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Education: The Song of Solomon: An afterword for teachers
This is an "afterword, because it only makes sense after the other articles have been read! André Chouraqui gives the traditional Jewish interpretation of the Song, but in his full text (from which our article was taken) there is reference to the kabbalistic writers who see encapsulated in the Song the whole of revelation from first creation to last judgment.
"The Song summarizes the entire Bible and the whole work of creation; the mystery of the patriarchs, the slavery in Egypt and the deliverance of Israel therefrom; the canticle sung after the crossing of the Red Sea, the Decalogue and the theophany at Sinai; all that Israel endured in the desert until the entry into the Promised Land and the building of the Temple. It is a synthesis of the mystery of the Holy Name given from on high; of the resurrection of the dead and the events which will take place prior to the coming of the day known as the Sabbath of the Lord."
(The Zohar II, 144a)
The Targum cited in Gleanings shows the Beloved as the Assembly of Israel, whose Lover is none other than God. She is the dove who hides in the cleft of the rock, and the jewels bestowed on her are the spoils taken from the Egyptians at the Exodus, etc. etc.
The Fathers of the Church thought along these lines, applying the symbolism to Christ and the Church, as we see in the writings of Ambrose (333-397) and Gregory of Nyssa (335-394) among others. This type of Christian exegesis flourished throughout the Middle Ages; un¬fortunately the further the Church grew away from her Jewish roots, the further her exegesis moved away from the traditional interpretation, until by the eighteenth century the Song was seen merely as a rather risqué secular love lyric! From here it was a short step to the false prudery of the nineteenth century which saw it as frankly pornographic. And this, one might say, is where my generation came in, because in Catholic circles this attitude lasted well into the present century. In the 1930's we were given "The Bible Beautiful" in the class, carefully bowdlerized to make the Word of God fit for our virgin ears and making us equally carefully compare the text with the real thing, available through our non-Catholic class-mates, to discover what had been left out! Twenty years later I fully concurred with the custom in the boarding school of giving the girls a long sleep on the morning Suzannah and the Elders featured in the liturgy! The Song itself presented few problems as it very seldom appeared in the context of worship; rightly so one felt, having lived through the experience of standing up in choir and intoning "I am black but beautiful" after long years when the Shulamite's complexion had been decently hidden under a Latin veil!
The Relearning Process
But now we are beginning to relearn the traditional interpretation of the Song from our Jewish brothers and sisters and as teachers we have to ask ourselves how and when we can use it to deepen our pupils' under¬standing of the Bible as "The Word of God in the words of men". Starting at the level of "the words of men" I think it a good rule of thumb to say it can be introduced at the same time as any other great love lyric; that is, when youngsters are past the giggly stage and ready to appreciate the power and complexity of human love. Our 16-18 year olds study love poems and novels a good deal more explicit than the Song, and take them in their stride. Collaboration with the English Literature Department is fruitful, as it is often using classical love poems of the romantic school which may be referred to for comparison.
Levels of Study
The Song goes deeper than this, however, because it is the "Word of God" which is found in these "words of men". The first level of study will certainly have revealed some puzzling imagery which can only be really understood in terms of Israel and her God. The language of the Song is rather like that of apocalypse in so far as it is also a kind of code, and success in interpreting it depends on holding the key. Armed with this key, the 'cracking' of the code becomes a fascinating process.
The three great acts of the drama are revealed, as described by André Chouraqui, and the details can be more or less filled in by reference to the Kabbalists. I have used this approach to the Song as a framework for a whole revision program for an Old Testament course with 17-18 year olds, and found it very rewarding.
A caveat! For Christians there is always the temptation to feel it is preferable to use the analogy of Christ and the Church rather than that of Israel and God, but it is not to be recommended unless the teacheris thoroughly conversant with the dangers of giving the impression that Christ and the Church took over where God and Israel left off! Moreover, not only must the dangers be recognized, they must also be avoided.
A third level of undestanding which should not be neglected is that of seeing the Song as mapping the progress of the mystic relationship between God and the individual soul. It is very deep, and can be touched on only with those groups who are prepared to walk a little way with Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross and other mystics. Undoubtedly there are young people today who are earnestly seeking a way to God through Yoga or Zen, unaware of the path offered by the Christian mystical tradition, and a study taken for academic reasons may well end for some in a face-to-face encounter with their Maker. It is a common human experience, not only that of the Shulamite, to say: "I called him, but he gave no answer" rather than "Let me hear your voice!"
Sr. Mary Travers, N.D.S. is responsible for Catechetics at SIDIC).