Song of Songs Part One Deep Dive
LOVE AND THE DIVINE | ELLA HICKEY
No other book in the entirety of the Bible has roused such a plethora of interpretations like the Song of Songs. This book has been a source of contention for centuries, however its value and significance to the overall Jewish and Christian life has also been challenged with little consensus. Although grouped together in the wisdom literature genre with Psalms, Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs has neither the ethical reflections found in Job, nor the forthright wisdom found in Proverbs, but rather it is a book of obscure poetry about love.
Its place in scripture has been examined by Jews and Christians alike throughout history, both of whom have deconstructed and reconstructed this book of poetry to fit within their analogous worldviews to defend and preserve its place within the canon of scripture. The rich texture and emblematic nature of the poetry easily allows for this, and its ambiguous and somewhat unclear narrative provides an ability for these numerous and varied interpretations to prosper.
The primary reason for the theological impasse is its unashamed and frank sexual language and themes, which have shocked and embarrassed both Jews and Christians. Secondly, the fact that it is a poetic book means that its structure and obscure language does not lend itself well to easy analysis or translation. Thirdly, it has historically been difficult to know who the characters are, who is speaking, and where it is set, even though most modern Bible translations have developed their own interpretative approaches for the modern reader.
THE LOVE OF GOD IN ALLEGORY
Fourthly, an interesting thing to note when reading the Song of Songs is that it is wholly secular, meaning that neither God, not any other religious belief or practice is mentioned throughout its entirety. This makes the Song of Songs unique, and unsurprisingly controversial, which explains why so many have attempted to defend its place in scripture by using allegory to derive hidden theological and religious meaning using exegetical virtuosity and scholarly imagination.
The most common allegorical interpretations of Song of Songs firstly describe the book as a depiction of God’s love for Israel, which is plausible in that most other books of the Old Testament are in some way concerned with Israel’s relationship with God. Secondly, the common Christian’s allegory of Song of Songs is of God’s love for the Church. Watchman Nee, along with many other ministers, theologians, and authors throughout history including the church fathers such as Hippolytus, Origen, and Gregory of Nyssa, describes Song of Songs as being ‘an allegorical description of the marital union between Christ and His Church’. This interpretation is widespread, and suggests that through Song of Songs, the depth of Christ’s love for the church is revealed.
IF NOT ALLEGORY, THEN WHAT?
Many modern commentators suggest that the poems in the Song of Songs were written as secular love poems and then appropriated for the canon of scripture by ‘arbitrarily allegorising exegesis’, in other words – to justify its presence in scripture, rabbis read allegory into the text where, in fact, there is none. Although this is a less popular perspective, it does leave one with the question; if the Song of Songs is not about God and Israel or Christ and the Church, then what is it about?
The literal interpretation of the Song of Songs is that it is a collection of love poems between a woman and a man, similar to Egyptian love poetry from around the same era. Some suggest that it is a collection of poems without any intended plot, however others have discovered possible unified composition, narrative, and characters, which include a lover, their beloved, their friends, and King Solomon.
Although the canonicity of Song of Songs has been historically disputed, its significance to Church and individual believers’ life has been cemented through the work of commentaries and ministers alike. Whether one believes like the Rabbi Akiva who said that ‘He who warbles the Song of Songs in a banquet-hall and makes it into a kind of love-song has no portion in the world to come’, or one comes to understand like Richard Hess that the Song of Songs is a ‘passionate, sensuous love poem that reminds us that God is interested in more than just our brains and our spirits; he wants us to enjoy our bodies’. Song of Songs is an important text in the Bible canon, the reasons for which will be explored next week.
Song Of Songs: A Close Reading by Gianni Barbiero, 2004.
Perspectives On The Song Of Songs by Anselm Hagedorn, 2005.
Song Of Songs by Richard Hess, 2005.
A Survey Of The Old Testament by Andrew Hill and John Walton, 2009.
Song Of Songs by Robert Jenson, 2012.
Song Of Songs: Unveiling The Mystery Of Passionate Intimacy With Christ by Watchman Nee, 1965.