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Saturday, February 9, 2013

The Many Varied Interpretations of the Song of Songs



The Revelation given to John is the most widely and contradictorily interpreted book of the New Testament. Revelation’s multiplicity of interpretations can be partially explained by its symbolic language and visionary style; commentaries written to explain its mysteries range from the scholarly obtuse to the outrageously fanciful.

Surprisingly, it is the Song of Songs (Song of Solomon, Canticle of Canticles) from the Old Testament that is equally varied in its interpretations. Despite its straight-forward and ‘literal’ language the Song has been described as "locks to which the keys have been lost.” What is very clear to 13 year old boys giggling in the back of the chapel over the words of “scripture” had been obfuscated by centuries of interpretation.

The Song has been understood as an allegory describing the relationship between YHWH God and the People of Israel. This interpretation relies on the prophets – specifically Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Hosea and their description of the marriage of Israel and God for its key to understanding.

"Go and proclaim in the hearing of Jerusalem:

" 'I remember the devotion of your youth,
how as a bride you loved me
and followed me through the desert,
through a land not sown. Jeremiah 2:2

Later Christian theologians saw basically the same story in the Song of Songs – but interpreted the allegory as Christ’s love for the Church – drawing on Paul’s words in Ephesians as the key to interpretation.

"For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh." This is a profound mystery--but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband. Ephesians 5:31-33

Athanasius declared that the Song was a “Jubilee song of the Church at the incarnation of the Son of God.” An exact fit for the allegory wasn’t possible, apparently, as there are a number of different ways that the specifics of the song were applied to Christ. For example: The lying down of the king in Song 1:12 was alternately understood as 1) the repose of Christ as part of the Godhead in heaven, 2) the incarnation of Christ, 3) his passion and death, or 4) the indwelling of Christ in the soul of the believer.

Christian interpreters explained the Lover’s tree climbing adventure (7:8 – 9) by relating the palm tree to the Church and that the Beloveds breasts were either the Old and New Testaments, or the “Holy Teachers of the Church who nourish with the milk of simple doctrine those who are reborn in Christ.” Others said that the palm tree was the Cross which the Lover / Savior climbed, and that the breasts of the Beloved were the “Holy Men of God afflicted and tortured like grapes but producing the victory of salvation and gladness to God their Husbandman and to Christ and to the Bride.”

Mystics of the Medieval period understood the Song to be a description of the union of the Soul to God – a sort of spiritual wedding between the individual believer and the divinity. Other mystics said that the song was a description of the union of the “active and the passive aspects of the intellect.”

Catholic scholars applied the song to the Blessed Virgin Mary saying that what is true of the Church in general is true in particular for the Virgin. One writer put words into Mary’s mouth to explain the lying down of the king passage (same as above), “The King himself, Son of the Most High King, Himself no lesser dignity, from His equal throne with the Father, from His Royal seat, from the secret dwelling of His unapproachable Majesty where the Angels see and desire His Face evermore, vouchsafed to come hither to earth for the salvation of perishing souls, and rested in my chamber. In my womb, I say, that King gladly laid Himself down, and found naught in me to make His dwelling displeasing to Him. And there lying, He filled me marvelously with His grace. While preserving my virginity, He took away my maiden barrenness, and His forceful fire consumed me as a whole burnt-offering and filled the entire house with the most fragrant perfume of ointment.”

The Song has been thought of as a cycle of wedding songs for the near-eastern seven day wedding festival – a tradition that has some merit as Rabbi Akiva , in trying to protect the sacredness of scripture, forbid the Song to be sung at common wedding festivals; “Whoever warbles the Song of Songs at banqueting houses, treating it like an ordinary song, has no portion in the World to Come.” Others following a more theatrical urge have described the Song as a two person drama.

Origen, who considered the Song to be a nuptial poem dramatic form but applied it in higher sense to Christ and His Church – a spiritual drama free from all carnality, read back through the Old Testament to find that the Song is the seventh, and (according to biblical numerology) the ultimate or climactic song. The other 6 were: 1) The Song of the Sea – Exodus 15, 2) the Song of the Well – Numbers 21:17, 3) the Song of Moses – Deuteronomy 32, 4) the Song of Deborah – Judges 5, 5) the Song of David’s Deliverance – 2 Samuel 18 / Psalm 18, 6) the Song of Asaph – 1 Chronicles 16:8

Bishop Theodore of Mopsuestia in the 4th century declared the Song to be a defense of King Solomon’s marriage to an Egyptian princess. Other writers determined that the Song was about King Solomon’s love affair with Lady Wisdom (Proverbs 3: 13 – 18)

Historical interpretations of the Song have been popular throughout the years. Some first century Jews found in the Song a description of the Presence of God with the people from the Exodus to the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D. Other historical interpreters have identified the Lover as a combination of Zerubbabel, Ezra, and Nehemiah and the Beloved as the Jewish colonies outside of Jerusalem.

In 1992 Luis Stadlemann published a new commentary on the Song. He identified the Song as a “text in code” about the “restoration of the Davidic monarchy in Judah after the exile.” His novel interpretation relied on a “hitherto unsuspected” meaning of the word “love.” In his work “love” refers to the sociopolitical alliance between the House of David and the Jewish community.

Bernard of Clairvaux held a deep appreciation for the Song; before he died he preached some 86 sermons from the Song of Songs – and only got as far as the second chapter. He admonished reader to approach the Song with “chaste” ears and to, “never imagine that it is a man or a woman to be thought of, but rather the Word of God and a Soul. (Sermon 61)” You might think that someone who devoted so much study into a book about love might have learned to be a loving person – but Bernard was the one of the loudest voices crying out for the 2nd Christian Crusade against the Muslims in the Holy Land, “The Living God has charged me to proclaim that He will take vengeance upon such as refuse to defend Him against His foes. To arms, then! Let a holy indignation animate you to combat, and let the cry of Jeremiah reverberate through Christendom: Cursed be he that withholdeth his sword from blood.”

Martin Luther refused the traditional allegorical understanding of the Song – but couldn’t accept a face value interpretation. He instead identified the beloved Bride as the happy and peaceful state under Solomon’s rule, and the Song as a hymn in which King Solomon thanks God for the divine gift of obedience.

In 1776 a German scholar with the unfortunate name of Herr von Puffendorff (honest!) declared that Solomon, who was versed in the Egyptian mystery religions, originally composed the Song in hieroglyphics. When deciphered this way, Puffendorff found that the Song reveals the death and grave of the Savior. In his commentary on the Song of Songs 1:3 Puffendorff identified the virgins or maidens (No wonder the maidens love you! ) as “the pure and chaste souls locked up in the dark sepulcher and waiting for the light… the Egyptian Neitha, or Minerva, tutelary deity of pious souls, was covered with a veil which none was allowed to uncover. The virgins, concealed in the same manner, have to expect that through marriage they will emerge into light. Thus the souls are here represented, which in the dominion of darkness wait for salvation and light.”

In 1813 Roman Catholic priest Johann Leonhard first proposed that the Song was a series of 38 fragmented and disjointed dream sequences. Later psychology minded readers would find the Song to be filled with Freudian images, but what do you expect in a song explicitly about Sex?

Some Scholars have pointed out certain similarities between the Song and other Ancient Near Eastern fertility cults. Within this interpretation the King and his bride are understood to have re-enacted the marriage of Ishtar and Tammuz. Alternately some have identified Solomon as Osiris, his Shulamite bride as Isis, and the focus of their love songs is the resurrection and ritual stimulation of Osiris.

Phyllis Trible has used the Song as in support of the women’s liberation movement. She describes the Song as a sort of “midrash” on the egalitarian relationship of Adam and Eve in Genesis chapters 2 and 3. “Love is the meaning of their life, and this love excludes oppression and exploitation. It knows the goodness of sex and hence it knows not sexism. Sex and love expand existence beyond the stereotypes of society. It draws into itself the public and the private, the historical and the natural. It transforms all life even as life enhances it. Grace returns to the female and the male.”

In the 17th century prophetic interpretations of a decidedly dispensationalist flavor began to appear. One such reading found 2 ‘dispensations’ of the “Legal Church” in the Song. 1:1 – 4:6 were interpreted to refer to the period from King David to the death of Christ, while 4:7 – 8:14 referred to the state of the Evangelical church from 34 A.D to the (still future) 2nd coming of Christ.

Another more detailed reading divided the Song into 7 ‘dispensations’.

1-2 The period when the Gospel was preached to Jews and Gentiles.
3-4 A time of increase for the Church and persecution
5-6:8 A time of peace without, but danger within.
6:9 – 7:10 Reformation
7:11 – 8:3 Unsettled Post-Reformation
8:4 – 8:6 Persecution
8:7 – 8:14 Rest and Longing for the spread of the Gospel and the Triumph of Protestantism.

While through the centuries the face value reading of the Song has been ignored or covered with allegory because of shame – there have been many who have said that the song is exactly what it appears to be: a celebration of sex between a Husband and a Wife.

In the fourth century a Roman monk named Jovinian defended a literal understanding of the Song. Jovinian’s brazenly declared that celibacy and virginity were in and of themselves no more valuable than marriage and that the Song of Songs was to be understood as the praise and sanctification of marital sex.

This didn’t set well with the ecclesiastical authorities. In 390 Pope Siricius called a synod in Rome to condemn Jovinian and his followers. Jovinian left Rome and took his followers to Milan, where in 395 Ambrose called another synod to reconfirm Siricius’s condemnation. Augustine and Jerome also joined in the attack on Jovinian and his ‘heretical’ notion that sexual expression could be as holy as celibacy and virginity.

The rabbis and early church fathers were committed to an allegorical interpretation because of their predetermined attitude that sex was vulgar. The Rabbis, who never went so far as to demand celibacy, advocated marriage and the “sober duty of procreation.” The church fathers went even further, declaring celibacy to be the highest good. Origen went beyond this, even, taking Christ literally and made himself a eunuch for the Kingdom. This predetermined filter (sex is bad) warped their reading of the Song into a multitude of various allegorical interpretations – each clinging tenuously to the text.

And in time these flimsy allegories have fallen away. Modern commentators are almost unanimous (there are always some hold-outs) in their agreement that the Song is exactly what it purports to be: a celebration of sacred sex.

Come, my beloved,
let us go out into the fields
and lie all night among the flowering henna…
There I will give you my love.
(Song of Songs 7: 12 –13)


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