My dominant impression of the Song of Songs is a passionate love song -- overflowing with that positive energy of being so very much in love. Somehow it’s easy for me to forget about all the moments of withdrawal, of absence, and even of violence.
While the two lovers spend much of the book caught up in their love for each other, this is not a love without risk.
The Shulamite woman is black and beautiful. As Christopher King points out [in The Queer Bible Commentary, p. 358]:
She is as exotic and elusive as the black shelters of desert nomads (‘tents of Kedar’). Yet, as she has come as close to the privileges coveted by Jerusalem’s insiders as the ‘curtains of Solomon’ are to the intimacies of the king’s bedchamber.This is the first thing she says to the daughters of Jerusalem -- the song opens with a hymn directed at her beloved, but when she first explicitly addresses the daughters of Jerusalem, it is to say, “I am black and beautiful.” She has worked for her family -- this outdoor work implicitly contributing to her appearance being other than model perfect -- and now her brothers reject her.
Life is full of tradeoffs -- who she has become is someone who might well be undesirable to many potential partners, but having found someone who desires her just as she is, she finds herself rejected by her family. Our whole lives, we risk rejection.
She moves on to praise her beloved, building to descriptions of her fantasies of their physical activities together and she adjures the daughters of Jerusalem, "Do not stir up or awaken love until it is ready." (Song of Songs 2:7b)
“Sustain me with raisins, refresh me with apples; for I am faint with love.” (Song of Songs 2:5)
In reading through the Song of Songs in preparing for this preach, one of the things that struck me was how frightening this intense love is sometimes. The ways in which the overwhelmingness of this love is frightening (and later, the withdrawal and the seeking) really resonated with me -- to be so caught up in one’s passionate adoration of, and desire for, another so as to feel faint.
In their book Radical Ecstasy, Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy talk about how ecstatic experiences dissolve the boundaries that define our sense of ourselves as existing separate from other people, from the rest of the world, and from the Divine.
They cite Merriam-Webster’s definition of ecstasy as “a state of being beyond reason and self-control” -- reminding us that this experience isn’t always a “feel good” experience, even though “bliss” may be our primary connotation of “ecstasy.”
I love that the Song of Songs puts forward this so very embodied love as a good good thing -- and I also appreciate that it acknowledges the real complexities of such passion, including the not so nice parts.
As we move on in the book, the Shulamite woman praises her beloved again -- this time from more of a distance ... watching him traversing the mountains; being entreated by him from outside the wall, outside the windows, outside the lattice. He entreats her: "Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away." (Song of Songs 2:10b)
But then she does, and she cannot find him.
"Upon my bed at night I sought him whom my soul loves; I sought him, but found him not; I called him, but he gave no answer." (Song of Songs 3:1)
She goes out into the city, is encountered by the sentinels, but then,
Scarcely had I passed them, when I found him whom my soul loves. I held him, and would not let him go until I brought him into my mother’s house, and into the chamber of her that conceived me. I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, by the gazelles or the wild does: do not stir up or awaken love until it is ready!And for the second time she adjures the daughters of Jerusalem, "Do not stir up or awaken love until it is ready!"
(Song of Songs 3:4-5)
A love like this, it will challenge you, it will pull you out of your comfort zone, put you in conflict with those who have power over you… Do not get yourself involved in a love like this unless you are ready and prepared for what lies ahead of you. And the Shulamite woman certainly has that strength and determination -- “I held him, and would not let him go until I brought him into my mother’s house.” Her brothers may be angry with her, but she is determined to bring her beloved home with her -- and she will not lose him again.
As the book continues, we continue to telescope temporally and/or geographically -- once again the Shulamite woman beholds her beloved approaching and praises him to excess. He responds with erotic invitations ("I come to my garden, my sister, my bride" [Song of Songs 5:1a]), and they approach consummation ("My beloved thrust his hand into the opening, and my inmost being yearned for him. I arose to open to my beloved, and my hands dripped with myrrh" [Song of Songs 5:4-5a]) but this consummation is not to be -- "I opened to my beloved, but my beloved had turned and was gone." (Song of Songs 5:6a)
This time she adjures the daughters of Jerusalem, "If you find my beloved, tell him this: I am faint with love." (Song of Songs 5:8)
At this the daughters of Jerusalem respond for the first time -- "What is your beloved more than another beloved, O fairest among women? What is your beloved more than another beloved, that you thus adjure us?" (Song of Songs 5:9)
Despite all the praises they have been listening to from the Shulamite woman about her beloved, at this moment they ask, "What's the big deal about this guy?"
Christopher King plays up the Shulamite's outsider status versus the insider status of the daughters of Jerusalem, including the way this is negatively valenced re: her physical appearance -- but here they call her, "O fairest among women."
I hear them sympathetically here -- "Listen, girl, you are AWESOME. This guy's being a big tease and here you are falling for it. WHAT is so great about this guy that you are so focused on him, so determined to win him back? You could do better, girl!"
She praises his physical attributes and concludes, "His speech is most sweet, and he is altogether desirable. This is my beloved and this is my friend, O daughters of Jerusalem." (Song of Songs 5:16)
Given the emphasis on the beloved’s physical beauty, I am struck by the line, “This is my beloved and this is my friend.” The contemporary ideal of romantic love between equals, soulmates and all that, isn’t something we encounter much in the Bible, but here it is.
I am unconvinced of her beloved's merits, but the daughters of Jerusalem, whether they buy it or whether they merely recognize that argument is futile, agree to help -- "Where has your beloved gone, O fairest among women? Which way has your beloved turned, that we may seek him with you?" (Song of Songs 6:1)
She tells them, and in this way she seems almost to narratively enact the meeting -- she tells them where he has gone, and then we switch to praises directed at her, voiced by her beloved. Initially I actually thought that SHE was speaking to her beloved -- "terrible as an army with banners. Turn away your eyes from me, for they overwhelm me!" (Song of Songs 6:4) This is not language we expect from a man to a woman, certainly not in Biblical texts.
“I went down to the nut orchard, to look at the blossoms of the valley, to see whether the vines had budded, whether the pomegranates were in bloom. Before I was aware, my fancy set me in a chariot beside my prince.” (Song of Songs 6:11-12)
And again we are regaled by praises. And once again the Shulamite woman expresses her desire to bring her beloved home with her:
O that you were like a brother to me, who nursed at my mother’s breast! If I met you outside, I would kiss you, and no one would despise me. I would lead you and bring you into the house of my mother, and into the chamber of the one who bore me. I would give you spiced wine to drink, the juice of my pomegranates. O that his left hand were under my head, and that his right hand embraced me! I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, do not stir up or awaken love until it is ready!This logistical mapping of where she would like her beloved’s hands echoes the early section where she is faint with love --
(Song of Songs 8:1-4)
He brought me to the banqueting house, and his intention toward me was love. Sustain me with raisins, refresh me with apples; for I am faint with love. O that his left hand were under my head, and that his right hand embraced me! I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, by the gazelles or the wild does: do not stir up or awaken love until it is ready!This time we have combined the risk of rejection, her desire that their relationship be accepted, with her yearning desire for physical intimacy with him. “Do not stir or awaken love until it is ready” -- be prepared for all the yearning you will experience, yearning for things to be different than they are.
(Song of Songs 2:4-7)
But there is a firmness underneath this yearning, grounding it and sustaining the one who is yearning.
Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it. If one offered for love all the wealth of their house, it would be utterly scorned.For all the risk we have encountered in this story -- risk from others and even risk from the beloved -- we are still reminded of the fierce strength of love.
(Song of Songs 8:6-7)
The book continues, with the Shulamite woman’s brothers re-entering the conversation, and the book ends with the lovers again not yet reunited --
O you who dwell in the gardens, my companions are listening for your voice; let me hear it. Make haste, my beloved, and be like a gazelle or a young stag upon the mountains of spices!But for me, that passage is the culmination of the text -- “love is as strong as death.” Which I can’t say without adding that love is STRONGER than death -- God who is Love, incarnated as Jesus the Christ, triumphed over death. The love that God has for us, like the love between the Shulamite woman and her beloved, makes us faint sometimes, frightens us sometimes, but it always endures, bidding us out of our comfortable places -- and so perhaps the ending of the Song of Songs isn’t so off-putting after all … that promise of union that is both already and not yet.
(Song of Songs 8:13-14)