The Song of Solomon (Hebrew: Shir Hashirim, Song of Songs) is like a pebble in a pool, from which ripples spread out in ever-widening circles. From early Christianity and rabbinic Judaism onwards, the love for a particular place and a particular woman which Zeev Raban catches in his early-twentieth-century work has been taken as speaking of God’s love for his own particular people, tracing over a pattern that repeats across the biblical canon. God’s love for his people is always taking the shape of human lovers. Israel pledges her spousal loyalty to God in Deuteronomy (6:4–25); prophets like Ezekiel (16:15–63) and Hosea (2:4–17) trace the agony of unfaithfulness and rupture; the restored marriage of the later chapters of Isaiah (49:14–23; 54:1–15; 60:1–18; 62:1–12) leads to the new Jerusalem as a bride in Revelation 21 (Carr 2001: 1–24).
Readers reading from within this pattern have found in the Song a language for love’s exuberance; they speak in that language as they celebrate the love between God and his own. Allegorical readings, though much criticized, do capture something of love’s rapturous excess of signification in the Song. The Targum of the Song, a late antique interpretative translation of the Hebrew Bible into Aramaic, reproduces the Song’s endless variegation of lovers’ talk. The nectar dripping from the woman’s lips is the prayer of Israel’s priests; the milk and honey of her tongue are the people’s songs of praise; the shoots of her pomegranate trees are the young men of Israel, vigorous as saplings and bursting with the promise of fruitfulness like a pomegranate bursting with seeds (Alexander 2003: 139–40, 142–43).
The Targumist voices the lovers’ infatuation with each detail of the beloved, just as Jacopo Tintoretto itemizes each ornament which attaches itself to Susanna’s beauty, with an intricate attentiveness equal to the Song’s own. Likewise in the Midrash on the Song, God’s particular love for Israel and her institutions is distilled from the love-language of the Song: ‘Said Rabbi Menahem … “I come to the garden” is not what is written, but rather, “I come to my garden”.’ Israel is God’s very own beloved garden. The myrrh and spice of the Song are here the handfuls of frankincense burnt on the altar of the Tabernacle, the honey is the burnt offering with its sweet smoke, and the milk and wine are libations poured out in worship (Neusner 1989: 2.57–94).
For Ambrose, transposing this typology to a Christian key in his treatise On Virgins in 377 CE, the walls of the garden become the walls of the Church. Like Tintoretto, Ambrose sees Susanna walking in this garden: its locks are her inviolable modesty. Inside, the garden is ‘redolent of the vine, emits the fragrance of an olive tree, and bursts with roses’—but the sensuous language speaks here of another kind of love, that of consecrated chastity. Ambrose is writing to vowed virgins, betrothed to Christ as lover. But here the speech of the Song still expresses passionate desire. The works and words of the virgin are honey and nectar, and when she calls for the winds, her lover will reply, as her fragrance is wafted abroad: ‘in every corner of the globe the fragrance of sacred religion has increased, where the members of the beloved virgin have emitted their aroma’ (On Virgins 7.38–8.50 in Ramsey 1997: 85–6).
Throughout its long history of interpretation, the imagery and characters of the Song merge and separate, identified and then teased apart again. A lover is like an apple tree (2:3); a lover sits under an apple tree (8:5). In the Colmar altarpiece, the woman is within a garden with its own well, and yet both garden and well externalize aspects of herself. Symbols crystallize into realities and then dissolve back into symbols again. The woman who is ‘a garden fountain, a well of living water’ (4:15) resolves into another real woman and another well in the story of the Samaritan woman in John 4. As this woman sits beside her well, Jesus speaks to her; and as he speaks, the hills of Roman Palestine become a garden once again. The salvation which is from the Jews, Jesus tells the woman, is now ‘a spring of water gushing up to eternal life’ in front of her (John 4:13, 22). God and his beloved once more voice the exchange of need and gift, asking and answering, as the living water flows like the streams of Lebanon: ‘you would have asked him, and he would have given you’ … ‘the water that I will give’ … ‘Sir, give me this water’ … ‘Eat, friends, drink, and be drunk with love’ (John 4:10, 14, 15; Song 5:1).
Alexander, Philip S. 2003. The Targum of Canticles, The Aramaic Bible 17A (Collegeville: Liturgical Press)
Carr, David. 2001. ‘Passion for God: A Center in Biblical Theology’, Horizons in Biblical Theology, 23: 1–24
Neusner, Jacob. 1989. Song of Songs Rabbah: An Analytical Translation, 2 vols (Atlanta: Scholars Press)
Ramsey, Boniface, O.P. 1997. Ambrose (London: Routledge)
8Come with me from Lebanon, my bride;
come with me from Lebanon.
Depart from the peak of Amaʹna,
from the peak of Senir and Hermon,
from the dens of lions,
from the mountains of leopards.
9You have ravished my heart, my sister, my bride,
you have ravished my heart with a glance of your eyes,
with one jewel of your necklace.
10How sweet is your love, my sister, my bride!
how much better is your love than wine,
and the fragrance of your oils than any spice!
11Your lips distil nectar, my bride;
honey and milk are under your tongue;
the scent of your garments is like the scent of Lebanon.
12A garden locked is my sister, my bride,
a garden locked, a fountain sealed.
13Your shoots are an orchard of pomegranates
with all choicest fruits,
henna with nard,
14nard and saffron, calamus and cinnamon,
with all trees of frankincense,
myrrh and aloes,
with all chief spices—
15a garden fountain, a well of living water,
and flowing streams from Lebanon.
16Awake, O north wind,
and come, O south wind!
Blow upon my garden,
let its fragrance be wafted abroad.
Let my beloved come to his garden,
and eat its choicest fruits.
5I come to my garden, my sister, my bride,
I gather my myrrh with my spice,
I eat my honeycomb with my honey,
I drink my wine with my milk.
Eat, O friends, and drink:
drink deeply, O lovers!