"The Song of Songs is a poem about the sexual awakening of a young woman and her lover. In a series of subtly articulated scenes, the two meet in an idealized landscape of fertility and abundance---a kind of Eden---where they discover the pleasures of love. The passage from innocence to experience is a subject of the Eden story, too, but there the loss of innocence is fraught with consequences. The Song looks at the same border-crossing and sees only the joy of discovery."
- Ariel and Chana Bloch (1)
is about both sex and spirit. It is an echo from a time when our role in the regeneration of life was thought to be the very heart of religion. In those days, the earth was believed to be the visible body of the Goddess, and it would have been the most natural thing in the world, for a young woman who was crossing the border "from innocence to experience," to identify with the maternal Source of Life, and imagine herself as a garden of earthly delights for her lover's pleasure ---which is the Song's central metaphor:
"Let my lover come into his garden
and taste its delicious fruits."
- Song of Solomon 4:16
Archaeologists have been shedding light on this phase of human history, and on the remarkable differences between historic and prehistoric art. Historian, Riane Eisler, in her book Sacred Pleasure, has pointed out that warfare---"the act of death-giving"---is a major theme in historic art; whereas, images of the pregnant female body and the act of "birth-giving" are virtually absent. By contrast, Neolithic artisans produced numerous images of pregnancy and birth, inspired by "a system of worship that focused more on the power to give life than to punish and kill." Not surprisingly, the de-sacralization of sexuality and birth-giving is common in societies where women are regarded as second class citizens, without equal rights.
There is some evidence that early Christianity was part of a resurgence of a more equitable "partnership society," like that in the Neolithic period. Women held positions of considerable authority in the earliest Christian communities. But, as Christianity spread throughout the surrounding Hellenic culture, it was blended with a dualism of body and spirit that was uncharacteristic of its Israelite roots. It was from Hellenism and gnosticism that Christianity acquired the belief that sexuality and spirituality are incompatible; that celibacy is more pleasing to God than marriage; and that Jesus could not be both holy and sexual. These were inversions of the earliest expressions of Christianity.
Later on, when the Song of
Solomon was translated into Greek and Latin, its innocent sensuality
was distorted by the stoic
that sexual passion is sinful ---even within the
boundaries of marriage.
Augustine, for example, taught that a man's
sexual arousal and "disobedient" erection was a fitting punishment for
Adam's disobedience in the Garden of Eden. In the same vein, Jerome
taught "that a man who too ardently desires his own wife
is an adulterer." And, according to Thomas Aquinas, marriage is aimed
at procreation, "therefore the man who loves his wife too passionately
contravenes the good of marriage and can be labeled an adulterer."
By association with the fall of Adam and Eve and the loss of paradise, sexual pleasure was linked with notions of sin, punishment, blame, and resentment. Nothing could be further from the spirit of the Song of Songs. But this stoic ethos distorted both the translation and the interpretation of the poem. For example, the young woman ( known as the "Shulamite" ) was provided with a veil in most translations---although there is no mention of a veil in the original Hebrew. Likewise, in another passage, her lover confides that he dreamed of her "as a mare"---a sexually suggestive image that provoked, from translators, various strategies to evade its erotic implications:
"One way to get rid of the
troublesome mare was to replace it with a
cavalry of horses, as in the Vulgate "to my cavalry...I likened you,"
or KJV "I have compared thee, O my love, to a company of horses,"
"Ironically, it was the allegorists who preserved the correct reading, "my mare," by making the people of Israel, the Church, or the faithful soul the object of the comparison, with God as the rider." (1)
"it is the young man who is the potential rider." (1)
The new translation by Ariel and Chana Bloch firmly establishes the poem's erotic character:
"For centuries, exegetes have
considered their relationship chaste,
ignoring the plain sense of the Hebrew. The word dodim, which occurs
six times in the Song, including the opening verse---"Your
better than wine"---is almost always translated as
"love", though it
refers specifically to sexual love."
"In resolving interpretive cruxes, our practice has been to look first to the internal evidence of the Song itself... As a second step, we turned to other books of the Bible for help. A crucial instance is the word dodim, a comprehensive term for lovemaking, including kisses and caresses as well as intercourse. This meaning could not be determined on the basis of the Song alone. However, the word occurs three other times in the Bible, in each case referring to sexual love..."
"Given these uses of dodim, we can be quite certain that the word also refers to sexual love in the Song - something a reader would not know from most translations, which render it simply as 'love." (1)
The Song's erotic dimension has often been obscured by a thick mantle of allegory. Its unbridled passion and innocent delight are all the more remarkable when you consider that the two young lovers, who are about the same age as Romeo and Juliet, are, from beginning to end, unmarried. As the Blochs point out in their commentary:
"She and her lover meet secretly in the countryside at night and part at daybreak, so it is clear that they are not married." (1)
There is indeed a wedding scene in the poem, and the young man often refers to his love as his sister and his bride, but the scene refers to the marriage of King Solomon, and it should be clear from his criticisms of the king that the poem's young Romeo is not Solomon:
King Solomon had a vineyard
on the Hill of Plenty.
He gave that vineyard to watchmen
and each would earn for its fruit
one thousand pieces of silver.
My vineyard is all my own.
Keep your thousand, Solomon! And pay
two hundred to those
who must guard the fruit..
The wedding is part of their imaginitive play, as the two lovers take refuge in their own private world, suffused with the legend and lore of Israel's former glory---the Golden Age of Solomon. The epithets "sister" and "bride" are metaphorical terms-of-endearment expressing their closeness and their intention to marry. She is no more his actual wife than she is his actual sister. They remain unmarried, right to the end of the poem. Thus, in the final verse, we find her urging her love to hurry away, lest he be seen and captured by her brothers. Literally "Run away, my love, and be like a gazelle... on the mountains of spices." In their commentary, Ariel and Chana Bloch have pointed out that:
"Coming at the end of the Song, this request by the Shulamite---"Run away"---has caused difficulties for many translators, who prefer to read "flee with me," or "flee to me," or "come into the open," or the like. All these readings are unacceptable, since barah can only mean "to flee away from" someone, or something; nor is there any textual support for the suggestion that she asks him to run away with her. Rather, this final exchange between the two lovers, 8:13 - 14, evokes a familiar setting: the young man asking the Shulamite to let him hear her voice, as in 2:14, and she urging him to run away before sunrise so that he will not be caught, as in 2:17 ( where sob "to turn" is likewise meant in the sense of "to turn away from speaker"). The Song thus ends with the motif of the lovers parting at dawn, as in the aubade of later traditions---an ending that looks forward in anticipation to another meeting.
you will find quotations from the Song of Songs, with commentaries from several sources that help to clarify its "secret language" of erotic metaphor:
The website of the New Life
-marked ( NL ).
The Song of Songs:
A New Translation by Ariel and Chana Bloch
-marked ( B ).
Kiss me, make me drunk with your kisses!
Your sweet loving
is better than wine.
The Song begins with passionate
intensity, suggesting that their
courtship is already well underway. Notice that, in this verse, it is
the young woman who initiates their lovemaking. Here, and elsewhere
throughout the poem, her boldness ought to surprise us, given the
(B) "In the Bible, written for the most part from a male point of view, women are by definition the second sex ... the typical formulas for sexual relations... make the woman seem passive and acted upon. But in the Song, where the lovers take turns inviting one another, desire is entirely reciprocal... In this book of the Bible, the woman is certainly the equal of the man. Indeed, she often seems more than his equal."
You are fragrant,
you are myrrh and aloes.
All the young women want you.
Take me by the hand, let us run together!
My lover, my king, has brought me into his chambers.
We will laugh, you and I, and count each kiss,
better than wine.
Every one of them wants you.
"King," in this case, is not a reference to King Solomon, but to her unnamed Romeo---the ruler of her heart. Her friends ask her again and again who her lover is, but she never names him. Why? To protect his identity. She and her love are not yet married, and her brothers are on the lookout for "foxes"---the many suitors who might try to seduce her. In their opinion, she is barely ready for courtship, let alone marriage.
The "chamber" in question is one of their secret hidding places in the countryside, where they go to make love and play lover's games---pretending to be Solomon and Sheba. The "king's chamber" is described in greater detail in 1:16 - 17 :
You are beautiful, my king,
and gentle. Wherever we lie
our bed is green.
Our roofbeams are cedar,
our rafters fir.
I am dark, daughters of Jerusalem,
and I am beautiful!
Dark as the tents of Kedar, lavish
as Solomon's tapestries.
Do not see me only as dark:
the sun has stared at me.
My brothers were angry with me,
they made me guard the vineyards.
I have not guarded my own.
Instead of keeping an eye on the vineyards, as she's been told, the young Juliet of the Song - known as the "Shulamite" ( the "girl from the city of peace" ) - meets with her Romeo in secret to savor the intoxicating wine of erotic pleasure in the vineyard of her body.
Tell me, my only love,
where do you pasture your sheep,
where will you let them rest
in the heat of noon?
Why should I lose my way among the flocks
of your companions?
Notice his sudden apparent demotion from king to shepherd. Here, for a moment, her daydream flickers, and we get a glimpse of their true circumstances: a shepherd and a shepherdess making secret plans for their next tryst in the "king's chamber."
Loveliest of women,
if you lose your way,
follow in the tracks of the sheep,
graze your goats in the shade
of the shepherds' tents.
My love, I dreamed of you
as a mare, my very own,
among Pharaoh's chariots.
(NL) at that time in the Orient the horse was not a beast of burden, but the cherished companion of kings.
(B) Traditional Christian and Jewish exegesis devised various evasive strategies to explain away the potentially offensive association of a beloved woman with a mare.
One way to get rid of the troublesome mare was to replace it with a cavalry of horses, as in the Vulgate "to my cavalry I likened you," or KJV "I have compared thee, O my love, to a company of horses.
Ironically, it was the allegorists who preserved the correct reading, "my mare," by making the people of Israel, the Church, or the faithful soul the object of the comparison, with God as the rider.
In our reading, it is the young man who is the potential rider.
those looped earrings,
that string of beads at your throat!
I will make you golden earrings
with silver filigree.
When the appointed time arrives, they are back in in their dream world, and we find him fashioning precious gifts for her, out of the rich resources of his imagination. Here, he joins in her romantic games, amusing her with his impersonations of the king.
My king lay down beside me
and my fragrance
wakened the night.
Compare this with two other time-honored versions:
"While the king sitteth at his table, my spikenard
sendeth forth the smell thereof. ( KJV )
While the king was on his couch,
my nard gave forth its fragrance. ( RSV )
In the words of Robert Alter, "The King James Version evokes a dinner scene in which the female dining companion appears to have doused herself with an excess of perfume." According to translators, Ariel and Chana Bloch, the literal meaning is "while the king is in his reclining..." The Hebrew grammatical form "mesab underlying bi-msibbo is understood here as the infinitive "to sit, recline, lie down," rather than as the noun "couch."
1: 13 - 14
All night between my breasts
my love is a cluster of myrrh,
a sheaf of henna blossoms
in the vineyards of Ein Gedi.
1 :12 - 14
After making love, they are filled with a sense of satisfaction and peace. His head is resting between her breasts as lightly as a cluster of myrrh, or a sheaf of henna blossoms. His hair is like a bouquet of fragrances from the fields. As he sleeps, her heart remains awake. This is perhaps a poetic description of the profound peace of contemplation. Song 5:2 is more specific: "I was asleep but my heart stayed awake." With this passage in mind, the great Christian mystic, Meister Eckhart, made the following observation :
First, "Be asleep to all things": that means ignore time, creatures, images. And then you could perceive what God works in you. That is why the soul says in the Song of Songs, "I sleep but my Heart watches." Therefore, if all creatures are asleep in you, you can perceive what God works in you.
See the main essay
for commentary on the Song of Songs and the mystical experience of
unitive consciousness. )
(B) "Ein Gedi is a fertile oasis on the western shore of the Dead Sea. The association between the vineyard and female eroticism found throughout the Song (see note 1:6) is evoked here by the parallelism of "my breasts" and "the vineyards."
(NL) The perfume is nard, or spikenard, a very expensive perfume or ointment from a plant native to India. Origen, one of the great fathers of the early church, observed that the actual spikenard plant emits its scent only when its hairy stem is rubbed, thus hinting at some erotic connotations.
(NL) "henna" - a fragrant bush which grows and intertwines itself among the vines in a vineyard.
And you, my beloved,
how beautiful you are!
Your eyes are doves.
1: 16 - 17
You are beautiful, my king,
and gentle. Wherever we lie
our bed is green.
Our roofbeams are cedar,
our rafters fir.
As mentioned earlier, this is a more detailed description of the "king's chamber" ... one of their secret hidding places in the countryside, where they go to make love and play lover's games - sometimes pretending to be Solomon and Sheba. Later in the poem, she declairs that, for her lover, she is a "city of peace." She is a city of peace for the one who loves peace, describing him in terms that suggest both strength and tenderness."
His cheeks a bed of spices,
of precious scents, his lips
red lilies wet with myrrh.
his thighs like marble pillars
on pedestals of gold.
Tall as Mount Lebanon,
a man like a cedar!
I am the rose of Sharon,
the wild lily of the valleys.
Like a lily in a field
such is my love
among the young women.
And my beloved among the young men
is a branching apricot tree in the wood.
In that shade I have often lingered,
tasting the fruit.
Here the Song's Juliet has taken us completely into her confidence, revealing the frequency and unbridled passion of her erotic encounters. How long has this been going on? Have they been friends from childhood? Star-crossed companions on a voyage of discovery?
A vivid image has been painted for us here that is, at once, erotic, aesthetic, and spiritual. Clinical latin and raw slang... words like fellatio and blow job... fail to convey the sacred beauty of giving and receiving pleasure. Through the use of natural metaphor, the Song illustrates both the act and the setting with a single brushstroke.
(B) "The image of the Shulamite sitting in the shade of the apricot tree savoring the fruit has obvious erotic implications, since her lover is identified with that tree."
( NL - refering to a different translation ) "shade," "fruit," "apple tree" - all ancient erotic symbols. Extra-biblical literature uses "fruit" and "apples" as a symbol of the male genitals, indicating here an oral genital caress.
Remember this passage when you read verse 7:9 -10 :
And oh, may your breasts be like clusters
of grapes on a vine, the scent
of your breath like apricots,
your mouth good wine-
That pleases my lover, rousing him
even from sleep.
( It is hard to imagine a more pleasant way of being roused from sleep than with an "oral genital caress." )
Now he has brought me to the house of wine
and his flag over me is love.
(B) "...literally "his banner over me [being] love,"... A poetic image of her delight in his exuberant demonstration of love..."
Taken out of context, the phrase "house of wine" could refer to a tavern or a banquet hall, and the flag or banner might represent, well, a flag or a banner. However, situated as this verse is, between her "oral genital caress" and her delirious fever of love, the chances are good that we have here a word picture of the delight she takes in her magical power over her lover. She takes delight in his power, as well. His power over her is the power of grace and beauty... not force. With the image of an erect penis as a banner of love, he becomes a conqueror in the city of peace... the ruler of her heart.
Their mutual pleasuring culminates in the sacred self-abandonment of orgasm.
Let me lie among vine blossoms,
in a bed of apricots!
I am in the fever of love.
His left hand beneath my head, his right arm holding me close.
(NL -noting a different translation ) "embrace" - fondle her vulva.
The stylized image of lovemaking with the left hand and the right arm is strongly associated with the ancient rite of Sacred Marriage. There is a similar verse in the Sumerian poetry of hieros gamos : "Your right hand you have placed on my vulva, / Your left stroked my head." Archaeologists have uncovered an ancient Mesopotamian plaque showing two lovers embracing in this posture. The historian and anthropologist, Raphael Patai, notes essentially the same image in a Jewish mystical text describing the Sacred Marriage :
After singing a song of praise to the King, the Matronit's maidens withdrew, and so did the youths who accompanied him. Alone, the King and the Matronit embraced and kissed, and then he led her to the couch. He placed his left arm under her head, his right arm embraced her, and he let her enjoy his strength. The pleasure of the King and the Matronit in each other was indescribable. They lay in tight embrace, she impressing her image into his body like a seal that leaves its imprint upon a page of writing, he playing betwixt her breasts and vowing in his great love that he would never forsake her. ( 2 )
Daughters of Jerusalem, swear to me
by the gazelles, by the deer in the field,
that you will never awaken love
until it is ripe.
The voice of my love: listen!
bounding over the mountains
toward me, across the hills.
My love is a gazelle, a wild stag.
There he stands on the other side
of our wall, gazing
between the stones.
And he calls to me:
Hurry, my love, my friend,
and come away!
Look, winter is over,
the rains are done,
wildflowers spring up in the fields.
Now is the time of the nightingale.
In every meadow you hear
the song of the turtledove.
The fig tree has sweetened
its new green fruit
and the young budded vines smell spicy.
Hurry, my love, my friend
My dove in the clefts of the rock,
in the shadow of the cliff,
let me see you, all of you!
She hides shyly in the shadow of the cliff, and he tries to coax her out into the open. Why is she being so mysterious? Has she taken off her clothes? Her lover wants to explore the erotic landscape of her body.
Let me hear your voice,
your delicious song.
I love to look at you.
Catch us the foxes,
the quick little foxes
that raid our vineyards
now, when the vines are in blossom.
The young man is searching for a shy, soft-spoken dove. Instead, he is taken by suprise as the one he loves emerges from the shadows and catches him, as if he were a fox. As we saw in verse 2:15, her brothers had charged her with the task of guarding the vineyards. Here she pretends to be carrying out that mandate. The tone is playful, but -- as we will see later on, when she recounts one of her troubled dreams -- the danger from her brothers should not be taken too lightly.
My beloved is mine and I am his.
in a field of lilies.
(NL) "feeds among the lilies" - refers to kissing some tender part of each other's bodies.
In verse 2:14 ( "let me see you, all of you!" ), he expressed his earnest desire to visually explore every hill and valley of her body. Now the distance between them has closed. Sight has given way to touch. Her body is a field of delicate sensations. Earlier, we were shown a poetic image of fellatio, in which she savors the juice of apricots, and he is the "branching apricot tree." Now we are invited to imagine his enthusiastic response. Here, as in verse 6:2, her lover is painted on the canvas of our imagination as he goes down "to his garden, to the beds of spices, to graze and to gather lilies." Without explicit mention of the anatomical terms: clitoris, labia, vagina, etc., we understand that all of this is offered for his delight and hers. In other words, fellatio ( oral stimulation of the penis ) is here reciprocated with cunnilingus ( oral stimulation of the clitoris or vulva ).
Needless to say, in view of contemporary formulations of Judeo-Christian sexual ethics, it is quite remarkable to find such lovemaking practiced here - by two unmarried lovers, without any sign of reproach - in the context of the holy bible. Later on there will be a scene in which the young man jubilantly enters his lover for the first time, but here in the first part of the poem we are shown how two young, unmarried lovers might manage to enjoy a prolonged courtship and please each other without inducing pregnancy. In what way is this relationship an allegory of Yahweh's love for the chosen people of Israel, or Christ's love for his church? ( See main essay. )
(B) "The image of the lover as shepherd (compare 1:7), when amplified by "grazing among the lilies," is an erotic double entendre, especially since lilies are mentioned in connection with the Shulamite's body, 4:5, 7:3, or her lover's lips, 5:13, and he is described as "gathering" lilies, 6:2."
"My love has gone down to his garden, to the beds of spices, to graze and to gather lilies." (6:2)
"My beloved is mine and I am his. He feasts in a field of lilies." (2:16)
"Your breasts are two fawns, twins of a gazelle, grazing in a field
of lilies." (4:5)
"...his lips red lilies wet with myrrh." (5:13)
"Your belly is a mound of wheat edged with lilies." (7:3)
Before day breathes,
before the shadows of night are gone,
run away, my love!
Be like a gazelle, a wild stag
on the jagged mountains.
TO BE CONTINUED
(1)-All quotations of the Song
Songs are from "The Song of Songs A New Translation with an
Introduction and Commentary," by Ariel and Chana Bloch.
(2)-Raphael Patai, "The Hebrew Goddess" p.142, Third Enlarged Edition, Wayne State University Press, Copyright © 1967, 1978 by Raphael Patai
Copyright © Call 1998