When Song of Songs Uses a Word, It Doesn’t Always Mean What We Think It Means
Written by The Ministry of Jesus Christ on April 25, 2022
Standing outside a Coptic church in Cairo, I saw a mosaic that sent me back to a college hermeneutics class. In the image’s foreground, a man lay slumbering as an angel hovered over him, pointing. I followed the finger to a horizon dotted with pyramids. And I recognized the Bible’s second “Joseph and Egypt” story, which recounts the holy family’s flight from Herod’s persecution.
The image reminded me of how I’d wrestled with a passage from Matthew’s Gospel: “Out of Egypt I called my son” (2:15). The passage was suggesting that when the toddler Jesus returned from the land of pyramids, he had “fulfilled,” in Matthew’s words, a vision from the prophet Hosea: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son” (11:1). Yet Hosea, for his part, wasn’t issuing a prediction about the coming Messiah. He was thinking back to an event he knew from Israel’s history: God’s deliverance of his people from Pharoah’s yoke.
For years I struggled to see how the holy family’s return from Egypt truly fulfilled Hosea’s prophesy. But then my hermeneutics professor explained that Matthew was using “fulfilled” to mean something closer to “epitomized,” or “filled to the full in meaning.” In modern parlance, we might imagine Matthew saying, “Talk about calling your Son out of Egypt!”
When we try shoehorning a prediction into our reading of Hosea’s vision, my professor said, we end up distorting it. Instead, he argued, we should treat Matthew’s choice of language as an exercise in literary layering. In other words, he was drawing on earlier biblical motifs to amplify his point.
I thought of that lecture often as I read Aimee Byrd’s new book The Sexual Reformation: Restoring the Dignity and Personhood of Man and Woman. Byrd is probably best known for a previous book, Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, which raised many questions about how evangelicals speak of manhood and womanhood within the church. In this latest release, she diagnoses the church’s broken handling of human sexuality and points to a solution in Scripture. But her interpretive framework is open to question.
Word and meanings
To summarize Byrd’s argument: We’ve allowed views of gender to emerge from teachings of some church fathers who were more rooted in Aristotle than Genesis. We have held up June Cleaver as the ideal woman rather than the one in Proverbs 31, who’s out making real estate deals (v. 16) amid other “vigorous” tasks (v. 17). When we’ve stood strong on truth, we’ve often sacrificed grace. Or vice versa. And we’ve barred the front door against feminism while leaving the back door wide open to the kind of misogyny that resulted in the #MeToo and #ChurchToo movements.
Byrd’s proposed solution is looking at Song of Songs through a specific interpretive lens. She sees the Song as revealing a “typology in God’s design of man and woman, one that unfolds throughout the canon of scripture.” She describes this approach as reading the Song “Christianly,” which means looking for its “divine authorial intent” rather than the intent of its human author.
Throughout her book, Byrd shows how she prefers this method to a variety of alternative approaches. For centuries, rabbis have seen it as an allegory of love between God and Israel. The early church read it as an allegory of the relationship between Christ and the church. More recently, many scholars have taken it at face value as poetry that extols human love as a gift from God.
Responding to this later interpretation, Byrd warns, “We cannot flat-foot the Song as a horizontal love-and-sex manual” and “We cannot flat-foot our sexuality under the weight of cultural conventions.” And she’s right that the Song is far more than a guide to great marital sex. Indeed, while some have seen the Song as a chronological guide through courtship, love, and marriage, such an understanding has problems beyond flawed methods of Bible interpretation. Courtship, for one thing, was virtually nonexistent at the time the Song was written (or its poetry collected). And a chronological reading misses some of the distinctive elements of Hebraic literary structure, which wasn’t bound by the sort of beginning-middle-end conventions that wouldn’t exist until hundreds of years later.
Many will agree with Byrd’s assessment that the church needs to reform its understanding of God’s design for men and women. But the path she takes from problem to solution is another story. Sadly, Byrd’s typological method of interpreting Song of Songs leads her to some conclusions that run contrary to basic rules of word usage.
Describing the bride in the Song, Byrd points out that she has “dove’s eyes” (1:15), an image the woman applies to her husband later in the book (5:12). Noting that the bride “finds peace” in her lover’s eyes (8:10), she argues, “The dove is clearly a symbol of the Holy Spirit.” Clearly?
Then, reflecting on the prominence of lilies in the book (2:1–2, 16; 4:5; 5:13), Byrd says they “remind us of God’s people, the church.” About the bride’s references to myrrh (5:1, 5, 13) she writes, “Myrrh is the perfume of the temple. It’s as if she is saying that we, the collective church, are on [the lover’s] lips!”
Yet none of these interpretations is anywhere near as straightforward as Byrd suggests. On what basis of authority does she make them? Readers never get a clear answer. “The question of authorial intent,” Byrd argues, “is not given to us. It’s a Song. … So why would we spend our energies probing into that when the typo-symbolic reading is the plainer reading?” Which only raises the question: Plainer to whom?
At one point, Byrd notes a parallel between the king in the Song being bound by the beloved’s hair (7:5) and Jesus being bound when he is arrested, as recorded by John (18:24). Now, in this example, the author of the fourth Gospel does use literary layering as he borrows words and images from the Song. But seeing the bound Savior in the original reference to the bride’s hair? It reminds me of the oft-quoted scene in one of the Alice in Wonderland books, in which Humpty Dumpty tells Alice that when he uses a word, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” In response, Alice wonders aloud “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
Byrd warns of misguided interpreters who “read with modern metaphysical and critical methods, believing they are being faithful to the plain sense of the text.” She suggests that their “good intentions have not taken into account the providence of God in divine authorship.” But allowing words to have so many meanings—isn’t that relying too much on human imagination?
It’s true that by exalting sexual love, the Song points to God’s good gift of physicality. We know from Paul in Ephesians 5 that marriage is a picture of Christ and the church, and from Revelation 19 that a great wedding awaits the church, which is Christ’s bride. So, in human love and consummation we see the future of redeemed humanity foreshadowed.
But we can make this connection confidently only because the future event remains rooted in the meaning of the earlier, which has its own meaning in its original context. After all, what meaning has a “fuller” truth without an original meaning of its own on which to build an analogy?
A different path
In The Sexual Reformation, Byrd has diagnosed well. Indeed, the church has a problem, and a lot of wrong pathways have led us to where we are. Byrd’s prescription is to look to the Bible for help. And on this we can agree. She notes, “As weighty as these issues are, we are addressing symptoms without getting to the root: what our longings are created for, where our desires should be oriented, what the meaningfulness of our sex is, and what we are living fo