Sexuality and the Song of Songs – part 2: Interpretation

This entry is part 2 of 5 in the series Sexuality in the Song of Songs

Song of Songs have been read and interpreted in several different ways, the predominant interpretation is some form of allegorical interpretation (Estes, 2005: 396). Most scholars throughout history have approached the Song this way. Starting with Theogenes who interpreted the Song to be about the relationship between Yahweh and Israel. In this tradition great Christian theologians like Origen and Gregory of Nyssa have produced volumes of commentary on the Song. Later on both Calvin and Luther commented on the Song and chose an allegorical interpretation although they normally argued for literal interpretations of bible texts. This tradition still exists today where certain evangelicals choose this kind of reading when, interestingly, in all other instances they would defend a literal reading of any other bible text (Estes, 2005: 397).

There are obvious problems with an allegorical reading of any text, the most disturbing problem is how to decide what the allegory stands for, this is a highly subjective exercise and looking at the varied attempts at interpreting the Song allegorically shows that it has been made to allegorise any number of things.

Perhaps these theologians have opted for an allegorical approach only to avoid such explicit sexual language in their holy texts, but it seems that even as an allegory the clear sexual allusions in the Song are equally problematic as they “assign to God lustful inclinations that do not come readily to the thinking of conventional theology” (Brueggemann, 2003: 325). Brueggemann goes on to assert that: “if this text is theological disclosure, then it must be taken without weakening the force of passion or diminishing the delight that God takes in God’s beloved, either by moralism or by institutional constraints” (2003: 326)

However, Estes argues that, although the allegorical interpretations of the song has been the most common approach, “There has also been a long-standing commitment to its literal reading as a song about human love or to celebrate a human wedding” (Estes, 2005: 399).

In modern times a growing number of scholars are willing to approach the Song literally, this shift can to some degree be explained by a shift towards literary and rhetorical criticism. There has also been a shift towards historical criticism in which the Song has been compared to ancient Egyptian love poetry, this in turn has led to an understanding of  the song as a unified collection of love poems (Hess, 2005: 25, 27).

Brueggemann argues convincingly that it is not necessarily a case of choosing literal or allegorical but rather that the Song can be read as both (Brueggemann, 2003: 328), however, it is as a unified collection of love poetry about human passion and sexuality that this essay will try to establish what the Song has to offer into the Jewish and Christian canon and the extended Christian traditions.

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Series Navigation<< Sexuality and the Song of Songs – part 1: BackgroundSexuality in the Song of Songs – Part 3: Symbols >>


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