Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

"Roomy Hearts" in a "More Spacious World": Origen of Alexandria and Ellen Davis on the Song of Songs

Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

"Roomy Hearts" in a "More Spacious World": Origen of Alexandria and Ellen Davis on the Song of Songs

Article excerpt

This paper compares the exegesis of the Song of Songs done by Origen of Alexandria and Ellen Davis of Duke Divinity School. Once it would have been nearly impossible to make a fruitful comparison between a patristic exegete and a modern one. Now, convergences in church history and in biblical interpretation allow us to see the two exegetes as doing similar things. This article sets out the basic hermeneutics of each exegete, and then compares their commentaries on portions of the Song's first and second chapters. The article concludes with some broader comparisons between patristic exegetical theology and the recent postliberal return to a theologically informed Old Testament exegesis, suggesting what both have to offer the life of the church.

Something exciting has been happening recently in the academic study of the Bible. In the world of biblical interpretation, theologically inclined exegetes have reassessed the potential validity of allegorical exegesis as a viable approach to Scripture. At the same time, good patristic scholarship has shown that ancient Christian theologians were, first and foremost, biblical exegetes. The result of these two scholarly movements is that we can now speak again of ancient and con temporary exegetes as doing the same kind of thing. In this paper I will compare the work of Origen of Alexandria with that of Professor Ellen Davis of Duke University on the Song of Songs. The very fact that the third-century allegorist and the contemporary postliberal exegete can be fruitfully compared is the most important contention of the paper.

"A More Spacious World": Ellen Davis1

Both Ellen Davis and Origen agree that the Song requires a great deal of wisdom to be read well. Such wisdom is precisely what many contemporary readers of the Old Testament lack. Against most of her fellow biblical scholars, Davis flatly denies the assertion that the Song of Songs landed in the Jewish and Christian canons by a colossal blunder. Some biblical scholars claim that the rabbis and fathers mistakenly thought the text was about a mystical relationship between the soul or community and God.2 Davis suggests that in reality the Song's subject is a simple sexual encounter, and its genre something like "soft pornography." If the Song were indeed the "biggest religious joke of all time," the result would be profoundly sad, for then "nowhere within the covers of the Bible [would there be] a truly happy story about God and Israel in love." In countless instances Israel's God professes his ultimate allegiance to her, only to be met by her "harlotry" and "whoring" after false gods. Only here in the Song does the Lord profess his love for Israel and then hear her respond with "yes, I love you too." If its status in the canon were such a mistake we would have to "accept the sad fact that there is at the heart of the Bible a cosmic loneliness that finds no relief."3

Davis argues with her colleagues on grounds they share. It is no extra-scriptural hermeneutic by which she is convinced that the rabbis and fathers are right, but rather a hermenentic toward which she is driven by the Song itself. There are simply large swaths of the text that are unexplainable if one is unwilling to read it at any other level than that of a physical encounter. Often commentators seem not even to recognize the bankruptcy of an approach that ignores this. On the famous verse in which the bride professes that her guts "heave" for her lover (Song 5:4), one commentator writes that the bride must be referring to the particular part of the female anatomy that would be aroused in such a situation, the 'bulbospongiosus muscle." Davis's response is understated: "This strikes me as the kind of information that is inconsequential even if accurate, which someone writes because he doesn't know what else to say."4 In contrast, Davis attends to literal, even carnal, readings when appropriate, and also to figural readings, an approach that is better able to account for all the particular features of the Song. …

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