Posts Tagged ‘hermeneutics’

Anna Ruth Henriques,  Song of Songs- Verse III, 1993-94 on wood

Anna Ruth Henriques, Song of Songs- Verse III, 1993-94 on wood

When I was in college we worked through Tommy Nelson’s notoriously eisegetical series on the Song of Solomon (or better, ‘Song of Songs,’ ~yrIßyVih; ryviî).  The series construes the Song of Songs as being a poetic manual for “courtship” and takes some rather breathtaking liberties with the text.  It has always struck me as odd that evangelical ministers who are deeply concerned about chastity would recommend a book as risqué as the Song of Songs to single college students to guide their romantic lives.  The Rabbis forbade the young and immature to read it precisely because of the book’s intense prima facie eroticism. 

Leaving aside questions of whether the Song should be read as a unified story or as an anthology, as genuine erotic poetry or as an allegory, there is one verse in particular that has always stuck out to me when I think about my old college Bible-study: chapter 6, verse 8.  In Hebrew the verse reads,


 rP”)s.mi !yaeî tAmßl'[]w: ~yvi_g>l;yPi( ~ynIßmov.W tAkêl’M. ‘hM’he’ ~yViîvi

 Now, a word of caution: if you do not read Hebrew and have looked the verse up in an English translation, there is one word that is consistently ignored in translations: the plural third person pronoun, ‘hM’he’, which is usually translated “they,” “these.”  English translations typically mute the pronoun, rendering the first phrase of the verse, “There are sixty queens…” (e.g., ESV, KJV, NRSV, TNK).  But, if one gives the pronoun it’s due weight, the verse reads, “There are these sixty queens…” or even “These are sixty queens….”  Read this way, it would seem that the verse has a specific group of women in view.  Because this particular group of women is composed of queens, concubines and damsels (tAmßl'[]w:, not “virgins”!) most likely what we have here is a harem.

One of the odd things about the pronoun in this verse is that it is masculine, making its fit with its feminine referents a bit awkward.  But the reason for this, I would suggest, becomes clear when one reads the next verse:


 ayhiÞ hr”îB’ HM’êail. ‘ayhi tx;îa; ytiêM’t; ytiän”Ay ‘ayhi tx;îa;

`h’Wl)l.h;y>w:) ~yviÞg>l;ypi(W tAkïl’m. h’WrêV.a;y>w:) ‘tAnb’ h’WaÜr” HT’_d>l;Ay*l..     

Only one is my dove, My perfect one, The only one of her mother, The delight of her who bore her. Maidens see and acclaim her; Queens and concubines, and praise her. (JPS Tanakh)


 Here the pronouns become the singular feminine ‘ayhi and they all refer to the speaker’s beloved.  More strikingly the verbs describing the actions of the maidens, queens and concubines are all given masculine conjugations.  The pattern of the pronouns and conjugations paint a pretty clear picture.  The speaker is striking a stark contrast between his harem and his beloved.  So great is her perfection, her ideal beauty that the very femininity of other women is diminished.  In her presence, other women seem a bit mannish, as it were.

 In short, the speaker uses his harem as a foil for the ideal femininity of his beloved (not a particularly flattering role).  But, the fact remains: he has a harem!  Of course, this observation should come as no surprise to readers who identify the male voice in the Song with that of Solomon, who famously had 700 wives and 300 concubines from various and sundry countries (1 Kings 11:1-3; cf. 2 Chr 9:7).  Even if the speaker is not identified with Solomon, he does seem to be royalty (6:12) and in the Ancient Near East with royalty comes polygamy.
Whether this observation surprises you or not, the point is that it seriously problematizes any attempt to straightforwardly use the Song as a handbook for Christian dating or marriage.  Again, we run up against a massive divide between the context of the text, where polygamy, especially amongst kings, was a given, and our own context, where polygamy is anathema.  All too often readers, especially evangelical readers, make a quantum hermeneutical leap over this gap without ever realizing what exactly it is that they are doing.
To clarify the matter, we have in the male protaganist of the Song, not a single young man on the prowl, but rather a multiply-married man with many mistresses on the side who has fallen head over heels for another woman.  Of course, in an Ancient Near Eastern context, this situation poses no problem at all.  But in modern America any attempt to straightforwardly model one’s love life on the Song is likely to get one thrown in jail or worse.   So what then are we to do with the Song?  If the Song is not for providing plain and simple dating advice, what in the world is it for?
To begin answering that question we must first pose another, namely, What is any song for?  In my humble opinion, songs are for inspiring.  They may do any number of other things as well, but inspiration, I think, is their base function.  The quality of a song is judged not by whether it is true or false, whether it is authoritative or whether it alters social reality, but, rather, by whether or not it inspires.  Songs, unlike paintings and sculpture, achieve this function by means of evocative language and music.
What, then, does the language of the Song of Songs evoke?  The Song of Songs evokes the sort of intense, unbearable, irrational, hormonal, heart-palpitating, palm-perspiring, gastro-intestinal-butterfly-stirring puppy love that afflicts every adolescent sooner or later.  And it does so splendidly.  But why, we must ask, was this saccharine paean to eros considered sacred writ?  At this point, we can only guess.  Perhaps it is because it lays bare the aching beauty of one of the deep elements of the created order that God declared to be “very good.”  Perhaps in the Song we hear the sentiment only whispered by Adam, “This one at last Is bone of my bones And flesh of my flesh!,” set to music and blared at 1,000,000 decibals.  Perhaps, in a sense, the Song of Songs represents the canonization of passion.
However one slices it, the Song of Songs, like Virginia, is for lovers, whether, as ancient interpreters held, lovers of God or, as modern interpreters suggest, lovers in thrall to earthly romance.  But to woo this ancient, exotic Song into our lives now, I would suggest, requires a more supple, sensitive, rapturous and, dare I say, poetic hermeneutic than the wooden would-be literalism to which we evangelicals have become accustomed.

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