One of the most interesting facets of the Song of Songs runs deeper than its rampant sexuality, stretches further than its rich symbolism, and reaches higher than a man appreciating the beauty of his wife. The poetry casts a penetrating light into a millennia old culture from ages past with different ideals, different characteristics, and different tendencies than what permeates our culture today. In some ways, it was a harder time, but in other ways it was s a simpler, nobler, and more pure time.
Perhaps we recognize a Song of Songs marriage would be exceptional in either culture, but perhaps also we’ve lost touch with something more fundamental than beauty or allegory.
I’m fascinated by the star of the Song, the girl. Admittedly, my fascination doesn’t even approach her beloved’s fascination — mine’s far too academic for that. But I’m amazed by how… well, assertive she is. Really, she’s downright aggressive by today’s typical standards for women. She typifies what Shannon Ethridge depicts as a sexually confident wife.
The Assertive Woman of the Song
Look at Song of Songs 8:5b: “under the apple tree I roused you…” Contrary to what your Bible might say, G. Lloyd Carr notes that “as the Hebrew has all masculine endings in this section it is evident that the beloved is addressing her lover. Most commentators and many translations recommend changing these to feminine forms, but there is no support in the text for this change. Here, as elsewhere in the Song, the girl initiates the love-play.” In simple terms, she seduced him.
Nine verses later, she calls, “Come away, my beloved,” using the word bārah, Carr notes, “The word in its sixty-five Old Testament uses usually means flight from enemies. Here she calls him to that rapid, abandoned flight to her.” He’s not the driving agent. She’s inspiring him to action.
“Our contemporary attitude, where the girl is on the defensive and the man is the initiator, is a direct contrast with the attitude of the ancient world.”
—G. Lloyd Carr
Truly she has a lot to say about love, sex, and desire. There are 117 verses in the Song, and between 55 and 74 of these contain her words. That’s almost twice what we hear from him.
Assertive Women Were the Norm
This may seem surprising, but it wasn’t too uncommon for that culture and time. Carr writes, “In the Song, as in much of the other Near Eastern love poetry, the woman is the one who takes the initiative, and who is the more outspoken. Similarly, in the Mesopotamian Ritual Marriage materials, much is placed on the girl’s lips. Our contemporary attitude, where the girl is on the defensive and the man is the initiator, is a direct contrast with the attitude of the ancient world.”
Consider the following excerpt from an ancient Egyptian love poem, written from the woman’s perspective:
…I’ll rush off to the lover.
I’ll kiss him in front of the crowd,
I’ll not be ashamed because of the women.
But I’ll be happy at their finding out
that you know me so well.
In this poem, she was proud of her love and her lover. She desired to buck against cultural norms that would impede her expression. That’s hardly the demure expectation we see in the modern church.
Or consider the biblical story of Ruth who slipped under the blanket of Boaz to motivate him to marry her. The words chosen to depict the scene are common symbols (feet = genitals), leaving you wondering what exactly took place. We don’t really know whether she slept with him or slept with him, but it’s obvious that it was untoward, risqué, and even scandalous, even if they didn’t have sex.
When Ruth went home and told Naomi all the juicy details, the old widow replied — undoubtedly with a wink —”the man will not rest until he settles it today.” She knew something about seduction’s ability to motivate men, and she didn’t see it as degrading in the slightest. Today’s Christians would shudder to think of such “debasement”— which is likely why they skim over this part of the story. But the sexual assertiveness of women in the ancient Near East is well-documented.
Yet the Song of Solomon is even richer at this. Love poetry from that era rarely depicted detailed descriptions of the male’s physical attractiveness while they held a wide array of such descriptions for females. Most of the time when men were described, notes Carr, “it is usually in terms of his strength to carry on warfare or to lead his people, not his physical beauty.”
In a time when women were far more assertive than seen in the often repressive culture of the church today, the Word of God almost seems to suggest being even more assertive.
The Song itself, though, doesn’t hesitate to reflect the woman’s desire, and what aspects of him inflame her desire, in a very clear and public way. In a time when women were far more assertive than seen in the often repressive culture predominant in the church today, the Word of God almost seems to suggest being even _more _assertive. It offers a license to openly, even wantonly, express oneself in a transparent manner.
As Carr stated, “she is not ashamed to express her longing for love and her willingness to give freely to her beloved. But she is careful to keep herself exclusively for him.” She may be very public about her desire for him and arousing his (and others’, if you look closely) desire for her, but she makes it apparent he’s the only lucky fellow who gets a taste.
How powerful is that! She seems to say, “I have all you want, and you have all I want.” The public gets to be a witness, but it doesn’t get to be a participant. This is no open marriage, but a holy monogamous relationship. She’s proud to be partaken of and to partake. What man wouldn’t want such a woman?
Carr summarizes it well:
The Song is a celebration of the nature of humanity — male and female created in God’s image for mutual support and enjoyment. There is nothing here of the aggressive male and the reluctant or victimized female. They are one in their desire because their desires are God-given.
So, to the leading lady, I say: “You go, girl.” And to the leading male, I say: “Well done, sir.”
Originally posted 2015-08-24 08:00:44.