The Song of Songs, which is Solomon’s.
So says the first line of this book of the holy Canon, and it’s telling that one can’t even get past this introductory label without winding through conflicting opinions. We haven’t even delved into the Song itself and already we’re amid heated debates.
What does “of Solomon” mean, exactly? Is he the protagonist? A lecherous ruler who would compete against the protagonist for the attentions of a young maiden? Or a friend of the happy couple? Perhaps he’s not in the story at all other than a byname like Casanova or Don Juan would be in stories in our day? Maybe “of Solomon” means he’s the author, compiler, editor, or commissioner of the work? Perhaps it’s merely dedicated to him, or in his honor?
All of these theories have vehement supporters, and the word for “of” itself can fit any of them (and does, as we see in the Psalms). Personally, I hold to the last option — it was merely dedicated to him — as I don’t believe the text supports the competition element, and Solomon himself was anything but monogamous. But my view is held tentatively because as with so much of the Song, it’s uncertain.
What’s not uncertain at all is the Song is one of the most mysterious, curious, and debated books in the Bible.
Some of this is because of the uncertainty of authorship — but we’ve come to look past this for books like Hebrews.
Some of this is because of the poetic format which is rich in literary elements like symbolism and hyperbole — but that hasn’t posed a problem for Psalms, Proverbs, or the majority of the books of the prophets.
Some of this is because the language of the Song contains almost 50 words not found anywhere else in the Bible — but ancient literature and regional cognates (words that are similar in contemporary languages; like modern English’s ceiling versus Spanish’s cielo, which have similar meanings) narrow down most answers.
The Real Problem
Pope needed to spend 35 pages explaining abstract concepts of interpretation for every one page of actual Song content in a typical Bible.
No, the honest reason for all the struggle is trying to fit a God-inspired book full of wanton erotic imagery inside the “sexuality is evil” worldview adopted by much of the church.
Marvin H. Pope wrote 140 pages (amounting to what he called a “brief sketch”) about the common approaches to interpreting the Song. Not 140 pages of commentary on the individual verses, their cultural implications, the words used, etc. That part comes later. No, he had to spend 140 pages merely to summarize the ways theologians have tried to rationalize (aka explain away) this flagrant book.
As a reminder, this is not a long book. My primary Bible has four whole translations in it written in parallel format, and still the song only consumes sixteen pages. Yet a “brief sketch” on the ways people have tried to interpret this book consumes 140 pages. Pope needed to spend 35 pages in brief explanation of interpretation for every one page of actual Song content in a typical Bible.
If you ask me, we’re trying too hard to fit this into a box.
The Typical Answer
Many of the interpretive workarounds cite the Song as allegorical or typical (think of “typical” as a kind of allegory lite). They would posit the story’s protagonists engage in a hypothetical demonstration of love in order to symbolize the relationship between God and His people. Jews see this as God and Israel. Christians see this as Christ and the church. Roman Catholics, ever different, choose the Church and Mary as the true lovers represented by the hypothetical union.
As G. Lloyd Carr points out, “Underlying most of this sort of handling of the text is an implicit acceptance of the Platonic or Gnostic belief that physical things, particularly those related to sexuality, are intrinsically evil, and are to be shunned by those who are seeking the spiritual life.” The early church imported these influences and internalized them, and now even the Word of God runs through this presumptive filter.
Getting It Backwards
The reasoning goes something like this:
We fully believe human sexuality is sinful, yet the Bible shows something that appears to be positive human sexuality. Surely that’s not what it really means because we believe human sexuality is sinful, so it must mean divine love, which is neither human nor sexual. Rather than letting the Word inspire us to revise our underlying assumption of the evil of human sexuality, we’ll assume the Word is speaking figuratively.
The bottom line is that we’re really uncomfortable with a book that portrays something as good when the culture we’ve worked so hard to build portrays that same thing as bad. So, we’ve tried to avoid the issue by pretending it doesn’t mean what it says.
One scholar went so far as to claim the interpretation “intended by God is the spiritual or allegorical sense.” He went on to warn that “a carnal man should not read this book.” Wait, what? We’re now censoring the Bible?
Are we that uncomfortable? Are we really going to try to change the Bible rather than change us? Are we trying to make the Bible fit our ideas rather than trying to fit our ideas to the Bible?
Break It Down
Carr systematically dismantles this approach in his commentary, noting “the total absence of any of the key theological and cultic words in the Hebrew Old Testament from the Song.” In other words, if the Song was intended to be purely interpreted allegorically, one would expect certain words — God, offering, sacrifice, atone, feast, burial, evil, truth, bless, covenant, save, miracle, holy, and a long list of other theological keywords found in the rest of the Old Testament’s allegories — to be found at least somewhere in the Song. At least one of them. Somewhere. Anywhere. At all.
Unless the content is satirical, when an author intends to be purely symbolic, they leave clues. They communicate the point. There’s none of that in the Song.
Unless the content is satirical, when an author intends to be purely symbolic, they leave clues. Their hints are obvious enough to reveal to even casual readers that what they’re really talking about is more than what they’re actually saying. This makes allegory extremely apparent, as anyone who has read even a page of Pilgrim’s Progress would say. They leave hints. They communicate the point. There’s none of that in the Song.
Carr also comments the Song was one of the few (only four) Old Testament books not quoted in the New Testament. When we’re supposed to take on a Christological interpretation (such as typing the protagonists as Christ and the church), we see it demonstrated in the New Testament. It happens all the time, on many subjects. Yet never about the Song.
Finally, Carr makes a point that has always finalized it in my mind. He writes, “The sensuality evoked here goes far beyond what any allegory or typology requires, and makes it, in [W.J.] Fuerst’s words, ‘beyond the bounds of credibility’ that the book was intended to be understood that way.”
I mean, think about it. In what way does Christ feel up the church (Song of Songs 7:8)? It just doesn’t fit. If it were just typology, the author could accomplish it without any such eroticism. In fact, the eroticism detracts from the typology. And so do other components. In what way does Christ leave us when we go to Him (5:6)? Didn’t He specifically say He wouldn’t leave us (Matthew 28:20)?
We don’t need to wrap the Song in some theologically pretty wrapper that pretends sexy isn’t sexy and human isn’t human.
The Natural Answer
The only answer, the natural answer, is that the Song of Songs needs no special box to be put in. We don’t need to wrap it in some theologically pretty wrapper that pretends sexy isn’t sexy and human isn’t human.
It is exactly what it seems: a wholly, holy erotic book. It’s a tale of love, of marriage, and of sex, In that order. And that’s beautiful. On its own. And, by the way, this is a crucial distinction from most of what we see in erotica today. Fifty Shades never truly entertains marriage. Or love, if you really think about it. And a godly reflection of this love-marriage-sex sequence isn’t exactly obvious in other similar literature. We shouldn’t be afraid of eroticism. Rather, we should ensure it remains in its proper place.
Admittedly, our sexual relationship in marriage is a hint at something far more profound awaiting us, a whispered echo of heaven, if you will, but the marital context makes sex itself a wholly, holy erotic act. And that’s a good thing.
Frankly, as I dig deeper with the help of Pope, Carr, Kinlaw, and others, the Song becomes even more erotic, not less so. Sometimes, it’s erotic, suggestive, and romantic in ways I never saw coming. I’ll be sharing some of these unexpected eroticisms in future posts.
In the meantime, for a good dose of this eroticism by a guy who is unafraid to allow the Bible to speak for itself, read G. Lloyd Carr’s commentary. It’s phenomenal, though not for the faint of heart or those with puritanical tendencies. You may find, as I have, that within the holy covenant of marriage the ancient Bible endorses sexuality and aspects of sexuality that rival some of today’s most liberal paradigms.
Originally posted 2015-05-04 08:00:03.