Commentary on Song of Solomon 2:8-13
If you have not read the Song of Songs (its Hebrew title) lately, start there. Try to set aside any preconceived ideas about its interpretation, such as the traditional understanding of it as an allegory for the love between God and Israel or Christ and the Church. This book contains beautiful poetry shared between young lovers, and it highlights the physicality of their attraction. At the very least, the existence of this book in the canon invites us to consider the holiness of embodied love, even if it does not invoke God explicitly. Furthermore, the Song of Songs is an important reminder of the inaccuracy of generalized statements about the lowly, voiceless, and marginalized status of biblical women.
Song of Songs 2:8-13 contains romantic lyrics sung by an unnamed young woman (probably a teenager) to her equally young (male) “beloved.” One unique aspect of the Song of Songs is that the woman’s voice dominates the book. Furthermore, unlike some other biblical references to sexual(ized) relationships, this book does not contain domination or submission of the woman by her lover (though others seek to keep them apart, 3:3; 8:8-9). This woman claims her voice, her desire, and her lover as her own, and does so proudly and poetically.
This portion of the woman’s song opens with her admiring her beloved from afar, comparing his physique to a majestic creature that can navigate any barriers to her. She watches him watching her (2:8-9). Her delight with him is palpable. Notice that the terms “mountains” and “gazelle” in 2:8-9 repeat in 2:17, which invites us to extend the pericope through the end of the chapter. In 2:10-13, her speech on his behalf includes the repeated, impassioned phrase in 10b and 13b: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.” (Norah Jones, anyone?1) How lovely that we hear him beckoning her, through her voice.
Some of the most captivating poetry in this passage appears in 2:10-13, where the woman shares the man’s words through both metaphorical and literal references to springtime. With imagery of growth and fecundity fitting to the season (“flowers,” “turtledove,” “figs,” “blossom,” “fragrance”), Song of Songs’ singer simultaneously enlists her springtime scene to describe the wondrous newness of her relationship.
We can employ both levels in our own interpretations, first recalling our joy at the return of spring each year, then our own experiences of new and renewed love. Beyond that, we can consider the many occasions to celebrate newness, from our first time receiving the hugs we craved during the 2020-21 pandemic, to our joy when we first felt the spark of a divine connection.
The passage leaves some things unclear, as is often the case with poetry. Does the young woman remember that her beloved calls to her this way, or are we to read this scene as a fantasy? Those questions may not seem to matter much here, but in more explicit portions of the book they make a huge interpretive difference as to the status of the couple’s relationship (for instance, see 5:1-8 with openness to the euphemistic language there). The answers to such questions have resulted in the variations among Song of Songs interpretations. Some commentators insist that the couple are engaged and then married, though most agree that the couple remains unmarried, indicated by their ongoing pursuit of one another.2
The ambiguity over the couple’s status and their actual or fantasized time together invites us to broach topics that do not often make it into the pulpit. Physical expressions of love, sexuality, consent, and desire are not foreign to the Bible or the religious experience, as evidenced by the Song of Songs. Nor should they be topics we avoid in the church. Indeed, perhaps the church would be better off if we created comfort in discussing such things in a congregational context, rather than relegating them to popular culture or allowing a default repressive view to dominate parishioners’ thinking on the topic of sex and all things related.
While pastors may feel nervous to discuss this in a sermon, imagine how relieved some congregants would be to have some pastoral guidance and reflection based on the love poetry in Song of Songs. Certainly, this needs to be done with great sensitivity to one’s congregation, remaining mindful of parishioners in various types of relationships and with different comfort levels—it need not be imposed prescriptively as the basis for marriage or even heteronormativity. Does not romance have a place in Christian worship, even at times other than weddings?3
A clergy colleague once told me how much he struggled to prepare a children’s sermon on a Song of Songs passage. While it may seem impossible to parlay this book into anything kid-friendly, it can become an opportunity to broach the topic of welcome—or unwelcome—physical touch. Since the Song of Songs is unique in the biblical literature because it deals with desired rather than imposed physicality, it would be fitting to introduce children to the idea of using their voices to say yes or no to any kind of touch, starting with hugs. Many adults need to hear this message as well. Here is where the pandemic offers another opportunity, as it has made us all more aware than ever of seeking consent about any kind of touch. Someone who makes a move toward a hug can be told “no,” offered a Namaste-style bow, or embraced. Children have the right to make those choices, and should be taught to do so.
It is also appropriate to teach children that the appropriate expressions of love they see between adults—when they are indeed gentle and consensual—need not be embarrassing and are certainly not bad. While such physical touch may become awkward for children of a certain age, the Song of Songs can help us lift up the embraces, hand-holding, kissing and cuddling they see among adults in their lives as something God-given.
- Note the similarities of this passage to her song “Come Away” on her 2005 album of the same name (Blue Note).
- For a longer discussion, see my book Ruth, Esther, Song of Songs, and Judith (Wipf and Stock, 2011), 131-132, 155-157. For Bible Study resources on Song of Songs see my “Uppity Women of the Bible” videos (Living the Questions, 2010).
- Wolfe, 191-193.