Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Song of Solomon: Literal or Allegory?

Dante and Beatrice, by Maria Spartali Stillman
My fiance and I had gone through the Gospel of Matthew a few months ago, and went through the Epistles of Jude and 3 John not too long after that. After some time, she asked if we could go through another book together. With some meditating and thinking, I decided on the Song of Solomon, as that was about a married couple, and we ourselves are soon to be a married couple. I studied through it and then went over it with her, and at this time we've finally completed the whole book. It's been a wonderful experience.

My initial studies into it led me to ponder over the controversy on how to interpret the book - namely, is it allegorical or literal? That is, is it a literal story of two people in love, or is it, as so many commentators throughout history have said, an allegory of Christ and the church? In fact, this latter interpretation didn't start with Christians - the earliest Jewish commentators believed that Song of Solomon was essentially one huge allegory about God and the Jewish people. This continued into the early Church Fathers and Christian commentators, who applied it to the Christ and the Church allegory, and continued well into the nineteenth century.

Perhaps it should be noted that people seem to fall into extreme camps: either it's completely allegorical or it's completely literal. For my own part, I find those who take the completely allegorical approach run into many, many problems with the language of the book. For example, in the very first chapter, the bride says to herself:
Draw me after you; let us run. The king has brought me into his chambers. [Song of Solomon 1:4a]
As the NET translation notes point out, this transition from present tense to past tense signifies a hope and desire. The "chambers" mentioned here are bedchambers. If we were to translate this into plain speaking, the bride would be saying: "I really, really want to make love to the king."

Another incredibly problematic verse is seen much later on, spoken this time by the bridegroom:
Your stature is like a palm tree, and your breasts are like its clusters. I say I will climb the palm tree and lay hold of its fruit. [Song of Solomon 7:7-8a]
During his long description of his wife, the husband turns to her chest. He describes her stature like a palm tree (specifically, a date palm tree), and compares her breasts to clusters. He then describes climbing up the palm tree (which date farmers had to do) and "laying hold of its fruit." In other words, he would like to fondle her breasts. Please forgive me, dear reader, for my bluntness, but that is precisely why I described this verse as "problematic" for those who take the full allegory route for the entire book. What person, in his right mind, would compare this to Christ's relationship to the church?

It will be granted that those in the full allegory camp give responses to verses such as this. However, and with all due respect to them and the memory of those in days past, they do so in the worst possible way - they do it by naming the breasts: Old Testament and New Testament; Moses and Jesus; Law and Grace; etc. I am not making this up (similar treatment is given to the mention of breasts in the far more harmless passage in Sol 1:13). Something that usually women of loose morals do is now being done by theologians and applied to the woman in Song of Solomon, in an effort to conform with the presupposition that she must represent the church. It's as if some are saying, "No, it can't possibly mean what I think it means!" Especially today, with society's over-objectification of the female chest, it might make many a Christian man cringe to think that such a passage could be in the Bible.

I believe all this stems from a misunderstanding of what the book is truly about. Regarded as a giant allegory by some, regarded as pornography hidden away in the Bible by others, the Song of Solomon is either misunderstood or misrepresented by many who try to read it. The truth of the matter is, like the book of Revelation, Song of Solomon can be a wonderful read if properly understood. For it to be properly exegeted, its premise must first be properly understood.

The Song of Solomon is, at its heart, the story of two people of God in love with one another. However, this is not an empty love, or the vague idea known as "love" by many in today's society - this love grows over time, and is nurtured by the couple as well as their friends (Sol 1:11) and family (Sol 8:8-9). The moments of true physical intimacy only happen after the couple are married: those who are shocked by the descriptions and events of chapter four forget that the couple were married in chapter three, and are only now consummating their marriage. The love in the book is true love blessed by God, for the flames of love are called "the very flame of the LORD" (Sol 8:6). In short, the Song of Solomon is a literal love story about a believing man and woman.

It will also be granted here that there are those who tend to "oversexualize" the book, turning every single verse into a sexual metaphor. For example, the verse in which the husband is trying to get into the room where his wife is, and puts his hand through the latch of the door (Sol 5:4), is believed by some to be a metaphor for sexual activity. However, reading the entire context of this section, as well as looking into how doors of that time functioned, makes us realize that the husband is reaching through the latch of the door to unlock it, and nothing more.

So what of the more intimate moments which we know for certain are speaking of physical relations? Should they shock us? In fact, it might surprise some that there is nothing sinful about the attraction between a husband and wife, even in a Christian household. It is all too common for people today to confuse attraction with lust. The apostle Paul himself wrote:
Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. [1 Corinthians 7:1-5]
In these verses, the apostle explains that the husband and wife are to enjoy one another physically. In like manner, this is to be an equal enjoyment - too often today, some Christian women take the extreme that they are to "just lie back and think of England" when it comes to their marital duties. It might also be worthy to note that, in both these verses and in the entirety of the Song of Solomon, procreation is never mentioned. Now, this does not mean that birth control is to be utilized by the Christian couple, nor does it mean that a Christian husband and wife should not think about and be aware of the reproductive function of their bodies. However, it does present to us the realization that sex is supposed to an enjoyment for them. It is meant as part of the blessing of their relationship. It is not simply for procreation, although that is it's primary function. The act of lovemaking is partially what the very idea of becoming "one flesh" means (cf. Gen 2:24). We should not be shocked with the idea of a husband enjoying the physical features of his wife, as seen in passages such as Sol 7:7-8. It is perfectly fine for a husband and wife to enjoy one another in the confines of marriage - in fact, it's perfectly biblical.

A question that may arise from all this: is there any room for allegory in reading the Song of Solomon? Yes and no. We've already established that it is impossible to make every single verse allegorical without, at some point, becoming unintentionally blasphemous. However, there are certainly some sections of the book where we could find allegory. As most people know, the apostle Paul used marriage as an allegory for Christ and the church (Eph 5:22-33). However, when we go looking for allegories, it is first important to understand the plain context of what we are reading. We need to know what is being said before we go looking for deeper meanings.

Permit me to use art as a metaphor. When studying the trade of art, one of the things they first teach you is that you have to study how the world works in a plain way before you go into abstractions. For example, Picasso, in his early life, painted beautiful semi-realistic paintings. Later on in life, he began to dabble in the Cubism and other styles that made him world famous. In the image below, you see his work Science and Charity (painted in 1897) on the left, and a section of his later work Guernica (painted in 1937) on the right.

The one on the left was done when Picasso was just 16-years old, while the one on the right was done when he was 56-years old. No, I did not mix up the ages. Picasso once told someone that it took him his childhood to learn to draw like an adult, and his adulthood to learn to draw like a child. The point is that, before dabbling in the more abstract forms of natural representation, Picasso learned how to portray the world as it was. Before we deal with the abstract, we must understand the natural. In like manner, before we deal with allegory, we must understand the literal. Otherwise, we completely lose the original meaning of the passage we are dealing with. You won't be able to understand what is being represented without first understanding what can be represented. This is what was seen with Harold Camping, who would take a section of scripture and turn it into an allegory that completely contradicted its original context. Like Mr. Camping, we can become so engrossed looking for allegories that we can separate ourselves from the original intention of the authors.

So while it is not impossible to find allegory in the Song of Solomon, it is vital that its immediate context be understood first. Yet even with all the allegories thrown out, the Song of Solomon can still be read as a beautiful and wonderful book within the larger canon of Holy Writ.