Historical-Grammatical Interpretation and the Song of Songs

What is historical-grammatical interpretation, and how does this affect our approach to the Song?

How does this affect the way we read the Song of Songs? This is where HGI runs into a problem, because HGI recognizes the reality of figurative language, such as metaphor, simile, and symbolism. But HGI itself will not tell the reader when figurative language is being used. That has to be determined by markers in the larger context of a work, and at times interpreters will disagree as to whether those markers are present, or what their significance may be.

 

In my last post, I mentioned that one reason given for rejecting the allegorical, or symbolic, interpretation of the Song is the fact that the church has adopted the historical-grammatical approach to interpretation. The raises two questions. First, what is historical-grammatical interpretation (HGI)? Second, how does this affect our approach to the Song?

What is HGI? To put it in simple terms that must then be unpacked, HGI is interpreting a text in the ordinary sense of the words in their grammatical relationship and in their historical relation. For example, if we read a statement in the newspaper that so-and-so is a nice person, we gather from that statement that the person mentioned is pleasant or agreeable. But if we read that same statement in the context of The Canterbury Tales, we would take the word wrongly if we thought it meant that the person was pleasant. Because in the time of Chaucer, to call someone “nice” was to say that they were foolish or ignorant, because that was the meaning of the word at that time. Later, by the sixteenth century, the word “nice” had acquired the sense of “finicky” or “particular” or “picky.” Thus HGI requires us to understand the language of the Bible in its historical context.

Another example, this time of a biblical word, may help. You may have sometimes heard a preacher say that the Greek word dynamis means explosive power, since the word dynamis is the origin of the word dynamite. So, when Jesus tells the disciples in Acts 1:8 that they shall receive power, Jesus means explosive power. But that is to misread Jesus’ statement, because the word “dynamite” comes from the late nineteenth century, and the usage of the Greek word in the first century simply meant strength, power, or ability, in contrast to weakness or inability.

In addition to their historical setting, the words in Scripture have to be read and understood in their grammatical context. It is an overstatement to say that a word has no meaning apart from context, but it is not a huge overstatement. Take, for example, the word “lead.” Without context, you have no idea what I’m referring to. Further, you don’t even have any idea how to pronounce the word. It may be pronounced “led,” in which case the word is a noun, and refers to a particular metal. But it may also be pronounced “leed,” in which case it may be a noun or a verb. So the grammatical context of a word is as essential to its proper understanding as is its historical context.

How does this affect the way we read the Song of Songs? This is where HGI runs into a problem, because HGI recognizes the reality of figurative language, such as metaphor, simile, and symbolism. But HGI itself will not tell the reader when figurative language is being used. That has to be determined by markers in the larger context of a work, and at times interpreters will disagree as to whether those markers are present, or what their significance may be. So when Jesus calls Herod a fox in Luke 13:32, Jesus is using a metaphor. But there is no marker in the sentence or the paragraph itself that tells us that. It is simply the common sense of the reader that recognizes that Jesus is not speaking literally, but figuratively.

So with the Song of Songs, the language of the Song itself, even the historical context of the Song (of which more later), does not tell us directly whether the language is intended to be symbolic or figurative, or literal. That has to be determined by considering the larger theological and canonical contexts of the Song. My own sense is that the modern interpretation of the Song is not driven by HGI, because HGI cannot answer the question. Instead, it is driven by the consideration of ancient Near Eastern parallels, and by a certain academic distaste for allegory and symbolism, even though symbolic and figurative language are found throughout the Scriptures.

Benjamin Shaw is Associate Professor of Old Testament at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. This article appeared on his blog and is used with permission.