2016-06-30
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.

Part of my writing is for churchwomen, believers, women who read the Bible. My task as a scholar and as a writer is to always be on the lookout for stories in the Bible of women who can be role models-not just the passive, submissive, silent, subjugated, obedient woman, but also the feisty, fun, smart, witty, passionate, juicy woman.

I take it you don't go along with that passage from Ephesians, "Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands"?

Oh, I don't think we've gotten anywhere with that. I have had audiences where I have been confronted, not just by the pastors, but by women who are ready to almost fight you with their belief that you're supposed to be submissive and silent because that's what the Bible says. But those same women in another workshop on marriage will be asking me, "I just don't understand why he wants me not to have any opinion." So on one level we have a kind of mindless devotion to these texts about obedience and submission, but in our day-to-day living we have the very same women saying, "What am I supposed to do when I disagree with him?" It doesn't quite fit our reality. Instead of critiquing the text, most of us want to ask, "What's wrong with me that I can't be quiet and submissive and obedient?"

Why is this particular Pauline text lifted up and made authoritative-when we completely ignore the other ones? Obviously Deborah was not quiet, obviously Mary Magdalene was not submissive, obviously the Queen of Sheba was quite feisty, obviously Ruth and Naomi took things into their own hands, obviously the Shulammite did not wait on some man to give her direction. Right in the same Bible are stories of women who spoke up, who fought back, who had an opinion, who challenged authority. But somehow those always just sort of recede in the background to a few verses about silence, submission, put something over your head, etc., and these become normative.

Now right there in the same passage, Paul is writing, "Slaves, obey your masters." But of course, we all know that was contextual, that was historical. But one verse away from there, "And wives, submit to your husbands." Now that's God speaking. Why don't we bring the same critical thinking to this as to the "slaves" passage? Two verses right next to each other. I'm trying to help push women to think about these things.

Is it unusual that in Song of Songs, God isn't mentioned?

That is one of the ways in which this book stands out. The name God is never used and a woman's voice predominates. I would have to take my hat off to the men who are responsible for placing it in the Bible, even though there is no overt, explicit religious content. It is about love. The editors who are responsible for placing this particular song in the Bible obviously saw something about its passion and its celebration of human love worth recording and preserving.

But the love passages are usually interpreted as being about Christ's love for the church.

Yes, Christ's love for the church, if you're Christian-or God's love for Israel if you're Jewish. It was not originally an allegory. Only later did we begin to look at it as an allegory, but this is how we have come to explain or rationalize its presence in the Bible.

Do a lot of women who've read the book see themselves in the Shulammite?

I think they do. I'm just amazed at the response that it has gotten. Not many of us have read anything where we're being asked to reclaim [the Shulammite] as passionate, as feisty, as stubborn, and as a woman with her own mind. And where she's not being criticized.there's no attempt in the story to denounce her for being strong-minded. There's no kind of moral voice, third-person voice that inserts itself into the story that suggests that women like this come to bad end. That they're punished, that they are killed.

Or stoned for adultery.

Precisely. That's also what I find so refreshing. There is no attempt in the story to denounce her or to say that she came to an ill end because she was the way that she was.

What happens at the end?

There is no neat, nice little ending to tie it all up. Perhaps the closest book to it in the Bible is the adjacent Book of Ecclesiastes, just kind of first-person musings about the mysterious nature of life. About life's contradictions. About some of the trials and tribulations that one has to go through in life--you know, "all is vain, eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow you die." But whereas the Book of Ecclesiastes ends with a sense of pessimism, if not downright nihilism, Song of Solomon, which is right next to it, prevails with a sense of optimism and excitement and a sense of survival.