Monday, June 22, 2009

Exegetical Notes; The Song of Songs: Is it Literal?

For over a century scholars, including many conservative Reformed ones, have been saying that the Song of Songs is not an allegory, and ought to be interpreted literally. One of the criticisms that has been levelled against the allegorical approach is that there is a great deal of diversity in the interpretation of particular verses. Most of the opposition to an allegorical approach seems to spring from a modern opposition to the whole idea of allegory, or a reaction against the very real abuses of the medieval four-fold meaning approach to Scripture.

The recent material emanating from Mark Driscoll, however, simply makes obvious some of the very real weaknesses of the "literal" approach to interpreting the Song of Songs. First, there is the simple crassness of Driscoll's material, and that of others like him. Second, there is the question of how one approaches the book "literally." Is it a random collection of love poetry? That's the view of Tremper Longman in the Cornerstone Biblical Commentary. he says, "The Song of Songs, a sensual psalter, is composed of a number of different poems. Like the Psalms, they were written by a number of different authors, and bound together into a loose literary unity by a single editor" (341). Is it a collection of songs organized as a set of wedding songs (the traditional Arabic wasf) as some nineteenth century scholars claimed? Is it a "dramatic pastoral" as Delitzsch asserted? Is it none of these? Is it something else entirely? A look at Marvin Pope's commentary on the Song (Anchor Bible) will quickly educate the reader regarding the welter of profoundly different "literal" approaches to the Song that dot the interpretive landscape. And each difference in approach will result in different interpretations for particular verses. In other words, the charge levelled against the allegorical approach is equally valid against the "literal" approach.

Then there is the canonical question. Why is it in the canon? Did it make it into the canon as "literal" or as "allegory." If the latter, then are we justified in taking a "literal" approach? But if the former, then how do we explain the universality of the allegorical approach not only in the church, but in Judaism as well?

Then there is the authority question in application. When Paul says, "Let him who stole steal no longer, but rather let him labor," we know that we are required not only not to steal, but to labor to provide not only for ourselves, but for others, as Paul goes on to explain. But when the Song says, "Sustain me with cakes of raisins" must we have groups of women providing us with raisin cakes as we meet with our spouse? Does 5:5 describe some sort of sexual play that we are required to emulate? And for that matter, how do we know (if the Song is "literal") that this is even talking about married folk? It's possible to infer marriage from a few select passages, but those passages are also capable of other interpretations. So some "literal" interpreters argue that what is depicted in the Song is simply sexual activity between consenting adults, with no implication at all that they are married.

On one hand, I can sympathize with the anti-allegorical tenor of the present age (something addressed quite well by George Burrowes in the introduction to his commentary). I can also recognize, given the character of our age, the interest in having a canonical "sex manual." But there are two considerations in regard to the Song that are often passed over. The first is that marriage is for time, not for eternity (Matt 22:30). Second, the Song begins with the statement, "The song of songs, which is Solomon's." Anyone who has had elementary Hebrew knows that a noun followed by its plural is one way in Hebrew of expressing the superlative. That's why the New Living Translation reads, "This is Solomon's song of songs, more wonderful than any other." The Holman Christian Standard Bible says, "Solomon's Finest Song." Marriage is a great thing. But it is not the greatest. marriage is a great love. But it is not the greatest. The greatest love is that of Christ for his church. It is that which the Song celebrates. The intuitive sense of spiritual men is that the depiction of that love, in all its complexity, is the purpose of the Song, that it is in its very character, an allegory.

So my challenge to you readers is to take a couple of allegorical interpretations of the Song (I would recommend as a starting point those in the Banner of Truth Geneva series by George Burrowes and James Durham). Read through them. Then ask yourself the question, which is true, Durham or Driscoll?


K. H. said...

Another problem with the "literal" approach is the fact that it's hard to take the characters literally. Their identity seems to shift. Taking the characters literally destroys the unity of the work.

christopher_carter said...

Dr Shaw asks, “Then ask yourself the question, which is true, Durham (allegorical) or Driscoll (literal)?” He is implying the allegorical approach is superior.

This is an unfair and false dichotomy among interpretations. There are better options for interpreting the book other than either of these two.

Allegory, by definition, has no literal substance in the characters and narrative. The characters and events serve as metaphorical symbols of ‘another’ story ‘behind’ them. The characters and events themselves carry no real significance in themselves. Allegory is a creative tool of literature to use one thing to say something about another. This is to say the images of sexuality in the text are in themselves meaningless, and could have just as validly been some other symbols. Thats unfair to the literary context, and the significance given to sexuality illustrated elsewhere in Scriptures.
The pure literal approach is unfaithful to the text because it has no spiritual significance. This is also unfair given the discussion of sexuality elsewhere in the Scriptures. (like topics of marital purity in heb, christ/church significance in eph, covenant faithfulness in mal, institution of community in marriage in gen)

What about the fact that sexuality has a ’sacramental’ (or typological to be more specific) nature, in that it is a REAL physical experience in time and senses, illustrating and preaching a REAL spiritual reality of union- between both the man and wife, and therefore simultaneously preaching the same between Christ and church to the believing participants. The symbol cant be separated from its significance. The literal approach is wrong in that it denies the clear illustration and purpose of sexuality to preach Christ to its participants, but also the allegorical approach is wrong because it denies the real illustrations in sexual contact between the husband and wife to preach something powerful about union between God and man.

the tie between sexuality and spiritual union is significant. We might call this a ’sacramental’ or more specifically, a ‘typological’ interpretation of the text. Sexuality is a ‘type’, or preaching of a greater symbol. I believe the hermeneutical qualifications for ‘type’ to fit sexuality. This is vital to the text, and to correcting this confusion about sexuality for the covenant community, and restoring ‘worship’ and ‘Lordship’ to all of life.

Andrew Barnes said...

What do you do with Derek Thomas’ book “A Biblical Guide to Sex and Marriage”? It is a book adapted from his own sermons on the Song of Songs.

He does say there at the end of his book, “The truth is, even if we admit that the analogy of Christ’s relationship to the Church as the bridegroom wooing his bride is a biblical one (and it is!), the fact of the matter remains that for this analogy to mean anything, the underlying issue to which it is a parallel must equally be true, otherwise the analogy is based on fiction.”

Josh Walker said...

I have a short thought about Driscoll here.