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? 

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