The Song of Songs is one of my favorite books in the Hebrew Bible, with an empowered female narrator speaking openly about sexuality and love in a poetic style unseen in the rest of the Scripture. However, one part of the song — the seventh verse of chapter five — has always troubled me. The female speaker is searching for her lover after losing him, and she says, “I met the watchmen who patrol the town. They struck me; they bruised me. The guards of the walls stripped me of my mantle.” In the speaker’s time of need, the guards responded with violence.
While this verse is short and nondescript, it speaks volumes to me about the awareness and presence of power abuses by law enforcement at the time when this book was written; scholars suggest that the composition dates to between the fourth and sixth centuries B.C.E. I will never know why the writer, or writers, included this verse amid an ode to love and never addressed it again later in the book. But for me, it has become a testament to the pervasiveness of figures using their power to police and abuse the bodies of those with less power. In this way, various passages in the Hebrew Bible that shed light on systemic injustices of ancient times call us to recognize and challenge our own injustices.
Many Biblical scholars interpret the Song of Songs as an allegory for the relationship between G-d and His people — or between Christ and the Church — and the scene with the violent guards rarely gets a mention in theological studies. I prefer a more literal reading of this text, with the assumption it was created by people and not the Divine, which allows me to highlight the destructive dynamics of the society in which the writers lived thousands of years ago.
As I am educating myself on police abolition and reimagining justice in the United States, to me, this verse in the Song of Songs clearly shows that abuse of power has been built into surveillance systems throughout history. Therefore, patterns of police brutality far precede the modern centralized police system we are familiar with. This understanding reinforces what many activists and authors, such as Michelle Alexander and Angela Davis, have argued: We need to transform the fabric of society to get rid of the power dynamics that allow policing to be unnecessarily violent.
Judaic texts often teach us to remain suspicious of those in authority. An example lies in the Mishnah Pirkei Avot, which was composed by prolific Rabbis in the Talmudic era of ancient Israel, from 190 to 230 C.E. In the third verse of chapter two, the sages write, “Be careful [in your dealings] with the ruling authorities for they do not befriend a person except for their own needs; they seem like friends when it is to their own interest, but they do not stand by a man in the hour of his distress.”
While various other teachings in the Talmud encourage its audience to respect authorities and strive to preserve order, this verse stuck out to me — and went viral on Twitter — as yet another unsurprising historical continuity between ancient and contemporary societies. In antiquity and in modern times, abuses of power by authority figures and the need for ordinary citizens to be constantly on guard have been seen as facts of life. For this reason, social workers and crisis counselors skilled in deescalation are necessary actors in the transformation many of us are calling for. In our modern American context, it is imperative that such transformation is anti-racist at its core, not just as an element or an addendum.
Although the Talmud contains a compilation of Jewish law, including descriptions of the criminal justice system of ancient Israel, in a secular society, we cannot look at holy texts as policy manuals. I see many parts of the Hebrew Bible as pieces of moral guidance. The millennia-old writings that highlight negative societal dynamics or teach about the relationship between citizenry and authority do not have the answers to how we can achieve a transformation of the justice system in our society. But I know we must all embrace these changes as our goal.
The transformation of the criminal justice system is not my area of expertise. I am still learning every day, and I do not want to take space away from scholars and activists who have been tackling these issues for much of their lives or from BIPOC who encounter police brutality in a way I never will. However, we all have a duty to educate ourselves on creating a system that actually reflects our values of justice and equity.
Rebecca Stekol is a senior in the School of Foreign Service. Faith in Action appears online every other Tuesday.