Here is my book report (well actually chapter report) on the Song of Songs. I personally wasn't bowled over by it (and J thought it was simply terrible) but I got an "A" anyway.
In his enlightening book, The Bible in History: How the Texts Have Shaped the Times, David W. Kling spends a chapter discussing the Song of Songs. This may seem strange to us, as the church today rarely reads or teaches from this book: growing up, I got the sense that it was sort of a “dirty” book that was included in the Bible by accident. Kling illumines the history of the Song, helping the modern reader to see the long, rich traditions associated with it and the way that interpretation through the centuries has been variously influenced by “views of sexuality and the self, hermeneutic assumptions…, theological emphases and conditions in the church, and socio-economic circumstances.”
The Song has always been a very popular book in the canon, particularly with monastic communities. Only in the last century or so has it fallen out of regular use in liturgy and been relegated to the pre-marital aisle of the Christian bookstore. There have been two basic approaches to its reading: literal and allegorical. The latter is older, originating with Origen in the middle of the third century ce, and has been upheld by Jewish and Christian scholars alike, who interpret the book as a metaphor for the love of God for His people or His church, respectively. Nowadays, the book is nearly universally seen as literal, which is due largely to our modern exegetical practices (we will deal critically with this assumption below). The chapter is a lesson on what happens when exegetes bring their own theological assumptions and cultural ethos to the text they study.
Kling briefly explains the various reasons scholars have given to explain the Song’s fascination to the monastic community, and why they hold to the allegorical viewpoint: everything from their unhealthy sexual repression to modern theories suggesting that monks read it as a story between themselves and Jesus to satisfy homoerotic desires. A compelling explanation is offered by Roland Murphy in his 1990 commentary: the allegory “facilitated the construction of a Christian worldview,” helping early scholars bridge the gap between the Old Testament and the New by testifying to God’s immense love for humankind, to be fulfilled by the Christ event.
Kling spends the rest of the chapter on a history of the interpretation of the Song. He begins with Origen, father of the allegorical interpretation. Origen was heavily influenced by Plato, and brings his beliefs to the text when doing exegesis: wanting to describe the “soul’s enlightenment to the divine mysteries,” he found portions of the text which supported his argument. Origen’s five-step allegorical explanation of the book was highly influential for many centuries. Interestingly, he also touched on the idea of the Song as a wedding drama, a concept more fully explored later in history.
The Latin fathers and later medieval scholars expanded on Origen’s concept, keeping the allegorical interpretation. They used the Song to support their own convictions about the ideal state of virginity, the holiness of Mary, the institution of baptism, and various disputed church doctrines. Throughout, Origen’s remained the seminal interpretation in the West from the 5th – 11th centuries.
The rise of monasticism, coupled with Europe’s rise out of the Dark Ages (with attendant prosperity, population growth, rise of cities, etc.), led to new ways of expanding upon Origen’s commentary. Origen had focused on knowledge of and communion with God through intellect, but monastics (starting with Pope Gregory I) preferred to know God through the heart, and began to see the loving elements of the Song as the desire of the soul to commune with God (keeping the allegorical framework of God and human, not man and woman).
This interpretation was most profoundly developed by Bernard of Clairvaux, an early 12th century mystic who is a hero of that tradition as well as much beloved by everyone from Martin Luther to the Puritans to Popes and seekers. Bernard enjoyed a happy childhood, and at age 21 he decided to enter the relatively new Cistercian order, a group devoted to regaining the pure Benedictine Rule of Life with an extremely ascetic way of life. His popularity is attested by the fact that he entered not only with his family (father, uncles, brothers) but also brought in 30 friends. He remained a very effective recruiter for the order throughout his life, and was also quite influential in the political arena of his day.
The Cistercians were unique in that they only admitted adults, many of whom had already been married or had experienced love. This brought a whole new dynamic into the previously entirely celibate – and sexually ignorant – monastic system. The Song of Songs worked well for Bernard as a teaching tool, as his monks could understand the expressions of desire within it from firsthand experience. Thus, Bernard wrote 86 sermons on the Song over an 18-year period, which influenced opinion of the book for the next 400 years.
Bernard’s exegesis was quite new, in that he added personal passion to his work: his own stories, thoughts, and life experiences. He was steeped in Scripture and also the Greek Neoplatonic mystical tradition. He studied the Song, but not with scholastic method – rather, he used it as a way to explain his own mystical ideas about the soul’s ascent to God. For this, many call him the last of the fathers, for after his work the study of Scripture became much more rigorously academic and would not have allowed for Bernard’s mystical contemplation.
In Bernard’s work, the Song is seen as a description of the encounter of the human soul with the living God. The Scripture is a veil, adaptable to human understanding, hiding a deep spiritual experience. His sermons use the Song to describe human desire for God, mystical ascent, Imago Dei, free will, the incarnation, and God’s deep, abiding love for us. Bernard, Kling attests, created a “new genre in exegesis” by applying the Scripture to the life situation of those in his day. This caught on and was quite popular through the 16th century.
While spending the bulk of the chapter on Bernard, Kling goes on to briefly overview the reformer’s and present-day scholar’s thoughts on the Song. The Protestants, Kling points out, were adamant about the literal interpretation of Scripture – except when it came to the Song. Luther added some historical thought to the exegesis, removing the mystical elements. In the 17-18th centuries, there were dueling interpretations between Catholics (whose scholars were celibate) supporting the mystical views of Bernard, and Protestants who, personally experiencing the intimacies of marriage, knew quite surely that human marriage couldn’t hold a candle to God’s love (this makes one wonder about their marital health!). At the end of the 18th century, the idea of the Song as a dramatic poem or wedding text, first proposed by Origen, caught on, due largely to the rise of modern literary theory.
In the 20th century, the prevailing scholarship has followed the historical-critical method, which has confirmed the Song as a collection of romantic poems, celebrating and affirming married love. The first half of the century saw the rise of an interesting cultic interpretation having to do with fertility gods and goddesses in ancient Near Eastern religion, but that has largely been discounted. Recent feminist thought has provoked new discussion about the authorship of the book, and the equality between the sexes (including the woman frequently being the instigator of intimate encounters).
In conclusion, Kling sums up that from the 3-19th centuries, the allegorical tradition held sway, and it was really only in the last 100 years that the literal interpretation has been the dominant thought. He closes by asking some tough questions about our methods of exegesis: can we have it both ways: giving credit to the historical-critical method’s literal interpretation while also appreciating the less exegetically sound allegorical view? Did God actually inspire Origen and Bernard to add to our understanding of the Song? Must we always defend every interpretation only from the text itself, or can current ideas inform the reading of a text as well? Kling leaves the questions open-ended, giving the reader rich food for thought.
The main point that Kling is making throughout this chapter is that we must examine our assumptions about poor standards of exegesis. We automatically assume that to start with a theology we want to prove, like Origen, is irresponsible. Or to bring more of our own experience to the text than may actually be warranted, as Bernard was wont to do, is not appropriate. It is considered especially bad form to use Scripture to uphold our own beliefs when both sides of an argument can do so, as in an example Kling gives of Augustine and the Donatists.
And yet, Kling points out the incredible popularity of both Origen and Bernard’s interpretations – and how they kept the church, and monastics especially, interested in the Song of Songs for centuries. In the 20th century, the Song has lost its mysterious meaning, leading to its general disuse. Could it be that in fact Origen and Bernard had hit upon something that we should reconsider in our exegetical practice? Perhaps our modern methods are inadequate to deal with the artistic writings of the Bible, or we must find ways to use them while emphasizing, not losing, the metaphor and poetry of certain Scriptures (as has been done with some success in exegeting Revelation, for instance).
(At any rate, the majority of modern exegesis, at least in the common preacher’s use, seems to draw wildly from experience, modern events, social circumstances – pretty much everything except the text itself. So perhaps we have not lost the tradition of Bernard after all.)
A major problem with Kling’s overview is that he does not discuss Jewish interpretation of the Song in any detail (though he mentions it in passing). While we can appreciate that he is attempting to cover the Church’s history of exegesis, it seems sloppy to ignore the Jewish roots of Old Testament documents in particular.
It is also important for us to consider the Protestants’ interpretation of the Song as allegorical when they insist on literal interpretation of everything else in Scripture. Clearly the carnal lusts described in the book did not fit their view of proper human relations, so they relaxed their rules just this once. As Kling makes clear, this is a rather obvious mistake – and one that we continue to make today. For though we now accept the literal reading of the book, we basically ignore it or are even ashamed of it.
The 20th century interpretation of the book describing married love is interesting for two reasons: one, it never says the lovers are married (as Kling points out), and two, the Song clearly describes something more akin to initial infatuation than the lifelong commitment necessary for a healthy marriage of many years. Perhaps this is why the Song regularly shows up in pre-marital counseling and books, but is rarely suggested for couples that have been together a long time.
I once believed that the allegorical interpretation of the Song of Songs – whether one sees it as between God and the Church or God and the individual – was an unfortunate by-product of sexual repression. I see now that it is actually quite a lovely way of looking at it, if not entirely exegetically responsible. It gives everyone the ability to profit from the book, not just those in the throes of romantic desire.
I am also very intrigued by the feminist thoughts that Kling touches upon at the end of the chapter, particularly the notion of Phyllis Trible that the allegory “redeems a love story…gone awry” in the creation and fall of humans. When cursed, Eve is told she will long for her husband – but this is reversed when the woman in the Song says, “for me is his desire.” The love in the Song is a sharing between equal partners: “males are neither aggressors nor abuses, and females are neither passive objects nor victims.” This is a beautiful way to teach couples about pure love for one another, and can also instruct the church community as a whole about respecting the dignity of all persons. Origen and Bernard saw the book’s human-to-human desire as a model for the desire of humans for God and God for humans. We can then carry the metaphor a step further, turning the model back again – the love of God exemplified in the Song instructs our love for each other.
Bernard’s idea of the Christian soul’s ascent to God may feel a little bit “out there,” but it is helpful for lifelong disciples of Christ who wish to find a deeper relationship with God (this is supported by the current popularity of the ancient practice of Lectio Divina, which Kling uses as the model for and example of Bernard’s teaching). The Song gives the modern-day pilgrim a description of, and great hope for, the joys of mystical connection with God.
All of this is to say that the allegorical tradition holds great truth for us, even though it does not agree with our modern exegetical standards. For it allows Christians to once again embrace the book, and teachers to find within it universally applicable teaching. It recaptures the Song’s accessibility for the modern church as a community, as well as individual members. And perhaps most importantly, it affirms the Song’s rightful place in the canon of Scripture as a document given by God to reveal Himself further to humankind.
 Kling, David W. The Bible in History: How the Texts Have Shaped the Times (Oxford University Press, 2004), 116.
 Ibid, 88.
 Ibid, 90.
 Ibid, 102.
 Ibid, 112.
 Ibid, 93.
 Ibid, 116.
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