Growing up in the church, the Song of Songs was rarely taught. When it was taught, most pastors and teachers would take the metaphorical approach and compare the relationship between the Lover and the Beloved to the relationship between Christ and his Church. Although I think it is a beautiful metaphorical picture, I wonder if we lose some of the intention behind God’s purpose in putting it in his Holy Scripture.
As I sit and read the book now, I blush at the obvious displays of intimacy. At some points I even feel like I am intruding on a moment that should be shared between these two lovebirds. I see more now the beautiful expressiveness of sexuality that is celebrated in this book. Even though parts of the narrative can make me slightly uncomfortable in their descriptive nature, (i.e., “Your stature is like that of a palm, and your breasts like clusters of fruit. I said, ‘I will climb the palm tree; I will take hold of its fruit,’” Song of Songs 7:7-8), I think without this descriptive and explicit physicality the book could easily be considered a metaphor. Because there is so much emphasis in the text on the physical attributes of the Beloved and the Lover, it seems silly and diminutive to only equate this book of the Bible to a metaphorical relationship between Christ and the church.
If I were to read this piece of literature apart from the inspired Word of God I might not even find any theological undertones. Without that lens of Christianity to read it through I would find no hint or inkling that this was a part of a religions holy text. That being said, I find it interesting and compelling that this book made its way into the canon of scripture. It was interesting researching this book of the Bible and noticing book after book disaffirm the allegorical approach that I had been taught my entire life. Although I said above that this approach seems to minimize the full impact of this work, it still shocked me that so much of the literature was far beyond my church going experience. What I mean is, if scholars figured out that the Song of Songs was intended to be read literally and not allegorically, why was I taught the allegory and metaphor and not allowed to wrestle with the truth of the text? I wonder how my view of sexuality would be different if this book was taught from a literal and natural frame of mind.
One of my favorite things about reading the Bible is that it does leave space for us as humans to wrestle with what it means to be human and serve a holy God. I believe the Song of Songs is not only an opportunity to wrestle with aspects of being human, but it also provides a space to normalize and celebrate a God given sexuality. In this Song we see the language act as a character in its own right, evoking conscious and unconscious responses. Before I did any research, this book made me feel as though I were intruding on a very intimate moment that I was not meant to be a part of. Cheryl Exum (2005) expounds on that idea in her commentary. She says, “the poem gives us the impression that we are overhearing them and observing their love unfold,” (p. 4). She goes on to say that it may be written this way intentionally so that the reader has a more real experience reading the poem. It is also this way of writing that makes the themes of yearning, experiencing, separation, and yearning again so much more of a roller coaster for the reader (Bergant, p. 17). Again, here is a description as well as a celebration of the God given capacity for sexuality.
An interesting section in the Song is when the Lover comes to the Beloved at night and she makes excuses before letting him in, and when she finally does he has left (5:2-8). Some scholars interpret this moment as a dream sequence that serves to heighten the tension of desiring and longing in the Song (Bergant, p. 63). Although I think this interpretation is true, I think there is more to be gleaned from this moment in the book. I think without this moment it would be easier to draw the allegorical metaphor between Christ and the Church. This moment is the most honest, and the most human in its fallibility. I think this part shows more than the others the celebration of, “the struggles and joys of human love,” (Bergant, p. xi). The Song gives us a complete picture of human love by showing the adoration and the hesitation and eventual reconciliation that I am sure every young lover has experienced. The Song is normalizing even the ideal human relationship as not being perfect.
One of the most fascinating aspects of this book is that is placed in the section of the Bible with the wisdom tradition. Its canonical placement alone speaks to the books value for teaching. According to Bergant, Song of Songs should be read “through the lens of Solomonic wisdom,” (p. ix). Her emphasis in saying this was to highlight Solomon’s insight into nature, which would make the story in Song of Songs something very natural. The other scholars echoed this sentiment as well. Carr wrote that the inclusion of this book in the canon provides groundwork for us to deal with our created natures (p. 36). Both Exum and Hess agree that this book emphasizes the beauty of the created world, but Hess makes a more direct connection to the creator. According to Hess the primary and driving function of the Song is to point to the one from who all love comes. He says, “…this song offers the hope that couples today may find something of that garden again and may see in their love that which is beautiful and good, from the good God,” (p. 11). If in fact all good things do come from God, which I believe, then sex should be added to the list of good things that point back to Him. Another important point about the Songs placement in the canon of scripture is that it functions as a polemic against how negatively sex is portrayed in the prophetic books, as well as celebrating sex where it was primarily spoken of in an inhibitory way.
I think the first and most important application of this book for contemporary Christians is that Song of Songs is actually about sex and romantic love between a man and a woman. I do not think I am the only Christian who heard the sermons on how, similar to the book of Hosea, this story shows another aspect of divine love. Although this is true, it is not the entire truth. I think this realization will help counter the shame and guilt that seems to follow any kind of conversation surrounding sexuality. Another good practical application gleaned from this text is the open communication about sex and sexuality portrayed in the Song. The presence of the Song in the canon sets an example of openness surrounding sexuality in the church, but we seem to have forgotten that God brought it up first by inspiring such an erotic piece of poetry. The couple within the song also sets a precedence of communication in their sexual relationship. Both the Beloved and the Lover share with each other what they love about the other person and how the other makes them feel. I think because sexuality is taboo in Christian circles, even married couples may have a hard time communicating about their sex lives. This book is a model for all married couples to follow in their sexual communication.
Song of Songs also offers an interesting view of women specifically in a sexual relationship. It is primarily the women who instigates and pursues more than the man does. She is empowered as a sexual being. She is the focus and center of the literary action in the story (Bergant, p. 35). It serves to shift the modern perspective on romance. Song of Songs portrays an equal give and take in the romance in their relationship. The Beloved does just as much if not more than the Lover in this love poem. I wonder if we can gain some inspiration from this biblical text that speaks of a type of celebrated sexual equality in the sexes.
Song of Songs cries out to reader that love can be exciting, invigorating, and erotic; it speaks of the kind of love that keeps you up at night and makes you act crazy. I hope that as Christians we can remember the wildness of a love this free and unashamed both in our romantic lives as well as our spiritual lives for them.