A Valentine's Day thought: Be grateful the Song of Solomon is in the Bible.
Without it, the Scriptures of Judaism and Christianity would have only "spare and virtually exclusively negative words about an important part of our lives," namely, romance and sexuality.
So writes Tremper Longman III of Westmont College in Santa Barbara, Calif., in a new commentary titled after the biblical book's alternate name, "Song of Songs" (Eerdmans).
Longman says 19th-century scholars did a more radical about-face in interpretation than that regarding any other biblical book. Until then, Jews and Christians alike treated the Song as a religious allegory -- about the intimacy between God and Israel, or Christ and his church, or God and the individual soul.
But Longman endorses the modern view, calling the book "an anthology of love poems, a kind of erotic psalter."
Why the shift? For one thing, nothing in the Song itself hints at spiritual allegory, Longman says. Few readers today would disagree. Consider just the first lines:
"O that you would kiss me with the kisses of your mouth! For your love is better than wine."
Archaeology has unearthed closely parallel love poems from Egypt, Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) and Ugarit (in Syria), virtually forcing a natural reading of the words.
Also, with a healthy shift back to the Bible's own theology, "few today would out-and-out denigrate the body in the interests of the soul," Longman says.
Once that main point in interpretation is solved, lesser puzzles remain. For instance, what does the Song have to do with Solomon? In most translations, the title and introductory phrase imply that Israel's ancient king was the writer. After all, 1 Kings 4:32 reports that "his songs were a thousand and five."
But Longman rejects that tradition, noting that the Hebrew could mean the book was written by Solomon or dedicated to him, concerned him or followed in his tradition. True, the Song calls the beloved a "king," but that's poetic, since he's also a "shepherd."
More important, Longman employs the tradition against the traditionalists, arguing that Solomon as author doesn't fit what the Bible says elsewhere about his dubious reputation in love.
While the Song extols the exclusive bond between one man and one woman, Solomon took 700 wives and 300 concubines who "turned away his heart" from the Bible's one true God toward worship of false gods (1 Kings 11:3), causing national calamity.
What does the Song say about sexual morals? Early on, the man and the woman are sexually intimate, but later they seem to be unwed. The text rarely uses language of marriage.
Longman explains that we must understand the Song as an anthology of 23 loosely linked songs, not a single song about the same man and woman throughout. Otherwise it might seem to accept non-marital sex, which he finds implausible in light of the Jewish Bible's sexual morals.
Modern folk may suppose that a life without sex and without restraint is not worth living, Longman remarks, but the Song is very biblical in warning about the pains and dangers of love as well as the thrills.
"According to the Song, love is mutual, exclusive, total and beautiful," he says. And the book makes its point by referring to all the senses -- not just sight, but taste, touch, smell and sound. Some of its images seem odd thousands of years later ("your hair is like a flock of goats") but Longman carefully explains these, along with the book's sly double entendre.
The Song is a remarkably feminist document, Longman observes. The woman in the poems is the dominant partner who initiates the romance and shares fully in sensual pleasure. But he doesn't buy recent claims that a woman must have written the book.
Longman says once we agree that the Song is love poetry, we can also use it to reflect on the older theme, God's loving bond with us. But in doing so, he cautions, we should recognize that the biblical God is not literally male and is depicted elsewhere with female images (see Psalm 131, Isaiah 66:13 and various Proverbs).
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