A Review of
The Song of Songs:
Princeton University Press, 2019
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Reviewed by Jonathan Homrighausen
As the most potent poetry of the Bible, the Song of Songs, also known as the Song of Solomon, can easily illustrate the entire history of biblical interpretation. Too often, though, the contours of its storied reception are sandwiched into a neat narrative: it was originally literal, then it was disembodied and allegorized by rabbis and Church Fathers, until we moderns rediscovered its true nature as love poetry.
This simple story, however, ignores far too many crucial and interesting facts, from the eros of Kabbalah to the embodiment of Christ. Ilana Pardes’ new The Song of Songs: A Biography provides the fuller picture in a neat, readable, and poetic digest. Like other books in this series titled “Lives of Great Religious Books,” this general audience tome aims to illustrate the cultures waves made by a significant sacred text. Pardes’s training as both biblicist and scholar of comparative literature gives her a much broader perch from which to survey the Song than the typical and tired history-of-exegesis overviews, which too often account only for learned commentaries by theologians and exegetes both Jewish and Christian.
Pardes begins her book with a challenge: “Against the tendency to regard the transition from the allegorical to the literal as clear-cut, we will follow the ways in which these two interpretive lines are inextricably intertwined in a whole array of episodes in the text’s biography” (16–17). Allegory persists, though the Song’s allegories do not always concern God and humanity. Further, Pardes suggests that “the distinction between earthly and divine love poetry was blurred in the context of the Song’s composition” (15). In 2020, we can hold the Song’s multiple meanings in tension. Why not in 220 BCE or 220 CE?
The substance of the book lies in five chapters chronicling the Song’s “far from linear biography” (156). The first three chapters detail premodern readings. The first, “The Rise of Allegory,” shows how Origen and Song of Songs Rabbah fully developed the allegorical readings that later Jews and Christians were to follow. The rabbis for their part stitched the Song together with Exodus’ theophanic accounts, finding in the Song a script for God’s interaction with Israel patterned after metaphors of divine-human marriage in Hosea and Ezekiel. Origen—unsurprisingly—finds the Song fulfilled in Christ. For him, these love lyrics celebrate the bond between the soul and God, or between the Church and Christ.
The next two chapters, in surveying premodern Jewish and Christian readings of the Song, show Pardes’ attention to both genre and gender fluidity. The secular Hebrew poetry of medieval Spain, for example, relishes in the literal lust of the Song, as in this lyric of Shmuel HaNagid:
I’d give everything I own for that gazelle
who, rising at night to his
harp and flute,
saw a cup in my hand
“Drink your grape blood against my lips!”
And the moon was cut like a D,
on a dark robe, written in gold. (65)
Much of this poetry using the Song’s images and metaphors is homoerotic—though whether this desire was more than poetic device is beside the point. More interesting to Pardes is the question of whether or not these gender-fluid courtly poems, written by rabbis, linger in the background of the Zohar’s concentrated connection between eros and rite, between the people of Israel and the feminized Shekhinah (presence of God). Similarly, in covering Christian readers, Pardes finds courtly romance in the shadows of Bernard of Clairvaux’s homilies on the Song. While these homilies portray the male monastic reader as a feminized soul, the first female commentator on the Song does not appear until the fifteenth-century Carmelite Teresa of Avila.
Turning to the modern era, chapter four surveys the turn to literal interpretation of the Song. She surveys modern critical theories of the Song as Near Eastern cultic text, as pastoral drama, or as Palestinian wedding songbook. This chapter is essential, though likely the most familiar to those trained in academic biblical scholarship.
The final chapter’s survey of the use of the Song in American literature, rather, shone the brightest for me. Pardes engages the biblical Song in conversation with Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” Herman Melville’s lesser-known novel Clarel, and Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon and Beloved. In these examples of the “Song of America,” the Song’s allegories multiply. The Song narrates Whitman’s homoerotic love, his love of America and its people, and Morrison’s love of her African-American ancestry and history. Pardes ends her chapter by relating the Song’s “I am black and beautiful” (1:2) to Black Lives Matter prayers and sermons upholding the dignity and beauty of black people. The Song’s outpouring of images and metaphor cannot help but find new loves to praise!
Although Pardes aims more for impressionistic strokes of the Song’s past and present than for tedious comprehensiveness, one of the strengths of the book is her ability to convey big questions in reception of this poem. I especially appreciate her coverage of three key themes: the significance of the Song in literature and visual art, the relationship between gender and culture in the Song’s multiracial readers, and the hints of borrowing and appropriation between Jewish and Christian engagements with the Song. I did not know, for example, that both John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila are rumored conversos!
My only quibble with this book is that she does not include more art, though the cover image by Jamaican artist Anna Ruth Henriques certainly delights. But omission is barely a sin. As a biblical scholar who uses the arts and imagination as lenses for engaging sacred text, I recommend this book for both academic and general readers. Pardes brings her reader into the heart of this textual garden, showing them how to eat of its choicest fruits.
Jonathan Homrighausen is a PhD student in Hebrew Bible/Old Testament at Duke University, and author of Illuminating Justice: The Ethical Imagination of The Saint John’s Bible (Liturgical Press, 2018). He earned his MA in Biblical Studies at the Graduate Theological Union (Berkeley). His writing on the arts as a lens for biblical interpretation has appeared in Religion and the Arts, Transpositions, and The Visual Commentary on Scripture.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com