When Song of Songs Uses a Word, It Doesn’t Always Mean What We Think It Means

Aimee Byrd is correct that the book diagnoses flawed understandings of human sexuality, but her interpretative choices are open to question.

Standing outside a Coptic church in Cairo, I saw a mosaic that sent me back to a college hermeneutics class. In the image’s foreground, a man lay slumbering as an angel hovered over him, pointing. I followed the finger to a horizon dotted with pyramids. And I recognized the Bible’s second “Joseph and Egypt” story, which recounts the holy family’s flight from Herod’s persecution.

The image reminded me of how I’d wrestled with a passage from Matthew’s Gospel: “Out of Egypt I called my son” (2:15). The passage was suggesting that when the toddler Jesus returned from the land of pyramids, he had “fulfilled,” in Matthew’s words, a vision from the prophet Hosea: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son” (11:1). Yet Hosea, for his part, wasn’t issuing a prediction about the coming Messiah. He was thinking back to an event he knew from Israel’s history: God’s deliverance of his people from Pharoah’s yoke.

For years I struggled to see how the holy family’s return from Egypt truly fulfilled Hosea’s prophesy. But then my hermeneutics professor explained that Matthew was using “fulfilled” to mean something closer to “epitomized,” or “filled to the full in meaning.” In modern parlance, we might imagine Matthew saying, “Talk about calling your Son out of Egypt!”

When we try shoehorning a prediction into our reading of Hosea’s vision, my professor said, we end up distorting it. Instead, he argued, we should treat Matthew’s choice of language as an exercise in literary layering. In other words, he was drawing on earlier biblical …

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