The Song of Songs: sex, love and hidden meanings (1)

Aharon_April_Song_of_Songs-Last-1How does a Christian read the Song of Songs?

What to make of it?

How to interpret it?

My guess is the default approach in church is to play safe and ignore it.

As we saw in the last post, it has not been ignored in church history. The overwhelming consensus has been, when faced with startling erotic poetry, to deflect attention to ‘higher’ things via allegorizing the Song of Songs. It started early on in church history and continues to have traction (though less than in the past) today.

The reason to discuss this is it touches on areas of somatology (the theology of the body) :

What is a Christian way of thinking about bodies, sex and love?

How has this shifted over time?

There are few more contentious and ‘hot’ issues that this in contemporary culture and theology. So this is the first is a wee series of short posts on suggested reasons for the popularity of allegorizing the Song of Songs. It will lead on to some posts on love and sex today.

The first reason for allegory is that interpreters see it in the text (or just below the surface of the text):

1. It is there in the text (if you look hard enough)

There are exegetical and theological arguments for allegory within the Song itself. Some are well made. Here are couple of very recent examples:

A Jewish Vision

j10560One such is Jewish scholar Jon Levenson in his recent book The Love of God. He is well aware of the problem of allegory that has nothing to do with the text and exists only in the mind of the allegorizer. He is also aware that the book can be read profitably on its own terms. He acknowledges that identifying the man and woman with Israel and God is ‘not defensible within the plain meaning of the Song’. But, he says, it is far from arbitrary.

He proposes a form of Midrash that brings different texts together to give a deeper unity of Scripture to light (132). And that unity speaks of

‘the longest and most consequential romance ever – the unending romance of God and the people of Israel’ (134).

Israel is ‘wedded’ to God – the background here is Jeremiah and Ezekiel speaking of Israel as his (unfaithful) bride. But here in the Song it is the faithful community of Israel in covenant love with her God. It may not have the reality (witness exile and destruction of the temple in Jerusalem), but it is an ideal, a vision of her true calling.

At the heart of the Torah he says, is love.

A Christian Vision

9781783595396In a recent book on Marriage, Family and Relationships, Rosalind Clarke suggests, like Levenson but from a Christian perspective, that the Songs has different layers of meaning. So, for her, the Song is about THREE layers of meaning:

i. Human sexuality.

This is what I’d call the plain meaning or surface meaning of the text –  ‘The Song of Songs honours human love and human marriage.’ 51.

Her endorsement of this level of meaning is, I think, rather perfunctory. It does not capture the sheer joy and celebration of erotic love that is everywhere in the Song.

2. God and Israel.

The text, she argues, points ‘beyond’ the surface. He is the shepherd-king-bridegroom who embodies the idealised Solomon. The vineyard owner, analogous to YHWH

She is the landscape of Israel – a ‘darling Jerusalem, the promised Land’ (there are a lot of geographical metaphors used of the lovers’s bodies).

Clarke acknowledges the ‘connection between the Song’s male character and YHWH is not made in directly in the Song’ but is suggested by the worship of the male elsewhere. [She does not deal with the fact that there is parallel praise, and even more so, for the woman by the man).

3. Christ and the Church.

Here she goes for the typical allegory of Christ the bridegroom and the woman as the church / bride (Ephesians 5:23-32).

I don’t know about you, but I think it is revealing that Levenson and Clarke both freely acknowledge that the text itself does not clearly point to ‘hidden’ meanings – whether allegorical or a Midrash.

It is, I think, relevant that while Levenson sees levels 1 and 2, Clarke, as a Christian, sees Level 3 as well.

My problem here is that the interpreter sees what he or she wants to see. Getting to the meaning of the text itself and what it says about human love is complicated enough given multiple uncertainties such as the identity of the lovers, the date, whether Solomon is an active participant or whether the two lovers are simply idealised figures etc .

Better to stay at Level 1 is my opinion. The Song is about love, sex, desire, marriage, joy and embodiment. That’s plenty to be getting on with without ‘leaving the text’ and searching for other levels of meaning.

How about you? How have you been taught (or not taught) to view the Songs?

(and regardless of this question, can I recommend that if you have not done so for a long time, dust off that section of your Bible and have a good close read – it is well worth it).

The next post will look at a second reason for allegorizing the Songs (cliffhanger here).

Allegorizing the Song of Songs

Aharon_April_Song_of_Songs-Last-1
Aharon April. Song of Songs Last 1. Wikimedia Commons

When was the last time you read the Song of Songs? Or heard a sermon from it?

I’m doing some work on love in the Bible and am on the Song of Songs. For some reason (I have some theories) it tends to be overlooked in treatments of love and marriage in the Bible.

This post comes after reading Duane Garrett’s excellent Word Biblical Commentary. He has a fascinating section on the history of interpretation of the Song of Songs. For centuries the book has been interpreted allegorically – by Jews, by the early Church Fathers, by Roman Catholics and by Protestants.

Pretty well everyone it seems struggles to take the Song of Songs at face value as a lyrical poetic celebration of sexual love between a man and a woman.

Here are some of my favourite examples of how Song of Songs is interpreted (from Garrett). A test text he uses for a lot of this is 4:5. The text reads:

Your breasts are like two fawns,
like twin fawns of a gazelle
that browse among the lilies.

JEWISH ALLEGORIZING

Levi ben Gershom (Gersonides) 1288-1344 treats it as a study of epistemology (how we know what we know). He argues that the man is really doing some sophisticated philosophy: (the bits in brackets are explanatory notes from Garrett).

Since breasts serve to nurse he compared that which emanates to her breasts. He allegorically compared her to two fawns that are ‘twins of a gazelle’ because of their fleetness. He said this because of her diligence to prepare for him what he needs from her in these sciences [mathematics]. His statement ‘which feed among the lilies’ is clear on the basis of what we said in our introduction [that fragrances symbolize the stimulation of the intellect].

Rabbi Abraham ben Isaac ha-Levi Tamakh (13th Cent) takes a more typical approach. On 4:5 he says

The breasts are the king and high priest. Just as breasts are the woman’s glory and beauty as the source of influence on her babes, so are the former the people’s glory and beauty and the source of the influence upon them of Urim and Tumin, as stated in the Mishnah.

Rabbi Moshe Alshich (c. 1502-1591)

Israel was blessed with another merit, for your two breasts, Moses and Aaron, who sustained you, enabled you to draw nourishment from the heavenly influence.

EARLY CHURCH AND ROMAN CATHOLIC ALLEGORIZING

Among the early Church Fathers we have many examples, few more significant than Jerome. Song of Songs 8:5 reads like this:

‘Under the apple tree I roused you; there your mother conceived you, there she who was in labour gave you birth’

Jerome’s translation is this:

Under the apple tree I raised you up; there your mother was corrupted, there she who bore you was violated.

It was Jerome who in Adversus Jovinanum (against Jovinian) who relegated marriage to a second class status within the church. Celibacy was the religious ideal.

Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) preached 86 sermons on the first two chapters of the Songs. In general the text is just a starting point for pious meditations on the love between the Christian soul and God.

Gregory of Narek (d. circa 1010) said on 4:5 that the two breasts represent the body and soul of man.

Later Medieval interpreters see Mary in the Song of Songs. The flawless woman in the Song represents the Church. Garrett gives a quote from Honorius Augustodunensis (quite the name)

Therefore, this book is read on the feast of Blessed Mary, for it shows the type of the Church, which is virgin and mother. Virgin, because uncorrupted by all heresy; mother, because through grace it always bears spiritual children. And therefore everything which is said about the Church can also be said about the Virgin, understood as both bride and mother of the bridegroom.

PROTESTANT ALLEGORIZING

Examples could be multiplied, but we’d better move on to Protestant allegorizing. For the vast majority the Song is an allegory of love between Christ and the church / pious soul. Let’s get back to the breasts of 4:5. Here are some fantastically imaginative examples.

For the Scottish divine J. Durham (1622-1658) the two breasts enhance ‘the comeliness of the body’ are ‘useful to give suck’ and ‘signify warmth of affection’. They symbolize believers’ fitness to nurture others as well as their ‘warmliness and kindliness to Christ’ since they have taken him ‘into their bosom’.

John Gill (1697-1771) is the most creative (and entertaining) of all. The two breasts are:

  • first ministers of the Gospel, they nurture the church
  • they are like twin deer in that they are loving and pleasant; sharp-eyed in watching out for truth; swift to spread the gospel
  • Two breasts are indicative that they are sufficient to do what is required of them
  • That they are twins, means they are in harmony
  • They feed among the lilies, meaning they feed on the Scriptures
  • The two breasts are the Old and New Testaments – they are alike in their promises and truths
  • They are also the two ordinance of baptism and the Lord’s Supper

As Garrett says, the two breasts are anything that comes in a pair!

Other interpreters take 4:1-5 with its description of the woman’s eyes, hair, teeth, temples and breasts as a representation of the complete and holy state of the church triumphant at the marriage supper of the Lamb (T Newberry, 19th Century).

In short the rather big problem with allegorizing is that THE TEXT MEANS WHATEVER THE ALLEGORIZER WANTS IT TO MEAN.

This history as told by Garrett raises a couple of interesting questions. Your comments are welcome.

WHY the resort to allegory? I’ll come back to this in the next post. [It must be said that allegory is not limited to the Song of Songs. But this book, I think, is probably the most allegorized in the Bible (with perhaps the exception of Revelation).]

And before we moderns get too amused and patronising about the ignorance of the past, what do you think are some of our culturally ingrained assumptions and beliefs that shape our reading of the Bible without us even noticing?