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).

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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? 

Paul and the Christian life (7) N T Wright an anabaptist at heart?

The final chapter in The Apostle Paul and the Christian Life: ethical and missional implications of the New Perspective is by a certain N T Wright and it’s called ‘Paul and Missional Hermeneutics’.

9780801049767Just to reiterate the context of this discussion: the big question of this book is how does Paul the Jew – now a follower of Jesus the Messiah – envision a life pleasing to God? How does he see the relationship with Jewish belief and practice of his day [shaped around the Torah] and what it means for both Jews and Gentiles to live a life worthy of the gospel? What are the implications of these questions for living the Christian life in the 21st century?

Now what on earth new can Wright say about Paul after his colossal 2 volume Paul and the Faithfulness of God (PFG). Well, in this short piece he reflects on themes arising from the PFG and, as with pretty well everything he pens, it is engaging, thought-provoking and enjoyable prose.

The term ‘missional hermeneutics’ is a nifty one: it relates to both Paul’s identity and task. He’s a missionary who is doing hermeneutics – thinking, praying and writing in dialogue with the Scriptures of Israel in light of his missionary task. So tightly are these two aspects woven together, Wright says that “we may say that Paul’s mission was hermeneutical and that his hermeneutics were missional.”

And it’s Paul’s missional hermeneutics that Wright focuses on here. He thinks it a useful phrase for three reasons:

  1. Christian hope: where Scripture is read through the a new creation lens – a new-creational horizon – and this frames the missionary task within the larger ‘mission of God’.
  2. It ties in to how the authority of Scripture works – the authority of God that “gets things done” – that is much more about transformative action than abstract answers to tricky theological problems. What Wright calls a “more dynamic hermeneutic” which forms missional communities.
  3. The nature of the NT representing documents written “to build up and energize the church to be God’s people in God’s world, living between Jesus’s resurrection and the final renewal.” Where the primary task of mission is served by theology and not the other way around. Thus Wright’s central argument in the PFG in his own words is

The central argument is that we should understand how Paul invented Christian theology in the first place or, to be more specific, how Paul was teaching his communities the vocational task of learning to work with Scripture in hand, prayer as the energy, Jesus as the focus, the church as the matrix, and God’s future as the goal. (182)

And so a consistent core concern in the NT is that the church would live up to its calling and task to ‘be who they are’ – the holy people of God. Where the church would embody a previously unimagined body politic in the ancient world.

But, Wright here acknowledges a puzzle (or maybe a puzzling silence would capture it better) – there is just not much said about the task of this new church body to ‘do mission’ in the ancient world. It’s not there in Paul however much Wright says he wishes it were.

I grew up in churches which assumed that the early church was always being encouraged to “do mission” in some way or another, because that’s what we were all trying to do, usually in the Platonic form I mentioned earlier. We were all supposed to be telling our neighbors about Jesus; and it was assumed that the early church did that as well. But Paul, perhaps to our surprise, gives us no direct warrant for that. (182-3)

Of much more prominence is the Pauline call for the church to be two things – united (across all boundaries) and holy (living lives worthy of the gospel).

So what is mission? How is it enacted in the world?

Wright has come to the view that it is primarily achieved in and through the church living up to this dual calling – “a united and holy community in the Messiah”. A sign to the world; a challenge to the powers and principalities; a new way of being human, under the Lordship of Jesus Christ.A way of life that can face the reality and pain of suffering incurred by violent rejection by the world.

And, it is by looking at the church that the world will “see the lordship of Jesus at work”.

Wright goes to Philippians 2:1-18 as the closest place where Paul talks of the missional task of the church.  See 2:14-16

There must be no grumbling and disputing in anything you do. That way, nobody will be able to fault you, and you’ll be pure and spotless children of God in the middle of a twisted and depraved generation. You are to shine among them like lights in the world, clinging to the word of life. That’s what I will be proud of on the day of the Messiah. It will prove that I didn’t run a useless race, or work to no purpose.

And Wright sums up what’s going on here like this:

When we stand back for a moment from the whole passage, what do we see? Obviously, the poem of verses 6–11 is one of the most striking christological and also theological statements in all Christian literature. It embodies the missional hermeneutic Paul is expounding, drawing together the great strands of Scripture, from Adam to the Servant, focusing them on Jesus and his shameful death, then broadening out, just as the Servant Songs themselves do, to embrace the world, and thereby celebrating Jesus as its rightful sovereign. And in the context of Philippians, the meaning for a missional hermeneutic is clear. The dark world in which the church must shine like the stars through unity, holiness, and suffering is the world which Caesar claims for his own. (186-7)

And what is going on here in Philippians is just a specific example of his missional hermeneutic that shapes his overall reading of Scripture

Let me take a step back to look at Paul’s overall missional reading of Scripture. The allusions to Isaiah, to Exodus, and to many other passages are not mere random gestures toward a distant text assumed to be authoritative. They fall within an implicit narrative upon which Paul draws at various points. It is precisely, in his hands, a missional narrative: the story of how the creator God called a people through whom he would undo the plight of the world, and of the human race, rescuing the creation rather than abandoning it. This story runs from Genesis to Exodus and on, with highlights such as the close of Deuteronomy and the promises to David and the shocking fact of covenant disloyalty and subsequent exile, and the strange, unfulfilled promises of a glorious return, of God overthrowing the pagans and coming back to Zion to be king, of covenant renewed and creation renewed. (187)

This is Wright’s own pithy summary of his narrative reading of Paul. He freely acknowledges that some reject or struggle with interpreting Paul this way.

One is the still powerful “older Protestant narrative of sinful humans, Jesus as substitute, and heaven after all” – which while capturing elements of Paul’s theology fails to put it in proper narrative context and struggles to embrace the idea of the kingdom coming ‘on earth as it is in heaven’.

Another is a sort of postmodern critique that sees only an ecclesial power trip at work in such a narrative – where the church as God’s people are the ultimate winners. But, Wright, contends, this is a long way from Paul whose vision for the church is as a suffering community of powerlessness, to be characterised by kingdom-of-God-living, not triumphalism or neo-imperialism.

The Christian life, or ethic, is about living in light of this narrative of new creation. And the church is the spearhead of this missiological task.

All this sounds really quite anabaptist to me – the missionary task of the church is “to be the church” in the world. Mission begins at home – in a Spirit-filled alternative community of love and worship in which ethnic, gender and socio-economic boundaries are overcome. The church’s job is not to control or change the world externally, but be a new creation within the old.

Which makes me recall when Wright spoke in Dublin a few years ago. In the  Q&A I asked him if he was an anabaptist in disguise, which I think he found quite amusing. Despite his rejection of that label then and I guess now, I still think his reading of the NT heads pretty strongly in that direction.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

PS to musings on the Bible: Kevin Vanhoozer

Blogging has been sparse of late, just too much going on but the scribbler’s itch is back so here goes ….

I spent 4 days of last week teaching a block week Masters module in Evangelical Identity, History and Theology at IBI. Lots of good discussion and interaction – which kickstarted this post, and a few more loosely related, on evangelicalism.

An article I went back to read as part of prep, partly in light of previous musings, was Kevin Vanhoozer’s ‘The Voice and the Actor: A Dramatic Proposal about the Ministry and Minstrelsy of Theology’, in John G. Stackhouse Jr (ed.), Evangelical Futures, (Leicester: Apollos, 2000), 61-106. [A forerunner to his 2005 The Drama of Doctrine]

Some angst about diverse interpretations of the Bible among evangelicals derives from the assumption that it should not (in theory) exist. The assumption is that the Bible itself speaks systematically and univocally and that this meaning can be uncovered by the attentive interpreter.

What Vanhoozer said back in 2000 was important and perhaps even more relevant in light of Christian Smith’s The Bible Made Impossible.

Vanhoozer talks about God being in discourse with us through Scripture and the living Word Jesus Christ. Discourse here is a living dynamic process of communication rather than a more static set of propositions. In addition, the triune God is in discourse with himself through the inter-relationality of Father, Son and Spirit.

A consequence for Vanhoozer is that Scripture has a certain inbuilt plurality. This is seen most obviously in the fact that there are 4 gospels telling the one gospel of Jesus Christ. There can be more than one ‘normative’ point of view that can disclose aspects of the truth.

Taking this more widely, Vanhoozer suggested that this plurality extends to different interpretative traditions within the church. If no single voice can capture all the truth of a text then the different voices need each other.

But this also means something else. ‘Final’ or absolutely complete interpretations of Scripture are (to coin an apt phrase) in the end only possible eschatologically. In the meantime, our interpretations are provisional, incomplete and culture-bound.

This does not mean for Vanhoozer that meaning is endlessly open and subjective. He uses the term ‘canonicity’ to emphasise the dual nature of Scripture. It is fixed and final and authoritative yet simultaneously it contains a multiplicity of genres, contexts, languages, theologies and authors.

The challenge for evangelical theology is to enter the ‘drama’ of the script, keeping within its intent while accepting that different ‘stagings’ of the play in different contexts can be complementary. The test of an interpretation’s authenticity will to a large extent be revealed through time and in dialogue with other interpretations. Without this creative hermeneutical dialogue, truth is reduced to a unitary concept. A richer alternative is a collaborative and complementary understanding of truth.

Some years ago I was part of a theology working group of the Evangelical Alliance Ireland who worked on a basis of faith for the organisation. It was deliberately diverse, across the evangelical spectrum. And it was a deeply enjoyable and rewarding experience as a group of us worked together to agree a document that captured a sense of our pan-evangelical unity. It was enriched by that diversity rather than weakened.

And it is here that us individualist Westerners can learn so much from other Christians who have a much more communal sense of identity and truth.

Comments, as ever, welcome.