Transforming Love

Rachel Muers
(Girton College, University of Cambridge, UK),
for the Cambridge Society for Biblical Reasoning

This commentary is composed on the basis of a meeting of the “Cambridge Society for Biblical Reasoning” — Christian scholars of various traditions gathering to read scriptural texts together, in ways informed by “Scriptural Reasoning”. Part of our regular practice has been the preparation, by one participant shortly after the meeting, of an “aide memoire” that summarises the discussion. One analogue with which I am familiar is the minutes of a Quaker meeting for worship for business, which aim to record not individual contributions, but the “sense of the meeting”, that is, the process and result of collective discernment (which may or may not include the resolution of all the questions raised in the meeting). Unlike such minutes, however, the aides memoire are not subsequently heard and agreed by the group; so what is reflected here, in this reworking of an aide memoire, is how I heard the conversation in which I also took part. Readers may wish to reflect on what this means for the “authorship” of this commentary.

The meeting took place on 15th October 2002, and those present were David Ford, Dan Hardy, Jason Lam, Donald McFadyen, Rachel Muers, Chad Pecknold, Ben Quash and Susannah Ticciati. Special acknowledgements go to Jon Cooley, a founding member of the group, still able to join us in electronic conversation before and after the meetings. Some members of the group have expressed the intention to contribute their own commentaries as well.

It was noteworthy, and noted, that we began our conversation with questions about the Song (in Alon Goshen-Gottstein’s terms). We began by enquiring into its narrative structure, or more generally into how we might relate in our reading to the profusion of spatial and temporal references — the house, the garden, the city, the pastures; the nights and days, the seasons. Is this a story with a beginning and an end, and if not, what is it — the “dream sequence” to which Ellen Davis refers in her commentary, perhaps something like a pop video (where the voices of the singers continue as a profusion of images and landscapes swirl around them)? Is this set in a particular land, and if not, where is it? And in either case, how are Christian readers “placed” in relation to it, and to the other texts we read?

We discovered repeatedly the ways in which other scriptural texts are drawn in by the Song — most notably, the repeated return to the “gardens” of Eden and the Temple, as discussed in Davis’ commentary. To generalise this – the scriptural world, the natural world and the political world are all drawn into the text, and drawn more and more deeply into the encounter between the lovers. Thus, the externality of nature in chapter 2 (2:10, 12: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away… the flowers appear on the earth, the time of singing has come”) moves to the “internalisation” of the natural world in the body of the woman/beloved (4:12: “A garden locked is my sister, my bride…”). The effect of this “drawing in” is, we might say, a new creation — so, the Genesis story, as Davis notes following Trible, is significantly reversed as it is repeated.

But this raises the question — what would it be for us as readers to be drawn into the text, to stop thinking about it and to think with it? Perhaps, as Goshen-Gottstein hints, it is so easy to think about the Song, rather than with it, because on some level it doesn’t seem to be “about” anything itself. It is not even “about” two particular lovers; the lovers have no “particularities”, we have no idea what (as opposed to who ) they are, and the many comparisons used to describe them do not help us to imagine what they look like — rather the reverse. The anonymity (the “vagueness”, we might say) of the lovers helps to draw the reader in — we do not feel like voyeurs in relation to this text.

So — to think with the Song would not be to think about anything. It would be, perhaps, to learn what it is to be in the closest possible relationship; somehow to internalise the text as the basis for one’s response to another. Our reading might seek to learn the implications of the “closest possible relationship to another”, a relationship that, we have heard it suggested, within the Song of Songs recreates the world.

One question that arises repeatedly concerns the stability, the possibility of a public or political character for the love between the lovers. Their love seems to have been made possible in the first place by a certain distancing from the social structures to which they would otherwise belong, perhaps the de-centring of their “particularities”. (We reflect especially here on 1:6: “My mothers’ sons were angry with me/ they made me keeper of the vineyards,/ but my own vineyard I have not kept!”). Throughout the song, however, we hear the voices of the “backing singers”, the companions — especially, the companions of the woman. The man/beloved is praised for their eyes, so that they, and not only his lover, can admire him (5:10-16); what is the relationship between the according of extreme value, praising beauty by reference to public standards or a public gaze, and the relationship of intimacy between the lovers? On the one hand, we have the “drawing in” of the public (political, scriptural, natural) world, to be internalised in the relationship of the lovers; but it seems also that this “public” world persists as a reality that surrounds, accompanies or disturbs them.

Repeated references to the sources of fruit, as well as the fruit itself — the vineyards, the apple trees — call us back to questions about the source of this “fruitful” love; but that source is not named apart from the love itself. Love itself seems to “time” and “space” the text, even if it is not immediately named as the source of all the text contains. The repeated refrain “do not arouse or awaken love until it is ready” sits alongside the references to the seasons — do the seasons determine the right time for love, or is it more that love, here, determines the seasons? [1] But love remains vulnerable despite its ordering of the times and spaces of the text; and love is ” as strong as death” (8:6), not ” stronger than death”. The amazing confidence of the text and the lovers’ voices — a confidence that seems to grow, despite our questioning of a “progressive” reading (possessing “my own vineyard” in 8:12, compare 1:6) is set alongside indications of the instability of their intimacy, both within itself and in relation to its context. It may be relevant here that the lovers’ bodies are described on the one hand as “complete” (Hebrew tam , 6:9; fit for sacrifice, like the “dove”), solid, flawless, symmetrical; and on the other hand as “messy”, fluid, dubiously bounded (“lips distil nectar” (4:11), “hands drip with myrrh” (5:5)).

Many of our difficulties in interpretation come to a head in our reading of chapter 3. Here we find a “dream sequence” that seems more “awake” than the rest of the poem (compare 5:2: “I slept, but my heart was awake”) — awake to the space of the city, to political and familial relations, awake to the fact that the whole world is not the intimacy of the lovers; in stark contrast to the preceding chapters, there is no direct address from one lover to another. Solomon’s palanquin appears, beautifully arrayed, a demonstration of prosperity and power, but fully armed “because of alarms by night” (3:8). Are there real threats to the lovers and their love here — or rather, or in addition, the recognition of a larger ordered space to which the lovers’ love can be related? In relation to the possibility of threat, we ask whether the garden of Gethsemane is also present in the Song, in the spaces of suffering and loss that are never fully resolved into a “love story with a happy ending”:

I opened to my beloved,
but my beloved had turned and was gone.
My soul failed me when he spoke.
I sought him, but I did not find him;
I called him, but he gave no answer.
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… (5:6-7)

With this suffering still unexplained, at the end of the Song we see the lovers together through the “backing singers'” eyes — “Who is that coming up from the wilderness/ leaning on her beloved?” (8:5) — and we learn that the companions, together with the woman/lover, listen for the beloved’s voice (8:13). Thinking about the traditional happy ending to a love story, we ask whether this is a song about “marriage” as well as about “love”. How could we learn to read it as such, that is, to read this encounter — the encounter of revelation, as Rosenzweig describes it – as something more than the repeated disruption of a scriptural/natural/political order, without resolving away its capacity to transform whatever it draws in?

[1] To switch into another genre of commentary on the Song: “Love, love changes everything/ Hands and faces, earth and sky;/ Love, love changes everything/ How you live, and how you die;/ Love can make a summer fly/ Or a night seem like a lifetime/… Nothing in the world will ever be the same” (Ball, 2001).

© 2003, Society for Scriptural Reasoning