Altogether Lovely: A Thematic and Intertextual Reading of the Song of Songs

Cover of Altogether Lovely

Dharamraj reads the Song of Songs intertextually with the prophetic texts; within a literary culture, texts grow out of a shared linguistic, aesthetic, and ideological substratum, and then influence the interpretation of each other when they are read together. Song of Songs paired with the prophetic texts profiles the ideal human-human and divine-human love relationships. She engages four of the Song’s main themes with passages that portray the YAHWEH-Israel marriage metaphor: (1) love in separation (Song 2:8˗3:5 and 5:2˗6:3) compared with Hosea 2, (2) the praise of beauty (Song 5:9˗6:3) with Ezekiel 16:1˗22, (3) gardens as a metaphor for the female lover (Song 4:8˗5:1) with Isaiah 5:1˗7, and (4) love and its jealousy (Song 8:5˗14) with Ezekiel 23:1˗21, 40˗44.

Altogether Lovely is thoroughly researched and includes copious footnotes. Dharamraj reviews the history of interpretation of Song of Songs by Jewish writers who allegorized the love story to represent the love between God and his people during one of their periods of dispersion, either in Egypt or during the Babylonian exile. Early Christian fathers applied it either to the church or to the individual. Twentieth-century commentators re-focused on human-human love.

In the Ancient Near East, sexual identity was not primarily about having a male or female body, but about having or not having male-like power over others. Whereas deity as the higher status entity more often was gendered as male and the lesser was considered female, when a king related to a female deity, there was neutralization of gender. In a culture where the non-autonomous marriage partner was female, it was natural for Israel to identify with the woman of Songs. This is ironic in that she doesn’t resemble her domesticated social counterpart; she takes initiative in an egalitarian relationship.

The Hosea 2 man is the seeker, whereas in Songs, the woman emerges with the stronger profiling. “If not for the Song, the Old Testament divine-human marital metaphor would locate the devotee in the company of sundry lovers, leaving deity inhabiting a continual state of love-in-separation.” The Hosea husband urges the woman to call him “my husband” (’ish) rather than the usual “my master” (ba‘al); this subverts patriarchy and initiates a paradigm of mutuality. When the Hosea husband seduces and re-betroths himself and his wife, there is a sexually charged reversal of the usual male subject of “know”: she will “know” him.

In Songs 5 the woman finds her lost man; in Ezekiel 16 the man loses the woman he found. Both texts establish the beloved as objectively beautiful by appealing to public affirmation and associating them with royalty. The woman’s poem is like an Arab wasf wedding poem or ancient sacred deity text that lists the beloved’s body parts from head to toe. She has personally experienced the architecturally portrayed ivory slab and marble pillar body parts. Gold in Eastern imagery indicates extreme value and evokes allusions to biblical royalty. The bridegroom is not Solomon, but he stands out like Solomon among other kings and becomes god-like.

The Ezekiel 16 husband elevates his wife from abandoned nothing into the ranks of royalty. In actions unthinkable for a traditional Eastern man, he becomes like a handmaid by washing away her blood, perfuming her, dressing her in embroidery, putting on her sandals, and decorating her with expensive jewelry including a crown. But the woman irrationally gives it all away to lovers, described in male sexually aggressive terms, “pouring out” her whoring.

Whereas Jewish literature hesitated to attribute a beautiful body to God, Christians apply biblical parallels to the incandescent Christ: he is glorious in crimson apparel (Is 63:1), splendid in beauty (Ps 44:3), like the bright golden head of Daniel’s dream image and the eye-blinding being of Daniel 10, Ezekiel 1’s glowing fiery vision, all leading to the transfigured One and post-resurrection Christ of John’s Revelation.

The Songs of Lebanon that treat the woman as a metaphorical garden, an idea welcomed in ancient times, resonate with the Isaiah’s Song of the Vineyard; in both poems the man desires the satisfaction of enjoying its fruit and serves willingly, hoping for returns. Songs “shows both mutual dependency and reciprocity between the lovers…she is an equal partner in the consummation, deriving just as much pleasure in receiving her beloved into the garden as he does by coming in.”

Isaiah 5:1˗7 could be thought of as a juridical parable; as it begins, the listeners imagine that it is about someone else, but at the end it lures them into passing judgment on themselves. Isaiah refers to YHWH as his beloved; this is the relationship that Israel should, but does not, have with her God. When applied allegorically, the woman, either Israel in exile or the Church bride, is foregrounded; in both cases deity responds with delight.

The fourth pair of texts, Songs 8 and Ezekiel 23, develop the theme of exclusive jealous love. The Songs countercultural woman leans on the man in public view and in private arouses the man. Warnings to not arouse love, thought to be a male prerogative, are repeatedly made to a group of women. She seals her ownership of the man and, with allusions to ancient mythology, asserts that Love cannot be resisted any more than can Water, Fire, or Death. Unlike Solomon who had a thousand women, but rented his vineyard to tenants, thus having no direct relationship or satisfaction with it (Song 8:11˗12), she is her one’s exclusive vineyard. Her virginity was protected like a wall until she chose her man.

In sordid contrast, the sisters of Ezekiel 23 have no walls. Although a man marries and cares for them, they discard his respectable love, offering themselves in a downward spiral of debauchery without satisfaction. They begin in Egypt then consort with Assyrians and Babylonians. In antithesis of the Songs woman’s shalom, Oholah and Oholibamah find their souls “dislocated.” As punishment for adultery, their jealous forgotten husband turns them over to be tortured by their lovers. They drink from the bitter cup, then tear their flesh in insane agony.

Song of Songs read along with the prophets helps us understand that both human and divine love are imperfect if love is not exclusive. It critiques “the sad fact that Israel’s wrongdoing can most effectively be communicated to her through the savage rhetoric of gendered power dynamics.”

Dharamraj elucidates the structures of the Hebrew poems and exegetes their metaphors with reference to ancient literary cultures. Terminology like chiastic, paronomasia, hendiadys, leitwort, topoi, inclusio, hapax, isomorphic-- may require a lexicon for full appreciation. The inclusion of key words in Hebrew script, with details of their grammatical form, would be of interest to biblical scholars familiar with the language, but should not be an obstacle to pastors, teachers, or the average reader wishing an in-depth exegesis.

Book info
Publisher:
Fortress Press
Year:
2018
ISBN:
978-1506423203