A Brief History of Embracing the Song of Songs

I. Introduction
The intended meaning of the Song of Songs has been a matter of contention since well before the second century after Christ, when it was first accepted into the Jewish canon of scripture. The poem’s focal point, a blatantly erotic relationship between two lovers, has presented readers with a quandary: what is an erotic love poem doing in the scriptures? The curious placement of this book has been interpreted in a variety of ways, ranging from an explicitly literalist reading, to a purely allegorical reading, and readings that combine both approaches. I will offer a brief overview of the different approaches that have been taken throughout history, and will focus particularly on the metaphysical implications of the exclusively allegorical reading and how this gave way to different readings of the text by contemporary exegetes.

II. Jewish readings
Many Jewish scholars of the first century were apprehensive about adding the Song to the canon. Among its most prominent defenders was Rabbi Akiva: “Said Rabbi Akiva, ‘Heaven forfend! No one in Israel ever disputed that the Song of Songs defiles the hands. For all the world is not as worthy as the day on which the Song of Songs was given to Israel, for all the writings are holy, but the Song of Songs is the holy of holies.’”1 Some expressed concern about associating erotic imagery with the Divine, a practice common among the pagan fertility cults of the time. What “redeemed” the Song was its allegorizing of the erotic relationship between God and humanity-a concept unique to Judaism. “[N]o pagan culture spoke of a god as a husband or a lover of his people. Israelite religion, in its radical monotheism, demanded the people’s absolute fidelity to the One God. In human terms, there was only one relationship that reflected that kind of fidelity and that was a woman’s vow of loyalty to her husband.”2 The Song’s dialogue between the bride and bridegroom is consistent with other books of Jewish scripture in which Israel appears as the bride and God as the bridegroom (Tobit, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah, Amos).

Popular readings of the poem took the erotic imagery literally, finding use for it in public expressions of erotic love, oftentimes by singing it at wedding feasts or by young men singing it when looking for a spouse. In time, Jewish exegesis of the Song took a strictly allegorical approach to the text, claiming that the imagery served solely to symbolize the relationship between God and the Jewish people. Literal readings that found indications about marital love in the text were strongly rejected. Wrote Rabbi Akiva: “Whoever warbles the Song of Songs at banqueting houses, treating it like an ordinary song, has no portion in the world to come.”3

III. Medieval readings
Christian exegetes followed the example of their Jewish predecessors by opting for an allegorical reading of the Song. The metaphor of God’s love for Israel was appropriated for a Christian audience by assigning the figure of the bride to the Church and the bridegroom to Christ.4 This allegory spoke descriptively of the nature of God’s relationship with humanity, but also alluded to specific events in history past and to come (the Incarnation, the Crucifixion, the Second Coming, etc).

Literalist readings were largely rejected due to the presence of “absurdities” in the text. Following in Origen’s tradition, the Song was placed in the context of the “spiritual structure” that continues through Scripture in its entirety. The spiritual meaning is made apparent through the literal sense of most books. Other books, however, contain absurdities or anomalies that render the literal sense of the book nonsensical:

Since the chief aim of the Holy Spirit was to keep the logical order of the spiritual meaning either in what is bound to happen or in what has already taken place, if anywhere he found that what happened according to the narrative could be fitted to the spiritual meaning, he composed something woven out of both kinds in a single verbal account, always hiding the secret meeting more deeply. But where the narrative of events could not be coherent with the spiritual logic, he sometimes interspersed either events less likely or absolutely impossible to have happened and sometimes events that could have happened but in fact did not.5

The explicitly sexual themes found in the Song were considered too anomalous to be read literally. The spiritual meaning, then, is pointed to by, but not contained within, the apparent literal meaning of the text.

Patristic and Medieval writers relied on a neoplatonic understanding of Forms (“formalism”) to make sense of the allegorical relationship between eros and divine love. Turner distinguishes between the notions of ontological participation and epistemological mimesis to express the method by which medieval monks sorted out the allegory. He refers to Pseudo-Denys whose neoplatonic theology relates the material to the immaterial by means of a “sliding scale” of likeness and unlikeness; he divides this scale into two categories: similar similarities and dissimilar similitudes.6 Some material realities are similar to their immaterial, or their ideal, form, insofar as that share a similar image, and others insofar as they participate in likeness. The majority of medievals opted for a strictly allegorical reading of the Song, with little regard for its literal implications (its historical or narrative truth), because they understood human eros and conjugal union as sharing the same image as, and not participating in likeness of, divine love. “There is always something suspect about sexual love,” claimed Nicholas of Lyra.7 Erotic love is too earthly and bound to the flesh to participate in divine love. To further express this distinction, Turner uses the example of a map and the land itself which it charts. Human sexuality is an image of God’s love for humanity (the Church/the individual soul). The map itself does not participate ontologically in the likeness of the land, it only shares in its appearance (epistemological mimesis).

Turner also uses the example of a temperature of a room and a thermometer to clarify this distinction. In the same way that the temperature of a room effects, and thus is reflected by, a thermometer, God’s love for humanity brought human sexuality into existence and is reflected in it. The relationship is only formal, though. The reading of the thermometer in no way participates in or effects the temperature of the room. This opinion played a role in the Church’s theology of marriage as sacrament. Marriage was not universally recognized as a sacrament until the thirteenth century.8 According to Aquinas, a sacrament is a “sacred sign which effects what it signifies.”9 All of the sacraments both signified and contained effectively the “great mystery” of the union between Christ and the Church. While earlier theologians like Peter Lombard questioned the sacramentality of matrimony on the grounds that it does not confer grace, Aquinas affirmed that matrimony is indeed a sacrament as it is an efficacious sign of grace. He did doubt, however, the extent to which the conjugal act was essential to marriage and thus its capacity to effect grace. While the mystery of Christ’s union with the Church may be the thing signified (res significata) by carnal union, it cannot be said to effect (sed non contenta) or participate in that mystery.10

Turner speculates that medievals dismissed the possibility of the conjugal union participating in divine love because they “[were] not interested in sexual love as such.” He continues, “the monk saw ample opportunity to exploit the eroticism of the Song from the standpoint of his monastic life, for, as ‘image’ of his personal vocation and asceticism, it mapped perfectly on to it…As marriage could be an image of Christ and the Church, so too it could be an image of his way of life; it it was his way of life, not marriage, which he saw as the true participation in the mystery which marriage images.”11

While early Patristic and medieval Scholastic readings of the text looked toward the collective and thus ecclesiological implications of the allegory, medieval monastic readings looked toward its individual and spiritual implications. Turner cites Bernard of Clairvaux, Denys the Carthusian, and Nicholas of Lyra, among other medieval monks who took the Song to reflect the dynamic between the individual soul and God.12 The mystical individualist reading reached its height in John of the Cross’ Spiritual Canticle, a poem and prose text inspired by the Song. In the Canticle, “all is the individual soul and God, and personal and solitary dialogue with one another. Gone, even as a distinct alternative reading, is any ecclesiological interpretation of the received imagery; gone is that sense that all time in history is an outpouring of the Holy Spirit and ecstatic love of the human race, of Israel and of the Church; gone, therefore, is the careful dovetailing of moral interpretation with the great sweep of ecclesiological eschatology…it is collapsed into a truly individualized tropology, into, we could say, a personalized ‘mysticism’ in the modern sense.”13 The erotic imagery found in the Canticle is removed from the “metaphysical world of dionysian neoplatonism…[it] ‘lacks roots’…within a stabilising world-view.” John does not use erotic imagery as a mere metaphor for the soul’s relationship with God. He “does not just think of love as eros. He loves God erotically.”14 Human and divine eros are not clearly delineated, rather, they “overlap” and are “superimposed” upon each other. Turner points out this spiritualization of human erotic imagery in stanza 33 of the Canticle:

Do not despise me; /for if, before, you found me dark, /now truly you can look at me /since you have looked /and left in me grace and beauty.

…which alludes to Song 1:5-6:

Dark am I, yet lovely, daughters of Jerusalem, dark like the tents of Kedar, like the tent curtains of Solomon. Do not stare at me because I am dark, because I am darkened by the sun. My mother’s sons were angry with me and made me take care of the vineyards; my own vineyard I had to neglect.

John comments:

“the bride dares to tell her Beloved not to consider her any longer of little account and not to despise her. If she previously merited this treatment because of the ugliness of her faults and the lowliness of her nature, now, after he has looked at her the first time, by which he arrayed her in his grace and clothed her in his beauty, he can easily look at her the second time and many more times, making this grace and beauty grow.”15

The mystical individual reading introduced a significant shift from both Jewish and Christian exegetical traditions and reopened the door to old debates regarding the relationship between the erotic and the divine.

V. Alternative readings
Among the most prominent objections to the strictly allegorical reading of the Song is the strictly literal. Wary of the risks of conflating human sexuality with divinity, some exegetes seek to draw a decisive line between erotic and divine love. Southern Baptist theologian Duane Garrett views the erotic imagery of the Song as a celebration of the goodness of marital love in itself. The allegorical reading, according to Garrett, is problematic on the grounds of two key objections. First, the allegorical method was used by pagans “who wanted to salvage morsels of truth from the stories about the [immoral behaviors] of their gods.”16 To claim that the erotic imagery speaks in an allegorical manner of God’s love for humanity would be to commingle the divine with the physical, a practice common in pagan fertility cults. The Song could not truly be an allegory of God’s love for humanity because it uses language that is “not appropriate for worship and spirituality…One cringes at using these terms to describe the love of God for his people.” Secondly, “[a]llegorism of the Song is rooted in a neoplatonic worldview that was more gnostic than Christian.” Garrett claims that the philosophical foundation of asceticism is the notion that “the physical is bad and anti-spiritual…this viewpoint is contrary to the teachings of the Bible, which declares the creation of the physical world…to be ‘good,’ and which explicitly celebrates the union of man and woman…..spiritualizing the words prevents the hearer from appreciating how they celebrate the joy a young man has in his wife’s body.”17

Garrett’s reading of Song 8:6 does not take the Hebrew “salhebetya” [resapeha rispe es salhebetya] to indicate that the burning flame of the bride’s love for the bridegroom is itself the “flame of Yah.” Rather, it is indicative of the might of the flame. Garrett does concede that one can liken the jealousy, or exclusivity, of the love between married persons to the jealousy of God’s love for his chosen. Yet, this does not in any sense imply a transcendent or divine dimension within marital love.18 “The comparison to death,” in Song 8:6 likely implies that “to marry is to give one’s life to another, and whoever marries has died to all others. Analogous to Jesus’ teaching that one must die in order to experience true freedom and life in the gospel, one must die to all extramarital sex in order to experience the joy of marital sex.”19

Sister of Mercy Timothea Elliott argues that “salhebetya” is better translated as “flame of Yah” or “divine flame.” This translation would indicate that the conjugal union not only mirrors God’s love for humanity, but also is a transcendent experience in itself:

“Both resep and salhebet are terms associated with divine intervention. Here, salhebetya appears almost transparent as a divine personification of Love, particularly in light of the following verse (“many waters cannot extinguish Love, nor can rivers drown it” Song 8:7). Much more is suggested by 8:7 than the simple idea that love is a fire that many waters cannot put out…A very particular love relationship is defined as a creative force requiring an unbreakable bond of mutual commitment. Thus sealed, its power can only be compared to the unleashed primordial elements of fire and water. It fills the expanses of the cosmos, reaches downwards to the netherworld, and breaks its hold; it soars upwards like a flame to the transcendent experience of God Who is Love.”20

VI. The participation of the conjugal union in divine love
A growing number of contemporary exegetes are reading the Song in light of both its literal and allegorical meanings. St. John Paul II acknowledges the Song’s allegorical implications regarding God’s love for the Church and the individual soul, but urges readers to recognize that the theme of spousal love, the “love of bridegroom for bride…is a theme by itself, and in this lies the singularity and originality of that book.”21 Only by first affirming the Song’s literal meaning regarding the transcendent dimension and inherent goodness of marital love can one understand its allegorical implications. “Although the analysis of the text of this book obliges us to situate its content outside the sphere of the great prophetic analogy, it is not possible to separate it from the reality of the primordial sacrament.”22 In order to understand that sacramentality of the conjugal union, one must refer to “the beginning.” “The ‘language of the body,’ the visible sign of man and woman’s participation in the covenant of grace and love offered by God to man, is constituted. The Song of Songs demonstrates the richness of this language whose first sketch is already found in Genesis 2:23-25.”23 The desire of the bridegroom for his bride indicates the “readiness of the gift of self” in the conjugal act. “The love that unites them is of a spiritual and sensual nature together.”24 Thus, insofar as the spouse reciprocates the total gift of self in the conjugal act, they participate in God’s gift of self to humanity. Not only this, but the potentiality of the conjugal act to bear the fruit of new life allows the spouses to participate in God’s act of creating.

John Paul challenges the notion that erotic love is of a “carnal” nature. That which inhibits the conjugal act from participating in God’s transcendent love for humanity is not its carnality, its fleshliness, per se, but rather the extent to which it is encumbered by concupiscible desire. John Paul appeals to “the beginning,” when the man and woman were capable of freely giving of themselves and receiving the gift of each other, without the inclination to possess the other as an object, which resulted from concupiscence. Redemption in Christ allows the spouses to return to the beginning, and to recover that gaze toward the other which regards her in her alterity and full dignity.

VII. Conclusion
The Jewish reader of the Song would understandably struggle to understand this third reading which appreciates both the literal and allegorical meanings of the text. Without the Incarnation and a theology of the Trinity, it would be difficult to claim that erotic love both reflects and participates in God’s love for humanity. The medieval objections to this reading lie in their struggle to make sense of the sacramentality of marriage. Is it consistent to hold that the conjugal act signifies God’s Love without effecting It? This would seem to be the result of a distorted view of the relationship between “the flesh” and concupiscence. Perhaps Garrett’s claim that ascetic theology relied too much on a gnostic suspicion of all things fleshly holds weight here. On the other hand, is it truly “pagan” and sacrilegious to relate marital love with divine love? Is the claim that a definitive line exists between the two loves consistent with the logic of the gospel?

Recent contributions to the philosophy of love can shed some light here. Catholic philosopher Jean-Luc Marion conceives of the conjugal act as a space in which the infinite and the finite, the earthly and the transcendent, meet. Far from “divinizing” the erotic, Marion recognizes the vast disparity between the finitude of human love and the infinite nature God’s love for humanity. Rather, he describes sexual climax as an intense “flash of light,” which in a sense reveals our identity as “lover” to ourselves. But this light vanishes; the experience leaves behind a memory that cannot be relived. He call this an “erased phenomenon,” which leaves the lovers in a state of suspension.25 The flame of eros tends toward and is kindled in the conjugal act, opening an empty space, a void which can only be filled by agape. This erasure drives the spouses to seek the total realization of what they experienced during that momentary “flash of light” by pursuing the flame of agape, together. Marion claims that the flame of eros is not separate from the flame of agape, but rather that they are different dimensions of the “one way of love.” “It is not a matter of two loves, but of two names selected among an infinity of others in order to think and to say the one love…agape possesses and consumes as much as eros gives up and abandons.” The distinction between the human experience of romantic love and the love of God is not categorical, but rather qualitative in nature. “God loves in the same way we do. Except for an infinite difference. When God loves…he simply loves infinitely better than we do.”26

In the conjugal act, then, the person recognizes the erotic lover’s inability to satisfy the person’s expectation for total (infinite) fulfillment. At the same time, the act becomes the space which opens the lovers to the possibility of transcendence, of receiving an infinite love from the One whom my lover’s image recalls. “The erotic phenomenon, as it arises through the advance that makes the lover make love, paradoxically offers death no hold—precisely because it breaks free from the horizon of being. . . . The erotic phenomenon, as such, has no motive to succumb to death because it does not belong to the horizon of being.”27 The “erased phenomenon” of the climax opens the lovers to the “saturated phenomenon” of union with God. This echoes John Paul II’s vision of Adam and Eve’s gaze of wonder and fascination toward each other in the beginning, which in itself indicates the sacramentality of conjugal love. Perhaps it can be said that in this sense, marital love effects that which it signifies.

Considering the pre-Christian origin of the Song, I would question the extent to which one could validly claim that the author’s intended meaning was an indication regarding the nature of conjugal love itself. The allegorical reading seems to be the primary purpose of the Song, the literal implications holding a secondary or consequential value–and only so after the advent of the Incarnation. It could be said that the phenomenon of conjugal love participates in divine love by its very nature, and thus happens to allow one to find meaning within the literal reading of the Song, while it may not have been its intended or primary meaning.

  1. Scolnic, Benjamin Edidin. “Why do we sing the Song of Songs on Passover?” Conservative Judaism. Vol. 48 No. 4, 1996. Page 55, <rabbinicalassembly.org/sites/default/files/public/jewish-law/holidays/pesah/why-do-we-sing-the-song-of-songs-on-passover.pdf>.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Bloch, Ariel and Chana. The Song of Songs: A New Translation with an Introduction and Commentary. Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, 1995. Page 30.
  4. Turner, Denys. Eros and Allegory. Collegeville, Minnesota: Cistercian Press, 1995. Page 115.
  5. Ibid. Pages 109-110.
  6. Turner. Pages 140-141.
  7. Ibid. Page 83.
  8. Ibid. Page 152.
  9. Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologiae. IIIa, q 62 a 1 ad 1.
  10. Ibid. suppl. IIIa q 42 a 1 ad 4.
  11. Turner. Page 155.
  12. Ibid. Page 129.
  13. Ibid. Pages 189-190.
  14. Ibid. Page 185.
  15. No quieras despreciarme,/ que, si color moreno en mí hallaste,/ ya bien puedes mirarme,/ que gracia y hermosura en mí dejaste.” John of the Cross. Spiritual Canticle. Trans. Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez. Washington DC: ICS Publications, 1991. Stanza 33. Turner compares this to Gregory the Great’s commentary on Song 1:5-6, which also appears to “spiritualize” the original text: “In other words, ‘Do not disdainfully look down upon the heathen lack of faith in my past; do not disdainfully look down upon my former sins; do not focus on what I was…I am black through myself but beautiful through the gift {that I have been given}; black on account of my past but beautiful by reason of what I have now become.’” Turner. Page 185.
  16. Garrett, Duane. “Song of Songs and Lamentations”, Word Biblical Commentary Vol. 23B. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016. Page 75.
  17. Ibid. Page 76.
  18. Ibid. Page 255.
  19. Ibid. Page 257.
  20. Elliott, Sr. M. Timothea RSM, The Literary Unity of the Canticle. Switzerland, Peter Lang Publishing Group, 1989. Pages 197-198.
  21. John Paul II. Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body. Trans. Michael Waldstein. Boston: Pauline Press, 2006. §108:1.
  22. Ibid. §108:3
  23. Ibid. §108:4
  24. Ibid. §111:5
  25. Marion, Jean-Luc. The Erotic Phenomenon. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press, 2007. Pages 136-138.
  26. Ibid. Pages 221-222.
  27. Ibid. Page 193.
Stephen G. Adubato About Stephen G. Adubato

Stephen G. Adubato received his BA in Religious Studies at Fordham University and his MA in Christian Ethics at the Immaculate Conception Seminary School of Theology at Seton Hall. He currently teaches religion and philosophy to high school students in New Jersey. He writes at Cracks in Postmodernity on the Patheos Catholic Channel.