The Enigmatic Genre and Structure of the Song of Songs, Part 1 -- By: Gordon H. Johnston

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 166:661 (Jan 2009)
Article: The Enigmatic Genre and Structure of the Song of Songs, Part 1
Author: Gordon H. Johnston


The Enigmatic Genre and Structure
of the Song of Songs, Part 1

Gordon H. Johnston

Gordon H. Johnston is Associate Professor of Old Testament Studies, Dallas Theological Seminary, Dallas, Texas.

Although one of the shortest books in the Scriptures, Canticles confounds its would-be-interpreters with a maze of riddles out of proportion to its length. So puzzling is the book that the medieval Jewish scholar Saadia lamented, “It resembles a lock to which the keys have been lost!”1 One of its most perplexing mysteries is the riddle of its genre and literary structure. Pope once mused that its structure was nothing more than a “charming confusion.”2 Brenner laments that up to this point all attempts to find any real architectural design have failed.3 Like the “locked garden” of the chaste maiden, the secrets of the book’s structure have remained virtually inaccessible to her many suitors. Although the history of interpretation is littered with failed attempts, the goal of unlocking its structure remains a worthy quest. Indeed it is an important one since few matters are more determinative for the interpretation of the Song.

This article introduces a three-part series on the genre and literary structure of the Song. The first two installments survey various approaches in an attempt to ferret out the most promising directions, highlighting classic representatives and offering brief evaluations. The third article will examine the literary features of the Song itself in an effort to ascertain important clues to its literary genre and macrostructure.

Canticles as Theatrical/Literary Drama

One of the more popular approaches views Canticles as drama.4 Dramatic approaches read Canticles as a play composed for the theatrical stage, or a literary piece based on the theatrical model. Certain features are viewed as suggesting a dramatic reading: (1) predominant role of monologue and dialogue; (2) appearance of speakers without introduction; (3) rapid shift from one scene to another without transitional statements; (4) reporting of narrated action in the first person by one of the actors rather than in the third person by a narrator; and (5) putative presence of a chorus. The addition of notations by some early Greek versions (Codex Alexandrinus, Codex Sinaiticus) to indicate speaking parts

(“the bride,” “the bridegroom,” ...

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