Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 14 (2014) - Review

Griffiths, Paul J., Song of Songs (Brazos Theological Commentary; Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2011). Pp. 240. Hardcover. US$32.99. ISBN 978-1-587-4313-5.

Song of Songs represents Paul J. Griffiths' contribution to the Brazos Press series of interpretive responses by doctrinal theologians to biblical books. R. R. Reno, the series' general editor, carefully elucidates within his preface that all of the biblical endeavours within this series support the premise that “doctrine” is “not a moldering scrim of antique prejudice obscuring the Bible, but instead a clarifying agent, an enduring tradition of theological judgments that amplifies the living voice of Scripture” (p. xiii). Accordingly, Reno alerts readers that the various writers involved in the series “have not been chosen because of their historical or philological expertise” but rather “their knowledge of and expertise in using the Christian doctrinal tradition.” Hence, concludes Reno, “they are not biblical scholars” (p. xiv).

As though anticipating some possible bewilderment by such a stance, Reno argues rhetorically, “Can we proceed in any other way?” (p. xv). For Reno, and the rest of the editors in the series, the answer is unequivocally “no,” for only “the Nicene tradition prepares one for biblical interpretation, and thus it is to theologians and not biblical scholars that we have turned” (p. xiv). Reno accompanies this assumption with the corollary that “scholarly dispassion” has led biblical specialists to “noncommitted” and “unprejudiced” readings that “simply invite the languid intellectual apathy that stands aside to make room for the false truism and easy answers of the age” (p. xiii). Both Reno within his preface, and Griffiths throughout his book, acknowledge that the writers within this series will not engage with any prescribed version of the biblical text, and not necessarily with its original languages. Again, in advance response to any disconcertion that this might create, Reno informs: “only a modernist, literalist hermeneutic could imagine that this modest fluidity is a liability” (p. xvi).

Griffiths, however, invests the first twelve pages of his twenty-six page introduction to qualifying his work's engagement with a Latin Vulgate translation of the Song's Hebrew text, instead of the Song's Hebrew original. Griffiths' prolonged effort, in this regard, seems to suggest that the matter of whether or not the scholars writing for this series are reading the biblical texts in their original languages could pose a concern for readers. Griffiths argues at length for the equal consideration and validity for any translation of the Song, including those that are two to three times removed from the Hebrew text (e.g., from Hebrew to Greek, to Latin, to English). He purports that such a perspective differs from “most contemporary pagan” scholars who contend “that the real Song, the one that counts and the one that ought to be read and studied, is whatever contemporary scholarship takes to be the earliest state of the Hebrew text” (p. xxix). An evaluation of Griffiths' distinctive view—that for Christians it matters not whether the Song is read in its Hebrew text or in translations further removed from this text—will become apparent as Griffiths' findings for particular passages within his English translation of the Latin Vulgate are presented throughout this review.

Griffiths describes his “treatment of each part” of his English translation from the Latin Vulgate of the Song as consisting of four elements “variously combined and in various proportions” (p. liv). Griffiths lists the first element in his approach to the Song to be his own English rendering of the New Latin Vulgate translation (1998) of the Song. The format chosen is a “running translation” (p. xliv) without specific chapter and verse numbers. When addressing smaller sections of the Song, Griffiths provides only a general chapter and verse indication, for instance, “2:11–13a” (p. 67), for the whole section: “for already winter has gone away the rain has departed and withdrawn flowers have appeared in the land the time of pruning has arrived the turtledove's voice is heard in our land the fig tree has put out its figs and the flowering vineyards have given off their scent” (p. 67, author's punctuation). As a second dimension to his “treatment”—which, in other places, he refers to as his “confecting” (p. xxiii)—of various sections of the Song, Griffiths analyzes “the text's surface features” in discussion with “significant echoes of these features elsewhere in the Song and elsewhere in the canon of scripture” (p. liv). Griffiths emphasizes the necessary inclusion of such intertextual inquiry within his work, since his book's “principle purpose is to explain the Song as scripture” (p. lv).

Griffiths outlines his third feature of engagement when approaching the Song from the perspective of his “fundamental question” of theology, namely, “what does [the Song] tell us about the Lord?” (p. lv). He quickly asserts that a theological consideration of the text has already taken place within the intrascriptural findings of his second-dimension analysis, but now Griffiths will explicitly undertake “the resonances of the text with developed Christian doctrine and with its liturgical and dogmatic use by the church” (p. lv). Although not explained here, Griffiths' apparent rationale for this element of “confection” within his work is that “this is a Christian theological commentary” (p. lv). For a fourth element of “confection” within his approach to work on the Song, Griffiths promotes what he perceives to be its “lyrical” quality (pp. 1–2), that is, what he himself believes the Song to reveal about human love relationships. He acknowledges, in a footnote, that this portion of his treatment of the Song facilitates a kind of Reader's Response approach, proposing that “every text, when read, has its relation to the reader as part of its meaning” (p. lvi, n. 33).

Although Griffiths repeatedly depicts his work as a “figural reading” throughout his fifty-eight page introduction, this strategy is not included within his projected four-pronged treatment of the Song. In the penultimate page of his introduction he addresses the term, in his words, “with excessive brevity” (p. lviii). He observes within a footnote that his usage of the term is related to Erich Auerbach's essay “Figura,” however Griffiths provides the entire page range for Auerbach's historically-detailed survey, wherein Auerbach carefully outlines the distinct connotations and results of a “figural reading” for various church fathers throughout numerous centuries.[1] Griffiths does not clarify which perceived style of “figura” he adopts for his reading of the Song, but rather contrasts the findings of a “figural reading” of Scripture with an allegorical one. Allegory, he proposes, “differs from figure in that it dissolves the allegorical text into what it allegorizes,” whereas “one event or utterance figures another when, while remaining unalterably what it is, it announces or communicates something other than itself” (p. lvii). Griffiths alludes at several points within his introduction that he expects the events and voices within the Song to variously figure “the people of Israel” (p. xxxix), “the church” (p. xxxix), “Mary” (p. xl), “the individual human person” (p. xli), and “the Lord” (p. xlii). The negotiating structures that Griffiths posits to identify these “figures” throughout his treatment of various sections of the Song, as well as a demonstration of the results achieved by Griffiths' “figural” understanding, will be explored as we review several examples of his findings.

Griffiths translates Song 2:7 as “O daughters of Jerusalem—I adjure you by the does and hinds of the fields not to enliven or awaken this delightful woman until she wishes” (pp. 57–58). Griffiths purports early on that the word “delightful” relates to a verbal root that “lies at the semantic heart of the Song” since he identifies “between thirty and forty occurrences” of “the verb connected with the name ‘delight’ (diligere), together with its derived adjectival and nominal forms (dilectio, dilecta, dilectus)” (p. 14). Griffiths' translation from the Latin Vulgate is abundant in its references to “delight,” for instance, his proposed epithet “My Delightful Man” (Song 1:13, 14, 16; 2:3, 8, 9, 10, 16, 17; 4:16; 5:2, 4, 5, 6 [twice], 8, 10, 16; 6:2, 3 [twice]; 7:9, 10, 11, 13; 8:14). In most instances this Latin root seems to appear where the Masoretic Hebrew Text (MT) supplies the semantic root dôd, meaning to “dandle” or “fondle” (BDB p. 187). When the masculine plural noun derivation (dôdîm) of the root dôd appears, it is usually translated “caresses,” and its masculine-only epithet form (dôdî) is typically rendered as “My Beloved [masc. sing.].” Where an English translation from the Hebrew MT supplies “My Beloved [masc. sing.]” (for instance, NRSV Song 2:8), Griffiths consistently employs “My Delightful Man.” As a result, this epithet occurs twenty-six times within Griffiths' translation, concurrently bolstering his perceived significance of the semantic root “delight” within the Song, and seemingly affecting his inclusion of a feminine counterpart epithet “Delightful Woman” (2:7) for a different word entirely—ahāvāh—within the MT: a feminine singular abstract noun meaning “love” (BDB p. 13).

Accordingly, Griffiths' rendering and understanding of the thrice-repeated adjuration first stated in 2:7 is exceedingly unique. When translated directly from the MT, this adjuration phrase reads: “do not stir up or awaken love [noun, fem. sing.] until it [fem. sing.] is ready” (Song 2:7, 3:5, 8:4 NRSV). Since it is arguable from the Song's text that every instance of a speaker addressing “The Daughters of Jerusalem” involves one called “The Fairest [fem. sing.] Among Women,” a speaker self-identified as feminine (for example calling herself “One [fem. sing.] Wounded of Love,” Song 2:5), the adjuration is typically understood as a lament of caution by this female speaker to her companions. However, Griffiths' insertion of the feminine epithet “This Delightful Woman,” rather than the (feminine) noun “love” for the adjuration portion of this verse creates an unusual situation where a female character would now hypothetically be speaking about herself in the third person. Apparently to address this rhetorical quandary—and to the exclusion of all textual evidence where a female character addresses her companions with the vocative “O Daughters of Jerusalem”—Griffiths asserts that a male speaker suddenly appears to state these adjuration phrases (2:7, 3:5, 8:4). Griffiths espouses no methodological support for his proposal apart from supplying the epithet “My Delightful Woman” rather than the noun “love” within these verses and hence, his version remains dubious. What attracts further skepticism, however, is Griffiths' resulting suppositions.

First, in deference to his own “response” hermeneutic for reading the Song, Griffiths purports that within these adjuration phrases a male lover repeatedly “charges” female companions not to “wake” his female beloved since “it is (by implication) his task to wake her, not theirs…they are not to arouse or awaken her sexually; and they are not to bring her to life from death, to inspire her, that is, with the breath of life” (p. 59). Although Griffiths does not elaborate specifically as to whom the male lover “figures” for him at this point in the Song, it appears to be the Lord, as hinted by his suggestion that “by implication” it is the lover's (i.e., the Lord's) task to bring the woman “to life from death” (again, p. 59). Griffiths' second proposition propelled by his distinct rendering of these adjuration sections within the Song has to do with church doctrine, and specifically, a “Marian reading of the text” (p. 64). He elaborates that “Mary, according to the tradition of the church, sleeps before her bodily assumption into heaven…to assume her proper place in heaven as its queen” (p. 64). Again, both Griffiths' own “reader response” to these repeated adjuration phrases within the Song (2:7, 3:5, 8:4) and his doctrinal “treatment” of them depend upon his textually challenged rendition of “Delightful Woman” for the (feminine) noun “love.” This is one of many such instances where Griffiths' reading strategy supplies little or no means by which to affirm or verify his projections.

Perhaps the strongest contribution of Griffiths' four-dimensional “confecting” of the Song lies in his intrascriptural component. For example, in his section on Song 7:11, which he translates as: “I am for my delightful man and his appetite is for me” (p. 154), Griffiths refreshingly pauses upon “the word ‘appetite’ (appetitus),” remarking that it “is found only here in the Song,” just before enticing the reader with unexpectedly significant reverberations of this Latin word in other sections of the Vulgate. Not only does YHWH speak to Cain using it (“Sin lies in wait outside for you: its appetite [appetitus] is for you”; Gen 4:7), but also to Eve after the fall, where “he promises her that her appetite will be for her husband, and that her husband will (therefore) have mastery over her (Gen 3:16)” (p. 154). In a rare acknowledgement of the Song's exquisite reversal of the Genesis curse, Griffiths enlightens: “resonating with these passages, the Song here suggests that the lover's appetite for his beloved gives her…mastery over him. It is her he wants, her in particular he chooses, and this provides her power” (pp. 154–155).

It is precisely Griffiths' careful attunement to the intrascriptural resonances of the Song's passages that provides cues to discern his particular application of “figura” to textual realities. While addressing the appearance of the name “Solomon” within the title of the Song (Song 1:1), and repeatedly throughout the Song's text (3:7, 3:9, 8:11, 8:12), Griffiths depicts the historical “Solomon” by attending to an impressive array of scriptural testimonies detailing this king's lineage and reign (2 Sam 11–12; Jer 52:20; 2 Macc 2:9; Acts 7:47; Sir 47:15–28; Matt 6:29; 12:42; Luke 11:31; 12:27; Neh 13:25–26; 1 Kgs 1–11; 2 Chr 1–9; see on p. 6). Upon presenting such a plethora of scriptural evidence, however, Griffiths nonetheless declares that the male lover within the Song cannot represent the historical King Solomon. The implied reasoning behind Griffiths' decision in this regard seems to be that the male lover's character in the Song not only represents the one named “Solomon” but also “figures” the Lord (p. xlii). Griffiths upholds that although “the Lord is not explicitly mentioned at all in the Song…he is everywhere in it” (p. 10). Griffiths' apparent conviction that the Lord and the historical Solomon cannot share the same “figure” of the male lover seems to be influenced by Griffiths' scriptural acknowledgement that King Solomon “marries many foreign women, against the Lord's explicit command; begins to worship foreign gods, prompted by his foreign wives…and is punished by the Lord for this” (p. 6).

In an apparently similar response, seemingly based upon a personal moral stance, Griffiths declares within his treatment of Song 3:9–11 that although the text states clearly that “King Solomon” is now entering Jerusalem with the crown that his mother placed upon him at a time of coronation or marriage, this could not actually be a reference to “the scriptural-historical Solomon's mother” who “was Bathsheba” (p. 89). He substantiates: “I cannot see how to weave her into the Song” (p. 89). Griffiths' unstated reasoning appears to be Bathsheba's historicized adultery with King David, producing their first “child, conceived before the murder [of her husband] and the marriage [to David]” who “is cursed by the Lord as punishment…and dies” (p. 6). For Griffiths, then, the “mother” of “King Solomon” cited within this section of the Song instead “figures” Mary, mother of Jesus: “the mention of his mother is a mention of Mary, and her crowning of him is with a diadem of flesh as she consents to his incarnation” (p. 89). Since at such times Griffiths' reading cannot support both what the Song's text says literally, and what the text “figures,” Griffiths does appear to dissolve the less subjectively desirable “figure,” even where plainly stated. Griffiths' proposals overall, then, seem more accurately—and in accord with his own definition—to represent an allegorical approach.

To conclude, Griffiths' translation and reading of the New Latin Vulgate of the Song of Songs does fulfill the Brazos Series's objectives as outlined by Reno, especially in regard to this editor's additional tenet that “judgments about the meaning of a text fix its literal sense, not the other way around” (p. xvi). In alignment with the series's requirement of “an unabashedly dogmatic interpretation of Scripture” (p. xv), Griffiths has undeniably treated the scriptural text of the Song in a way that ultimately serves and illuminates traditional church doctrine, rather than vice versa. Accordingly, Griffiths' lack of a transparent textual methodology with which to support his findings deems his “confecting” of the Song to be a meditation upon or devotional response to its text, rather than an exegetically-based interpretation.

Jennifer Pfenniger, Huron University College

[1] Erich Auerbach, “Figura,” in Id., Scenes from the Drama of European Literature (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), 11–76. reference