The Shulamite Lives On

Inter-cultural and inter-caste relationships are intolerable and contemptible. They are overtly scandalous. Believing that an outsider can poison the honour of one’s family, community, and culture, people resort to subduing and eliminating human eros, even at the expense of few precious lives. In most cases, if not all, the adversaries do not have any qualms in identifying themselves as antagonists simply because it is seen as a divine and moral right to defend the purity and honour of one’s community.

Though there are exceptions, though there are counteracts, they are anything but few. But the fact that people are still willing to go against the grain, aware of the gruesome consequences that entail, is a sign of resistance. Resistance to what? Resistance to the belief that love is sane, resistance to the belief that difference is dangerous, resistance to regimes of control, and resistance to the belief that love must conform to an external standard of morality. All too often such resistance is belittled and overshadowed by a buoyant upshot or at worse an agonizing one.

What makes such scandalous relationships alive, nourishing, and evocative, though being abhorred and precluded, is not just its sporadic triumphant out-turn but its repeated tendentious happenings. There are people who have engaged and are engaging in such tendentious acts. But in doing so they also experience social ostracization, which makes them a social outsider amidst their own.

In the Bible we come across a person who experienced marginalization because of her choice of lover. I’m talking about the Shulamite in Song of Songs. The Shulamite’s transgressive love for her Beloved, an outsider, made her the subject of discourse and object of public gaze amongst her people. Though her love was forbidden and opposed by the public economy, she didn’t stop pursuing her Beloved (Song of Songs 3:4). Social norms, customs, and codes of conduct only seemed to melt down before the warmth of her love and desire for her Beloved. These external forces stood but never stood a chance. The Shulamite, in saying, “My beloved is mine, and I am his,” (Song of Songs 2:16a) not only claimed her autonomy that was held captive by her community but also emphasized the strength of her courage. Her love was determined and affirmative, potent and wild, fervent and unashamed.

Christopher King (in his queer reading of the Song of Songs) lists out three representatives that dominated the social space in the Song of Songs: the city sentinels, the Shulamite’s brothers, and her mother. These civil and familial powers, in their own ways, disapproved of her love as filial duty and notions of sanctity and honour held greater authority over the love, passion, and desire for her Beloved. Song of Songs 5:7 and 1:6b speak of the Shulamite’s victimization. She put everything at risk: her reputation, her parental blessing, communal respect and favour, and domestic security and bliss. Therefore, in the Shulamite we see desire, (erotic) passion, rejection, pain, resistance, and courage. In the Shulamite we  witness and celebrate a transgressive love.

The Shulamite’s relationship with her Beloved was scarred by hate and rejection,  spewed by those around, known and unknown.  In the name of preserving familial and communal pride and sanctity, transgressive lovers are being marginalized, character-assassinated, confined unceremoniously to private spaces, violated, tortured, and even killed. And yet there are those who continue to find fulfillment in someone totally different to them and their culture even when such connections are emphatically taught to be wrong, polluted, and perverted. They put their lives at stake for the sake of their beloved. By finding unabridged satisfaction in the(ir) ‘other,’ they transcend the limits of social and cultural constructions.

Inter-cultural and inter-caste relationships are socially explosive love affairs. In them lie the potential to wreck external standards of morality, in them lie the potential to transform and reform love and desire, in them lie the potential to subvert hierarchical arrangements, in them lie the potential to cause social friction, and in them lie the potential to effuse healing and solidarity.

The Shulamite’s love for the Beloved other could have been an arbitrary decision but her pursuit of  him made it all the more a politicized relationship. But even if it were merely personal, it is still deeply political (remember the feminist argument that the personal is political?). Perhaps that is why the Shulamite stands as a symbol of a scandalous, illicit love. She proclaims a liberating message to all dangerous, transgressive lovers. She is long gone, yet her legacy hasn’t. She continues to breathe new life into the lives of those who risk the pursuit of a socially transgressive love affair. In doing so they become (like) the Shulamite and in doing so the Shulamite lives on.

P.S. This interpretation is inspired by Christopher King’s article titled, “A Love as Fierce as Death: Reclaiming the Song of Songs for Queer Lovers” in Take Back the Word, edited by Robert Goss and Mona West.

[Image by StockSnap from Pixabay ]

4 thoughts on “The Shulamite Lives On

  1. I never noticed this theme in reading Song of Songs before, but I think you are right. The Bible is a very subversive book if we look at it with honest eyes. Thank you!


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