Passion and Purity, pg 24: The Shulamite Woman Advises on Love

Chapter 2: The Life I Owe, pg. 24

Elliot starts this chapter with a bit of biography: as a young woman, she decides to keep a spiritual journal and in it she notes verses and hymns that made an impression on her. This chapter is about half commentary and half quotes, which I found a nice way to include the reader in the formation of her convictions–it comes across as inviting instead of preachy, as if she were saying, here, let’s read this together.

Starting out with a selection of well-chosen Bible verses is par for the course in Christian books, and marriage books in particular. It provides a foundation for the book, as if to say, “Look, it’s right here in the Bible–totally legit!”

 [A preacher] quoted from Song of Solomon: “I charge you, o daughters of Jerusalem, that ye not stir up, nor awake love until it please.”  He interpreted this to mean that no one, man or woman, should be agitated about the choice of a mate but should be “asleep” as it were in the will of God, until it should please Him to “awake” him.

The phrase “Do not awake/arouse love until it pleases”  is repeated a few times in Song of Solomon, so it must be important.  Let’s look at chapter 8 to provide context, and also because it is really beautiful and we can all do with a bit of love poetry on a Monday:

1 O that you were like a brother to me,
who nursed at my mother’s breast!
If I met you outside, I would kiss you,
and no one would despise me.
2 I would lead you and bring you
into the house of my mother,
and into the chamber of the one who bore me.
I would give you spiced wine to drink,
the juice of my pomegranates.
3 O that his left hand were under my head,
and that his right hand embraced me!
4 I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem,
do not stir up or awaken love
until it is ready!
5 Who is this coming up from the wilderness
leaning on her beloved?

Under the apple tree I roused you;
there your mother conceived you,
there she who was in labor gave you birth.
6 Place me like a seal over your heart,
like a seal on your arm;
for love is as strong as death,
its jealousy unyielding as the grave.
It burns like blazing fire,
like a mighty flame.

Lovely!  Chapters two and three include the phrase as well.

I have a quibble not with Elliot’s interpretation per se, but the evangelical culture’s interpretation traditions at large.  If you Google “do not awaken love until it pleases”, you’ll quickly find that this phrase is used to encourage singles to not rush into relationships, everything from “don’t have sex before marriage” to “don’t become too emotionally invested too soon,” to  “don’t hang photos of hot guys in your locker.”  Basically, this verse is widely used to support modern ideas of physical and emotional purity.  (There are other interpretations from different religious traditions, of course, but I never once heard them in all my years of American evangelical sermons.)  

The simplicity of these interpretations troubles me.  Song of Solomon is a notoriously difficult book to understand in the context of the Christian canon–a long, lyrical love poem full of sexy metaphors and lustful longings unlike anything else in the Bible.  There’s much debate over the marital status of the lovers–are they newlyweds?  Is this Solomon falling in love with a future wife or concubine?  Are they single but unable to marry soon?  Is this all a metaphor for Christ and the church?  I’ve heard sermons claiming each of these possibilities.  (But more intriguingly, what is all this business about “the juice of my pomegranates”?!)

It’s certainly good advice to not rush into sex and/or relationships until you’re ready, but what “ready” means is also up for interpretation. Did the author and the Shulamite woman mean that love would come naturally and we shouldn’t force it, or did he assume that “ready” means “married”?  Perhaps the Shulamite woman was just advising her girlfriends:  “Ladies, trust me, you’ll know it when it’s real.” (I’ve heard that in a sermon, too) or “Don’t give it up too easily, ladies.  I can be heedless like this because I know that he is my one true love!

In short, I think it does a disservice to the beauty, lyricism, mystery, and poetry of Song of Solomon to boil the message of this verse down to the bluntly modern and literal: “Don’t say “I love you” until you have a ring and a date.“*

Taking and “claiming” a verse for personal guidance and encouragement was and is common in evangelical practice.  Before track meets at my high school, all the runners would post verses about tenacity and perseverance on their lockers.  (Hebrews 12 was particularly popular: “let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.”)  Jeremiah 29:11 was often cited as one’s “life verse”: “For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord God, plans to prosper you…” 

This is all very nice, but it certainly seems like we’re pretending the Bible says something it doesn’t actually say.  Jeremiah 29:11 was not written for you.  It was written to Israel while they were in exile in Babylon.   Hebrews 12 is not about a track meet.  It’s about casting off sin and enduring a life of persecution.  And I’ll wager that Song of Solomon 8:4 is not about the proper timing of a marriage proposal.  

A person can of course find strength and encouragement in individual verses–such is the power of language and Scripture.  But when we lift verses from their context, translate them “literally” and assume that ancient connotations were the same as modern ones,  we lose the structure that helps us understand Scripture to begin with.  Who’s to say that your interpretation is better than mine–or are all interpretations equal? 

If Song of Solomon 8:4 is a verse to tell you, reader, how to marry in 2013, then we have to figure out what that means for the rest of the book (what about all those queens and concubines?)–let alone the rest of the Bible.  Elliot’s advice is good–stop worrying about things you can’t control!  But for those many readers who are reading this book in the context of American evangelicalism, these hermeneutical problems are magnified.

For example: in college, I heard more than one sermon where a speaker said that he knew he was supposed to propose because the Lord directed him to a certain verse in the Bible.  (One of those verses was, I am not kidding, about buying cows.)  Once I heard a sermon in which we were told that the proverb, “He who finds a wife finds a good thing” was clear instruction that the men should do the finding–in other words, ladies, don’t ask him out.  It’s the man’s job to pursue you.  These are just two examples of many.

The idea that the Bible is an instruction manual for modern dating taught people in my circles to postpone making actual decisions about their love lives.  The result was not one of calmly waiting on the Lord while learning how to have healthy relationships, but of frantic searching for a verse that would give you a specific answer to a specific problem like “should I ask her out or not?!“.  In real life, this often meant that women were left hanging, sometimes for months, while men “sought the Lord” about moving forward with the relationship.  Women who were pursued by men they weren’t interested in didn’t have the skills to turn them down–after all, he was being godly by initiating, right?  Some people used this verse about not awakening love to justify not going on a date with someone when they could have just as easily, and probably more honestly, said, “Sorry, I’m not interested right now.”

Elliot rightly advises readers to be patient, stop worrying, and wait for God to bring the right person.  Ironically and unfortunately, applying this hermeneutic (and applying Elliot’s other teachings, like “proper” gender roles–more on this later!) in real life encourages people to do to the opposite: anxiously worry over the smallest details while interpreting Scripture irresponsibly.

*Because Song of Solomon book doesn’t mention God, many Christians read it as an allegory, which can justify its inclusion in the Bible–it really IS about God, after all!  But if you read it as an allegory, interpreting this phrase as “God will watch over your marriage relationship” is still a stretch because you have to switch from “this is about God’s relationship with the church” to “this is about God’s intervention in your individual life” and then immediately back to “this is about God and the church.”  Tricky.


One thought on “Passion and Purity, pg 24: The Shulamite Woman Advises on Love

  1. Pingback: Spiritual Communion | This Day With God

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