The question that this post will seek to answer is: What should we hope to learn from the Song of Songs? I asked myself this question in the weeks leading up to my marriage, especially after my then-fiancé and I chose to include a song in the ceremony that was taken from the Song of Songs. This post, however, will not consist of my musings, but be taken from an essay by the considerably more erudite Anglican priest and Fuller Theological Seminary professor John Goldingay. He begins with a few stories about certain conservative Christian cultures that will strike us as alarming, but aren’t necessarily exceptional.
A student of his from southern Africa, while writing a paper on gender violence in Isaiah and Judges, told stories from her own life. She knew of an abused woman who used to run away to her brother’s house. The brother would always quickly surrender her back to her husband because she was considered to be her spouse’s property. Eventually, her husband killed her with an iron bar. Dr Goldingay writes, “The same property understanding of marriage means that women have no right to withhold themselves sexually from their husbands when the latter have contracted AIDS or HIV through their promiscuity, so that many of the countless women who have died from AIDS were infected by their husbands.”
Another student wrote about Korean culture, which is also strongly patriarchal. If a woman’s first child is a girl, Christians there might wonder if she had committed a sin. Furthermore, a newly married couple is expected to live under the roof of the groom’s parents and under their authority, which often causes a great deal of tension, and, unsurprisingly, presents a “major reason for divorce and Korean emigration to North America.”
Dr Goldingay suggests that we can learn an “alternative style of being” in which the recognition of sexual love might challenge institutional structures maintained only for the procreation of (preferably male) children and the (sometimes violent) ownership and protection of women. The Song of Songs is a biblical recognition of the “happiness and fear, the anxiety and fulfillment of sexual love.” But to grasp this, we have to avoid thinking that the Song of Songs is solely an allegory for the relationship between God and his people. I do not want to dismiss the allegorical reading, but Dr Goldingay is surely right to point out that “the scriptures never speak of our emotional relationship with God in terms of passionate love.” Love for God, who is far different from us in status and power, is more of a matter of commitment. Psalm 18, which reads, in part, “[David] said: I love you, LORD, my strength,” using the unusual qal form of the verb raham, is an exception that proves the rule.
The claim that the Song was only placed in the canon on the basis of first having been understood as a treatise on the relationship between God and Israel is incorrect, even if the rabbis did warn about singing it in the banquet hall like any another piece of music (e.g., b. Sanh. 101a). Furthermore, we cannot say that the Song of Song is necessarily about the institution of marriage. We do have a memorable picture of a wedding procession (“look upon King Solomon … on the day of his marriage, on the day of the joy of his heart,” Song 3:11). “Bride” is also used as a label (“Come from Lebanon, my bride, come from Lebanon, come!” Song 4:6). But that is all. This makes sense – even if sexual relations should only occur in a marital relationship, even if the couple in the Song are on their way to such a relationship, sexual longing and anxieties still occur both within and without marital relationships.
The Song of Songs is, once more, uniquely about the “happiness and fear, the anxiety and fulfillment of sexual love.” Dr Goldingay wants us to recognize the “shocking directness” of its opening: “May he kiss me with the kisses of his mouth” (Song 1:2). Shocking as this might be, it is realistic. Furthermore, although the book is attributed in a vague way to Solomon, the opening words are those of the woman, clearly “questioning any assumption that the man has to make the approaches or set the pace in a relationship.” This is also realistic, but at the possible cost of – again – being shocking: in a Christian circle of graduate students that I myself participated in, women were subtly discouraged from making approaches.
Through the Song of Songs, the relational always goes with the physical. When we imagine “the physical,” we probably conjure up images of impossibly youthful and well-exercised bodies. But the Song of Songs’ place in Scripture reminds us that “the physical” has to do with everyone. If we deny our need for physical intimacy (and authentic celibacy is not a denial of this need), the repressed feelings might reemerge in a self-destructive way. The Song of Songs testifies to a universal need for physical self-recognition and acceptance. The woman is “dark-but lovely” (Song 1:5) in the gaze of the beloved and, in the light of one another’s love, the man and woman can even imagine themselves as prince and princess (Song 3:6-11).
The Song of Songs reminds us that relationships will always involve risk. This cannot be avoided. Separation brings pain: “If you find my lover- What shall you tell him?- that I am faint with love” (Song 5:8). There are desires that cannot yet be fulfilled, except in our dreams: “On my bed at night I sought him whom my heart loves …” (Song 3:1). There are allusions to inevitable suspicions and the need to follow social constraints – the woman fantasizes about a scenario that would let her bring her beloved “into the home of my mother” (Song 8:2). Above all, relationships involve strikingly deep passion:
For stern as death is love,
relentless as the nether world is devotion;
its flames are a blazing fire (8:6).
The couple surely needs time alone (“Arise, my beloved, my beautiful one, and come!” Song 2:9). To an extent, passion can be controlled. The woman says
I adjure you, daughters of Jerusalem,
by the gazelles and hinds of the field,
Do not arouse, do not stir up love
before its own time (2:7).
But it cannot be completely managed. Being in love is like being “ravished”: “You have ravished my heart with one glance of your eyes, with one bead of your necklace” (Song 4:9). The thorny question of desire raises the possibility that the flame of love can come and go – only to unexpectedly return once more, confirming, all in all, the wise counsel of Proverbs, “And have joy of the wife of your youth, your lovely hind, your graceful doe. Her love will invigorate you always, through her love you will flourish continually” (Prov 5:18-19). We can have confidence in marriage, then, but a couple cannot ever take one another for granted “and need to see themselves as still on the way.” Again, a certain degree of risk cannot be avoided.
How might the Song of Songs, scriptural recognition of the “happiness and fear, the anxiety and fulfillment of sexual love,” challenge the patriarchal cultures of southern Africa, Korea, and elsewhere? The biblical recognition of sexuality, particularly the sexuality of women, reminds us of the sheer cruelty of suppressing the human need for intimacy for the sake of male children or social control. But it also tells us that passionate love is a “blazing fire,” and that might serve as a needed warning for a more libertine culture.
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