Friday, January 11, 2013

Commentary Review: Song of Songs

I can't think of a better way to ring in my 30th birthday than with a post of commentary reviews. I finished studying the Song of Songs in December so it's time to review the various commentaries that I used. As always, to keep the post to a reasonable length I am not providing comments on the format or level of difficulty of the commentary series each commentary is in. That detail is found in my commentary overview post.

There is one Song of Songs commentary to rule them all. It is that of J. Cheryl Exum in the Old Testament Library. It is undoubtedly the best written commentary I've ever read. Often you feel like you're reading an essay rather than a piece of technical writing. Especially when reading about poetry it's rewarding to read elegantly written material. Exum's creativity extends to her analysis of the Song as well. She has several innovative solutions to difficult interpretive problems. One example is her interpretation of Song 2:15 which I have built off of elsewhere. She also is attuned to key dynamics of the Song and understands, in particular, what the girl is trying to do in each of her parts. If you want to understand the Song as art and feel the passion of the lovers then Exum's work is a great place to start. Restraint in interpreting multivalent imagery is another of Exum's virtues. Some (male) commentators go wild and seeming to find genitalia in every other paragraph. Exum's explanations are much more nuanced and she wrestles hard with the question of if/when the Song crosses the line into voyerism. While discussing relevant technical matters she never gets overly detailed. The commentary also interacts with other scholarship less than many others do. This means you get to hear more of Exum and that is a good thing. This should be the first commentary off the shelf for work on the Song. 5 stars out of 5.

The race for second was close but I would give the edge to Diane Bergant's commentary in the Berit Olam series. For discussion of metaphor and simile in the Song, Bergant's work stands head and shoulders above the rest. In general she is very sensitive to literary elements of the text. This commentary is a bit briefer than most so discussion of ANE background is limited, but she does explicitly draw on it from time to time to explicate particular interpretive decisions. Like Exum she does an excellent job at drawing out how the poem is erotic without being explicit, though once in a while I do think she finds more sexual imagery than I am convinced is present. Along with Exum, Bergant utilizes feminist scholarship productively. For the lay person who is intimidated by Exum's commentary, I think this would be a great commentary to start with. It has enough detail without being too technical. 4.5 stars out of 5.

While technically not a commentary, Michael Fox's comparative work on the Song and the ancient Egyptian love poems is another must have and contains a brief commentary. The book has a translation and commentary of both the Song and a collection of love poems from a period in Egypt that greatly predates the Song. The book closes with a lengthy piece of comparative work that looks at the similarities and differences between the Song and ancient Egyptian love poems on a number of topics. This work was groundbreaking in its day and yes most commentators have built off of his work, but there is no substitute for reading Fox himself. There are a lot of similarities and insightful differences between the two corpora that will help you understand the Song. It also makes it blatantly obvious that the Song is not an allegory. Fox's commentary portion on the Song is highly original if a bit idiosyncratic at times. There is some good technical detail. The primary value is in the comparative work, though the commentary is still worth looking at, as is the work of any thinker as original as Fox. 4.5 stars out of 5.

Tremper Longman has given us the best Evangelical commentary on the Song of Songs. Every other commentator I will mention in this post understands the Song as a unity. Longman takes it to be a collection of poems. While I am not convinced that he's right, I do appreciate his recognition that the Song is not telling a linear story. The  literary sensitivity that exemplified much of Longman's work is on display here. There's also adequate coverage on grammatical issues. Longman was most helpful to me in pointing out the spots where there were correspondences between the Song and Proverbs (probably the Song using Proverbs). Most other commentators treat the Song without trying to examine how it fits in with the rest of the wisdom literature. Overall from introduction to footnotes it's an exemplary intermediate commentary. I'd highly recommend pastors pick this commentary up, if nothing else for the introduction. It has the best concise discussion of the history of interpretation of any of the commentaries I read. 4.5 stars out of 5.

Next up is Roland Murphy's entry in the Hermeneia series. The strength of the commentary is the introduction. It's thorough enough without being tediously exhaustive, and like Exum he is a very good writer. The commentary proper is detailed on grammatical and lexical issues. It's a bit sparse at times on interpretive matters. I wish he would have fleshed out his views a little more fully at times. Like Fox, Murphy is a creative thinker and while that occasionally leads to the adoption of unlikely positions, reading interesting ideas is a boon to ones own thinking. Murphy's commentary is the best technical commentary on the Song. I'd give it 4 stars out of 5.

Duane Garrett has written several commentaries on the Song. This review is of his volume in the Word Biblical Commentary series. Garrett, along with Murphy, is probably the place to go for detailed discussion of the Hebrew. Garrett approaches the Song as if it actually was just that, a song. He assigns every verse either to the man, the woman, or the chorus and tries to give a picture of how the Song would be performed. I found this interesting. Unfortunately, Garrett also approaches the Song as if it had a plot, that it's telling the story of a couple about to and then actually getting married. Exum provides a good refutation of this approach in her introduction. I also think he strains the evidence at times to make it fit his plot. Also, for lack of a better way to put it, the commentary feels very male. The way he discusses sex sounds very male and I believe he makes assumptions about the way women experience sex that overgeneralizes (I say this with caution, as I too am a male). Even with these caveats, I still found Garrett useful and for the most part careful and fair in his discussions. His writing style is a bit dry but I did enjoy the commentary. 4 stars out of 5.

The most unique commentary I read was by Ellen Davis. I have a lot of respect for Davis as a scholar, but I do not think that this represents her best work. She took an allegorical approach to the Song. While she's not totally explicit about this, it seems as if Davis understands the Song to have been allegorical in its original intention. There are several times during the Song where she is insistent not on multiple layers of meaning, but that particular verses can only be understood fully when interpreted allegorically. I disagree and had no such trouble. If she had come to similar interpretations but recognized that they are not the primary meaning of the text then I would be less harsh. Davis's work is interesting to read for her reflections on God and love but doesn't aid ones understanding of the Song in any significant way. 2.5 stars out of 5.

Last is the volume by Marvin Pope in the Anchor series. Pope's strength is his grasp on the history of interpretation. The introduction and bibliography are exhaustive and unparalleled. It extends to the commentary proper as well. He closes his comments on every unit with a brief discussion of one or more ancient interpreters drawing on both the Jewish and Christian traditions. I consider that to be about the only strength of the commentary. The commentary is massive and it needed to be massively reduced. There is so much extraneous information to wade through that, even though well organized, it makes utilization a chore. A prime example is his six page exploration of black goddesses in the ancient world when commenting on 'black but beautiful.' It adds nothing to ones ability to interpret the Song. It's also often difficult to find Pope's actual opinions on how verses should be interpreted. It's hard to believe, but in 776 pages he doesn't find a lot of space for laying out his own views. The commentary very much is a commentary on commentaries. When he does get around to presenting his own positions they're usually well wide of the mark. His cultic interpretation has gained little or no traction and he interprets the Song almost as if it were pornagraphic at times. It's hard to give a rating to Pope's work because of both its significant strength and its glaring weaknesses. In the end the weaknesses overwhelm. I would only recommend it to someone with a keen interest in the history of interpretation of the Song. Buy Murphy or Garrett instead. 2.5 stars out of 5.


  1. One I don't know much about that you don't have here is Hess. Did you get a look at that? I'm curious how it compares to Longman and Garrett.

  2. I didn't spend much time in Hess, maybe an hour or so. I looked at it when I was initially deciding what commentaries to use. It didn't seem to being anything to the table that I couldn't find in Longman or Garrett, but again my interaction with it was limited and that may have been related to the passages I looked at.