Song of Wisdom PDF Print E-mail
Written by Peter J. Leithart   
Wednesday, 21 July 2010 08:11

In our Bibles, the Song of Songs is grouped along with Proverbs and Ecclesiastes as “wisdom” literature.  Should it be?

It would seem not, as Aquinas would say.  The other wisdom books contrast wisdom and folly, repeatedly use “wisdom words” that have to do with understanding, teaching, knowledge, intelligence, prudence, shrewdness, cunning.  By contrast, the Song never uses the words “wisdom” or “wise,” “foolish,” “fool” or “folly.”  The Song uses the word “know” only once, but that’s in the (apparently) boorish answer to the bride’s plea “Tell me, O you whom my soul loves, where do you pasture your flock”: “If you do not know . . . go forth on the trail of the flock” (1:7-8).  Besides, on the face of it, the Song is a love poem, and even Nick Bottom the weaver knows that wisdom and love keep little company together nowadays.

Yet, there is the Song, not only keeping company with Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, but at the climax of the series of wisdom books.  Did the scribes who organized the canon know what they were doing?

Perhaps it was an act of despair.  After all, if we don’t include the Song among the wisdom books, where should we put it?  Jews have the happy option of placing it in the neutral category of “Writings,” but the Christian canon is too fixed by centuries of habit to reorganize.  The Song isn’t any more obviously prophecy than it is wisdom, it sure ain’t history, and no one wants a canonical category that includes only one book.  We can almost imagine a scribe shrugging in antique oriental resignation and pasting the Song after Ecclesiastes.

Sed contra, which is to say, on the other hand.  No doubt the scribes classified the Song as wisdom because of its poet.  Shir ha-shirim asher lishlomoh announces the title that is only slightly less alliterative in English: “Song of songs which is Solomon’s” (1:1).  Solomon wrote the Song; Solomon was the king of wisdom; therefore, the Song is a wisdom book.

There are other reasons for the choice as well.  Wisdom is a woman in Proverbs 1-9, and, though the Song lacks much of the abstract vocabulary of the other wisdom books, Edmee Kingsmill has shown in her eccentric and stimulating monograph The Song of Songs and the Eros of God (Oxford, 2009) that there is an enormous overlap in imagery.  Consider a few of her many examples:

Wisdom mixes her wine (Proverbs 9:2); the beloved’s navel is a goblet “which never lacks mixed wine” (Song 7:2).
“Let her breasts satisfy you” (Proverbs 5:19); “your breasts are like two fawns” (Song 4:5).
The Lord’s precepts are sweeter than honey (Psalm 19:10); “your lips, by bride, drip honey” (Song 4:11).
“My palate will meditate on truth” (Proverbs 8:7); “his fruit is sweet to my palate” (Song 2:3).
Wisdom’s gain is “better than fine gold” (Proverbs 3:14); “His head is like gold . . . his hands are rods of gold” (Song 5:11, 14).
“He shall give all the substance of his house” (Proverbs 6:31); “if a man gave all the substance of his house for love” (Song 8:7).
Wisdom was “beside him, a master workman” (Proverbs 8:30); “the work the hands of a master craftsman” (Song of Songs 7:2).  The Hebrew words for “workman” are different here.

Origen, I think, had it essentially right when he found a progression within the wisdom literature.  In Proverbs “the moral science is propounded, so that when a person has progressed in discernment and behavior he may . . . recognize the vanity of vanities that he must forsake, and the lasting and eternal things that he ought to pursue.”  From Proverbs, the pupil moves on to Ecclesiastes, where he learns “that all visible and corporeal things are fleeting and brittle.”  Then “he will surely reach out for the things unseen and eternal which . . . under certain secret metaphors of love, are taught in the Song of Songs.”

I’d gloss (or correct) Origen by highlighting the erotic elements of each of the wisdom books: Proverbs teaches us to choose Lady Wisdom.  Ecclesiastes teaches that living wisely in a world of vapor means rejoicing in the wife of your youth, Lady Wisdom.  Climactically, the Song teaches that embracing the bride is a way of eternal life, for “love is as strong as death, jealousy as fierce as Sheol.”

At the same time, we can’t ignore the surface of the text.  If the Song is a wisdom book, it is wisdom masquerading as an erotic poem.  What might that mean?  Robert Alter helps answer that question with his observation that the imagery of the Song “translates that bodily reality into fresh springs, flowering gardens, highlands over which lithe animals bound, spices and wine, cunningly wrought artifacts, resplendent towers and citadels and gleaming pools.”  He contrasts the use of imagery in the Song with that of “more explicit erotic literature.”  In the latter, “the body in the act of love often seems to display the rest of the world.”  By contrast, in the Song, “the world is constantly embraced in the very process of imagining the body.  The natural landscape, the cycle of the seasons, the beauty of the animal and floral realm, the profusion of goods afforded through trade, the inventive skill of the artisan, the grandeur of cities, are all joyfully affirmed as love is affirmed.”  Unlike post-romantic love poems, Solomon does not abandon the world to cling to his bride.  Rather, the world is re-found in her.

All that suggests that the highest wisdom about gardens, about artifacts, about citadels, about war, about the world – all that skill in living is tied to sexual wisdom.  Sexual knowledge is the model of knowledge, the eschatological knowledge, because at the end the world will be bride.  To know the world now, we love it, caress it, embrace it.  We don’t uncover the secrets of the world by raping, but by wooing her.

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