Ancient Near East Lecture Series: "Allegory, Mashal, or Figuration? The Song of Songs in Early Rabbinic Interpretation"
Thu, September 15, 2011 • 5:00 PM • Union, Texas Governor's Room
A lecture by Jonathan Kaplan (Yale University)
The earliest rabbinic sages interpreted the Song of Songs as chronicling the reciprocal and affective relationship between Israel and her God. In other words, they understood the “plain sense” of the Song of Songs as a divine love song, rather than a work of erotic, secular love poetry. Scholars have classically characterized this interpretation as allegorical. In early rabbinic literature, the sages do not, however, read the Song of Songs as allegory. Building on this observation, Daniel Boyarin proposes that we should understand the rabbis as using the Song of Songs as a mashal, or rabbinic parable, in their interpretation of the Torah. I contend instead that early rabbinic interpretation of the Song of Songs is typological, rather than a form of philosophical allegory or parabolic interpretation. Typology is best known in its Christian usage. In this mode, people, events, and institutions portrayed in the Old Testament serve as prefigurations of Jesus in the context of salvation history. Using their own form of typological or figural interpretation, the sages contextualized the Song of Songs in the ideal historical space of Israel’s honeymoon period with God – the Exodus through the Sinai Theophany and the wilderness experience. In this context the sages correlate the language and characters of the Song of Songs with the relationship between God, Israel, and the nations. Through this figural interpretation of the Song of Songs, the sages construct an idealized vision of the covenant relationship between Israel and her God.