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There is perhaps no book of the Bible so enigmatic as the Song of Songs. Not only are its authorship and purpose mysterious, the whole song is downright . . . well . . . shall we say, indiscreet? If you read it at all, you probably read it in secret. It’s the kind of poetry that’s challenging to read in church without blushing, like opening to a nude painting in your school textbook of all places. There are certain texts we expect to be censored and sanitized, and the disorientation of finding it not so can be a little embarrassing.
Of course, throughout the centuries, the church has done its best to make Song of Songs a book about God, about God’s love for God’s people and the people’s love for God. It’s just the interpretation we would expect, but interestingly the name of God does not appear even once in all eight chapters. For this reason and many others, the book continues to cause readers and scholars to scratch their heads, or, even flush pink as they read.
For example, the name Solomon appears a handful of times, first off in the title, which reads in Hebrew, “The Song of Songs, which is Solomon’s.” But while the phrase “which is Solomon’s” could mean written by Solomon, it could just as easily mean, written about Solomon, written for Solomon, written in the style of Solomon, etc. The real author of the song is virtually unknown, with no solid evidence to bolster a single theory.
The most likely scenario is that the writer of the Song of Songs was a woman, because if you pay attention the dominant speaker is a woman’s voice and the story is predominately portrayed from a woman’s perspective. The male speaker has few lines compared to the women, and the notion that Solomon penned these words is almost surely myth.
I also doubt the poet was in love with the real King Solomon. If you consider Solomon and his hefty harem of women, you can hardly imagine he experienced the kind of intense, exclusive and mutual love we read about in the poem. The scattered references to Solomon that appear in the song are likely the wordplay of the writer. She uses linguistic resourcefulness as she poetically likens her lover to a wealthy, wise King by invoking the name of Solomon.
Whoever the author and whoever her subject, this poem is a shockingly, refreshingly different kind of voice in Scripture: its distinctly feminine tone, its unashamed awe of the human body—both male and female, its unapologetic portrayal of human desire, its poetic, enigmatic references, its playful spirit coupled with its burning passion, its undeniable reverence for the wonder of creation, its puzzling lack of any reference to YHWH.
It is just enough of a scandal to make a person wonder what makes this book Scripture exactly? Why was this specific collection of writings chosen to belong to our cannon? Why include love poetry that flirts with the erotic? It is the gypsy text of Scripture, and while our prudish sensibilities might advise we leave it out, some time ago the Holy Spirit confided in the hearts of men such that they refused to ostracize this story for its lack of propriety and instead they embraced these words as sacred and holy text.
From the beginning, this poem has been interpreted allegorically, or more accurately, interpreted in the spiritual sense. The intense relationship between two lovers depicted in the poem serves as a window, a metaphor, an image to help us conceptualize the love between God and Israel.
As a metaphor, the song is theologically rich. For example, it hints, rather immodestly, that desire is good. Those of us who are tempted to stuff our religious pining down deep—for fear of being disappointed or for fear of seeming out of touch with reality—are hereby freed by a poem like this one to let our longings soar. To be burned up and consumed by our yearning. To see that God himself burns with longing.
Furthermore, the partnership between these two lovers is remarkable. The woman’s voice is strong and sure, unembarrassed and unreserved. Clearly, these two are confident, safe, and at peace in one another’s arms. Their love allows utter freedom to be themselves, no shame in their bodies, no shame in their desires. Coming together grants them freedom and confidence. The criticism of others rolls off their backs, because they have the unconditional love of the other. When you read between the lines looking for religious implications, once again, the metaphor you find is powerful. To imagine we have this level of intimacy with the divine. We are set free to be that naked: no more fears, no more insecurities, no more doubts. To think God holds nothing back from us.
Modern biblical scholars, however, are hesitant about jumping to allegorical interpretations and quickly making this love song about God. After all, God is not actually mentioned. Anyone can see this is a poem about two very real, very human lovers. An unbiased reader is not likely to see a poem about God. Modern scholarship implores us to let the text be what it is. We might expect that the Bible be PG and family friendly, if not in terms of violence, at least in terms of sex, surely. But we must let the Bible speak for itself. We must let this poem speak for itself. We must not impose a sanitized interpretation or twist the meaning to accommodate our moral sensibilities.
It is important to hear—really hear—the erotic, sexual, bodily images of this poem. Because too often the Church still tries to separate mind from body, spirit from matter, heaven from earth. But right smack in the center of our Holiest Book, there appears a tribute to the human body. Material beings, not just spiritual ones, are celebrated. It is this very earthy depiction of human love, poetry that depicts love like the unfolding of the Spring weather. This song goes against the grain of any religion that attempts to separate the soul from the body in which it resides. It goes against the prudish, anxiety-ridden legalism that requires us to stuff our desires or implies that sex is dirty and unmentionable. And for those reasons and more, the surface meaning of the text, the blatant homage to human sexuality, is important and should not be swept aside.
And yet, I do not doubt that this love poem speaks to us of God as well, because love itself speaks to us of God, every time it is invoked. It is not as if we have love for our spouse or a friend or family on one plane and love for God on another plane. We simply have Love. Period. God infuses all our love. God is the energy, the source, the substance of love—every time and in every place. Everywhere there is love, there is God.
Cynthia Bourgeault says we shouldn’t be afraid that love for another human being will divide our heart and distract us from our love for God. She writes, “poets, mystics and lovers have claimed throughout the ages that love does not divide the heart, but is in fact the sole force strong enough to unite it.” We do have shadow sides to our passions that can stir up division, but Love itself has only the power to unify and purify. Thus we do not love God as one thing among many things, such that saying “yes” to God requires saying “no” to another. “Rather, God is the all-encompassing One who unlocks and sustains my ability to give to myself fully to life in all its infinite particularity, including the excruciating particularity of a human beloved.”
This, I think, is how the Song of Songs belongs in the biblical cannon, with its shameless declaration of unquenchable love. You do not come to understand this book by denying the erotic language, substituting the depth of passion in the poem with pretty little churchy metaphors, safe enough to explain in front of young children. The best you can do is embrace wholeheartedly the possibility of a human love that intense, that special, that exclusively and unwaveringly passionate. You learn such a love only by living it, by striving for it, by believing in it and fighting for it, and finding amidst the struggle the very energy of God enlivening your heart and renewing your hope.
I once heard author Brennan Manning tell the story of visiting leprosy colonies, and in one particular colony, there was a woman whose skin was rotted away and whose family had deserted her. After a long life of turmoil and suffering, little education, and nearly no love, she reached her death bed. As she was passing from this life to the next, Manning asked her what she saw, and she said this to him, exactly word for word: “The winter is past! The rains are over and gone. Flowers appear on the earth; the season of singing has come, the cooing of doves is heard in our land. The fig tree forms its early fruit; the blossoming vines spread their fragrance. Arise, come, my darling; my beautiful darling, come with me.”
Beloved of God, may all your most strenuous struggles eventually lead you straight into the arms of Pure, Encompassing Love. Amen.
 Cynthia Bourgeault, The Meaning of Mary Magdalene, (Shambala: 2010), 92.
 Bourgeault, 91.