Sex, sex, sex, sex, sex. Now that I have your attention, BOOK.
Hello, and welcome to BOOK, a bible podcast for everybody. I’m Josh Way. Those unfamiliar with the bible might be surprised to learn that there is an entire book in it about sex. Perhaps even more surprising is that this book is not a collection of prudish warnings about the dangers of sex, nor a screed against adultery, nor an ode to the wonders of procreation. It’s a collection of erotic poetry about two young lovers enjoying each other. It’s called Shir Hashirim in Hebrew, “The Song of Songs.”
Historically Song of Songs is another hot potato. It bears the inscription “shir hashirim asher leshlomo,” “The Song of Songs which is of Solomon.” And as with those Psalms which are “of David,” we are left to wonder what exactly it means. Did Solomon write it? Traditional interpretation says yes. Case closed. Was it written FOR Solomon, or perhaps ABOUT Solomon? Scholarship leans more in this direction.
The Semitic literary tradition is full of books written in the names of famous figures. It is neither controversial nor a stretch to suggest that Solomon is being invoked here by a later author cashing in on his reputation as an international playboy. Solomon is only mentioned a couple of times in the text, and not in the most flattering light. There is also the issue of the actual Hebrew text, which appears to be from an era much later than Solomon’s (somewhere around 900 BCE). Conclusion: authorship unknown.
Because, like Job and Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs is not a traditional historical or biographical narrative, we do best not to force any particular context onto it. It is an ancient Israelite poem, or perhaps a short drama, and it is about erotic love. In form it looks very much like Egyptian love poetry, which is fascinating given Solomon’s betrothal to a daughter of Pharaoh, but there we go with the authorship debate again.
The short book, divided in modern bibles into eight chapters, is a back-and-forth flirtation and profession of erotic intent between a young woman and a young man with occasional references to the “girls of Jerusalem.” Here are the opening exchanges. The young woman says:
O give me the kisses of your mouth,
For your love is more delightful than wine.
Your ointment yields a sweet fragrance,
Your name is like the finest oil -
Therefore virgins love you.
Draw me after you, let’s run!
The king has brought me to his chambers.
The reference here to the young man as “king” is most likely a playful tease. When the real king is mentioned in a couple chapters, we’ll see that he is a distant figure. The young man responds:
I compare you, my love,
To a mare from Pharaoh’s chariots:
Your cheeks are lovely with ornaments,
Your neck with strings of jewels.
While my king was on his couch,
My perfume gave forth its fragrance.
My beloved is to me a bag of myrrh
Lodged between my breasts.
My beloved is to me a spray of henna blossoms
From the vineyards of En-gedi.
The lovers exchange compliments and confess their attraction for each other, and things begin to heat up in chapter two, when she says this:
His left hand was under my head,
His right arm embraced me.
I adjure you, O girls of Jerusalem,
By gazelles or by the does of the field,
Do not wake or rouse
Love until it pleases!
After what sounds like a rather intimate encounter, the tone of the poem shifts:
Hark! My beloved! Here he comes,
Leaping over mountains,
Bounding over hills.
My beloved is like a gazelle.
Or like a young stag.
There he stands behind our wall,
Gazing through the window,
Peering through the lattice.
Suddenly the lovers are not together, but she is anticipating his swift approach. By chapter three, however, he is off the scene, and she is left to pine for her beloved:
Upon my couch at night I sought the one I love –
I sought, but found him not.
“I must rise and roam the town,
Through the streets and through the squares;
I must seek the one I love.”
I sought but found him not.
The lovers are reunited, and once again the young woman implores the girls of Jerusalem, “Do not wake or rouse Love until it pleases!” Then we come to the appearance of King Solomon:
There goes Solomon’s couch,
Encircled by sixty warriors
Of the warriors of Israel,
All of them trained in warfare,
Skilled in battle,
Each with sword on thigh
Because of terror by night.
King Solomon made himself a carriage
Of wood from Lebanon.
He made its posts of silver,
Its back of gold,
Its seat of purple wool.
Within, it was decked with love
By the girls of Jerusalem.
O girls of Zion, go forth
And gaze upon King Solomon
Wearing the crown that his mother
Gave him on his wedding day,
On his day of bliss.
There’s a heading in my Christian Bible over this section that says “King Solomon arrives for his wedding.” That’s part of an interpretive scheme we’ll discuss more later, but basically it presumes that Solomon himself is the young man in the poem and is now seen arriving at his wedding. But that’s not the explicit tone of the passage, and there’s another way to read this. As the young woman is enthralled in passion with her lover, she tells the silly “girls of Jerusalem” to go ahead and gawk at the king with all of his pomp and riches, while she will remain in the arms of her beloved. In this there are echoes of Qoheleth, with its message that wisdom and riches are but vanity, and the enjoyment of love is the only real pursuit.
Chapter four finds the lovers pouring out more flattery upon each other:
Your eyes are like doves! [4:1]
Your teeth are like a flock of ewes! [4:2]
Your lips are like a crimson thread! [4:3]
Your neck is like the tower of David! [4:4]
Your breasts are like two fawns, twins grazing in the lilies! [4:5]
In chapter five, the cycle of chapter two repeats: the young man leaves and she must search for him. In chapter six she finds him in his garden, which becomes a metaphor for their love. In chapter seven the young man describes how he intends to express his love for the young woman:
How fair you are, how beautiful!
O Love, with all its rapture!
Your stately form is like the palm,
Your breasts are like clusters of fruit.
I say: Let me climb the palm,
Let me take hold of its branches;
Let your breasts be like clusters of grapes,
Your breath like the fragrance of apples,
And your mouth like choicest wine.
Let it flow to my beloved as new wine
Gliding over lips and teeth.
In the final chapter, various metaphors are employed to describe the passionate love at the center of the book:
Let me be a seal upon your heart, Like the seal upon your hand.
For love is fierce as death, Passion is mighty as Sheol;
Its darts are darts of fire, A blazing flame.
Says the poet, love is an unstoppable force like death itself, and it deserves the same reverence.
Vast floods cannot quench love, Nor rivers drown it.
If a man offered all his wealth for love, He would be laughed to scorn.
Once again there are shades of Qoheleth. All the wealth (and work, and wisdom, and stature) in the world cannot begin to approach the value of this love. And here is perhaps the most interesting metaphor, at the very close of the book:
Solomon had a vineyard
He had to post guards in the vineyard:
A man would give for its fruit
A thousand pieces of silver.
I have my very own vineyard:
You may have the thousand, O Solomon,
And the guards of the fruit two hundred!
O you who linger in the garden,
A lover is listening;
Let me hear your voice.
“Hurry, my beloved,
Swift as a gazelle or a young stag,
To the hills of spices!”
Solomon had a vineyard so desirable that he had to post guards, and people would pay premium prices for just a taste. I have my own vineyard, says the young woman, my sexuality, and there’s no price high enough to let anyone but my lover in.
And that’s the Song of Songs. All that’s left is to examine the peculiar problem it has presented to interpreters in both the Jewish and Christian traditions. Both have struggled with its very appearance within the canon of scripture. What do we do with a book that is, on the surface, completely and exclusively about sexuality? For many, the answer was NOTHING, and attempts were made in Jewish and Christian circles to exclude Song of Songs from the canon. Defenders appeared on both sides, however, and solutions were proposed.
On the Jewish side, a renowned rabbi named Akiva ben Joseph declared in the first century C.E. that Song of Songs should not be rejected but embraced by Jews and celebrated as an extended metaphor for the love of God for his people Israel. His suggestion was taken to heart, and Song of Songs became a popular scripture reading at weddings and certain feasts.
Later, Protestant Reformer Martin Luther would make his own defense of Song of Songs, using the text’s Davidic connotations to put forth a messianic reading that turned it into a celebration of Jesus and his love for the church. This is now the default Christian interpretation of the book. Of course, this means that the text has to be read in a very specific way. Solomon MUST be the author, and the intimate interludes described in the book MUST be understood within the context of a marriage. Hence the headings in my ESV bible: “The Bride Confesses Her Love”, “Solomon Arrives For The Wedding,” and so on.
We already discussed the reasons that Solomonic authorship is doubted. As for the “wedding night” context for the poem, I have two comments: On the one hand, an Israelite love poem is very unlikely to depict sex outside of a marital situation. On the other hand, we must be honest and acknowledge that there isn’t a word in the text that suggests such a context. And even if Martin Luther had his druthers, a wedding of King Solomon is hardly the place to celebrate biblical sexual ideals.
Personally, I have no issue with the idea of Song of Songs as a metaphor for divine love, but I must insist that we first and foremost recognize what it is at face value: an exploration and celebration of human sexuality. That’s it. That’s square one. The rush to place it in some other context betrays an unhealthy squeamishness with the very idea of sex. For myself, I find it endlessly reassuring that the bible is so forthcoming and candid on topics like this.
OK, personal story time:
As a young kid I went to a private Christian school, and once a group of us got into trouble on the playground for reading Song of Songs and giggling at the “naughty” parts. A few months later, the school was ravaged by a sex scandal involving a pastor and a secretary, and I was mercifully rescued and released into the public school system. Now that I look back, the irony of the situation is not lost on me. We kids were told that we shouldn’t read Song of Songs because it was inappropriate for us, that we couldn’t grasp the sexual material in the holy way in which it was intended. Meanwhile, the sexual politics among the adults at the school was rotting it all away from the inside. Now, look, BOOK isn’t about preaching or moralizing, so I won’t get into it too deep, but suffice to say the honest take on human sexuality and commitment found in Song of Songs was exactly what all of us needed – kids and adults alike. We all needed to know that sex isn’t some dirty, shameful secret OR some holy, neutered metaphor. It’s real, and it’s not absent from the portrait of humanity sketched out by the bible. OK, this has gotten way too personal and way too preachy…
Well, that’s gonna do it for us today. Next week is Christmas, so I’ll be taking a short break to enjoy the holiday. You do the same, whatever holidays you intend to celebrate. For Jesus, it was Chanukah (in John 10:22-23).
This has been BOOK, a bible podcast for everybody, and I have been Josh Way. If you enjoyed this podcast, I encourage you to share, like, tweet, tweep, kleep, blog, tumbl, stumble, chumble, and flooz it to your online friends and family. If you have any comments, questions or constructive feedback, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also leave a voicemail at 801-760-3013, and maybe I’ll answer it on the podcast. Read the BOOK blog and find more content at BOOK.JOSHWAY.COM. That’s it for me, Bible pals. I’ll catch you next time.