A slightly more condensed version of these articles were originally written
for the online mag Examiner.com (now AXS).
My links thereto no longer work, so I am guessing they took them down.
I moved them here.|
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Article 7 Back to main page
We began by observing that the sexual content has presented a problem to readers throughout its history, particularly in the early period when the contents of the Bible were not fixed. This puts us in the period after the Jewish war of 70 CE which had culminated in the destruction of the temple. Whereas the contents of most of the Hebrew Bible were generally agreed on (the Torah and the Prophets, including Samuel-Kings), the third group, the so-called writings were still open for discussion. The Song of Songs fell into that group. Over the next 50 to 80 years Jewish scholars argued back and forth about certain books, with the result that some ended up being part of the Bible while others were excluded. The Song made the cut mostly because it was possible to read as an allegory about God's relationship with Israel.
The early Church was a more than a couple of generations old by now, and felt no particular obligation to agree with the Rabbis. So the Christian Old Testament included what had been in circulation as the Jewish Bible in Greek for many years by then. This included all the books the Rabbis agreed on, plus a few others, but in any case, the Song was in there in the Christian Bible as well.
The next two articles were dedicated to trying to decide whether the Song had any parallels from ancient Near Eastern literature, and what those parallels might tell us. The two primary sources are ancient Egyptian love poetry, and Mesopotamian literature dedicated to the love between the gods of fertility (Dumuzi and Inanna). It seemed to this observer that the Egyptian poetry had a better claim than the Mesopotamian, just on stylistic grounds. But to some extent what choice we make directs our understanding of the history of the poem. The Egyptian parallels suggest that it had its origins in the world of entertainment, and only acquired its sacred aura later, probably due to its being associated with Solomon. The Mesopotamian route gives it a sacred role from the beginning, but then we have to imagine it being translated out of some polytheistic fertility world into monotheism. So both approaches require some literary evolution to get to its current state. This does not have to be and either-or, though. Israel was located, both physically and culturally between these two world powers, and this work may draw from both, but in any case, it would be a mistake to suppose that the Israelites were unable to originate their own genre of literature.
In the last two offerings we saw how deeply entwined the sexual language is in the Song's love poetry, and how that overt sexuality plays into the mystical view of the Song. Sex-in-love becomes the closest analogy from human experience that we can draw from to speak of union with the divine. This, again, has been particularly compelling to mystical readers.
Although some interpreters of literature generally work hard to dig out the original meaning of a text, there are others who object to this, complaining about the “tyranny of the author's intention.” The Song of Songs may be something of a 'poster child' for the second approach. Even if we could find some sort of unquestioned historical genre and meaning, the importance of the Song in the hearts of its readers through the centuries has proved many times more meaningful. Its power is rooted in its mystery.Back to main page
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