As of today I have been married for ten years. And I am happy to tell you that it’s all true: the joy of mutual recognition, the excitement of courtship, the comfort the soul experiences as it finds its true companion, and the achievements of a life built together. In the Song of Songs the Lover calls his fiancé “friend” (1:9), and there are few better words to describe one’s partner in life. In this beautiful commentary on what Rabbi Aqiba (90 CE) called the “most Holy” book of the Bible, Tom Gledhill adopts neither the rich allegorical tradition that interprets the Song as an account of the believer’s relationship with God nor the well-known “Shepherd hypothesis”, which reads the Song as a story about a young shepherd and King Solomon competing for the hand of a beautiful maiden. Instead,he sees the song as a series of six cycles of poetry reflecting on “the capacity to delight in physical beauty, to be attracted by members of the opposite sex, the desire to form secure and intimate relationships, and to express love and affection in demonstrably physical ways.” There is no plot in the Song, Gledhill writes. Rather, “the various cycles might be likened to a series of paintings at an art gallery where a one-man exhibition is being mounted. All the pictures have a similar style and mood, stemming from a single artist. Each one is a particular permutation of a set of sub-themes. As we move from one picture to the next, we recognize the same underlying patterns, while noting the subtle changes in details.”
The Song focuses on life before marriage so using it to reflect on ten years of married life might seem a bit forced, but as Gledhill says, “the mutual delight in physical beauty and sexual expression is all part of the creation upon which the Creator himself passed the verdict that it was very good. So the Song is a celebration of this aspect of creation. It is an invitation to contemplate our own humanity, to delight in its beauty, to sit light to its capriciousness, and to explore the possibilities involved in a relationship of love between a man and a woman.” The Beloved begins the Song by saying “let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth.” (1:2) She doesn’t just want a peck on the cheek, but “she wants to be touched and to be held; not just as an object of his desire, but because she wants to be stirred to give herself to the one whom she loves.” Gledhill comments that “she is not interested in her own self-fulfilment apart from her lover. Her self-fulfilment is achieved by her self-abandonment, just as his fulfilment is found by his captivation by her beauty.” Both of them think that their partner is one in a million. He calls her “a lily among thorns” and she considers him “an apple tree among the trees of the forest” (2:1-2). Discussing the descriptions the lovers give of each other in 4:1-7, 5:10-16, 6:4-7, and 7:1-5, Gledhill observes that the Beloved says “nothing that would help them to identify him in a crowd. Her description of him is more an indication of how she feels about him, creating an atmosphere which borders on fantasy and the surreal; e.g. his eyes are doves, bathing in milk, sitting by a fullness (5:12).” It is not a cold, empirical account, but one that looks below the surface and sees with the eyes of love.
The Song shows this as THE relationship alongside which all others pale into insignificance, and that is exactly what it feels like when you fall in love. Like the heroine in a Hollywood romance, she “is coming up from the desert like a column of smoke, perfumed with myrrh and incense” (3:6). They say that their wedding will be like that of King Solomon, or at the very least they use music associated with Solomon’s wedding the same way we use Vidor’s Toccata in modern weddings (3:7-11). She drives him crazy, like a mare in heat drives stallions wild if they see her when they are all hyped up for battle (1:9). And she fantasizes about romantic trysts in the countryside, where the two of them are alone in all the world: “Spread me out among the raisin cakes. Lay me out among the apples.” (2:5) Neither of them is completely comfortable with their own body image, but in the arms of their beloved they discover that they are the most beautiful people imaginable. “Dark am I, yet lovely,” (1:5) she sings, happy to be admired for who she is, and not according to the fashion statements of the day. “It seems that in those days, gentlemen preferred blondes,” Gledhill tells us, basing himself on the beauty treatments prescribed in Esther 2:12. But according to the Lover in the Song she is “all beautiful.” “There is no flaw in you,” he tells her (4:7).
Love isn’t always easy, and the Song is full of the insecurities, the dangers, and the fears the come when you fall in love. Noting that the Lover “stands behind our wall, gazing through the windows, peering through the lattice” (2:9), Gledhill reminds us that “the girl, in her domestic environment, is known far more intimately by her brothers and her mother, than by her lover. She must take the huge risk of abandoning her former undemanding securities to throw in her lot with a boy who is as yet a somewhat unknown quantity, and so face an adventure of increasing knowledge and self-knowledge, of expanding horizons, and of an uncharted future.” Desire kindles terror, and twice the maiden dreams that she has lost her Lover in the city. She staggers around the streets looking for him and gets into serious trouble with the city watchmen who treat her like a prostitute. Gledhill says, “The pain of separation, the fear of loss, the little misunderstandings which get magnified out of all proportion, the tensions of an insecure self-image, the lovers’ quarrels, all of which are part of the warp and woof of the fabric of relationships. But the showers and the tears are compensated for by the sunshine and the laughter, the hurts and withdrawals by the joyous relief of reconciliation.”
“Thus,” writes Gledhill, “the love in our Song is all-embracing. It embraces pleasure, it embraces pain. it is passionate, yet fearful. It possesses, yet lets go. It liberates, yet binds. It empowers, it weakens. It brings turmoil, it brings peace. It is solemn, yet playful. It is lofty in conception, yet earthy in expression. It is self-centred, it is totally other-centred. It gives, it receives. It longs to give pleasure, it hopes to receive pleasure. It is cautious and timorous, yet extravagant and brave. Such a union of opposites, such a conflicting array of incompatibles, alone can do justice to the immensely complex phenomenon of the love between a man and a woman. It transcends logic, rationality, definition and even sense. Yet this whole thing called love is there to be experienced in all its agony and ecstasy. It is this love about which our song sings.”
For love is as strong as death, its jealousy as unyielding as the grave.
It burns like blazing fire, like a mighty flame.
Many waters cannot quench love; rivers cannot wash it away. (8:6-7)
*Paintings by Leonid Afremov.