Monday, May 04, 2015

The Song of Songs and the Matter of Context

Let us suppose that the Song of Songs was never included in Scripture, that there were only 65 books in the canon. Let us further suppose that a discovery was made in modern Jordan in the early 1950s, in which a number of scrolls were found. Among them was a collection, or what appeared to be a collection, of occasionally erotic poetry. We could tell from the language that it was written in, and from some of the names used, that it was of late Israelite or early Jewish origin. 

We would then begin to compare it to other ancient literature, because that is what we would have; simply ancient literature. But the essential question would be, to what do we compare it? We might compare it to collections of Syrian wedding festival songs, just because of location, and the occasionally erotic character of the poems. But there is nothing specific about the material that says wedding. Or we might compare it to Akkadian hymns to Tammuz, though there is nothing in the collection that particularly says a hymn to a god. Or we might compare it to collections of ancient Egyptian love poetry, because the content of the collection we've found is very close to the content of some of those Egyptian poems. But we would do those comparisons because the collection we found would not come with a particular context, and if we were to rightly understand it, we would need to find the proper context for interpreting it.

But the situation with the Song of Songs is completely different from that of our hypothetical find. The Song of Songs comes to us with a known and certain context. It is part of the collection of sacred scripture. Thus, it is sacred scripture itself that should provide the context for our interpretation of the Song. We don’t know what connection, if any, the Song might have to Syrian wedding festivals. We don’t know what connection, if any, the Song might have to Akkadian hymns to Tammuz or Egyptian love poetry. In fact, what we do know is that to compare the Song to those literatures is to take the Song out of the context which has been provided for it and put it in a new and alien context. To take the Song away from the context of the larger body of scripture and to put it in the context of the literature of some other nation from some other time is almost to guarantee that we will misinterpret the Song, because we will have removed the Song from its proper interpretive context.

In some sense, it doesn't matter where in the canon of scripture the Song is found. In our English versions, it is part of the poetic books. In Hebrew texts it is part of the collection called the Writings. But regardless of where it is put, the larger context for the interpretation of the Song has already been given us. It is part of the sacred scriptures, and those scriptures give us the framework for interpreting the Song. If we take a statement about bases out of a chemistry textbook, and put it in a baseball book, we will surely misinterpret it. In like manner, if we take the Song out of the context of Scripture and put it in some other ancient literary context, we will surely misinterpret it, because we have put it in the wrong context.

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