Altogether Lovely

A Thematic and Intertextual Reading of the Song of Songs

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Havilah Dharamraj
  • Minneapolis, MN : 
    Fortress Press
    , June
     2018.
     272 pages.
     $39.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781506423203.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Havilah Dharamraj’s contribution to canonical readings of the Song of Songs in Altogether Lovely focuses on four intertextual conversations about the nature of love between the Song and prophetic marriage imagery from Hosea (2:2–23), Ezekiel (16:3–14; 23:1–44), and Isaiah (5:1–7). Such a project has been done before by scholars such as David Carr (The Erotic Word, Oxford University Press, 2005) and André LaCocque (Romance, She Wrote, Wipf & Stock, 1998), however, Dharamraj, who teaches Old Testament at the South Asia Institute for Advanced Christian Studies, engages these intertexts more closely than I have seen elsewhere, showing how the Song both complements and critiques the prophets’s depictions of love. Dharamraj’s synchronic, intertextual study avoids claims about dating or authorially-intended allusions, focusing instead on literary readings within the canon.

The first theme, “love in separation,” engages the woman’s search for her beloved (Song 2:8–3:5, 5:2–6:3) with Hosea’s monologue on how he will win back Gomer (Hos 2). Both Hosea and the woman reveal their agency, perseverance, and risk of humiliation in their search for love—even if Hosea’s methods are more violent and hierarchical than his counterpart in the Song. Hosea 1–2, of course, has become a major focus of feminist critique. Dharamraj is sensitive to these concerns: she notes the power imbalance of Hosea and Gomer’s marriage, and reminds the reader that they should be discomforted by Hosea’s threats of violence. However, given that Dharamraj sees Hosea ending on a note of love, feminist critique is not her main focus.

In the second theme, “beauty,” Dharamraj centers on the power of lovers and their language to evoke, to shape, and even to create their beloved. She begins with the woman’s speech in praise of her man’s beauty (Song 5:10–16), which vivifies and evokes the man’s beauty to both the women of Jerusalem and the Song’s readers. Here Dharamraj displays one of her virtues, seen throughout the book: sensitivity to the nuance of the poetry—with constant reference to the Hebrew. In this case, she focuses closely on the many sensory stimuli of this praise-poem: sight, scent, taste, and touch. She brings this poem into conversation with God’s song of his foundling-wife Israel in Ezekiel (16:3–14), in which the lover has adorned and formed the beloved into her beauty through love—a love now betrayed.

The third theme is the connection between the sensual pleasure and the seclusion of gardens in the Song (4:8–5:1) and Isaiah’s Song of the Vineyard (5:1–7). While Isaiah speaks of a powerful gardener tending his garden, the Song’s male lover seems to exalt his beloved, even using goddess imagery to woo her into opening her garden to him (189). Thus, the gender hierarchy is switched. Isaiah’s devotee is the feminized Israel, while the Song’s devotee is the male beloved—who, incidentally, is God in the medieval allegories. Here, I felt Dharamraj missed a chance to engage some of the complexities of gender and hierarchy in the Song and its interpretation; even so, her close reading of the language is superb.

Finally, Dharamraj turns to the theme of love as jealousy in the ending verses of the Song (8:5–14) and Ezekiel’s story of Oholah and Oholibah (23:1–44). In both cases, true love demands monogamous devotion. Ezekiel may echo a “patriarchal power dynamic” (250), but this is offset by the powerful agency and voice of the woman in the Song.

From her four intertextual studies, Dharamraj concludes that, when read in concert, the prophets and the Song provide a fuller, more balanced depiction of human love (255–57). She finds complements: the urgent and highly emotive language of the prophets adds more depth to romantic love than the Song alone. Yet she also finds critiques: Israel’s going astray is made more vivid by the Song’s depiction of ideal love as well as a critique of the prophets for their “gender terror,” in opposition to the Song’s relative gender mutuality. Finally, as a poem of divine-human love, the Song holds up an ideal image of beauty and affection.

Dharmaraj excels at close reading, and I appreciate how she captures the ambiguity and evocativeness of biblical poetry. Her South Asian context, an underrepresented voice in scholarly circles, allows her to make frequent and interesting parallels between the Song and South Asian culture and literature (e.g., 90, 204), although this is not an explicitly contextual/situated reading. On the other hand, in each chapter Dharmaraj briefly surveys medieval allegorical readings of the Song passage under discussion. She relies almost entirely on contemporary anthologies of small excerpts from medieval exegetes compiled by Meir Zlotowitz, J. Robert Wright, and Richard A. Norris, and engages little secondary scholarship on premodern exegesis. Therefore, these summaries, set off under their own headings, did not seem to contribute much to the discussion. 

Finally, a major difficulty of the kind of synchronic intertextual study Dharamraj undertakes is the choice and agency left to the reader. Some recent canonical readers have brought the Song into harmonious conversation with the canon, often to make a theological point. Others have drawn sharp contrasts between the Song and its canon, often in service of a feminist reading of the Song. Further, the intertextual reader can choose which texts overshadow others or take precedence. So Dharamraj posits that the Song’s mutuality and care contrast with—even “critique” (256)—the prophets’s violent depictions of love. But one could reverse the order: perhaps Hosea 2 and Ezekiel 23 may cast their shadow on the Song, inviting its readers to ponder a possible darker side. I would have liked Dharamrah to elaborate more on her choices and her agency as a reader. Had she elaborated on how her own approach differs from others who have read the Song in conversation with prophetic marriage imagery—such as Carr and LaCocque—perhaps her choices would have been clearer.

Flaws aside, I greatly enjoyed this study, and commend Dharamraj for writing a thoughtful work capturing the nuances of beauty, ambiguity, and spirituality in the Song. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jonathan Homrighausen is a doctoral student in Hebrew Bible/Old Testament at Duke University.

Date of Review: 
April 3, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Havilah Dharamraj is a Langham scholar, and serves as Academic Dean and Dead of the Department of Old Testament at the South Asia Institute of Advanced Christian Studies (SAIACS) in Bangalore.

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