Monday, April 05, 2010

Sexy Scripture: Introducing the Song of Songs with Questions and Answers

Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth, for your love is more delightful than wine. --Song of Songs 1:2

"The Song of Songs"? I thought the title of this book was "The Song of Solomon. "

Actually the full title is, "The Song of Songs which is to Solomon" (1:1). The elaborate frontispiece shown here contains those words in Hebrew. "Song of Songs" is a typical Hebrew expression, much like "lord of lords" or "king of kings." This is the Hebrew way of saying, "the greatest __________." For example, "the holy of holies" means "the most holy place." So the title "Song of Songs" means something like, "The Greatest Song."

But doesn't the first verse identify Solomon as the author?

The expression at the end of verse 1, "to Solomon" can be translated in any number of different ways. "In the style of Solomon" and "for Solomon," are just two possibilities. At any rate, this expression, which serves as the title for the book, does not necessarily indicate that Solomon wrote it, although it might. Solomon may not have been the author. However, he is connected to the book in some way (1:5; 3:9-11; 8:11-12).

This book seems to be a collection of love poetry, and it never even mentions God. What's a book like this doing in the Bible?

Without a doubt, the discreet eroticism of the Song has raised the eyebrows of many a believer. This, along with its neglect of such topics and themes as Israel, God, the Torah, etc., has caused many people to treat the Song as though it were an allegory.

An allegory. What's that?

An allegory is a certain type of writing or speaking in which truth is presented symbolically, in the form of a story or picture. The Scriptures contain many examples of allegory. For example, Psalm 80 presents Israel as a vine from Egypt. When the prophet Nathan convicted King David of his adultery, the prophet told a story about two men. One was rich and had many sheep. One was relatively poor and had just one sheep that he dearly loved. Such examples indicate two important qualities of an allegory: First, true allegory is obviously figurative and not literal. If it's true (and effective) allegory, then somewhere along the line the hearers understand that the people or places and events in a story are symbols that point to other things that are real. When Nathan said, "You are the man," David knew that Nathan had not been talking about sheep, but about women.

How do allegorical interpretations of the Song work?

Since before the time of Christ, many Jewish interpreters of the Song have treated it as a figurative work expressing the love between God and Israel. Likewise, among Christian interpreters the Song has been seen as an expression of love between Christ and the church, or between Christ and an individual Christian. One motivation for presenting the Song in this way is obvious: it relieves the tension presented by a straight-forward reading of the text which comes across as "non-religious" and sometimes very sexy. Another reason for this time-honored way of reading the Song has to do with an ancient conviction about the fullness of the Bible. According to this view, Scripture can and does communicate at several different levels, not just the level of the literal sense of the text.

So is the Song of Songs really an allegory?

No. In fact, all of the interpretations of the Song which treat it like an allegory are really examples of what might be called "allegorizing."

Allegorizing? What does that mean?

"Allegorizing" simply means "ignoring the literal meaning of a text in order to discover its 'deeper,' symbolic meaning." Typical of allegorizing is that it comes up with all kinds of meanings that are not readily apparent, depending on the interpreter. In such cases, we find out more about the interpreter than we do about the text; more about the reader than about the author. I think we should be wary of the allegorizing approach to the Song of Songs.

If allegorizing isn't the best method of interpretation, how should we approach the Song?

It's best to see this material for what it clearly is: a collection of love poetry which expresses the intimate relationship between a man and a woman, a celebration of physical love. As Hardeman Nichols said it: "The literal interpretation of the Song of Solomon declares that this is lyric poetry. . . . The primary object of the poem is to present ideal human love. Surely there is a place in the Bible for the most beautiful love song in all literature."

What's the best way to study the Song?

Begin by reading it all the way through. You should read it at least two or three times on different occasions. Also, you might try different translations. A complete reading of all eight chapters doesn't take long. (Note: Reading the Song with your husband or wife could result in your not making it to the end of the book). You might want to make a few notes as you read. Write down some of your thoughts as well as some of the questions that come to mind. How would you respond to these questions?

1. Why do you think the Song was originally composed?

2. Do you think that all of it was written by the same person, at the same time? Or, does the book seem more like a collection from different times, or even from different people?

3. What might have been some of the reasons why the Song was eventually included in the Jewish Scriptures?

4. What do you think that the Song is uniquely saying?

5. Based on your understanding of the book, what would you say that it contributes to the larger whole of the Bible?

6. If you were asked to present an overview of the Song, what would you include in that lesson?


Stoned-Campbell Disciple said...


SofS sure has raised the "eyebrow" of many a believer!! Especially those with warped and no biblical views of sexuality and physicality. It is an ascetic and neo-gnostic nightmare. J. W. McGarvey even suggest it might have slipped into the canon by mistake! But the Song celebrates the created world as a gift of grace. It relishes creation and specifically that part of that in our Christian tradition have found offensive. The Song echoes Edenic goodness and say that desire, even "erotic" desire is itself good and holy.

It is one of my favorite books of the bible and not just for teens and newly weds. For me, thought they are not historical-critical, Bernard's sermons on the Song are rich and profound beyond belief. A couple of other works i been enriched by are:

Carey Ellen Walsh's Exquisite Desire: Religion, The Erotic and the Song of Songs (not a commentary but explores the deep connections between the themes of the subtitle)

Tremper Longman's (NIC) and Robert Jensen (Interpretation) are wonderful commentaries.

Richard Norris edited "Song of Songs: Interpreted by Early Christian & Medieval Commentators" is a gold mine.

And finally Rob Bell's SEX GOD is thoughtful. I have a college group going thru this right now.

We desperately need a realistic and a holy view of sex. Our allergy to talking about it has bore ill fruit.

Thanks for the post.

Bobby V

Frank Bellizzi said...

Hi Bobby,

Thanks for your comments. Several of the sources you've mentioned here are not things I've read. Some of them I hadn't seen at all, like the Norris and Walsh books.

I have a difficult time reconciling my aversion to allegorizing with my appreciation for Bernard's sermons on the Song. Even in translation, those sermons really are beautiful. So I have to confess that, at least with regard to the Song, I have a lot of sympathy for sensus plenior takes. The way I see it, as long as a sensus plenior interpretation (1) doesn't violate the literal sense and (2) squares with the rule of faith, then why not? It's not like Matthew or Paul follow grammatico-historical rules.

Stoned-Campbell Disciple said...


I should have read over that comment before i posted it!!!

Bernard has to be taken on his own terms. He is correct in that the erotic dimension of the Song points to a long for communion with God. Sexuality and Spirituality cannot be separated. Some of the most profound thoughts on love iv ever seen come from Bernard. Interestingly enough there was plenty of Jewish allegorical interpretation of the Song. Walsh, without resorting to the allegorical hermeneutic explores this in depth.

Yeah Matthew and Paul sometimes make up their own rules!!

The Song is awesome and i commend you for any positive treatment among us.