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Women in the Old Testament: The Bride in the Song of Songs

Tuesday, September 25, 2012
The Song of Songs – a Hebrew idiom meaning 'the greatest song' – is one of the most intriguing books in the Old Testament. There is little scholarly consensus regarding its authorship, date, and structure. At one end, some argue its eight short chapters form a narrative unity; others claim to discern up to eighty separate sources. Certainly, the book seems fragmentary, even fitful, but that is perhaps fitting to its alluring subject: sexual love. Against many protests – owing to the book's sensuous themes and lack of mention of God – both Synagogue and Church incorporated this book into their Scriptures, on the grounds of tradition, and it even became one of the five megilloth (scrolls) read publicly at great feasts: the Song of Songs at Passover, thereby coinciding with the Christian celebration of Our Lord's sacrifice at Calvary.

The book consists in a dialogue between a male 'Lover' and a female 'Beloved', interspersed with a Chorus of the 'Daughters of Jerusalem'. The Beloved, the Bride, is identified by the Chorus as 'the girl of Shulam' (7:1), which could refer to Abishag of Shunem or indicate 'she who belongs to Solomon'. Indeed, the Lover is called 'king' (1:4, 12) and then clearly revealed as 'Solomon' (3:7, 9, 11). Interestingly, the word for Beloved, ra 'yati – variously translated as 'my darling', 'my love', or 'sweetheart' – occurs nine times in the Song but nowhere else in the Bible.

The exact identity of this woman of Shulam will remain mysterious, but that does not prevent us going deeper into the message of the Song. In a literal-historical analysis, the Song is simply about the delight of two lovers in each other's presence, including their physical union. It employs evocative metaphors to describe physical beauty, both male (5:10-16) and female (4:1-7; 6:4-7; 7:1-6): gazelles, doves, sheep, pomegranates, etc. The Bride describes herself as 'black but beautiful...as the tents of Kedar, as the curtains of Solomon' (1:5), her sunburnt complexion the result of hard work in the fields (1:6). To a modern non-rural readership, these descriptions may seem exotic and unfamiliar, but the comparison of the Bride's hair to 'a flock of goats surging down Mount Gilead' would probably resonate with some modern advertisers!

So, this glorification of sex is full of earthy realism and steers a middle ground between two extremes. On the one hand, there have been cultures and communities throughout history that have denigrated sex, even to the point of declaring it evil. Of course, it was to combat this Manichaean idea that the material world (therefore, sex) is evil that St Dominic founded our Order of Preachers; and the Song is unambiguous scriptural vindication of the true Catholic position. On the other hand, ancient Israel was surrounded by fertility cults that divinised sex, with elaborate mythologies about God having a consort. The Jewish tradition firmly rejected these cultic ideas and instead praised earthly realities for what they are: very good things that God has given to us, to be enjoyed in their proper context (cf. Gen. 2-3). The goodness of sexual companionship in marriage is matched by fertility, evoked by 'mandrakes': 'I shall give you the gift of my love' (7:13-14), which could be the gift of offspring.

Nevertheless, spousal love does have a valid religious interpretation beyond the purely physical. The Bride sings that 'Love is strong as death...Many waters cannot quench Love, neither can the floods drown it' (8:6-7). The triumph of Love opens up questions about the divine power which can save us from that ultimate enemy, which is Death. Quite naturally, then, allegorical interpretations began to identify the Lover and Beloved with God and his People (for the Jews), or (for Christians) Christ and his Church or Christ and the individual soul. Following the prophetic tradition of Hosea and Malachi (Mal. 2:14), and St Paul's teaching on the Church (Eph. 5:25-32), Hippolytus, Origen and the Fathers explored this loving covenant relationship through the tender images of the Song. This tradition reached its apogee in St Bernard's sermons. Bernard emphasises that Love is the only way to God, a path that is both affective and ascetic. The 'kisses' of the Bride and Groom are compared to kisses on Christ's feet, hands and mouth, which represent the three stages of mystical union with the Divine: purgative, illuminative and unitive.

It's true that the allegorical interpretations can be excessively far-fetched and may detract from the vivid realism of the literal text. But neither should we simply wallow in this love poetry without opening our hearts to what it teaches us about God, who is the God of Love (1 Jn. 4:8). In his beautiful encyclical, God is Love, Pope Benedict XVI points out (§6) that the Song begins using a word for an insecure, 'searching' kind of love (dodim) and moves on to the love that is a discovery of the other and a gift of self (ahabà, or agape in Greek). This love is tender, it delights in the other and creates a true harmony of persons. As Benedict says, 'Love now becomes concern and care for the other. No longer is it self-seeking, a sinking in the intoxication of happiness [as the Bride cries, 'I am sick with love!' (5:8)]; instead it seeks the good of the beloved: it becomes renunciation and it is ready, and even willing, for sacrifice.'

This beautiful communion of two self-giving persons in marriage is indeed a fitting reflection of God's love for us – and what our love for God should be. As St Paul writes, 'He who is united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him' (1 Cor. 6:17). The Christian mystics are right to say that marital and sexual bliss, so wonderful in itself, pales in comparison to the glorious union that the redeemed enjoy with God in heaven.

'The Voice of the Beloved', from Daniel-Lesur's haunting evocation of The Song of Songs

Matthew Jarvis OP


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