Having looked at the question of authorship and date of the Song in Part 1, as well as certain issues related to its composition and structure (Part 2), we shall now survey, however briefly, some of the main lines of interpretation that have been applied to the Song. These interpretative approaches have largely been developed because of the need (felt by many) to navigate around the frank sexuality (and sexual imagery) of the Song.
As I discussed briefly in the introduction to the exegetical notes, the sexual nature of the Song has created a longstanding problem for devout Jews and Christians (many of whom are celibate or would affirm celibacy in some measure). The nature of this problem was stated quite clearly (and bluntly) by the 14th century Jewish scholar Shemariah ben Elijah of Crete:
“If [the words of the Song] had their literal meaning, there would be nothing in the world so thoroughly profane as they, and there would have been nothing more damaging to Israel than the day the Song of Songs was given to them, for its literal meaning stirs up desire, above all sexual desire, than which nothing is more blameworthy.” (Fox, p. 238, quoting the citation by S. Z. Leiman, The Canonization of Hebrew Scripture: The Talmudic and Midrashic Evidence , p. 201)
Many Christians, throughout the centuries (and even today), would doubtless concur with the general sentiment. The erotic poetry of the Song, apparently unrestrained by any religious or moral dictates (and where the two lovers are apparently unmarried [to be discussed in Part 4]), would seem to be, in the minds of many, incompatible with the status of the book as Sacred Scripture.
Indeed, once the Song came to be accepted as divinely-inspired Scripture (cf. the brief discussion on this point in Part 2), it was felt necessary to justify this status. And there have been many ways Jews and Christians have sought to explain the inclusion of such poetry as sacred Scripture, and to accommodate the eroticism of the Song within more acceptable religious parameters. In the notes, I intentionally (and studiously) avoided referring to these interpretive approaches, so as to avoid prejudicing the exegesis, allowing the text to speak for itself. I did, however, include samples of Jewish and early Christian interpretation at the end of each note.
3. Interpretations of the Song
Three main interpretive approaches can be noted:
- The Allegorical-Symbolic Approach—this interprets the love poetry of the Song as an allegory between God and Israel, or between Christ and the Church, or between God/Christ and the soul of the believer, etc.
- The Mystical-Spiritual Approach—here, the sexual desire and longing in the Song represents the desire/longing of the believer for spiritual union with God, and the entire Song is interpreted, more or less, through this lens.
- The Religious-Cultural Approach—the sexuality of the Song is generally accepted and taken at face value, but only as qualified, in religious and cultural terms. There are three such approaches to be considered:
- The association of the Song with ancient Near Eastern myth and ritual—most notably, the so-called “Sacred Marriage Rite”
- The use of the Song in the context of wedding celebrations, including the view that such celebrations provide the background for the work.
- The modern view that the sexuality of the Song can only be understood properly within the religious and culturally regulated institution of marriage.
A. The Allegorical-Symbolic Approach
This is certainly the oldest interpretive approach to the Song, and probably dates back to at least the time of the earliest Qumran Song scrolls (mid-1st century B.C.). Between the original composition of the Song, and these Qumran copies, over a period of at least several centuries, Jewish readers and hearers had begun to treat the Song as a work of authoritative Scripture, to the point where rabbi Akiba could make the declaration (as attributed to him in the Mishnah [Yadayim 3:5]): “…all the Writings are holy, but the Song of Songs is the holiest of the holy.” In all likelihood, Akiba read the Song as a religious allegory, indicating that such a mode of interpretation had become commonplace (at least among Jewish scholars and religious leaders) by the 1st century A.D.
The earliest Jewish commentaries on the Song all date to the (early) medieval period (c. 600-900 A.D.), but may contain numerous examples of yet earlier material and traditions. The works of note are:
- The Aramaic Targum to the Song of Songs—even more so than the other Targums, that of the Song is an interpretation, rather a translation per se. It is a work of haggadah, or expository narrative, explaining the Song as a kind of summary of Israel’s history, from the Exodus to the Messianic Age. For a good survey, cf. Pope, pp. 93-102. I have cited the Targum regularly, as part of the examples of Jewish and early Christian interpretation, given at the end of each exegetical note.
- The Talmud—which contains numerous exegetical and interpretative comments on the Song
- Song of Songs Rabbah—part of a great midrashic compilation (Midrash Rabbah, the Great Midrash), drawing upon Rabbinic traditions, going back to the Mekilta and the Talmud, as well as early midrashim such as the Sifra, the Sifre, and the Seder Olam Rabbah. I also cite the Midrash frequently in the examples of Jewish interpretation in the notes.
Early Christian commentary on the Song was greatly influenced by the Jewish interpretative approach, which tended to read the Song as an allegorical narrative of the love between God (the husband/bridegroom) and His people Israel (the wife/bride).
Origen’s Commentary on the Song (c. 240 A.D.), of which only the first three books (and the preface) survives, in Latin translation (by Rufinus, in the early 5th century), is the earliest extant work (only fragments survive of the earlier Commentary by Hippolytus). The Commentary spans Song 1:1-2:15, and we also have two homilies by Origen, covering nearly the same portion of the Song. A fine English translation is available in volume 26 of the Ancient Christian Writers series (Origen: The Song of Songs, Commentary and Homilies, translated and annotated by R. P. Lawson [Paulist/Newman Press: 1956]). Origen demonstrates considerable awareness of contemporary Jewish interpretation, and he refers to it at a number of points in his Commentary.
The early Christian approach follows the Jewish mode of allegorical interpretation, but with believers (Christians) taking the place of Israel as the people of God. The Song is thus an allegory of the love (and relationship) between God and believers in Christ. This was sharpened, under the influence of the marital imagery in the New Testament—viz., of believers as the Bride and Christ as the Bridegroom (2 Cor 11:2; Eph 5:25-27ff; Rev 19:7-8; 21:2, 9; cf. also Mark 2:19-20 par; John 3:29; Matt 25:1ff). A distinctly Christian interpretation thus developed, understanding the Song as an expression of the love between Christ (the Bridegroom) and believers (the Bride). A parallel line of interpretation, closer to the Mystical-Spiritual approach (cf. below), explained the Song as an allegory of the love between the soul of the individual believer and God (or Christ). Origen utilizes both lines of interpretation in his Commentary, and I have cited them frequently (in the examples of early Christian interpretation) in the notes.
Other sources for early Christian exegesis on the Song, from the 4th and 5th centuries, are works by Ambrose of Milan (primarily his treatise On Isaac), and the Commentaries of Theodoret, Apponius, and Nilus of Ancyra. Pride of place, however, goes to the splendid cycle of sermons on the Song by Gregory of Nyssa, given toward the end of his life (c. 390). His sermon-cycle covers the song up through 6:9, and extensive excerpts in English translation are available in From Glory to Glory: Texts from Gregory of Nyssa’s Mystical Writings, selected by Jean Danielou, S.J., translated and edited by Herbert Musurillo, S.J., (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press: 2001), pp. 152-288. Gregory generally follows the allegorical approach established by Origen, but tends toward a more distinctive mystical approach. I reference Gregory’s sermons quite often in the notes.
In spite of the rich heritage of allegorical interpretation, from both early Christian and Jewish commentators, it must be said that there is very little, in the Song itself, that supports it. Admittedly, there is Scriptural precedent, in the Old Testament, for using the motif of sexual love (and the idiom of love poetry) as a religious allegory. We have, for example, the Isaian “Song of the Vineyard” (Isa 5:1ff), as well as similar Prophetic illustrations in Ezekiel 16 and Hosea 2-3. In these instances, however, the prophetic author clearly indicates the love relationship is intended as an allegory (of the relationship between God and Israel). Moreover, the purpose of those allegories is to point to the failure of the relationship—i.e., of Israel as the unfaithful bride/wife.
The situation in the Song is very different. The sexual relationship throughout is positive, and it is a relationship between equals. There is not the slightest sense that the young woman of the Song is in any way inferior or subordinate to the young man. Moreover, I find no indication, whatever, in the text of the Song that the author intends it as a religious or spiritual allegory. It is only the apparent contradiction, between the erotic love poetry and the status of the book as Sacred Scripture, that caused Jewish and early Christian commentators so readily to adopt the allegorical approach.
B. The Mystical-Spiritual Approach
Related to the allegorical approach is what we may call the mystical or spiritual approach. This mode of interpretation has the advantage of taking the erotic imagery of the Song more seriously. The sense of desire is real, but sublimated to the spiritual plane. In other words, the sexual desire and longing in the Song represents the desire/longing of the believer for spiritual union with God. Origen and Gregory of Nyssa set the stage for this approach to the Song among Christians. The sermon-cycle of Gregory, in particular, tends to focus more on the spiritual growth and enlightenment of the soul of the individual believer. In this way, Gregory’s work foreshadows the more famous sermon-cycle by Bernard of Clairvaux (mid-12th century). It was, indeed, within the monastic milieu, with its strong emphasis on asceticism and celibacy, that the mystical-spiritual approach to the Song—and to love poetry in general—flourished.
Many extraordinary works of Christian love poetry were produced within the setting of medieval Monasticism. One may mention, in particular, the Rhineland mystics—including the writings of notable female mystics such as Mechtild of Magdeburg and Hadewijch. This monastic love poetry was inspired, in part, by the tradition of European (Troubadour) Courtly Love poetry, along with hymns and liturgy venerating the Virgin Mary. The Marian traditions especially are relevant to the expressions of female spirituality, and to the figure of the young woman in the Song, who came to be identified with the figure of Mary in certain lines of interpretation. Other examples of medieval Christian love poetry can be found in the lauds of Jacopone da Todi, and (somewhat later) in the great poetic works of Teresa of Ávila and John of the Cross.
The mystic-spiritual approach to love poetry is hardly unique to Christian mysticism, as it is perhaps even more prominent among Islamic (Sufi) mystics. Sufi authors and poets drew upon the rich heritage of Arabic love poetry—part of the same broad tradition of Near Eastern love poetry that encompasses the Song itself. In Part 2, I discussed how many themes, motifs, and stylistic forms in the Song can still be found in much later Palestinian love-poetry folk songs, as collected and recorded in the 19th and early 20th century. The genre of the praise-song, in which one of the lovers lauds the physical beauty of the other, one body part at a time, occurs frequently in the Song, and conforms to the waƒf genre in the Arabic love poetry tradition.
The Sufi mystics drew, in particular, on the classical Arabic Ode (Qasida), the first part of which (the nas£b) begins with a remembrance of the poet’s lost love—of his beloved who has gone away. This results in an imaginative kind of ‘search’ for the lost beloved, similar in certain respects to the episodes in the Song where the young woman searches for her ‘lost’ beloved. In a somewhat later development of the Ode-tradition, Sufis made heavy use of the ghazal and ±udhri styles of love poetry. Especially influential was the legendary love of Majnun (the poet Qays ibn al-Mulawwiµ) for Layla. The Islamic mystics used this love poetry to express their own desire for union with God, just as the Christian mystics did. For a good introduction to the topic, see the work of Michael A. Sells in Early Islamic Mysticism (part of the Classics of Western Spirituality series, Paulist Press ), especially the discussion in pages 56-74, and Desert Tracings: Six Classical Arabic Odes (Wesleyan University Press: 1993).
Love poetry and sexual imagery played a role in Jewish mysticism as well, such as in the line of tradition referred to as the Qabbalah (Kabbalah), best epitomized, in a developed form, by the massive work known as the Zohar. An important aspect of Kabbalah mysticism involved a symbolic expression of the inner dynamics of the Deity (and the Divine realm), represented by the ten “Sefiroth”, the last of which is the Shekinah (depicted as female). In fact, a male-female dynamic runs through the entire Sefirotic “tree” of relationships, and the use of sexual symbolism is rather pervasive. However, it does not apply so much to the union of the believer (or righteous person) with God, but, rather, is applied in a more gnostic sense, to the revelatory awareness and vision of the Divine realm.
A very distinct kind of mystical interpretation of the Song is found in the work known as Shiur Qomah (“Measure of the Body”), in which the “body” of the Creator is described according to the praise-song in 5:10-16. Vast (cosmic) measures are give to this body, as well as esoteric (secret) names for the body-parts. This unusual work, difficult to explain or understand by readers today, seems to be related to the a broader visionary tradition called Merkabah mysticism (and the Hekhalot literature), in which the mystic ascends in a ‘chariot’ (merkabah) and—if he is sufficiently worthy and adept—is allowed to pass through the heavenly palaces (hekhalot) and obtain a vision of God’s throne. For an early example of this sort of visionary text, cf. my article on the so-called “Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice” from Qumran. For an introductory survey of the Merkabah mysticism, cf. the now-classic writings by Gershom Scholem, e.g., Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (Schocken Books: 1954/1974), pp. 40-79.
C. The Religious-Cultural Approach
In order to give this line of interpretation the proper attention, I will wait to discuss it in the final section (Part 4) of this Conclusion, in which I will also summarize my own interpretation of the Song.
References marked “Pope” above (and throughout these notes) are to Marvin H. Pope, The Song of Songs, Anchor Bible [AB], vol. 7C (1977).
Those marked “Fox” are to Michael V. Fox, The Song of Songs and the Ancient Egyptian Love Songs (University of Wisconsin Press: 1985).