Song of Solomon 5:2-8 (CEB)
2 I was sleeping, but my heart was awake.
A sound! My love is knocking:
“Open for me, my sister, my dearest,
my dove, my perfect one!
My head is soaked with dew,
my hair, with the night mists.”
3 “I have taken off my tunic—
why should I put it on again?
I have bathed my feet—
why should I get them dirty?”
4 My love put his hand in through the latch hole,
and my body ached for him.
5 I rose; I went to open for my love,
and my hands dripped myrrh,
my fingers, liquid myrrh,
over the handles of the lock.
6 I went and opened for my love,
but my love had turned, gone away.
I nearly died when he turned away.
I looked for him but couldn’t find him.
I called out to him, but he didn’t answer me.
7 They found me—the guards
who make their rounds in the city.
They struck me, bruised me.
They took my shawl away from me,
those guards of the city walls!
8 I place you under oath, daughters of Jerusalem:
If you find my love, what should you tell him?
That I’m weak with love!
I have always loved poetry. In college I had a professor who called them paintings with words. And, like a good landscape some poems are just what you see, such as Fog by Carl Sandburg:
The fog comes
on little cat feet.
It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.
And then there are the Picasso like poems, you know, the ones you have to think about, they say one thing and mean another such as the opening lines of the Song of Solomon:
2 Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth—
for your love is more delightful than wine.
3 Pleasing is the fragrance of your perfumes;
your name is like perfume poured out.
No wonder the young women love you!
4 Take me away with you—let us hurry!
Let the king bring me into his chambers. (1:2-4)
For all intents and purposes this is nothing more than a love poem about a young couple in love. But if we look closer there is more than one meaning hidden in these beautiful words. We can read this as love poetry or we can interpret the Song of Songs as an allegory of God’s love for the Hebrew People, or Christs love for the church. I am sure if we sat down we would find another allegory that would work just as well.
The Song of Songs, as it is titled in the Hebrew bible, is one of five books called the “Five Scrolls.” They are The Song of Songs (a collection of eight poems), Ruth, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations and Esther. Of those five, the Song and Esther are the only two books in either the Hebrew or Christian canon that never mentions God, which makes them unique.
Sometime between the third and fourth century CE the Hebrew Canon was pretty much finalized. The discussion of the inclusion of the five scrolls, especially the Song of Songs, into the Hebrew Canon was fraught with controversary. The Song is after all very erotic and sensual poetry. While the poems use inuendo and metaphor instead of openly sexual language it was still not considered quite proper. It was eventually included because the Song was understood to have a more important meaning than simply love poems used for wedding ceremonies. Rabbi’s, such as the second century Rabbi Akiva, defended its inclusion saying, “while all of the sacred writings are holy, the Song of Songs is the holy of holies!”
Christians have also had a hard time accepting the Song as part of holy scripture, many considered it scandalous and not appropriate for Holy Bible. Christianity’s nearly 2000-year-old toxic attitude about sex has kept this sacred writing, that shows women in a positive light, from being studied and enjoyed for what it is. In The Forgotten Books of the Bible (2018) Robert Williamson writes “the third-century Christian theologian Origen warned . . . “that all but the most spiritually advanced people should abstain from reading the Song.” There was a fear that women who read the Song would somehow be “corrupted” and develop strange sexual longings to the detriment of the male ego. The uptight fathers of our faith simply could not accept that biblical writers could compose something as sensual and erotic as the Song of Songs! Yet Jewish tradition attributes these 8 poems to Solomon the son of David, the same David who stole Bathsheba from her husband, and the same Solomon who had 700 wives. Sexuality was Okey Dokey for biblical men, but women weren’t allowed to have the same urges. The shaming of women and blaming women for imagined male problems has been part of our culture long before St Augustine felt guilty about having sex. It is only now that we are seeing women courageously stepping up and saying no to male oppression and openly affirming they too are sexual creature’s beloved by God.
By the fifth century CE the Christian Biblical cannon was closed, which included our New Testament books and the Hebrew bible as the Old Testament. By accepting a majority of the books in the Hebrew Cannon the Christians of the 5th century was accepting the Song of Songs’ Jewish interpretation, with a minor variation. Jews interpreted the poems as God’s love for Israel and Christians as Christ’s love for the church, so not really all that different. But there is one more way to interpret the Song of Songs, and for us today, that is the interpretation I find so interesting and important. Let me describe the three ways to interpret the Song of Songs.
Of the three ways to interpret the Song of Songs, the first and foremost way is love poetry. The 8 poems celebrate young love, specifically the love between a young girl who cares for a vineyard and a young shepherd boy. The family wants to shelter their daughter, believing she isn’t ready to have a serious relationship, and, they would be wrong. Here she sings;
1 All night long on my bed
I looked for the one my heart loves;
I looked for him but did not find him.
2 I will get up now and go about the city,
through its streets and squares;
I will search for the one my heart loves.
So I looked for him but did not find him.
3 The watchmen found me
as they made their rounds in the city.
“Have you seen the one my heart loves?”
4 Scarcely had I passed them
when I found the one my heart loves.
I held him and would not let him go
till I had brought him to my mother’s house,
to the room of the one who conceived me.
Certainly not the words of an immature child. This poetry unabashedly celebrates the love between two people. There is no embarrassment or shame attached to their joy in their bodies and their total enjoyment of the pleasures of sex. The poems describe flirting, and playful language highlighting the excitement and joy the two lovers have in the presence of each other. To read the Song of Songs as paean to the sacredness of love is to remember and relish our own experience as lovers. That is what love poetry is for.
Unfortunately, the Songs of Songs has been ignored and push aside for so long that most people have never read it, and some don’t even know it is part of Holy Scripture. That is a real shame. Here is a biblical book that shows women in a favorable light, as a human who thinks, loves, celebrates, experiences grief, and loneliness just as men are depicted in scripture.
Our culture has always had a problem with sex and the church has had a role in creating that problem. Since the beginnings of the church we have had an unhealthy relationship with our bodies. This has resulted in half of humanity being told to be ashamed of who they are and the other half doing the shaming. Saint Augustin of Hippo (354-430 CE) played a huge role in how women were viewed and treated by the church. He was man consumed by guilt and one of those guilts was his guilt for having sex. His beliefs that women were the cause of mans downfall, i.e. Eve, were instrumental in the churches views on women. Having a Holy Book in the Bible celebrating the passion of young lovers’ and the enjoyment of each other signals the importance of loving and being loved.
The image of the strong female character, even though still a teenager, is an important image that empower women and girls, something our church fathers were very much against. The male church leaders were not in favor of giving up the power they had in the church to women. In this time of the “METOO” movements it is vital that positive images of biblical women be highlighted. It is time for women to claim their rightful place in God’s Kingdom, not as a second class, appendage to the male’s ego’s, but as equal partners in Gods creative universe.
The second, and third, way of looking at the Songs is with allegory. The interpretation of God/Christ, as the male character, and the people of Israel/the church as the female character is the traditional Jewish/Christian interpretation. Jewish tradition reads the Song during Passover as a reminder of God’s love by rescuing the Israelites from Egypt and the care God gave them during the Exodus. One beautiful passage describes God’s embrace of Israel, “His left arm is under my head, and his right arm embraces me.” (Song of Songs, 2:6) An intimate picture of God holding and loving humanity. Christians rarely read the Song, which is a sad commentary on our inhibitions.
At the beginning of this article I quote a passage from the song that paints another picture of God as the male lover. The lover comes late at night to the woman’s door and when she is slow to respond to his summons he walks away. When our young woman opens the door and finds him gone she runs into the street to look for him but instead is found by the guards and is abused and assaulted.
One interpretation alludes this passage to the Babylonian Exile, when God abandoned the Hebrew people. However, most Jewish, Christian, commentaries I read seemed to pass over this with a statement that acknowledges Gods inconsistency in dealing with the Hebrew people, or the Church, throughout history. But I find this passage disturbing. The idea of God simply abandoning humanity in times of suffering, pain, and crisis is abhorrent. How can a loving God do that? This leads into the Third and final, allegorical interpretation.
What if we identify God as the female lover and the male lover as the people of God? How does that change our view of the Song of Songs, of God, and of our role in our relationship with God? Reading the allegory as the female character transforms the Song of Songs. No longer is God the lover who goes gallivanting around the countryside, while the lady waits patiently for his return. God now is the one who says,
“I looked for the one my heart loves;
I looked for him but did not find him.
I will get up now and go about the city,
through its streets and squares;
I will search for the one my heart loves.” (3:1b-2a)
Now it is God who is the constant one, who waits for, and longs for the one she loves to return from wanderings and come into her arms. Humanity is the one who leaves, abandoning God. It is Humanity that turns away from the door when we believe God doesn’t answer quickly enough. It is God who risks being assaulted and beaten because she goes into the dark to find us. God’s claim on each of us is not of our doing, we are Gods because of God’s love for us. God’s love has nothing to do with faith, no, rather it is the matter of divine certainty. In a bad parody of Captain Picard, God made it so. When we read these words:
Place me like a seal over your heart,
like a seal on your arm;
for love is as strong as death,
its jealousy unyielding as the grave.
It burns like blazing fire,
like a mighty flame. (8:6)
. . . we no longer hear humanity asking God to remember us but rather we hear God’s voice giving us the assurance that God will never forget, can never forget us, even unto death.
In the end there is no right or wrong way to read the Song of Songs. Read it as love poetry and revel in the celebration of young bodies, young people in love. Read it allegorically with God as the young man who passionately loves humanity, calling us beloved. Or read with God as the female lover who claims us before we claim her. Who waits for us to finish our wandering and return to her. Who goes into the dark and risk the divine life for us.
The Song of Songs is not shameful, rather it is the celebratory expression of human sexuality, and God’s passionate love for us. There is no other book in scripture that can express in a better way the passion and intimacy of God’s love for us, our love for God, and our love for each other.
Ruth Jewell, ©October 2, 2018