There’s a lot of talk about the Song of Songs in Christian evangelical circles—at least when it comes to marital love and sexuality. We talk about the “mutuality” in the interaction between the lover and beloved, the intimate “back and forth” dialogue, and how the whole book highlights the importance of sexuality in marriage.
But we continually fail to realize that we are stumbling across something remarkably profound (as we will see below): an egalitarian marriage—presented biblically as ideal—in and against the backdrop of a horrifically patriarchal world. That is what makes the Song of Songs remarkable—not it’s famed sensual imagery.
Put into today’s context, this means that most Christian evangelicals do not realize that the Song of Songs is an apologetic against complementarianism and a case for egalitarian marriage.
Framing the Discussion
If the complementarian and patriarchalist narrative is true, we would expect to find a male-centered, oriented, “led” relationship embodied in the Song. This is particularly the case because complementarians agree with other scholars that the Song of Songs both (a) presents a kind of “ideal” relationship, and (b) harkens back to Eden—and supposedly this is where male-authority originates in the first place.
For example, Köstenberger refers to the Song as one of several “glimpses of the ideal,” and portrays the “restoration of the relationship between the first man and the first woman,” (God, Marriage, and Family, 32-43). Similarly, G. K. Beale writes in A New Testament Biblical Theology (2010:74), “Song of Songs, also attributed to or for Solomon (Song 1:1; 3:7-11), fits nicely with a notion that the book pictures the ideal marriage relationship and unity that Adam and Eve should have had in their first garden as king and queen of the earth. Both the repeated hyperbolic garden imagery and specific allusions to Gen. 1-3 make this an attractive way to view the book.”
So, being consistent in the complementarian perspective, both the creation account and the Song of Songs display the same kind of marriage—and in fact, we would do well to read the Song of Songs as an expansion upon the kind of marriage that was present in Eden between Adam and Eve.
But does one find such a patriarchal, man-centered marriage in the Song of Songs? Is the “headship” ideology of contemporary complementarianism present in the interaction between the lover and beloved?
The Song of Songs: Patriarchy Where Art Thou?
The Song of Songs comes in the middle of the Old Testament narrative as a kind of Eden-like retreat for the story of man and woman. “The explicitly physical and at times sensual elements of their love should be considered as God-given essential aspects of the marriage relationship, reflecting the original union of Adam and Eve in God’s garden, who were ‘naked and not ashamed’ (Gen 2:25). Some commentaries have found many parallels between the Song of Songs and the account of the Garden of Eden” (Lewis 1997:45). Indeed, as Carr points out in the Tyndale Commentaries, “In one sense, the Song is an extended commentary on the creation story—an expansion of the first recorded love-song in history…The Song is a celebration of the nature of humanity—male and female created in God’s image for mutual support and enjoyment” (2009:37, 58; c.f Köstenberger, God, Marriage, and Family, 41-43).
The curse of Genesis 3:16 had bore its terrible fruit for centuries and in numerous ways. There are accounts of marriages characterized by manipulation and control, cases of rape incest, adultery, and the relentless domination of women by men. But then, somewhat unexpectedly, readers of the Hebrew Scriptures enter a world of marriage characterized by love, mutuality, and gender equality.
Arthur Lewis, Professor Emeritus of Old Testament at Bethel College, has identified a number of important themes in the Song of Songs that reveal this egalitarian tone in an article published by Priscilla Papers. The first is “equality of freedom” (1997:46):
The young bride requests that the king “take her away with him into his chambers” (1:4). She is not forced to go, or told when to go. She asks him to go with her, adding “let us hurry,” showing that she is free to decide the time for their love-making. When the king comes in his carriage, upholstered in purple, escorted by sixty warriors, to give her a comfortable ride back to his palace in Jerusalem (3:6-11), there is no coercion or show of force for her to go with him. Also, he says simply, “Come with me, my darling, my beautiful one, come with me” (2:10, 13), and woos her by confessing, “You have stolen my heart, my sister, my bride” (4:9). So when she joins him in the carriage, it is of her own free will. When she is with the king at his table, he treats her very gently; he is to her as myrrh or henna blossoms (1:12-14). When they appear together at the king’s banquet table he sets a banner (canopy) over them to identify her as his wife, and he keeps her near him in his embrace (2:4-6). When the other women present at the table urge her to kiss him, she is free to say no, but replies “do not arouse love until it so desires” (2:7). She had just requested more raisins and apples because she felt “faint with love.” (It was her request in 1:2 to “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth”.) In this case she has the freedom to express her amorous desires publicly before the guests. Later on, he calls her a “garden locked up... a spring enclosed, a sealed fountain” (4:12), which means that throughout her entire lifetime, she has consistently refused the advances of other men, maintaining the purity of her body. “I am his, and he is mine” (2:16) means that they can freely choose to be true and faithful to one another.
There is “equality of initiative”:
In the opening scene, the girl is back on the farm with her brothers, asking to see her beloved, imagining that he is a neighboring shepherd, “Tell me, where do you graze your flock, why should I be like a stranger (veiled woman) beside the flocks of your friends?” (1:7). He is not looking for her, but she is trying to locate him! In one of the bride’s dreams, her beloved comes one night to visit her, then runs away into the city, so she very aggressively goes out to look for him, searching everywhere for her beloved. Then when she finds “the one my heart loves” she “held him and would not let him go” (3:4). The same dream returns when “I slept but my heart was awake. Listen! my lover is knocking.” This time, however, after he was gone, she says, “I looked for him but did not find him (5:6).... if you find my lover, tell him I am faint with love” (5:8). Again the girl is pursuing her mate, and taking the dominant role in their courtship. Several times she asks her lover to be “like a gazelle or a young stag” (1:17; 2:9, 17; 8:14), which is her way of suggesting that it is time for him to make love to her. Encounters like these begin with the woman’s desire and with her initiative. The bride’s frequent protest, “I am faint with love,” always seems to prompt her lover to carry out the consummation that she seeks. The ancient dance of love that the bride performs for her lover begins with the urgent cries of her companions to “turn, turn” (6:13). This dance, in which the bride is disrobed except for her sandaled feet, is graphically described in the following verses. But, unlike Queen Vashti (Esther 1), the bride here is not ordered by the king to dance, or placed under pressure to do so; her dancing is voluntary.
Finally, there is “equality of pleasure”:
The Bible consistently defends the sexual union of all who are joined in marriage, defending also the purpose of the pleasure sexual union brings, and not merely for the intent of having children. Sarah, Abraham’s wife, even in her old age, was the first to claim the woman’s “pleasure” in sexual union (Gen 18:12). The bride in the Song of Songs expresses freely her delight in her lover’s kisses (1:2), in his embrace (2:6), in the beauty of his body (5:10-15), and the “sweetness of his mouth” (5:16). She invites him to eat the fruit of her “orchard” (4:13-15; 5:1), drink the water of her “fountain” (4:12, 15), taste the wine of her “vineyard” (7:9; 8:2) and “browse among the lilies of her garden” (2:16; 6:2)—all metaphors for sexual activity. In the second dream, the bride is in bed awaiting her lover’s approach in the middle of the night. But just thinking of what was ahead caused her to say, “My heart began to pound for him” (5:4). The RSV reads, “my heart was thrilled within me” and the Jerusalem Bible translates, “I trembled to the core of my being.” The scholars agree that the woman experienced a joyful sensation as she contemplated her lover’s advances. A very similar result comes from the term “arouse” (excite, 8:5) when the king and bride make a return visit to her home, the place where her mother conceived her. The lover remembers that “under the apple tree he aroused” his beloved, meaning that he gave her pleasure with his caresses. Again the young bride is found to be sharing equally in the joys of their marital union.
Besides the egalitarianism, woman is also depicted in ways that seem to challenge traditionally “feminine” portrayals. Richard Hess (2005:30), leaning on an essay from Carol Meyers, points out this imagery:
…when Meyers (“Gender”) observes the architectural and military images applied to the female, these reflect the fourth theme of self-work in Falk’s list. Thus in 4:1-4 her neck is a tower (cf. 7:5 [7:4 Eng.]) and her ornaments form layers (or a ziggurat). Shields form a protection for her. Whether or not the pools of Heshbon were designed for military defense, they certainly could have been used in such a context. The “house of the mother” (3:4; 8:2) contrasts with the “house of the father.” This traditional expression would describe the extended family, yet it is never mentioned. Instead, the “house of the mother” affirms the female presence and her dominance in the domestic sphere. Along with the male (2:9, 17; 4:1; 5:12; 8:14), she is associated with the more gentle and graceful doves (2:12; 6:9) and gazelles (4:5; 7:4 [7:3 Eng.]). However, only the female is associated with lions and leopards (4:8), an apparently unusual connection. More revealing is her simile with a mare let loose among pharaoh’s chariots (1:9). Meyers comments, “The female has a power of her own that can offset the mighty forces of a trained army.” The effect of this imagery is to provide the female with the tools necessary to control destiny and thus to choose her lover even as he chooses her.
It is therefore indisputable that the marriage and marital and sexual relationship in the Song of Songs is egalitarian. Temper Longman III stated this plainly in his Tyndale commentary (2001:66, emphasis mine):
The implication of a canonical reading of the Song is that the book speaks of the healing of intimacy… one of the most remarkable features of the Song is the confident voice of the woman as she pursues relationship with the man. The man responds in kind, and it is fair to characterize their relationship as egalitarian.
The great mystery now is, why doesn’t complementarianism acknowledge this as significant for informing (a) our interpretation of the Genesis account and (b) informing our theology of marriage in general? If we have a consistent theological methodology, then we would read the Song of Songs and conclude that an egalitarian marriage is presented as ideal and draw the immediate corollary that a complementarian—patriarchal—marriage is not.