For Valentine’s Day, a few thoughts on interpreting Song of Songs from Karen R. Keen, an instructor and Ph.D. Candidate in Judaism and Christianity in Antiquity at Marquette University. This post was originally published on her blog, Interpreting Scripture.
With poetic lines like “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth!” it might seem obvious that Song of Songs is about romance. At least that’s how the book is increasingly interpreted with the advent of modern historical-critical exegesis. Today a quick web search shows pastors and scholars praising the Song as a text about sexual love in marriage:
“[The] mysteries of love, sex and marriage as the Creator intended them to be understood and enjoyed.”
“The most intimate of all human relationships, according to the Bible, is that between a husband and a wife. It is no surprise, therefore, that there is a book of the Bible, the Song of Songs, that focuses on this relationship.”
“From this very real story written in poetic form comes many principles from a biblical perspective on the subjects of courtship, marriage, and sex, as well as many practical suggestions on how to enjoy your mate.”
But is this the best way to read the Song as Scripture? Throughout history, Jewish and Christian communities have overwhelmingly understood the book as allegorical or parabolic for the love relationship between God and Israel or God and the Church (or the individual soul). The book was accepted into the canon based on that reading despite awareness of the sexual language. The sensual connotations were obvious to Jews and Christians in antiquity. In fact, there was debate until the 2nd century C.E. about whether or not to accept the book as sacred because of the erotic imagery (Mishnah Yadaim 3:5). However, rabbinic tradition rebuked those who would sing it in taverns as a lascivious drinking song and proclaimed the book holy (Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 101a; Tosefta Sanhedrin 12.10). Christians, beginning at least with Hippolytus (c. 170-235 C.E.), followed Jewish allegorical interpretation. This reading was further popularized by Origen’s commentary on the book.
There are four primary problems with moving away from a symbolic meaning of the Song:
- Rejection of the Spirit’s movement in bringing the book into the canon under a certain theological understanding.
- Rejection of a long-standing and meaningful tradition of the Song in church and synagogue.
- Faulty elevation of modern interpretive methods over past exegetical approaches.
- Rejection of allegory as a legitimate interpretive method, and therefore, unnecessary default abandonment of traditional interpretations of the Song.
The heart of the issue comes down to the question: what is Scripture for? Is Scripture meant to be a “how-to-manual”? Is the Song best appropriated for the community of faith as marriage advice or tips on hot sex? Has marriage become so elevated as a supreme good that it trumps meditation on the love between God and humanity? Scholars sometimes chastise past theologians as being prudish and unable to appreciate sexuality. The allegorical interpretation is deemed symptomatic of sexual hang-ups. Certainly many of the Church mothers and fathers had different views on sexuality than today. But it’s incredibly reductionistic to attribute such views to gnostic tendencies or assume that our understanding of sexuality is superior.
The Church mothers and fathers understood the place of sensuality. The body is a beautiful vessel for good when all its senses are channeled toward God. Pursuit of pleasure as our primary goal can lead to selfishness, greed, and exploitation. The spiritual disciplines of Church mothers and fathers were designed to train the body to heed the Spirit’s authority. In doing so, the body could become an instrument of true love and goodness toward others. Reading the Song as love poetry between God and humanity was a way of fixing one’s mind on “whatever is lovely, whatever is true, whatever is noble.” It was a meditation on the beauty of our relationship with God.
To give a couple examples of how reading the Song symbolically aids the spiritual life, I will briefly look at Rashi (Jewish) and Nicholas of Lyra (Christian). These men were medieval scholars who were concerned about reading the Song correctly. They too wanted to avoid haphazard interpretations. Both asserted that they were interpreting the Song “literally.” Nicholas writes: “It is the literal sense which I intend to present, to the best of my ability. And the literal sense is this, not that which is signified by the words, but that which is signified by the things signified by the words . . .” (trans. Kiecker, 32). Nicholas believed the Song was a parable. He did not consider the Song to be an allegory per se with a hidden meaning under the surface. Rather he understood that the author intended to write figuratively. Thus, to interpret the Song literally is to interpret it with proper attention to genre. So what is the result of Rashi’s and Nicholas’s literal interpretations?
Rashi (1040-1105 C.E):
Rashi understands the Song as a beautiful image of God’s people repenting of their sins and longing for restoration. Interpreting SS 1:2 he writes, “She [Israel] recites this song with her mouth in her exile and in her widowhood: ‘If only King Solomon [God] would kiss me with the kisses of his mouth as of old’” (trans. Rosenberg, 5). In SS 4:1-5, God, the groom, praises his bride, telling her she is righteous. She is beautiful because she offers praises to God, her teeth are white like sheep who are under the protection of a “clever and worthy shepherd,” her lips are lovely because they keep promises, her mouth is full of the speech of a God-fearer. Since Rashi understands the Song as sung in exile (esp. metaphorically), this praise is a memory of the past when God’s people were faithful and enjoyed intimate union with God. The memory is intended to inspire a renewed commitment to following God. Thus, when one meditates on the Song as Rashi interprets it, the Scriptures prompt the reader to repentance and earnest devotion to God and Torah.
Nicholas of Lyra (1270-1349 C.E.):
Nicholas understands the Song as an exhortation to strong believers to continue holding fast to their faith despite life’s encumbering circumstances. In doing so, the devout Christian will be able to lift up and encourage those who are weaker in faith. Interpreting “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth,” Nicholas recalls the “wonders which God did for the Israelites in Egypt and in crossing the Red Sea” (Kiecker, 36-7). Just as the Hebrews under Egyptian slavery suffered and were constantly pressured to abandon faith and yet were sustained by God, so also we should persevere in tribulation. In SS 4:1-5, God, the groom, praises his bride who is a composite of spiritual leaders from the days of Israel. The bride’s head represents Jacob, her hair the twelve patriarchs, her eyes Moses and Aaron, her teeth strong warriors like Caleb, and her lips the Levites who sing praises and offer sacrifices to God. Thus, when one meditates on Nicholas’s interpretation of the Song, the reader is encouraged to imitate the faithful witnesses of the past even when life is hard and makes us doubt God.
So, what is Scripture for? And how does the answer to that question inform what it means to interpret the Song of Songs “correctly”? Perhaps, we have become so concerned about “proper” interpretive method that God’s desire for the book’s inclusion into the canon has been lost. Reading the Song in a wooden or hyper-“literal” way such as to reduce it to a self-help manual on sex and marriage is not a superior reading. What a shame that in recent years we have abandoned the beautiful meditations provided by theologians like Rashi and Nicholas. Despite what our culture may have us believe sex, romance, and marriage are not the most important things in life. Rashi and Nicholas understood that far better than we do.
Nicholas of Lyra. The Postilla of Nicholas of Lyra On the Song of Songs (ed. and trans. by James George Kiecker; Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1998).
Rashi, “The Song of Songs” in The Five Megilloth: A New English Translation, Translation of Text, Rashi, and Other Commentaries (ed. by Rabbi A.J. Rosenberg; New York: Judaica, 1992).