Queering The Song Of Songs: Painting The Shulamite

Return, return, the Shulamite.
Return, return, and let us gaze on you.
How will you gaze on Shulamite in the dance of the two camps?
How beautiful are your sandaled feet, O prince’s daughter.
The curves of your (quivering) thighs are like jewels crafted by artist hands.
Your vulva a rounded bowl; may it never lack wine.
Your belly a mound of wheat hedged by lotuses.
Your breasts like two fawns…
Song of Songs 7:1-4 (translation mine)

I have distinct memories of my seminary students telling me that their parents or pastors told them they must wait until marriage to read the Song of Songs. “It is love poetry between a man and woman,” they were warned. “Erotic poetry reserved for the marriage bed.” Or pastors engaged in hermeneutical gymnastics, claiming that it is poetry between Christ and the church, who was presumed to be female. Sexuality could be sacred, but only when it is reserved for the confines of marriage between a man and woman.

This is how the Song of Songs has been traditionally taught in the church, if it has been taught at all.

But the Shulamite tells us something different because her lover was most certainly another woman. Stick with me on this. I first encountered the Shulamite from Song of Songs 6-7 in a passing reference by dance historian Wendy Buonaventura. She listed the Shulamite as an example of a bellydancer in the Hebrew bible. It was only an example, merely an item on a long list of references.

This brief mention was enough to pique my interest as a dancer, scholar, and queer clergywoman. In fact, it piqued my interest so much that I dedicated years to translating the text, embarking on an exegetical adventure, and asking questions about the movement vocabulary embedded in the Hebrew.

These initial observations about the Shulamite bellydancing were published in my 2008 article in the Review Expositor and later in a chapter in my 2013 book, Dance in Scripture, which provides more detail about my choices in translation and exegesis.

Again, stick with me because this seemingly esoteric text is absolutely revolutionary, especially for queer women.

The words describing the Shulamite are commonly understood as a traditional Arabic love poem called a wasf. Wasfs describe female beauty and are found in two additional locations in Song of Songs.

What is striking about this particular wasf is that it describes the Shulamite from toe to head, which is opposite of traditional wasfs. Feminist biblical scholar Athalya Brenner proposes that the reason for this descriptive reversal is due to the fact that the lover—whom she assumes is male—is teasing the Shulamite for having a pudgy stomach; therefore, she surmises that it is a parody of a wasf.

Brenner contends that the male lover is doting upon the Shulamite’s beautiful dancing legs (which are also rotund) and then shifting to poke fun of her jiggling belly. Perhaps Brenner is imposing contemporary misogynistic and heteronormative ideals for beauty upon the Shulamite’s beloved body. Because she and her dancing curves were divine in every way.

I find that other comparable wasfs and the role of bellydance offer an alternative interpretation.

Within this wasf category, there are strikingly similar bodily description poems, such as the tale in Thousand and One Nights:

The…damsel…was the loveliest creature Allah had made in her day, and indeed she outdid in beauty all human beings…her middle was full of folds, a dimpled plain…and her navel an ounce of musk, sweetest of savour could contain. She had thighs great and plump, like marble columns twain or bolsters stuffed with down…and between them a somewhat, as it were a hummock great of span of a hare with ears back lain…and indeed she surpassed…with her beauty and symmetry.

In both wasfs we read the description of a beautiful woman, a woman with “curved” or “plump” thighs, a rounded “vulva/navel.” Her belly is like a “mound of wheat” or “dimpled plain,” that is “full of folds.”

In bellydance, quivering bellies, trembling thighs, shaking buttocks, and shuddering breasts are precisely the point. Hip shimmies, rib cage isolations, and abdominal rolls are part and parcel of bellydance’s movement vocabulary. The intention of the dance is to make these parts of the body—the stomach, breasts, hips, and butt—tremble, quake, roll, shake, shimmy, bounce, and jiggle. To a dance historian, it is clear that the movement being described in the wasf is bellydance.

What is more, the history of bellydance provides a fascinating lens for deciphering the gender of the Shulamite’s lover.

Historically, bellydance was performed by and for women only; men were not permitted. It was either a dance celebrated in all-female groups in homes or within the confines of all-female harems. In such harems, women were “set apart” from men and lived, learned, and loved within the harem. Women often learned to read, write, play musical instruments, and dance in these harems.

Bellydance provided women with an opportunity to explore their sexuality, sometimes engaging in same-sex love. Because of the queer history of bellydance, one cannot help but deduce that the Shulamite’s lover may have been another woman. In scripture. Canonized. Sacred. Just like the love between two people, no matter their gender or sexuality.  

This dancing history combined with feminist and queer understandings of the Song of Songs in a way that enlightened my approach to painting the Shulamite as a Holy Woman Icon with a folk feminist twist. Calling the Shulamite holy is my way of affirming female sexuality, the beautiful variety of the body’s shapes and sizes, and including the queer community in the canon of saints.

Accordingly, the Shulamite’s robust curves fill the canvas as her heart cries out to us: 

Her quivering curves and undulating lines
proclaimed praise and love…
Her body was beloved and holy,
sacredly sensuous…
She was a dancer divine.

Like my other Holy Women Icons, the Shulamite reminds us of the power, beauty, and holiness dwelling within queer women’s bodies.

So, the next time someone tells you that the bible damns queer folks to hell, shimmy your hips and point them in the direction of the Song of Songs because the Shulamite teaches us that our queer, dancing, loving, sexual bodies are holy, indeed.

Artwork created by Rev. Dr. Angela Yarber

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