EXCERPT: Song of Songs

The following is an excerpt from the new addition to the lauded JPS Bible Commentary series, Song of Songs (March 2015). You can find the other books in the JPS Commentary series here. 
The Traditional Hebrew Text with the New JPS Translation
Commentary by Michael Fishbane

Songs of Love
Israelite Songs   or   Songs of Israel

The Song of Songs is a wondrous collection of love lyrics–songs of passion and praise between a young maiden and her beloved, nestled in the heart of the Hebrew Bible. Scenes from the natural world abound, as the young pair make their way around the countryside and invoke all they see and smell in the world to express their inner feelings and laud one another’s beauty. There are plants and fruit growing in the orchards, sheep and gazelles moving on the hills, and oils and spices in profusion. Each and all convey the impressions that the loved one makes on the eye and heart.

Fishbane_front_rev2-15However, readers of this love and bounty will find no references to God and Israel, the Exodus and Sinai, or any other event of the sacred history recorded in Scripture. Nor will they find references to covenant obligations and religious observance—even the love of God-in these lyrics. How can we understand this? Do these songs of human desire and delight mean just what they say? Or might they conceal some hints of sacred history and worship, and not be as secular as they seem? Readers past and present have pondered this matter and taken different positions.

Some take these songs in their most straightforward sense and celebrate their oc­ currence in the Bible. What could be more wondrous, they say, than robust love lyrics between a young maiden and her beloved in the national literature of ancient Israel? The heart of the maiden speaks longingly of love’s fulfillment-addressing herself, her beloved, and her friends. And the youth responds in kind, with his own songs of praise-invocations to be with him in the fields, and exclamations of how her body stirs him so. Reciprocally, the pair express their love via images of flora and fauna, royal cities, and armored towers. The many expressions of love bloom and burst like the natural world all around, only to reappear in ever-new forms. Insuch ways the Songs suggest the mysteries of love and longing, filled with pathos and possibility. How special all this is, a precious portrait of the earth and the emotions in ancient Israel!

So readers of the Song of Songs are bound to ask: How did these lyrics enter the Hebrew Bible? How were they sanctioned by the sages who cnlled the writings of the past and produced a sacred scripture? Did they regard these songs as straightforward outpourings of human love?’ Or did these lyrics convey some hint of religious love found elsewhere in the Bible? We cannot know for sure; but one may well suspect that some sages looked at these love lyrics and recalled similar expressions of covenant love in the prophetic literature. After all, the ancient prophets repeatedly rendered the theme of covenant love (between God and Israel) in terms of marriage tropes. For them, nothing so fully expressed the ideal of religious faithfulness as the bond of marriage, just as nothing so starkly manifested covenant disloyalty as “cheating” with foreign gods.

From the earliest times, this topic found expression in such prophets as Hosea, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Isaiah. Hosea speaks initially of faithless Israel as a harlot, who betrays her husband and children and then formulates national restoration and cove­ nant renewal in terms of the espousals of marriage (Hos. n-8; 1:1o-n). Jeremiah lauded Israel for her ancient devotion and faithfulness, called it bridal love (Jer. 1:1), and was puzzled how a bride could forget her adornments and slink off with other lovers (vv. 31-33). The prophet Ezekiel spoke of covenant marriage and idolatrous betrayal in even starker terms-adding bold erotic tropes to the mix (Ezek. r6:4-r4). These themes of marriage and divorce also recur in the exilic prophecies of Isaiah (Isa. 5o:r; 54:4-8). The topic thus penetrated the soul of the people. It provided the strongest sinriles of consolation for the people in exile: “(Just) as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you” (Isa. 61:5)?

Inthe light of these texts, which give explicit allegorical expression to the relation­ ship between God and Israel in terms of love and betrayal, it was perhaps inevitable that some sages might suppose that the Song of Songs dealt with such matters as well–except that the tropes and topics found there were implicit, requiting explication for their covenant features to be seen. Thus, how the Song’s earthy topics might be related to the covenant of Sinai, or to occasions of sin and rebellion, was a task for rab­ binic exegesis.

Yet the possibility that the Song was a hidden allegory of covenant love would save its songs from their apparent surface sense, aligning them with various biblical and rabbinic themes. Sages imbued with this insight might even regard their interpretations of the Song as extending the concerns of the ancient prophets. Seen in this way, the Song of Songs offered a theological possibility otherwise missing in the Hebrew Bible. It offered the opportunity to present the entire history of Israel in terms of love dia­ logues between God and Israel.’ Arguably through these or sinrilar considerations, the Song enteted the canon of Scripture as the religious lyric par excellence.

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