Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 4 (2002-2003) - Review


Dianne Bergant, Song of Songs. (Berit Olam, Studies in Hebrew Narrative and Poetry; Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2001), Pp.xvi, 123. ISBN 0-8146-5069-4. $29.95

In the last few years, the Liturgical Press has produced a steady stream of Bible commentaries in its Berit Olam series. Like the other volumes in the series, this latest on the Song of Songs analyzes the book based on its final form, i.e., the Masoretic Text. Necessarily then, the commentary primarily stresses the poem's multifarious interpretive dimensions and its literary unity (the author treats the Song as a delicately interconnected collection of individual poems). Therefore, one also will find no discussion as to when the text might have been written, or how it came to be collected in the form that we now have it.

Given this rather specific, if not canonical, approach to the poem, one might with reason ask what is new or different about this commentary that cannot be found elsewhere. After all, there are many fine commentaries and textual studies of the Song already in existence, some of them thoroughly comprehensive in their treatment of the Song's many fascinating features. The book's jacket addresses this point by locating the commentary's uniqueness in the author's attention "to the obvious feminine perspective of the poems and to their ecosensitive character." Thus, this book attempts to carve out its niche by focusing on the female character's dominant perspective in the Song, and on the Song's reliance on the natural world as a source for metaphors and other poetic images. Unfortunately, however, a close reading of the book and even a brief perusal of other publications on the Song demonstrate that neither of these features can be said to be unique. There are indeed many works already available that underscore the female's dominant perspective in the Song and that underscore the use of natural imagery. Moreover, a number of features of the book make it rather disappointing as a resource for study.

One of the most pronounced difficulties with using the book is that it often introduces subjects and themes that remain under-developed. For example, in her treatment of the erotic features of the poem, Bergant is careful not to rule out other historical interpretive possibilities.

We can conclude... that the poems that constitute the Song of Songs may have been secular in origin, but they have clear links with both the cultic and sapiential traditions of Israel, thus conferring religious significance on their erotic content (p. ix).

Yet, the relationship between the various interpretive strategies is left unexplained, and Bergant does not offer readers any model for understanding the social and historical processes by which any religious significance could be conferred on erotic material.

Similarly, Bergant contextualizes the Song by stressing its relationship to Israelite wisdom traditions. She maintains that since it is a part of this literary tradition the Song "...must be more than a report of the romantic escapades of the king. It must contain insights beneficial for right living, insights that will enhance human life" (p. 5). Having offered readers this tantalizing perspective, Bergant then never returns to demonstrate what these insights might be, or how they are played out in the Song.

Bergant is particularly strong, however, at spotting the poem's sophisticated literary devices. She frequently points out examples of enallage, chiasmus, alliteration, paronomasia, repetition, and parallelism, to name just a few. Nevertheless, here too the treatment is often brief, and with the exception of a few cases of onomatopoeia (e.g., p. 15), often constitutes a mere cataloguing of devices without attention to their function in the poem.

Another, perhaps more serious disappointment, however, is the book's method of citation which is often incomplete and sometimes even misleading. While a desire to reduce footnotes must be considered admirable in such a series (the bibliography too barely exceeds two pages), one would expect the footnotes that are included to cite the original observations of others, and not point to secondary or even tertiary works. One is pleased, for example, to find Bergant drawing attention to the use of polysemy in Song 2:12 (the word zamir means both "pruning" and "singing," p. 29, n. 2), but one is rather surprised to find no reference to the original source of the discovery.(1) In fact, overall Bergant's treatment of polysemy in the Song ignores a great deal of previous research.(2) One could make a similar observation concerning Bergant's treatment of the Song as a dramatic performance, which makes no mention of the foundational work of Leroy Waterman.(3) Note also that when discussing the possible meaning "leather" for the word )ahabah (usually translated "love") in Song 3:10 (p. 40), Bergant cites Timothea M. Elliott, The Literary Unity of the Canticle,(4) but the proposal belongs originally to G. R. Driver.(5) One suspects here, and elsewhere, an effort to continually draw attention to the works of those who stress literary unity.

Bergant similarly makes frequent reference to the Arabic wasf (with dotted s) poetic genre when discussing the various physical descriptions of the lovers in the Song. Yet here too footnotes are sparse, and when they do appear, they do not reference the original contribution, but tertiary sources that cite the original observations. In fact, a great deal of well-known literature on the wasf and its application to the Song appears to have been ignored.(6) Moreover, throughout the book, Bergant's treatment of the wasf betrays a lack of familiarity with the Arabic genre and its Sitz im Leben. She remarks, for example, that "The wasf is an example of the Ancient Near Eastern custom of portraying favored features of a person in the guise of the strength or beauty of the surrounding world" (p. 43). But the wasf's origins lie in Syrian wedding songs, and according to wasf poets (e.g., Ibn al-Rumi), they do have a specific typology that Bergant nowhere describes. Indeed, Bergant's statement leaves unclear whether she is classifying the wasf as a literary or social custom, or both.

Compounding these infelicities and general lack of depth is a number of general claims and assertions that often stand in place of argumentation and evidence. When explaining the role of wisdom and "wisdom teachers" in ancient Israel, Bergant asserts:

Although wise women and men believed that there was a proper way of behaving, they did not insist on a rigid standard that would fit every circumstance. They acknowledged that varying circumstances made each case unique. In fact, only those who were able to evaluate the situation and decide on the best course of action were considered wise. The truly sagacious person was the one who could draw on a store of wisdom gained from personal experience, social custom or religious tradition, and then would choose a course of action that seemed to fit the situation (p. 5).

One would like to see here a demonstration of how Bergant knows what "wise women and men believed" and what allows us access to the ancients' reasoning in terms of courses of action, appeals to wisdom traditions, and what qualities characterized one as "wise."

Similarly, when discussing the difficult word (otyah (hy+() in Song 1:7, which she takes as a reference to the woman's "veil," Bergant remarks:

Some believe that this veil suggests the covering of prostitutes who often frequented the fields seeking a liaison. While such a disguise could put the woman at risk, it would probably not jeopardize the man's position, because such encounters were quite common in certain societies (p. 18).

Again, a lack of argumentation and specific reference to sources, coupled with a rather assuming epistemology makes such statements difficult to accept.

In sum, this is a rather disappointing commentary. It contains little that cannot be found elsewhere with greater depth. Its methodological gaps, lack of straightforward citation, and its epistemological, as well as philological shortcomings(7) and typographical infelicities(8), make it difficult to recommend.

Scott B. Noegel
University of Washington


1. See already C. H. Gordon, "New Directions," Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists 15 (1978), pp. 59-66. Back

2. For a convenient treatment of polysemes in the Song, see S. B. Noegel, Janus Parallelism in the Book of Job (JSOTS, 223; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996), pp. 11-12, 30, 33-34, 154.Back

3. Leroy Waterman, The Song of Songs: Translated and Interpreted as a Dramatic Poem (Ann Arbor, MI.: University of Michigan Press, 1948).Back

4. Timothea M. Elliott, The Literary Unity of the Canticle (European University Series, 23; Bern: Peter Lang, 1989), p. 302, n. 97.Back

5. G. R. Driver, "Supposed Arabisms in the Old Testament," Journal of Biblical Literature 55 (1936), 101-120.Back

6. At a minimum one would expect to find references to J. G. Wetztein, "Die Syrische Dreschtafel," Zeitschrift für Ethnologie 5 (1873), 270-302, and Robert Gordis, "A Wedding Song for Solomon," Journal of Biblical Literature 63 (1944), pp. 263-270.Back

7. In her treatment of Song 2:7, Bergant remarks that here "the woman substitutes a similar-sounding phrase for the names of God" (p. 26) by employing "gazelles" (tseba)ot) for (God of) "hosts" (tseba)ot), and "wild does" (, and "wild does" ()aylot hassadeh) for "God almighty" ()el shadday). Bergant leaves unclear why the female character would make such a substitution.  Moreover, the book does not advance our knowledge of Hebrew lexicography. It retains a common understanding of Hebrew terms that has been shown to be, most likely, incorrect. For instance, the traditional translation of  )el shadday as "God almighty" is maintained, but the expression probably means "God of the mountain" (i.e., as cognate with Akkadian shadu "mountain"). Elsewhere Bergant repeatedly insists that the Hebrew word nepesh "...(soul) really means 'breath'" (p. 34), though a comparison with Ugaritic and Akkadian suggests that neither "soul" nor "breath" are appropriate renderings; the word being related more to life through sustenance 
(cf. Ugaritic napshu "appetite").Back

8. Just to cite three examples: On p. 26 The word "does" is incorrectly transliterated as (ay(lot (that is, with two (ayins instead of one )aleph). On p. 33 the transliteration of the word beter should have no dot below the t. The Hebrew letter is a taw and not a teth. On p. 64 the word beter again appears with dotted t, but since the reference is here to a "womb," one must assume that beten (with dotted t) is meant.Back