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Song of Songs:
Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible

by paul j. griffiths
brazos, 240 pages, $32.99

In a justly famous study, Monks and Love in Twelfth-Century France, the great Cistercian scholar Jean Leclercq offered a psychohistory of monasticism to explain why St. Bernard of Clairvaux found it advisable to preach to his monks eighty-six sermons on the Song of Songs. His monks had renounced marital sex and intimacy for the sake of the kingdom of heaven and were striving to direct their desires for love single-heartedly toward God. Sensing their psychological need, the abbot of Clairvaux preached on the Bible’s love poetry in order to help them to see and understand its erotic imagery as the sign of a symbol, marriage itself being the “great mystery,” as Paul calls it in Ephesians, that refers to the spousal union between Christ and the Church.

Paul Griffiths, by contrast, intends his commentary to be read by Christian laymen and laywomen today, in an age when the sacramental nature of marriage urgently needs rediscovery and reaffirmation. The high rate of divorce and of partnering without vowed commitment, the powerful political and cultural forces urging the legal recognition of same-sex marriage, the general use of contraceptives by lovers, and the epidemic addiction to pornography require a new “figural” reading of the Song of Songs that offers a model for reordering our human loves. And this is precisely what Griffiths offers.

Song of Songs appears in the Brazos Theological Commentary edited by First Things editor R. R. Reno. Griffiths, professor of Catholic theology at Duke Divinity School, rejects a strictly literal interpretation of the text, but he also rejects an allegorical exegesis that would treat the Song’s literal eroticism merely as an elaborate verbal code to be cracked. He opts instead for a “figurative” or “figural” reading of what is literally erotic, in order to reclaim its sacramental significance and to awaken in the reader a deeper power of love for Christ and neighbor, including especially the nearest “neighbor,” one’s spouse.

He structures his commentary according to a pattern inspired by the practice of patristic and medieval exegetes. That ancient practice distinguished three levels of interpretation: first, the literal, which understands the text according to its plain-sense meaning, which is open to translation, paraphrase, historical contextualization, grammatical parsing, and etymology; second, the allegorical or figural, which understands the literal text to refer in a veiled way to God, Christ, the Church, Mary, and the soul; and third, the tropological or moral, which discovers in the literal text (often via its allegorical or figural interpretation) a personal application to one’s own life. The psalmist’s exhortation “Praise the Lord, O Jerusalem!” for example, is addressed historically to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, figuratively to the Church as the New Jerusalem, and tropologically to one’s own soul as the place of God’s indwelling.

Adapting this exegetical tradition, Griffiths first offers his own English translation of the New Vulgate Song of Songs, and the translation and his justification for it are among the book’s most valuable features. Among other things, he helpfully translates a repeated Latin word with the same English expression, to make clearer the recurrent themes and images within the Song of Songs, and he lets what is literally ambiguous (for example, the speaker of some lines) remain so.

In describing the translator’s work, he describes God’s address to us through Scripture as “a complex verbal caress . . . a kiss that he places upon his people’s lips.” Translations attempt to receive and return this kiss, though “the depth and passion of the kiss is unfathomable, no set of such words can exhaust it.”

In his commentary, he analyzes each verse according to its “surface features”—lexicon, syntax, rhetorical tropes, themes, grammatical ambiguities, voice—pointing to related passages elsewhere in the Bible that illumine its meaning. This close attention to the “letter” of the text enables him to explore “the resonances of the text with developed Christian doctrine and with its liturgical and dogmatic use by the Church,” and thus to unfold the “figural” meaning of the verse.

Finally, he switches from an exposition given in the third person to a second-person address to the reader, and to himself as a reader, in which he spells out what he takes to be “the import of the part of the Song under discussion for the ordering of your loves—loves, that is, of yourself, of the Lord, of other people, and of the world and what is in it.” The moral and ethical meanings he discovers in this way militate against any sharp opposition between eros and agape.

Insistent that his exegesis is “figural” rather than “allegorical,” Griffiths strives throughout to base his theological readings of the Song of Songs on literal readings that understand and take delight in its expressed passion and sensuousness. For example, when the lover compares his beloved to “a mare among Pharaoh’s chariots” (1:9), he interprets the image to imply the presence of stallions pulling the chariots and chasing the mare.

He lets his literal exegesis of the verse be guided by the song of Moses at the Red Sea, where Pharaoh’s horses, chariots, and charioteers have perished in their vain pursuit of Israel, the Lord’s beloved, his “mare.” The theological meaning, he suggests, is that “by means of his love for her [Israel], the Lord gets what he wants, which is finally the redemption of the world,” foreshadowed in Israel’s escape from Egypt’s “idolatrous slave empire.”

Finally, Griffiths exhorts each of us (now addressed as “you”) to understand our present desire for intimacy with God and others as having “as its true past” the Lord’s own saving action on our behalf, his rescue of us”who are like a “mare among Pharaoh’s chariots”—in order to claim us for himself. “The Song here begins, if you will permit it, its work of reconstruing your understanding of your own loves in a properly ecclesial direction, as participant in the Lord’s love for Israel-church and for you as a member of that body.”

As this example suggests, he takes seriously the seductive purpose of a literally erotic poem that biblical tradition has placed within its canon. That placement justifies his assumption, upheld by Jewish and Christian interpreters alike, that the lover whose voice is heard must be understood “to figure the Lord” in his love relationship with his people.

Griffiths’ effort to yoke together the eros of the literal sense and the charity of the theological sense is supported by the sacramental understanding of marriage announced in Ephesians and by the recurrent use of spousal imagery elsewhere in Scripture. It is important to him that the relationship between the erotic plain sense and the charitable hidden sense be recognized as “figural” rather than merely metaphoric.

A figure is never just a pointer to something else to which it bears a likeness. It has its own historical reality, which announces and helps to effect another historical reality. The love of the Lord for Israel is inseparable, at some level, from Jacob’s love for Rachel and Leah, from Abraham’s love for Sarah. These human love stories are part of the unfolding love story of God for his people, not just symbols of it. Similarly, the intimate, faithful, fruitful love between married Christian couples bears more than an analogous relationship to the love between Christ and his Church; it is itself an expression, means, and protection of that love.

Her role in the Incarnation as virgin bride and mother makes Mary the foremost figural link between the Church, for whom she serves as archetype, and the beloved of the Song. (Following the lead of the Church’s liturgy, which “weaves these three figurings together,” Griffiths sometimes uses the compound “Mary-church” in his theological exposition of the text.)

Partly in recognition of the modern developments in Marian devotion and understanding that culminated in new dogmatic formulations in 1854 and 1950 and in Vatican Council II’s recognition of Mary as “mother of the Church,” Griffiths regularly alludes to Mary (with cumulative effect) in his interpretation of every verse in which he discovers an ecclesial resonance.

For the most part, Griffiths succeeds very well in his sustained meditation on the meaning, literal and theological, of the Song of Songs. On occasion, though, his determination not to offer an “allegorical” interpretation leaves him momentarily at a loss. For example, when the “body-obsessed” lover crazily praises the beloved’s earrings and necklaces (1:10–11), Griffiths can only wonder about “the meaning of [such] excess.” Here, contrary to his preferred practice, he cannot use Scripture to comment on Scripture, because “ornamenting the female body is not . . . usually depicted in Scripture as a good thing.” Biblical references to earrings are rare.

He seizes in the end upon the general idea of the ornaments as the “gift” of a lover to his beloved, and therefore symbolic of all the Lord’s gifts of love. A medieval exegete would not hesitate to see the beloved’s attractive earrings as representing the resplendent virtues of her soul—for example, the openness of the soul’s “ears” to obedience. Griffiths derives a much more mundane moral than would the medieval exegete: “When you offer ornaments to your beloved, or receive them from your lover, . . . [remember that] you are acting as the Lord acted for Israel and as Christ did for the Church.”

Mundane, perhaps, but important for an age that too often forgets the ABCs of human love in its concrete, physical expressions and, unmindful of the basics, loses the capacity to know and experience the love of God. The grammar of love that guides Paul Griffiths’ profound reading of the Song of Songs schools us in an urgently needed unforgetting.

Ann W. Astell, a member of the Schoenstatt Sisters of Mary, is professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.