Bible Commentary: Introduction to Song of Solomon Part 6

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Introduction to Song of Solomon Part 6

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Symbolic Interpretation

Many have viewed the story of the two lovers in the Song as emblematic of the relationship between God and His people. The New Open Bible notes: “In the Old Testament, Israel is regarded as the bride of Yahweh (see Isiah 54:5-6; Jeremiah 2:2; Ezekiel 16:8-14; Hosea 2:16-20). In the New Testament, the Church is seen as the bride of Christ (see 2 Corinthians 11:2; Ephesians 5:23-25; Revelation 19:7-9; Revelation 21:9). The Song of Solomon illustrates the former and anticipates the latter” (introduction to the Song of Solomon). Among those of this opinion, there has been wide variance in the degree of figurative interpretation promoted and the meaning derived from such interpretation. Many historically have argued for strict allegory, wherein essentially all is considered symbolically. More popular in recent times is typology, or type-antitype parallelism, wherein a story is taken literally but elements are seen as a representative type of a bigger picture, the antitype. Let’s consider these perspectives.

Allegory vs. Allegorizing

As was earlier mentioned, the primary strategy for interpreting the Song of Solomon for most of the Christian era was to approach it as an allegory. In allegory, the meaning of a text is not its plain sense. Rather, what is written is symbolic throughout of a hidden meaning below the surface in an extended metaphor. Jewish interpreters for most of the past 2,000 years have generally read the Song as an allegory of the relationship between God and Israel (or of the mystical union of God and the individual soul) while theologians of Christendom have seen it as portraying the relationship between Christ and the Church (or between Christ and the individual Christian). In both cases, a natural interpretation of the Song as written is essentially disregarded as irrelevant in favor of the deeper, mystical meaning. (Again, this is not the same as a typological understanding, which accepts the literal story at face value yet sees representative elements in it as well.)

In considering the allegorical approach, we must distinguish between allegory and reading a text as allegory. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament commences its discussion on the matter with this important distinction: “Before beginning our survey of Jewish and Christian allegories, we need to define our terms. We need to make a distinction between an allegorical piece of literature and an allegorical interpretative strategy. The former is an intentional piece of writing: an author intends the reader to take the surface meaning of his text as symbolic of another level of meaning. In the words of The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, ‘We have allegory when the events of a narrative obviously and continuously refer to another simultaneous structure of events or ideas, whether historical events, moral or philosophical ideas, or natural phenomena.’ A key aspect of this interpretation is the adverb ‘obviously.’ A good example of an allegory is the still popular work Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. That this work is an allegory is blatantly obvious. The main character is named Christian, and he is on a journey to the Celestial City. On his journey, he encounters obstacles like the Slough of Despond. It would be impossible for even the average reader to avoid the below-the-surface meaning, because it is not too far below the surface” (p. 23). Reading an obvious allegory as just that is not so much an interpretive strategy as it is a quite natural reading.

There are examples of clear allegorical accounts in Scripture: “The Bible does contain allegories. In Judges 9 Abimelech had his brothers murdered in order to clear his way to the throne. However, the youngest brother Jotham escaped and then returned after Abimelech proclaimed himself king. Jotham told a story about how the trees chose a king for themselves. The trees went to the most productive and most dignified of their fellow trees first, trees like the olive, the fig, and the vine, but they all rejected the idea. They were too busy being productive. Finally they went to the thornbush and asked that useless plant to rule over them, and it accepted. Not only did it accept, but it began to display qualities and powers well beyond its nature. It would provide shade for all the other trees, and it threatened even the mighty cedar with fire. Jotham’s allegory is a clear and consistent allegory that satirized Abimelech and the office of the king” (p. 23). Here too, reading this particular story as allegory is a natural approach—following the clearly intended meaning.

Yet the Song of Solomon displays no obvious characteristics of allegory. Of itself, the Song “has no signals that it is to be read in any other way than as a love song. No one can dispute this fact” (p. 23). Indeed, if the Song were found outside the context of the Bible (especially if the biblical king Solomon and biblical places were not named within it), no one would ever dream of interpreting it as an allegory of the love between God and His people. So this is not a matter of reading obvious allegory as allegory—rather it is one of assuming a meaning other than the one clearly presented.

As Dr. Carr (Tyndale Commentaries) notes: “Allegorizing as a method of interpreting Scripture [when the sense of a passage is not obviously allegorical] is something radically different. Basic to allegorical method is the idea that a given passage contains no factual or historically true record of any past event, but is merely a vehicle for some deeper spiritual truth. The grammatical-historical [or literal] meaning of the text is ignored so that what the original author said takes second place to what the interpreter wants to say” (p. 21)—that is, what the interpreter chooses to believe divine inspiration must have intended by the passage per his presuppositions. Proposed meanings are thus rather subjective and wildly varied, as we will later see in regard to the Song of Songs. Sometimes this involves translating words to mean something other than their natural sense in context.

Allegorizing as an interpretive strategy for difficult texts is traced to ancient Greece. Carr explains: “While the allegorical method found a friendly home in Hebrew and Christian circles as early as [the Hellenized Jewish philosopher] Philo (20 BC–AD 54) and [the Catholic theologian] Origen (AD 185–254), it is originally a pagan Greek method of interpretation. Theogenes of Rhegium (c. 520 BC) was in the vanguard of the philosophical schools which were attempting to re-interpret the ancient works of Homer and Hesiod to make them more acceptable to the enlightened citizens of the Greek city-states. Since the gods of Homer and Hesiod’s writings were immoral, unjust, unpredictable, capricious, vindictive, and generally rather unlovely characters who nevertheless were intimately bound up with the life and popular feelings of the people, the philosophers felt it necessary to try to impose their own more advanced beliefs on the structure of the older popular literature. This they accomplished by allegorizing. They denied the [seemingly intended] historical reality and obvious teachings of the older writers, yet at the same time used their widespread acceptance among the common people as a base. The stories of the gods were not meant to be taken literally, they argued, but were only vehicles to convey the real hidden or secret meanings which the commentators knew. During the centuries before Christ, this method was developed and refined among the Greeks, eventually finding its way to the intellectual centres of Alexandria in Egypt, where first the Jew Aristobulus (c. 160 BC) and then Philo and Origen introduced the method into the study of the biblical materials.

“Applied to the biblical texts, the allegorical method proceeded in the same way. The literal or historical situation described in the text is ignored, either because it never happened, or because the events described are, for theological or aesthetic reasons, considered incapable of yielding any suitable sense or teaching. Those commentators who allegorize the Song ignore the male/female relationship so vividly described in the poem, and interpret the whole book in terms of God’s dealing with Israel or Christ’s relationship with his Church. Underlying most of this sort of handling of the text is an implicit acceptance of 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” (pp. 22-23). There is evidently some truth to this being a motivating factor here—especially in Catholic Christian treatment—though this is not the sole motivation for the allegorical interpretation of the Song, as we will see.

And a clarification should be interjected here lest there be some confusion. We have already seen examples of the natural interpretation that consider the Song a fictional yet representative portrayal of a loving couple’s relationship. This is not the same as the allegorical approach to the Song, which assumes that a relationship between a literal man and woman is not in any sense the real subject matter of the Song—whether historically or fictionally.

With this background, let’s take a look at Jewish and Christian allegorical interpretation.

Origins and Basis of Jewish Allegorical Interpretation

It is hard to pin down the beginnings of the allegorical approach to the Song of Songs. Orthodox Jewish interpreters themselves would debate this, believing that Solomon wrote it as allegory to begin with—so that, as they see it, the interpretation has always properly been allegorical. However, the earliest clear evidence we have of Jewish allegorical interpretation is the early medieval period. We’ll briefly trace the development of this view among Jews and Christians and then note some examples of allegorical reading.

In his Hermeneia commentary, Roland Murphy points out: “The earliest stages in the interpretation of the Song are far from certain. The relative poverty of our knowledge in this regard needs to be emphasized, if only to counter the common assumption that the ‘history’ of interpretation begins with a firm Jewish tradition of allegorical or spiritualizing exposition, in which the Song was understood to celebrate the love between God and Israel, and that this tradition was simply taken over with slight adaptation by the early church. The fact is, however, that we know very little about early Jewish readings of the Song, apart from the quite literal renderings of it preserved in the Greek and Syriac translations…. While the Targum [an Aramaic explanatory paraphrase] and the Midrash Rabbah to the Song amply attest Jewish symbolical exposition, these sources in their received forms date only to the Middle Ages, even if some elements in them may plausibly be associated with second-century circumstances. In short, the classical Jewish interpretation of the Song came to be ‘allegorical,’ but we are unable to trace the roots of this interpretation with any certainty or even to be sure that it began in pre-Christian times” (pp. 12-14).

The Targum to the Song, “written between ca. A.D. 700 and 900…reads the Song as a redemptive history that began with the Exodus and ends with a section on the description of the Messianic period (7:14–8:7), but with two ‘flashbacks’ (Song of Solomon 8:8-10 and Song of Solomon 8:11-14) to the days before the consummation of history. [Commentator] R. Loewe argues that the Targum plays down the Messiah and his reign as part of an anti-Christian polemic. By this time, Christians have appropriated a distinctive type of allegorical interpretation of the Song, and Loewe notes [possible] swipes at it as well as implicit criticisms of Jewish mystical interpretations of the Song” (NICOT, pp. 24-25). It is interesting to consider Jewish interpretation as a reaction to early Catholic allegorizing, rather than Christians deriving the allegorical approach from Jewish tradition. This may be, but one might wonder why the Jewish reaction would not simply be to deny an allegorical approach altogether and affirm a natural marriage interpretation (as this would seem to be no hindrance to Jewish sensibilities)—unless a Jewish allegorical or mystical interpretation was already extant.

Predating the Targum is a relevant statement in the Mishnah, which was written down around A.D. 200. After quoting Song 3:11 about Solomon’s marriage, the Mishnah says that the day of his marriage “refers to the day on which the Law was given [i.e., at Sinai], and ‘the day of the joy of his heart’ was that when the building of the Temple was completed” (Taanith 4:8)—thus equating “Solomon” here to God in His relationship with Israel. Earlier still was the statement the Mishnah records of Rabbi Akiva from around the year 100, quoted at the outset of our introduction, that refers to the Song of Songs as the “Holy of Holies” among the holy writings. There is some disagreement as to whether the writings here are the Writings division of Scripture or the entire Hebrew Bible. In favor of the latter as Akiva’s intent is his accompanying statement that all the ages are not worth the day the Song was given to Israel. Elevating it above the other Writings and probably the rest of Scripture (an errant conclusion either way to be sure), Akiva almost certainly held to a figurative, spiritual interpretation of the Song. This is the earliest evidence we have of a possible allegorical understanding of the Song.

A figurative view of the Song among rabbinic interpreters, whether allegorical or perhaps initially typological, probably developed out of a desire to explain the book’s place in the Bible—given its lack of reference to God or anything religious, its highly erotic nature and the problem of Solomon as the celebrated husband, given his 1,000 women—as well as its connection to Passover and the Days of Unleavened Bread. Akiva’s statement began with a rejection of the notion that there was some question about the canonicity of the book. Some debate his remark, but we earlier cited a Mishnaic quote attributing the writing down of the Song, along with Isaiah, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, to Hezekiah and his colleagues around 700 B.C.—showing that its place in Scripture was at least believed to extend that far back. Furthermore, there is good reason to believe that compilation of the Old Testament was completed with Ezra around 400 B.C.

Wrapped up in this matter is the interesting question of whether Ezra arranged the Megilloth, the festival scrolls within the Writings division, in the order we have them today in Hebrew Bibles. The Song of Songs is first among these festival scrolls, and is understood to correspond, as noted above, to Passover and the Days of Unleavened Bread. While this associative placement may have been due merely to the theme of spring and love in bloom throughout the Song, an association was in any case drawn between the Song and the early spring festival period. If this association dates back to Ezra or before, it would have fueled belief in an underlying spiritual connection between the Song and the meaning of the Passover season (and verses describing God’s relationship with Israel as a marriage would have made this easier). Indeed, the Passover–Unleavened Bread connection may well lend support to a typological view of the song, as Ezra himself may have been aware of such a connection if the arrangement was his doing (with the guidance of the Holy Spirit).

Of course, a spiritual connection between Passover and the Song would not itself justify an interpretation of full-blown allegory. For, as noted before, there is nothing in the Song itself that would indicate that it should be read as an allegory. Again, a problem with Solomon’s role could have been a factor here. In the allegorical approach his name is viewed not as his name at all, but as a designation for God: “He to whom peace belongs.” Furthermore, the introduction of the pagan Greek allegorical method, as referred to above, could also have been influential in driving a figurative reinterpretation of the Song. While the Jews did not traditionally follow a pagan low view of the physical world, this was starting to catch on among some in the late B.C. period. And even among those without a disdain for things of the flesh, such matters as romance and marital love outside the sphere of religious regulation might still have seemed an odd choice for the primary theme of a scriptural book.

Again, add to this the passages referring to a marriage relationship between God and Israel. And perhaps of very significant influence was the allegorical and prophetic Song of the Vineyard in Isaiah 5:1-7, wherein Isaiah sings “a song of my Beloved regarding His vineyard” (verse 1)—the Beloved being God and the vineyard being Israel. When Isaiah’s book was read, this song would probably have evoked thoughts of the Song of Solomon, in which the man is the beloved and the woman refers to herself as a vineyard.

After quoting Akiva regarding the Song of Songs being the “holy of holies,” the Jewish ArtScroll Stone Edition Tanach’s introduction to the Song comments: “What is it about this song that raises it to so lofty a plane? The question is especially perplexing if Song of Songs is taken literally, for it appears to be a song of uncommon passion; it seems out of place among Scripture’s Books of prophecy and sacred spirit…. To both the Sages of the Talmud and the classic commentators it was clear that Song of Songs is an allegory, a duet of longing between God and Israel. That is why it is read publicly during Passover, the time when Israel became God’s people.”

The same introduction stresses the Orthodox Jewish view that it is wrong to give any acceptance to the literal view of the Song: “Its verses are so saturated with meaning that every commentator finds new themes in its beautiful and cryptic words. All agree, however, that the truth of the Song is to be found only in its allegory. That is why, in the interest of accuracy, our translation of the Song is different from that of any other ArtScroll translation of Scripture. Although we provide the literal meaning as part of the commentary, we translate the Song [as the main biblical text] according to [the 11th-century Jewish commentator] Rashi’s allegorical translation” (emphasis added). It is utterly astonishing that a publisher of the Bible would contend that an allegorical paraphrase is substituted for the actual biblical text for the sake of accuracy! We will note some of this paraphrase shortly in looking at examples of the allegorical interpretation.

Tracing Traditional Christian Allegorical Interpretation

As to Christian interpreters, it is not known exactly when they embraced an allegorical understanding of the Song. It was eventually deemed to be supported by the New Testament metaphor of the Church as the Bride of Christ (Ephesians 5:22-33; Revelation 18:23-24). This metaphor, incidentally, is not so different from the Old Testament picture of God married to Israel, as may be supposed. For Christ was the One known to Israel as God in the Old Testament, and the Church is a spiritually renewed Israel. Thus, the relationship between God and His people is certainly described in terms of a marriage in both the Old and New Testaments, and there is continuity between them.

Yet the Song of Solomon is not interpreted along these lines in the New Testament. In fact, the Song does not appear to be referred to in the New Testament at all (though some attempt to tie the man knocking on his wife’s door in Song of Solomon 5:2 to Christ knocking on the Church’s door in Revelation 3:20).

Psalm 45 played a role in linking the Song with the Christ-Church relationship—as the psalm is a love song (literally, in the Hebrew superscription, shir yedidot, “a song of loves”) of the royal wedding of the Messiah and His Bride that the New Testament does cite in reference to Christ. Yet even if the presence of the same symbolism in the Song of Songs could be proved, that of itself would not validate an allegorical interpretation—only a typological one.

The first evidence of Christian allegorizing of the Song comes from the commentary of the early Catholic theologian Hippolytus of Rome (ca. A.D. 200), of which only parts have survived. Yet the one who did the most to develop and promote this view was the aforementioned church father Origen, who, shortly after Hippolytus, wrote a series of sermons and a 10-volume commentary on the book. Origen did touch on the literal meaning of the Song, calling it “an epithalamium, or ‘wedding song,’ a song sung before reaching the marriage bed. Yet…he quickly passes over the ‘literal’ level of the Song because, as he puts it, ‘these things seem to me to afford no profit to the reader as far as the story goes; nor do they maintain any continuous narrative such as we find in other Scripture stories. It is necessary, therefore, rather to give them all a spiritual meaning’” (NICOT, p. 29).

Paul Tanner writes in the Dallas Theological Seminary journal Bibliotheca Sacra: “Origen was influenced by the Jewish interpretation and by his elder contemporary Hippolytus, but he was also a product of several philosophical forces at work in his day, namely, asceticism and Gnostic tendencies that viewed the material world as evil. ‘Origen combined the Platonic and Gnostic attitudes toward sexuality to denature the Canticle and transform it into a spiritual drama free from all carnality. The reader was admonished to mortify the flesh and to take nothing predicated of the Song with reference to bodily functions, but rather to apply everything toward the apprehension of the divine senses of the inner man’ [Pope, Anchor Bible, p. 115]” (“The History of Interpretation of the Song of Songs,” 1997, pp. 27-28). So extremist were his views against sexuality “that it appears they moved Origen to undergo castration, and what Origen did to his own body, he did, via allegorical interpretation, to the Song of Songs—he ‘desexed’ it” (NICOT, p. 29).

“Undoubtedly this diminished view of human sexuality, [which is grossly unbiblical yet was] so prevalent in that day, fanned the flames of the allegorical interpretation of the Song. There were few dissenting voices over the years [among Catholic writers]…. As Glickman points out [in his earlier book, A Song for Lovers], ‘No less a theologian than Augustine fell into this error, genuinely espousing that the only purpose for intercourse is the bearing of children and that before the fall of Adam it was not necessary even for that’ [1976, p. 176]” (Tanner, p. 28). The same notions led to restricting priests from marrying, a teaching the apostle Paul listed among “doctrines of demons” (1 Timothy 4:1-3).

“Jerome (331-420), who produced the Latin Vulgate, praised Origen and embraced most of his views. As a result, he was instrumental in introducing the allegorical interpretation into the Western churches. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) [principal advocate of the Second Crusade] preached eighty-six sermons on the Song of Songs [around 170,000 Latin words! (NAC, p. 355)], covering only the first two chapters. He was given to obsessive allegorical interpretation in an attempt to purge it of any suggestion of ‘carnal lust’” (Tanner, p. 28). Ironically and amazingly, the Song became a favorite book among those most vehemently opposed to human sexual expression. “The picture of monks and ascetics pouring over a book of love poetry and claiming to find in it the most sublime philosophy is intriguing of itself” (NAC, p. 355).

The rigid anti-sexual morality of Rome dominated Western civilization until recent centuries—as did the allegorical interpretation of the Song—persisting, with the exception of priests or elders marrying, through the Protestant Reformation and even the Enlightenment. The leading Protestant Reformer Martin Luther held to allegory as the way to view the book—though in a different form, as we will note in the next section. And the other major Reformer, John Calvin, “also abandoned his normal grammatical-historical mode of interpretation in the face of the Song of Songs. In this he was followed by the Puritans” (NAC, p. 354).

While it is rather common to see interpreters freely refer to the erotic language of the book today, it should be realized that up until the last century this would have been scandalous. Sexuality was just not something that was openly discussed. And to suggest that Scripture celebrated it was deemed sacrilege.

Over the past two centuries, the allegorical approach to the Song has lost support in the face of the increased acceptance of the natural and typological interpretations—to the point where “allegorization is now widely acknowledged to be a false reading of the text” (p. 357). Yet there are still many Christians who adhere to this interpretation.

The next section of introductory comments will cover allegorical examples and an evaluation of the allegorical approach to this book.