The Song of Songs

A Biography

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Ilana Pardes
Lives of Great Religious Books
  • Princeton, NJ: 
    Princeton University Press
    , August
     296 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


At least in the United States, debates pop up from time to time about the value and the potential danger of teaching biblical literature in public classrooms. That conversation can often be a stand-in for broader culture wars, and it involves many concerns which need to be weighed together. The conversation does connect to a real cultural issue: the undeniable place of biblical literature amidst intellectual and cultural history and, therefore, our need to engage and assess that literature not only theologically but also culturally.

Princeton University Press’ Lives of Great Religious Books series ranges far more widely than the Scriptures of the Jewish and Christian traditions (including volumes on the Quran and the Bhagavad Gita, not to mention non-scriptural texts such as The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila (Penguin Classics, 1988) and C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, (Geoffrey Bles, 1952), but the series includes a number of studies on biblical books that seek to introduce their reception history to a wider reading public. Among these entries, this new book by Ilana Pardes, The Song of Songs: A Biography, is a most welcome addition.

Like other volumes in the series, Pardes’ book moves roughly chronologically through the reception history of the Song. “The aim of this biograph is to reconsider the trajectory of the Song’s exegetical history. Against the tendency to regard the transition from the allegorical to the literal as clear-cut, we will follow the ways in which these two interpretive lines are inextricably intertwined in a whole array of episodes in the text’s biography” (16-17).

Three chapters concern the period of the older allegorical reading’s primacy. Chapter 1 addresses the rise of allegory from Rabbi Akiva to Origen of Alexandria, looking at the first three centuries CE. Chapter 2 resituates allegory within the medieval setting wherein Hebrew poets and mystics re-read the Song allegorically. Chapter 3 then turns to tour medieval monasteries where figures like Bernard and Teresa read the Song as addressing the sort of “religious” figure (the monk or nun). Two chapters address the modern turn to literalism in scholarly and in artistic renderings, again showing that allegory has not been rejected entirely even if it sits more on the margins or in the background. Chapter 4 introduces the shift in scholarly readings from reading the Song as Scripture to reading it as an ancient love poem, particularly by focusing on G. Herder’s influence. Chapter 5 then surveys three literary figures who have reset the Song in their own art: Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, and Toni Morrison. An introduction and epilogue situate the whole account clearly.

Interestingly, Pardes employs varying translations throughout to match those engaged by the relevant figures: for example, the King James Version in the chapters on Christian allegorists, as well as later literary figures, but a more recent translation by Robert Alter of the Hebrew Bible in other chapters (231 n. 1).

The volume is to be commended and, hopefully, read widely. Pardes engages empathetically with the concerns of the readers in each chapter, seeking to explain why and how they read the Song as they did. The author also weaves a thread through what might otherwise seem rather disjointed and anecdotal probings in literary history, connecting the fate of the Song to wider currents in intellectual history. Indeed, teachers could use this book to great profit as a case study of literary studies through the centuries. Pardes helps teach clearly what allegory is, unpacking its character as “extended metaphor” (20) and its relationship to Hebrew prophetic rhetoric (28). The author highlights what has been found so enchanting about this poetry, pointing to its uniquely dialogical love wherein both characters and their bodies are celebrated (30) and noting a modern shift to a (no doubt communalized) form of self-love in Whitman’s individual (176-177) and, later, in Morrison’s African-American people  (214-215). Pardes also presents a nuanced picture of the Protestant Reformation’s impact on the reading of the Song. Martin Luther continued to read it allegorically even if his heirs received hermenutical principles that pushed against allegorizing exegesis at times (111, 136). Above all, Pardes communicates why Jews and Christians and others have found this text worthy of immersion in what can be called “exegetical courtship” (86) and the widespread cultural impact of that interpretive romance.

Who knows how debates about teaching biblical literature may play out in future American politics? What can be known is that we need scholars like Pardes and books like this one to communicate clearly and lovingly why persons and communities of diverse religious conviction find themselves captivated by certain literature, not hesitating to present their divergent readings in their hard, convictional form in hopes that our moral and artistic imaginations will be deepened through the conversation. She does not minimize theology in service of cultural studies, but she shows how (like allegory and literal reading) they cannot be entirely disentangled. In brokering such a conversation about exegetical courtship and an object of affection as lovely as this Song, Pardes is to be commended.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Michael Allen is the John Dyer Trimble Professor of Systematic Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary.

Date of Review: 
September 23, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ilana Pardes is Katharine Cornell Professor of Comparative Literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She is the author of Countertraditions in the BibleThe Biography of Ancient IsraelMelville's Bibles, and Agnon's Moonstruck Lovers.


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