[Illustration from Die Bucher der Bibel, by Ephraim Moses Lilien]
Today we assume the proper way to read Scripture is for it's plain (and/or historical) meaning. This way of reading started to appear in the Middle Ages and accelerated with the Reformation. While rarely acknowledged, however, the plain sense of Scripture often presents problems. Take Shir ha-Shirim/Song of Songs (or Song of Solomon, or Canticles), for example. The plain meaning is - - there is nothing 'religious' at all about this book. It's a collection of ancient love poems, maybe even wedding poems. But it never mentions God, it teaches no ethics, it contains no metaphysics beyond the romantic assertion that "love is stronger than death." In short, we all know, its only rock 'n roll....
Modern fundamentalist churches, I've noticed, try to teach it, but even if they are "six-day creation," "sun stood still," "walk-on-water" literalists, they immediately abandon the obvious meaning when it comes to the SofS. Within a breath or two, all these hot-guy-pursues-lusting-maiden lyrics become a symbolic representation of Christ and the church.
In doing so, they revert to the now much poo-pooed but indispensable medieval strategy of "allegorical" reading. I don't fault the preachers for surrendering their fundamentalism in the face of this work. In order to make religion out of this stuff, one has to get allegorical. In fact, the book was probably included in the canon in the first place only because the Rabbis were persuaded that reading it allegorically as the love between Israel and God is the only real meaning.
For most of its interpretive history, in fact, the Bible has been treated as a cryptic text. The Jewish assumption has been that it operates on (at least) two levels, the niglah and nistar (The revealed and concealed). And Song of Songs was held to be the most esoteric of all the canon, because it has no niglah, only nistar. Thus the medieval Jewish commentator ibn Kaspi wrote:
Solomon, a"h, composed three books which we possess, corresponding to three types of discourse....entirely open and literal....entirely hidden, with nothing revealed...
the third has both hidden and revealed....Song of Songs is the second type...
(Commentary to Song of Songs)1
But once you claim to hold the key to unlock the secret treasure (i.e., "Its about God and Israel" or "God and the soul") then you have explain the parabolic meaning of all the figures, symbols, or imagery - what do the "garden," "nut," or "breasts" refer to? In Judaism, this has led to a vast array of interpretive strategies and conclusions. Here are just a cross-section:
A Love-Dialogue Between God and the Community Israel
This usually assumes that the images are all related in some way to events of the Exodus (Midrash Song of Songs) or to the entire arc of Jewish history, from Abraham to the Messiah (Targum Song of Songs)
A Dialgoue Between God and the Soul
This Neo-Platonic perspective is the primary focus of Issak ibn Sahula's 13th Century commentary.
A Dialogue Between the Torah and its Disciples
This reading is, to my knowledge, only to be found in the writings of Solomon Alkabetz (16th Century)
A Dialogue Between the Material and the Intellect
This scholastic-philosophic interpretation is exemplified in the commentary of Gersonides (14th Cent.)
An Dialogue Between the Feminine and Masculine Aspects of Divinity
This Kabbalistic reading begins (as far as I know) with Ezra of Gerona (13th Century). The Zohar includes this interpretation in Zohar Hadash.
In a following entry I will further explore SoS by providing a couple of sample readings to illustrate some of these interpretive strategies.
1. Berlin, Biblical Poetry Through Medieval Jewish Eyes, p. 105.