Rev. Dr. Renita J. Weems, associate professor of Old Testament studies at Vanderbilt University and a Cosby Visiting Professor at Spelman College, is a highly respected authority on women and spirituality. She especially loves to re-examine conventional wisdom about the "intense, stubborn, and strong women" in the Bible. She discusses her newest book, What Matters Most, on the heroine of "Song of Solomon," with Beliefnet.

How do you know that it was a woman who wrote Song of Songs?

It's the only book in the Bible where a woman's voice predominates and is in the first person. The imagery, the language, and the emotions that are expressed are ones that one would expect and associate with a woman. [Scholarship] suggests that these are lyrics and songs that originated with women, which women would have traditionally sung at wedding ceremonies and in day-to-day activities when they were gathering to celebrate romance and love and coming to womanhood. As a scholar I'm willing to concede that male editors are responsible for its final editing and placement in the canon. But it certainly rings true as a female composition.

Why do you think it was attributed to Solomon?

The name of Solomon was probably appended to the book later. Solomon was certainly a renowned figure in the Bible, a romantic figure, even a scandalous figure, a man who had 700 wives and concubines and a relationship with the Queen of Sheba. In addition to his wisdom and being the son of David, he is remembered as one who was amorous and maybe something of a gigolo. So you can imagine how his name became attached to this song.

It seems to be about a woman who is deeply in love, but difficulties stand in her way. Could you summarize the basic story?

She is an unnamed woman referred to as "the Shulammite," indicating that she was probably born in the village of Shulem. Her story is typical of the literature of obstructed love. In the great love stories, there's some reason that the lovers can't consummate their love, they cannot get together, somebody or something keeps them from each other, and it's not until the end of the song, movie, or book that the lovers come together-or not.

Is she a black woman?

She says, "I am black and lovely," or "I am black but lovely," depending upon the translation. "My brothers put me out into the vineyard and made me work there. Do not stare at me because I am black." There seems to be something going on with her color, not in terms of race, but more in terms of class distinction. The fact that she has to work out in the sun suggests a woman of a lower class, whereas upper class women do not have to toil in the sun.

What's going on with her love affair?

She is in love with a shepherd, and he with her. It seems to be a romance that was not supposed to be, a romance that others did not think was suitable. Again and again they reassert their love for each other. But there's always something that keeps them from getting together. Each time she goes to look for him, he's not quite there; he goes to look for her, she's not ready to see him. They're always reaching for each other and missing. It never quite gets off the ground.

So they're not married or betrothed?

There's no hint in the story to suggest that marriage is the issue at all. This is just pure love, lust, and romance, without any preoccupation in the story with marriage.

What lessons can you draw from the story of this strong and unusual woman?

What drew me to this particular story is that it's one of the few stories in the Bible where the woman is not victimized. She's not begging for anything. It is purely about a woman who is not just in love, but is a very passionate woman. A woman of intense emotions. I use her story as a way to talk to those of us who have been called passionate and intense.

I love intense women who feel very strongly about everything-whether they work hard, play hard, love hard, or fight hard. And yes, that's the way that I am, and all the things that come with it, the good and the bad. There are enormous benefits of being an intense woman. But I gather from my husband that, from time to time, there are some negative things. I can't imagine what they could be. [laughs].

I saw in her a woman who was extremely passionate. Passionate not only about loving this elusive shepherd, but about going after what she wanted in spite of her brother's taunts, in spite of the stares and the jokes and whatever else other people around her might have said about her. She was going after a life that she wanted in spite of the threats that she encountered. I think there's something to be said about women who have that kind of commitment, a kind of drive, who cannot be easily deterred.

In our society a focused woman is maligned. A woman with drive and ambition who cannot be easily swerved is a woman who is a "bitch," she's a shrew, she's hysterical, she's so emotional, she's selfish-whereas a man with that same kind of drive is applauded.