The Song of Songs has long puzzled students of the scriptures, who wonder how this frankly sensual poem “got into” the Bible. Many scholars, Hebrew and Christian, have been embarrassed or puzzled by the Song. “Certain that it cannot possibly mean what it says literally”, many rabbis and Christian theologians tried to ‘spiritualize’ it, i.e., to understand it as an allegory for the love of God for Israel or of Christ for the Church (Paul Brians, http://public.wsu.edu/~brians/love-in-the-arts/songofsongs.html). If you ever sang a camp song, ‘His banner over me is love’, you have been part of this attempt to make the Song about God’s, rather than human, love:
‘I’m my beloved’s and he is mine – his banner over me is love,’
‘He sits me at his banqueting table – the banner of the Lord is love.’
These are phrases from the Song of Songs.
But as you read the Song itself, you will find it difficult to understand how it can be only about God’s love for his people. It is just too sensual. For example, in all my years at camp, we never sang another of the Song’s phrases, ‘Your breasts are like two fawns that are twins– his banner over me is love.’ Nevertheless, only in the last several decades has scholars been willing to consider that the Song is about human, not divine, love.
I wrote extensively about the Song of Songs in my book, The Redemption of Love, arguing that the Song is a biblical template for how man and woman can live God’s ideal for marriage in the fallen world. I wrote Redemption of Love before I went to Africa for the first time, however.
Coming back to the Song after my seventh African trip, I now understand why it was so difficult for ancient scholars to appreciate the Song’s human sensuality. In Africa today, as was true in most of human history, traditional marriage was not about love, romance, or even sexual attraction. Rather, it was an economic exchange arranged by families, to further the families’ own goals, and with little regard for the feelings or opinions of the bride and groom. A wife owes her husband children, food, and sex; a man owes his wife land to farm, cows to milk, and protection. Neither dreams that it could be about companionship, romance, or, in rural areas, even walking down the street together. If a man has a problem, he goes to a brother or uncle, not his wife. In fact, in Africa, if a man is ‘too kind’ to his wife, and travels about with her, his family thinks she has had him bewitched!
Only with the Industrial Revolution, dated to about 200 years ago, did people have the luxury of thinking of marriage in a different way. This change is evident in Jane Austin novels, written at about this period, which explore the question of, ‘Do you marry for love or money?’
My big insight in coming back to the Song after what I have learned in Africa is that these scholars could not understand that the Song of Songs was about human love and marriage, because marriage as they experienced it was nothing like that celebrated in the Song of Songs.
The Song describes a relationship that starts with sexual attraction. It charts our course through romantic longing and the joys of sexual fulfillment. It warns of the dangers but also of the great power of compassionate, agape love, and leaves us at a place that, in the last few chapters of the Song, still bring me to tears after over a decade of working with it.
Unfortunately, while today we recognize the Song’s romance and sensuality, the ancient language often makes it difficult to fully appreciate the Song’s power – its message for how to love in a world that (once again) fights against love. For example, it repeats the compliment, “Your hair is like a flock of goats.” Huh? To fully appreciate the Song, I suggest you get a copy of The Redemption of Love, and read chapter six aloud with your Beloved. I promise you will enjoy it.