I wasn’t asked to give a talk on “Why church members should read The Song of Solomon”, so here it goes. The Song of Solomon is also known as Canticles or The Song of Songs. Most of the poem is a dialogue between two lovers, a woman and a man. A third speaking part belongs to the “daughters of Jerusalem” who are witnesses to the lovers relationship. Sexual desire is a central theme in The Song of Solomon. So why am I here today to tell you to read this book? First of all, God’s very first commandment to humankind was to “be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth.” (Side note: I don’t think fulfilling this commandment requires parenthood, although parenthood can be a part of of fulfilling this commandment.) We also believe that “[humans] are that they might have joy.” I don’t understand why we are so inclined to remove a story about people following God’s commandment and joyously acting in unity. Secondly, let’s have some plain talk: The Song of Solomon could be played uncensored on the radio. Sure, there’s an awful lot of sexual innuendo in it, but it would go over the kid’s heads. And unlike many of the other songs on the radio, The Song of Solomon does a pretty good job of modeling ethical behavior in a romantic relationship. Joseph Smith said that the book is not inspired, but that does not mean it is not worthwhile. There are many things that are virtuous, lovely, of good report, and praiseworthy in The Song of Solomon.
The most striking difference between The Song and other Old Testament books is that over half of the poem is coming from a female voice.* The woman feels free to express her desires, and does so exuberantly and without shame. In this, her character feels not only modern, but progressive. Getting this sense of radical freedom from a woman in such an ancient text is both thrilling (because, yeah! You go girl!) and heartbreaking (because so many women in the present day do not feel free to express their desires, sexual or otherwise).
Another lovely thing about this text: it is clear that there is mutual love and adoration between the man and the woman. They both want to be together, and that is vital for a healthy relationship.
This poem is lush with fertility imagery. What I find particularly praiseworthy is that the woman’s worth is not tied to her potential future motherhood. The couple’s love is still fruitful and valuable without children in the picture.
Initially, I thought it was a little strange that the woman addresses the daughters of Jerusalem and allows them to witness and rejoice in her intimate relationship. Then I realized that these female friends created a safety net for the woman. Because she discusses the relationship with others, they can protect her if they see a need to intervene. That is not needed here: they can see that the woman is happy and can support her in finding her love. Isolation can be a component of abuse. I find it to be of good report that this book normalizes maintaining a support network while in a romantic relationship.
This theme of protection between the woman and the daughters of Jerusalem goes both ways. The woman gives a warning to the daughters of Jerusalem three times (in 2:7, 3:5, and 8:4). In the KJV translation, the warning reads “I charge you, O daughters of Jerusalem, that ye stir not up, nor awake my love, until he please”. To me, this sounds like the male lover isn’t supposed to be woken up by others until he wants that to happen. This doesn’t make a lot of sense to me in the context of the exclusive romantic relationship depicted in the rest of the poem. Other translations personify “love” as the thing that is not to be woken. In the NRSVs translation “do not stir up or awaken love until it is ready”, there is a sense that the woman is teaching the daughters of Jerusalem that women are in control of their sexuality. She is warning that it is unwise for a woman to pursue a sexual relationship before that woman is fully ready. What a virtuous thing to teach! Furthermore, the woman mentions being instructed by her mother. I love that the woman has learned healthy sexuality and relationship boundaries from her mom.
The relationship depicted in The Song of Solomon is certainly idealized. The poem starts with the relationship already established and ends with the relationship still in progress, suggesting a sense of eternity to their love. This mirrors the church’s teachings of celestial marriage. While we talk about the importance of temple marriage all the time, the thing that isn’t discussed as often is what a loving marriage looks like. The Old Testament provides plenty of counterexamples:
- Abraham used Sarah’s good looks to enrich himself
- Jacob married Rachel’s sister and didn’t even realize it until the next morning
- Esther couldn’t go and talk to her husband without risking death
- Abigail had to smooth out the dumb things her drunk husband did
I could list more, but I think you get the idea. When I read bible stories, I generally don’t think “Wow! I wish my marriage was more like that!” As far as marital relations goes, the Bible is very similar to modern times: Domestic abuse statistics are alarming. How to have good (or at least non-abusive) marriages and partnerships is something that humans are still figuring out how to do and teach. I want to behave kindly and ethically to my spouse. Even more than that, I want to feel love and be loved in return. I want to want to be with my husband, and I want him to want to be with me. This is part of why The Song of Solomon is so radically different than most of the rest of the bible: it gives voice to the goodness of that mutual wanting. The poem seems to depict a young love. Of course it will last forever. Right? Well, I know that within any kind of long term relationship, romantic or otherwise, each partner’s needs and wants will change. I know that sometimes adjusting to those changes can be hard. I also know that working on a common goal that all parties mutually desire can help strengthen a relationship. I hope that we can recognize the pleasure of wanting to love and live and work with others. Amen.
*Two things: 1) Even in modern times, books about women tend not to win big awards. Having a woman represented in such a large percentage of an ancient text (even if the text was written by a man) is a big deal. 2) It is easier to see how much the woman speaks when the different voices of the dialogue are separated out. I used Nathan Richardson’s files to easily put the text into the format I wanted to read the text in. Click here for my file.