The Song of Songs: From Affliction to Healing through the Text

Willie Young
King’s College, Pennsylvania

As throughout their histories, the Song of Songs and the path of Love have borne a lush, bountiful harvest of commentary and interpretation in these papers for our meeting. I am grateful for the rich fruits for reflection that Goshen-Gottstein, Davis, and Safi give us, as these authors provide guidance in our searching in darkness for the one whom our whole-beings love.

While there are differences between the papers, there are also intriguing convergences within these works that I will attempt to spell out in the following discussion. All three papers address the complex nature and multiple dimensions of the intertextual reading of scripture. Each paper highlights a way that the reading of scripture may founder, losing its sense or becoming harmful. In each essay, repair, healing, and hope come about through a type of intertextual reading that joins different voices into an unforeseen unity. Davis’s work illuminates the intertextual nature of the Song itself, Goshen-Gottstein highlights how rabbinics read the Song intertextually, integrating it into the canon by fracturing it into prismatic pieces that shed light on the scriptures, and Safi shows how Sufism seeks to revitalize religious life through the reworking of standard depictions of divinity.

What I would like to suggest is that together, these papers tell us something about how these communities relate to their scriptures – or more exactly, how the scriptures relate to these communities. In each case, the scripture allows itself to be stretched, or even broken, so that the community can find new life within it. Tracing the dynamics articulated by the three essays can illuminate the pattern of the breaking of scripture’s coherence, and its repair in interpretation, enabling reflection upon how this pattern of breaking/repair may be a pattern of divine activity. Intertextual reading repairs scripture so as to repair and heal communities. As this pattern emerges, we may begin to see how the brokenness of scripture is not a change in God, but rather leads to a change within us. To help explore this idea, I will discuss two readings of the Song of Songs that I find especially illuminating, those of Bernard of Clairvaux and Franz Rosenzweig.

Bernard of Clairvaux

Bernard’s reading of the Song is often described as the most influential Christian commentary of the Middle Ages. In many ways, it represents the shift in Christian readings from early commentators on the Song such as Origen, who interpreted the Church as the bride of Christ, to the medieval readings, which focused more explicitly on the relation between Christ and the individual soul. [1] While this second approach predominates in Bernard’s sermons, it does not capture the full complexity of his approach, which shifts from one level of meaning to another over the course of various sermons.

Bernard’s commentary takes the form of sermons addressed to a monastic community, as he instructs them in their daily living. Thus, in interpreting the verses on the adornment of the bride, he interprets the bride’s earrings as wisdom, and the pursuit of learning, and the bare neck (likened to the turtle dove) as the purity of the soul. The holy union of the soul with God thus requires the ascetic purification of the flesh; in such purification, one’s soul takes on a Christ-like beauty before God. [2]

While many sermons display this emphasis on the union of the soul with God in Christ, Bernard also develops an ecclesial interpretation, in which the church is the beloved of Christ. In later sermons, he thus no longer addresses his charges as the bride, but as the bride’s friends , adorning her beauty and preserving her purity through their ministerial function. They also become the shepherd who, like Christ, nurtures and cares for the believers. These individual and communal readings feed off of one another; by drawing the monastic community more closely into God’s love through the allegorical reading Bernard prepares them for their roles in their communities, helping the church to love Christ with “her” whole-being.

Bernard’s willingness to shift between levels of meaning, identifying his audience with various figures in the Song, resembles Davis’s multiple interpretations of the harmony or unity signified by the Song. However, it also suggests that a theme need not rigorously determine the reading of the text. Rather, it can be read in multiple ways that respond to and repair issues and divisions in the community. Allegory does enable a more dynamic understanding of the relationship between the soul and God, and the individual and the community. Of course, as Davis suggests in her comment on monastic reading, the one thing the Song doesn’t represent for Bernard is precisely what it says – human, erotic love. The ongoing polemic in his writings between the “fleshly” and spiritual interpretations must have been quite useful in disciplining a monastic community, but given its association with anti-Jewish polemics, its value in the context of scriptural reasoning is dubious. This is one of the points at which I find myself challenged and troubled by his work, in spite of its wondrous beauty. Thus, we might ask to what extent Bernard, or those who read with him, can really think with the Song in all its sensuality; I sense that the complementary hermeneutics of Davis and Goshen-Gottstein are also necessary to move beyond the limits of this reading.

Rosenzweig: The Revelation of the Song

Love simply cannot be “purely human.” It must speak, for there is simply no self-expression other than the speech of life. And by speaking, love already becomes superhuman, for the sensuality of the word is brimful with its divine supersense. Like speech itself, love is sensual – supersensual. To put it another way, simile is its very nature and not merely its decorative accessory. “All that is transitory” may be “but simile.” But love is not “but simile”; it is simile in its entirety and its essence; it is only apparently transitory: in truth, it is eternal. The appearance is as essential as the truth here, for love could not be eternal as love if it did not appear to be transitory. But in the mirror of this appearance, truth is directly mirrored. [3]

In many ways, one could say that the Song of Songs is the “Holy of Holies” for Rosenzweig as for Rabbi Akiva, as it is the “focal book of revelation” ( Star , p. 202) that establishes relations between God and humanity. As interpreted in The Star of Redemption , this text serves to articulate the unfolding of freedom in love, as humanity finds its voice in response to the divine call to love. This event is central to the Star , as its relationality establishes the conditions for history, freedom, and community. This freedom is always already a response that emerges from the guilt of silence such that the response of love always includes a dimension of repentance.

Much as Davis has highlighted the importance of genre, Rosenzweig argues that the Song should be read as primarily lyrical, rather than epic, poetry. In arguing against the epic reading (which he describes as prevailing in nineteenth-century historical criticism), which reads the poem dramatically by posing a contrast between the king and the shepherd, he reads the poem lyrically, as the intimate conversation of lovers, in which they are “as royalty” to one another. The shepherd is the king to his lover, and she is royalty to him. The effect of this distinction is to highlight the way that the poem epitomizes an I-Thou relation, rather than an objective, third-person description. Lyricism, as a self-sacrifice to the moment ( Star , p. 194), cannot simply be recorded, but is only manifest from inside the event – in this case, the event of love, in which the speakers emerge from concealment toward one another. [4]

I think that Rosenzweig is suggesting that the song does not direct us to a spiritual meaning or content, or immediately lend itself to allegory. Rather, as the song embodies the dialogue of lovers, in the human, earthly sense, it also discloses the dialogical nature of revelation. The appearance or simile, the poetic language of the two lovers, is essential, because it gives space to their words to one another, and establishes relations within the sensuality of language. As in the quote at the heading of this section, love takes the form of a simile, as a way for the speakers to give everything to one another, changing roles and exchanging speech while remaining distinct in their unity. It may be that one can think within the Song, in the context of its dialogical speech – I don’t know if that’s the same as or different from “thinking with” in Goshen-Gottstein’s sense.

It is also worth noting that for Rosenzweig, the loving response to God does not remain individual; community emerges from it in the liturgical act of prayer. Here, his analysis of the Song may merge with Goshen-Gottstein’s point that the Song is not simply about love, but is perhaps about praise . In the prayer and praise of the community – as well as its confession – a new unity within humanity emerges in light of the love of God. Ultimately, this unity will move toward practice and ethics, and toward redemption as the full union of God, humanity, and the world. For Rosenzweig, this shift from love to praise is a feature of love itself: love is so intensely focused on its immediate relation that its desire also becomes a desire to share the love with others, publicly – as in the desire for the lover to be as a brother (Song 8:1-2). In emphasizing both the dialogical encounter, and its unfolding into a desire for publicity, Rosenzweig highlights differences and seams within the text that other readings might overlook, leading us to rethink the unity of the text in as a plurality of voices.

Intertextuality and the Affliction of the Text

In light of these approaches, I was particularly struck by Goshen-Gottstein’s description of rabbinic hermeneutics as drawing fragments from the Song, rather than working from a generalized conception of its “meaning.” I find this especially intriguing in light of Davis’s argument that the Song itself is largely composed from fragments from other books of scripture. In both its composition and its interpretation, then, the Song has an intertextual, fragmentary character, either unifying or breaking into fragments in relation to other parts of scripture. The following question thus emerged for me in reading these papers: how are such intertextual readings and compositions possible? A necessary component of any answer is that the text lets itself be fragmented, broken, or pulled apart – precisely so that it can be joined together in new ways, with other texts, thereby building the life of the community. It is as if the text offers its body, or is willing to take on suffering, in order to find its love. I wonder, then, if the Song is both intertextual and broken all the way down – in its writing, in its canonization, and in its history of interpretation. Does the text take on the ruptures of the world, allowing them to be healed?

Safi’s discussion of the path of Love helps me to understand what Davis means when she says the Song of Songs is iconographic . The Song sheds new light on God’s covenant with Israel: first, it imagines God’s desire for Israel, as a Rose of Sharon is also the most beautiful and unique; and second, Israel’s desire for God is expressed as well. Likewise, allegorically, the Song has been a transforming lens through which the relationship between Christ and the Church has been redefined. In reading scripture through the prism of the Song, expressions that would ordinarily be unworthy of God — desire, want, longing — become appropriate forms of praise. To read the Song as an icon is to break the static conceptions of divinity that one might associate with philosophical theism, but which filter into dogmatic theology as well. To read scripture intertextually, in light of the Song’s lyrics of love, is to imagine a God who does not count equality with God as a thing to be seized hold of, but who breaks such a static conception to open space for communion with us by taking on the eroticism, need, and reciprocity of humanity. In short, the Song is iconic in its incarnation of God, which enables and inspires speech and interpretation within communities.

Likewise, Safi’s analysis of how God takes on a range of humanizing attributes or descriptions in Sufi discourse resembles Davis’s iconographic reading, as it emphasizes the attribution to God of those characteristics most often associated with human love. As God takes on these attributes, the beloved is brought more intimately into God’s presence. I suspect that many of us not trained in Sufism were surprised by this approach (as would be Rosenzweig; the lyrical and intimate aspects of Sufism, as Safi articulates them, effectively repudiate Rosenzweig’s stereotype of Islam in his discussion of revelation). What I would highlight is that in Sufism, as in the Song of Songs, the traditional, proto-conceptual views of God based on the Qur’an are broken, precisely so as to open new forms of unity between believers and to intensify their fidelity to God. The path of love is iconographic, in that it lets us see through our words to the living God whom they represent (see, along these lines, Safi’s comment on marrying “men of words” to “virgins of ideas”).

In describing how the Sufis reworked the theological imagination of their communities, Safi describes another stage in interpretation: how a community receives the traditional interpretations of its sacred scriptures, and makes them its own. There is clearly an element of intertextuality to this work, since Sufi imagery is intended to correct or repair the representations of divinity that have become rote or mechanistic. It is as if the Qur’an allows itself to be broken open so as to restore the vitality and inspiration of the community. In all three traditions, then, at the levels of composition, interpretation, and appropriation, the texts are broken open so as to provide new life for the communities that take them up. The texts’ openness to fragmentation is a risk, but it also opens a responsibility for the communities themselves. If these texts do not let us think with them, then as Goshen-Gottstein’s conclusion suggests, they may nonetheless change us in surprising ways, by guiding us toward thinking with one another. In such community, through such dialogue, love will be stronger than death.


[1] A helpful discussion of this history is E. Ann Matter’s The Voice of My Beloved .

[2] In this section, I am working from sermons 43, 44, and 75, from the Sermons on the Song of Songs (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Press).

[3] Franz Rosenzweig, The Star of Redemption , trans. William Hallo (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1971), p. 201.

[4] It is worth noting that Rosenzweig’s interpretation is an excellent example of scriptural reasoning, in part because his grammatical philosophy, and his understanding of epic, lyrical, and dramatic modes of artistic language, grew from his correspondence and friendship with Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy (particularly, Rosenstock-Huessy’s Angewandte Seelenkunde , “The Practical Knowledge of the Soul” (Translation published by Argo Press, 1988). For more on the relation between these works, see Robert Gibbs, Correlations in Rosenzweig and Levinas (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), pp. 62-7.


© 2003, Society for Scriptural Reasoning