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The Song of Songs: Not a Glorification of Sex

Now that we've wrapped up our section by section analysis of the Song, let's take a look at the Song as a whole and ask the question, what's it all about? In a previous post I outlined the rationale behind reading the Song ironically. I won't rehearse the whole argument here, but I'll add a few arguments to reinforce some of the conclusions reached there. We will conclude by discussing appropriation of the Song today.

The history of interpretation of the Song is in many respects boring. Both Jews and Christians interpreted it allegorically for most of the past two millennia. As many have argued, an allegorical approach arose because the Song was already viewed as religious literature. Something about the Song grated the ears of both Jews and Christians. The easy answer was that there was a strong ascetic tendency that viewed sex as bad. No text glorifying sex could possibly be understood literally. In the case of Christianity I think this argument seems reasonable. While sects within Judaism were ascetic, I'm not so sure that it's fair to assume the same thing about second temple Jews. It's hard to say when the allegorical approach became in vogue, but our earliest strands of the history of interpretation suggest that the dominant approach was allegorical. While unprovable, I think it's a reasonable assumption that Christianity inherited the allegorical approach from Judaism. It certainly wasn't the other way around.

So, if the allegorical interpretation arose in a non-ascetic environment, then we need to ask why? One observation that non-conservative commentators have made fairly universally is that the lovers are not married. While Judaism wasn't ascetic, it certainly was conservative on sexual issues, much like modern day Evangelical Christians (and I believe this is true of more than the just the religious leaders). That certainly would provide an impetus for allegorical interpretation. Much of the Song is the lovers celebration of their love an intimacy.

How did it come to be canonized in the first place? There are subtle, and in my opinion, not so subtle clues that we are to read against the grain of the presentation of the relationship that the two lovers provide. We are to see them, especially the woman as a negative example. I won't go into the details here,[1] but I believe an ironic reading accounts for the data the best and has the fewest interpretive problems. In particular, it is in line with the obvious didactic sections of the Song. Remember the Song is wisdom literature. Jewish wisdom literature clearly is didactic, especially that associated with Solomon. That doesn't mean that the point is obvious. See Ecclesiastes as an obvious example. An ironic reading also explains how the Song came to be read allegorically. Once one loses the interpretive key, it seems as if the text supports the opposite of what it really intends to support.[2]

So what is the Song about? The song is an argument for chastity. Even more fundamentally, it's displaying the dangers of letting teenage girls run wild. It's asking those who have teenagers entrusted to their care to keep a careful watch over their children to keep them from something that the Song views as harmful: premarital sex with someone to whom you are not betrothed.

Why is the Song opposed to that? There probably are multiple reasons and to attempt to answer this definitively is to be naively overconfident. Daughters were property, and they needed to be virgins upon entering marriage to be valuable. However, there's also an emphasis in the Old Testament on sexual purity that saw illicit sexual behavior as defiling. I would expect both of those emphases (and others) are informing our poet as he writes.

Postmodern literary criticism, which helped uncover the message of the Song by looking at the power dynamics in play, would tell us to read against the grain of the Song. Power, when exerted by an author, is understood as something to be overturned and resisted. This is where we must part way with our postmodern friends. Ethics isn't about the abrogation, but the proper use of power. Using power to serve is not the same thing as not using your power.

Who needs to read the Song today? Parents. Unfortunately the shock factor of the Song won't work with many of today's youth. They wouldn't see anything objectionable in the behavior of the couple. Parents, however, have given their children too much sexual freedom and need to rein them in. This isn't to be done in a heavy handed manner (admittedly the inaccessibility motif of the Song borders on domineering), but in a gracious and loving manner that is truly seeking the best for the child. As Scot McKnight's chapter on sex in One.Life shows, chastity isn't just an old fashioned moral ideal. Sleeping around negatively impacts your brain. Now sex is far from the only or most important ethical issue in the Bible, but that doesn't mean that it doesn't matter. Submitting to God here while remaining humble is one of the easiest ways we Christians can show how different we are from the world.


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[1] I started turning to this interpretation when in chapter 3. You can read through my section by section commentaries from chapter 3 on to see my detailing an ironic approach.

[2] A point clearly hammered home in relation to Romans by Douglas Campbell.

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