January 9, 2015

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Old Testament: Interpreting the Song of Songs

John F. Fink(Fifty-first in a series of columns)

Perhaps the Song of Songs, a love poem full of sensuous imagery, doesn’t seem to be an appropriate piece of literature to be in the Bible. But it is indeed the next book in this series about the Old Testament. It follows the Book of Ecclesiastes.

Scholars have long speculated about why a poem about erotic love would be part of the Bible. But it was included in the Jewish canon, is read by Jews on the last day of Passover, and parts of it are included in the Catholic Church’s liturgy, especially on Marian feasts.

As The Catholic Study Bible tells us, there are four ways of interpreting it: literal, dramatic, cultic and allegorical. In its literal interpretation, it is simply a collection of love poems that celebrate the passion of human love. Perhaps they began as Judean wedding songs that celebrated a fundamental human emotion—erotic love.

But people have looked for more than that. The dramatic interpretation goes back at least as far as the Christian theologian Origen, who said that it was a wedding poem written in dramatic form by Solomon. The fact that there is no narrative, only speeches, supports this interpretation. On the other hand, there is no dramatic development, no story line or character development.

So what if it was originally a liturgical re-enactment of a drama that takes place in nature each spring—the cultic interpretation? Those who support this possibility note a well-known fertility myth in the ancient Near East: The great god (Baal for Canaanites or Tammuz for Babylonians) dies after the harvest, and the fertility goddess (Anath or Ishtar) searches for him during the winter. Finally, with spring, she finds him, they are united, and the cycle of life continues.

Finally, there is the allegorical interpretation, the one most accepted by the Catholic Church. Just as Jewish commentators interpret the Song as symbolizing God’s dealings with Israel, so Christians have long read it as a description of the mystical union of God and the individual soul. Some profound mystical theology, notably that of St. John of the Cross and St. Bernard, come from the allegorical interpretation of the Song of Songs.

Since this is one of the Wisdom Books, what does it teach us? In its literal interpretation, it simply but enthusiastically affirms that sexuality is one of God’s great gifts to us. However, the sexual pleasure is pursued by the woman in the poems only within the context of a faithful and exclusive commitment.

The dramatic interpretation plays up the woman’s unrelenting search, steadfast commitment and fidelity as qualities to be admired and imitated.

The cultic interpretation, the dying/rising ritual, is that death does not have the final victory, that the love of the grieving goddess is enough to bring her lover back and to revitalize the Earth.

And the allegorical approach gives us a way of understanding the nature of our relationship with God. God is not just an impassive creator or avenging judge, but a passionate lover who ardently desires union with us. †

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