From the raunchy start (‘Oh, that he’d kiss me on the mouth!’ ? mindful that the Bible is read out in church, the text is usually translated less explicitly) to the discussion of breast sizes at the end, there’s no getting away from the subject of sex in the Song of Songs. So why is it in the Bible, and what should we do with it?
The story is hidden in poetry so it isn’t straightforward to read and it can be interpreted in many different ways, but here’s my take on it. The characters come from the time of Solomon, about 1,000 BC. The heroine is a suntanned shepherdess. She’s an ordinary woman with whom the average person can identify; she isn’t rich enough to stay indoors and keep herself fashionably pale. Her lover is a blur because we see him mainly through her imagination.
She’s forever dreaming about love. She imagines, for example, that the sachet of perfume lying on her breast is her beloved (1:13). While supposedly watching her goats, she dozes under a tree and fantasises that he is with her and that they are lying on a grass-green bed with a wooden ceiling of branches (1:16-2:7). Seeing a gazelle in the distance inspires more daydreams about her lover (2:8-17), and at night she dreams of searching the town for him and bringing him home (3:1-5). In this extended dream she imagines that her beloved is like the king who arrives in majestic glory and then woos her all night in his private garden (3:6-4:16).
When this dream is disturbed by a noise, she thinks her beloved is actually opening her bedroom door. In her confusion and heightened emotions she runs out into the street where she is accosted by the town guards (5:1-7). She gets away and asks her girlfriends if they have seen her beloved. When she describes him, they want to find him too (5:8-6:1). She remembers finding him in the garden of her dreams and her mind wanders back there (6:2-12), but her friends call her back to reality: she isn’t a princess ? she’s only a villager from Shunem. Why would a king notice her among a host of other women (6:13)?Her real lover, who takes her back to her village, tells her that to him she is a princess (7:1-9). He, too, isn’t of royal blood ? he was born under the same tree where they now share a love ‘better than wealth’ (7:1-8:7). The last verses of the book are obscure, but probably describe the couple growing into maturity together.
The story would have reminded its listeners of Abishag, a famous young woman from Shunem (ie another Shulamite). She was brought to the royal palace to warm King David’s bed when he was very old (1 Kings 1:3-4). Afterwards, as a semi-royal virgin, she would have had realistic hopes of catching Solomon’s eye, but instead he filled his harem with wives taken to make political alliances. The Song might well have caused listeners to imagine her falling in love with a man from her home village, and realising that he is worth more than all the luxury she’d left behind (8:7). It’s a story that would fire the imagination of any woman who dreamed of being a princess and any man who dreamed of marrying one.
It is an inspiring and beautiful story, but what is it doing in the Bible? The rabbis asked themselves the same thing in AD 90. It was an embarrassment ? even being sung as bawdy entertainment at banquets. If they’d had the choice, the rabbis would have replaced it with the Wisdom of Solomon ? a suitably sombre and religious book much loved by Jews of the time. But since the Song of Songs was already a fixture in their Bible, they had no option but to try to justify why it was there.
Rabbi Akiva saved the day by saying that it had nothing to do with sex, but was an allegory about God and his people. Christian teachers have taken refuge in the same idea ever since. However, this message certainly isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when you read the book, and you have to really work hard to squeeze this interpretation out of most of it. (Mormons have decided that it isn’t divinely inspired because they are so offended by all the sexual allusions.)
It is an inspiring and beautiful story, but what is it doing in the Bible?
Even worse for the rabbis was the possibility that the Song of Solomon may have been written by a woman ? it is certainly written from a female point of view, and the main character is a woman. They decided that Solomon had written it because his name was on the manuscript ? but from this kind of evidence we could conclude, for example, that King James himself translated the Bible.
I think that God specifically wanted to include a book in the Bible that celebrates joyful sex because this is part of the goodness of his creation. I love the idea that he picked a folk song about love and manoeuvred events to make sure it was included in the Bible. Over time, the Jews got over their original consternation and they now include it in the Passover liturgy. Unfortunately the Church still tends to ignore it.
Rather like teenagers who can’t imagine their parents knowing the ins and outs of procreation, we sometimes think that the Church has only recently discovered a positive celebration of sexuality. Although it is true that the Church Fathers became very wary about sex in the days of the Roman Empire, they didn’t fall completely silent. Clement of Alexandria (late second century) said that sexuality was as God-given and as natural as hunger, and he wasn’t ashamed to name sexual organs because ‘God was not ashamed to create them’ (Paedagogos 2.10).
There’s one message in the Song which the modern reader won’t notice: an emphasis on marriage. It is only mentioned twice, and only incidentally (3:11; 8:8) ? very subtle indeed to our modern ears, but for ancient readers it would have stood out like a chaperone on a date. No other ancient love poetry used the ‘m’ word ? it was an unwelcome reminder that sexual love should wait ? but in this poem it is mentioned as naturally as love itself. Although it doesn’t specifically say that the couple get married, the implication is that they did.
There is no reason why we should avoid reading the Song of Songs to children. There is nothing that will corrupt them before they understand more about sexual love and all children love to play princes and princesses. This ancient and beautiful love poem celebrates romantic and sexual love alongside a positive view of marriage ? and that is surely a part of God’s message to the whole Church that is too important for our children not to hear.