Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Shulamite, Mary, and You

by Shawn Brace

When a word in Greek or Hebrew is used only a handful of times in the Bible, scholars take note. This is especially true when there seem to be thematic links among the various passages.

Over the past two or three years, I have made it my mission to study the Song of Songs. I am convinced that this wonderful book typologically points to God and His relationship with His people. But I want to make this connection on solid exegetical and intertextual grounds.[1] I don’t simply want to come to the Song of Songs and say, “Well, since Jesus said that all Scripture testifies of Him, it must mean that this whole book is about Jesus. Thus, the Shulamite’s two breasts represent the Old and New Testaments, etc.”[2] There needs to be a solid foundation for such an understanding.

So last year, I decided to go through the whole book and trace the use of the Hebrew words throughout the Old Testament. I didn’t get very far without realizing that there were incredible intertextual links to the temple and sanctuary. This was the case when the Shulamite described Solomon, for example. Thus, when she describes Solomon’s body in 5:10-16, she uses such terms as lilies, rods,[3] gold, pillars, foundation, Lebanon, and Cedars—the combination of which is found only in the description of Solomon’s temple in 1 Kings 6 & 7. In reflecting upon this interesting connection, Old Testament scholar Tremper Longman concludes, “We resist using this fact to allegorize the text, but again we suggest that it associates her description with something exalted, even holy.”[4]

Well, imagine my surprise—long after I had put my serious study of the Song to rest—when I discovered an amazing intertextual link in the Greek version of the book. While going over the story of Jesus’ anointing at Bethany, both Mark and John say that the woman—identified as Mary in John—anointed Jesus with an “alabaster flask of very costly oil of spikenard” (see Mark 14:3; John 12:3).[5] The Greek word for “spikenard” (nardos) is used in the New Testament in these two places alone. But, quite surprisingly, the word is used in the Septuagint version of the Old Testament three times—all in the same book.

I’m sure you know the book: the Song of Songs. Notice, for example, how the Shulamite is described by Solomon: “Your plants are an orchard of pomegranates with pleasant fruits, fragrant henna with spikenard [nardos], spikenard [nardos] and saffron, calamus and cinnamon, with all trees of frankincense, myrrh and aloes, with all the chief spices” (Song 4:13, 14).

But the one other place the word is used in the Septuagint takes the cake. Notice the Shulamite’s words in 1:12, “While the king is at his table, my spikenard [nardos] sends forth its fragrance.” Does this scene ring a bell with you at all? Notice Mark’s full description of Jesus’ experience in Bethany: “And being in Bethany at the house of Simon the leper, as He sat at the table, a woman came having an alabaster flask of very costly oil of spikenard. Then she broke the flask and poured it on His head” (Mark 14:3). John goes on to add that “the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil” (John 12:3).

Jesus, the King, is sitting at the table, when the fragrance of Mary’s spikenard envelopes the house. I don’t believe that the similarities are coincidental. In Mary’s selfless act towards Jesus, we see the high calling of all Christ’s followers. And the relationship that Solomon and the Shulamite enjoyed is that which Jesus had with Mary, and which He desires to have with us.

May we all respond to Christ’s agape love the way Mary did, and enjoy the same intimacy that Solomon and the Shulamite had.

[1] Wikipedia defines intertextuality as “the shaping of texts’ meanings by other texts. It can refer to an author’s borrowing and transformation of a prior text or to a reader’s referencing of one text in reading another.” See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intertextuality.

[2] See, for example, Christopher W. Mitchell, The Song of Songs (Saint Louis, Mo.: Concordia Publishing House, 2003), 1, who feels quite comfortable with allowing this to be his hermeneutical approach, saying, “All Scripture is to be interpreted Christologically.” While I agree with Mitchell to a certain extent, I do not feel comfortable with a complete carte blanche approach and feel as though there should be some sort of controlled interpretation that derives from the text in question itself.

[3] In a very intriguing coincidence (or is it?), the Hebrew word used for “rods” is actually galiyl—the same word that is elsewhere translated Galilee.

[4] Tremper Longman III, Song of Songs. NICOT (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2001), 174.

[5] All Scriptures, unless otherwise indicated, are from the New King James Version.

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