powers that guide the mind in the right direction.
Verses 5:2-8:14 describe the man with a sinful wife who has eaten of the tree of knowledge. She corrupts her husband in her pursuit of pleasure and sensual lust, thus the mind is corrupted.
Solomon and Wisdom
In the late 16th century it was proposed that the brideroom and bride represented Solomon and Wisdom. Later this was extended, suggesting the groom represented any seeker of Wisdom, not necessarily Solomon. This theme was elaborated on my numerous scholars, both Jewish and Christian who cited the Wisdom of Solomon as evidence for their reading. “I loved her and sought her from my youth; I desired to take her for my bride, and became enamoured of her beauty.” (Wis 6:12-13)
CHRISTIAN INTERPRETATION IN THE MIDDLE AGES
One of the themes that presented itself in the middle ages was the idea of the lovers representing body and soul, founded on a dualistic interpretation of human kind. (An extension of Anthanasius) As Aristotelian Scholasticism arose, monasteries reacted strongly in favour of tradition and experience. A new surge of piety swept through the monasteries in an experiential movement known as Monastic Mysticism. Of the monastic mystics, none was as prolific as Bernard of Clairvaux. Bernard was a zealous advocate of the Crusades, whose taste for war was rivalled only by his passion for the Song of Songs. He wrote 84 sermons on the Song of Song and didn’t finish exploring till the end of chapter 2. (Roughly three sermons for every verse.)
Bernard distinguished three types of love: physical, active charity, and affective charity.
Physical love, the offspring of the flesh, was considered inherently sinful and to be vehemently rejected. Active charity is that which obeys reason. It gives rise to good works and deserves reward.Affective charity is seasoned by wisdom. It is the love of God that comes as reward; experienced in life but to be perfected in heaven. For Bernard, physical love is totally incompatible with the second and third loves. One must drive out physical enticements by affection for Lord Jesus. So for Bernard, the Song was mostly seem as the relationship of the soul with God, but frequently he associated the bride with the church, and yet other times with the Virgin Mary, whom he saw to be the only one to realise perfect union with God. (untainted by sex)
St Theresa of Avila (c1577) wrote a book, Conceptions of Divine Love on some words of the Canticles but was ordered to burn it by one of her confessors, who was alarmed that a woman should presume to write on such a delicate subject. Fortunately part of her work survived. Theresa understood the Song as the union of the soul with Christ through the sacrament of the Eucharist.
As we have seen, allegory is flexible and adaptable. It is limited only by the imagination, and there can be no objective controls. For these reasons it has been largely discredited by modern scholarship and, as a result, the Song of Songs is largely ignored by the church. (It does not appear in the Anglican lectionary.) But some Orthodox Jews and a few Christian scholars still favour an allegorical interpretation. Of these, most would hold one of the more traditional interpretations that we have looked at so far. There have, however, been a limited number of new allegorical interpretations.
Peter Kearney explores the psychological symbolism of the Song. He sees the lovers as portraying the inner sexual duality of the individual. The dark Shulamite is thus the ‘unconscious feminine’ ignored or repressed by man’s conscious masculine dimension. This of course suggests a male audience only.
Luis Stadelmann insists that the Song is a piece of political propoganda. Each of the principal characters are said to personify particular social groups. The Bride represents the people of Judah, the daughters of Jerusalem are said to be the elite Jewish priests, Solomon is the Davidic dynasty and monarchical state, the wives are the Persian provinces and the queens stand for the kingdoms in bondage to Persia.
The Song, according to Stadelmann, is a single coded text, written to promote the restoration of the Davidic monarchy following the Exile. He claims that the language is not romantic, but political, with love being a synonym for political pacts formalised by written agreement. Kisses and embraces are symbolic rites of mutual belonging.
In our first session we looked at the various allegorical interpretations, and while such interpretations have been dominant, more literal interpretations have also been around throughout the ages, receiving varying receptions. Back in the first century, according to Rabbi Aqiba, those who treated the Song as a ditty, had no place in the world to come. In other ages, those who interpreted the Song literally often received a more immediate punishment.
Now I am using the term literal very broadly here. I am not suggesting that the bride really did have teeth like a flock of shorn sheep or that her lover was a centaur. I am referring to the ways in which, at some level, the Song is seen to be expressing a relationship between a man (or men) and a woman. So, included in this section will be those accounts that take a literal setting for the Song, but still use allegory to interpret it.
It must be remembered that the lyrics of the Song are couched in metaphorical language. Among those taking a literal approach there is as much diversity, if not more than, what we find among those who favour allegory. So in this part of the lecture we will look at the song of Songs seen as dream, drama, cultic liturgy, secular poetry and midrash.
Among the literal readings, we will see an upsurge in feminist interpretations of the Song of Songs. Women scholars show a particular interest in the Song because it is one of the few biblical texts that has a woman as the central character. A number of scholars also believe the book may have had a female author. The Song of Songs is said to affirm women as sexual beings in a way that somewhat flies in the face of patriarchy. Usually female sexuality is depicted as dangerous and must therefore be restricted to male-controlled procreation. In the Song, the sexuality of the woman is celebrated.
The Song as Dream|
Early in the 19th century, Johann Leonhard von Hug suggested that the Song of Songs should be interpreted as a dream. The key to this was taken from 5:2a, “I slept but my heart was awake.” The dream hypothesis was thought to be strengthened by the disjointedness of the text. However, once one accepted the Song as a dream, von Hug believed that it then needed to be interpreted allegorically. He saw the shepherdess as representing the ten Northern tribes of Israel who longed to be reunited with the two southern tribes. Other scholars have since taken up the dream theory if not von Hug’s political interpretation. Solomon Freehof sees the Song as a series of dreams and, as dreams, they need to be interpreted symbolically. According to Freehof, the dream is the outcome of longing desire expressed in symbolic scenes and actions, so even if the traditional interpretations are not correct, the approach of tradition to interpret it symbolically is sound.
The first of the prescribed readings for this week sees the Song as a dream of a dream. A male fantasy about a woman who dreams of him. David Clines calls it a “wish-fulfillment dream”. He regards it as a male fantasy to dream about a woman who is forward in love, who initiates love-making, and who boasts about her lover to other women. She is bold; she is seductive; she teases and tantilizes, and lets him speak intimately about her body without feeling coy. For these reasons, he thinks her strange; so strange that [to his mind] she can’t possibly exist. She must be a figment of the author’s imagination.
Cline’s reaction is not too distant from that of Dr James Bennett in the 19th C who argued that the nature of women precludes a natural reading of the Song. Women simply do not ask men to kiss them. Even in 1956, Theophile Meek said of the Song, “it is the maiden who takes the initiative and presses her suit, and this is never the case in secular love.”
It is interesting that throughout theological history, women have been painted as scarlet seductresses, corrupting innocent men. But when presented with this rare example of seduction painted positively, these male interpreters believe it can’t possibly be true because [they say] it is not in the female nature to seduce. It would seem women can’t win. In the eyes of some biblical scholars, we must either be whores or virgins.
While talking about the Song of Song as a dream I should mention the American psychiatrist, Max Pusin. Pusin believed that the Song is a play written in Persian times to entertain wedding guests, so by rights we should include him in our next section. But what is most interesting about Pusin is his use of the Song in teaching dream interpretation to medical practitioners. Pusin claims the Song contains nearly every category of Freudian symbol, and the meanings of those symbols are almost identical with Freud’s.
The Song as Drama
The first proponent of the drama theory was Origen. Although he believed that the Song is best understood allegorically, he went to some length to explain the Song of Songs as a drama, composed by Solomon to be acted on stage. Throughout his commentary, he suggested specific stage settings and gave attention to dramatic structure. In producing his commentary, Origen’s first step was to identify the speaker, the bride, the groom, the maidens, or the friends of the groom. You will notice many (but not all) Bibles also attempt to do this – but no two versions agree on who says what.
In the 18th century, Johann Jacobi argued strongly that the Song of Songs is a drama that celebrates fidelity. He recognised three main characters: the shepherdess, her shepherd husband, and King Solomon. According to Jacobi, the king was smitten by the beauty of the Shepherdess and tried to entice her into his court, but she resisted all temptations and remained true to her husband.
This interpretation was taken up by Christian Ginsburgh in the 19th century, who saw the Song of Songs as the answer to Solomon’s question in Proverbs 31:10. “Who can find a virtuous woman?” Ginsburgh saw the shepherdess as at least one woman of spotless integrity, and that her virtue is recorded in scripture, allowed him to launch into a biblical defense for the equality of women. As such, he may well be considered one of the earliest feminist biblical scholars.
One of the most notable of modern proponents of the Song of Songs as a drama is Michael Goulder. He suggests the Song is a “semi-continuous sequence of 14 scenes, moving in a progression from the arrival of the Princess at Solomon’s court to her acknowledgement by the king as his favourite queen.” He considers the Song to be post-exilic and places great importance on the darkness of the bride’s skin. This leads Goulder to propose that the Song belongs in the context of the 4th century controversy about intermarriage, and he claims the Song was written to win sympathy for foreign women.
In the Bible, Ezra, Nehemiah and the Deuteronomic historians argue that God’s will is for the genetic purity of the Hebrew people, but third Isaiah, Malachi, Jonah, and Ruth stand aginst this line of thinking. Goulder includes the Song of Songs in this latter group and considers it the most strikingly anti-racist because all the women compete on a par for Solomon’s attention and the Shulammite wins on her own merits rather than by her race or creed. The unspoken and unintended implication is that Jews and Gentiles are equal in the sight of God.
The main problem associated with the idea of the Song as drama is the lack of clarity in terms of the speakers and the absence of stage directions. For the Song to be a drama to acted, one would at least expect the speakers to be clearly defined. Also, one might expect some recognisable line of story progression, but this is not so either.
The Song as Cultic Liturgy|
While the Song has long been associated with Jewish liturgy, and is read every year at Passover, the demise of allegory and the rise of a more literal interpretation of the Song appears to have brought about a decline in the liturgical use of the Song in Christian worship. The Song does not appear in the Anglican lectionary aside from being a suggested reading for the marriage ceremony. (The Anglican prayer book lists 2:8-14 as one of 18 choices.) A lingering embarrassment associated with overt sexuality – particularly female sexuality – along with allegory no long in vogue, and the Song of Songs has largely slipped into obscurity as far as formal worship Christian goes.
But many believe the Song to have had liturgical origins. Luther believed the Song was composed by Solomon to praise and thank God for his divinely established kingdom, and that it was specifically written to be used in a liturgical context. The sensual language is said to have been written by Solomon to adorn the theme so that when the crowds hear the composition, they know the subject matter is very special.
Over the past two hundred years or so, many scholars have suggested the Song has other cultic origins. In the late 17th century it was suggested that the Song of Songs was originally written for a Hebrew wedding week. In the 19th century scholars noted strong similarities between the Song and modern Syrian wedding poetry. A body of literature soon arose claiming the Song originated as a collection of songs to be sung at Jewish weddings. Another claim is that it was written as a betrothal rite, like an engagement. In this context the Song testifies to the positive attitude the ancient Hebrews had to sexual love.
More recently it has been suggested that the Song was derived from pagan fertility worship. Some have suggested the Song is a collection of Canaanite poems describing the love between Tammuz, the sun god, and Ishtar, the moon goddess. Parallels have been drawn with ancient Urgaritic poetry. The nucleus of these fertility rituals was a celebration of the sacred marriage of the goddess, in the person of a priestess, with the king, or an enthronement festival celebrating the victory of the god or king over death and drought. The associated cult rituals were explicitly sexual. Numerous scholars have come up with some variation on the cultic theme, mostly in relation to Tammuz and Ishtar. Schoff suggested that at the time of Solomon, worship of Tammuz and Astarte continued in Jerusalem and was practised in the Temple. He believed the Song, a Tammuz liturgy, was preserved in temple archives because it referred to ceremonies within the temple.
Meek drew parallels between the Song of Songs and Akkadian hymns from Babylonia. He believes that the Song was revised to harmonize with Jewish culture, and over time it was adapted and reinterpreted until its original character was forgotten and it came to be regarded as a love song. Another scholar, de Jassey, explains the Song as a Hebrew translation of Osirian litanies from Alexandria. Accordingly, Solomon is Osiris, the Shulammite is Isis, and Jerusalem is the place of the dead. The Song is said to explore the resurrection story of Osiris.
More recently again, Marvin Pope has argued that the Song doesn’t really celebrate a marriage or enthronement. Instead it is a song for a funeral feast. His key is 8:6-7 “Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is as strong as death, passion as fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it.” Pope draws on ancient records of love-feasts which celebrated funerals with “wine, women and song.” He believed ancient pagans responded to death with affirmations and demonstrations of life and love, and the song was retained because it speaks of the constant concern for love and life in the face of death. The difficulty with cultic interpretations of the Song is the Song’s language. There are no key theological or cultic words used, so it is difficult to see how it may have originated as a liturgy.
The Song as Secular Poetry
We have already mentioned that from ancient times, the Song has been used irreverently, to Rabbi Aqiba’s great consternation. But while irreverent use of Song might hinder one’s chances of getting to heaven for Jews, the penalties were more severe for Christians. Indeed, one did not have to use the Song irreverently. A literal interpretation was enough to bring condemnation.
When, in the 4th century, the bishop Theodore understood the Song as an erotic song written by Solomon in response to criticisms over his marriage to an Egyptian princess, the Council of Constantinople condemmed Theodore’s views as “unfit for Christian ears”. Around the same period, a Roman monk named Jovinian used the Song of Songs to support an attack on the ascetic tendencies of the church, claiming that marriage is not inferior to virginity and celibacy. The church was scandalised by such views and had Jovinian himself was condemned. Ambrose later endorsed this judgment, and Jerome considered the idea that sexual expression could be as holy as sexual repression to be heretical and reprehensible.
The rise of scholasticism in the Middle Ages legitimised a more literal interpretation of the Song of Songs. Aristotelian reasoning began to replace Christian neoplatonism. But Calvin fell into dispute with his fellow reformer Sebastian Castellio, when Castellio denounced the Song as an obscene and lascivious poem in which Solomon describes his shameless affairs.
In more recent times it has become acceptable to read the Song as a poem of love, and many Jews and Christians now interpret it so. Samuel Sandmel believes the Song is a collection of ancient Hebrew poems that celebrated the beauty and sanctity of physical love before Greek dualism distorted perceptions. Morris Searle believes the Song is a collection of preludes to ancient nomadic poems that were removed from their original contexts at a time of moral change, and that as it stands, the Song is a monument to the nomadic past of the Hebrews when the celebration and enjoyment of physical love counted for more than the fear of God. Others have pointed out parallels between the Song of Songs with the poetry of other Eastern cultures.
Feminist writers have taken a particular interest in the Song of Songs. There is a growing conviction among some that the Song was composed by a woman. Certainly the main protagonist in the text is a woman and female sexuality is portrayed in a positive light. There is no suggestion of female submission or male domination in the text although the setting is clearly a patriarchal society, as evidenced by the Shulammite’s brothers and the sentinels. She is a woman who won’t be repressed.
Ilana Pardes draws attention to the sexual ambiguity of the Song of Songs. While some interpretations hail the woman for her chastity, others praise her for her uninhibited eroticism. Understood as love poetry, the Song of Songs is the only book in the Bible to address the sexual relationship at length. The lovers express their devotion in words and actions, and there are no illusions to the iniquitous temptress of Proverbs.
The Song as Midrash
One perspective that has been gaining in popularity in the understanding of the Song as a commentary on other Biblical writings. George Knight, for example, sees the Song as embellishing Proverbs 30:18-19, while rejecting Proverbs 31:3. He also sees the Song as reinterpreting passages such as Exodus 22:16, and Deuteronomy 22:28-29 (laws about violating virgins) in the light of Israel’s growing awareness of herself as the bride of God. In contrast, Bekkenkamp and van Dijk suggest some sections of Proverbs were written in response to the Song of Songs.
Phyllis Trible believes Genesis 2-3 is the hermeneutical key to the Song of Songs. The Song is a continuation of the creation story. The Song redeems a love story gone awry. The absence of God in the Song is said to parallel God’s withdrawal from the garden when the two became one flesh in 2:23. Naked without fear or shame, the couple treat each other with tenderness and respect. Neither of them escaping nor exploiting sex, they embrace it and enjoy it. For Trible, this image of God, male and female, is very good. The Song testifies to the goodness of creation and eroticism becomes worship in the context of grace.
As we explore the various allegorical and non-allegorical interpretations of the Song of Songs, it becomes immediately apparent that the approaches to scripture and the interpretative methods used were products of the philosophies and worldviews of the individual interpreters and the culture of their times. When we read the text today, and when we read previous interpretations, we do so through the lenses of our own presuppositions, philosophies and worldviews. For that reason we may find some of the interpretations difficult to comprehend.
The Song of Songs has come to us as an ancient hymn of love. Whether it sprang from pagan cults or Hebrew weddings, whether it had one author or many, it is a song that has spoken to the generations who have loved it and venerated it. Historical criticism may give us some insights into the Song, but even if we were to know with absolute certainty that the Song originated as a drama, or a cultic liturgy, or an anthology of secular poetry, this knowledge alone would not lead us to understand the depths of passion people of all ages have felt for this Song.
Whether we understand the Song as portraying a nation’s salvation history or the love between a man and woman, the Song of Songs challenges our intellect and engages our emotions. Interpreters have been almost unanimous in discerning a sense of transcendence in which the Song communicates in a language beyond language.
Rabbi Dovid Green says “When the inner world of feelings swells beyond what the mouth can express, the result is potentially song.” Whatever the circumstances that evoked such inner feelings that caused the authors to burst into song, what is most significant is that communities of faith, both Jewish and Christian, have ever since felt this Song of Songs to be a faithful expression of their own passionate inner feelings whether it be in relation to God and Israel, or Christ and the church. And there has been a recognition that the powerful, self-giving love expressed by the sensual language of the Song, however we might interpret it, somehow puts us in touch with the Divine.
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