A Book Review concerning the Song of Songs

Here is the first draft of a review of:  Patrick Hunt. Poetry in the Song of Songs: A Literary Analysis. (New York: Peter Lang, 2008). 368 pages. $42.95.

Patrick Hunt, director of the Stanford Alpine Archaeology Project at Stanford University in California, has written a poetic analysis cataloging the various literary devices employed by the biblical author of the Song of Songs. By his own admission Hunt’s study is not about theology or religion (1) nor is it a commentary (19).  It is an investigation concerning the poetry of this ancient love song.

Concerning introductory matters, Hunt is brief in his remarks (only nineteen pages). While he recognizes the beauty of the poem and its association with the royal Solomon, he rejects Solomonic authorship based on the perceived late dating of the book and holds to an unknown author and date of composition (18).  While he does not discuss its overall structure, he sees the Song as a “compilation of songs” (13).  The purpose of the book may have been intended to be recited at Hebrew nuptials or used “as a prelude to lovemaking, in the sense of emotional and mental foreplay” for mature lovers (10). While he recognizes the many ways the book has been interpreted over the centuries by Jews and Christians alike, he rejects its allegorical reading and chooses to recognize its simple and direct language of sexual love between a man and a woman who anyone who has loved can relate.  Although Hunt follows a literal hermeneutic, he believes “that we cannot reconstruct one meaning for this great poem” (19).

 In chapter two (pages 21-65) Hunt analyzes the “figurative language of desire” such as simile, paronomasia, chiasmus, anabasis, pleonasm, meiosis, metonymy, topographia, parallelism and others. While his investigation concerning any one device is not exhaustive, he offers enough examples of each so the reader can understand how they function within the Song.  While one may argue over Hunt’s labeling of individual literary devices, (even he questions if the ancient biblical author was intentional in his employment of each of these devices [28]) his study is a helpful one since no work in the Song to date has attempted to catalog so many different devices in one work. 

 Hunt investigates paronomasia or wordplay in chapter three (66-81). Chapter four (67-101) is given to the study of the analysis of sensory images which he numbers at over 200 (99). Chapter five (103-139) looks at the fertility imagery found in the flowers, fruits and spices and their erotic connections while chapter six (141-160) presents a study of the animal imagery found in the Song. Chapter 7 (161-180) explores the metaphor of eating and drinking in connection with the lovers’ desire for one another.

If scholars are correct that parallelism is the heart of Hebrew poetry, then chapter eight (181-243) may be the most profitable chapter of this book.  Although following his abbreviated classification of parallelism by other scholars is a tad laborious, Hunt has provided an introductory platform to discuss the various types of parallelism evident in the poem. While his study of parallelism is not exhaustive (although he analyzes over 75 examples) nor does he suggest the rhetorical function for his examples, his study lays a foundation for others to build upon based on the importance of this literary device for biblical Hebrew poetry.

Chapter nine (245-277) evaluates “the more than 70 images” which are used to convey “wealth, authority and security” (245). Chapter ten (279-319) observes the use of simile and chapter 11 (321-347) the use of metaphor as it relates to the two lovers. A twelve page bibliography and index concludes the work.

While this book is not as its back cover proclaims a “ground-breaking study,” it is a helpful reference for those who study the poetry of the Song or who have an interest in biblical poetry in general. Those without Hebrew will benefit from the book. However, those able to read Hebrew will be disappointed that extended examples were not in the original.

Although the reader may disagree with Hunt’s identification and/or labeling of various literary devices and may not see paronomasia beneath every vine as Hunt does, this work is an aid in recognizing the poetic tools the author used to craft this ancient love song. Hunt does go too far however, when he calls the Song “this Hebrew Kamasutra” (10) and his numerous comparisons between this ancient love poem and this Indian sex manual.  While the Song is not ashamed of its eroticism, it is not, nor is its purpose to be a “how-to-sex manual.”

Two items are lacking in this work.  The first (and to be fair it was not Hunt’s purpose) is a suggestion to what rhetorical function each devices plays and then what is the theological effect intended by the biblical author. This would have been an asset to those who see a rhetorical and theological purpose for the Song. While cataloging literary devices is helpful and is a necessary step in exegeting poetry, this book falls short in completing the exegetical process. The second is a lack of careful proof reading.  The presence of words running together (68, 330), inconsistent footnote number placement (68), incorrect form in the bibliography, missing articles (59), misplacement of end quotes (158, 220) and end brackets (145) to name just a few “mistakes” are distracting at best.

Church Shopping

A new survey by The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life as reported on the blog of U.S. News & World Report (12/15/09) discovered that 37% of white evangelicals will attend multiple places of worship. It seems that the recession has not hindered “church shopping” in our local assemblies.  I wonder if this is the same 37% of white evangelical Protestants that believe that “many religions can lead to eternal life” as reported in the December issue of CTi (p. 31). (See the full Pew Survey here.  There are some interesting finds throughout this report).

A Modern Rendition of the Song of Songs?

 A friend (who received it from one of his friends) forwarded this modern day Song of Solomon poem to me this am. So, I cannot assign authorship for credit or blame.  That is probably a good thing!

 Behold, you are beautiful my love,
        behold, you are beautiful,

Your eyes are doves
        behind your veil

Your hair is like wholegrain pasta
         you make for the kids

Your teeth are like white alphabet tiles
         on the side with no letters
All of which have no food on them
        nor other foreign markings

Your lips are like ketchup
        with no high-fructose corn syrup
        and your mouth is lovely

Your cheeks are like cherries in 
        extra-cherry fruit cocktail
        behind your veil

Your neck is like Scurlock tower
        minus the parking lot
On it hangs Christmas decorations 
        just after Halloween

Your breasts are like two hamburgers
        from the children’s menu
        on kids eat free night

You are all together beautiful, my love,
        There is no flaw in you.