The Song of Songs

This is the first of a series of writing prompts that I intend to share to invite some dialogue. If you feel so moved, please respond to the text or to an idea in the space below. A few requests:

Be kind. No ad hominem. Don’t pick a fight or attack me or someone else.
Be true. Speak from your experience, and speak factually. Don’t put words in anyone else’s mouth.
Be responsive. Stay relevant and on topic. Be open to response.
Be concise. Say what you mean, and mean what you say. And remember that people stop reading at a certain point.

25.

Oh, if you were my brother
Nursed at my mother’s breast,

I’d kiss you in the streets
And never suffer scorn.

I’d bring you to my mother’s home
(My mother teaches me)

And give you wine and nectar
From my pomegranates.

O for his arms around me,
Beneath me and above!

O women of the city,
Swear by the wild field dow

Not to wake or rouse us
Till we fulfill our love.

Marcia Falk, The Song of Songs: A New Translation and Interpretation (Harper Collins, 1990)

I was not introduced to The Song of Songs in Catholic school. I mean, I knew it was there, but, beyond the occasional excerpts at weddings, we didn’t spend much time with it. Some folks suggested, I remember, that it was cast to the b-list because it’s one of two books in the Christian canon that doesn’t even mention God, but when I stumbled across its pages in high school, I was struck by the bold sexuality of the Song. I realized then that the absence of the Song from our curriculum had more to do with our (collective) own discomfort with sexuality, one of the unfortunate stereotypical hallmarks of Catholic culture. Even saturated in the flowery language of the King James or other conventional translations, the language of desire is loud and clear throughout the Song. Because of the absence of God in the text and its overt sexuality, “official” interpretations projected the Song as the vestige of an ancient wedding ritual or as pure metaphor, describing the relationships between God and Israel (for Jews) or between Christ and the Church (for Christians).

As a teenager, I did teenager things, like listening to songs for hours, attempting to learn the lyrics by rote, alternately wallowing in the pity of sad songs and ecstatically dancing with the happy ones. I spent a lot of time with the Song of Songs, too. At one point, I thought the Song would be the inspiration for my first great musical composition, a choral setting of the Song. That never happened, mostly because I’m not a composer, but phrases like “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth” (the first line, by the way) and “How delicious is your love, more delicious than wine!” bounced around in my head. I knew the text lived in a world of gender norms — I knew that the voices of the Song were a man and a woman…but those voices also gave me language for desire that, as a closeted teenager in the era before Will & Grace and Ellen, I wasn’t learning anywhere else, and descriptions of intimacy in the text that didn’t highlight a woman’s particular anatommical features (which is a fair amount of the total text) were seared into my mind, giving my teenaged self two important insights: First, this is relevant. Like, oh my god, scripture actually reflects life. Who knew? And second, sex isn’t just part of life — it’s at the core of our experience. It’s included, quite explicitly, in scripture. #mindblown

I connected with Marcia Falk in college when she guest lectured in one of my courses. She put aside (after much research and reflection) interpretations of the Song that treated it as pure metaphor; she even set aside the notion that it was a single work composed by one hand. Falk approached it with a poet’s sensibility and uncovered the music and sentiment of the original Hebrew text, elements too often risked in any translation and typically lost in literal translations of the Song. She also approached it with a feminist sensibility and suggested that the Song could be one of the few canonical texts that may have been composed by women. Falk asserted that the Song itself is an anthology of love poems. While some editing over time probably sought to cohere disparate voices and make the text adaptable for ritual use, distinction between poems remains. Falk identified 31. What stayed with me the most, though, was her insight that the poems were not metaphorical but that they reflected sexuality as an essential and important component of the experience of being human, so important that it made it into the Bible.

When I started to teach scripture, Falk’s insights guided me to find ways to introduce sacred text not as distant and ancient or as simply a series of prescriptions for living. I wanted students to see it as living and evolving and responsive; I hoped students would see that the intersection of scripture with life is, at the very least, an interesting juxtaposition. The Song was, I thought, a perfect text to introduce the problem of translation, and the history of its interpretation was fodder for exploring how our context both enables and limits our understanding and application of a text. What I didn’t anticipate, though, was how shocking the Song would be to my students. I later tweaked my scriptural interpretation unit to begin with the first line of Genesis (to explore issues of translation) and the Akedah (to understand how a single text can lead to diverging interpretations). THEN we moved to the Song and focused on the intersection of sacred text and life; in this case, we talked about sex and sexuality as central to the human experience, so central it made it into the Bible. If this resonated with any of my students, I thought, I’ve done my job.

My husband and I chose one of Falk’s translations from the Song of Songs to be part of our wedding ceremony. Not this one — this one still makes me blush a little bit. But when I read it today, I’m struck by the juxtaposition of love and fear, a juxtaposition anyone who has been “in the closet” might relate to. If you were my brother, the speaker laments, we could be affectionate, intimate, and authentic. The speaker hints at suffering public scorn, but she finds safety at home, protected by her mother and by the women of the city. She finds safety with her lover’s arms around, beneath, and above her, and the love they share is not metaphorical or cerebral or agapic — it is physical and passionate. She offers the wine and nectar from her pomegranates…the Song is not subtle. Falk excavates the passion that was buried beneath the florid King James translation, that was filtered by our (collective and individual, I guess) shame for so long.

I’m reminded that these were among the words that first led me to understanding and owning my sexual identity, long before pop culture and therapy found me there. Finding my own life reflected in, energized, and affirmed by an ancient poem is affirming, and while there’s no mention of God or ultimate concern, these words also invite me back to the world of the text, to the world of mystery and revelation and transformation.

What stands out to you from the text?

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