Reading The Song Iconographically

Ellen Davis,
Duke University Divinity School


As What Are We To Read This Text?

Among the most important questions for biblical interpreters to ask is the question of genre: As what are we to read this text? In the modern period, it was Hermann Gunkel who brought that question to the fore. As he demonstrated, that question confronts us already in the first few pages of Genesis [i] : do we read this as history ( cum science) or as myth, as something that happened at a certain time, or as (in the description of myth offered by the Roman historian Sallust) “something that happens over and over again”? When it comes to interpreting the Song of Songs, determining the answer to the genre question seems to me to be the most vexed question in modern scholarship. Is the Song a parody of Torah, Prophets, and sages (André LaCocque [ii] ), or is it a reflex of Canaanite cultic religion, representing a marriage ceremony between deities (Marvin Pope [iii] )? Is it “soft porn” (David Clines [iv] ), a venture into the “grotesque” (Fiona Black [v] ) which is toxic to readers? Or is it rather the most exquisite love poetry, that deserves to be matched and rendered into comprehensible language by the best efforts of contemporary poets (Marcia Falk [vi] , Ariel and Chana Bloch [vii] )?

What all of these genre identifications (and a number of variations on them) share is the assumption that the Song is in the canon because the rabbis who voted it in did not really know what they were reading. Almost all these interpreters would say that the rabbis did the right thing for the wrong reason, because they thought the Song was about the love between God and Israel. (Although Clines and Black would agree that this was the reason for its canonization, they would of course disagree that its inclusion was “the right thing.”) As far as I know, I am almost alone among contemporary biblical scholars in my conviction that the Song was correctly understood by those who accorded it a place among Israel’s Scriptures. In other words, I believe that it really is, in large part, about the love that obtains between God and Israel — or, more broadly, between God and humanity. [viii]

The fullest argument for my view is found in my brief commentary on the Song [ix] ; below I will give some details of my interpretation. However, this essay sets forth an idea that has only come to me since I completed my commentary, that the Song is an iconographic text. Before I explain what that means, I will briefly trace the way the idea was generated, because I think it shows something of the unique complexity — it may not claim too much to say “mysteriousness” — of interpreting the Song. Perhaps it even shows the fruitfulness of disagreement about this most difficult of all biblical books.

The idea that the Song is iconographic came to me through reading and teaching André LaCocque’s hermeneutical study of the Song, Romance, She Wrote , which was published just about the time my book went into production. I now ask my students to read the two books together, because they throw into high relief the current debate over genre. Our approaches are in several ways strikingly similar; in terms of method we are, I believe, closer to each other than to other scholars. Both Professor LaCocque and I consider that the Song of Songs presents the greatest hermeneutical challenge in the Bible, and our books are more in the line of detailed hermeneutical statements than full commentaries on the Song. Both of us treat the Song as a literary whole, arguably the work of a single poetic imagination. Both of us choose the same methodology, namely intertextuality, based on our observation that the Song’s most prominent literary feature is the extraordinarily high incidence of words and phrases that echo other parts of Scripture and yet in their creative reuse here become imbued with fresh and unexpected meaning.

In sum, both André LaCocque and I agree, against most modern commentators, that the Song has a familial relationship with the rest of the biblical books; it is not the foundling in the canon. We suppose that an Israelite poet created the Song in direct response to the work of what she [x] already knew as sacred Scripture — but with what intent? In answering this question, we differ completely. LaCocque argues that the Song is the work of a poet who resolutely subverts the religious traditions of Israel, taking the praise that is elsewhere offered to God, along the “vertical axis,” and transposing it onto the “horizontal axis,” so that the language of desire and gratitude is focused on her human lover. I think the Song returns us to Eden with the intent of imaginatively healing the ruptures that occurred there: between man and woman, between humanity and God, between human and non-human creation. So where LaCocque hears deliberate irreverence, rebellion against the tradition, I hear adoration — that is, prayer — in a distinctly traditional mode. Where he repeatedly asserts the poet’s intent to be “iconoclastic,” I see a style of theological reflection I have recently come to call “iconographic” — and for that term I am indirectly indebted to LaCocque and his opposite way of viewing the text.

I revert to Hermann Gunkel, because I believe that what he taught us, now more than a century ago, about genre identification clarifies the difference between LaCocque’s and my readings and perhaps sheds some light on the general problem of interpreting the Song. As every seminary student is told, Gunkel identified three criteria for identifying the genre of a piece of biblical literature: first, Sitz im Leben , the presumed place the text occupied in ancient Israel life (frequently, since Gunkel favored the Psalms, in its cult); second, formulaic language, words or phrases that seem to serve a fixed function with various texts (e.g., “Thus says YHWH…,” the messenger formula that introduces prophetic speech); and third, the somewhat elusive criterion of Stimmung (“tone”) — what kind of note or responsive chord does this text strike? Is this psalm a lament, an appeal for God’s deliverance, or part of a hymn, a statement of confidence in God’s ability to deliver? If we are honest, it must be admitted that such distinctions are often drawn on the basis of ambiguous evidence.

With these three criteria, Gunkel gave us modern readers of the Bible the chance to learn a virtue that was highly prized by its monastic readers, from Augustine through the Middle Ages, namely humility in interpretation. For if we consider the criteria closely, it is evident that reading a text well involves something more than skill with the relatively hard data of language (Criteron #2). It involves also a large measure of historical imagination: Sitz im Leben is not something you can excavate; it has to be imaginatively (re)constructed — although the imaginative element has not been sufficiently acknowledged, especially in the earlier, more confident period of historical criticism. Further, good reading involves subjective judgment, in the discernment of Stimmung .

Looking at the difference between André LaCocque’s reading of the Song and my own, it is evident how important is the element of subjective judgment. With respect to Gunkel’s first two criteria for genre identification, we would seem to concur entirely: first, that the Sitz im Leben for this work was not some oft repeated public ceremony (e.g., a wedding, either human or divine), but rather a poet’s extraordinary imagination; and second, that the chief datum for interpretation is “formulaic language,” which is recontextualized here in wholly surprising ways. Indeed, LaCocque and I comment on many of the same words and phrases and trace them to the same scriptural sources. So it is only on the point of Stimmung that we part ways, and yet as a result, there is probably not a single verse of the Song on whose interpretation we would agree.

What are we who presume to interpret the Song for others to infer from this? Not that “it’s all relative” anyway, and there is no right and no wrong interpretation — of this book, at least. In this case, Professor LaCocque and I cannot both be right (we might both be wrong). Differing interpretations might in some cases be complementary. For instance, although I differ from the medieval allegorists, I see my reading as congenial with theirs on the most essential points. (I confess to doubt that they would agree with me that a reading that includes a sexual dimension is congenial with theirs.) However, LaCocque and I disagree fundamentally about what to read the Song as , and yet neither of us has succeeded in persuading the other of the probability of our view. At one time (even recently), I would have regarded this as a failure of either our persuasive powers or our open-mindedness. I now think such disagreement goes with the territory of interpreting this book, and more so with this than with any other book of the Bible. ‘Twas ever thus, since the rabbis first debated its inclusion in the canon, and it will remain so, as long as the Song is read as Scripture. And why? Because for the Song, Stimmung , that elusive element whose identification depends on our subjective judgment, is everything.

From this I would infer, not that we should give up trying to persuade one another of the merits of our distinctive views � that is, after all, what scholars and teachers are obliged to do. Rather, by frankly acknowledging the importance of subjective judgment, we might gain in the practice of humility. My view is not the only one that can reasonably be argued, and certain factors predispose me to it. Concretely, then, I suggest that the practice of interpretive humility might begin with each of us identifying, as best we can, what factors in our personal histories conduce to a certain interpretive style. I think it must surely be the case that, while every dedicated interpreter of the Song is likely to insist upon the special character of this book, our readings of it in each case bear a strong family resemblance to our readings of other biblical texts. So, I end these prefatory remarks by noting that I am a catholic Christian � a moderately high-church Anglican, to be exact. Long familiarity with and love of the liturgy has bred in me an affinity for monastic theology, in both its medieval and its modern expressions. Partly as a result, I read the Bible with a strong theocentric bias. Like the monastics � and in some contrast to many Protestant interpreters � I see the central focus of the Bible as revelation of God’s nature, desire, and involvement with the created world. The undeniable biblical concern with fulfillment or salvation of the human person seems to me related and subordinate to that primary revelation. These biases are reflected in the reading of the Song that follows.

An Iconographic Text

In my own short commentary on the Song, I followed Harold Fisch [xi] in likening the Song to a dream, which moves from one scene to another without logical transition. As I have indicated, André LaCocque’s notion of iconoclasm indirectly suggested to me another comparison, which I have come to prefer to the dream. It seems to me that the way the Song functions within Scripture bears some similarity to the role of an icon or iconostasis in the Eastern Church. I identify four characteristics of icons and iconostases that, in my judgment, are closely paralleled in the Song.

First, the icon is a window opening between two worlds: the world of history and ordinary sense perception, on the one hand, and on the other, the transcendent world we designate as “heaven,” “eternal life,” “the kingdom of God.” We live now in the first of those worlds, and the icon provides Orthodox Christians, at least, with a point of orientation toward the second. The icon is an image of this world, but it is far from a naturalistic image. Rather, it shows us our world as seen in the light of God’s glory. It affirms that our historical, sensible experience is the basis for our experience of God, yet at the same time it suggests that the features of what we call “reality” are more supple than we generally suppose.

A second point of comparison: the iconic image does not reflect “universal human experience,” if there be such a thing. It is a tradition-laden image, which comes from a theological imagination formed in the traditions of Israel and the early church. The icon is “written” to provide orientation and effect reorientation for those immersed in that tradition. To those outside, its style of representation is peculiar and only minimally intelligible.

Third, the iconostasis, the screen of icons that is the dominant architectural element of an Orthodox church, is a montage of more-or-less independent images, although all are anchored by the image of Christ, flanked on either side by the Virgin and the Baptist. The other images may be thematically connected (great saints, for instance), but to my untrained eye it seems that the richest iconic montages — in my slight experience, St. Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai and St. George’s Monastery in the Wadi Qelt — reflect, if not random juxtaposition of images, then at least loose governing principles. Their composite beauty and spontaneous unity resembles that of pieces in a kaleidoscope. One might imagine that the assemblage of icons mirrors our fragmented experience of God in this world, at the same time that it shows the Church straining and praying toward the One “in [whom] all things hold together” (Col.1:17) and further, guides the Church in its prayer. [xii]

A fourth element of comparison: the architecture of an Orthodox church represents schematically the Temple in Jerusalem. Within that design, the iconostasis marks the boundary between the main sanctuary and the priestly precinct, where the Holy Mysteries are celebrated. Ideologically speaking, then, the iconostasis is the point of entry into the Holy of Holies.

I believe that each of these four aspects of the function of icons and iconostases finds a parallel in the canonical function of the Song: one, it mediates between historical, sensible existence and transcendent experience; two, it is an imaginative expression shaped by prayer and the theological traditions of the Bible; three, it witnesses to our fragmentation and yet offers glimpses of a higher unity; and four, as Rabbi Akiba famously declared, “All the Scriptures are holy, but the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies.” [xiii] In what follow, I shall suggest that the connection between the Song and the Temple is real and precise, albeit metaphorical.

These several parallels suggest that the Song may be seen as something like the verbal analogue and forerunner of the Byzantine icon. That comparison implies that the Song is essentially a mystical text, a text that emanates from religious vision and invites — even requires — prayerful reading. It implies further that there is a direct line of thought connecting the poet who wrote the Song with its later theocentric interpreters, both Jewish and Christian. As noted above, I do not share the currently widespread assumption that the Song entered the canon as a result of a happy misreading on the part of the first-century rabbis. I am convinced that the rabbis correctly judged the genre of the Song and heard a message that did not deviate widely from the theological vision of the poet who gave us the Song in its present form. (Parenthetically, I would allow that the Song had ancient secular antecedents and even relatives. I am persuaded by Michael Fox’s argument for resemblance between the Song and the love poetry of Ramesside Egypt — 19th and 20th Dynasties, 1305-1150 bce. [xiv] )

If the Song is read as an icon, then its anchoring image is of course the garden. All modern commentators have observed that the garden is both the lovers’ haven and a metaphor for the woman’s body (e.g., 4:12-5:1; 7:8-9 Heb., vv. 7-8 Eng.). My own view of the Song depends upon the significance of the garden for the Israelite religious imagination. What is crucial is that, in terms of both historical order (dating the Song to the Persian period) and canonical ordering, the garden of the lovers is the third important garden in the Bible. Both the second and the third gardens are related to the first, to Eden. The second garden is the Temple, which, as both its décor and its hymnody show, is the stylized Garden of God. The columns of the Temple were crowned with lilies and festooned with hundreds of pomegranates (1 Kgs.7:18-20), symbols of fertility and life. Its great gold menorah was shaped like an almond tree in full bloom (Ex.37:17-24). The walls were carved and gilded with palm trees and flower and cherubim, those guardians of Eden. Lions lurked under the lavers, along with more cherubim, and oxen (1 Kgs.7:29). The inside of the building smelled like the woods; the whole building was lined with cedar, “not a stone was seen” (1 Kgs.6:18). On that dry stony hill in Jerusalem, Solomon had created a second Lebanon, the majestic and myth-laden mountains of the North. The whole Temple was a sensuous and at the same time a spiritual triumph over what would seem to be the limits of nature and geography. A poet making pilgrimage to the Temple exclaims ecstatically:

How precious is your covenant-love ( hesed ),
O God, and human beings —
in the shadow of your wings they take shelter!
They are drenched with the rich fare of your house,
And you let them drink from the torrent of your Edens (or: “delights”).
(Ps.36:8-9 [xv] )

So pilgrimage to the Temple was conceived as a return to Eden, to life as it was meant to be, for a few days each year. But the story of the second garden, like the first, ends with exile. So I believe that the third garden of the lovers takes up the “story line” that proceeds from the other two, and effects — or envisions — a resolution of the abiding problem of humanity’s exile from the Garden of God. Of course, the cause of exile, as we see in Genesis, is disobedience. Torah and Prophets consistently address the problem in terms of sin and Israel’s refusal to listen to God, which eventually led to that second exile, from Jerusalem to Babylon. But the Song opens up a new (though not contrary) way of looking at the problem, and this in my judgment is its great theological contribution to the canon. The Song speaks, not of obedience and disobedience, but in terms of intimacy and its threatened loss.

And loss of intimacy is exactly what happened in Eden. Eden was the place where God was most intimate with humanity. Witness God “taking a walk in the garden in the breezy part of the day” (Gen.3:8), obviously expecting to have the humans for company, and calling out — “Where are you?” — when they do not appear. There is good reason to imagine that God intended to impart wisdom to humanity on those walks, by the drip method. But when Eve and Adam disregarded God and tried the direct route to “knowledge of good and evil,” the immediate result was not literal death. Rather, it was distrust breaking into the relationship between God and humanity. It was blame erupting between man and woman (3:12), and the onset of a long-term imbalance of power between them (3:16). It was cursing of the fertile soil, and enmity between the woman’s seed and the snake’s (3:15, 17).

Viewed from the inside — as we are most profoundly touched by it — the exile from Eden represents the loss of intimacy in three primary spheres of relationship: between God and humanity, between woman and man; and between human and non-human creation. Correspondingly, the Song uses language to evoke a vision of healing in all three areas. More accurately, it re -uses language, from other parts of Scripture; verbal echoes explicitly connect the garden of the lovers with the two earlier gardens. (Unsurprisingly, descriptions of Jerusalem and its Temple find far more echoes in the Song than do the first few chapters of Genesis. As the paucity of direct references to Eden throughout the Bible shows, the second version of Eden impressed itself more vividly on the Israelite imagination than did the first.) If, as I believe, the language of the Song resists systematic interpretation, that is because it is constantly on the move among these different spheres, in each of which we can experience a profound connection with one who is other than and unlike ourselves. Following the Song’s quicksilver movements is what makes interpretation of the Song an activity at once difficult and compelling. In my judgment, the characteristic weakness in both traditional and modern commentaries is the commitment to confine its meaning within a single sphere of relationship, be it divine-human (the allegorical tradition) or male-female (most modern interpreters).

The poet of the Song understood that the well-being of our world — not just the individual person but the world as a whole — depends upon the human capacity to cultivate intimacy, indeed love, in all three areas. Desire for such intimacy may be glimpsed at various points in Scripture; especially the Prophets and the Psalms hold out the vision and hope of it. But the Song goes far beyond all previous texts in evoking the ecstasy of desire fulfilled, of intimacy realized in every aspect of human relationship.

Here I will point briefly to three moments in the poet’s evocation of the time of fulfillment. The first of them is the woman’s repeated references to her lover by the awkward circumlocution, (‘et) she’ahavah nafshî , “the one whom my whole-being [xvi] loves” — a phrase that is hardly more idiomatic in biblical Hebrew than in English. The phrase appears five times, beginning in Chapter One (v.7), and then is repeated four times in rapid succession in the search scene in Chapter Three (vv.1-4). It must be more than a slip of the tongue. Curiously, however, despite that repetition, the phrase does not well fit its context. The woman asks the city guards: “Have you seen the one whom my soul loves?” — a description obviously inadequate for its ostensible purpose of filing a missing person’s report. Who could recognize a stranger on the basis of it? Yet in fact there is One whom we can recognize on the basis of that description. For the repeated phrase sounds a lot like the Shema: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your whole-being and with all your intensity” (Deut.6:5). In echoing what both Jewish and Christian traditions acknowledge to be the most important commandment in Torah — and echoing it so awkwardly that the phrase sticks out like a jagged edge and catches our attention — the poet is making the indirect affirmation that at last the commandment is being fulfilled in our hearing:

On my bed at night I sought the one whom my whole-being loves;
I sought him but could not find him.
…I found the one whom my whole-being loves!
I took hold of him, and I will not let him go. (3:1, 4)

Another evocation of the time of fulfillment occurs in several lines from Chapter Two:

Like an apricot [xvii] among the trees of the wood,
so is my darling among the lads.
In his shade I delight and I sit,
and his fruit is sweet to my palate.
He has brought me to the house of wine ,
and his banner over me is love. (2:3-4)

In our commentaries, both André LaCocque and I spend considerable time exploring the interactions between this passage in the Song and the fourteenth chapter of Hosea. There, at the end of the mostly unhappy love story about Israel and God, Hosea envisions a future day when Israel will at last return to their own God. Recall that the Prophets frequently castigate Israel for consorting with false gods “under every green tree” (e.g., Jer.2:20, 3:6, 3:13; Ezek.6:13, cf. Deut.12:2). Now Hosea offers the counter-image; Israel’s own God consents to appear as something like a sacred tree:

I will heal them from their turning away.
I will love them generously ….
They will again sit in his shade ,
…and blossom like the vine ,
and his remembrance [i.e., fragrance] will be like the wine of Lebanon .
…I myself will be like a luxuriant cypress;
from me will come your fruit . (14: 5-9)

I have highlighted the words in Hosea that appear in the Song, many of them in the lines just cited from Chapter Two. LaCocque argues that the poet is working iconoclastically, desacralizing the sacred image; the paramour provides the protection that once was sought from God. By contrast, an iconographic reading of the passage would suggest that the poet of the Song knows Hosea’s dream, and shares it — or better, the poet of the Song puts Hosea’s future vision in the present tense. The time of fulfillment is here:

He has brought me to the house of wine ,
and his banner over me is love.

The NRSV renders that last line: “his intention toward me was love.” But in fact the Masoretic text is unproblematic and readily intelligible in light of the similar image in Ps.20:6 (Heb., v.5 Eng.):

In the name of our God (may) we set up our banners.

In both cases, the banner, a military symbol, denotes protection of the one beneath. Furthermore, it suggests vindication in the face of fierce opposition. Multiple moments in the Song attest to the fact that the lovers face opposition from forces that come from outside the garden. But for a time at least, amor vicit omnia ; love has conquered all.

I have emphasized that the poet of the Song shows fulfillment of the desire for intimacy, and yet the note of yearning persists in the Song, from the first line to the last. [xviii] Whatever the poet of the Song knows about fulfillment, it serves less to make her satisfied with the present than confident of the future. In other words, she holds the firm, wild hope of the prophet or the mystic. Yet she, like the other biblical writers, is a realist. One of the surprises in the Song is that we see the lovers’ peace disturbed, not only by external opposition, but also by the momentary failure of desire. This is evident from the night scene in Chapter Five, where the woman hesitates too long to open the door to her lover when he knocks, and he leaves. But the way she describes the moment at which he becomes impatient and she stops dithering is intriguing:

My darling thrust his hand from the opening,
and my guts churned for him. (ûme’aî hamû ’alav , 5:4)

This would seem to be a reference to sexual excitement as obvious as any in the book. But it is, at the least, not a simple reference. Both LaCocque and I take note of the fact that this is one of two quotes in this scene from Jeremiah (31:20). The prophet uses the nearly identical phrase to describe God’s pained yearning for the lost “child” Ephraim, i.e., the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Our divergence is predictable. LaCocque sees this as an expression of a “defiant” eroticism [xix] that usurps the language of God’s affection for Israel. My own reading suggests that this unforgettable phrase is being used in its original sense, to speak of love between God and Israel. But now it is used with a twist � or more accurately, with reciprocity. In Jeremiah the phrase bespeaks God’s longing for the beloved. Here it suggests that “the woman” (Israel) is yearning in return. In other words, it conveys the sense that at long last, God’s love for Israel is requited; their story has finally ceased to be tragic. Yes, this time she responded too late; but the desire is now fully kindled, and (in the context of the Song’s vision, at least) its flame never flickers again.

I focus in this essay on the Song as an icon that portrays healing of the relationship between God and Israel — or, taking the perspective from Eden, humanity. My commentary attempts to show how the Song points also to healing in two other realms of relationship, the sexual and the ecological. With respect to the former, the Song’s contribution to the canon is its strong affirmation not just of equality but of profound mutuality between the woman and the man. Phyllis Trible showed long ago [xx] that the Song corrects the imbalance of desire and power that resulted from the disobedience in Eden. Thus God’s stern warning to Eve — “Your desire will be for your husband, but he will rule over you” (Gen.3:16) — is transmuted into the Shulammite’s jubilant, “My darling is mine, and toward me is his desire!” (7:11 Heb., v.10 Eng.). Use of the rare word teshûqah (which elsewhere appears only once, in Gen.4:7) assures that the echo and inversion will be heard by those whose ears are attuned to biblical idiom.

The case for the healing of rupture in the ecological realm is admittedly the hardest to make. It seems to me that in this matter the Song offers us only glimpses, probably because ancient Israel was not so troubled or endangered as we are by the broken relationship between humanity and non-human creation. The gist of my argument in the commentary is this: The prophets see the earth or the land of Israel languishing and sometimes shaking and dissolving under the pressure of God’s anger at human sin (e.g., Isa.24:1-20, Jer.4:23-26). Correspondingly, they envision that in the time of faithfulness, the land, the whole earth will flourish along with the people (e.g., Isa.35:1-10). In this connection it is striking that what comes most clearly into our mind’s eye through the medium of the Song is not two gorgeous human beings, but rather a gorgeous land [xxi] , an idealized form of the land of Israel, newly lush with bloom and bursting with animal life:

Now look, the winter is over,
the rain has passed, taken itself off.
The blossoms have appeared in the land;
the time of melody has come,
and the voice of the turtledove
is heard in our land. (2:11-12)

The poet seems to share the intuition or mystical insight of earlier Israelite poets; along with the prophets, one might note psalmists who produced texts such as Pss.65, 72, and 85. They all saw something that most of us, it seems, do not see: that the condition of the earth itself is the first and best index of the state of health of the relationship between God and humanity. I believe that this dimension of the Song is one that we perhaps more than earlier generations might be ready to receive as God’s word, because we need it so badly. Yet I must admit that I have wondered what insight or intuition arose in a much earlier generation to yield the enigmatic rabbinic saying that anyone who treats the Song lightly (as a drinking song) “forfeits his place in the world to come and will bring evil into the world and imperil the welfare of all humankind.” [xxii] This is a surprisingly global statement. Perhaps the medieval rabbis sensed that the Song has power to counter the depraved images of self and world that go far back in human history and have led to our present tragedy and crisis.

In this essay, I have argued that one important function this icon-like text serves within the canon is to depict the healing of the deepest ruptures in our world, a healing envisioned more fleetingly by prophets and psalmists. But I do not wish to end without saying that I am never less sure of my ground as a biblical interpreter than when I am speaking — or more properly, stammering — on the Song. And my uncertainty is itself indicative of what I would take to be the second indispensable contribution that the Song makes within the canon of Scripture, namely to suggest the importance of the inarticulate within our religious experience. The Song sounds strong notes of jubilation and adoration. This adoration is not wordless (else we could not hear it at all), yet the words explain nothing. They celebrate, intrigue, confound. They do not make plain; they offer nothing that translates into simple clear prose. In this, the Song stands, within Christian tradition at least, as the counterpart to the liturgy; these are the two great vehicles of inarticulate experience. Andrew Louth comments perceptively: “It is not without significance that inarticulateness about what is deeply important is characteristic of the child whom we have to be like if we are to enter the kingdom of heaven.” [xxiii] Hebrew Scripture likens us more memorably to a lover, faithless or not, in our relationship with God; and the Song reminds us that at the limit of experience, lovers fall silent, or babble more or less incoherently. [xxiv] The Song, then, draws “a margin of silence” around the Scriptures as a whole; it creates a space where we who read and dare to interpret them do not have to know just what to say.


[i] Hermann Gunkel, The Legends of Genesis: The Biblical Saga and History , trans. W. H. Carruth (Chicago: Open Court, 1901; repr. New York: Schocken, 1964).

[ii] André LaCocque, Romance, She Wrote: A Hermeneutical Essay on the Song of Songs (Harrisburg, Pa.: Trinity Press International, 1998).

[iii] Song of Songs , The Anchor Bible (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1977).

[iv] “Why Is There a Song of Songs, and What Does It Do to You If You Read It?” in D. J. A. Clines, Interested Parties: The Ideology of Writers and Readers of the Hebrew Bible , JSOTSup. 205 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995), 94-121.

[v] Fiona Black, “Unlikely Bedfellows: Allegorical and Feminist Readings of Song of Songs 7.1-8,” in The Song of Songs: A Feminist Companion to the Bible , Second Series, ed. Athalya Brenner and Carole R. Fontaine (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000), 104-129.

[vi] Marcia Falk, Love Lyrics from the Bible: A Translation and Literary Study of the Song of Songs (Sheffield: The Almond Press, 1982).

[vii] Ariel Bloch and Chana Bloch, The Song of Songs: A New Translation with an Introduction and Commentary (New York: Random House), 1995.

[viii] I say that I am “almost alone,” because Sister Edmée SLG (Oxford University) also treats the Song as a mystical text about the love between God and humanity. She does not share my view that the Song is also a celebration of human love. See Sister Edmée SLG, “The Song of Songs and the Cutting of Roots,” Anglican Theological Review 80/4 (Fall 1998): 547-561; and also “On Interpreting the Song of Songs,” Fairacres Chronicle 26/1 (Spring 1993): 16-25.

[ix] Ellen F. Davis, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs , Westminster Bible Companion (Philadelphia: Westminster John Knox, 2000).

[x] LaCocque argues strongly for female authorship of the Song; I treat it as a possibility. However, since I think female authorship is more likely here than with other biblical books, in the interest of balance I adopt the feminine pronoun in reference to the author.

[xi] Harold Fisch, Poetry with a Purpose: Biblical Poetics and Interpretation (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988), 80-103.

[xii] Andrew Louth observes: “The Scriptures tell the story of God’s way of leading men back into unity, and the way has to be from the fragmented to the unified. The history of the Old Testament fashions a matrix, a kaleidoscope, which shares in our fragmentedness and yet harks forward to the One ‘in quo omnia constant’” ( Discerning the Mystery: An Essay in the Nature of Theology [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983], 130).

[xiii] Mishnah Yadayim 3:5.

[xiv] Michael V. Fox, The Song of Songs and the Ancient Egyptian Love Songs (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985).

[xv] All translations are my own, unless otherwise indicated.

[xvi] While I recognize that “whole-being” is poetically awkward, I use it in order to avoid the dichotomy between the physical and the spiritual that the common (and in some ways good) translation “soul” may evoke. The Hebrew word nefesh denotes an animate creature, human or non-human, in its totality. It literally means “throat,” through which one breathes and eats. It is therefore evident that any translation that allows physical being to be overlooked—or even accorded second place—is inadequate, and especially so in the context of the Song.

[xvii] I am persuaded to adopt this translation (over the traditional “apple”) by the argument of Ariel and Chana Bloch ( The Song of Songs , 149).

[xviii] Tremper Longman emphasizes the note of yearning in his recent Songs of Songs , The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001).

[xix] André LaCocque, Romance, She Wrote , 117.

[xx] Phyllis Trible, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978), 159-160.

[xxi] It was Michael Fox who first drew my attention to this, with his argument that the biblical lovers go much further than their Egyptian counterparts in using metaphors to construct an imaginative world. See “Love, Passion and Perception in Israelite and Egyptian Love Poetry,” JBL 102/2 (1983), 227.

[xxii] Tosefta Sanhedrin 12:10 (also Baba Sanhedrin 101a).

[xxiii] Andrew Louth, Discerning the Mystery , 91.

[xxiv] Vladimir Lossky, drawing on the thought of Basil the Great and Ignatius of Antioch, observes that there is “‘a margin of silence’ which belongs to the words of Scripture and which cannot be picked up by the ears of those who are outside” (cited by Louth, ibid.).


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