[K:JNWTS 27/3 (2012): 56-59]

Book Review

Gianni Barbiero, Song of Songs: A Close Reading. Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2011. 542pp. Cloth. ISBN: 978-90-04-20325-9. $212.

This commentary is an English translation of a work published in 2004 in Italian (Il Cantico dei Cantici). It has been revised in this version so as to be more accessible to a broader audience. Sadly, that audience will not include many pastors or students since the cost of the volume is prohibitively expensive. However, the book is part of the Supplements to Vetus Testamentum series and thus will be found on the shelf of university and seminary libraries who have standing orders to the journal and its supplements. The use of inter-library loan will readily bring the volume to the pastor’s study. Obtaining a copy in order to work through Solomon’s magnificent poetic song will be worth the effort. Barbiero’s commentary takes its place alongside those who have patiently and sensitively explored the beautiful love imagery in this divinely-inspired book of male-female love. Our author eschews the crude, even pornographic reading of Solomon’s Song (Marvin Pope, Othmar Keel, etc.) and leads us through each pericope of the text in a refreshing exaltation of sexual love which glorifies God (he notes that the Song does not “glorify extra-marital relations,” 72). Only once does he slip and forget the theme of the Song—when his Roman Catholic celibacy trumps Edenic anti-celibacy and he writes: “the sexual act, viewed elsewhere in the Bible with suspicion or tolerated as a ‘lesser evil’. . .” (242). He seems utterly unaware that he has just condemned what his entire commentary is attempting to justify as the divinely sanctioned “very good”. Still, we expect no less from those who insist on sacramental invention trumping divine revelation. The ‘higher life’ elitism of cenobite Catholicism is all too obvious here.

At the outset, our author sets forth his hermeneutical approach to the Canticle of Canticles: “my conviction [is] that the poem should be interpreted literally, as a poem about human love” (xi). Note that he regards the Song as a poem (!), about human male-female love (!) and that the imagery is to be understood literally or in reference to real-life human experience (!). Acknowledging the attraction of the allegorical interpretation of the Song, nonetheless Barbiero distances himself from such non-existential abstraction.[1] These are real bodies, yearning, caressing, uniting in the apostle Paul’s great “mystery”. Why should there not be a poem from God to man and woman on the subject? A poem as beautiful as the love of God uniting men and women to the heavenly Bride of the heavenly Bridegroom? This is no allegory; rather it is human ecstasy mirroring divine ecstasy in the human.

In addition to this hermeneutic of sanity (or better, “common sense”), Barbiero regards Solomon’s love song as a literary unit. Note: no redactional pericopes or layers scissor-and-pasted in from later Hebrew (even extra-Hebrew) traditions. Also note: as a wholistic literary unit, the book contains a seamless structure. Break up the structure and one destroys the unity of the poem. All this suggests the poetic hand of a single author, a point which Barbiero endorses: “the Song is not the work of a redactor but of an author” (18). Furthermore, he extends this to the cohesiveness of the Hebrew text as received. In fact, he accepts the MT without emendation and suggested “conjectures” (5, 505). Thus, he accords high respect to the reliability of the text in the Hebrew and Christian canon (a matter supported by the fragments of the Song discovered at Qumran).

His bibliography is full and up-to-date. The only significant omissions I noted are: S. Craig Glickman, Song for Lovers (1976) and Richard S. Hess, Song of Songs (2005). Hess is arguably the most kindred spirit to Barbiero (though Timothea Elliott precedes both in this regard), also reading the text sensitively and poignantly as he explores the male-female imagery without crude descent into Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) erotica (the iconography of the ANE erotica is as gross and ugly as the academic voyeurism which pursues it with lust and abandon). In the most recent discussion, Barbiero distinguishes his reading from the dramatic approach of the massive and meticulous work of P. W. T. Stoop-Van Paridon (The Song of Songs: A Philological Analysis of the Hebrew Book . . . , 2005). Though well researched, Van Paridon’s book is an idiosyncratic 21st century reprise of a popular 19th century theory of the Song as a melodramatic narrative ‘love triangle’. Alleging Greek dramatic style, Van Paridon maintains that the Song portrays a female character trapped between her passion for an anonymous shepherd lover and King Solomon. Solomon draws her into his harem from which she yearns for her first love in the pastoral and rural paradise of the verdant and fecund countryside. Barbiero rightly rejects this ‘narrative’ approach while perhaps overemphasizing the absence of any narrative paradigm in the Song at all.[2] Barbiero also cites the broader treatment of Biblical sexuality in Richard M. Davidson, The Flame of Yahweh: Sexuality in the Old Testament (2007)—a book which also reflects on the topic in the Song (as the title, alluding to 8:6, indicates).

Still, Barbiero cannot escape higher critical presuppositions entirely. Consonant with this lobby, he repudiates Solomonic authorship of the poem (3). He regards the self-attestation of the book, “The Song of Songs which is Solomon’s” (1:1) as a “fictional attribution” (45) and “clearly apocryphal” (3). He is even unable to abide the notion of the poem originating in the Solomonic age (970-930 B.C.). Again, tipping his hat to the higher critical guild, he dates the work to the Ptolemaic age of post-exilic Judaism (i.e., ca. 300-30 B.C.). He seems utterly insouciant about the implications of his suggestion. Having insisted vigorously on the unique literary character of this lovely unitary poem, he embarrasses himself by denying the brilliant poetic idiom to the uniquely brilliant prince of the idiom. Only Solomon, in canonical context, qualifies for such a poem of poems—a qualification heightened by the work of the divine Holy Spirit inspiring the OT King of Wisdom, Shalom and Love.

Acknowledging his debt to Timothea Elliott, he structures the book as follows:

            Prologue 1:2-2:7

                        Part I 2:8-5:1

                        Part II 5:2-8:4

            Epilogue 8:5-14

While aware of David Dorsey’s chiasm (“Literary Structuring in the Song of Songs.” Journal for the Study of the OT 46 [1990]: 81-96), Barbiero nonetheless eschews this more literary and artistic paradigmatic outline for the reduction above. While expanding his simple fourfold elements in the pages of the commentary, in this reviewer’s opinion he neglects elements essential to a more elaborate and seamless outline, e.g., dialogic patterning, scene shift drama and narrative interface (my own lectures [note 2 above] and outline recount the narrative story of Solomon’s love for his Shulamite and hers for him, thereby establishing a redemptive-historical paradigm of protological Bridegroom/eschatological Bridegroom reciprocally mirrored in protological Solomon and his bride with the eschatological Solomon and his Bride). Barbiero approaches this ‘incarnational’ vector of the Song (“[the Song] belongs to the logic of the Incarnation,” 41), but then rejects a pan-canonical consideration of the book: “A Christian reading of the book would require the extension of the intertextual inquiry into the NT too, but this is, unfortunately, outside the scope of the present work… “ (43). This failure of nerve (even a failure to make the obvious connections, in this reviewer’s view) removes the Christological from the Solomonic—and that means we lose the eschatological wedding drama from our pan-canonical hermeneutic. Before Solomon and his bride is the eschatological Bridegroom and his Bride (an eternal heavenly wedding poem and marriage supper). Solomon and his beloved are a redemptive-historical reflection of that transcendent reality—a figure now reprised in the incarnate Christ and his church.

The commentary explores patterns, structure, imagery in a generally helpful manner—all directed to the rich, even ecstatic, imagery of love in which the Song abounds. If Barbiero occasionally strains the metaphors and forces the patterns to fit his outline,[3] he may be indulged on the basis of his enthusiasm for the text and the physical, spiritual and theological significance of the material. This is a work to be used carefully alongside the Hebrew text, Elliott’s remarkable study of the Hebrew and Dorsey’s pace-setting article. It will repay the patient reader with penetrating insights and appreciation for the inspired writer’s poetry (whom we believe to be Solomon, as announced in verse 1 of the book).

The whole of the commentary is summed up judiciously in eight theses (505-508) which invite the reader to drench himself in the detailed exposition of this poetic epithalamium.

We note a typo on p. 66 (Tamar does not seduce Jacob, but Judah; cf. Gen. 38:15). And we caution the reader not to grant too much to the ANE comparative love poetry that Barbiero cites for comparison and analogy. Nothing in these amorous lays is equal to the inspired text of Solomon’s ‘most excellent of Songs’. The distinctiveness of the Biblical idiom surpasses the pagan idiom as heaven exceeds earth, the incarnation exceeds ordinary generation, and the mystery of Christ and his Bride exceeds every earthly union.

—James T. Dennison, Jr.

[1] He is aware of the recent allegorical treatment by Edmée Kingsmill (The Song of Songs and the Eros of God, 2010), though he admits he had not had time to work through the book. Kingsmill’s thesis is that the Song is the product of late Jewish mysticism—even asceticism (?a Qumran-like monastic community)—longing for an end-of-the-world intimacy with God in the ‘navel’ of the cosmos. In other words, she reduces the bodily imagery in the Song to geography—the Jerusalem geography of a global utopia (ancient Jewish tradition esteemed Jerusalem the ‘navel’ of the universe). One reviewer calls the work “sheer audacity”! Tragically, this is allegorical audacity which cannot be supported from any ordinary and straightforward reading of the text.

[2] For an alternate narrative reading, see this author’s series of audio lectures on the Song of Solomon, available with handouts and outlines here: http://www.nwts.edu/audio/JTD/SongOfSolomon.htm.

[3] For instance, he alleges that 2:4 (“he has brought me in”) “repeats 1:4 to the letter” (88). But it does not;  it omits “king” (melek) in the Hebrew text of the latter. This qualifies his argument that the initial literary unit is an inclusio bracketing 1:4 and 2:4. In fact, the literary structure of the opening unit in this Song spans 1:2-2:7 and is a perfect dialogic mirror chiasm of ‘she speaks’/‘he speaks’ in (perfect) sevenfold interchange (see my lectures and outline for details).