The Book of Human Love (2)
Why was Song of Songs included in the Bible?
The simple answer to that question is that it was included in the Hebrew Scriptures. Without going into too much detail, Song of Songs was identified with Jewish wisdom literature. The opening verse, “Solomon’s Song of Songs”, functions as a tool to guide the reader about its purpose and function. One ancient Jewish book, the Mishnah, Ta’anith 4:8, reveals that parts of Song of Songs were used in religious festivals. That text reads:
From this text we see that the book of Songs originally had both a cautionary and exhortatory function. It reminded young men and women of the values of human love and family that God held dear. It challenged them to make decisions about human love on the basis of God’s values and not simply their desires.
This function for the book dominated until around A.D. 90 when a small number of Jewish leaders gathered at (what has been called) the ‘Jamnia Council’ to discuss some aspects of the composition of the Hebrew canon. How much authority these leaders had and how much of a council it was are matters of debate. Of particular importance to us is that the group discussed the role of Song of Songs in the Hebrew Scripture. At that meeting Rabbi Akiba is said to have advocated for the inspiration of the book of Songs using the ‘allegorical interpretation’ as a means to support its value. The allegorical interpretation says that the book conveys a hidden meaning with no tangible connection with the typical understanding of the meaning of the words. Akiba argued that the book talks about God’s love for Israel, a view that Christian teachers jumped on soon afterwards. Even today the allegorical interpretation is favored by many who fail to see the point of a book in the Bible with not one indisputable reference to God.
A major problem with the allegorical view, as David Malick points out in his introduction to Songs, is that the allegorical interpretation requires a spiritual counterpart for every physical detail. Furthermore, the interpretation overlooks both the author’s intended meaning and the early communal use for the book.
All things considered, I believe the reason this book is with us today is because it speaks of marriage as God thinks it ought to be. This book’s inclusion in the Bible shows that marriage is not an inferior state, it is not a concession to human weakness. It tells us that physical love within the marital relationship is not impure. At the time the book was written a high premium was placed on offspring and a woman’s worth was often measured in terms of the number of her children. Significantly, the Song makes no reference to procreation. This is a book of consuming love. There is almost an Edenic quality to the early chapters of the book, as if it were Adam’s commentary on God’s creation of Eve.
Does that mean that we can ditch the allegorical interpretation? Not completely. See, Songs is more than a declaration that human love is good. Historically Judaism and Christianity have agreed that the use of the marriage metaphor to describe the relationship of God to his people is important. We tend to view marriage as an example of how human love illustrates eternal truths. In reality, passages like Ephesians 5:21-33 force us to reverse this line of thought. Look at verse 25:
From this verse we’d have to say that human love does not illustrate eternal truths so much as God’s love illustrates ‘human truths.’ God’s love through Christ reveals truths to live by, fight for and even die for. If God’s love is the pattern for marriage, then marriage reflects something greater than itself. Marriage affirms that we are made for union with God; we are made for love. Not just any kind of love either; the edenic-like love that the early chapters of Songs so passionately champions.
That’s where we’re going in our Naked and Unashamed series that kicks off this weekend. We pray that a book that starts with a passionate kiss and concludes with an adventurous hike through the mountains inspires us in the same way it did those lads and lasses on the fifteenth of Av all those years ago…
Can’t wait for the weekend.