Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Joseph Smith's New Translation and the Rejection of the Song of Solomon as "Inspired Writings"

From Old Testament Manuscript 2 of the Prophet Joseph's New Translation of the Holy Bible comes the declaration:

The Songs of Solomon are not Inspired writings

(Joseph Smith's New Translation of the Bible: Original Manuscripts, 785).

And certainly every Latter-day Saint, at one time or another, has heard that famous declaration.

But why did the Prophet so declare?

We glibly say, "It is because the Song of Solomon is an extended love poem. And what can love poetry possibly have to do with Scripture?" Go to the head of the class. Yet the Song of Solomon has ever been considered as scripture most holy. And it is precisely because countless generations of commentators, Jewish and Christian, have considered the love poetry of the Song as the very quintessence of Holy Scripture, at its metaphorical finest, that the Prophet avers as he does.

Consider the chapter headings for that song which is Solomon's as found in the edition of the Bible owned by the Prophet and read by him in his act of translation (the Phinney Bible: Cooperstown, New York, 1828).

The Song of Solomon

Chapter One
1 The church's love unto Christ....5 She confesseth her deformity

Chapter Two
The mutual love of Christ and his church

The church's fight and victory in temptation

Christ setteth forth the graces of the church

Christ awaketh the church with his calling

The church professeth her faith in Christ

A further description of the church's graces

The love of the church to Christ.....8 The calling of the Gentiles

Now we don't know whether the Prophet read or merely glanced at these several title headings in his Phinney Bible; perhaps he didn't even read the Song before the word of inspiration came to him, a word nullifying centuries of supposed allegorical inspiration. But that he knew all about the Interpreter's Songs there can be no doubt. The entire Christian world so read, so intoned the Songs of Solomon: myrrh, spikenard, saffron, and cinnamon in solemn and mystical measures. The interpreters have looked at the wine when it was red. . .

And that's the point. It is not the inspired Song itself (in the Homeric sense of the word) that is the object of the Prophetic rebuke; it is the Christian world and "the interpretation thereof," from Genesis to Revelation, that he rebukes: the Joseph Smith Translation is there to prove it. A better day has come--the day of Revelation. After all, as Janne Sjodahl and George Reynolds noted a century ago in their Doctrine and Covenants Commentary, the Lord himself quotes from the Song of Solomon in describing the Church: clear as the moon, fair as the sun, and terrible as an army with banners. Which plainly shows that the Church can be described in the superlative imagery found in the inspired Song (inspired per Muse, not Scripture).

What is objectionable then, clearly, is the involved allegorical reading of the entire work, in which allegory becomes a means of encoding divine revelation, a reading that flows from the idea that the Song is nothing more nor less than the holy mystery, the Song of all other Songs, even a love poem that never was love poem, but only so carefully disguised as such that it might, decoded, stand revealed as the Great Love Poem, the Poem of God and Israel, of Christ and His Church. And as anybody knows who has looked into the targumic renderings of this poetic masterpiece, here is the quintessence of literary interpretation indeed: masterpiece yielding masterpiece, the very glory of all midrashic endeavor.

Posh, says the Prophet. The Song of Solomon is not inspired allegory about God and Israel or Christ and the Church. Put aside your mysticism, he seems to call.

But love for beauty is quite another thing. And where is there anything more beautiful (or unusual) than the Song, or the Jewish commentary that clusters about it? Yet here I recall Charles Schultz's brilliant send-up of the every-word-inspired Minnesota Bible: Linus solemnly reciting how "thy hair is as a flock of goats, that appear from Mount Gilead."

Put aside your mysticism, says the Prophet; yet in the same breath comes Nauvoo the Beautiful, from an expression ma-navu or navu (how beautiful!) occurring only in the Song (1:10) and Isaiah (52:7), and again in the same breath, the word of the Lord about His latter-day Church, wrapped, enfolded, "comely with rows of jewels," in the poetic splendors of Solomon's Song:

In this the beginning of the rising up and the coming forth of my church out of the wilderness--clear as the moon, and fair as the sun, and terrible as an army with banners (Doctrine and Covenants 5:14).

But first let my army become very great, and let it be sanctified before me, that it may become fair as the sun, and clear as the moon, and that her banners may be terrible unto all nations (105:31).

(Joseph Smith delights in true poetic non-conformity; the Authorized Version of Songs 6:10 reads: fair as the moon, clear as the sun: the fair moon, the clear sun.)

And finally from the dedication of the Holy Temple itself (at Kirtland):

That thy church may come forth out of the wilderness of darkness, and shine forth fair as the moon, clear as the sun, and terrible as an army with banners;

And be adorned as a bride (109: 73-4: a favorite reading of President Gordon B. Hinckley).

And, as any observant reader knows, the Scripture come replete with allegorical whisperings of Christ and His Church, all the way from Genesis to Revelation: There is a Great Love Poem in that Bible.

So may we then sing of the Church, or even Nauvoo, "as a flock of goats, that appear from Mount Gilead?" Why not? Let's rhapsodize all we wish (if we must: see Linus had it right!)--and let Interpretation fall by the wayside.

So who is She, after all? Who is she that looketh forth on the morning, fair as the moon, clear as the sun, and terrible as an army with banners? (Song 6:4) Well, it's certainly not the Church of Christ: unless He so chooses to describe her.

Not as the scribes indeed, this Joseph--yet a Poet.

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