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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

Style and Structure.

1.

The Song is best viewed not as one single poem but a collection. To begin with, there is no unified style. Conventional poetic devices are certainly much in evidence. Parallelisms, refrains, alliteration, word- and sound-play, puns and repetitions are rife, but not in any way that could be considered typical to the Song. Metaphors and symbols derived from many areas of human experience are heavily used in a combination of conventionality and originality but, once more, it is difficult to attribute any specificity of single authorship, place, and time to this variety. In addition, while a structural unity is discernible, no narrative plot sequence—in the sense of a story, a linear trajectory leading from beginning through to end—is obtainable. In short, the Song is best viewed as an anthology of love lyrics. This is the position adopted here, although from ancient times until this century, many exegetes and scholars (Exum 1973; Goulder 1986; Landy 1983 ) have preferred to view the Song as a unified composition containing a single, ongoing love story.

2.

Even so, some problems remain concerning the boundaries of individual songs—there are no rhymes and, in most MSS and printed editions, no indications of lines. Change of speaker, from female to male or vice versa, do not necessarily constitute a departure or a new unit. Neither do changes of settings, places, times, and so on. In short, the principles of unit boundaries and organization as well as the organization of the whole are not easy to uncover. The fact that some passages are repeated verbatim or almost so (cf. 3:1–4 with 5:6–7 , or 4:1–3 with 6:5b–7 ) is best interpreted as a structural (editorial) device, rather than a repeated stage in a plot sequence. Nevertheless, some songs do combine, by verbal and narrative association, into a larger mini-story—such as the sequence beginning in 5:2 : a woman refuses to admit her lover; he departs and she seeks him, without success ( 5:2–7 ); she asks the daughters of Jerusalem to find him ( 5:8 ), they want his description (v. 9 ), she complies (vv. 9–16 ); they agree to look for him ( 6:1 ) but, by that time, the lovers are reunited ( 6:2–3 ).

3.

At the beginning of the Song, 1:2–8 , it is clearly a woman's or women's voice that we predominantly hear. Possibly, there are three songs strung together here. The first (vv. 2–4 ) sets out the subject: the love of a woman for a man. In the second (vv. 5–6 ) a woman defiantly explains that she is ‘dark and [or: but] beautiful’ (NRSV: ‘black and beautiful’) as a result of being assigned to outdoor occupations by her maternal brothers, presumably in a vain effort to preserve her sexual modesty. In the third we watch her search for her male lover (v. 7 ), who—and this is the first male voice we hear—teases her to try and find him (v. 8 ). Exactly at the collection's centre, 4:8 (HB 4:9 )– 5:1 , a seduction scene takes place. It is metaphorical, gentle, and polite. Unmistakably, though, at its end a young man has obtained a young woman's consent to have sexual relations. Consummation is followed by a celebration, with food and drink. At the end of the collection, ch. 8 , maternal brothers set out their concern for their sister's chastity, and the means they will employ to preserve it when that becomes necessary (vv. 8–9 ). A woman's voice responds, defiantly (v. 10 or vv. 10–12 ). After an unclear interlude (v. 13 ) the book ends when a woman's voice sings to her lover: run away, jump like a deer on the fragrant mountains (v. 14 ). Thus, at the end of the Song readers, and lovers, are precisely where they were at its beginning. Although a poignant personal credo of what love is about is voiced by a female to a male, and is placed in 8:6–7 , it does not end the whole. At the end lovers are, once more, apart. They look, search, depart and go—especially the female lovers, who are more active than the males. And yet, a clear act of consummation has occurred in the exact quantitative centre of the book. The collection's movement, then, is not linear (as in a regular narrative plot) but circular, with its presumed climax situated at its middle rather than at its end. This, and the fact that parallels are chiastically placed on either side of the climactic 4:8 (HB 4:9 )– 5:1 passage, once again signify editorial rather than authorial intent. In other words, the cyclical ‘plot’ seems to be the result of a plan to unify the whole by means of its structure.

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