The History of the Song of Songs

The Song is the most obscure book of the Old Testament. Whatever principle of interpretation one may adopt, there always remains a number of inexplicable passages, and just such as, if we understood them, would help to solve the mystery. And yet the interpretation of a book presupposes from the beginning that the interpreter has mastered the idea of the whole. It has thus become an ungrateful task; for however successful the interpreter may be in the separate parts, yet he will be thanked for his work only when the conception as a whole which he has decided upon is approved of.

Delitzsch correctly pointed out that the challenge lies in conceptualizing the idea of the whole, and yet it is precisely the unique features of this book that make this such a formidable task. More recently Harrison addressed this very issue.

Few books of the Old Testament have experienced as wide a variety of interpretations as the Song of Songs. The absence of specifically religious themes has combined with the erotic lyrics and the vagueness of any plot for the work to furnish for scholars an almost limitless ground for speculation.

Understandably these problems led to the allegorical treatment of the book by Jewish as well as Christian scholars. This particular method, which held sway up through the nineteenth century, is now losing its following. Yet despite the multitude of alternative suggestions, no other interpretive scheme has gained a consensus among Old Testament exegetes.

The interpretive perplexity of the book is even reflected by its original placement in the Hebrew canon, though this matter is obscured by English translations. The Song of Songs ("") appears in the sacred “writings” of the Jewish canon as one of the five Megilloth (along with Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther).[3] In fact the Song appears first in this section, and it is read at the first Jewish festival of the year, namely, Passover. The connection with Passover, however, is not accidental. The Jewish Targum interpreted the Song as a picture of the history of the Hebrew nation beginning with the Exodus, an event most naturally associated with the Feast of Passover (Exod 12). So Passover was an appropriate time for the reading of the Song of Songs, and it was read on the eighth day of that festival. In the Septuagint, however, the Song was placed after Ecclesiastes, a decision which in turn influenced its place in modern translations.

Any solution to understanding the Song of Songs must first be settled at the hermeneutical level. What hermeneutical principles are valid for dealing with this literary genre of ancient love poetry? Is there sufficient warrant for departing from a grammatical-historical-contextual hermeneutic?

The goal of this article is to survey the primary interpretive schemes that have been set forth throughout the book’s history and to evaluate the hermeneutical foundations on which they rest.

This will serve as an appropriate foundational study for an interpretation of the book that is most consistent with a grammatical-historical-contextual hermeneutic. A second article (“The Message of the Song of Songs”) will set forth an interpretation of the Song that follows the “literal-didactic” approach and yet which offers a unique interpretation of the whole.

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