I didn’t read the Song of Songs until high school.
I had heard that it was about sex, so I tried to get into it in junior high, but I didn’t understand the complicated poetic structure or strange images any more than I understood sexuality. It certainly wasn’t more informative than the salacious mystery books I’d sneak in the library stacks, so I didn’t really bother more than a quick skim.
When I finally read it more thoroughly, Song of Songs was fodder for jokes with the other teens in my youth group more than spiritual development. I couldn’t understand why anyone would want their breasts compared to fawns, when mine just kept me from running gracefully. I certainly didn’t get why this strange and twisting book was included in the Bible, other than to sanction whatever married people got to do behind closed doors.
One teacher even cautioned unmarried people to avoid Song of Songs, lest our hormones be kicked into gear and lead us astray.
Over the years, I’ve learned a bit more about sex, but not much more about Song of Songs, which is why I was so struck by Ellen Davis’ work on the subject in Getting Involved With God: Rediscovering the Old Testament. I’ve read this chapter over and over, and learned something different each time.
Davis first invites us to see Scripture as layered with meaning and “allow the text to mean more than one thing at the same time” (69). Though this makes sense to me as an English major, I’ll admit that it is a relatively new concept in my study of biblical texts.
How can this section of the Bible be, on one hand, ancient erotic poetry with outright bawdiness (“for better is your lovemaking than wine” Songs 1:2), and at the same time, a “dialogue of love” between Yahweh and Israel? (67). I’m not exactly sure of the answers, nor do I think it matters that much anymore.
I have spent years chasing the true meaning of certain passages, cementing theological formulas, and learning the proper apologetics to blow the other side out of the water. I’ve read books that critiqued other books, sometimes before I’d read the first. Scripture seemed to be too important to accept anything less than the correct interpretation, but Ellen Davis won’t let me get away with drawing lines in the sand.
Instead, she encourages us to begin our interpretative adventures by “hearing ourselves addressed by the text at the level of experience that is most familiar to us” (69).
When I started there, two things stuck out to me from this chapter.
The first significant aspect of the Songs that Ellen Davis describes is the egalitarian portrayal of relationship between men and women. The lovers in the text are equal partners in the love affair, initiating and appreciating in turn (p 73). Even the setting of a lush garden is meant to bring to our minds another garden, where human desire was set against each other. This explanation made my little Jesus Feminist, equality-oriented heart jump a bit.
Isn’t this what we’re longing for, when we develop women and encourage men to listen and share God’s Kingdom? Isn’t this what I and many others are working for, with our stories and analysis about the harms of Purity Culture, Modesty Rules, and Christian dating tropes? Don’t we want to encourage the kind of relationships between people that are passionate, intimate, and fulfilling?
I know how helpful it is when I see these goals are not just sought after blindly, but actually lived out in the communities and relationships around me; here we have, in the Old Testament, an image of resurrected love between male and female people.
Secondly, Davis points out, the Songs also contain distinctive glimpses of a restored relationship between humans and nature.
I have to admit that I’m not the most nature-loving woman around. I’d rather spend my day roaming in a concrete jungle than the wilds of a forest, and joked about needing to burn down my office after discovering a record three spiders on my desk in two days last week.
As far as pet names go, I prefer to dish out baked goods related titles, but for the woman speaking in the Songs, however, describing her lover and describing nature are impossible to distinguish.
Davis points out that we don’t get a clear picture of the lovers, but instead, find rich imagery of the land, plants, and animals (83-84). The poems often refer to specific, well-known locations in ancient Israel. These glorified descriptions of land and nature are not just meant to describe the physical qualities of the characters, but to move us to action in caring for the earth. Davis writes, “Expanding our view of a beloved land to include the whole earth, we may recognize that we live on a planet that suffers precisely from our lack of love” (85).
As a dedicated consumer of capitalism, this critique cut deeply.
Our hope lies not just in harmony between people, but peace in the earth as well. I hadn’t read an ecological message in Song of Songs before, and I still don’t know much, but Davis’s analysis opened up a new world of insight for me.
Davis introduced a variety of themes to trace through the text, but I’m most struck by this idea that the Songs aren’t about lust and sex, but about wholeness. She writes, “The cultivation of real intimacy – with God, with other humans, with the creatures – is the greatest social and spiritual challenge of our time” (81).
The Songs are radical in many ways, but not just because they speak openly of human sexuality. They present a challenging call to bring about a Kingdom way of relating to all our divine, human, and natural spheres.