This blog entry comes with a PG – Parental Guidance – rating. It contains allusions to nudity and sexual intercourse.
The Old Testament Song of Songs is also known as the Song of Solomon (I will refer to it from this point, as the lectionary does, as the Song of Songs). The portion makes reference to images of Spring, and brings to mind a poem.
Spring is ‘ere / the grass is ‘ris’ / I wonder where the flowers is? / The bird is on the wing… / now that’s absurd / I always thought the wing was on the bird. Anonymous
Well, that’s how I remember my late maternal grandfather quoting, Spring in the Bronx; clearly his version of it.
Song of Songs is not, I suspect, one of the books of the Bible that people have read or read often. As we enter the season of Spring, our minds turn to the birds and the bees. Like the Psalms, Song of Songs is poetry, but it is unique as far as biblical poetry goes because it is erotic poetry.
There is a wonderful scene in the film Keeping Mum starring the magnificent Maggie Smith, Rowan Atkins and Kristin Scott Thomas, where the Vicarage housekeeper, Grace, (Smith) encourages The Reverend Walter Goodfellow to read Song of Songs to reinvigorate his marriage to Gloria (Thomas). So he reads in bed, a selection of verses (the saucy bits for the sake of the film)…
Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth! / For your love is better than wine, Song of Songs 1.2
his fruit was sweet to my taste. Song of Songs 2.3
O that his left hand were under my head, / and that his right hand embraced me! Song of Songs 2.6
How beautiful you are, my love, / how very beautiful! Song of Songs 4.1
Your lips are like a crimson thread, Song of Songs 4.3
your eyes are doves behind your veil, Song of Songs 4.1
and your mouth is lovely Song of Songs 4.3
Your two breasts are like two fawns… / that feed among the lilies. Song of Songs 4:5
Your navel is a rounded bowl / that never lacks mixed wine. / Your belly is a heap of wheat, /encircled with lilies. Song of Songs 7.2
O may your breasts be like clusters of the vine, Song of Songs 7.8
and your kisses like the best wine. Song of Songs 7.9
‘Open to me, my dove, / for my head is wet with the drops of the night.’ Song of Songs 5.2
Let us go out and see whether the vines have budded, /whether the grape blossoms have opened / and the pomegranates are in bloom. Song of Songs 7.12
…while catching glimpses of his wife Gloria getting ready for bed in the mirror through the open door of the ensuite bathroom. It is only an M rated film so it pans to the outside of the house and you need to use your imagination for what happened next.
Needless to say, the reason that this biblical poem is also called Song of Solomon because the very first verse suggests that it was written by Solomon. However, it is more probable that it was written about Solomon, rather than by him. Perhaps the idea of 700 wives and 300 concubines inspired its writing. Or perhaps it was penned to provide Solomon with inspiration for his conjugal responsibilities with so many women. Or, perhaps it was written for a wedding to another member to his harem,
There are sixty queens and eighty concubines, / and maidens without number.
(clearly earlier in his collection of marriages and concubines,) it continues,
My dove, my perfect one, is the only one, / the darling of her mother, / flawless to her that bore her. / The maidens saw her and called her happy; the queens and concubines also, and they praised her. Song of Songs 6:8-9
This particular marriage may have been to an Egyptian, the bride says,
I am black and beautiful, / O daughters of Jerusalem, / like the tents of Kedar, / like the curtains of Solomon. Song of Songs 1:5
and the groom says,
I compare you, my love, / to a mare among Pharaoh’s chariots. Song of Songs 1:9
(I am sure that if such a reference to ‘compare’ his love ‘to a mare’ was made in this modern culture, there would have been reasonable objection to why the woman should be married to the man)
It seems to me that it is most likely to have been penned as a wedding song. Like the Psalms, Song of Songs is a song. Parts of it were being sung in the beginnings of Christianity. In Judaism, surprisingly, it was appointed to be read at the Passover. And this is difficult to reconcile in our modern, no-sex-please-we’re-British heritage as ‘There seems to be no obvious connection between the solemn and joyful celebration of God’s salvation of his people and the uninhibited erotic poetry.’ As early as 1st Century AD Jewish Scholars were uneasy about including it in the Sacred Scriptures. Because it was it was also included in the Christian Bible without question, albeit in a different position in the Old Testament.
I find myself asking, why is it included in the Bible? Song of Songs makes no reference to God and only seven references to Solomon. What are we meant to take away from it? Why are we being told this erotic poem?
Often the Song of Songs has been interpreted as an allegory; that it is about God’s relationship with his faithful people, or as Christ, the bridegroom’s, love for his Church, the bride. The problem with allegorical interpretation is which allegory is the right one. (I have to say this is a danger of allegorical approaches to interpreting all scripture.) Such an approach led to St Bernard of Clairvaux writing 80 sermons on the first 2 chapters alone.
I once had a bible commentary, clearly very scholastically light-weight, which dedicated only part of a page to Song of Songs. It began by stating Song of Songs is not erotic poetry it is concerned with the love relationship between God and humans. For a while that commentary survived on my book shelf with a large red cross through that page. Eventually I threw it away as useless.
To understand Song of Songs we must approach it in its simplest form. It says what it says. It is simply erotic poetry. It begins with the anticipation of courtship, leads through the process of seduction, but does not reach the point of consummation,
I opened to my beloved, / but my beloved had turned and was gone. / My soul failed me when he spoke. / I sought him, but did not find him; / I called him, but he gave no answer. Song of Songs 5.6
There is disappointment and pain. She rises from the couch and goes searching for him, admired as she does so, after all she is only dressed in her bed clothes in the middle east.
Later we see that timing of the conjugal act also seems to be important,
let us go out early to the vineyards, / and see whether the vines have budded, / whether the grape blossoms have opened / and the pomegranates are in bloom. Song of Songs 7.12
We have returned to the images of Spring and like the origins of the Debutante Ball, the maiden is presented to society and, in the politest way of putting it, declares that she was ready to be courted…
There I will give you my love. Song of Songs 7.12
…all in good and appropriate time out of the bedroom and into nature. (A bit like D H Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, whenever they had sex he would write about the trees and forest.) None of this should take place until womanhood has been reached and is consensual and the sexual relationship is a most natural act.
Song of Songs, then, is about being fully human. It is describing the strength and power of love between a husband and wife, as Herbert puts it,
It is the glory of Israel’s faith that it saw human life in all its aspects as having a full and rightful place in the divine purpose. Human love and marriage are a part of God’s will for [humanity]; through love’s fulfilment in marriage human nature reaches the greatest heights of earthly experience. The horrors of [human] perversion of love must be continually challenged by its true expression as God gave it to [humans], and it is celebrated in [Song of Songs].
In Australia, 33% males and 47% females surveyed had their first full sexual encounter by the time they were 16 years of age, 26% after dating a long time, 15% of males and 3% females had sex with the first person who asked, 44% have had sex while intoxicated, only 19% of people believe they should have sex only with someone they love, and only 1% believed that they should wait for marriage before having sex and for 1% that was their first experience of intercourse. We are constantly bombarded with billboards offering longer lasting sex, the belief that better sex will fix up our relationships problems and emails promoting equipment to increase size of sexual organs. It is a shame that sexual intimacy has become little more than a toy, a means of play, in our society.
It seems to me that Song of Songs belongs in our Bible and is appropriate to be used in the context of the Passover; a celebration of God’s saving work of humanity, liberating them from slavery. Song of Songs is about our human nature and the design of God to restore that humanity, which we call salvation. Sex is not of the sinful nature, rather, it only becomes sinful when we allow it to serve any other purpose. Song of Songs is a celebration of humanity liberated from sin and the promise of fullness of life in God.