The Song of Songs (Hermeneia)

Written by Roland E. Murphy, O. Carm. Reviewed By G. Lloyd Carr

Father Murphy’s contribution to Hermeneia continues that careful, thorough treatment of the material which we have come to expect from the series. Murphy’s long-time interest in the Song (his published material goes back to 1949) and his wide-ranging knowledge of the relevant literature makes this a valuable tool.

Any commentator working on the Song is faced with major interpretive problems, and it is difficult to maintain a proper balance between the desire to explain every jot and tittle of the text and the need to maintain a reverent agnosticism in the face of some of the issues. Father Murphy has managed this well.

Murphy follows most modern commentators in rejecting a Solomonic (10th-century bc) date for the book as it now stands, but he is not so confident in identifying when it was written. As he notes, the philological material reveals parallels all the way from Ugarit (14th century) to the Greek period (third-century bc).

The Hebrew text is in relatively good shape, and in the few cases where major difficulties occur, the ancient versions are of little help—the problems obviously ante-date the third century bc. What is a problem is the presence of a large number of unique or unusual words. Over one-third of the vocabulary of the Song occurs so infrequently in the biblical material that there is little context from which accurate meaning can be deduced. Over two-thirds of the verses in the Song contain one or more of these uncommon words. Nevertheless, Murphy’s judicious treatment of parallels from other Ancient Near Eastern literature often provides useful insight in these tricky areas.

A final, and in many ways the most important, problem associated with the interpretation of the Song is that of identifying the genre of the material we are dealing with. The traditional rabbinic and early Christian approach has been to treat the Song as an extended allegory (or, occasionally, as a cultic drama), describing the relationship between Yahweh (the lover/husband) and Israel (the beloved/wife) or between Christ and his bride, the church. Murphy devotes 30 pages to this view before turning to 17 pages on the Egyptian and Ancient Near Eastern love songs, and then an additional 32 pages of detailed examination of the structure, themes and rhetorical devices employed in the Song.

Murphy argues that the Song is a collection of love poems (not love ‘songs’), ‘a crafted work of poetic imagination that portrays the profound emotions of physical love between a man and a woman’ (p. 91). And then he tosses in another comment that at first glance appears totally revolutionary. ‘In sum, the multi-faceted rhetorical structures of the Song contribute in substantial measure to its aesthetic beauty as well as to a strong sense of its literary coherence. If this is the craft of an editorial compiler of diverse poems, she—or whoever did the work of “Solomon” named in the superscription—deserves to be recognized as a superlative poet in her own right’ (p. 91).

Many commentators, myself included, would disagree with some of Murphy’s proposals, both in specific instances on individual texts, or in some cases, in broad interpretation strategies, but it is beyond question that Murphy has given us a judicious treatment of this most difficult and most beautiful of Songs.

In my own ministry with students and in the church, I have found the Song of Songs to be particularly useful in pre-marital and marital counselling. The ever-present issues of committed relationship and our human sexuality are addressed in this small book. Father Murphy’s commentary is a major contribution and deserves careful attention from anyone seriously investigating the Song of Songs, God’s own commentary on Genesis 1–3.

G. Lloyd Carr

Gordon College, Wenham, Mass., USA