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Gender and Class in the Song of Songs

Marc Chagll

The beautiful lyrics about heterosexual sensuality, desire, and love in the Song of Songs beg to be identified with and embraced. Yet as we read and reread, we become aware of small but persistent nuances that raise issues of gender and class and that cloud the general, seemingly idyllic picture that pervades much of the Song (Song 3:1-4 and Song 5:2-8 are the exceptions).

In theater as well as in fiction, the characters with the most lines are usually the more dominant. In the Song, female voices make up more than 60 percent of the text; their voices are bolder, more playful, more outspoken, serious, and artistic than the voices attributed to males. A woman’s voice opens Song 1:2 and concludes the Song 8:14). The poem seems to imply gender equality, even female gender superiority.

This impression of female ascendancy is buttressed by one of the most poignant and comprehensive love “credos” to be voiced by a female: 

Let me be a seal upon your heart,
Like the seal upon your hand.
For love is fierce as death,
Passion is mighty as Sheol;
Its darts are darts of fire,
A blazing flame.
Vast floods cannot quench love,
Nor rivers drown it.” (Song 8:6-7, NJPS)

It seems significant that a female speaker delivers this definition of love, as the author (or editor) could easily have chosen otherwise given that the Song of Songs is embedded in the Hebrew Bible, a patriarchal text: this lyrical declaration could have been attributed to a biblically more-often dominant male voice. It is also significant because of its fierceness and depth of emotion. It shocks us in its pain and exuberance, strength and weakness, in the hyperbolic radicalism that uses corporeal allusions as well as primal metaphors and symbols.

So, you may say, this is in keeping with the rest of this love lyric. Its female speakers are bold and physical and in general are allowed to be so: both near the beginning (“My beloved to me is a bag of myrrh, Lodged between my breasts,” Song 1:13) and at the end (Song 8:6), women openly express sexual desire in a way that seems nongendered, ungendered, and universally, humanly applicable. But hang on, here comes the second part of Song 8:7, which changes this woman-friendly conclusion somewhat:

If a man offered all his wealth for love,
He would be laughed to scorn. (NJPS)

This last sentence is a comment that brings us down to earth: when a man (male) gives all his fortune for love, he is despised. Note: he gives away his fortune, and not his life or his body, as the woman would do by her declaration. 

The Song contains additional traces of kinship, class, and social norms. Brothers attempt to regulate the sexual behavior of their sisters (Song 1:6; Song 8:8-10), and lovers use “brother” and “sister” as terms of endearment. As in other biblical texts (such as Rebekah’s betrothal, Gen 24), maternal brothers exercise control over their sisters in patriarchal families—even if here, in the Song, the father figure is absent.

Female lovers—if we agree that more than a single heterosexual couple resides in the poems—are mostly depicted as country maidens, although the chorus of the “daughters of Jerusalem” is urban. The urban was usually considered more cultured and educated than the rural; for instance, being “dark” from exposure to sunshine, even though “comely” (Song 1:5), was less desirable than being city-pale. Even though females talk more in the Song, articulations of metaphors, commodities, and concepts relating to business and commerce—such as aromatics, architecture, and military fortifications—are mostly uttered about females but by males. So, males—although less dominant in the Song—are still largely identified with culture, and females with nature.

This paradox brings us back to “reality”: females have only their own selves to give and would give their bodies and souls for love, not the money or property they apparently lack control of. Men are not expected to sacrifice their wealth for love, certainly not their souls or bodies. Not even in the world of the Song of Songs.

  • Athalya Brenner

    Athalya Brenner is professor emerita of Hebrew Bible/OldTestament in the Univeristy of Amsterdam, the Netherlands; professor in biblical studies at the Department of Hebrew Culture Studies at Tel Aviv University, Israel; and Extraordinary Professor at the University of Stellenbosch. Among her publications are I Am: Biblical Women Tell Their Own Stories (Fortress Press, 2005) and Performing Memory in Biblical Narrative and Beyond, edited with Frank Polak (Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2009).