Early and Medieval Jewish Interpretation of the Song of Songs -- By: Weston W. Fields

Journal: Grace Theological Journal
Volume: GTJ 01:2 (Fall 1980)
Article: Early and Medieval Jewish Interpretation of the Song of Songs
Author: Weston W. Fields

Early and Medieval Jewish Interpretation
of the Song of Songs

Weston W. Fields

The Song of Songs provides an excellent background for discussing various hermeneutical approaches to the Old Testament. This grows out of the large number of different interpretations attached through the ages to this enigmatic book. If one is to understand Christian interpretation, especially the roots of allegorization, he must first understand Jewish interpretation of the book before Christianity and afterward. Thus, in this article interpretation of the Song is traced from the period of the Septuagint translation through the Mishnah and Talmud to the medieval period in order to show when and with what effect allegorization came to be the standard method of interpreting the book.

* * *

I. Introduction

If the language of the Song of Songs is enigmatic, and the canonicity sometimes disputed, its interpretation is both of these combined. As one surveys the vast array of differing interpretations of this song over the centuries, he can certainly sympathize with the rather secular perception of one interpreter who says that “it is one of the pranks of history that a poem so obviously about hungry passion has caused so much perplexity and has provoked such a plethora of bizarre interpretations.”1

But it is the very obviousness of the sexual love of the Song that is the root of this variety; for, to the Western Christian Mind explicit statements about sexual love and detailed descriptions of the anatomy of the human body, all discussed under a number of unmistakable and rather graphic similes and metaphors, are most embarrassing to read in a book of the Bible. Even later Jewish writers,

apparently influenced by their Christian counterparts, found the sexual descriptions of the Song rather too lucid.2

The history of the interpretation of the Song is thus largely the history of Jewish and Christian interpreters’ methods of dealing with this embarrassment, and their commentaries are more often commentaries on themselves and their times than on the Song.

If one accepts the hermeneutical principle that the primary goal of the interpreter is to discover the original meaning and intention of the author of a biblical book, he must try as much as is possible to let himself be controlled in his interpretations by the same cultural norms which controlled the writers. In the case of the Song of Solomon, the interpreter must be especially careful that he does not judge the book on the basis of his Western culture, question its canoni...

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