Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Song of Songs: Interpretation of Interpretations.

Over the last few weeks I've been mulling on the historical treatment of Eros within the Catholic Church. As I've said before, the Catholic Church was the big player in the development of European culture and thus its understanding of Eros profoundly influenced European culture's understanding of it. Particularly, I've been thinking about the historical treatment of the interpretation of Song of Songs. As this Wiki article mentions, Song of Songs is a "interesting" book of the Bible. A literal reading shows it to be about the Eros-love between a man and woman.
1. How beautiful are thy feet in sandals, O prince's daughter! Thy rounded thighs are like jewels, The work of the hands of a skilful workman.
2 Thy body is like a round goblet, Wherein no mingled wine is wanting: Thy waist is like a heap of wheat Set about with lilies.
3 Thy two breasts are like two fawns That are twins of a roe.
4 Thy neck is like the tower of ivory; Thine eyes as the pools in Heshbon, By the gate of Bath-rabbim; Thy nose is like the tower of Lebanon Which looketh toward Damascus.
5 Thy head upon thee is like Carmel, And the hair of thy head like purple; The king is held captive in the tresses thereof .
6 How fair and how pleasant art thou, O love, for delights!
7 This thy stature is like to a palm-tree, And thy breasts to its clusters.
8 I said, I will climb up into the palm-tree, I will take hold of the branches thereof: Let thy breasts be as clusters of the vine, And the smell of thy breath like apples,
9 And thy mouth like the best wine, That goeth down smoothly for my beloved, Gliding through the lips of those that are asleep.
Compared to other books, it gives little direct reference to God, His laws or even the implied obligation to procreate. It's basically an erotic poem that celebrates sexual love. Given the literal nature of the subject matter,  there was considerable controversy amongst the early church fathers as to whether it should be included in the Bible or not. Historically, the book has been treated an allegorical representation of God's love for his Church. Looking at the above passage, all I've got to say is, Hmmm.

Anyway, whilst thinking about this subject I got sidetracked into a discussion over the The Orthosphere which bought up the subject of Galileo. An interesting realisation occurred. Galileo was censured for advocating a view which directly contradicted the literal reading of scripture. On the other hand, Song of Songs literal meaning (i.e Erotic) was deliberately downplayed and its allegorical reading emphasised.  Why the interpretive inconsistency? Why is it, that when the subject matter is "positively" erotic the material is meant to be treated as allegorical, but when the subject matter is "negatively" erotic the matter is literal?

As I've said before, I think that the Church has an anti-carnal bias and sometimes I wonder how Eros would have fared if weren't so intimately tied with procreation and romance.

For those who are interested, here is a good and brief paper outlining the historical treatment of Song of Songs.


Puzzle Pirate said...

Fr. Barron actually addresses this a bit in this video. He refers to the Bible as a "library" so you take some sections literally and some not.

The Social Pathologist said...

Father Barron makes some good points. The only problem is that the Church's "considered interpretation" has changed (sometimes very reluctantly) with time. Galileo was canned because the Church understood the books wrongly. Perhaps it understood Song of Songs wrongly as well.

The problem with interpretation is that it is prone to cognitive and cultural biases.

Mark Minter said...

Interesting tidbit about your photo for this post.

That woman was a temperance supporter. She carried the Bible in one hand and a hatchet in the other.

The following is from Botany of Desire by Micheal Pollan.

During the 19th century, apples were THE thing in America. Often they were the only sweet thing available to those not close to a port. But the key use of Apples was for hard cider. The bible had expressed prohibitions against liquor, beer, wine, but no literal mention of cider. So there was a loophole there. And often cider was the only guaranteed germ free substance to drink. The reason Johny Appleseed was so famous was that he would float the Ohio river, plant trees before settlement arrived, then sell the trees once the settlers founded homesteads, primarily to make cider. So when temperance speakers would arrive in a town, the women and white knights would all come for the lecture. And the temperance hags would whip the crowd of women up with horror stories over the evils of alcohol and this horrible cider. And then at the termination of the affair, the women would all rush out in a rage and attack apple trees.

At the height of temperance, the apple industry realized it had an image problem and concocted the "apple a day keeps the doctor away".

And thus the "hatchet" as the symbol of temperance.

Anonymous said...

If you want to look about, explicit sexual symbolism is easily found in the Bible and Liturgy.

For example, on Holy Saturday, the priest used to pray:

"May He, by a secret admixture of his divine power render this water fruitful for the regeneration of men, to the end that a heavenly offspring, conceived in sanctification, may emerge from the immaculate womb of the divine font, reborn new creatures ... Do Thou with Thy mouth bless these pure waters: that besides their natural virtue of cleansing the body, they may also be effectual for the purifying of the soul. (Here the priest dips the Paschal candle in the water) May the power of the Holy Ghost descend into all the water of this font. (Then he with draws the candle from the water, sinks it into a greater depth and repeats a third time touching the bottom) And make the whole substance of this water fruitful for regeneration."

Its hard to miss the symbolism of a large phallus plunging into a fertile bowl.

The Social Pathologist said...

@Mark Minter

And thus the "hatchet" as the symbol of temperance.

Only in America!

8to12 said...

I made the same point using Proverbs 5:

The Wife from Proverbs 5 .

The subject of the proverb is sexual adultery. Right in the middle of warning of the calamities that will befall you have sex outside of marriage are these lines:

"Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice in the wife of your youth, a lovely deer, a graceful doe. Let her breasts fill you at all times with delight; be intoxicated always in her love."

Let her BREASTS fill you with delight? Not her smile or kindness or winning personality, but her breasts. A crude sexual reference.

Intoxicated in her love?

Strongs says the Greek word ('ahabah H160) refers to love between humans, including between a man and a woman; sexual desire.

Given that the context of the proverb is sexual desire, "love" here certainly is a reference to sex--s...e...x.

At what level does sex have to be that a man feels exhilarated to the point of intoxication by it? That's the type of sex that the Bible says should occur between a husband and wife. Mad, crazy, oh my God I didn't know it could be like that sex.

Notice what's missing in these verses about sex between a husband and wife? Condemnation. The verses that discuss chasing after an adulteress are full of rebukes and warnings, but when it comes to focusing those same sexual desires on your wife...not a word of rebuke. In fact, it's promoted; it's a good thing to sexually lust after your own wife.

lozozlo said...

The bible had expressed prohibitions against liquor, beer, wine, but


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