Song of Songs 8 A Love that Endures Amid Struggle

Song of Solomon a Cycle of Paintings, Study G. By Egon Tschirch, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=56954607

Song of Solomon 8

Bolded is the woman’s voice, the man’s voice is not bolded, the daughters of Jerusalem are underlined, and the brothers are capitalized in the poem (my interpretation)

1 O that you were like a brother to me, who nursed at my mother’s breast! If I met you outside, I would kiss you, and no one would despise me.
2 I would lead you and bring you into the house of my mother, and into the chamber of the one who bore me. I would give you spiced wine to drink, the juice of my pomegranates.
3 O that his left hand were under my head, and that his right hand embraced me!
4 I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, do not stir up or awaken love until it is ready!
5 Who is that coming up from the wilderness, leaning upon her beloved? Under the apple tree I awakened you. There your mother was in labor with you; there she who bore you was in labor.
6 Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame.
7 Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it. If one offered for love all the wealth of his house, it would be utterly scorned.
8 WE HAVE A LITTLE SISTER, AND SHE HAS NO BREASTS. WHAT SHALL WE DO FOR OUR SISTER, ON THE DAY WHEN SHE IS SPOKEN FOR?
9 IF SHE IS A WALL, WE WILL BUILD UPON HER A BATTLEMENT OF SILVER; BUT IF SHE IS A DOOR, WE WILL ENCLOSE HER WITH BOARDS OF CEDAR.
10 I was a wall, and my breasts were like towers; then I was in his eyes as one who brings peace.
11 Solomon had a vineyard at Baal-hamon; he entrusted the vineyard to keepers; each one was to bring for its fruit a thousand pieces of silver.
12 My vineyard, my very own, is for myself; you, O Solomon, may have the thousand, and the keepers of the fruit two hundred!
13 O you who dwell in the gardens, my companions are listening for your voice; let me hear it.
14 Make haste,[1] my beloved, and be like a gazelle or a young stag upon the mountains of spices!

Many of the classic love stories are tales of loves that transgress the established boundaries of their society. Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story, Pride and Prejudice and countless others tell the story of people falling in love across the social boundaries of their society. The boundaries may be about family, race, social standing, wealth, education, or some other reason, but we rarely remember the love stories where everyone approves of the relationship between the members of the couple. We remember the stories where the love has to struggle against the opposition of those in the society who oppose it. Throughout the Song of Songs, we have seen evidence of this struggle which attempts to keep our lovers separate and here at the end it voices itself again.

The words of the woman wishing that her beloved was like a brother to her seems strange in our context where the ideal match is someone from a completely different family, but in the ancient world the ideal match was typically a cousin or other close relative. Someone who was still a part of the family line but not close enough to be considered incestuous. Just as the earlier appeal to the woman as, “my sister, my bride” indicated endearment, so the familial imagery here of desiring the beloved to be a brother desires a proximity to family that does not require hiding the relationship. The woman wants to be able to have the relationship be out in the open, she wishes she could go up and kiss her beloved without worrying about the disapproving stares of others. She desires to be able to bring him into her house without others thinking she is acting inappropriately. She wants to be able to celebrate their love in both the daylight and the public spaces as well as at night. She no longer wants their love to be a secret. Earlier she has sent the man away to deal with the barriers that separate them, but she desires for their love to be able to be enjoyed all the time.

The woman once again tells the daughters of Jerusalem not to awaken love until it is ready, and now the daughters of Jerusalem see her and her beloved together. She and the man are seen together as they make their way into the city together. The words that follow could come from the woman or the man, but with the change to a more contemplative tone I have chosen to read this as the man speaking again to the woman. He has come to her, and he has made the offer of a public relationship sealed in the eyes of the community where his mark is placed not only on her heart but upon her arm for the world to see. Let them wear their hearts on their sleeves, to let their love which is stronger than death and passion which is as fierce of the grave be seen by the world. He has found something priceless in her and nothing can quench his burning desire for her.

Yet, as the love comes out into the public square the family of the woman reacts. The brothers of the woman for the first time speak. Earlier these sons of her mother made her keep their vineyards[2], and now they speak condescendingly to their little sister. These brothers still view it as their role to provide a barrier between her and any suitor. They want to close her away, to keep her behind armed walls and boarded up doors. The beloved one does not meet their criteria for an appropriate relationship for this little sister who is still, in their eyes, not sexually mature (has no breasts) and unable to manage her own vineyard.

The woman now speaks up to these brothers who would deny her the relationship she desires. Earlier her beloved described her being “as comely as Jerusalem[3] and now she picks up this language to throw back at her condescending brothers. She is a walled city of peace (shalom).[4]Extending the imagery her breasts, which her brothers said were non-existent, are like towers in her beloved’s eyes. She has been made to be the keeper of her brother’s vineyards, with no time for her own. Using the imagery of Solomon and his vineyard at Baal-hamon, she accuses her brothers of failing to mange their affairs but now she is ready to tend to her own vineyard and her own affairs. The family issues remain unresolved at the end of the poem. Once more the man calls out to hear her but in this instance she once again has to tell the man to flee.

There is no modern fairy tale ending where the man and the woman live happily ever after. The two lovers will have to continue to steal opportunities for love until the familial and social barriers can be overcome. Yet, if their love is stronger than death and fiercer than the grave it will overcome the barriers that family and society place upon them. Many people have had to make a choice between their beloved one and the family who raised them or the community or church that formed them. Many multi-racial, LGBTQ, and international or interreligious relationships suffer challenges well beyond what two socially accepted individuals endure and the world where love grows often doesn’t allow for fairy tale endings. Yet, love endures along with faith and hope, and a poem about love rests in the heart of the scriptures. The language and forms of scripture are often strange to us but the struggles of the people in the scriptures, once we understand, them are often familiar.

Song of Songs throughout the history of the church and even longer history with our Jewish ancestors has been read as an analogy for the relationship between the people of God and their God. It is a story of longing and desire for both God and God’s people and the barriers that the world around has placed to interfere with that relationship. Yet, the love that unites the lover and the beloved one transcends even death and the grave, it is an unending flame. It is a relationship of desire and distance, of drawing close and fleeing away. The surrounding world may see the consuming passion and be drawn to the object of that passion as well, or they may remain blind to the desirability of the beloved one. The lover may be viewed as unworthy of acceptance and yet they experience the gracious and steadfast love of the God who seeks and desires them. There is wisdom in the church and synagogues seeing in the boundary breaking love between a man and woman a metaphor for the love that nothing can separate God’s people from. But there is also wisdom in learning to accept and honor the enduring power of love between two people that endures the struggles that their families and society place upon them.

[1] The Hebrew berach means flee. Make haste can indicate making haste in the woman’s direction but this verse in Hebrew indicates making haste away from the brothers.

[2] Song of Songs 1:6

[3] Song of Songs 6:4

[4] Jerusalem is the ‘city of shalom-peace’

1 thought on “Song of Songs 8 A Love that Endures Amid Struggle

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

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