It might surprise many Christians to know that for nearly a millennium, the Song of Songs (aka Canticles, aka Song of Solomon) in the Old Testament was perhaps the single most important book of scripture. There are more medieval commentaries on this book than any other book in the Bible. Modern readers find this especially strange since there is no explicit message of God, divine law, moral imperatives, or any other “obvious” sign of its religious nature. In fact, modern biblical critics characterize it as a secular love poem that was included in the canon simply because it was attributed to Solomon, not because of its content.
Mormons are likely especially surprised by the importance of the Song of Songs because Joseph Smith was famously skeptical of its place in the canon. The first footnote in the LDS version of the Bible indicates: “the JST manuscript states that ‘The Songs of Solomon are not inspired writings.'” Joseph was not alone in the history of Christianity and Judaism to wonder what an erotic love poem was doing in the Bible. At the same time, this wonder also provided the background for the rich allegorical explanations of the Song.
The reason that the Song of Songs was so popular and important had to do with the allegorical method, the reigning hermeneutical approach to scripture from Origen to the Reformation. The literal meaning was secondary, if relevant at all, to proper interpretation of the Bible. Today, the allegorical method has completely fallen out of favor except in a few limited circles. Yet, there was a time when the “problems” of scripture were seen as the great opportunities for revealing the mysteries of God.
While today deacons read the Song of Songs for cheap thrills (btw, I recommend a modern translation rather than the KJV which Victorian-izes much of the language in order to soften the eroticism), there was a time when the erotic message symbolized the relationship between God and the believer. Bernard of Clairvaux wrote over 80 exegetical sermons on the text and never got past the third chapter. In a world where celibacy was the highest form of devotion to God, eroticism was the principle way of expressing that devotion.
My question is whether or not Mormons can find any value in the Song of Songs. Are we stuck with the literalist hermeneutics of modernity, or does the allegorical method have some value? Also, does the erotic have any place in Mormon understandings of divine love and love for the divine? I wonder when Joseph made his statement about the Song. (My hunch is that it was early in his career and that he wouldn’t have said the same thing after 1842, but I haven’t researched early Mormon use of this text.) Though I have known some Mormons who have torn it out of their scriptures, I wonder if we are not short-changing ourselves by ignoring this text and thereby missing out on a depth of interpretation and experience that our previous Christian brothers and sisters saw.