The Song of Songs

Daniel W. Hardy
University of Cambridge

The Genre of the Song

Considering the genre of the Song of Songs is fascinating and important, and especially the discussion about whether it is best seen as dream or iconic. Undoubtedly, such discussions help us ‘locate’ this unusual book in a ‘space’ that ‘mediates between historical, sensible existence and transcendent experience’, ‘is an imaginative expression shaped by prayer and the theological traditions of the Bible’ and ‘witnesses to our fragmentation and yet offers a glimpse of a higher unity’ ( Ellen Davis ). In this case, references to God are interwoven with those of inter-human relations in all their complexity, and the difficulties of pursuing them in the world.

Ultimately, however, any such ‘space’ or category will need to be expanded if it is to do justice to the Song itself. For the plot (if we can call it that for the moment) has a greater spectrum of concern, and throughout a much more dense configuration , than such categories allow, even when associated with such rich references to the gardens as Ellen Davis suggests (Lovers’ haven or woman’s body, Eden, the Temple) and their counterpart in icons. Both in the spectrum of reference involved in the Song, and in the density of its metaphorical configuration, the Song escapes the inevitable limitations of these, or perhaps all, specific categories.

In the present Comment, we need to explore both of these, without supposing that the ‘range’ of its reference and the ‘line’ of the Song are simpler than they are. What we will find is that while the depth of its reference is far greater than first appears, the breadth of the resonances found in the text is also far wider. When the two are joined together, an amazing conjunction of identity and intimacy appears. This not only justifies the inclusion of the Song in the Hebrew Scriptures, but also shows how the Song enlarges awareness of the ways in which the Lord is involved in our interaction with him and others, and thereby makes a positive contribution to biblical understanding.

Spectrum of Concern and Depth of Reference

The depth of reference found in the Song is first seen in the ‘him’ whose kiss is longed for in 1.2. Thereafter, and not least because of the scope of the resonances of the metaphors used, it is never altogether clear whether the ‘he’ or ‘him’ is a human being, God himself or either one in the other. In this ambiguity, there is a potential fusion between the two, so that the Song always remains a human expression but cannot properly be read only naturalistically or humanistically. This is especially important, since we all fall quickly into such readings.

The depth of reference can also be seen in the intensity of the references to ‘him’. Here is one who — it is said, apparently on good grounds — kisses, loves, anoints, pours himself out (‘your name is perfume poured out’) in an intensity of self-giving, and is rightly responded to by exultation and rejoicing. Here, in other words, is one whose glory is also intimate, the fullness of whose identity is intoxicating as it is poured out upon the other. And the appropriate response is exultation by those who likewise pour themselves out. Hence, what Alon Goshen-Gottstein finds to be ‘a controlling feature of the Rabbinic application of the Song’, praise, is entirely suitable. The continuing feature of the ‘conversation’ between ‘him’ and those who respond, is exultation and rejoicing, that is praise, a mutual outpouring of joy and delight. This has a special implication to which we will return later.

A Patterned Intensity

It is this intensity, furthermore, that makes for the vigor of movement and expression found consistently through the Song, as ‘the voice of [the] beloved comes ‘leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills… like a gazelle or a young stag’, lovingly bringing, sustaining and refreshing the other who is ‘faint with love’ (2.4-7). The Song is filled with intensity of movement and energy: ‘Follow’, ‘Arise… and come away’. But the movement is not continuous: there are repeated indications of the need first to be prepared for such movement: as the gazelles or wild does show, movement must be preceded by readiness, as jumping is preceded by crouching. ‘I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, by the gazelles or the wild does: do not stir up or awaken love until it is ready!’ (2.7, 3.5, etc.)

This movement appears to have a particular pattern. It is when the vigor is united with a sense of direction that energy is released. And this, as worked out during the Song, is one of its most significant features. For what else is the inner logic of the interaction of the two chief figures as they are so passionately attracted toward each other, than something that begins in vigor, finds its direction and then moves incessantly? This is at odds with Alon Goshen-Gottstein’s view that ‘its uniqueness is a function of its linguistic wealth…, and not the story, the quality of love or its humanity.’ It seems to me that there is an inner logic to what occurs in it that is very important, and constitutes the substance of the book.

A Configuration of Metaphors

One of the striking features, however, is its ‘linguistic wealth’; in this Goshen-Gottstein is right. In the interaction of the two, comparisons grow more wide-ranging and excessive.

4.1 How beautiful you are, my love, how very beautiful! Your eyes are doves behind your veil. Your hair is like a flock of goats, moving down the slopes of Gilead. 2 Your teeth are like a flock of shorn ewes that have come up from the washing, all of which bear twins, and not one among them is bereaved. 3 Your lips are like a crimson thread, and your mouth is lovely. Your cheeks are like halves of a pomegranate behind your veil. 4 Your neck is like the tower of David, built in courses; on it hang a thousand bucklers, all of them shields of warriors. 5 Your two breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle, that feed among the lilies. 6 Until the day breathes and the shadows flee, I will hasten to the mountain of myrrh and the hill of frankincense. 7 You are altogether beautiful, my love; there is no flaw in you.

Whether here or where she seeks for her beloved, and must convince those around her to seek him, in 5.8 — 6.1 and (spoken by him) in the following passage, there is a remarkable sequence of images — sure to bring a laugh from those who read them literally — that cumulatively persuade.

They persuade in a distinctive way. There is a remarkable use of language, not as less than literal, descriptive speech, but as more. It can be claimed, as I have elsewhere, that metaphoric language is a more basic and ‘natural’ use of language from which literal/descriptive speech is derived, not the other way around where metaphors are made to adorn literal language. In that sense, it is a richer form of expression concerned to open awareness, not only for the one speaking (for whom interior and exterior, private and public, are not disjoined but mutually illuminating), but also for those spoken to. And, furthermore, metaphors open an imaginative common ground between speaker and spoken to. It is this that occurs in the Song: as the beloved is indicated in metaphors progressively excelling each other, others share in imagining the excellence of the one spoken of, and are convinced.

Sharing in this ‘metaphoric field’ is self-involving. So the reader grows in the understanding of ‘what it’s like to be in love’, to be utterly preoccupied with the one who is loved, to be intimately aware of this one, even to the point of subordinating oneself to whatever is needful for the other. For the other it is the same. And they meet in the utter abundance of their relationship, its overwhelming stability and ever-new-ness. This is why, in the Song, the culmination is where she says:

6 Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame. 7 Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it. If one offered for love all the wealth of his house, it would be utterly scorned. (8.6-7)

A Double Range of Reference: Identity and Involvement

Throughout the Song, there is a pervasive sense of mystery about the identity of the beloved. One possibility is that, as in Omid Safi’s account of Ahmad Ghazali’s teachings on love, ‘the reality of love is not the same thing as the words chosen to express that reality… “the ideas of love are like virgins, and the hand of words can not reach the hem of their skirt”.’ But in the Song, there also seems to be a presumption of the adequacy of the words used, as if the ‘rising tide’ of metaphors can at least open a passionate awareness of the excellent character of the beloved, even if they cannot provide an indicative description. The Song places readers in a dynamic and self-involving field of metaphors, through which they learn the identity of the beloved, not as an ‘object’ to be known — or ‘spoken about’ — but as one with whom they are most intimately involved. There is a close resemblance here to the Lord who is both unspeakable and yet whose identity is known through his constitution of a ‘people’ (Exodus 3.11-15); the Lord is acknowledged insofar as they behave as a people in a manner fit for the promises he makes to them.

Simultaneously, therefore, the Song allows the beloved to be mysterious and one with whom we may be intimately involved. It also shows the ‘inner logic’ — discussed earlier — found in such involvement. The interaction of beloved and lover begins in vigor , finds its direction and thereby derives the ‘ energy ‘ by which to move incessantly toward the other. The clear implication is that the infinite mystery of the Lord confers the vigor, direction and energy by which — whether alone or with others — we may move indefinitely toward an ever-deeper interaction with this Lord. The infinite identity of the Lord, like that of the beloved in the Song, is only found in the most intimate involvement with him. And the chief marks of this involvement are exultation and rejoicing, a mutual outpouring of joy and delight, but also ‘weeping with those who weep’.

This can even be put in stronger terms: the Song shows that the most intense awareness of the Lord requires, and occurs in, the deepest involvement with the Lord in the full scope of life with each other in the world, and vice versa. As we have already seen, there is a particular ‘logic’ found there — of vigor, direction and energy — which releases us for life with each other. From the Christian point of view, this is the triadic logic of God’s life with us, from which must come a conscience about each other and about the world in which we live, with all its poverty, weakness, and yearning.

9 Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11 Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. 14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. (Romans 12:9-18)

© 2003, Society for Scriptural Reasoning