20 Mar 2023

Shir ha-shirim: Monday Thoughts on the Song of Songs

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Hebrew Bible, Jesus, Love, Sexuality, Song of Songs
Shir ha-shirim, The Song of Songs

“[T]he title is not simply the word ‘Song,’ but ‘Song of Songs,’ a detail not without significance. For though I have read many songs in the Scriptures, I cannot recall any that bear such a name. Israel chanted a song to Yahweh celebrating his escape from the sword and the tyranny of Pharaoh, and the twofold good fortune that simultaneously liberated and avenged him in the Red Sea. Yet even though chanted, this has not been called a ‘Song of Songs’; Scripture, if my memory serves me right, introduces it with the words: ‘Israel sang this song in honor of Yahweh.” Song poured from the lips of Deborah, from Judith, of the mother of Samuel, of several of the prophets, yet none of these songs is styled a ‘Song of Songs.” (Bernard of Clairvaux, The Works of Bernard of Clairvaux: Song of Songs I, translated by Kilian Walsh with an introduction by M. Corneille Halflants (Kalamazoo, MI:: Cistercian Publications 1971), 4).

It does not seem like a daring claim to say, the Song of Songs could literally fall out of the canon of most western Christians, it could have never been written, and it would not effect the doctrine/theology or behaviors of most modern western Christians.

Song of Songs does not, apparently, affect the view of what it means to be a human being. It has no discernible impact on the view many have of women. It has no discernible impact on our theology of God and creation.

This is not to say that Song of Songs does not in teach doctrine on these matters, it just means the Song is … ignored. If we acknowledge the Song it is usually as a use for premarital counseling. The Song is trivialized.

But on the whole there is a “hush-hush” approach to the book.

And it shows. The Song conflicts with the views of many have of women, of the relationships between men and women, of sexuality, of the goodness of creation and matter (sexuality, wine, food, being a mere human, etc).

But Song of Songs is Scripture. No one in the ancient world read Song of Songs in the privacy of their own home (privacy is in fact a very modern and very western idea!). They did not sit in the corner and make sure no one saw them reading it. No one went to a counselor’s office to have portions of the Song given to them for “private” meditation.

The Song of Songs was read out loud corporately. The Song of Songs was read out loud, publicly. The Song of Songs was read before everyone. The Song of Songs was read in worship. The Song of Songs was read from verse 1 to the last verse in 8.14 out loud, in the assembly, with all the children present on the holiest day of the year … Passover!

Some read it in Hebrew.
Some read it in Greek.
Some read it in Latin.
Some read it in Syriac.

But they all heard it read. It was regarded as the greatest of all treasures, the greatest of Songs. It is the Song of all Songs after all, as Bernard tells us.

But since we do not read it in our churches, and rarely read it secretly, the gift of the message of the Song is lost on our churches, our worship, and our corporate lives together. We have lost its “daring speech” that express holy longings in our lives. (I borrow the phrase “daring speech” from Walter Brueggemann).

This loss is, in my opinion, correspondingly seen in our loss of the “daring speech” in the lament Psalms. Who dares to talk like the Woman (most of the book is in fact from the Woman), she is no “Victorian.” Who dares to speak like the Man in the Song? Who dares to talk to God as the Israelite does in the Psalms (or Job)? Some trivialize the “talk” in the Song of Songs as teenager kind of talk. I think the Song scoffs at that claim and dares to assert that rather than teens this relationship is what a genuinely good and holy relationship like the very adult first couple enjoyed is what God intends. Naked and Unashamed.

The Psalms are no more “private” than the Song of Songs. No one had a personal Bible in the ancient world. Scripture was encountered in public gatherings almost always for worship.

The woman’s and man’s conversations are not “private.” They are shared with every person, old to young, in the oral reading of the text in the public gathering. The Song of Songs graciously breathes the fresh air of Eden back into a world full of shame, full of power plays, full of abuse, full of misuse, full of manipulation.

Song of Songs shows us what oneness looks like. Control and manipulation are subverted by mutuality and vulnerability. There is no power over the other but there is sweet surrender to one another. They are “naked and not ashamed” and it does not bother either that the whole world knows it. Oneness is not one ‘adam reigning over the other ‘adam who is in subjection. Genesis 1 and 2 do not exhibit even a hint of such and neither does the Song of Songs. No wonder the text is ignored by many.

The bleak world that resulted from “the Fall” in Genesis 3.14-19 is shown to be what it really is: not the way it was supposed to be. The fresh air of Eden in the Song reveals:

– there is no enmity in the Song between creation and humanity (Gen 3.14f). Rather creation is like the Garden of Eden lush, pleasant, joyful, a place for “Adam to know Eve.”

– there is no childbearing in Song of Songs at all. The intimacy between the woman and man has nothing to do with procreation. It is not even hinted at. Intimacy does not result in painful childbearing but in mutual joy, celebration and honor.

– there is no enmity between the Woman and Man in Song of Songs. There is no “ruling” over her as a consequence of the Fall (Gen 3.16). The complete opposite is in the Song. Instead we find, 2x, the declaration “I am my beloveds and my beloved is mine” (2.13; 6.3) and the stunning reversal of Gen 3.16, even using the same Hebrew word, “I am my beloved’s and his desire is for me” (7.10).

The shalom of Eden was vandalized by sin. Genesis 3.14-19 reveal the sad reality of the fallen world. But God did not intend the world to be that way. God intended Genesis 1-2 … not Genesis 3. Song of Songs takes Genesis 3.14-19 and turns it inside out. Song of Songs is God, in God’s grace, reminding us that Eden was the intent and humans can still experience Eden. Relationships the way they were supposed to be. I say again, the world of Genesis 3.14-19 is not the world God intended for creation. Jesus himself pointed to Genesis 1 and 2 not Genesis 3 when he said to certain males “at the beginning” (Matt 19.4). In fact Jesus quotes Genesis 1.27, “he [God] made them male and female;” and “and they become one flesh” Genesis 2.24).

Interestingly enough the very next line in Genesis 2 is “And the man and the woman were both naked and were not ashamed” (v.25). Jesus points to the world of Genesis 1 and 2, the world of the Song of Songs as the “pattern” for the Woman and the Man. Genesis 3 is an aberration that will be cast out of God’s good creation.

But because we ignored the Song of all Songs we make Genesis 3 a prescription of how it is supposed to be. But Jesus came to prove Genesis 3 is not how it is supposed to be. And long before Jesus, God gave the world a Song, a song of all songs to help us see how the world is supposed to be.

No wonder Israel sang it. No wonder it was (and is) read out loud and publicly in Jewish worship to this day.

No wonder it was read during the Passover … because the Passover celebrates God reversing the curse.

Maybe we should let Song of Songs describe our world more than Genesis 3. When Moses said to “love the Lord with all of our heart, soul, strength and mind” and “love your neighbor as yourself,” he had something akin to the passion in Song of Songs in mind.

Sing the Song.

3 Responses to “Shir ha-shirim: Monday Thoughts on the Song of Songs”

  1. Gideon Says:

    I love this take. I think the Psalms, in a similar way, are read and meditated on daily to help reshape our worldview in alignment with God’s intention. One question, I can’t seem to solve though. Many people cite Jerome and Origen in saying Jews didn’t read the Song until age 30. Others, like your take here, report the practice of reading it corporately on Passover, which certainly has been a regular practice for centuries. Any insight into how the Song may have been engaged with in the Second Temple period or earlier? Thanks!

  2. LaRue Bennett (On FB:MarcyLaRueBennett, with my wife) Says:

    Bobby, I’m responding here rather than on FB, since it would be so long! Thank you for your good article. I ran a Christian Bookstore for 45 years, and most of our books on the SofS were the “marriage manual” type. I didn’t have a major problem with them, only if they said that was the main or only message. I was in charge of the adult education at church (North Central Church of Christ-Indianapolis). In addition to topical studies, we went through the whole Bible. I finally got our preacher to do Revelation, but couldn’t persuade anyone to tackle the SofS or Leviticus. So I took the challenge. Both books gave me a deeper appreciation for the Old Testament and a realization about how much “we” had been missing. I taught SofS from the somewhat allegorical, mainly typical point of view, using many different sources. (Three of the best: Bible Studies for the Preparation of the Bride by Weiner, Song of Songs by Madame Guyon, and Song of Songs by Watchman Nee.) Sometimes they would go to extremes of searching for types, but did make the attempt to find other scriptures to help understanding. Anyway, I just wanted you to know that there are a few of us not in the marriage manual-only camp, although I’m completely in favor of marriage. Enjoy your blogs, and like I would tell Leroy Garrett and Carl Ketcherside, I don’t always agree, but do appreciate and are challenged! Brotherly, LaRue

  3. JT Says:

    Gideon, that’s an interesting observation on what some have concluded with respect to writings of Jerome & Origen about it. Does make ya wonder.

    Bobby, not only do pew-sitters not hear the Song read aloud in the assembly (maybe a few do?), but sadly, most of us hear only snippets of Scripture read, plucked out to fit the sermon plans of the proclaimer. I’m not against sermons! I merely note that we do not actually hear the word read other than in little pieces. I’m not forgetting that in the modern day we all have Bibles to individually and privately consult. I simply opine that we’d be better off hearing more of the word read in the assembly with a bit of explanation offered in support…and less waxing eloquent about what someone thinks it means.

    Thought provoking blog!

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