By Chuck Griffin
Preachers and theologians have struggled through the centuries to interpret the biblical book Song of Songs, sometimes called Song of Solomon. Why is the book even in the Bible?
If you read it in a straightforward manner, there is very little instruction about God or humanity’s relationship to God. Traditionally, preachers have “allegorized” Song of Songs, reading it as if it is all symbolic of God’s love for humanity and humanity’s pursuit of God.
Some modern preachers, myself included, struggle with that approach, however. While I respect my predecessors’ efforts, I find it a huge leap to consistently turn what is sometimes very sexual imagery into allegory. When we do so, we dodge the direct meaning of the text.
And then there are all those unanswered questions about the lovers. Who are they? (Traditionally, one of them is King Solomon, but that seems a bit of a stretch, too, as we’ll see shortly.) Why do they speak so boldly of their passionate desire for each other? Did they or didn’t they? (Yes, I’m talking about sex.) And if they did, were they married? (There’s no clear evidence in the text.)
I’m going to offer you my conclusion about how to read Song of Songs. It’s an opinion I formed after marking up the text, making some observations about speakers, characters, and the nature of Hebrew poetry, and then consulting the writings of a lot of scholars I respect. Your eternal salvation is not dependent on your agreeing with me—I just want to share with you what I think.
First of all, I doubt Song of Songs was ever intended to be read as a cohesive story. Instead, it’s a collection of sexually charged love poems. Think of Song of Songs like a box of snapshots from a relationship. The pictures tell us much about the relationship, but they’re likely not in chronological order, and there are lots of details missing.
That’s not a radical idea; it simply makes Song of Songs more like the collections of psalms, proverbs and other wisdom literature preceding it in the Bible.
We also can glean a few interesting-if-vague details. In at least some of the poems, the woman is a working girl. She makes it clear her family has forced her to work in the fields, the sun tanning her so deeply that she describes herself as very dark. Her beloved is fairer-skinned and described as her “king-lover,” but that may just be poetic language, a deliberate effort to juxtapose him with King Solomon rather than make him out to be King Solomon.
Of course, I still haven’t made it clear why Song of Songs belongs in the Bible. Again, I’m having to trust the research of better-trained scholars.
What’s particularly helpful is that in modern times, researchers have found that Song of Songs is not unique. There were lots of similar collections of sexually charged love poetry in the cultures that surrounded the Israelites. The major difference is the polytheistic approach to sex these cultures took. (Polytheists worship many gods; monotheists, like the Israelites, worship one all-powerful God.)
Sex in polytheistic cultures tended to be about control. All sorts of sexual rituals evolved in these cultures to encourage the rain to fall, the crops to grow, and the livestock to multiply. Sex often was ritualized at temples with prostitutes in some of these cultures, and it certainly served as a way for men to control women.
The Israelites were radically different from their neighbors because they officially followed the One True God. Song of Songs is a good indicator of how the Israelites’ understanding of God affected their attitudes about sex.
The poems here consistently talk about passionate, long-term love between one man and one woman. They seek each other not for control, but for mutual satisfaction and ultimately, procreation. (The woman speaks of mandrakes in 7:13, a plant associated with fertility.) Sex is not to control a god; sex is a gift from God.
Marriage may not be a definable event in these poems, but it is easily assumed considering the deep commitments the lovers are making to each other. Their love takes us back to the creation story in Genesis, where one man and one woman are depicted as dependent on each other, inseparable.
King Solomon may even appear in these poems now and then as a kind of literary foil, present to make the lovers’ commitment to each other more commendable. We cannot forget King Solomon’s downfall in the eyes of God. In 1 Kings 11, Solomon is condemned for his many foreign wives and his willingness to introduce their polytheistic worship to the Israelites.
Song of Songs reminds us that proper worship of the One True God changes our relationships for the better. This includes our sexual relationships, the most joyous physical gift God has given us, a gift that is celebrated in Jewish tradition and now Christian tradition.
Lord, may we live out all our relationships as reflections of holiness and in appreciation of the tremendous grace we are given. Amen.