The Subversive Song of Songs

Sun 06 Sep

The Song of Songs stands out in stark contrast to the other books in the Bible.  It is full of romantic speeches, containing sexually provocative language and imagery, between a woman and her suitor.  The couple present an experience that elaborates unashamedly and unapologetically the physical pleasures of love, set in a context of fidelity and mutuality.

Elsewhere in the Bible human sexuality is generally regarded as requiring careful governance, and female sexuality in particular, serious restraint.  It’s not surprising then to learn that the Song’s place in the Bible has long been contentious. 

However to see the Song as simply a collection of love poems celebrating human sexuality is in the end to fail to appreciate the book’s unique social and ideological significance.  In fact in the Song of Songs human sexuality is explored and delighted in so as to make some very specific assertions about female sexuality, to counter some notions about beauty, and to insist in a rather dramatic manner on a woman’s and man’s right to love whomever their heart chooses, irrespective of prevailing cultural norms.

So, this is a subversive book.  It is subversive of exclusive male control in both the bedroom and, by inference, daily life.  It is subversive too of the ethnic and class presumptions about who is a suitable mate.

The Church, as you might imagine, has over the centuries not been inclined to read this book in any literal sense.  Rather they’ve seen it as an allegory of the love of Christ for the Church, or, in medieval times, between Christ and the Virgin Mary.[i]  Hebrew scholars also, predating Christian scholars, allegorized it as the love of God for Israel or Torah. 

This way of interpreting the Song is still alive and well, favoured by those who want to express their devotion to God by means of romantic metaphors.  I remember as a Sunday School conscript singing ‘My beloved is mine and I am his, and his banner over me is love’ [2:16].   

As an aside, in my efforts to liberate the notion of God from the strictures of the male anatomy, I have encountered opposition from some female Christians wedded [pardon the pun] to the devotional idea of having a love affair with Jesus-God.  Many male Christians seem to like God being a bloke for other reasons.

The earnest, delicate sensuality of the two young lovers of the Song of Songs cannot be allegorized away. It remains a voluptuous series of poems about the sexual awakening of a young woman and her lover.  The two meet in an idealized landscape of fertility and abundance, a kind of Eden, where they discover the pleasures of lovemaking and the power and beauty of human romantic love.

The Song is set in springtime, in the city of Jerusalem with its outlying vineyards and pastures.  It is an invitation to a tryst by the male beloved to his female lover.  Throughout the collection of poems, the woman is assertive and sensuous, pursuing her lover [3:1-4, 5:6-7], inviting him boldly [4:16, 6:11-12, 7:13, 8:2, 5].

In the Song the lovers take turns inviting one another, and love is wholly reciprocal.  Both are described in tender images [lilies, doves, gazelles] as well as forceful, stately terms [pillars, towers].  The love between the two is faithful, joyful, satisfying, passionate, and mutual.  In many familiar love stories, like Romeo and Juliet, love is closely tied to loss and death. For Tristan and Isolde, or Heathcliff and Catherine, love itself is a form of suffering.  The lovers in the Song savor love rather than suffer from it.[ii]

While the Song has similarities with Egyptian love poetry, in the context of the Hebrew Scriptures it affirms unique themes.  They include the celebration of erotic love not tied to marriage or procreation and a depiction of a woman as a partner in sexual pleasure rather than acted upon. 

Besides its erotic contents, it has two striking characteristics.  Firstly, it doesn’t mention God.  Only the Book of Esther is similar in this regard.  The Song of Songs is an extended secular love poem that ancient Jewish and Christian traditions have attributed, erroneously, to Solomon.  While it has Egyptian counterparts, and other love poems must have been composed in biblical times, it is the only example of secular love poetry from ancient Israel that has survived.[iii]

The second characteristic is that the protagonist in the Song is the only unmediated female voice in Scripture.  The voice and thoughts of the anonymous woman are conveyed not through a narrator’s voice [as for example in Esther or Ruth] but through monologues and love songs. 

Nowhere else in Scripture do the thoughts, imaginations, and yearnings of a woman predominate.  The woman insists on her right to initiate love, to feel, to enjoy, and explore the power of her sexuality.  She feels good about herself and basks in her beloved’s desire for her.  In fact her love and praise for her beloved [as well as his for her] are so forward and uncompromising, that it almost sounds argumentative.  The scholar Renita Weens[iv] suggests that the poet assumed her audience needed to be persuaded of the suitability of this woman and man’s love for each other.

Just beneath the surface of this otherwise beautiful chorus of love poems is an almost imperceptible yet unmistakable debate.  The candour of the sexual speeches, the sometimes sceptical tone of the group called the ‘Jerusalem daughters’ [5:9, 6:13], the beloved’s repeated refrain to the ‘Jerusalem daughters’ [2:7], and her occasionally defensive remarks [1:6; 6:13b], lend an argumentative tone to the book. 

The assumption here is that poets and speakers, like today, design their messages with a specific audience in mind: to instruct, build upon, defend or challenge prevailing values and assumptions.  In other words literature is inescapably political.  In the case of the Song of Songs, the subtle defensive tone hints that the poet understood that some aspect[s] of the lovers’ relationship were in contradiction to prevailing norms.  She builds on her assumptions about her audience, and attempts to uncover and debunk the respectable prejudices of her audience in her defence of the couple’s right to love one another.

The evidence of this is, firstly, the woman’s physical appearance.  The author’s remarks about her own black skin contrast with the remarks by the Jerusalem daughters who [7:1] are sceptical about what a male suitor could possibly see in the Shulammite – a woman who not only had dark skin but, from their perspective, had the ‘misfortune’ of having small breasts [8:8].  From their sceptical comments one begins to understand that there are other reasons why the beloved and her lover devote considerable space to praising each other’s’ physical appearance [4:1-7; 5:10-16; 6:4-10; 7:1-5].  Over and over again the beloved suitor insists his lover is beautiful, irresistibly so, despite what others might think.

Commentators generally steer away from attributing any ethnic/racial importance to the woman’s dark complexion [she claims her complexion was the result of having been put to labour in the vineyard by her brothers].  Rather they see the woman as perhaps the victim of class prejudice.  The argument is that in ancient Oriental culture the light-complexioned woman who had the luxury of remaining indoors during the day was preferred over the dark-complexioned who laboured under the sun.  There is however one hint that ethnicity may be the issue.  Michael Goulder argues that 7:1 translated as ‘daughter of nobility’, actually refers to the woman’s hometown in Nadiv, Arabia.

Secondly, the lovers are always having quick departures and hasty escapes.  Evidently something prevents their love affair from being public and forces their rendezvous, whether real or imagined, to be carried on in clandestine settings.  Even there they are hasty, secretive and often interrupted.

Thirdly, three times the woman contends, insistently, that her beloved suitor belongs to her [2:16; 6:3; 7:10].

The point is that the love poetry in Song of Songs is not innocent of controversy.  It is not simply the beauty of love and the wholesomeness of sexuality in the abstract that the lovers insist on.  It is the beauty of their love for each other and their irresistible attraction to each other that they insist on.  They are two lovers whom society sought to keep apart, perhaps because they were from different classes, from different ethnic backgrounds, or of a different colour.

Casting her argument in the form of love poetry rather than in the form of a speech [like in Isaiah] or a protest novel [like Jonah] the poet uses a shrewd strategy – she was able to engage and win the imaginative consent of our audience by appealing to the universal urge in an audience for reciprocated love and fulfilling intimacy despite their prejudices.

How the Song functions within the whole collection of books that make up the Bible [what we call the ‘canon’] is a critique on Scripture as well.  Without the Song of Songs the prevailing stories in the Bible about women would be those where women are penalized and scandalized for their sexuality, confined to procreation without fulfilling sex, and forgotten because of their submission to repressive gender roles.  With the Song women find in the Bible permission to initiate, enjoy, and long for the erotic.  The Song advocates balance in female and male relationships, urging mutuality not domination, sexual fulfilment not mere procreation, and uninhibited love.  It cautions us not to impose on relationships our own biased preconceptions about what is appropriate and inappropriate behaviour, and who makes a suitable mate and who does not.

So, in conclusion, this little subversive book invites us today, firstly, to realize that sensuality and sexuality, our bodies and our loves, are integral to our spirituality and not divorced from it.  It’s inclusion in the Bible is to remind us of that!  In the Wisdom genre the sensual and the spiritual intermingle.  Similarly the walls between what is labelled as ‘secular’ [not mentioning God] and ‘sacred’ are porous [holey] not solid.

Secondly, that fidelity and mutuality between two lovers is not a modern phenomenon.  Similarly the pleasure that both can receive through sexual intimacy is as old as the Bible.

And lastly, that our society and religions in their desire to promote what is good for community well-being can all too easily drift into judgmentalism: shunning the couple that are different from the norm.  We need to always be careful in our judgements, weighing relationships by their outcomes [their ‘fruits’] not by our preconceived prejudices.  To quote Leo Tolstoy: ‘Where love is, God is.’

[i] George A. Maloney, SJ, Singer of the New Song: A Mystical Interpretation of the Song of Songs, Notre Dame, Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 1985, p.14-15.

[ii] Ariel and Chana Bloch, The Song of Songs: A New Translation with an Introduction and Commentary, New York: Random House, Inc., 1995, p.7.

[iii] The presence of Aramaic, Persian, and mishnaic language indicates a postexilic date of around 300 B.C.E.  See Ariel and Chana Bloch, The Song of Songs: A New Translation with an Introduction and Commentary, New York: Random House, Inc., 1995, p. 25.

[iv] Carol A. Newsom & Sharon H. Ringe eds. The Women’s Bible Commentary, London: SPCK, 1992, p.156ff.

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