Gay men and women could be excused for feeling more than a little ambivalent about the Song of Songs as recommended reading. On the one hand, it is very emphatically and clearly a frankly erotic love song between two unmarried lovers. It is a celebration of physical love, and an important counter to the common religious view that sexual expression must be confined to procreation. The Song is the strongest possible proof that Scripture does not support that view (there are others, too.)
On the other, it is equally clearly an expression of heterosexual love -at least as known and commonly published today.( There is an out of print book which argues that the earliest texts described two men, and that one set of pronouns was altered by later editors. For an account of this, see the Wild Reed on “The Bible’s Gay Love Poem“. However, I have not seen authoritative support for this view elsewhere, and for today I shall stick with the better known version. )
So how is a lesbian or gay male reader to respond to this text?
One simple remedy is simply to use it as a starting point, and ignore the details of gender, as I have done myself in the past – but this is not entirely satisfactory.
Christopher King, writing in “Take Back the Word”, has another approach, which strikes me as instructive and useful. (“A Love as Fierce as Death: Reclaiming the Song of Songs for Queer Lovers”). The starting point for his reading, which sets it apart from others and makes it come alive for me, is that he recognises in the Song much more than just the expression of love, but its fuller story.
He reminds us that the text stresses that the woman, whom he calls the Shulamite, is both Black and an outsider. As such, this is not just about love, but about forbidden love – love survives and conquers resistance.
“I am black and beautiful,
O daughters of Jerusalem” (1:5)
The Shulamite recognizes that because of her relationship to the Beloved, she has become the subject of a discourse that intensifies her experience of marginality. Having become merely an outsider, she has become a taboo person.
King also describes how the “official” church interpretation of the Song has changed dramatically over the centuries: in the Classical period, for instance, her blackness was taken to represent sin. That view has changed.
Not only is the Shulamite an “outsider”, she has suffered for it. She is hounded by the law, as represented by “the sentinels”, an beaten up for it.
“Making their rounds in the city,
the sentinels found me;
they beat me, they wounded me,
they took away my mantle
those sentinels of the walls” (5:7)
The very men who ought to protect the Shulamite have savagely attacked her. Not only have they thrashed , bruised and perhaps raped her, they have also stolen her outer garment, exposing her body to the physical elements, and more seriously, unveiling her shame to the elemental forces of public scorn.
It really doesn’t take a great deal of imagination here to make the obvious parallel with the violence and persecution that sexual outsiders have suffered, just like the Shulamite foreigner, and often similarly at the hands of those who should be protecting the weak – the church and the police.
But – she’s a survivor, and love conquers.
A further important point, worth carefully stressing, is not just the joy of their love, but also it’s absolute equality and reciprocity.
My beloved is mine and I am his
he pastures his flock among he lilies (2:16)
I am my beloved’s and he is mine
he pastures his flock among he lilies. (6.3)
This mutuality and equality within a relationship is commonplace in queer relationships, but less so (probably rare, to this degree), in conventional marriage.
And so, although the relationship that is celebrated in the Song of Songs is not a same-sex one, it is indeed a queer one. The biological sexes are different, but at this level of equality, gender and gender roles fade into insignificance. “Queer” is more than a descriptor of same-sex attraction, but also includes all manner of sexual outsiders. An outsider the Shulamite most certainly is, and like us, has suffered for it.
But still, she can celebrate her love for her beloved, as he celebrates his for her. Most important of all for me, is that this has been quite literally celebrated in the most public way possible – written down in a book of Scripture, read by those who followed over the following thousands of years.
No secret closet for their love, then.
King, Christopher: “A Love as Fierce as Death”, in Take Back the Word: A Queer Reading of the Bible, edited Robert Goss.