1. During the Holy Year I postponed
the treatment of the theme of human love in the divine plan. I would
now like to conclude that topic with some considerations especially
about the teaching of Humanae Vitae, premising some reflections on
the Song of Songs and the Book of Tobit. It seems to me that what I
intend to explain in the coming weeks constitutes the crowning of
what I have illustrated.
The theme of marital love which unites man and woman in a certain
sense connects this part of the Bible with the whole tradition of
the "great analogy." Through the writings of the prophets, this
flows into the New Testament and especially into Ephesians (cf. Eph
5:21-33). I interrupted the explanation of this at the beginning of
the Holy Year.
The Song of Songs has become the object of many exegetical studies,
commentaries and hypotheses. With regard to its content, apparently
"profane," the positions have varied. On the one hand its reading
has often been discouraged, and on the other it has been the source
from which the greatest mystical writers have drawn. The verses of
the Song of Songs have been inserted into the Church's liturgy.(1)
In fact, although the analysis of the text of this book obliges us
to situate its content outside the sphere of the great prophetic
analogy, it is not possible to detach it from the reality of the
original sacrament. It is not possible to reread it except along the
lines of what is written in the first chapters of Genesis, as a
testimony of the beginning—that beginning which Christ referred to
in his decisive conversation with the Pharisees (cf. Mt 19:4).(2)
The Song of Songs is certainly found in the wake of that sacrament
in which, through the language of the body, the visible sign of man
and woman's participation in the covenant of grace and love offered
by God to man is constituted. The Song of Songs demonstrates the
richness of this language, whose first expression is already found
in Genesis 2:23-25.
Atmosphere of the Song of Songs
2. Indeed, the first verses of the Song lead us immediately into the
atmosphere of the whole poem, in which the groom and the bride seem
to move in the circle traced by the irradiation of love. The words,
movements and gestures of the spouses correspond to the interior
movement of their hearts. It is possible to understand the language
of the body only through the prism of this movement. In that
language there comes to pass that discovery which the first man gave
expression in front of her who had been created as "a helper like
himself" (cf. Gen 2:20, 23). As the biblical text reports, she had
been taken from one of his ribs ("rib" seems to also indicate the
This discovery—already analyzed on the basis of Genesis 2—in the
Song of Songs is invested with all the richness of the language of
human love. What was expressed in the second chapter of Genesis (vv.
23-25) in just a few simple and essential words, is developed here
in a full dialogue, or rather in a duet, in which the groom's words
are interwoven with the bride's and they complement each other. On
seeing the woman created by God, man's first words express wonder
and admiration, even more, the sense of fascination (cf. Gn 2:23).
And a similar fascination—which is wonder and admiration—runs in
fuller form through the verses of the Song of Songs. It runs in a
peaceful and homogeneous wave from the beginning to the end of the
3. Even a summary analysis of the text of the Song of Songs allows
the language of the body to be heard expressing itself in that
mutual fascination. The point of departure as well as the point of
arrival for this fascination—mutual wonder and admiration—are in
fact the bride's femininity and the groom's masculinity, in the
direct experience of their visibility. The words of love uttered by
both of them are therefore concentrated on the body, not only
because in itself it constitutes the source of the mutual
fascination. But it is also, and above all, because on the body
there lingers directly and immediately that attraction toward the
other person, toward the other "I"—female or male—which in the
interior impulse of the heart generates love.
In addition, love unleashes a special experience of the beautiful,
which focuses on what is visible, but at the same time involves the
entire person. The experience of beauty gives rise to satisfaction,
which is mutual.
"O most beautiful among women..." (Sg 1:8), the groom says, and the
bride's words echo back to him: "I am dark—but lovely, O daughters
of Jerusalem" (Sg 1:5). The words of the spellbound man are repeated
continually. They return in all five stanzas of the poem, and they
are echoed in similar expressions of the bride's.
Use of metaphors
4. It is a question here of metaphors that may surprise us today.
Many of them were borrowed from the life of shepherds; others seem
to indicate the royal status of the groom.(3) The analysis of that
poetic language is left to the experts. The very fact of adopting
the metaphor shows how much, in our case, the language of the body
seeks support and corroboration in the whole visible world. This is
without doubt a language that is reread at one and the same time
with the heart and with the eyes of the groom, in the act of special
concentration on the whole female "I" of the bride. This "I" speaks
to him through every feminine trait, giving rise to that state of
mind that can be defined as fascination, enchantment. This female
"I" is expressed almost without words. Nevertheless, the language of
the body, expressed wordlessly, finds a rich echo in the groom's
words, in his speaking that is full of poetic transport and
metaphors, which attest to the experience of beauty, a love of
satisfaction. If the metaphors in the Song seek an analogy for this
beauty in the various things of the visible world (in this world
which is the groom's "own world"), at the same time they seem to
indicate the insufficiency of each of these things in particular.
"You are all-beautiful, my beloved, and there is no blemish in you"
(Sg 4:7):—with this saying, the groom ends his song, leaving all the
metaphors, in order to address himself to that sole one through
which the language of the body seems to express what is more proper
to femininity and the whole of the person.
We will continue the analysis of the Song of Songs at the next
1) "The Song is therefore to be taken simply for what it manifestly
is: a song of human love." This sentence of J. Winandy, O.S.B.,
expresses the conviction of growing numbers of exegetes (J. Winandy,
Le Cantique des Cantiques, Poém d'amour mué en écrit de Sagesse [Maredsouse:
1960], p. 26).
M. Dubarle adds: "Catholic exegesis, which sometimes refers to the
obvious meaning of biblical texts for passages of great dogmatic
importance, should not lightly abandon it when it comes to Songs."
Referring to the phrase of G. Gerleman, Dubarle continues: "Songs
celebrates the love of man and woman without adding any mythological
element, but considering it simply on its own level and in its
specific nature. There is implicitly, without didactic insistence,
the equivalent of the Yahwist faith (since sexual powers had not
been placed under the patronage of foreign divinities and had not
been attributed to Yahweh himself who appeared as transcending this
sphere.) The poem was therefore in tacit harmony with the
fundamental convictions of the faith of Israel.
The same open, objective, not expressly religious attitude with
regard to physical beauty and sensual love is found in some
collections of Yahwist documents. These various similarities show
that the small book is not so isolated in the sum total of biblical
literature as is sometimes stated (A. M. Dubarle, "Le Cantique des
Cantiques dans l'exégèse récente," Aux grands carrefours de la
Révélation et de l'exégèse de l'Ancien Testament, Recherches
Bibliques VIII [Louvain: 1967], pp. 149, 151).
2) This evidently does not exclude the possibility of speaking of a
sensus plenior in the Song of Songs.
See, for example: "Lovers in the ecstasy of love seem to occupy and
fill the whole book, as the only protagonists.... Therefore, Paul,
in reading the words of Genesis, 'For this reason a man shall leave
his father and mother, and shall cling to his wife, and the two
shall be made into one' (Eph 5:31), does not deny the real and
immediate meaning of the words that refer to human marriage.
However, to this first meaning he adds another deeper one with an
indirect reference: 'I mean that it refers to Christ and the
Church,' confessing that 'this is a great foreshadowing' (Eph
Some readers of the Song of Songs rush to read immediately in its
words a disembodied love. They have forgotten the lovers, or have
petrified them in fictions, in an intellectual key.... They have
multiplied the minute allegorical relations in every sentence, word
or image.... This is not the right way. Anyone who does not believe
in the human love of the spouses, who must seek forgiveness for the
body, does not have the right to be elevated.... With the
affirmation of human love instead, it is possible to discover in it
the revelation of God. (L. Alonso-Schökel, "Cantico dei Cantici—Introduzione,"
La Biblia, Parola di Dio scritti per noi. Official text of the
Italian Episcopal Conference, Vol. II [Torino: Marietti, 1980], pp.
3) To explain the inclusion of a love song in the biblical canon,
Jewish exegetes already in the first centuries after Christ saw in
the Song of Songs an allegory of Yahweh's love for Israel, or an
allegory of the history of the Chosen People, in which this love is
manifested, and in the Middle Ages the allegory of divine Wisdom and
of man who is in search of it.
Since the early Fathers, Christian exegesis extended such an idea to
Christ and the Church (cf. Hippolytus and Origen), or to the
individual soul of the Christian (cf. St. Gregory of Nyssa) or to
Mary (cf. St. Ambrose) and also to her Immaculate Conception (cf.
Richard of St. Victor). St. Bernard saw in the Song of Songs a
dialogue of the Word of God with the soul, and this led to St. John
of the Cross' concept about mystical marriage.
The only exception in this long tradition was Theodore of Mopsuestia,
in the fourth century, who saw in the Song of Songs a poem that
celebrated Solomon's human love for Pharaoh's daughter.
Luther, instead, referred the allegory to Solomon and his kingdom.
In recent centuries new hypotheses have appeared. Some, for example,
consider the Song of Songs as a drama of a bride's fidelity to a
shepherd, despite all the temptations, or as a collection of songs
used during the popular wedding rites or mythical rituals which
reflected the Adonis-Tammuz worship. Finally, there is seen in the
Song of Songs the description of a dream, recalling ancient ideas
about the significance of dreams and also psychoanalysis.
In the 20th century there has been a return to the more ancient
allegorical traditions (cf. Bea), seeing again in the Song of Songs
the history of Israel (cf. Jouon, Ricciotte), and a developed
midrash (as Robert calls it in his commentary, which constitutes a
"summary" of the interpretation of Songs).
Nevertheless, at the same time the book has begun to be read in its
most evident significance as a poem exalting natural human love (cf.
Rowley, Young, Laurin).
Karl Barth was the first to have demonstrated in what way this
significance is linked with the biblical context of chapter two of
Genesis. Dubarle begins with the premise that a faithful and happy
human love reveals to man the attributes of divine love, and Van den
Oudenrijn sees in the Song of Songs the antitype of that typical
sense that appears in Eph 5:23. Excluding every allegorical and
metaphorical explanation, Murphy stresses that human love, created
and blessed by God, can be the theme of an inspired biblical book.
D. Lys notes that the content of the Song of Songs is at the same
time sensual and sacred. When one prescinds from the second
characteristic, the Song comes to be treated as a purely lay erotic
composition, and when the first is ignored, one falls into
allegorism. Only by putting these two aspects together is it
possible to read the book in the right way.
Alongside the works of the above-mentioned authors, and especially
with regard to an outline of the history of the exegesis of the Song
of Songs, see H. H. Rowley, "The Interpretation of the Song of
Songs," The Servant of the Lord and Other Essays on the Old
Testament (London: Lutterworth, 1952), pp. 191-233; A. M. Dubarle,
Le Cantique des Cantiques dans l'exégèse de l'Ancien Testament,
Recherches Bibliques VIII (Louvain: Desclée de Brouwer, 1967), pp.
139-151; D. Lys, Le plus beau chant de la création—Commentaire de
Cantique des Cantiques. Lectio divina 51. (Paris: Du Cerf, 1968),
pp. 31-35; M. H. Pope, "Song of Songs," Anchor Bible (Garden City,
NY: Doubleday, 1977), pp. 113-234.
Taken from: L'Osservatore Romano Weekly Edition in English 28 May
1984, page 1
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