Song of Songs 1 An Embodied Desire

Virgin’s Monastery (Benedictine) Petropolis, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil by Claudio Pastro, photo by Eugenio Hansen, OFS shared under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0

Song of Songs 1

Bolded is the woman’s voice, the man’s voice is not bolded in the poem (my interpretation)

1 The Song of Songs, which is Solomon’s.
 2 Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth! For your love is better than wine,
 3 your anointing oils are fragrant, your name is perfume poured out; therefore the maidens love you.
 4 Draw me after you, let us make haste. The king has brought me into his chambers. We will exult and rejoice in you; we will extol your love more than wine; rightly do they love you.
 5 I am black and beautiful, O daughters of Jerusalem, like the tents of Kedar, like the curtains of Solomon.
 6 Do not gaze at me because I am dark, because the sun has gazed on me. My mother’s sons were angry with me; they made me keeper of the vineyards, but my own vineyard I have not kept!
 7 Tell me, you whom my soul loves, where you pasture your flock, where you make it lie down at noon; for why should I be like one who is veiled beside the flocks of your companions?
 8 If you do not know, O fairest among women, follow the tracks of the flock, and pasture your kids beside the shepherds’ tents.
 9 I compare you, my love, to a mare among Pharaoh’s chariots.
 10 Your cheeks are comely with ornaments, your neck with strings of jewels.
 11 We will make you ornaments of gold, studded with silver.
 12 While the king was on his couch, my nard gave forth its fragrance.
 13 My beloved is to me a bag of myrrh that lies between my breasts.
 14 My beloved is to me a cluster of henna blossoms in the vineyards of En-gedi.
 15 Ah, you are beautiful, my love; ah, you are beautiful; your eyes are doves.
 16 Ah, you are beautiful, my beloved, truly lovely. Our couch is green;
 17 the beams of our house are cedar, our rafters are pine.

Song of Songs, often called the Song of Solomon in many modern translations, may seem like a strange book to include within the wisdom literature of the bible. The name of the book, which is a long poem, is Song of Songs. The opening line serves the same purpose as the superscription on many of the psalms, and here it gives both the title and the attributed author. Song of Songs is a superlative declaring that what follows is the greatest of all songs or the ultimate song. Although it may be composed of poems that are collected together in some historical reconstructions the intended meaning of this title is not that it is a song made up of songs, but rather that here is a masterpiece that surpasses other songs. Although Solomon is mentioned in the title and occasionally is used as a description in the Song of Songs, many people who spend a lot more time with the Hebrew language than I do will tell you that the Hebrew represented by the Song of Songs is more recent than Solomon’s reign. Regardless of authorship, the text was collected and celebrated as a part of both the Jewish and Christian scriptures and it is both a source of strength and discomfort for both traditions.

When I began spending time delving deeply into the Hebrew scriptures, or Old Testament, I was amazed at how earthy they are. This collection of books has little concern about the afterlife which had dominated my early formation in faith and were concerned about a life lived on earth. These writings speak to the experience of being a human, with human needs and desires, in a covenant with a God of steadfast love and faithfulness who is jealous for their fidelity. Learning from these books have caused me to look at life and faith in an embodied way. Much of Christianity has viewed desire and passion suspiciously and in much Christian theology there is a schism between soul and body. This is not the view of the bible. The bible celebrates that way that we as humans are created to be and Song of Songs revels in the sensual and embodied poetry of attraction and desire as wisdom worth celebrating.

Song of Songs begins and is dominated by the female voice longing passionately for her beloved. The first three verses of the poem summon four of our five senses: touch (kiss me with the kisses of your mouth), taste (your kisses are better than wine), smell (your anointing oils are fragrant and metaphorically your name is perfume), and hearing (the unnamed name itself). Only sight is not immediately invoked, and that will come. Immediately we are brought into the intimate and passionate desire of the woman for her desired one’s kiss. In the language of metaphor love becomes better than wine, a loved name on the tongue is like a sweet smell in the nostrils. Others can see and recognize the desirability of the beloved, but the woman wants his attentions all for herself. She wants to touch, taste, hear, smell, and savor this lover who is like a king to her. Her lover may be royalty, or he may not, but in her eyes he rules every part of her.

Every culture in every time has expectations of beauty and the woman does not fit within what is expected. She is black and beautiful in her own words, and the word (Hebrew sehora) is not merely dark as some older translations would state but black. Skin color has often been an attribute that denotes privilege and which limits which relationships are acceptable. Even though she may not meet the societal standards of acceptability and beauty her response is one of affirmation of her body rather than rejection. Within her poetic response there is also the possibility that her references to her working in her brother’s vineyards and inability to keep her own vineyard may be a poetic way to state that she has not been able to safeguard her own virginity, which would also make her less desirable as a marriageable woman, Yet, if this is the case, the woman is able to accept her past along with her skin and declare that in spite of all of this she is black and she is beautiful.

Throughout the poem the woman will be seeking her beloved, and for the first time she asks where she can find him. She asks the one who her soul[1] loves where she can meet him when he pastures his flock and has some free time, presumably for her affections, in the middle of the day. She doesn’t want to waste her time having to seek him out and find him or having to remain veiled around others. She would rather spend her time in his presence. In response we hear the man speak for the first time not to answer where he will be but to encourage her to seek him out. The man in the Song of Songs may be elusive but the woman is determined and passionately persistent.

The man’s description of the woman highlights a very different set of metaphors. The first image is a militaristic one: a mare among the chariots. In the tactics of the ancient world sending a mare out among your enemies’ chariots, pulled by stallions, would make it challenging for the enemy to control their horses. In the metaphor the woman drives the man wild. Then the man begins to praise individual portions of her body. He begins with her cheek and her neck and also pays attention to the adornments which accentuate these features. The man desires to give her silver and gold to adorn herself and to highlight her already maddening beauty.

The woman has been seeking her beloved out in the pastures, but now the metaphor shifts again to being in the place of dining (meals were eaten reclining on the couch). The fragrance of nard could be the rich perfume imported to attract her lover (who is now a king instead of a shepherd) or it could be smells her own body is producing in anticipation of time spent passionately with her lover. The imagery becomes even more sensual as she inverts the man’s desire to give her adornments to now wear her beloved as an adornment between her breasts. He is that pleasant smelling thing that rests on this space unseen by all but her beloved. He is the flower that rests in the vineyard, which is probably a sexual allusion.  Verses 15-17 can be read as two voices (as I do) or as all in the woman’s voice. Verse 15 seems to me characteristic of the male voice in describing her attributes: you are beautiful, my love, your eyes are like doves. If I am reading this correctly the woman responds to her beloved that he also is beautiful, truly lovely. Poetry loves to mix metaphors and while the description of where they are can sound like a grand house the green couch and cedar beams and pine rafters may point to an encounter on the ground beneath the trees where two lovers are stealing some time for one another in the midst of nature.

On the one hand it is important to hear Song of Songs in a literal sense, as poetry between two lovers and its affirmation of the attraction and desire that humans were meant to experience. Yet I also believe there is something to the mystical and allegorical path that has dominated both Jewish and Christian appropriations to this book. The relationship between God and God’s beloved has often been one of passionate seeking. The woman whose role we take on in this reading may not fit societal standards of beauty or purity but remains lovely to God. Much of the path of the faithful is longing for a closer encounter with the beloved who is king and shepherd and beloved and yet still remains elusive and needs to be sought out. The gift of poetry is its expansiveness. It can playfully and passionately attempt to describe the object of its desire, and yet that language only highlights aspects of the beloved. Yet, even in his elusiveness the beloved one still lets the seeker know that they are seen as beautiful and valuable beyond treasure.

[1] Remember that the Hebrew idea of soul nephesh is much different from how many modern people think of soul. The Hebrew idea is closer to saying, “you whom every part of me loves.”

1 thought on “Song of Songs 1 An Embodied Desire

  1. Pingback: Song of Songs or Song of Solomon | Sign of the Rose

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.