Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Historical-Grammatical Interpretation and the Song of Songs

In my last post, I mentioned that one reason given for rejecting the allegorical, or symbolic, interpretation of the Song is the fact that the church has adopted the historical-grammatical approach to interpretation. The raises two questions. First, what is historical-grammatical interpretation (HGI)? Second, how does this affect our approach to the Song?

What is HGI? To put it in simple terms that must then be unpacked, HGI is interpreting a text in the ordinary sense of the words in their grammatical relationship and in their historical relation. For example, if we read a statement in the newspaper that so-and-so is a nice person, we gather from that statement that the person mentioned is pleasant or agreeable. But if we read that same statement in the context of The Canterbury Tales, we would take the word wrongly if we thought it meant that the person was pleasant. Because in the time of Chaucer, to call someone “nice” was to say that they were foolish or ignorant, because that was the meaning of the word at that time. Later, by the sixteenth century, the word “nice” had acquired the sense of “finicky” or “particular” or “picky.” Thus HGI requires us to understand the language of the Bible in its historical context.

Another example, this time of a biblical word, may help. You may have sometimes heard a preacher say that the Greek word dynamis means explosive power, since the word dynamis is the origin of the word dynamite. So, when Jesus tells the disciples in Acts 1:8 that they shall receive power, Jesus means explosive power. But that is to misread Jesus’ statement, because the word “dynamite” comes from the late nineteenth century, and the usage of the Greek word in the first century simply meant strength, power, or ability, in contrast to weakness or inability.

In addition to their historical setting, the words in Scripture have to be read and understood in their grammatical context. It is an overstatement to say that a word has no meaning apart from context, but it is not a huge overstatement. Take, for example, the word “lead.” Without context, you have no idea what I’m referring to. Further, you don’t even have any idea how to pronounce the word. It may be pronounced “led,” in which case the word is a noun, and refers to a particular metal. But it may also be pronounced “leed,” in which case it may be a noun or a verb. So the grammatical context of a word is as essential to its proper understanding as is its historical context.

How does this affect the way we read the Song of Songs? This is where HGI runs into a problem, because HGI recognizes the reality of figurative language, such as metaphor, simile, and symbolism. But HGI itself will not tell the reader when figurative language is being used. That has to be determined by markers in the larger context of a work, and at times interpreters will disagree as to whether those markers are present, or what their significance may be. So when Jesus calls Herod a fox in Luke 13:32, Jesus is using a metaphor. But there is no marker in the sentence or the paragraph itself that tells us that. It is simply the common sense of the reader that recognizes that Jesus is not speaking literally, but figuratively.

So with the Song of Songs, the language of the Song itself, even the historical context of the Song (of which more later), does not tell us directly whether the language is intended to be symbolic or figurative, or literal. That has to be determined by considering the larger theological and canonical contexts of the Song. My own sense is that the modern interpretation of the Song is not driven by HGI, because HGI cannot answer the question. Instead, it is driven by the consideration of ancient Near Eastern parallels, and by a certain academic distaste for allegory and symbolism, even though symbolic and figurative language are found throughout the Scriptures.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Thoughts on the Song of Songs

Since I received a copy of the new edition of the Reformation Study Bible last week, and since I was lecturing on the Song of Songs tonight, I spent some time dipping into the RSB discussion of the Song. According to it, “The overarching theme of the Song is love and sex.” The three subthemes are delight, disappointment, and desire. This is probably the consensus view of the Song today, but I find it disappointing.

First, I find it disappointing because that is certainly not the consensus view of the Reformed tradition. The consensus view of the Reformed tradition is that the Song is an allegory, either of the relationship between God and the church or that between God and the soul of the believer. The reasons for leaving that tradition behind are, according to the RSB, are first, the adoption of a historical-grammatical approach to interpretation; and second, the archaeological “discoveries of love poetry akin to the Song from the ancient Near East.”

Second, I find it disappointing because it fails to take seriously the larger biblical-theological context of the Song. Part of the problem may have to do with identifying the older view as allegory. Though “allegorical” is commonly used to refer to the older method of interpreting the Song, it is really inaccurate. The approach is more symbolic, in that the various elements of the Song (as the tradition approached it) symbolized spiritual elements. That is, they were signs pointing to spiritual realities.
Now I agree that many of the older interpreters went overboard in attempting to find a spiritual symbol in every detail of the text. But the misuse of an approach to the study of the Song does not mean that the approach itself is wrong. Rather, the approach needs to be more carefully defined, and more appropriately applied.

My own sense is that the Song is intended to be impressionistic. Not every detail in itself has significance. Instead, the picture taken as a whole, made up of its constituent elements, is where the significance is found. From this, three considerations come forth to aid in the understanding of the Song as a whole. First, the erotic element in the Song is relatively minor. The majority of the Song, even read in a literalistic manner has nothing to do with eroticism.

Second, the title of the book “The Song of Songs” is a Hebrew way of stating a superlative; that is, “The Greatest Song.” Now I would be the last person to minimize the importance and reality of marital love. But there is a much greater love that far exceeds “love and sex.” That is the love of God for his people.

Third, the reader should note how the descriptions in the Song regularly relate to the features of the land of Israel. Thus, the indication is that the church is being represented by the land (a common element in the Old Testament), the land of God’s own chosen people. So the Song does indeed speak of the relationship between God and his people. To my mind, a sensible impressionistic treatment of the Song is more faithful to the intent of the Song in its biblical-theological context. Further, such an approach avoids the crass, and sometimes disgusting, ways in which the Song has been so cavalierly treated in our day.