Ethics And Aesthetics In The Song Of Songs -- By: Mark W. Elliott

Journal: Tyndale Bulletin
Volume: TYNBUL 45:1 (NA 1994)
Article: Ethics And Aesthetics In The Song Of Songs
Author: Mark W. Elliott

Ethics And Aesthetics In
The Song Of Songs

Mark W. Elliott


While readings of the Song of Songs tend to focus on the extent of its licencing of pre-marital sex, the Song’s message on the nature of sexual and human loving is to be found in its choice of metaphors for that activity. These, while not revealing the divine nature, direct the readers’ gazes towards heavenly love (in the Christian tradition, He is ‘seated at the right hand of the Father’) so as to be better able to hear revealed instructions for loving.

כִּי־עַזָּה כַמָּוֶת אַהֲבָה

(Song of Songs 8:6b)

Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.
(Philip Larkin, An Arundel Tomb)

Discussions of the relationship of the Song of Songs to contemporary sexual ethics in scholarly works varies according to country and religious climate. So in Britain, an Old Testament scholar can take a New Testament scholar to task for equating ‘trial’ sexual relationships before marriage (as depicted by the Song) with the Hebrew Biblical institution of betrothal.1 It seems tacitly agreed by both parties that there are boundaries around sexual freedom which the Bible is involved in the process either of shifting or defending. In France the massive work of A.-Marie Pelletier on the Song hardly deigns to deal

with such an issue;2 one senses that after Raymond Tournay’s abandonment of his rearguard defence of the Christian allegorical interpretation,3 the alternatives left are to read it as proclaiming the covenant love of the Jewish God or as expressing human aspirations of an existential nature. Meanwhile in the German-speaking world, Kurt Lüthi follows in the way established by Helmut Gollwitzer as long ago as the 1977 Kirchentag to the effect that the Song provides no message of discrimination or ‘ruling out’.4 A strong sense that young Lutherans still need to step out of chains and inhibitions already broken pervades the discourse.

In Western scholarship on the Song, a universalising and personalising of the motifs of the Song according to psychoanalytic categories combines with the now established trend which sees a text like the Song as a prime candidate for ‘reader-response’ criticism. This movement holds that preoccupation with authorial or ‘hist...

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