Song of Songs, by J. Cheryl Exum. Old Testament Library. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005. xxiv + 263 pp. $39.95. ISBN 0-664-22190-4.
No other book of the Old Testament has been the subject of more varied interpretations than Song of Songs. The traditional way of interpreting the book was allegorical, that is, that the book tells either of the love of God for Israel, or the love of Christ for the church, or the love of Christ for the believer.
In her commentary on this often-misunderstood book, J. Cheryl Exum rejects the allegorical view and interprets the book as a long lyrical poem dealing with erotic love and sexual desire. Her commentary aims to show that the book is a poem about true love between a man and a woman. In the dialogue between the two main protagonists of the poem, the poet shows what it means to be in love. The poet also shows that the body is both the object of desire and the source of delight, and that the two lovers seek to express their mutual love in the enjoyment of each other and in the consummation of their love.
Exum begins her book with a long introduction (86 pages) in which she discusses, among other topics, the poetics of the book and gender issues. In the poem, the lovers are not specific people. The man is a king and a shepherd but he is not Solomon. The woman is a member of the court and a woman who takes care of the vineyard. She is black (1:5) but she is also white like the moon and as radiant as the sun (6:10). Thus, according to Exum, although the man has been identified with Solomon (3:11) and the woman with the Shulammite (6:13), the lovers are universal. The man and the woman represent all lovers and this characterization allows readers to identify themselves with the characters of the book.
In another section of the introduction, Exum discusses reader strategies for understanding the sexual language of the book. One characteristic of Song of Songs is the strong, pervasive sexual language in the dialogue between the two lovers. The dialogue is filled with innuendos, double entendre, metaphors, and poetic language. This metaphorical language invites the reader to imagine whether sexual intimacy between the lovers has taken place. Exum’s interpretation of 5:2-6 is a good example of the explication of double entendre in the book. Readers must decide whether the book is voyeuristic or erotic (p. 24).
The introduction also deals with issues of composition, authorship, and date of writing. Exum rejects the view that the book is an anthology of songs or a collection of poems. Rather, she accepts Songs as a unity and that a single author composed the book. She recognizes the probability that the book received some minor editing in the process of transmission. According to Exum, a poetic vision of love inspired the author and that vision guided the poem’s composition. Thus, the only way to gain a proper understanding of the Song is by reading the book as a unified work.
In the section “The Song of Songs and Its World,” she shows how the author draws on the cultural heritage of love poetry of the Ancient Near East, primarily from Mesopotamia and Egypt (pp. 47-63). She rejects a cultic setting for the book by emphasizing that Songs is a literary work and not a cultic text. She also rejects the view that the book is associated with some kind of ritual celebrating the marriage between Yahweh and Asherah since such a dynamic would have prohibited acceptance into the canon (p. 64).
Exum says that that the gender of the author cannot be deduced from the book. She believes that given the level of literacy in ancient Israel, it is probable that a man wrote the poem; however, she does not rule out the possibility of an educated woman as author. She believes that it is also possible that a male author used a cultural product developed by a woman to compose his work. Exum acknowledges that it is, unfortunately, impossible to ascertain the date or place of composition (p. 67). The reference to Jerusalem in the book does not necessarily mean that the book was written in that city.
This commentary offers a fresh and inspiring approach to Song of Songs. Exum provides her own translation of the text, along with copious notes and identification of the speakers in the dialogue. The language of the book makes translation difficult as the book contains many words that appear only once in the Bible, many words that are unique to the Song, and many rare words whose meaning is obscure. Exum divides her commentary into ten sections with a verse by verse interpretation of the text. The book contains a bibliography listing commentaries on the Songs, monographs, and articles, but no indexes. I recommend this book to pastors and seminary students.
Note: This book review was published in the Review and Expositor 105 (Spring 2008), 333-35.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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