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Equality of Sexes in Marriage

Exposition of the Song of Songs

The Hebrew view of marital sex, in contrast with Neoplatonism and early church, was not celibate. The Jews were never prudish about sex. The best evidence of this is the high place Solomon's Song of Songs, an ancient collection of poems on courtship and love, holds in the canon of Hebrew Scripture and in the worship of the synagogues, where it is usually read on the 8th day of Passover.

I am acquainted with the “triangle” interpretation of this book: a country girl has won the affection of King Solomon, but also has a shepherd lover in the North near her home. After re-reading the book, however, I conclude that Solomon and the shepherd are one and the same; the language of the story is easier to understand with only two leading characters, the girl and her lover. This song was for King Solomon the “Greatest of Songs” and probably describes his favorite and most-loved wife.

That the two lovers are married is proven by the fact that the Solomon brings her in his carriage to Jerusalem is called “the day of his wedding” (3: 11). That she thought of him at first as a shepherd, with a flock grazing near the flocks of her brothers, should not surprise us. Kings were often called “shepherds” and their people thought of as “sheep” (as King David spoke of them, 1 Sam 24:17).

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.

As an Old Testament scholar, I am concerned to point out the equality of the bride with her husband in this story—mainly to correct the common idea that in a biblical view of marriage the man must be the aggressor or initiator, and that he should always exercise a more dominant role.

Equality of Freedom: 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.

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.

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.

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