Richard S. Hess, Song of Songs
(Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005). Pp. 285. Cloth, US$29.99. ISBN: 0-8010-2712-8.
Reviewed by Jennifer Pfenniger
Emmanuel College

Song of Songs by Richard S. Hess launches the Baker Commentary on the Old Testament: Wisdom and Psalms, a series dedicated to “the distinctive nature” of Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs, whose “content makes them harder to fit into the development of redemptive history” (p. 8).

Hess’ contribution to this project is an accomplished, celebrative volume. Its focus lies in the natural, compelling, and artistic character of love and commitment encountered within the poetic structures of the Song. Hess’ Song lauds relational and physical love, sanctioned and blessed as part of God’s good creation, filling “a necessary vacuum in the Scriptures because it endorses sex and celebrates it beyond all expectation” (p. 35).

For Hess, then, the Song is about sex. It is “an adult book” (p. 11). Hess clarifies, however, that such a claim does not support other scholars’ findings in similar directions, e.g., Clines’ understanding of the Song as “a male composition of soft pornography . . . designed for men’s entertainment and allegorized in order to preserve it within the canon” (p. 20). Hess’ reading of the Song supports neither an overly high nor low view of sex, avoiding “both extremes of the cheapening of sex into promiscuity and of the locking away of this gift, never to be mentioned or appreciated for what it is” (p. 11). Hess’ interpretation boldly grounds “the physical love praised here as sharing in the greater love of God, which he created for all those in his image to enjoy” (p. 37–38), and valiantly upholds Song of Songs’ Scriptural status based on its “teaching of love” (p. 20).

The author describes his method of interpretation as a culmination and combination of observed poetic form, themes, imagery, and distinct vocabulary. Accordingly, he provides helpful and extensive analysis of a passage’s poetic structure, noting refrain, repetition, grammatical markings, and word choice. His study is abundant in its identification of envelope structure, chiasm (even grammatical chiasm), word play, and waf. He exudes also an admirable commitment to lexical detail, which is both informative and refreshing. His thorough and thought-provoking discussion around the root נטר‎ “to guard, watch, keep” in Song 1:6 (p. 57), for example, demonstrates one of many occasions where Hess brings to light the Song’s underlying Hebrew text, and adjudicates possible correspondences with other parts of Scripture. After examining all ten biblical occurrences of נטר‎, Hess enhances the usual translation “guarding the vineyards” with the more commonly attested sense of ‘displeasure or anger’ (Lev 19:18; Jer 3:5, 12; Nah 1:2; Ps 103:9). This results in: “they made me look after the vineyards” (p. 56), which for Hess “furthers the brothers’ hostility in their act of placing their sister in the vineyard, where they know she will lose her fair complexion under the angry sun” (p. 57).

Although Hess details poetic units of the Song individually, his overall interpretation requires its reading as a whole. Piecing together the various themes, tendencies of thought, and images as revealed through structural analysis, Hess proposes his aforesaid theological evaluation, i.e., “these are love poems whose use of language embraces the erotic but also points beyond this to a greater love” (p. 33). At this stage Hess’ lines of interpretation become somewhat blurred. Though he states emphatically that the Song is not to be read as a marital or pre-marital manual (p. 35) and that “ultimately, love and its enjoyment are what matter,” (p. 11), Hess nonetheless conjectures that the couple’s committed relationship (at least in Hess’ implied pre-marital sections) exists without any physical consummation in terms of sex: “Although anticipated and sometimes almost achieved, it is not possible to find a clear and certain description of coitus having taken place” (p. 35; cf. pp. 35 n. 91; 51; 58 nn. 34 and 35; 100).

In deference to this, Hess posits a winding labyrinth of passages to be understood as fantasy, and others to be read as reality, with no discernible negotiating protocol except what might be considered proper courting or marital relations within a Christian context. “Sexually charged” scenes are deemed to demonstrate sexual desires rather than acts (p. 106); e.g., in 1:13 “the picture of lying between her breasts evokes a scene of sexual pleasure. And yet the verse is not a description of the event itself but the fantasy of the female as she expresses rhapsodies” (p. 69–70). References to royalty similarly illuminate the high degree of attractiveness and regard the couple share, rather than rivaling chivalries or any possibility of monarchal connections. Hess resolves: “references to King Solomon, like the crowns worn up to the present day by Jewish brides and grooms on their weddings, represent the images that the male and female possess in the eyes of one another” (p. 124).

Hess suggests further that the woman’s repeated adjuration to her female associates (2:7; 3:5; 8:4) belies her delay of physical gratification with her love, rather than any longing to re-experience an intimacy already known (p. 58 nn. 34 and 35). Moreover, Hess proposes a wedding scene in 3:11 when he likens the “daughters of Jerusalem” to maiden ceremonial attendants (p. 122), and similarly, the “mighty men” as courtiers who facilitate a breathtaking appearance of the bride, “an altogether magnificent spectacle of one who might well have come from the ends of the earth to her lover” (p. 124). It is difficult to reconcile, however, Hess’ acknowledgement of this bride’s “most luxuriant method of travel” (p. 118), including a poignant pause where “the male sees his lover” (p. 118) and his coinciding concession that the relevant Hebrew passage mentions no one but Solomon within the described entourage. Hess marvels: “it is of greatest interest that the woman herself is not described in this section,” yet forges on to conclude that she inhibits the Hebrew text implicitly, via “outward signs of power and position” (p. 120). He insists that she is there, though not mentioned. Hess also envisions the couple erupting together in the style of an “intermezzo that both sing” Song 2:15: “catch foxes for us, little foxes who ruin vineyards,” i.e., “protect our love” (p. 97). This is an unprecedented rendering of concurrent speech by a man and woman in the Song, and likely exposes itself to the same criticism awarded Görg in 1:6, where Hess counsels “it is best not to push the context of the passage too far beyond the explicit statements of the text” (p. 56 n. 28). Similarly, in response to Keel’s proposal that 3:9–10 “are not spoken by anyone but are an objective account, the only one in the Song,” Hess tuts: “this itself should give pause to such a theory” (p. 110 n. c). Finally, Hess’ query in 6:2–3, as to whether “one of the reasons the lovers are not clearly described as married may be the concern to emphasize the unity of their physical relationship as more substantial and fundamental than that of the words of a marriage ceremony” (p. 192) seem especially puzzling in view of previous claims.

Hess makes clear from the outset that “the Song is not a drama or a sequential narrative” (p. 34), yet hints at a sense of plot development throughout. One example is Hess’ observation that Song 1:5 reveals the woman’s lack of physical grooming and resulting self-consciousness (p. 57). The man then takes it upon himself to address routinely her insecurity, as his “concern is to restore the confidence of the woman by praising her attributes” (p. 61). Hess also follows the misadventures of the lovers being parted, and then brought together again, although for reasons left unaddressed and unexplained. Family relations further work into Hess’s storyline. Here the woman’s kinship obligations to the vineyard are amplified alongside tensions amongst siblings, a healthy relationship with her mother, residence within the family home, received parental blessing regarding partner choice, and a final restoration of a brother’s goodwill. Hess also develops a kind of psychological motif, giving attention to where the female lover seems to seek holistic and relational aspects of love in contradistinction to the man’s apparent fixation on physical attributes. Already in 1:9 he observes that “the male betrays what will become evident in the following verses: whereas the female’s expression of love fills all the senses with marvelous descriptions, the male’s focus is on the physical form of beauty” (p. 63). Hess reassures in the end that “these two different perspectives complement one another” (p. 67). In all prior instances, one wonders whether Hess’ governing mode of interpretation is rooted in other ‘texts,’ i.e., the institution of marriage, traditional Christian values, Anglo-Saxon social custom, and some forms of contemporary gender psychology.

In his Preface to the commentary series, editor Tremper Longmann III acknowledges that “a healthy church is a church that nourishes itself with constant attention to God’s words in Scripture, in all their glorious detail” (p. 8). Hess’ enthusiastic presentation and obvious labours furnish an undeniable contribution toward this goal. What remains dubious, however (at least for this reviewer), is how to reconcile satisfactorily the fruits of Hess’ poetical structural analysis with what appears to be an overshadowing locus of interpretation, namely a reinforcement of Christian social values and institutions.