Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
Did you know that Fifty Shades of Grey is actually Twilight fan fiction? Yeah. People love to take texts that they love and think about them. Sometimes you get Fifty Shades and sometimes you get biblical commentary, but hey, it's the same idea.
The Song of Songs has been combed over again and again by scholars and not-so-scholars alike, trying to impose allegorical structures over the text. In other words, people read this poem about love between a young man and a young woman, and then ask: but what does it mean?
Before we jump into some of the possibilities, we'd like to offer fair warning: the allegories surrounding Song of Songs are definitely worth thinking about, but they don't necessarily reflect the historicity of the text. After all, this really might just be a collection of poem about love.
In fact, ever since the 17th century (ish), people have been coming around to this plain-spoken meaning and have stopped trying to foist allegories all up on the text. That said, we've still got about two millennia of allegorical readings to work with, so let's take a surf through, shall we?
Possible Allegory #1: God and the Israelites
This allegory explores the relationship between God and the Israelites as they try to come together amid the obstacles in their way.
Our smarty pants friends over at My Jewish Learning give us any example:
The verse (1:5); "I am black but comely" is given the interpretation that the community of Israel says to God: "I am black through my own deeds, but comely through the deeds of my ancestors," or "I am black in my own eyes, but comely in the sight of God," or "I am black during the rest of the year, but comely on Yom Kippur." (Source)
Yowza. That's just one verse and there's already a bunch of different ways to read it. We challenge you to take a look at the rest of the text and see if you can find other verses ripe for allegorizing in this way.
Now, why might some people be so quick to jump to this conclusion? Well, a good chunk of the Hebrew Bible is devoted to exploring various phases of God's relationship with the Israelites: sometimes he's mad, sometimes he's out of touch, sometimes he's helpful. And then, in the midst of all that, we get... a love poetry section? It must be an allegory for what's in the rest of the text. Right? Right or not, that's the logic here.
One last thing about this allegory before we move on to Door #2. If Song of Songs is about God and Israelite society, why do the characters seem to be oppressed by the rules of that society? It could be that the bride's family represents the surrounding peoples and nations who influenced Israelite worship of God. (Who wants to be a Red Sox fan in New York? Or talk about cricket in Houston?) Under this allegory, God and the Israelites are having trouble because the community of nations around them is against the union.
Possible Allegory #2: God and the Soul
This here interpretation is a little bit more personal. The idea is that uniting God's will and the will of the soul is a tricky business that's subject to lots of obstacles. Just like our two lovers, who yearn to be together, but are kept apart.
A really important philosopher, Maimonides, put it this way:
What is the proper form of the love (of God)? It is that he should love the Lord with great, overpowering, fierce love to the extent that his soul is bound to the love of God and he dwells on it constantly, as if he were love-sick for a woman and dwells on this constantly, whether he is sitting or standing, eating or drinking. (Source)
Hmmm. Dwelling on love? We feel like we've heard that before.
Possible Allegory #3: Jesus and His Flock
This possibility is a lot like #1, but instead of the Israelite God and his people, it's Jesus and his flock. Jesus was around about a millennium after this was supposedly written down, but a lot of Christian thought asserts that the Hebrew Bible anticipates the New Testament in all sorts of ways. So in this allegory, Jesus wants to love the people and vice versa, but society conspires against them. Oh, society. You ruin everything.
What do you think?