Women of the Bible - Monday, August 19, 2013
The Shulammite Woman
Her character: Hers is the only female voice that speaks directly and extensively to us in Scripture. Ruth's, Esther's, Hannah's, and Mary's voices, for instance, are all mediated through narration. The Shulammite woman boldly declares her longing and desire to be united to her lover in marriage.
Her sorrow: To have been separated from her beloved at times.
Her joy: To enjoy so passionate a love.
Key Scriptures: Song of Songs 1-8
She was young, beautiful, and desirable. He was handsome, strong, and agile, a shepherd or a king who lavished strange praise upon his beloved: He compared the Shulamite woman's hair to a flock of goats running down a mountain slope, her nose to the tower of Lebanon, and her teeth ("each with its twin"!) to sheep that have just bathed. We smile at such images. But we are fascinated by this beautifully written collection of love songs. And though we know it is not merely some ancient Valentine's Day card, we are not quite certain what to make of it.
Unlike any other book in the Bible, the Song of Songs is full of erotic imagery. The Shulammite woman was as passionate as her lover, initiating contact with him, openly declaring her feelings. She yearned for kisses from his mouth, so in love that even his name smelled sweet to her. She wandered the city at night (or dreamt of wandering it) searching for him. She wished she could pass him off as her brother so that she could kiss him publicly without creating a scandal. Each declaration from her elicited a passionate response from her lover, who sang of her,
Your stature is like that of the palm,
and your breasts like clusters of fruit.
I said, "I will climb the palm tree;
I will take hold of its fruit."
May your breasts be like the clusters of the vine,
the fragrance of your breath like apples,
and your mouth like the best wine. — Song of Songs 7:7-9
Despite the ancient imagery, we get the message. The story of the Shulammite woman and her lover isn't properly a story, one with a clear narrative line, but a poetic expression of love in all its emotional ups and downs. The songs capture the desire, the anguish, the tension, and the ecstasy of love. But speakers and scenes shift so quickly that it can be difficult to understand. No wonder there have been so many different interpretations of the Song of Songs, more than any other book of the Hebrew Scriptures.
What makes this portion of Scripture even more enigmatic is that it never once mentions God. But if God has nothing to do with these love songs, how did this material ever make it into the canon of Scripture in the first place?
The Jews believed the book was not primarily about individual lovers but about God's love for his people Israel. Christians initially read it as a parable of Christ's love for the church and later as a parable of his love for the individual soul. Modern commentators tend to view it more literally, as an expression of the sacredness of married life, the fullest expression of love between a man and a woman. They praise its inclusion in the Bible because it celebrates marital love and the sexual expression of that love. Anyone inclined to believe the Bible teaches a negative view of sex should read this book of Scripture before drawing such a conclusion.
But who wrote these eloquent love songs? Some say various poets, while others say they were written by Solomon in praise of one of his many wives. Yet others have suggested they were written by a woman. Whatever the case, most admit that the poetry of the Song of Songs can be understood in more than one way. The story of the Shulammite, mysterious as it is, touches our longing to love and be loved.
God doesn't promise the Song of Songs kind of erotic, intimate, earthly love to everyone. He blesses many marriages with it, but it is not something everyone enjoys. However, he does promise to love his people with the same depth of love described here. That includes you. You are his treasured one, his beloved, and he delights in you just as these lovers delight in each other.
This devotional is drawn from Women of the Bible: A One-Year Devotional Study of Women in Scripture by Ann Spangler and Jean Syswerda. Used with permission.
Have Women of the Bible delivered to your inbox!