In this last entry on the Song of Songs it seems appropriate to review and summarize what has been covered in the last seven essays.
We began by observing that the sexual content has presented a problem to readers throughout its history, particularly in the early period when the contents of the Bible were not fixed. This puts us in the period after the Jewish war of 70 CE culminating in the destruction of the temple. Over the next 50 to 80 years Jewish scholars argued back and forth about certain books, with the result that some ended up being part of the Bible while others were excluded. The Song made the cut mostly because it was possible to read as an allegory about God’s relationship with Israel.
The early Church was more than a couple of generations old by now, so the Christian Old Testament included what had been in circulation as the Greek Jewish Scriptures for many years by then. This included all the books the Rabbis agreed upon, plus a few others, but in any case, the Song ended up there in the Christian Bible as well.
The next two articles were dedicated to trying to decide whether the Song had any parallels from ancient Near Eastern literature, and what those parallels might tell us. The two primary sources are ancient Egyptian love poetry, and Mesopotamian literature dedicated to the love between the gods of fertility. We are left deciding between origins in entertainment (Egyptian) and polytheism (Mesopotamian), both of which require some literary evolution to get to its current state. Israel was located, both physically and culturally, between these two world powers, and this work may draw from both, but it would be a mistake to suppose that they were unable to originate their own genre of literature.
The next two essays overviewed Jewish and Christian approaches to interpretation. Both have at their core the idea that the man in the story represents God, and the woman represents the community of the covenant. But they also have their own variations. Some Jewish interpreters have seen it as an allegorical history of Israel. Christians have sometimes personalized it, replacing the community with the individual believer. This has been particularly common in mystical circles.
Jewish mysticism (Kabbalah), which we did not talk about, adds an interesting approach in which God is seen as having masculine and feminine personas within him/herself (usually 10, in gendered pairs). The love in the Song can be viewed as the internal relationship between the masculine and feminine aspects of the Deity.
In the last two offerings we saw how deeply entwined the sexual language is in the Song’s love poetry, and how that overt sexuality plays into the mystical view of the song. Sex-in-love becomes the closest analogy from human experience that we can draw from to speak of union with the divine. This, again, has particularly compelling to mystical readers.
Although some interpreters of literature generally work hard to dig out the original meaning of a text, there are others who object to this, complaining about the “tyranny of the author’s intention.” The Song of Songs may be something of a ‘poster child’ for the second approach. Even if we could find some sort of unquestioned historical genre and meaning, the importance of the Song in the hearts of its readers through the centuries has proved many times more meaningful. Its power is rooted in its mystery.