Song of Songs is filled with subtle but powerful metaphors and motifs that teach about the beauty, power, and nature of erotic love, as well as various abuses of erotic love (including social prejudice, patriarchal control and double standards, machismo, undue haste in sexual relationships, and infidelity). Furthermore, I affirm the notion common among many readers through the centuries who champion the possibility of spiritually uplifting analogies between human erotic love and divine-human relationships. Thus, I am suggesting both a “literal” interpretation rooted in creation that celebrates the genuinely erotic1 as a legitimate, divinely-sanctioned element of the human experience (echoing Eden), and also a more “typological” reading that acknowledges analogies to divine-human relationships based upon the human experience of the erotic.
The foregoing positions are standard in discussions of Song of Songs, though many commentators affirm only one, rather than both literal and typological approaches. The special focus of this article will be to explore the ways some of these themes take on new significance when the reader listens closely to the female voice in Song of Songs. Note in what follows that seemingly obvious interpretations profoundly change as a result of listening to her words, including the fundamental nature of the divine-human analogy that has been so beloved by so many.
The Beauty of Erotic Love
The beauty of erotic love is such a basic and widely recognized theme in the Song of Songs that I will not take the time to argue for it.2 Many commentators have noted the multiple allusions to Eden. Garden imagery is pervasive throughout, and references to animals abound. There is a fresh, frank, and unashamed celebration of the human body (which can serve abuse survivors, among others, well—both here and in Gen 2:25). There are explicit references to bodily parts and direct descriptions of physical affection, beginning with the opening ode to kissing that ends in the king’s bedchamber (1:2–4). There are poetic but unmistakable intimations of sexual relations throughout the text. There is at least the anticipation of the two becoming “one flesh” in marriage. There is a joyful sense of egalitarian mutuality throughout, one tinged with royal triumph,3 though, by the end, there are also intimations of the fall. In fact, Song of Songs may also be read as a pre-Christian exploration of what it would mean to reverse the effects of the fall.4
Both new translations5 and new illustrated editions6 keep appearing in an attempt to capture the luster of the Hebrew poetry, which is presumably an impossible task.7 Marc Chagall, who created seventeen large paintings for a special illustrated edition of the Bible (paintings later donated to the French Musée Nationaux), normally tackled stories or narratives only once, but he rendered the Song of Songs five times, in part because he found what was described therein so beautiful.8
It is particularly important to note that the female voice (variously referred to as “beloved,” “friend,” “fair one,” “dove,” “sister,” “bride,” “perfect/spotless one,” “maid of Shulem/Shulamite,” or “daughter of a prince/noble maiden”) predominates throughout the text.9 This voice is echoed by a female chorus (variously labeled “friends” or “daughters of Jerusalem”), and the female protagonist does not hesitate to sing the praises of her lover and his lovemaking, beginning in the first chapter. One popular evangelical blog post for women draws five lessons from this basic fact:10
Women can desire sex.
Women can be visual.
Women can initiate.11
Women can be free and uninhibited in the bedroom.
Women can (and were designed to!) experience pleasure.12
In short, there is a remarkable emphasis on the female (as the beloved) appreciation of erotic desire and activities throughout Song of Songs.13
The Power of Erotic Love
The overriding power of erotic love is a clear but subtle theme that builds throughout the entire work in a variety of ways. From the outset, love overcomes barriers of color and social class, uniting a kingly figure with a lower-status woman who is a humble vineyard worker and shepherdess.14 Love gives a clear, compelling voice to a woman who might otherwise be silenced in a patriarchal world. She is an unsettling mare among Pharaoh’s chariots (1:9). She is a lion and a leopard (4:8), references not ascribed to the male. Her neck is a strong tower ringed with shields—the rugged imagery of a warrior’s citadel (4:1–4). This woman has the capacity to rouse her lover (8:5b).
The recurring allusions and references to the power of erotic love build to an overriding crescendo in the final chapter of Song of Songs.
Place me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm.
For love is as strong as death, its jealousy as enduring as the grave.
Love flashes like fire, the brightest kind of flame.
Many waters cannot quench love, nor can rivers drown it.
If a man tried to buy love with all his wealth, his offer would be utterly scorned. (8:6–7 NLT)
The voice of the woman, the beloved, utters this evocative summary of the power of jealous love.15 Jealousy is normally a male prerogative in the Torah, with the wife forced to undergo humiliating tests of her faithfulness (Num 5:11–31). But here the female employs wording that echoes prior language concerning divine jealousy and wrathful judgment when God’s people are unfaithful (Deut 32:21–22, cf. Num 25:1–15).16
Her love is as strong as death and cannot be bought for any price. Since death seems the most unshakable reality of ordinary human life (apart from the hope of a divinely ordered resurrection),17 this is a striking claim. Love’s power would match death itself in an attempt to transcend it.
The Nature of Erotic Love
Song of Songs catches the nature of erotic love in its many nuances.18 Erotic love is outward-focused, seeing the partner in exalted, hyperbolic terms. There is the impulse to surrender oneself and praise the partner extravagantly. The language is in many ways direct, frank, and intimate, yet metaphors, similes, analogies, and other forms of verbal indirection are repeatedly pressed into service, presumably in an attempt to capture and heighten experiences that otherwise stretch the bounds of ordinary description. Aesthetic, poetic indirection also keeps the exquisitely sensual from descending into humiliating voyeurism, cruel objectification, or vulgar pornography.
Even as the two lovers exult over each other, there is a wholesome mutuality that underscores the dignity of the individual, that reaches back to creation (cf. Gen 1:27, 2:24).
Nevertheless, there are also repeated hints of paradise lost. Thus, as Katharine Bushnell pointed out a century ago, things go awry when a deep desire that was meant for God alone is redirected toward human beings, as has been the case ever since the fall in the garden of Eden:
The Pentateuch of the Septuagint is especially esteemed for its accuracy. This version renders teshuqa [Hebrew, “desire, longing”] into the Greek word apostrophe in both passages in Genesis [3:16, 4:7]: and epistrophe in Canticles [i.e., Song of Songs]. The former word, apostrophe . . . means “turning away,” and the latter, “turning to.” The teaching is, that Eve is turning away from God to her husband, and, as a consequence of that deflection, Adam will rule over her.19
The sole reference to death (8:6) may remind the reader of the inevitable diminishments and outright disasters entailed in erotic relationships, a theme already raised during the beloved’s haunting searches for her missing lover and her laments over his absences in two previous passages (3:1–2, 5:6). A deep, mostly unstated, sense of inevitable tragedy underlies this great work. As Paul Griffiths has said, “Our love affairs are desolate and desolating things. They always involve separation and loss, whether from betrayal or forgetfulness or sickness or death. Every marriage ends in one of those ways.”20 This generally understated theme of loss is nonetheless clearly present in three of the most poignant and climactic passages of the whole poem (3:1–5, 5:2–8, 8:6–7). Human erotic love will end in tragedy.21
Abuses of Erotic Love
The celebration of erotic love is not only tempered by hints of sadness and sorrow over its ultimate dissolution, but erotic relations are also subject to various forms of abuse.
Relationships may be marred by social prejudices. The beloved is all too aware of her dark skin and what it might suggest.22 Racism is probably not the immediate problem here, nor is our contemporary issue of self-loathing due to the failure to achieve an impossible body-image. For skin darkened by the sun reflects her social location as an agricultural laborer, the humble worker in a vineyard, or worse, a shepherdess who keeps flocks in the scorching Middle Eastern heat. Hard labor and grinding poverty mark her life.
Relationships may be marred by patriarchal control, abuse, and double standards. The male relatives not only guard their young sister, but control her life until they arrange her marriage (8:8–9). This is in clear contrast to the male lover, who freely bounds through life like a gazelle or a stag (2:8–13, 16–17), who collects a harem of sixty queens, eighty concubines, and virgins beyond counting (6:8), boldly referencing them, even as he claims that his latest “beloved” is his best catch so far, surpassing all previous ones (6:9).23 The lover deserts his beloved twice to explore the city at night, although she desperately, forlornly pursues him, risking life and limb among the city’s ruffians (3:1–5, 5:2–8).24
This brusque, thoughtless, even brutal male privilege, sexual and otherwise, anticipates the rise of Latin American machismo, the heightened and dramatic realm of male prerogatives, where women are depreciated, abused, yet are simultaneously the objects of male sexual obsessions.25 Sadly, these attitudes are by no means limited to Latin cultures. The original call in Genesis was for the man to leave his parents in favor of the woman (2:24), a surprising injunction in a patriarchal world, one reiterated by the Lord Jesus (Matt 19:5, Mark 10:7) and the Apostle Paul (Eph 5:31), something not totally lost in the Song of Songs, since the beloved would lead her lover to her mother’s home (3:4, 8:2), a move echoed, contrary to the culture of the day, in the Parable of the Ten Virgins (Matt 25:1–13).26
Relationships may be marred by undue haste in sexual relationships, which is a mark of self-seeking selfishness. Sexual impatience may take more than one form. Three times we are warned by the beloved that love should not be aroused (or indulged) before the appropriate time (2:7, 3:5, 8:5). One way of reading these warnings is to apply them to a relationship before the final binding promises of marriage. But even if their sexual access to each other is fully legitimate, sexual selfishness may play havoc with the couple’s relationship. The male comes to the door and seizes the latch, hoping to enter, but must wait for his beloved to prepare herself and welcome him. Before she can respond, he has already left her, looking for satisfaction elsewhere (5:2–6). The utter selfishness of the male’s sexual demands is exposed by the abrupt desertion of his supposed beloved in favor of nightlife elsewhere.
Infidelity mars relationships more than anything else. What does fidelity mean within the context of a constantly growing harem? What does fidelity mean when the male lover keeps wandering off into the night, deserting the one who truly loves him? No wonder his “beloved” issues such a strong and jealous call for utter faithfulness.
Analogies between the Human Experience of Erotic Love and Divine-Human Love
There is a long history of interpreting the Song of Songs as a type (or even a full-fledged allegory) of divine-human love.27Origen and Bernard of Clairvaux were among the more prolific proponents and practitioners of such approaches, but they were far from alone.28 Even Martin Luther tilted toward the non-literal when it came to the Song of Songs, though he disparaged previous allegorical treatments and suggested the analogy was an earthly one, between Solomon and the state of Israel, and though his reading seems awkward at best.29
One justification for such an approach presumably derives from the fact that Scripture elsewhere makes overt analogies to divine-human love relationships. God is the loving husband, though one who is all too frequently jilted or betrayed by his bride, whether the bride is Israel (as a whole), Israel (the ten tribes), Judah, or even a pagan empire such as Babylon, the paragon of harlotry. God’s love is steadfast, but his people are repeatedly unfaithful, prostituting themselves, or worse. The latter is certainly a major theme in the opening of Hosea, but similar tropes (of a bride, a harlot, or even a completely wanton woman) appear in Isaiah (e.g., 1:21, 54:6, 61:10), Jeremiah (e.g., 3:6–14, 5:7–8, 13:26–27, 50:11 [referencing Babylon]), and Ezekiel (chs. 16, 23), among other prophetic texts.30 Psalm 45 hints at similar motifs.
In the NT, there is a consistent analogy referencing Jesus Christ as the groom and the church as the bride, one commonly invoked in contemporary wedding homilies.31
Beyond the overt analogies about divine-human relationships in Scripture itself, many Christian thinkers through the centuries routinely interpreted Scripture on more than one level, up to four or more.32Although the Reformers pushed back against some of the extremes that arose in the late medieval church, I would side with those who champion multiple meanings in Scripture.33
Paul J. Griffiths neatly sums up the four main streams of allegorical interpretation with respect to the Song of Songs that focus on divine-human relationships. While the male lover (groom) is invariably God (or Jesus), the female lover (bride) is identified as Israel, the church, Mary, or the individual believer.34
The Surprising Analogy in Song of Songs
Although there have been many attempts to interpret Song of Songs allegorically, they always break down in the attempt to work out a detailed scheme that strict allegory requires, in which virtually every strophe, line, image, or metaphor supposedly corresponds to some aspect of Christian faith and life. The readings fail to convince as they become increasing implausible. (The breasts are the twin tablets of the Decalogue, or the two cherubim hovering over the ark of the covenant, or the Law and the Prophets, or Christ’s mercy and truth, or the Messiah in his humility and in his glory, or the Old and New Testaments, or the like.)
A typological approach is more modest, drawing a broad analogy without pressing every detail of the text to correspond to something else.35 The usual pattern is to see a general reference to the divine-human relationship. The lover (or groom or Solomon) is a figure of God or Jesus Christ. The beloved (or bride or Shulamite or rustic shepherdess) is Israel or the church or Mary or the individual believer.
One of the problems that Gleason Archer and J. Paul Tanner point out is that Solomon seems to be a bad type of a divine spouse, given his enormous harem, the early stages of which are possibly alluded to in the Song of Songs (6:8), not to mention the bad light he appears in when he apparently tries to buy love (8:11–12).36That is, the beloved (female) is just one more sexual companion among dozens, or ultimately, among hundreds. This is so even though Solomon does seem to be a king (like his father David) who in some important sense prefigures (typologically) a coming messianic King.37 This problem is presumably a major motive for the so-called “Shepherd Hypothesis,” where the humble but monogamous shepherd makes a better type of the ideal, divine husband than does Solomon.38
As far as I know, to date no commentator has proposed a dramatically different way of reading the divine-human relationship in Song of Songs, namely, a reading in which the female beloved is a type of God, and the male lover is the type of unfaithful Israel. There is at least some minimal, if indirect, biblical precedent for such a reading, however, if one considers the various ways in which the Bible uses feminine imagery for God.39 God is a mother who gives birth to, suckles, and comforts her children (Num 11:12, Deut 32:18, Isa 66:13; cf. James 1:18, 1 John 4:7, 1 Pet 2:2–3). Other Scriptures also compare God’s actions to that of a human mother (e.g., Isa 42:13–17, 45:24–46:6, 49:9–10 & 14–15). Lady Wisdom calls to foolish men in Proverbs, warning them against Lady Folly. (Some would see Lady Wisdom as a divine personification, whether of Jesus, or of the Holy Spirit;40 in Prov 5–9, repeated warnings against adultery are paired with warnings against folly, while both are contrasted with divine wisdom.) Female animals are also invoked as metaphors for God, including an eagle (Exod 19:4, Deut 32:11), a hen, a lioness, and a bear.
It is the woman in Song of Songs who takes the initiative with a love that is pure, persistent, and enduring, jealously calling her lover to lifelong faithfulness, even as she keeps her covenant promises to him, binding herself to him with extravagant metaphors describing the unrelenting, all-conquering power of her devotion to him.
It is the man in Song of Songs who is fickle and faithless, a womanizer who woos his beloved with worshipful language, but in various ways shows himself unworthy of her overpowering love.41
Such a reading may seem quite jarring, given the general (though not universal) pattern of male images for God throughout Scripture, or the frequent pairing of God as the husband and of Israel (or the church or the believer) as the wife (however unfaithful she is, sometimes even pictured as a harlot). Nevertheless, this is one instance where a much better way to read the text is to reverse the standard typologies. For the crucial analogy is not between God as male and Israel/church/believer as female, but between a faithful God and a faithless people.
I am not declaring this the only way to read Song of Songs, for I do think it is first of all a healthy call to erotic love echoing the innocence of Eden. We are barred from the garden and its full delights, yet even before the incarnation or Christ’s great work on the cross to remove the curse, a vision remained among God’s people of the potential beauties of marital love rooted in divine creation.42
But if there is any sensus plenior (“fuller sense, deeper meaning”) in Scripture, any typology with respect to divine-human love relationships, then I would suggest that the typology in Song of Songs is the opposite of what most readers and commentators have hitherto assumed. In this instance, God is female, humans are male.
Remember, however, that this metaphorically female “Goddess” is not the promiscuous female deity that populates ancient Near Eastern mythology, but a unique, jealous monotheistic Deity, who remains utterly faithful in love and who calls for absolute fidelity on the part of her lover. Remember, too, that the far more frequent references to a male God in the Bible are also metaphorical.43
The Biblical Feminism that Arises from Song of Songs
Song of Songs teaches us a series of simple but important lessons about biblical feminism.
Women may take the lead in erotic love.
Women need not be ashamed of their sexuality.
Women are powerful and may speak forcefully in a relationship.
Women may take the lead in calling for faithful purity in male-female relationships.
Women may teach us divinely ordered truths by word and deed.
Women who are faithful to their lovers may provide an important analogy for understanding the nature and character of God.
At the same time, Song of Songs provides a series of cautions, especially to men, but also to women who might otherwise be taken in too quickly by boastful, wealthy, powerful men.
Erotic love relationships should not be entered into too quickly.
Men should be considerate in their lovemaking and faithful to their beloved, not hasty, nor impatient, nor sexually selfish.
Men should not look for sexual satisfaction elsewhere, whether by means of polygamy or promiscuity.
Men should eschew the male customs, codes, and urges that give rise to manifestations of patriarchy such as machismo.
Song of Songs also reminds us that we still live in a fallen world. Women should not live bound by patriarchy, nor should they need to fear male violence, not even when alone at night in the city. That women are still routinely abused by men is a tragic sign of creation disordered, of a world still desperately in need of redemption.
Finally, as the Song of Songs ultimately discloses the limits and losses of erotic love, both women and men should come to the realization that God alone is the source of the deep, sacrificial, abiding love that lasts for eternity.
In English language marriage homilies delivered by Roman Catholic priests in the British Isles, brides were consistently reminded that their circular wedding ring was a symbol of eternity, and therefore that their first loyalty was to God, not to their husband.44 Song of Songs is Wisdom Literature, and like all Wisdom Literature, its primary and profoundest message is to teach us our need for God, who alone loves us perfectly and unfailingly. Our need for divine love transcends even our need for human love. For Song of Songs reminds us, even if it does so indirectly and implicitly, that there is a divine love even more important than the strongest of human sexual loves.45
1. But not what C. S. Lewis calls Venus or lust; Lewis, The Four Loves (Harcourt, Brace, & World, 1960) esp. ch. 5 on Eros, 131–60.
2. Cf. Daniel Fredericks and Daniel Estes, Ecclesiastes & Song of Songs, ApOTC 16 (InterVarsity, 2010) 267. “Of all the books in the Bible, the Song of Songs is the most poetic, the most beautiful and most mysterious” (Estes). Cf. also George Knight and Friedemann Golka, The Song of Song & Jonah: Revelation of God, ITC (Eerdmans, 1988) 10.
3. Cf. Shai Held, “We’re All Royalty: Genesis 1 and the Divine Right of Everybody,” ChrCent 135/23 (7 Nov 2018) 12–13.
4. Ellen F. Davis, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs, Westminster Bible Companion (Westminster John Knox, 2000) 231–302.
5. E.g., the fresh translation in Good, Song of Songs.
6. E.g., Song of Songs: Erotic Love Poetry, adapted and illustrated by Judith Ernst (Eerdmans, 2003).
7. This is not only because of the dictum, “Poetry is what gets lost in translation,” attributed to Robert Frost. This widely quoted statement is actually a concise rephrasing of comments by him; see Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, Conversations on the Craft of Poetry: A Transcript of the Tape Recording Made to Accompany Understanding Poetry, Third Edition, with Robert Frost, John Crowe Ransom, Robert Lowell, and Theodore Roethke (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1961) 7. “I would like to say, guardedly, that I could define poetry this way: It is that which is lost out of both prose and verse in translation.”
The problems of a truly poetic translation of this particular work become apparent in the opening lines of Song of Songs in Hebrew; see Exum, Song of Songs, 30–33. Much of the extensive word-play and structural felicities (e.g., alliteration, assonance, ellipsis, enjambment, parataxis, paronomasia) will be lost, even if a good translator is able to retain some of the chiasmus, inclusio, and overall circularity and symmetry.
Another factor is the unusual vocabulary. There are 47 hapax legomena (10% of the 470 Hebrew words found therein), another 51 words occur five times or less, 45 between six and ten times, and 27 eleven to twenty times. See G. Lloyd Carr, The Song of Solomon, TOTC (InterVarsity, 1984) 41–44. So the ambiguous meaning of many terms is itself a significant challenge for translators.
8. See G. di San Lazzaro, “The Song of Songs in Color,” and Dora Vallier, “From Memories to Myth,” in Homage to Chagall, ed. G. di San Lazzaro (Tudor, 1969) 50–59 and 60–66. I was first led to these sources by Endel Kallas, “Martin Luther as an Expositor of the Song of Songs,” LQ 2/3 (Autumn 1988) 338.
9. Richard S. Hess, Song of Songs, BCOTWP (Baker Academic, 2005) 21: “The female voice dominates this poem to a greater extent than any other book or text of comparable length in the Bible.”
10. Sheila Wray Gregoire [guest blogger], “5 Things We Learn from the Shulamite Woman about Female Sexuality,” To Love, Honor, & Vacuum: Marriage, Sex, Parenting, Faith [a blog maintained by Rebekah Hargraves], https://tolovehonorandvacuum.com/2018/05/shulamite-woman-female-sexuality/.
11. This is not unprecedented in Hebrew Scriptures. See Tamar in Gen 38, or Ruth in Ruth 3; cf. David Carr, “Gender and the Shaping of Desire in the Song of Songs and Its Interpretation,” JBL 119/2 (2000) 233–48, esp. 238. Cf. also Timothy Paul Erdel, “The Book of Ruth and Hope in Hard Times,” Priscilla Papers 25/1 (Winter 2011) 5–8, truncated from a longer paper presented at the ETS 58th annual meeting, “Christians in the Public Square,” Washington, DC, 15 Nov 2006.
Of course, women also take initiative when the issues are not sexual, whether one considers the example of Deborah, of the “ideal” woman in Prov 31, or of Esther, to name three. Cf. Timothy Paul Erdel, “Approaching the Problem of Violence in Esther: Does Gratuitous Evil Undermine an Otherwise Delightfully Subversive Text?,” paper presented at the 2005 Joint Meeting of the Midwest Region of the SBL, The Middle West Branch of the American Oriental Society, and The American Schools of Oriental Research-Midwest, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Illinois, 20 Feb 2005.
12. The article by Gregoire ends with a bold-font statement that women’s sexual freedoms within marriage should not be construed as obligations, nor as reasons for undermining a woman’s self-worth, i.e., if such a desire is lacking. Cf. Christine Woolgar, “What I Wish the Church Had Told My Husband and Me About Sex and Consent,” Arise [CBE blog], 6 Nov 2018, https://cbeinternational.org/blogs/what-i-wish-church-had-told-my-husband-and-me-about-sex-and-consent?eType=EmailBlastContent&eId=2a212d1b-ac12-4880-9d47-a098832402c1.
13. See Sara Barton, “A Biblical Example of a Sexually Healthy Woman for a World Where Unhealthy Sexuality Makes Headlines,” Priscilla Papers 32/1 (Winter 2018) 10–14. Cf. Elizabeth Gentry, “My Resounding ‘Yes’ to God and Embracing My Sexuality: Singleness and the Song of Songs,” Priscilla Papers 32/1, 15–17; and Dawn Gentry, “Mutuality, Mystery, and Marriage: Love in the Song of Songs,” Priscilla Papers 32/1, 18–20. There are multiple ways to read this startling emphasis on the assertive female voice. A common claim in more recent years, one that seems plausible to me, is that the author of the book may be female. See Tremper Longman III, Song of Songs, NICOT (Eerdmans, 2001) 7–9, though Longman seems skeptical of the proposal. Some critics suggest this strong emphasis on aggressive female sexuality is not an affirmation of female sexual freedom, but of male fantasies, thereby deconstructing any notion that Song of Songs is a feminist text. See especially, David J. A. Clines, “Why Is There a Song of Songs and What Does It Do to You if You Read It?” Jian Dao 1 (Jan 1994) 3–27; see also J. Cheryl Exum, “Ten Things Every Feminist Should Know about the Song of Songs,” in The Song of Songs, ed. Athalya Brenner and Carole R. Fontaine, A Feminist Companion to the Bible, 2nd Series (Sheffield Academic, 2000) 24–35.
14. Cf. Ruth, where love overcomes barriers of age, class, ethnicity, poverty, and social location; cf. Erdel, “Ruth and Hope.” Just as Ruth the Moabitess rebukes the lawless idolatry prevailing during the period of the judges in Israel by her life and loving-kindness, the Shulamite rebukes the excesses of Solomon by her persistent love and call to faithfulness.
15. See Havilah Dharamraj, “Green-Eyed Lovers: A Study of Jealousy in Song of Songs 8:5–7,” Priscilla Papers 32/1 (Winter 2018) 3–8.
16. See Longman, Song of Songs, 211–12.
17. See Timothy Paul Erdel, “Physical Death and Philosophical Judgment,” Reflections 16 & 17 (2014 & 2015) 141–59. Cf. Matt Fitzgerald, “Shaping My Mind to Die: The Beauty and Danger of the WeCroak App,” ChrCent 135/23 (7 Nov 2018) 22–25, 27.
18. Some commentaries explore numerous parallels in ANE literature (and elsewhere), perhaps none more thoroughly than Marvin H. Pope, Song of Songs, AB 7C (Doubleday, 1977) 54–89. ANE poems provide useful contexts for reading the Song of Songs. I prefer, however, drawing comparisons and contrasts with Plato’s notions about erotic love, especially as found in his Symposium, since I find such analysis more interesting philosophically, despite the radically different styles and contexts represented by Song of Songs and the Symposium.
19. Katharine Bushnell, God’s Word to Women: 100 Bible Studies on Woman’s Place in the Divine Economy, with a Foreword to the 1943 ed. by Ray Munson, https://godswordtowomen.files.wordpress.com/2010/10/gods_word_to_women1.pdf, Lesson 17, “The Ancient Renderings of Teshuqa,” entry no. 130 (pp. 57–58). Other writers suggest this is not the only way the fall disordered sexual desires. See, e.g., the autobiographical memoir by David Bennett, A War of Loves: The Unexpected Story of a Gay Activist Discovering Jesus (Zondervan, 2018). For my explorations of related topics, see Timothy Paul Erdel, “Can Friendship Redeem Eros, or Do We Need to Read Great Books Too?,” paper presented at the EPS annual meeting, San Diego, California, 14 Nov 2007; idem, “Is Sexual Autobiography Self-Authenticating? Assessing Moral and Spiritual Claims from LGBTQ Communities,” paper presented at the ETS 63rd annual meeting, San Francisco, California, 17 Nov 2011; and idem, “Should Christian Egalitarians Be Gender Essentialists? What Would It (Not) Mean if They Were?,” paper presented at the ETS 69th annual meeting, “Other Voices” section, Providence, Rhode Island, 16 Nov 2017.
20. Paul J. Griffiths, Song of Songs (Brazos, 2011) 76.
21. I reject the claim by George Knight, “in the whole series of poems no reference is ever made to questions of mortality”: Song of Songs, 59.
22. Recall the prejudice of Aaron and Miriam against the Cushite/Ethiopian wife of their brother Moses in Num 12.
Dianne Bergant points out that the Hebrew sibilants in 1:6 suggest the sizzling associated with frying; the beloved’s skin has been “cooked in the sun.” Bergant, The Song of Songs, Berit Olam: Studies in Hebrew Narrative & Poetry (Liturgical, 2001) 14–15.
23. On a slightly cynical reading, the text anticipates a prototypical promiscuous male, the boastful, sometimes charming, despicably unfaithful lover, a Don Juan/Don Giovanni or a Giacomo Casanova. There are rulers who are real-life sexual monsters. Genghis Khan was apparently one. So too was Chairman Mao, who demanded ready access to young women for many years, often sleeping with multiple partners; see Li Zhisui, The Private Life of Chairman Mao: The Memoirs of Mao’s Personal Physician: Dr. Li Zhisui (Random House, 1994) e.g., ix–x, 356–64, 517.
24. The allegorizing by Origen gives these passages a radically different meaning; see Peter W. Martens, Origen and Scripture: The Contours of the Exegetical Life, OECS (Oxford University Press, 2012) 184, referencing Origen’s Homily on Song of Songs, 1.7.
25. Eugene A. Nida, Understanding Latin Americans: With Special Reference to Religious Values and Social Movements (William Carey Library, 1974) esp. ch. 4, “Machismo and Hembrismo,” 56–79.
26. See Bushnell, God’s Word to Women, Lesson 7, “God’s Law of Marriage, (Cont’d),” entry 52 (p. 30).
27. The fullest exposition of the history of interpretation of Song of Songs is Pope, Song of Songs, 89–229. Many scholars are dependent on his great work, whatever one makes of his own interpretations. See also Longman, Song of Songs, 20–47. Among the earliest defenders of a more literal approach were the Eastern Church leader, Theodore, Bishop of Mopsuestia, at the end of the fourth century (a century after his death, he would be condemned for his views), and a Roman monk, Jovinian, who attacked asceticism despite his own celibate lifestyle, and who was also condemned, first by Pope Siricius, then by Ambrose and Augustine; again, see Pope, 119–20. For an anthology of comments on Song of Songs from thinkers during the first millennium of the church, see Richard A. Norris Jr., trans. and ed., The Song of Songs: Interpreted by Early Christian and Medieval Commentators (Eerdmans, 2003).
28. See Pope, Song of Songs, 112–32, 179–92. On Origen as an exegete, see again Martens, Origen and Scripture.
29. See Kallas, “Luther as Expositor of Song of Songs,” 323–41; Martin Luther, Notes on Ecclesiastes, trans. Jaroslav Pelikan/Lectures on the Song of Songs: A Brief but Altogether Lucid Commentary on the Song of Songs by Dr. Martin Luther, trans. Ian Siggins/Treatise on the Last Words of David: 2 Samuel 23:1–7, trans. Martin H. Bertram, in Luther’s Works, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan, vol. 15 (Concordia, 1972) –264, esp. 191–95.
30. Some feminist scholars take offense at the allegorical portrayal of Israel or Judah as promiscuous females, even though the actual persons being castigated for their unfaithfulness are more often than not male leaders.
31. In addition to the classic Eph 5:22–33 text, see, e.g., 2 Cor 11:2–4; Matt 9:15, 25:1–13; Mark 2:19; Luke 5:34; John 3:29; Rev 3:12, 19:6–8, 21:2, 21:9–10, 22:17.
32. Cf. David C. Steinmetz, “The Superiority of Pre-Critical Exegesis,” ThTo 37/1 (Apr 1980) 27–38; cf. also Daniel J. Treier, “The Superiority of Pre-Critical Exegesis: Sic et Non,” TJ, ns 24/1 (Spring 2003) 77–103. Cf. also Ian Christopher Levy, Introducing Medieval Biblical Interpretation: The Senses of Scripture in Premodern Exegesis (Baker Academic, 2018).
33. Many human actions carry multiple meanings, and speech-acts may do so as well. Much of our communication is inherently laden with multiple meanings. Biblical texts are not exempt from these common tendencies. In a related matter, I am also leery of a hermeneutic that focuses too dogmatically upon authorial intentions. 1) We do not know (for certain) many biblical authors. 2) We cannot read the minds of those we can identify. 3) We often have a tough time accurately sorting out our own motivations or the intentions of persons we know well. Cf. C. S. Lewis, “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism,” Christian Reflections, ed. Walter Hooper (Eerdmans, 1967) 152–66, esp. 159–61.
34. Griffiths, Song of Songs, xxxviii–xlii.
35. See, e.g., Mary McDermott Shideler’s extended discussion of the difference in sensibilities between those who follow the way of images (typology) and those who follow the way of allegory. On my reading, she clearly prefers images (typology); see The Theology of Romantic Love: A Study in the Writings of Charles Williams (Eerdmans, 1962) esp. 12–17.
36. Gleason L. Archer, A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, rev. and exp. ed. (Moody, 1994) 541; J. Paul Tanner, “History of Interpretation,” 46, esp. the concluding paragraph. Cf. Tom Gledhill, The Message of the Song of Songs, The Bible Speaks Today (InterVarsity, 1994) 22–24.
37. See, e.g., 2 Sam 7:12–17; 23:1–7; Ps 72; cf. Matt 12:42. It has been suggested that Solomon could be a type of Christ in his kingship, greatness, wealth, power, and wisdom, though even these would need to be carefully qualified in terms of how these attributes apply to the human Jesus.
38. Since the late eighteenth century there has been the tendency upon the part of some to treat Song of Songs as a poetic pastoral drama, whether with two or three main characters beyond the female chorus. Three characters generally presumes the so-called “Shepherd Hypothesis,” where the Shulamite wife remains faithful to her humble shepherd husband, despite lavish inducements by the Solomonic figure to join his royal harem. I do not follow this line of interpretation, though I concur with the implicit critique of Solomon. Franz Delitzsch called the Song a dramatic pastoral poem, but did not support the three-character hypothesis put forward by J. F. Jacobi, F. W. K. Umbreit, Georg Heinrich August von Ewald, Christian D. Ginsburg, S. R. Driver, Ernest Renan, and Andrew Harper, among others (contra Arthur G. Clarke, Walter C. Kaiser Jr., C. Hassell Bullock, and Dennis Robert Magary). I am grateful for my conversation with Prof. Magary on 10 Nov 2018. We share the view that Solomon makes a poor type of an ideal husband, though he bears no blame for my other opinions. See Delitzsch, Commentary on The Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes (Eerdmans, 1950) 1–11; J. Paul Tanner, “The History of Interpretation of the Song of Songs,” BibSac 154/613 (1997) 23–46, esp. 33–35. For recent expositions of the Shepherd Hypothesis, see Iain W. Provan, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, NIV Application Commentary (Zondervan, 2001) 245–48; and Aída Besançon Spencer, “The Song of Songs Celebrates God’s Kind of Love,” Priscilla Papers 28/3 (Summer 2014) 7–13.
39. See Abigail Dolan, “Imagining a Feminine God: Gendered Imagery in the Bible,” Priscilla Papers 32/3 (Summer 2018) 17–20; cf. Aída Besançon Spencer, The Goddess Revival, with Donna F. G. Hailson, Catherine Clark Kroeger, and William David Spencer (Baker, 1995) esp. ch. 6, “God Is Not Male,” 103–29.
40. The Syrian Church in particular tends to emphasize the feminine (metaphorical, not metaphysical) identity of the Holy Spirit that is suggested by Scripture, beginning with the feminine noun ruach.
41. See, e.g., Calvin G. Seerveld, Never Try to Arouse Erotic Love Until— : The Song of Songs, in Critique of Solomon: A Study Companion, ed. John H. Kok (Dordt College Press, 2018). Cf. Lambert Zuidervaart and Henry Luttikhuizen, eds., Pledges of Jubilee: Essays on the Arts and Culture, in Honor of Calvin G. Seerveld (Eerdmans, 1995).
42. Marriage is repeatedly intimated as the appropriate context for sexual love. Although the message about marriage rests on poetic intimations rather than overt instructions, the strong claim by David Carr that there is nothing about marriage in Song of Songs fails to recognize how much the meaning of a poem lies “between the lines.” “There is no sign throughout the Song that the lovers of the Song of Songs are married or that their love is sanctioned in any way.” See Carr, “Gender and Shaping of Desire,” 241. On the other hand, some see far too much, reading Song of Songs as a detailed marriage manual. For examples of readings that purport to see an amazing number of specific, detailed injunctions about love, marriage, sex, and gender roles in Song of Songs, see David George Moore, Ecclesiastes, and Daniel L. Akin, Song of Songs (Holman Reference, 2003), and Daniel L. Akin, Exalting Jesus in Song of Songs (Holman Reference, 2015). Mutatis mutandis, much the same could be said of commentaries that turn the Song of Songs into a marital sex manual. See, e.g., S. Craig Glickman, A Song for Lovers (InterVarsity, 1976), and Joseph C. Dillow, Solomon on Sex: A Biblical Guide to Married Love (Thomas Nelson, 1977). I prefer the sane, if still morally conservative, discussions by Tom Gledhill on “The Morality of the Song,” see Gledhill, Message of Song of Songs, 26–31: “we cannot derive a complete doctrine of sexual morality or marriage from the Song alone” (29).
43. Again, see Spencer, Goddess Revival, 103–29, but also the whole book for appropriate warnings against contemporary “Goddess” movements. Although Jesus is later incarnate as a male, his vocation as a single celibate is a significant counter to those who would press the supposed meaning of his incarnation as a male too far. E.g., just as his being born a Jew does not limit his followers or his appointed ministers to Jews alone, neither does his being born a male limit his followers or their spiritual leaders to males alone.
44. I owe this insight to Beth Allison Barr, who recounted her research in English medieval manuscripts during her 50th anniversary plenary address, “Paul, Medieval Women and 50 Years of the CFH: New Perspectives,” The 31st Biennial Meeting of the Conference on Faith and History, Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 5 Oct 2018.
45. I lean heavily on the work of many others, especially Sister M. Timothea Elliott, who argues for the unity of the poetic material (Elliott, The Literary Unity of the Canticle, Europäische Hochschulschriften, ser. 23, Theology, 371 [Peter Lang, 1989]; cf. the affirmation of Elliott’s work by Duane Garrett, Song of Songs; Paul R. House, Lamentations, WBC 23B [Thomas Nelson, 2004] 27–29.) A number of commentators, including J. Cheryl Exum (Song of Songs, OTL [Westminster John Knox, 2005] 33–37), affirm this unity. For recent reiteration of the view that prefers a collection of poems from disparate (oral) sources, see Edwin M. Good, The Song of Songs: Codes of Love (Cascade, 2015), but his arguments come from his presuppositions about the formation of ancient texts, not from the sorts of close, analytical readings of the actual Song of Songs undertaken by Elliott and Exum, despite his own focus on the lyricism of the text.
This essay draws its major points from lectures prepared for a modular course on El Meguilot, taught during the summer of 1999 for the Instituto Bíblico-Teológico, I.E.M. in the Dominican Republic and the Seminario Bautista Bereana in Cuba. A preliminary version of this paper was presented at the session on Evangelicals and Gender: Gender in Biblical Perspective (moderated by Cynthia Long Westfall and Gerry Breshears), ETS 70th annual meeting, Denver, Colorado, 13 Nov 2018. A slightly revised version was presented at the section on Prophets and Writings (moderated by Tom Wetzel), Midwest Region meeting of the SBL/Middle West Branch of the American Oriental Society, St. Mary’s College, Indiana, 10 Feb 2019. I am grateful to my audiences, and esp. to Robert Eagle, Máxima López de Abreu, and Daniel Josué Pérez Naranjo, who invited me to teach, and to my father, Paul A. Erdel, who helped me with my initial preparation, as well as to more recent readers of this paper who offered corrections and suggestions, including Kevin L. Blowers, David A. Erdel, and Laura (Lolly) M. (Drown) Erdel.