Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Song of Songs

I have spent the last several months meditating upon that which is perhaps the most poetic and beautiful book in the Bible, the Song of Songs, or Song of Solomon as it is sometimes called. I have read many different translations of it, and many commentaries, and I do not feel I could add much that has not already been said by other scholars who are much more learned in Hebrew, historical context, and theology, than I. However, I would like to share a few fruits of my labors, that may be of interest to anyone else who is seeking to study this piece of Scripture.

Point 1: Of Finding the Best Translation

 The best translation, hands down, is this Modern Library Classics by Bloch and Bloch. The layout is very user-friendly, with the original Hebrew on one side, with the English translation on the other. Anyone who knows or is studying Hebrew will appreciate this feature. Also the Song jumps between voices and narrative without the typical "he said"/"she said" obtrusions that are common to modern dialogue. Using context clues it is not too challenging to figure out if the lines belong to the Lover or the Beloved, but the translators' use of italics and bold, makes this distinction clear and renders a very smooth reading. 

What makes this translation supreme is Bloch and Bloch's great command of Biblical Hebrew combined with their artistry in maintaining the poetic beauty of this text. They took great care to translate this text as closely as possible to the original Hebrew, but still made some artistic adjustments when a too literal translation would be awkward. 

This edition includes a wonderful introduction which discusses the various historical interpretations of this text, as well as their own take. A detailed commentary follows which explains in minutiae the justifications for various translation decisions. For example the word "love" in 5:1, Bloch and Bloch argue has in Hebrew really the specific meaning of "love-making" as opposed to other Biblical terms for love such as the NT Greek "philos," or "agape," or the OT Hebrew "chesed" all of which can have meanings quite different from the act of coitus implied in "love-making." But the Blochs are careful to point out that the same Hebrew word used for love in 5:1 is used elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, and in those instances is very clearly in the context of romantic lovers spending the night together. 

The Bloch translation manages to capture the mystery, the beauty, the sensuality of the language, in a way that is fresh, readable, and true to the Hebrew.

Point 2: Of Interpreting the Scripture

So I have looked at many commentaries on this text, but have by no means exhausted them. Perhaps second only the Book of Revelations, never have so many meanings been put upon so simple a text. The Song of Songs is rich in images of landscapes, food and drink, royalty, and pastoralism, and they are interwoven in such a way that if you try to imagine the everything literally it becomes a dizzying journey as a woman becomes a garden, becomes a pleasing feast, a sealed fountain, and her parts become at different times jewels, animals, fruits, landscape features, and spices. The man in turn is her brother, her lover, her king. The language is neither allegorical, or strictly metaphorical, but rather paints a landscape, appeals to all the senses, and in the end the excitement, the allurement, the emotions and sensations recreated in the reader, are perhaps more the point, than any dry parsing of words and scholarly exegesis can convey. 

I briefly read through many of the Church father's interpretations, but found them difficult to take seriously. Not that I discount them completely, but when dear St. Ambrose writes about the line "Eat, friends, drink, and be drunk with love" (5:1) and speaks of a "sobering inebriation" one that is "one of grace, not of intoxication" and speaks of the poem as a metaphor for the "banquet of the church" it leaves something to be desired. I think that "drunk" means precisely "intoxication." Even if one is to accept the interpretation of the wedding feast as a metaphor for the joyful wedding banquet of Christ and the church, even so, to be "drunk on love" means that we are intoxicated by Christ's presence, and our senses become befuddled. We become blinded by love and see only the beloved, and our higher reasoning goes out the window, for all we can do is delight in the presence of the Beloved, living in the present moment, oblivious to all else besides. But in St. Ambrose's defense he does hint as much in saying that "Christ dines ... in us. he drinks such drink in us; with the intoxication of this drink, he challenges us to make a departure from worse things to those that are better and best." 

There is much of value in the Church Fathers' exegeses, I don't mean to discount them by any means. But their readings are often very dry and often come across as scholarly intellectual exercises, and miss out on the passion conveyed in the poem. Also by reading things too allegorically, they miss the forest for the trees. Every little symbol is parsed out for meaning, but the poem must also be read as an organic whole.  Some of the various interpretations, which all had some merit, but failed to capture the essence of the poem included interpreting the Lover and the Beloved as:

  1. Christ and the Church
  2. Christ and Mary
  3. Christ and the soul
  4. God and Israel
  5. divine Wisdom and the man who seeks it
  6. mystical marriage of God and the soul

Interestingly, God is never mentioned in the Song of Songs, but the poem is clearly Jewish as the Beloved's name is roughly translated as "Jerusalamite" and she speaks often to the "daughters of Jerusalem." Also much of the imagery and language has strong Jewish roots or references. But sometimes the question has been asked, is this poem about God at all, or are we injecting religious meaning simply because somehow this book wound up in the religious canon? 

After much research I had to keep returning to Bloch and Bloch's assertion that we should take the text for what it is at face value: a beautiful love poem. All other meanings are secondary. It is no crime to use a beautiful work such as this to help illustrate theological points, such as St. Louis de Montfort does in putting lines from this poem in the voice of Mary. But to read the poem as simply a prophetic work about Mary, does not make sense.

Point 3: Song of Songs in Theology of the Body

Well, JPII did it again. The man who seems to have the final say on everything, apparently discussed his interpretation on the Song of Songs in his Wednesday audiences in May of 1984. Of course I only discovered this last night in flipping through my copy of Theology of the Body. I have read Part I of TOB several times, but I have not read through the whole book. If I had I might have recalled that about 8 pages are spent discussing the pope's interpretation of this work. 

JPII says the Song speaks of "the language of the body, a singular language of love originating in the heart." He maintains that "It is not possible to reread it except along the lines of what is written in the first chapters of Genesis, as a testimony of the beginning - that beginning which Christ referred to in his decisive conversation with the Pharisees (Mt 19:4). The Song of Songs is certainly found in the wake of that sacrament in which, through the language of the body, the visible sign of man and woman's participation in the covenant of grace and love offered by God to man is constituted." 

I won't spoil it for you by attempting to convey the full 8 page discussion, but it is well worth a read. Also, there are two pages of foot-notes, which to me are just as interesting, and deal with reconciling (or even discarding!) previous Christian interpretations of this text. As one footnote says, "the Song therefore is to be taken simply for what it manifestly is: a song of human love." (J. Winandy, OSB) Also it footnotes note that "the content of the Song of Songs is at the same time sensual and sacred. When one prescinds from the second characteristics, the Song of Songs comes to be treated as a purely lay erotic composition, and when the first is ignored, one falls into allegorism. Only by putting these two aspects together is it possible to read the book in the right way." 

Who knew that the synthesis to so much of my independent research on the Song of Songs has been sitting on my shelf all these months in my copy of Theology of the Body

So in the end, I have nothing really original to say on the Song of Songs, that has not been already stated much more eloquently by far more authoritative sources than myself. But I enjoy dabbling in exegesis and scriptural studies and hope that this post may help direct some other lay person who has an interest in researching the Song so that they don't start completely from scratch as I did.

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