The History of Interpretation of the Song of Songs -- By: J. Paul Tanner

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 154:613 (Jan 1997)
Article: The History of Interpretation of the Song of Songs
Author: J. Paul Tanner


The History of Interpretation of the Song of Songs

J. Paul Tanner

[Paul Tanner is Lecturer in Hebrew and Old Testament Studies, Singapore Bible College, Singapore.]

Probably no other book in all the Bible has given rise to such a plethora of interpretations as the Song of Songs. Saadia, a medieval Jewish commentator said the Song of Songs is like a book for which the key has been lost. Over one hundred years ago, the noted Old Testament scholar Franz Delitzsch remarked,

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.1

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.2

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 (שִׁיר הַשִּׁירִים) 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 acciden...

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