The Song of Songs: Interpreted by Early Christian and Medieval Commentators

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Overview

The Song of Songs, traditionally attributed to Solomon, is a collection of lyrics that celebrate in earthly terms the love of a bridegroom and a bride. Throughout the course of early Christian history, the Song of Songs was widely read as an allegory of the love of Christ both for the church and for its individual members. In reading the Song this way, Christians were following in the steps of Jewish exegetes who saw the Song as celebrating the love of God for Israel.

In The Song of Songs, the inaugural volume of The Church's Bible, Richard A. Norris Jr. uses commentaries and sermons from the church's first millennium to illustrate the original Christian understanding of Solomon's beautiful poem. In recent times, the Song of Songs has been more a focus of literary than of religious interest, but Norris's work shows that for early Christians, this text was counted, with the Psalms and the Gospels, among those Scriptures that touched most deeply on the believer's relation to God.

All in all, Norris's Song of Songs is a masterful work that aptly acquaints contemporary readers with the church's traditional way of discerning in this text a guide to the character of Christian belief and life. This volume -- and the entire Church's Bible series -- will be welcomed by preachers, teachers, students, and general readers alike.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802825797
  • Publisher: Eerdmans, William B. Publishing Company
  • Publication date: 11/18/2003
  • Series: Church's Bible Ser.
  • Edition description: 43137 William B Eerdmans
  • Pages: 347
  • Sales rank: 1,357,954
  • Product dimensions: 7.12 (w) x 10.22 (h) x 1.17 (d)

Read an Excerpt

THE SONGS OF SONGS


William B. Eerdsman Publishing Company

Copyright © 2003 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8028-2579-6


Chapter One

Prefaces and Title

Septuagint Vulgate 1:1 The Song of Songs, which is Solomon's. [The Latin Vulgate does not contain this title verse.]

Every ancient or medieval writer who set out to interpret the Song of Songs in a systematic way produced some sort of introduction or preface to his work. In such introductions, it was customary to say something about the title and the author (given in the first verse of the Septuagint translation),as well as about the place of the Song in the traditional list of Solomon's writings. Even more important, however, was the issue of the subject matter of the Song, and the closely connected question of the use of allegory in its interpretation. The surface or "literal " subject matter of the Song was the love that joins a bride and her betrothed, a sexual longing that the Song celebrates cheerfully. Understood in that way, however, the Song had little to say directly about the relation between God and "us"; and that relation of course defines the basic interest - the agenda - that Jews and Christians alike brought, and bring, to their reading of the Scriptures. Hence the traditional resort to allegory in interpretation of the Song: the love that it celebrates is treated as a figure or analogy for the love between God and the people of God, the Church. Thus in Christian allegory (or anagogy, "leading upward toward a higher meaning") the Bridegroom becomes Christ, the Word or Son of God, and the Bride becomes either the Church or, as Origen was the first to suggest, the individual believer. This suggestion of Origen - that the "spiritual " subject matter of the Song was not only the relation between Christ and the Church but also that between Christ and the individual soul - pretty well shaped the course of Christian interpretation of this book, and the relation between Christ and the soul dominated medieval - which is almost synonymous with "monastic" - interpretation, as the long excerpt below from William of St. Thierry (who was by no means ignorant of Origen's views) demonstrates.

(1) Origen

This little book I take to be an epithalamium, that is, a marriage song, written by Solomon and done in the manner of a drama. He sings it as if he were a bride at her wedding, burning with heavenly desire for her bridegroom, who is the Word of God. For the bride desired him very deeply - whether she be identified as the soul that is made after his image or as the Church. This very same Scripture also teaches us what words this glorious and perfect Bridegroom used when he addressed the soul or Church that has been joined to him. We also discover, from the same little book, which is called Song of Songs, what the young companions of the Bride, who are set in her company, had to say, and also the friends and companions of the Bridegroom.... And this is the point of what we said above in calling this a marriage song done in the manner of a drama; for something is called a drama - as, for example, a story acted out on a stage - when different characters are introduced, and the plot is carried through as some enter and others depart to various purposes. This writing contains such goings-on, one after another, in its own distinctive order; and at the same time the drama as a whole is put together out of mystical utterances.

But before anything else, we must be aware that, just as children are not moved by the passion of desire, so too people whose inner self is still small and infantile are not admitted to the study of these words - those, I mean, who are being fed with milk in Christ and not with strong meat, and who have only just now started to long for the "pure spiritual milk" (1 Pet. 2:2). For in the words of the Song of Songs there is found that food of which the apostle says," Solid food is for the mature" (Heb. 5:14); and the audience it wants is composed of "those who have their faculties trained by practice to distinguish good from evil" (Heb. 5:14) in proportion to their abilities.

As to those little ones of whom we spoke, it may very well be the case that, should they approach these texts, they would neither derive profit from them nor, on the other hand, suffer much harm, whether from a reading of the words or from a review of the things that have to be said for the purpose of expounding them. On the other hand, if a man who is a mere fleshling should approach them, for such a one there would arise no little risk and danger. For anyone who does not know how to listen to the language of erotic desire with chaste ears and a pure mind will pervert what he hears and be turned from the inner self to the outward, from the spirit to the flesh; and he will foster carnal desires within himself, and it will appear to be the case that he is roused and encouraged to carnal lust by the Scriptures.

For this reason, then, I admonish and advise everyone who is not yet rid of the vexations of flesh and blood and has not withdrawn from the solicitations of our material nature to renounce entirely the reading of this book and the things said in it. For they say that among the Jews care is taken that no one who has not attained full maturity be allowed so much as to hold this book in his hands. But there is also the following observance that we have taken over from them: the custom, namely, that all the Scriptures are delivered to children by wise teachers, and at the same time that those four writings that they call deuteroseis - that is to say, Genesis 1, in which the world's creation is described; the opening chapters of the prophet Ezekiel, which tell about the cherubim; the last chapter of Ezekiel, which contains the building of the temple; and this book, the Song of Songs - should be held back till last of all.

To me, then, it seems first of all necessary, before we undertake to investigate what is written in this little book, to say something about desire [eros], which is the principal theme of this writing....

Among the Greeks, many of the learned men, wishing to undertake inquiry into the truth about the nature of erotic desire, have produced a variety of writings in the form of dialogues. They attempt to show that it is nothing other than the power of this desire that conducts the soul from earth to the exalted heights of heaven, and that there is no way to attain the highest form of happiness save at the urging of the longing that consists in desire. Furthermore, the discussions of this subject are represented as taking place at meals - between people, I suspect, among whom what went on was a banquet that consisted more in words than in meats. There are others, though, who have left us "how to "writings, with whose help this sort of desire can apparently be elicited or augmented in the soul. But carnal individuals have dragged these skills down to serve vicious desires and the mysteries of illicit desire.

It is no matter for wonder, then, if we say that in our circles too - where there are as many ignorant persons as there are folk of the simpler sort - discussions of the nature of desire are difficult and come close to being dangerous. Among the Greeks, after all, who seem to qualify as wise and learned, there were nevertheless some who did not take what was written in the sense it was intended, but seized the occasion provided by this talk to rush into fleshly lapses and fall down the precipices of immodesty - whether because, as we said above, they gathered guidance and encouragement from what had been written, or because they used the writings of the ancients as a veil for their own intemperate ways.

Lest, then, we too follow the same course, and take words that have been well and spiritually written in a base and fleshly sense, let us lift up our hands, both of body and of soul, to God, so that the Lord ... may powerfully endow us with his Word, and we may be able, starting from these writings, to make manifest a wholesome understanding of both the name and the nature of desire....

At the beginning of the writings of Moses, where he takes up the creation of the world, we find mention of the creation of two humans, the first of them made "after the image and likeness of God" (Gen. 1:26-27), and the second "fashioned out of the dust of the earth" (Gen. 2:7). Knowing this well, and having a clear grasp of these matters, the apostle Paul in his letters wrote - more straightforwardly and more plainly than Moses - that in each individual person there are two human selves. For see what he says: "If our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed every day" (2 Cor. 4:16); and again, "For I delight in the law of God in my interior self" (Rom. 7:22); and he uses similar language in some other places. For this reason it is my firm opinion that no one nowadays has any business doubting that in the opening section of Genesis Moses wrote of the creation or fashioning of two human beings; for we see Paul, who understood the writings of Moses better than we do, saying that in each individual person there are two human beings. He says that one of these - that is, the interior one - is "being renewed every day," while he asserts that the other, the "outer," is, in the saints and in people like Paul himself, "wasting away" and being enfeebled. If anything relating to this matter seems to anyone to be questionable, it will be more fully explained in the proper places.

At this point, however, let us pursue the matter on account of which we have made mention of the outer and the interior self. For we want, once this distinction is established, to show that the divine Scriptures name the members both of the outer and of the interior self by using homonyms - that is, by using similar names, to the point of employing the very same words both for the members of the outer self and for the parts and motions of that interior self; and that these are likened to each other, not only as regards the names they are called by, but as regards what they actually are. Take an example: a person is a mere child as concerns the interior self if it is possible for that person to grow and to be brought to the age of a youth, and thence attain by successive steps to the "mature man" (Eph. 4:13) and become a father.

Now our intent in using these last designations is that the expressions we employ may concur with the usage of Holy Scripture - with that passage of Scripture, in fact, which was written by John: "I am writing to you, little children, because you have known the Father. I am writing to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning. I write to you, young men, because you are strong, and the word of God abides in you, and you have overcome the evil one" (1 John 2:13-14). It is perfectly apparent, and I am sure no one can doubt, that in this passage John uses the terms "little children," or "youths," or "young men," or even "fathers," not in reference to the age of the body, but to that of the soul. Yes, and Paul too says in one place, "I ... could not address you as spiritual, but as fleshly, as babes in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food" (1 Cor. 3:1-2). It is beyond any doubt that the babe "in Christ "is so named in accordance with the age of its soul, not of its flesh. And finally, this same Paul also says, in another place: "When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways" (1 Cor. 13:11). Again he says on another occasion, "Until we all come up to ... the mature man, up to the measure of the age of the fullness of Christ" (Eph. 4:13). For he knows that all believers will come up "to the mature man" and "to the measure of the age of the fullness of Christ."

Therefore just as, in the case of the expressions we have mentioned, the names of ages are applied, in the very same terms, both to the outer self and to the interior self, so too you will find that the names of members of the body are transferred to those of the soul - or, better, these names are applied to the soul's powers and motions. That is why it is said in Ecclesiastes: "The eyes of the wise man are in his head "(Eccl.2:14). Likewise in the Gospel: "Let anyone who has ears to hear, hear" (Matt. 13:43). Also in the prophets: "The word of the Lord that came by the hand of the prophet Jeremiah" (Jer.50:1) - or of whomever you please. Similar is the command, "Let not your foot offend" (cf. Prov. 3:23 with Matt. 18:8), and again, "My feet were moved a little less" (Ps. 72:2 LXX = 73:2). Obviously too the womb of the soul is denoted where it says, "We have conceived in our womb, O Lord, out of thy fear" (Isa. 26:17-18 LXX)....

On the basis of this evidence it is apparent that these words for members of the body cannot be made to fit any visible body. They must, on the contrary, be referred to the parts and powers of the invisible soul, for although the terms do indeed refer to parts that are analogous, they openly and unambiguously bear references proper to the interior, and not to the outer, self. Therefore, there is a food and drink for this material human being - the one that is called "outer self" - that is akin to it: a corporeal and earthly food and drink. By the same token, however, there is also a food proper to that very self that is also called interior - that "living bread, "namely," that came down from heaven" (John 6:33, 41). It drinks, moreover, of that water which Jesus promised when he said, "Whoever drinks of this water that I give him will never thirst" (John 4:14). So it is, then, that like terms are everywhere predicated of both selves; but in each case the special quality of the entity is preserved in its distinctive character, and corruptible things are provided for the corruptible, but for the incorruptible, incorruptible things are set out.

Hence it happens that some people of the simpler sort cannot distinguish or discriminate between things that the divine Scriptures assign to the interior human being and those that they assign to the outer human being. They are deceived by the similarities of the terms, and they devote themselves to silly myths and empty fictions. Thus, for example, they believe that even after the resurrection corporeal foods will be necessary, and that drink will have to be derived not merely from that "true vine "(John 15:1) which lives forever, but also from vines and from fruit that grows on trees. But we shall see about these matters in another place.

Well then, as we have made clear in the preceding remarks, one individual is without offspring and barren as far as the interior self is concerned, and another is rich in offspring; and we note the following saying that accords with this: "The barren has borne seven, and she who has many children is weakened" (1 Sam.

Continues...


Excerpted from THE SONGS OF SONGS Copyright © 2003 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Series Preface
Acknowledgments
Interpreting the Old Testament
Introduction to the Song of Songs
Prefaces and Title (Song 1:1) 1
Song 1:2-4 19
Song 1:5-8 37
Song 1:8-12a 54
Song 1:12b-14 71
Song 1:15-17 80
Song 2:1-2 90
Song 2:3-7 98
Song 2:8-17 114
Song 3:1-5 134
Song 3:6-11 145
Song 4:1-8 154
Song 4:9-15 176
Song 4:16-5:1 188
Song 5:2-8 195
Song 5:9-16 209
Song 6:1-3 227
Song 6:4-9 232
Song 6:10-7:1 242
Song 7:2-10 253
Song 7:11-14 266
Song 8:1-4 273
Song 8:5-10 279
Song 8:11-14 292
App. 1 Authors of Works Excerpted 298
App. 2 Sources of Texts Translated 303
Index of Subjects 311
Index of Names 316
Index of Scripture 318
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