In my very first post on this blog (posted over a year ago) I mentioned a curious interpretation of the Song of Songs, which sees Solomon and the true beloved as two separate persons. In May I had to do a workshop on the Song of Songs for a conference here, and so I decided to take a closer look at the said interpretation. Marvin Pope brings it up in his overview of interpretations in the Anchor Bible Commentary on the Song. Apparently, there are some hints at a distinction between Solomon and the beloved in certain medieval Jewish commentaries, but the full fledged interpretation didn’t get worked out until the early days of historical criticism in the late 18th century by scholars such as Jacobi and Löwisohn. In the 19th century the Heinrich Ewald produced an extremely ingenious and detailed commentary in which the Song is read as genuine romantic drama, neatly divided into scenes of mounting tension etc. I used Ewald’s commentary for my workshop. It is remarkably neat, clearing up a great many difficulties, but it is hard not to smile sometimes at how like a 19th century novel the Song of Songs becomes. Here is a summary of the plot from the 1857 commentary of an Anglophone follower of Ewald, David Ginsburg:
There was a family living at Shulem, consisting of a widowed mother, several sons, and one daughter, who maintained themselves by farming and pasturage. The brothers were particularly partial to their sister, and took her under their special care, promising that her prudence and virtue should be greatly rewarded by them. In the course of time, while tending the flock, and, according to the custom of the shepherds, resorting at noon beneath a tree for shelter against the meridian sun, she met with a graceful shepherd youth, to whom she afterwards became espoused. One morning, in the spring, this youth invited her to accompany him into the field ; but the brothers, overhearing the invitation, and anxious for the reputation of their sister, in order to prevent their meeting, sent her to take care of the vineyards. The damsel, however, consoled her beloved and herself with the assurance that, though separated bodily, indissoluble ties subsisted between them, over which her brothers had no control. She requested him to meet her in the evening, and as he did not come, she feared that some accident had befallen him on the way, and went in search of him, and found him. The evening now was the only time in which they could enjoy each other’s company, as, during the day, the damsel was occupied in the vineyards. On one occasion, when entering a garden, she accidentally came in the presence of King Solomon, who happened to be on a summer visit to that neighbourhood. Struck with the beauty of the damsel, the King conducted her into his royal tent, and there, assisted by his court ladies, endeavoured with alluring flatteries and promises, to gain her affections ; but without effect. Released from the King’s presence, the damsel soon sought an interview with her beloved shepherd.
The King, however, took her with him to his capital in great pomp, in the hope of dazzling her with his splendour ; but neither did this prevail : for while even there, she told her beloved shepherd, who had followed her into the capital, and obtained an interview with her, that she was anxious to quit the gaudy scene for her own home. The shepherd, on hearing this, praised her constancy, and such a manifestation of their mutual attachment took place, that several of the court-ladies were greatly affected by it.
The King, still determined, if possible, to win her affections, watched for another favourable opportunity, and with flatteries and allurements, surpassing all that he had used before, tried to obtain his purpose. He promised to elevate her to the highest rank, and to raise her above all his concubines and queens, if she would comply with his wishes ; but, faithful to her espousals, she refused all his overtures, on the plea that her affections were pledged to another. The King, convinced at last that he could not possibly prevail, was obliged to dismiss her ; and the shepherdess, in company with her beloved shepherd, returned to her native place. On their way home, they visited the tree under which they had first met, and there renewed their vows of fidelity to each other. On her arrival in safety at her home, her brothers, according to their promise, rewarded her greatly for her virtuous conduct.
Twentieth century exegesis dismissed such readings on the basis of comparative studies of literary genre, and proposed that the Song is a collection of poems with only loose thematic links. Last year, however, Meik Gerhards questioned the “anthology hypothesis” in a study which was heavily discussed at our conference. Gerhards argues that the Song is a coherent whole, but not only that he tries to show that it was intended from the first as an allegory (that’s an astounding claim for a Protestant historical-critical exegete).
In my workshop I steered clear of the question as to whether Ewald’s interpretation holds historical-critical water, and instead focused (after an initial reading of the text with Ewald’s divisions) on what the consequences would be for the allegorical interpretation if one were to take Ewald as the literal meaning of the text. Ginsburg opposes the dramatic reading to all other readings including the traditional allegorical ones, but there is no reason internal to the interpretation itself for doing so. The workshop participants decided that one would take Solomon to signify the antichrist, and the humble shepherd as signifying Our Lord. This is easy to do since Solomon, the son of David, is really a type of Christ and the antichrist as a fake Christ is of course supposed to look like Christ. The bride would thus be the Church constantly tempted to follow the antichrist who tempts her with the splendor of this world to abandon the true Bridegroom, who in this age comes to her only in humble guise.