Friday, June 17, 2011

Some Random Song of Song Notes

"Deleted Scenes" (for various reasons) from a 45+ page paper I wrote for my Wisdom/Writings class during the Fall semester at the GTU (hopefully, without the wider context, they still make sense - note that the footnote links don't quite work very well at the moment):

The strongest and most pervasive intertextual allusion modern commentators have seen appears to be with the story of Creation and Fall in Genesis 2-3 (some even going so far as saying the Song is a kind of commentary on it), the Song of Songs representing for man and woman a kind of Return to the Garden where, for instance, the Curse does not show itself and the broken, now power-oriented relationship between male and female in Genesis 3:16 is at least in abeyance and the man and woman relate at least with each other, within their relationship if not in society, as equals – the survival of Paradise through love.[1] Indeed, the garden in the Song (here including nature in general) represents a kind of place of uninterrupted, unblemished intimacy and joy for the lovers (See Song of Songs 1:15-17; 2:1-7, 8-17; 4:10-5:1; 6:1-3, 11-12; and 7:6-13).


With regard to sexual norms, it seems that in the biblical tradition the norms are very strict on what is sexually appropriate and this is seen by many as reflective of the strict norms in wider Israelite society – at least in regards to the sexual behavior of women (men in the ancient world, as now, were often given considerably more social leeway when it comes to sexual behavior). Importantly, in a patriarchal society, strict sexual norms confining sex to marriage (at the very least, for women) help to instill confidence in the legitimacy of any offspring, particularly male heirs. In addition, though we cannot be sure, of course, how people always behaved in ancient Israelite society,[2] it does seem that human love was often seen as divinely ordained, part of the created order[3] and to be pursued within the proper confines of that order, the wisdom and broader biblical traditions seeing these proper confines within the context of marriage.[4]

With regards to marriage itself, there is some speculation about possible cultural practices based on the evidence we have. The mother’s house and bedroom are related to marriage and perhaps the bringing of the groom there as well (as in 3:4), and there is some evidence it may have been a common practice for the bride to get ready with the groom waiting outside, a scene which we saw earlier in Section II.[5] In addition, we have good reason to believe that, given the patriarchal nature of ancient Near Eastern society, women in a marriage were in social status not wholly unlike the property of their husbands. Marriage in this sort of society was generally, whatever else it may have been, a socioeconomic institution with the husband at its head and the family and its possessions and earnings under his direct control, with one of the primary duties of the wife being the bearing of children which would in turn enhance the family (and hence the husband), maintaining the family property. It ought not to be surprising, then, if, in a work focusing on mutual, “egalitarian” love for its own sake (as we will see, some argue the Song is just such a work), marriage is not always directly mentioned since this could very well drag with it socioeconomic connotations that might distract from the examination of love itself.


Given everything we have seen this far, we can see the Song as at times presenting a kind of reversal of the Curse of Genesis 3, the original exile, and the concomitant shattering of the relationships between man and woman, human and nature, and human and God – Creation is whole again. In ideal human love, intimacy between man and woman is at least partially healed, power plays are gone, and a kind of equality pervades the relationship. Gone is the struggle for power that is foretold in Genesis 3:16. As Murphy says, desire “can only nourish a love that is freely given and returned, a partnership that acknowledges the joy of being possessed by the beloved as well as the need to possess.”[6] The fracture between man and woman is at last, if only fleetingly, undone.[7]

The mutual enmity between human beings and the land or nature which one finds in Genesis 3:15, 17-19 is also undone as the woman becomes the land and the lovers find themselves and nature in their enjoyments as a harmonious unity. Love between man and woman is restored, as is love between human and land or nature (particularly, the land of Israel).[8] Human beings are no longer treating nature as something to exploit and nature no longer raises itself against the man and woman, but rather together they celebrate love’s return to Eden. Amid the longing and praise of the two lovers and the play of presence and absence, 2:8-17 illustrates both man-woman and human-nature restoration. Little that is negative slips into this realm of delight where, as mentioned briefly before, the line between man and woman on the one hand and human and nature on the other is hard to pin down (hence illustrating once again the shifts and indeterminacies characteristic of the Song as lyric love poetry).[9]

The relationship with God that was broken in the Fall, however, also receives a partial restoration in the Song. The woman as land and the echoes from the Bible of God’s longing for Israel (including the slippage between Israel and its land in the Bible already mentioned) point, for Davis, to the thesis that “[t]he Song is a lyrical evocation of the unbreakable three-way relationship among the people of Israel, the land of Israel, and the God of Israel, the unbreakable connection which Torah establishes, and over which the Prophets agonize.”[10] Here, unlike elsewhere in the Bible, God’s people return his love and longing in an equal way at last – in contrast to previous times, the vineyard of God’s people is now for God and God alone.[11] The one-sided relationship of God loving humankind has, in the garden, become a mutual enjoyment of seeking and finding.

The naturalness of this interpretation arises from, among other things, the slipperiness of the text and the symbolic complexity of the garden and other images in the Song, with its multiple layers of meaning, echoes of the Bible as well as Near Eastern mythic and sacred language, the status of the lovers as types and hence of standing in for any male-female lovers whatsoever, and the ancient view of humankind as female in comparison to God as male. All of these conspire to draw God into the warp and woof of the text, nearly silent and at first hidden behind the scenes, both present and absent as the man himself so often is, possessed of a freedom in love and movement not possessed by the woman[12] but giving himself in all his allusiveness to her nonetheless.

While it may be going too far to say that the Song on its own possesses an allegorical meaning (we, as part of reader-centered interpretation, may yet assign such) where the man always represents God (or humans) and the woman always represents Israel or humanity (or the land), the Song certainly seems, given the evidence, to invoke such relationships and speak allusively of male-female love in terms of divine-human love or love of the land. The ideal male-female love relationship is presented as a lot like ideal divine-human love, not a strange thought given what we saw in the work of Carr in Section III. There is a kind of mutual possession and inviolate commitment in ideal human love that parallels the divine (one can see this, for instance, in 2:16a, “My lover is mine and I am his”, which sounds a lot like “You will be my people and I will be your God”).[13] And like divine love, ideal love between a man and a woman is self-giving and gracious, as one can see in 3:1-5 and 5:2-8, where the woman takes risks and confidently enters the dangers of the city for the sake of her beloved. As Davis puts it, “Like the love of God, profound love another person entails devotion of the whole self and steady practice of repentance and forgiveness; it inevitably requires of us repentance and sacrifice.”[14] And in 8:6, we find human love having or resembling “the flame of divine love; both can be compared in intensity”.[15] And love, in the same passage, in another connection with Genesis, appears as a rival power over and against the primordial forces of chaos which are the enemies of God’s creative or restorative act.


Given what we have seen so far, the contention of some modern commentators that the Song is a celebration of sexual pleasure begins to feel rather shallow. Instead, what I would contend, based on the interpretive work so far, is that the Song of Songs focuses on persons, not simply sexual or sensual gratification or even love by themselves and that it is by doing this that the Song teaches us about love. We see this in the expressions of mutuality, equality, exclusivity, self-sacrifice and commitment that have been mentioned from time to time throughout this paper (which can be seen in verses such as 2:16) and in the Song’s unique status of containing true dialogue, which highlights the mutual commitment and focused relationality between the two lovers.

At least some commentators seem, however, to be thinking of the woman in the Song as a child of the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s, styled as a countercultural and sexually “liberated” person subverting the stuffy, repressive sexual mores which oppressively restrict the proper domain of sex to the confines of marriage. What we have instead is personal sexual gratification, unfettered by society and its rules. The focus on sex itself thus has a tendency to go hand-in-hand with a view of sex in the Song as unrestricted by standard sexual norms. Imagery of virginity or marriage, when noticed at all, are seen as symbolic, ironic, or used in a sexually subversive manner. So Exum, who says, “There is no indication that the man and woman are married”[16], and, “Although the Song may occasionally allude to marriage […] the lovers are not a bride and groom, nor do they behave like a betrothed couple.”[17]

Sometimes this sort of subversive reading might be plausible with regard to, say, aspects of ancient gender roles (as can be seen in discussions above relating to Genesis), but this may be a stretch with regards to sexual restrictions throughout the Song. In my readings, not much direct evidence was given by these commentators that the couple in the Song is engaging in extramarital sexual relations – this is generally taken for granted as obvious. One can discern a few, generally undeveloped lines of support that are offered, however:

1. The Song does not say or insinuate that the lovers are married.[18]

2. If the lovers are unmarried in one part of the Song, they must be unmarried later too.[19]

3. The woman is treated badly (by her brothers and the watchmen, in particular) in the Song since she is sexually active outside of marriage.[20]

4. There is an element of secrecy or furtiveness to the relationship sometimes.[21]

5. For women, to be equal requires being unmarried and to be married is to be nothing more than property and “essentially breeders” – by contrast there is no submission in the Song.[22]

I will deal with each of these in order.

Regarding Statement 1, to think that just because it does not say or hint that the man and woman are married that they therefore are unmarried is to forget the genre of the Song. Even if they are determinately unmarried in one piece of a passage, it does not necessarily follow that they are in the next piece, even if the passage does not go out and say that they are now married. To defend this, one would have to rely on Statement 2. In order to use Statement 2, though, one must first establish that there is a point at which the couple is in fact unmarried in the Song. Even given this, however, it is not clear that one can make this sort of argument, given the lack of strict narrative logic in the Song. Just because something occurs later in the text of the Song does not mean it occurs later in time (indeed, the Song does not seem to have any determinate, global earlier-later temporal relations between what is portrayed in all of its sections).

Where the Song does not directly address whether the man are woman are married or not, it is as wrong to ask “Are they married?” as it is to ask “How tall are they?” or “What color hair does he have?” If the Song has not made that determination one way or the other in some section, it is indeterminate and, given the status of the two lovers as types meant to apply to any and all lovers, it is up to the reader to apply these types to real life, determinate people or situations. Not only that, but given the shifting roles and blurring between day dream, fantasy, and reality, as well as the highly symbolic nature of the Song and lack of strict temporal and narrative progression, saying that the two are determinately engaging in extramarital sexual relations (even in contexts where they elsewhere do not seem to be portrayed as behaving as one would expect a married or betrothed couple in that society to act) seems, barring the success of the other arguments to be examined, to be reaching beyond the text.

In fact, the status of the Song as wisdom, its intertextual relations with other biblical works, and its general cultural setting all seem to argue against seeing the couple as definitely unmarried. And contrary to the assertion in 1, the Song does give plenty of hints and nods to marriage. The motif of the groom calling outside to his bride who is inside which we find in 2:8-17 (and perhaps in chapter 5), the wedding procession in 3:6-11 immediately followed here in 4:1-5:1 by the man calling the woman his bride, the mother’s house as related to marriage which we find in 3:4 and 8:2, and – apart from these – multiple cases of images of virginity or chastity seemingly affirmed[23] all seem to speak against scholars such as Exum who must, oddly enough, maintain that all of this is mere imagery while at the same time taking anything that can be interpreted to support extramarital sex literally. This is not to say that the couple is always in the Song definitely married when they achieve sexual union (which itself is subject to shifting, given the multiple layers of meaning and dream-reality slipperiness), just that they are not definitely unmarried.

Statement 3 is perhaps the most interesting one, but here again we must remember not to take the Song too literally – why take it as almost woodenly literal, again, mainly in those bizarre episodes such as the beating by the watchmen in 5:7, but not in those places where marriage is mentioned or alluded to? The nature of the Song (and the abrupt shift in 5:8 as if nothing really happened – hardly evidence that 5:7 is meant to be taken as a literal report of a real encounter) seems to go against this.[24] The role of the watchmen, instead, seems to be a facet of the role of the city as the “real world” of opposition, sacrifice, and fallenness.

Statement 4 does not give any real evidence at all, since it is unclear where, apart from symbolic role playing, we see any language of secrecy. Even if there was, that would not imply that the couple was unmarried since real, married couples can and do make use of the same playful language and we have not been given any evidence to think that married couples in ancient times would not have done so as well. There may also be a connection to the City/Garden contrast explored earlier, but that would need further development which I will not explore here.

For Statement 5, even leaving aside the question of whether it is really being fair to the marriage institution, we have been given no decisive reason to think that the author of Song of Songs saw things that way in any case. The Song may undermine the extreme patriarchy of ancient society, but that does not mean that it – like many today – intends to throw the marriage commitment baby out with the ancient patriarchal bathwater. In any case, it is certainly false that there is no submission in the Song – on the contrary, what we find is mutual submission and mutual possession of one to and by the other. Statement 5, though, is still somewhat useful in that it does anticipate some of the reasons given in Section III as to why the Song of Songs might avoid always using explicit marriage language all throughout.

[1] Exum, Song of Songs, 25.

[2] Exum, Song of Songs, 79.

[3] Exum, Song of Songs, 25; Carr, “Gender,” 241; Munro, Spikenard, 14.

[4] Exum makes this argument in a few places in her Song of Songs.

[5] Exum, “Ten Things,” 30-32; Pope, Song of Songs, 326.

[6] Munro, Spikenard, 14.

[7] Ostriker, “Holy of Holies,” 44, 49-50.

[8] For some examples and discussion of some of these images, see Garrett, Song of Songs, 261; Longman, Song of Songs, 155, 218; Pope, Song of Songs, 683;

[9] Dealing with the theme of the brothers would go beyond the focus texts of this paper, but their symbolic value, which is perhaps related to sexual or social control, need not be taken as implying any impropriety on the part of the woman. The texts in the previous note have some relevance to this question – as does, ironically, Exum, Song of Songs, 106!

[10] Murphy, Song of Songs, 102.

[11] Longman, Song of Songs, 65-66; Murphy, Song of Songs, 102-103; Ostriker, “Holy of Holies,” 45.

[12] Davis, Proverbs, 235-236. See also the extended discussions in Davis, “Romance.”

[13] With Exum, Song of Songs, 128-130; Fox, Egyptian Love Songs; Garrett, “Song of Songs,” 160-161; and Murphy, Song of Songs, 141, I see 2:15 as a kind of tease and not really the introduction of any opposition or evil at this point. In other places in the Song, though, there may be hints of reality that break through from time to time in the midst of the garden imagery (this may not be clear to every interpreter) – 2:5 with its mention of faintness caused by love, for instance, may have a hint of this about it.

[14] Davis, “Romance,” 540.

[15] Davis, “Romance,” 542; Davis, Proverbs, 234, 245;

[16] On the social freedom of the man in ancient society as reflected in the Song and in comparison with the corresponding relative lack of freedom for women, see Exum, J. Cheryl, “Ten Things Every Feminist Should Know about the Song of Songs,” in The Song of Songs: Feminist Companion to the Bible (Second Series), ed. A. Brenner and C. Fontaine (Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000), 30; Exum Song of Songs, 25.

[17] Longman, Song of Songs, 125.

[18] Davis, Proverbs, 233.

[19] Murphy, Song of Songs, 197.

[20] See Fox, “Egyptian Love Songs,” 313-315.

[21] For this in the wisdom literature, see Keel, Song of Songs, 31.

[22] Garrett, “Song of Songs,” 103, 154-155; Longman, Song of Songs, 60; Murphy, Song of Songs, 97-101.

[23] Longman, Song of Songs, 131; Pope, Song of Songs, 392.

[24] Trible, Phyllis, “Depatriarchalizing in Biblical Interpretation,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion (1973): 30-48; Landy, Francis, “The Song of Songs and the Garden of Eden,” Journal of Biblical Literature 98 (1979): 513-528; Longman, Song of Songs, 65-66; Munro, Spikenard, 105. Contra Garrett, “Song of Songs,” 99.

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