Review of L. L. Lyke, I Will Espouse You Forever: The Song of Songs and the Theology of Love in the Hebrew Bible

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 9 (2009) - Review

Larry L. Lyke, I Will Espouse You Forever: The Song of Songs and the Theology of Love in the Hebrew Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007). Pp. xxi + 142. Paper, US$18.00, £15.99. ISBN 978-0-687-64574-9.

Larry L. Lyke's I Will Espouse You Forever: The Song of Songs and the Theology of Love in the Hebrew Bible engages the Song of Songs with Hebrew Scripture, Targumic, and Midrashic writings generally in order to reveal its biblically developed ‘theology of love.’ This serves not only to highlight the themes that the Song engenders and addresses, but also grants it a proper and coherent role within Scripture.

Lyke's work is divided into two separate yet intersecting sections. Part One, ‘The Theology of Love in the Hebrew Bible,’ incorporates his insights from Hosea, Jeremiah, Nahum, Ezekiel, Lamentations, the Apocryphal book Judith, and Jon Levenson's concept of the biblical ‘Eden,’ in order to substantiate the metaphorical concept of God's marriage to Israel within Hebrew Scripture. Part Two, ‘The Theology of Love in Early Interpretation of the Song of Songs,’ builds upon the themes apprehended in the biblical materials of Part One, now illuminated through early Jewish and Origen's exposition of Song 1:1-4. Both sections as a whole present the factors and features that contribute to Lyke's proposed ‘theology of love’ within both Scriptural and interpretive witnesses, with the latter revealing nearly identical treatments of the Song within first century Jewish and Christian traditions.

Although Lyke does not explicate the origins and logistics of his chosen descriptor ‘theology of love,’ which he seeks to discuss specifically in regard to the Song, he does provide glimmers of its import while addressing the Song's history of interpretation. Lyke acknowledges that it has been ‘coined’ (xii) and best captures ‘a tradition that, in the earliest Jewish and Christian interpretations, understood the Song of Songs to be about God's deep passion for his people’ (xii). On this point, Lyke elaborates further that ‘the term theology of love finds its locus in early interpretation as a way of understanding those interpreters' assumption that the erotic language in the Song of Songs is used to describe theological reality’ (xii). Another hint at what this concept represents for Lyke surfaces in his premise that ‘while the biblical texts that we shall consider in part 1 merely presume the theology of love, the interpretive traditions that are our focus in part 2 set about to articulate it’ (xv). The ‘theology of love,’ then, represents for Lyke a latent tradition or reality within predominantly prophetic Hebrew Scriptures. Nonetheless he professes concurrently that ‘indeed, the Song became the focal point of the lens through which early interpreters viewed the theology of love in the Hebrew Bible’ (xv). Although the exact group or circumstances marking the inception of the ‘theology of love’ remains elusive throughout Lyke's work, what he deciphers as its main ‘ingredients,’ (xiv) as well as his methodology in identifying them, will become apparent as his research is reviewed.

Lyke's interpretive strategy in approaching biblical texts is impressively detailed. He grants sustained attention to Hebrew lexical items, particularly the repetition of Hebrew root forms he deems related to the ‘theology of love’ within the books and passages he chooses. For instance, Lyke helpfully emphasizes a relationship between Hosea's choice of words often associated with the Hebrew roots פשׁט (Hiph'il, Hos 2:5, strip off; Qal, Hos 7:1, raid) and עור (adjective ערומה ‘naked’ often related to the root II עור be exposed, bare in Hos 2:5) to describe Israel's punishment for ‘adultery’ against YHWH; hence using language that ‘evokes a return to the days before Israel knew YHWH; a time when she was vulnerable and barren’ (6). He corroborates these Hebrew root associations with others, in particular זנה (nouns זנות and זנונים, ‘fornication’ often related to the root זנה, commit fornication, be a harlot in Jer 13:27 and Ezek 23:29 respectively), נאף (Pi'el, Ezek 23:37, commit adultery; and noun נאפים ‘adultery’ often related to the root נאף, commit adultery in Jer 13:27), and גלה (Niph'al, Jer 13:22 and Ezek 23:29, be uncovered). These semantic root associations act as markers, and direct Lyke's movements throughout various prophetic books, in particular, Jeremiah and Ezekiel (16-17, 24-25). Such lexical guideposts eventually constellate the basis from which Lyke derives several motifs delineating God's developing relationship with Israel, allowing Lyke to surmise that certain ‘language and imagery came to be associated with what we shall call the marriage/adultery motif.’ He establishes further that ‘most significant for our study are the association of apostasy with adultery and the concomitant presumption of defilement’ (xiii).

These ideas merge together throughout the scriptures that Lyke reviews - often sequentially, but also emphatically - to compose the structure and tenor of the ‘love theology’ hypothesis which eventually emerges as Lyke's reading of the Song. Lyke establishes, then, prior to any discussion of the Song's text, a systematic disclosure of God's degenerating relationship with Israel, beginning with the negatively-forged marriage motif in Hosea, elaborated ‘consistently in the language of whoring and adultery’ (17). Lyke further explores this ‘marriage/adultery metaphor’ (9) throughout other prophetic books, particularly Ezekiel, where he perceives a blatant ‘link between defilement of adultery and defilement of the cult’ (26). He substantiates that within the ‘imagery and vocabulary that are comprised in this ideology, the temple, subject to defilement as much as Judah (understood as a woman), takes on the characteristics of a woman’ (26). Lyke determines that this last stage of ‘cultic infidelity’ is the ‘fullest expression’ of the relational breakdown between God and Israel begun in the ‘marriage/adultery’ language of Hosea (26).

Although Lyke's proposed ‘love theology’ motifs throughout Hebrew Scripture, thus far based on particular Hebrew roots, have been for the most part transparent and confirmable, his morphological basis for this latter ‘woman-as-temple motif’ is not. Lyke's conceptual move from the nation Israel's adultery to its temple's “defilement” (26) is comprised for the most part of his perception of two lexical items: the Hebrew epithets ‘Oholah and Oholibah’ (26) in Ezekiel 23. These are given to the ‘sisters’ Judah and Jerusalem respectively, and, according to Lyke “mean ‘tent’ and ‘my tent is in her” (26). Lyke, consistent with his approach, seeks to identify all of the conveyed semantic parts within these contextually feminine Hebrew names in order to elucidate further this new phase within the developing relationship between YHWH and Israel. He instructs: ‘the root [אהל] of both names is used in several instances in the Hebrew Bible to refer to the tent either confounded with or merely associated with the tabernacle. It is likely that in Ezekiel's naming of the two sisters he implies that to the degree that they are defiled, so is the tabernacle/temple’ (26-27). Since Ezekiel 23 does recount lewd and adulterous actions attributed to the female characters representing Jerusalem and Judah, Lyke's initial proposal of a ‘marriage/adultery’ motif symbolizing the relationship between God and Israel seems confirmed. But whether he can claim further that the appearance of the word ‘tent’ within Israel's given names facilitates a development from the nation's apostasy generally, to that of its temple, warrants further attention.

In addition to the discrepancy between the kind of ‘tent’ or tabernacle possibly implied within these female epithets of Ezekiel 23, and Lyke's assumption of their connection with the cultic Solomonic temple (usually represented by the Hebrew word הֵיכָל), there remain other translational considerations. Since Oholibah represents for Lyke ‘My tent is in her,’ he seemingly understands the Hebrew formulation as comprised of three elements: ’ōhel (‘tent’), î (my), and bāh (‘in her’). Oholah, then, also identified as created from the Hebrew word for tent, would be divided into ’ōhel (‘tent’) and āh (‘her’), meaning not simply ‘tent,’ but ‘her tent’. Although the particle āh can signify a feminine ending to a noun, as Lyke seems to understand it, the particular kind of noun that ‘tent’ represents in Hebrew - a segolated one - does not typically display gender in this way. Such deliberations, then, weaken Lyke's ‘woman-as-temple’ premise, since these two Hebrew words are central to his argument that ‘tent’ here is equivalent to God's temple.

Moreover, even if Lyke's morphological basis for a ‘temple-as-woman’ motif were deemed accurate, the conclusion he develops from it seems untenable. Lyke advances his understanding of Israel's tent-related names into a depiction of vulnerability of the temple in Judith ‘as a woman raped’ (xiii). The vulnerability of the ‘temple's’ female persona in Judith, then, alongside his tent-related epithets in Ezekiel, substantiate for Lyke a female consort to YHWH: ‘One of the guarantees of God's presence and beneficence was the very existence of his residence, the temple. That his residence was also associated with his mate makes its loss even more compelling’ (xiii). That God should come to have a ‘mate’ of any kind seems highly debatable. God repeats emphatically throughout Hebrew Scripture that ‘YHWH is One’ (Deut 6:4) and ‘there is none except Me’ (Isa 45:5). Admittedly, as Lyke has already demonstrated, Israel is often presented as YHWH's betrothed, especially within the prophetic corpus. But nowhere is it declared that Israel is in that way a ‘goddess’ or feminine equal that necessitates God's fecundity within God's creative works.

Alongside Lyke's notion of ‘temple-as-woman,’ which Lyke professes as ‘one of the two pillars that supported the edifice of the theology of love in the late Second Temple period’ (xiii), he purports a second ‘pillar’ - the Torah. Here the metaphorical element of water in Hebrew Scripture is addressed in order to expand the ‘marriage/adultery’ and ‘woman-as-temple’ medium of God's interaction to now include Holy Writ. The significance of water within YHWH's evolving love relationship with Israel is advanced through Lyke's conviction that Hosea's portrayal ‘of the wilderness wandering after the exodus as the honeymoon between God and Israel’ (9) already contains water implicitly. He conceives that the ‘rich and full fertility’ this young nation received from YHWH was ‘Israel's endowment from this marriage’ (9). Next Lyke's intermediary ‘temple-as-woman’ motif for God's relationship with Israel transforms water's relevance as a means of physical survival for a land-based people into the spiritual continuance of a nation delineated not by land or temple, but teachings.

Lyke establishes this second and final focus of his ‘theology of love’ by reviewing the type scenes within Genesis and Exodus involving wells and springs. His discoveries here compel him to resolve: ‘it seems indubitable that the imagery of spring/wells in these stories represent fertility, woman, and, indeed, their wombs’ (48). Lyke further incorporates ‘water’ passages from the Writings such as Proverbs 5 to support what he perceives to be an emerging and related association of water with Torah. He maintains: ‘often the value of learning and study of God's instruction was represented by imagery associated with water and fertility’ (42). This proposition, for Lyke, demonstrates ‘the emergence of the rise in status of scripture and its association with the theology of love’ (42). His critical inclusion of the positive presentation of water within the above Scriptures, however, deserves further comment.

It seems verifiable that the kinds of betrothal scenes from Genesis that Lyke employs within his ‘water-as-fertility’ (my term) hypothesis are sound; as is his incorporation of Jon Levenson's suggestion that the Garden of Eden symbolizes God's fecund interaction with humankind (39).  All sources here attribute water with life-promoting qualities, allowing Lyke's ‘love theology’ development of the eventual role of Scripture as a flourishing source of Israel's relationship with its Maker. But there exist prominent omissions within Lyke's ‘water-as-fertility’ review, namely those passages which indicate profoundly another reality of ‘water’ within these biblical books: its collusion with chaos and death. Stories like the flood in Genesis, as well as the ‘deeps’ related to creation and the parting of the sea in Exodus engage also the repercussions of ‘water’ for God's relationship to Israel or humans generally. The Scriptural materials that Lyke appropriates to undergird the ‘originating of life’ biblical quality of water also reveals water's destructive attributes. Isaiah 43:3, for instance, reassures: ‘When you pass through water, I will be with you; through streams, they shall not overwhelm you’ (NJPS).  It seems questionable, then, to build a ‘theology’ of God's love for Israel on a ‘pillar’ that depends entirely upon a positive evaluation of a biblical element that mediates multi-faceted and complex connotations in regard to God's relationship with God's people.

Moreover, based on Lyke's founded premises that ‘the garden’ is ‘a metaphor that makes human and divine fertility inseparable’ (46) and ‘the imagery of water at its centre represents fertility’ (45) Lyke now approaches Song 4:12-5:1, which he describes as ‘a text in the middle of the Song of Songs that also makes the connection between gardens and water’ (45). He elucidates: ‘note that after referring to his lover as a ‘spring sealed’ in verse 12, the man again refers to his lover in similar language in verse 15 but with important changes. Here the woman is referred to as a ‘garden spring’ and as a ‘well of living waters’’ (47). Lyke terms the appearance of such vocabulary within the Song as ‘well imagery’ (47), hence concluding that it ‘serves well’ to launch our consideration of wells and springs in Genesis,’ since it reinforces the ‘notion of the woman as the source of life’ (47). But the use of waters and floods in Song chapter 8 hearkens to water’s equally demonstrated threatening or chaotic function, stating in 8:7 that ‘vast floods cannot quench love, nor rivers drown it’ (NJPS). Here the sense is that the love spoken of in Song of Songs will withstand dissolution by water as a destructive force. Rather than celebrating the presence of water as a promise of new or transformed life, then, it is evident that even within the Song ‘water’ does not always support life, but in fact, threatens it. This is not acknowledged within Lyke's review of ‘love theology,’ nor his attention to water metaphors within Hebrew Scripture.

Lyke's final stage of development within his ‘love theology’ of Hebrew Scripture follows directly from his ‘water-as-fertility’ postulation.  Since, according to Lyke, women are associated with water in the Hebrew Bible, and hence fertility; he now proposes the presence of ‘living water’ within the notion of ‘Wisdom.’ In reference to wisdom-related passages in Prov 3:19, 4:5, and 8:22 Lyke asserts: ‘these verses apparently rely on the association of Wisdom/woman/water and may presume that the water at the origin of creation is the female principle called Wisdom. Clearly, Proverb's reliance on this imagery of woman - serves as the crucial link to God's fullness’ (56). Lyke supports his insight by quoting Sir 24:19: ‘Come to me, you who desire me, /and eat your fill of my fruits’ (59) and Song 4:16: ‘Let my beloved come to his garden and enjoy its luscious fruits’ (59) remarking that ‘Sirach describes Wisdom and Torah in language so resonant with the Song of Songs it is difficult to imagine that the two are not related, if only in Sirach's mind’ (xiv). In further exploration of Sirach 24 Lyke professes its author to presume ‘that Wisdom, as a woman and life-sustaining water, is none other than Torah’ (xiv). Having forged his final ‘Wisdom-as-Torah’ (my term) tenet within the second ‘pillar’ of his ‘theology of love,’ Lyke now summarizes his position, stating: ‘what is remarkable about these two pillars of the theology of love that rise to support the theological assumptions of the late Second Temple period is that each represents the divine in feminine imagery. While God remains conceived as male, his temple and ‘mate’ is obviously female’ (xiv). For Lyke, such a finding ensures that ‘God's desire for his people was ongoing and eternal’ (xiv). But again, as noted earlier, Lyke's presumptions in regard to temple, water imagery, and the concept of God's mate, so necessary to his thesis, seem speculative at best.

The second section of Lyke's book that incorporates Targumic and Midrashic commentary on Song 1:1-4 requires little attention, since Lyke's own dual-based ‘love theology’ within Hebrew Scripture and the Song is here reinforced. For instance, Lyke observes that for Targumists the Song represents song nine of ‘the songs,’ that is, a series of ten passages within Hebrew Scripture ‘used to celebrate God's greatness’ (73). ‘The receiving of the Torah’ in Exodus is the saving act that the Song pertains to in particular ‘by associating the kisses with the face-to-face meeting of Moses with God’ (73). The Midrash similarly ‘views the initial parts of the Song in light of the motifs of the exodus, Torah, and temple’ (87).  Lyke explains further that for early Jewish interpreters ‘these historical bookmarks imply the memory of, and future hope for, God's intimate presence,’ (xii) himself declaring: ‘each of these motifs is further understood to be an expression of the love of God for Israel’ (102) - hence Lyke's term: ‘love theology.’

Finally, in assessing Origen's analysis of the Song it is not surprising that Lyke identifies once again the two emphases of temple and Torah, claiming that it ‘resonates remarkably with his Jewish contemporaries’ (109). But rather than perceiving Lyke's ‘woman-as-temple’ figure within the Song, Origen identifies ‘Jesus the Redeemer’ as ‘the subject of the Song’ (110). In regard to Origen's parallel to the Song's Torah ‘pillar,’ as envisioned by Lyke, Origen establishes ‘Jesus as the Word’ (110). Since the methodological approach of typology dominates Origen's work, his situating of its ultimate meaning in the New Testament portrayal of Christ does parallel predictably Lyke's own appropriation of Wisdom as the final carrier of the Torah in his ‘love theology’ within Hebrew Scripture. As a summation of his overall research, then, Lyke maintains that with the loss of the temple and Jesus, both Jewish and Christian traditions initiated ‘a simultaneous investment in the notion that God's presence and intimacy were to be found in the emergent textual tradition’ (xv). For Lyke, the ‘theology of love’ he discerns within both the early Jewish and Christian traditions had ‘little choice’ but to ‘double its investment’ in the ‘pillar’ of Hebrew and Christian Scriptures respectively. Such a canonization of God's ‘desire for his people’ was provoked by ‘the anxiety instilled by a long history of disappointment’ (xiv).

To conclude, one cannot help but remark upon the minimal space Lyke devotes to the Song’s actual text within his work. Apart from his explicit discussions involving the ‘spring sealed’ (4:12-5:1) and ‘kisses of his mouth’ (1:2) in regard to water imagery and the receiving of the Torah, few references are apparent. Lyke's Scriptural index confirms accurately his examination of sixteen verses related directly to the Song, as compared to large portions of other Scriptural books, for example, ten chapters and sixteen verses of Genesis; and three chapters, fifty-two verses of Jeremiah. Although resonances with other parts of Scripture are expected within the Song, their illumination within Lyke's method seems to stymie important attention to the Song's own inherent integrity and structure. Accordingly, one seems left to surmise that a ‘theology of love’ in regard to the Song remains to be written.

Jennifer Pfenniger, Emmanuel College, University of Toronto