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Wine, Vines, and the Song of Songs
by Meghan Neumeier

Summer is the season for weddings. This year, my fiancé and I have seven weddings to attend, including our own. At a recent wedding we went to, we heard a reading from the Song of Songs, also known as the Song of Solomon. Perhaps the most sensual text in the Bible, this book is often read at weddings. Today, many view the Song of Songs literally, as a collection of romantic poems about the relationship between two lovers. The early Jewish and Christian interpreters of the Song of Songs, however, interpreted the book differently.

In the Jewish tradition, the Song of Songs was interpreted allegorically. Rather than viewing the text as representative of a relationship between two lovers, ancient Jewish interpreters believed that the text represented the love and the union between God and Israel. Likewise, many Christian interpreters have viewed the book allegorically. Christian biblical scholars and theologians see the relationship between the lovers as a symbol for the union between Christ and the Church and as a symbol for the love between Christ and individual believers.

Wine comes into play in the Song of Songs because of the book’s focus on the seasons and fruit. In chapter two, the male lover summons his counterpart, calling, “Arise, my beloved, my beautiful one, and come! For see, the winter is past, the rains are over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth, the time of pruning the vines has come, and the song of the dove is heard in our land” (NAB, 2:10-12). The season at hand here is spring, and the blossoming of flowers and vines represents the awakening of love.1 Those familiar with caring for vineyards know that pruning often takes place prior to the arrival of spring. Many biblical scholars, therefore, have interpreted the Hebrew word translated as “pruning” as “singing,” which is another meaning for the same word in Hebrew. The “singing” described here likely refers to the aforementioned dove.

A few verses later, the narrator again mentions vineyards, calling, “Catch us the foxes, the little foxes that damage the vineyards; for our vineyards are in bloom!” (2:15). According to Othmar Keel, vineyards and vines describe feminine charms in the Song of Songs.2 Keel contends that the vineyards in this passage represent a group of women. In the ancient Near East, foxes were symbols for sexual prowess. Thus, the purpose of catching foxes was to protect the women, the “vineyards.” Conversely, early Christians interpreted the foxes as evil powers. Gregory of Nyssa explains this interpretation in a prayer to God: “All these earthly powers with whom humans struggle - princes and authorities and world-rulers of darkness, and spirits of wickedness - are little foxes, wretched and treacherous, consigned under your power. If you overcome them, then our vineyard, our human nature, will receive the grace proper to it, and will begin the harvest of grapes with the blossom of virtuous conduct.”3 The vineyards, then, represent human nature, and Gregory prays that God will destroy evil with His grace in order to harvest virtue.

In the Song of Songs, the female lover’s fruitfulness is described in terms of fruit. “Come, my lover,” says the female. “Let us go forth to the fields and spend the night among the villages. Let us go early to the vineyards, and see if the vines are in bloom, if the buds have opened, if the pomegranates have blossomed; there will I give you my love” (7:12-13). Her love, as described in chapter 4:10, is “better than wine.” Gunter Krinetzki interprets the above passage figuratively, saying it represents the couple’s entrance into a paradise of love.4

The Song of Songs can afford wine aficionados many lessons, literal and figurative alike. Love, for example, is like wine. It doesn’t take seven weddings to celebrate the love in our lives - all we need do is sip a glass of wine.

1 J. Cheryl Exum, Song of Songs: A Commentary, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), 127.

2 Othmar Keel, The Song of Songs: A Continental Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1994), 102.

3 Richard Alfred Norris, trans. and ed., The Song of Songs: Interpreted by Early Christian and Medieval Commentators (Grand Rapids: Wm. B Eerdmans Publishing, 2003), 128.

4 Keel, 46.


 


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