A Fresh Look at the Song of Songs

With recent legal cases around the world, with the United States Supreme Court’s decisions, as well as the recent Irish referendum on same sex marriage, there are now reports of a group of bishops and theologians discussing the need for a “theology of love” that will “‘develop’ the Church’s teaching on human sexuality.”1 The lay faithful are in dire need of strong pastoral guidance and support in regards to Church teaching on marriage and human sexuality in the Divine Plan. The Song of Songs has the potential to play a significant role in a pastor’s plan for pastoral guidance and support, but this is predicated on a new understanding of the Song’s literal meaning.

The popular and historical consensus on the Song of Song’s plain meaning is that it is an erotic love poem depicting the lustful yearnings of a male and female. Evidence suggests the strong possibility that the Song’s literal sense is not about lust, but an early depiction of two themes found in St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body: the “reciprocal gift of self” and the “ethos of the gift.”2

One of the proofs for this involves an analytical reading of the Song from a perspective that is plausibly consistent with how the biblical Hebrews may have read it, followed by a comparison of the analysis to Theology of the Body’s themes.

When reading the Song of Songs, the reader receives three impressions. The first impression is immersion in the narrative. The Song is written in the first person, and it is the only book of Hebrew scripture to do so pervasively. It is clear that the author wants us to experience the story, to be keyed into the female and male lovers. Take the following verse for example:

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

This is the structure and tone of all eight chapters of the Song. Anyone who reads this story has access to the thoughts and feelings of the lovers—to their interior actions.

The second impression received is what can be called a particular “posture” in the entire narrative. This “posture” is something that would be noticeable to the Hebrews because it is diametrically opposite to the posture of the structurally similar love poems of their regional neighbors, like the Egyptians. Simply put, Egyptian love poems are very one-sided. They are, in essence, odes to carnal anticipation and frustration. The posture in Egyptian love poetry is one of self-reflection, where one’s desire for the other lies in what the other can do for one’s self. Here are two examples of Egyptian love poems, from the male and female perspective, respectively:

I wish I were your mirror
So that you always looked at me.
I wish I was your garment
So that you would always wear me.
I wish I were the water that washes your body.
I wish I were the unguent, O woman,
That I could anoint you.
And the band around your breasts,
And the beads around your neck.
I wish I were your sandal
That you would step on me!


O my beautiful one,
I wish I were part of your affairs, like a wife.
With your hand in mine your love would be returned.
I implore my heart:
“If my true love stays away tonight,
I shall be like someone already in the grave.”
Are you not my health and my life?
How joyful is your good health
For the heart that seeks you!3

The posture in the Song of Songs is anything but self-reflective. Of the eight chapters in the Song, eight verses may be considered self-reflective in some way. Of those eight verses, two are truly self-reflective—but one of the two is self-reflective only in the sense that the female is describing what she will do for her beloved. The overwhelming impression in the Song’s narrative is that the lovers take a posture of almost complete selflessness; their desire is completely directed toward their beloved. Contrast the following verses, also from the male and female respectively, to the Egyptian poems above:

Behold, you are beautiful, my love,
Behold, you are beautiful!
Your eyes are doves
Behind your veil.
Your hair is like a flock of goats,
Moving down the slopes of Gilead.
Your teeth are like a flock of shorn ewes
That have come up from the washing,
All of which bear twins,
And not one among them is bereaved.
Your lips are like a scarlet thread,
And your mouth is lovely.
Your cheeks are like halves of a pomegranate
Behind your veil.
Your neck is like the tower of David,
Built for an arsenal,
Whereon hang a thousand bucklers,
All of them shields of warriors.
Your two breasts are like two fawns,
Twins of a gazelle,
That feed among the lilies. (4:1-5)

My beloved is all radiant and ruddy,
Distinguished among ten thousand.
His head is the finest gold;
His locks are wavy,
Black as a raven.
His eyes are like doves
Beside springs of water,
Bathed in milk,
Fitly set.
His cheeks are like beds of spices,
Yielding fragrance.
His lips are lilies,
Distilling liquid myrrh.
His arms are rounded gold,
Set with jewels.
His body is ivory work,
Encrusted with sapphires.
His legs are alabaster columns,
Set upon bases of gold.
His appearance is like Lebanon,
Choice as the cedars. (5:10-15)

The Song’s posture impresses upon the reader a sense that the beloved is more important to the lover than his or her self. The lover’s dialogue itself builds on this to form the third impression a reader receives, which is an emotional harmony between the lovers. The content and pattern of dialogue indicates that the lovers are speaking on the same wave-length at all times. There are a number of passages in the Song where the female engages her beloved with certain imagery, such as a garden, and her beloved responds using precisely the same imagery. It is also interesting to note that the lovers only refer to each other in terms that describe their mutual love, such as “beloved,” “my sister,” or “my love.” Proper names are never used.

How do these three impressions—the experiential narrative immersion, the selfless posture, and the emotional harmony of the lovers—compare to the themes in the Theology of the Body? In the creation of man, and then male and female, is the reality that St. John Paul II calls the “reciprocal gift of self.” Adam, during his original solitude, is aware of two things: his “self,” and the fact that his “self” is incomplete in some way. When Eve is created from Adam, and Adam vocalizes his relief at finally being complete, St. John Paul II observes that male and female are revealed to be made “for each other” and “find themselves in the other.” The existence of each sex profoundly affects the other for the benefit of both. It is a gift. Eve is a gift for Adam, and he accepts her gift of self. Eve accepted Adam’s gift of his self. They both gave, and accepted. This is the reciprocal gift of self. It is important to note that the reciprocal gift of self is, first, an internal act; a person makes the choice to give and accept before physically doing so.

The original reciprocal gift of self is perfect, and is most identifiable by the complete harmony between Adam and Eve in Eden. With the advent of original sin, Adam and Eve lost their perfect harmony along with everything else. But when Jesus refers to “the beginning” when remarking on the Mosaic dispensation for divorce, St. John Paul II concludes that Jesus is indicating that an essence of Adam and Eve’s original harmony still exists. This essence, what St. John Paul II calls the “ethos of the gift,” is the guiding principle for normative behavior in spousal relationships. The ethos of the gift, fundamentally attached to each person, is considered the driving force behind man’s search for authentic love.

When placed side-by-side with the Theology of the Body, the Song’s three impressions show a clear, thematic cohesion with the reciprocal gift of self, and the ethos of the gift. The impressions of the Song of Songs, and both the themes of the reciprocal gift of self, and the ethos of the gift, share and promulgate a particular way of being, one that carefully nurtures the dignity of the entire person. The cohesion based on this shared way of being indicates that the Old Testament Hebrews had some sense of the reciprocal gift of self, and the ethos of the gift. The Song of Songs, then, may be their attempt to articulate these themes to the best of their ability.

If this premise invites approbation, then the possibilities for pastoral application are many. One such possibility is the development of a marriage preparation and/or enrichment program component that transforms the Song of Songs into an immersive exercise for couples. Almost like a role-playing game, couples could deconstruct, and then superimpose the dialogue, and internal movements of the lovers. This may give the couples an opportunity to intellectually absorb the principles found in the Theology of the Body, but also have an experiential sense of how these principles feel in real time. This experience may translate into the principles becoming personally relatable, and, therefore, generate psychological sympathy for them. Simply put, couples will know what the ethos of the gift feels like, and may be more inclined to consciously adapt their relationship habits to conform to this particular way of being.

Other potential areas of pastoral benefit include formation and counseling initiatives that address persons with SSA (same sex attraction), and victims of abuse or sexual assault, but a full appreciation of the Song of Song’s benefits is difficult to assess until the premise of a fresh literal interpretation has been studied further.

  1. Edward Pentin, “Confidential Meeting Seeks to Sway Synod to Accept Same-Sex Unions,” ncregister.com/daily-news/confidential-meeting-seeks-to-sway-synod-to-accept-same-sex-unions (accessed May 28, 2015).
  2. This argument is the subject of my graduate thesis, which was recently presented to the faculty of the Notre Dame Graduate School of Christendom College.
  3. Unlabeled poems, homes.chass.utoronto.ca/~ilkamar/illustex/love.htm (accessed January 12, 2014).
Melissa Maleski About Melissa Maleski

Melissa Maleski is the director of religious education at St. John the Baptist Parish in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She holds an MA in Theological Studies from the Notre Dame Graduate School of Christendom College.


  1. Avatar Kara Sedlack says:

    This is excellent!