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Tuesday, October 28, 2014

It Ain’t All About Me

Reflections On the Song of Songs

Let me start with a couple of quotes that intrigue me. They may even be true:
“All the Scriptures, indeed, are holy ... but the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies.”
— Rabbi Aqiba
“If a manuscript of this little book were found alone, detached from the biblical context and tradition, it undoubtedly would be viewed as secular. The book has no obvious religious content.”
— Dennis F. Kinlaw
While every part of scripture has given rise to some level of disagreement as to its meaning and value over the years, it would be difficult to find two such extreme statements about many other books of the Bible.

Of course Kinlaw doesn’t say the book has no religious content, but that such content is not obvious. And he’s right.

Perhaps so is Rabbi Aqiba.

My own understanding of the Song of Solomon is very much a work in progress. It’s a part of scripture I find difficult on a number of levels, not the least that it is a poem or song about romantic love written by a man who had a combined 1,000 wives and concubines, and whose wives “turned away his heart”.

Stop and think about that for a second.

From a worldly perspective, experience is generally considered a prerequisite for knowledge. But from a spiritual perspective, too much experience can corrupt the affections and result in a seared and dysfunctional conscience.

And yet, with the rest of scripture, we affirm that the Song of Songs is both God-breathed and profitable. Despite having been penned by a guy with 1,000 partners.

What follows is more a consideration of what the book is not than what it is. If I offer anything, it is an appeal to rein in the excesses of wild speculation that continue to result from attempts to find personal relevance in the poetry and allegory of scripture, along with a plea for moderation and restraint in the use of the Spirit of God as a stamp of approval on our exegetical fantasies. In the interpretations extant for the Song of Songs, these are rampant. I’m not as concerned with how people process the book for themselves and the mystical interpretations they may enjoy in the privacy of their personal meditations as I am with the public teaching of that which is speculative, conjectural and, in most instances, highly improbable.

The Traditional Interpretations

Scott Shifferd Jr. lists four main traditional interpretations of the book, two literal and two figurative:

1.        The courtship and marriage of Solomon and a Shulamite woman
2.        A love triangle between the woman, a shepherd and the king 
3.        An allegory for the spiritual relationship between Israel and God
4.        An allegory for the spiritual relationship between Christ and the church

We should probably add a fifth interpretive possibility currently in vogue:

5.        The book is a prophetic timeline (of the church or Israel)

Each one of these modes of interpretation has its potential difficulties:

1. Solomon and the Shulamite

This view has Solomon himself wooing a young woman to join his already overstuffed harem.

To view the poetry as even semi-autobiographical; as a tale of a dissolute, almost inevitably clapped-out king of Israel with innumerable notches in his regal-girding-device-of-choice romancing yet another young woman seems to … well … lack charm and appeal, to say the least. Who do we cheer for here? In some very specific and limited aspects: his wisdom, fame and unprecedented kingly glory, Solomon may provide for us a small, exceedingly faulty reminder of the coming earthly exaltation and rule of Christ; but in a romantic context, especially when we consider the explicit nature of some of the sexual imagery in the book, he doesn’t even make a relatable protagonist, let alone role model. One tends to picture — forgive me, Lord — a dissipated lecher pursuing a woman half his age with all the unfair advantages of immense power and formidable sexual experience at his disposal.

Today, we’d arrest him or at least run him out of a job.

In this interpretation the ending is never in doubt, assuming we want to get there. But if we are realistic about the message such an interpretation sends, we have to recognize that it is hugely problematic. How does any reading of the Song in which polygamous Solomon is the Lover reinforce godly, monogamous marriage, whether Jewish or Christian? And monogamy very clearly is the teaching of Christ himself

Solomon’s excesses were tolerated, but they came with a terrible price. They are not normative, virtuous or remotely Christian. If Solomon himself is the Lover, it is surely a fictionalized and idealized Solomon, not the historical king of Israel.

Or perhaps there is a better way to view the book.

2. The Love Triangle

This is my preferred interpretation, given my very limited investment in a verse-level scrutiny of the text. At least it seems to give rise to the least potential interpretive hurdles. The major difficulty in this view of the book is the task of determining who is speaking at any given point in time, though that task exists regardless which view one adopts.

Because of copyright restrictions (and the fact that I don’t want to take credit for someone else’s ideas) I will not quote David C. Wright here, but there’s no problem linking to him. He sets this view out as well as anyone (with relative brevity and clarity, which are always appreciated).

The merit of this view is that acknowledging the presence of a third character in the drama (the Shepherd) gives us a protagonist and male role model that may in some ways legitimately prefigure the Lord Jesus. It also casts the amorous advances of Solomon in a less favourable light, making him, if not an outright villain, at very least a source of temptation to that which is not the best choice. It makes the Shepherd the true love of the Shulamite and explains a number of references that the first view does not.

This is a scenario my jaded but still-romantic heart can actually relate to (not that my feelings about the characters deserve much weight in the argument).

I dislike an appeal to authority generally, but it is useful to note that a view has proponents beyond a single writer or denomination. As it turns out, J. Stafford Wright (Anglican), Arthur Clarke (brethren), Arthur E. Cundall and Jack B. Scott (both Baptist), as well as Scott Shifferd Jr. (Church of Christ, linked above) have set forth a similar understanding to that of Mr. Wright.

It remains a literal view of the text, but one that appears to me to have the moral high ground.

3. Israel and God

A frequent fault among those who allegorize scripture rather than looking for a literal meaning is the tendency to read into even a legitimate allegory or parable (such as the Lord’s parable of the sower and the seed, which comes with its own Spirit-sanctioned interpretation) a level of detail that, one suspects, goes extravagantly beyond anything intended by its author.

The late Louis Jacobs says “the Rabbis saw the ‘lover’ as God and the ‘beloved’ as the community of Israel”. This starts with the very first verse, in which they interpreted even the name Solomon allegorically, reading it as she-ha shalom shelo, or “[he] to whom peace belongs”. Jacobs says the Rabbis objected to the “profane and frivolous use of the book in its plain meaning”. They saw it only and always as allegory and its literal interpretation as bringing “evil upon the world”.

Jacobs lists a couple of examples of rabbinical allegorizing calculated to make a more cautious interpreter of scripture (such as yours truly) spit his coffee:
“For example, the verse (1:2): ‘Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth’ is interpreted as referring to the revelation at Sinai when Israel took upon itself to keep the Torah and an angel was sent by God to kiss each Israelite.

The verse (1:5); ‘I am black but comely’ is given the interpretation that the community of Israel says to God: ‘I am black through my own deeds, but comely through the deeds of my ancestors,’ or ‘I am black in my own eyes, but comely in the sight of God,’ or ‘I am black during the rest of the year, but comely on Yom Kippur.’ ”
The latter explanation squirms around like the proverbial worm on its way to the hook. If you decide to go with “comely on Yom Kippur”, you may as well make the book about anything you like. It’s fun for a lark but absolutely unprovable and valueless to the Body of Christ for the purpose of edification.

I am not saying that the Spirit of God did not, on one level, mean to say some things in Solomon’s Song that may be legitimately applied to the relationship between Jehovah and Israel. But I am convinced he did not intend it to be micro-scrutinized like this.

4. Christ and the Church

Among confirmed allegorizers who see primarily Christ and the church throughout the Song, Matthew Henry is perhaps the most whimsical. For Henry, right from the outset, this is all about us:
“In this chapter, after the title of the book, we have Christ and his church, Christ and a believer, expressing their esteem for each other.”
This sort of understanding of the Song demonstrates an extraordinary attention to detail and love for the subject matter, but leaves me wondering whether (1) I am massively unspiritual to miss so much of this myself, or (2) in Henry’s enthusiasm to find a message between the lines, he has hallucinated many of the debatable treasures he finds here. When he reads the Shulamite saying, “My mother’s children were angry with me”, he interprets it as follows:
“She was in perils by false brethren; her foes were those of her own house (Matt. 10:36), brethren by nature as men, by profession as members of the same sacred corporation, the children of the church her mother, but not of God her Father; they were angry with her.”
To my mind, this sort of fancy goes way beyond anything intended by either Solomon himself or by the Spirit of God as he carried the king along. Even if Henry is correct in some of his applications, there is no possible way to substantiate his opinions and therefore little profit in exposing impressionable believers to them.

Such excesses, I believe, undermine sound principles of interpretation and encourage believers to search for exotic, personal and very questionable intuitions rather than stepping back and looking at the overall themes and messages of the book as a whole. Everyone who makes the Song primarily an allegory, Christian or Jew, seems desperate to make each little lexical particle mean SOMETHING to them personally, and nobody seems willing to admit what seems obvious: where some of these cultural and poetic details are concerned, we just don’t know to whom they apply and exactly what they mean. Forcing a meaning upon them is questionable strategy to say the least.

Again, I am not saying that the Spirit of God did not, on one level, intend to say some things in the book that have legitimate application to the relationship between Christ and his church. But surely he did not intend it to be milked to death as Henry does.

It ain’t all about me.

Next: More about the Song of Songs

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