“My beloved speaks and says to me: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. Flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land.” (Song of Songs 2:10-12)
Words from that rarely-read book from the Hebrew Bible, the Song of Songs, and appropriate words they are for this, the first Sunday of Spring.
‘Flowers appear. The time of singing has come’. Winter is now officially behind us, and this regardless of whether the wind and rain have fully acknowledged the new reality on the ground! It is a time of regeneration, of fertility, of celebration and of romance, and it is romance, of course, that is the central theme of this book.
I say ‘of course’ because I assume that you’re familiar with this book though you have every reason not to be familiar with it. Not only is the Song of Songs nestled deeply in the wisdom section of our Old Testament (almost certainly the least well- read section of our Bibles) but it is not a book that our fathers and mothers in the faith have never really encouraged us to read.
There is a problem with this book! The problem is not simply that it is a romance novel. The problem is that it is also quite explicitly a celebration of sex. And the problem is that this book not only celebrates sex in the abstract, but that the celebration is played out between two people who are clearly not married.
“My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag. Look, there he stands behind our wall, gazing in at the windows, looking through the lattice. My beloved speaks and says to me: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away ” (Song of Song 2:9-11)
Evidently the action section of this story lies somewhat ahead of this slice of the story where the man is depicted as stealthily scuttling around his lover’s garden in the middle of the night, throwing rocks at her window and trying to entice her to sneak out and join him. Even so, it’s clear where the whole affair is heading, and ‘affair’ is almost certainly the right word, for they wouldn’t be sneaking around if they were in a publicly legitimized relationship. The two lovers are not married, or if they are married, it’s not to each other!
Now … I appreciate that our church community in Dulwich Hill is often seen as being a bit controversial, most obviously because we try to be an inclusive community and have a history of support for issues like same-sex marriage. Those who would criticize us in that respect generally do so suggesting that we have succumbed to popular pressures impinging on us from outside of the community of faith.
My feeling is that what really threatens to radicalize us is not pressure coming in from the outside. It’s the radical forces agitating from within that are the problem – Scriptural truths that confront us through texts like this in the Song of Songs.
“The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away” (Song of Songs 2:13)
The church has always had problems with this. In truth, our Jewish mothers and fathers in the faith had problems with this long before the church even inherited these texts!
As late as the Council of Jamnia in the year 90, our Jewish Fathers were debating the place of The Song in the Scriptures, after which the battle that was taken up by Church Fathers such as Theodore of Mopsuestia until the Second Council of Constantinople eventually ruled in favour of the Song in the year 553.
During the Reformation the Scriptural status of The Song came up again, with Sebastian Castellio facing off against John Calvin.
We might find it encouraging that both the synagogue and the church did ultimately accept the Song of Songs as holy writ, but let’s not make the mistake of assuming that this was because they were broad-minded.
With the Church Fathers, at least, those who defended the place of The Song in the canon of Scripture did so on the basis that the romance in the book was to be understood as an allegory of the relationship between Christ and His church! Given the overtly sexual nature of that relationship though, the allegory defense does initially strike me as a little weird!
This controversy is all very ancient, and yet it all seems so very contemporary too, and I can’t help but see parallels between those ancient ecclesiastical debates and the contemporary church’s attempts to mandate what constitutes an appropriate sexual relationship between men and women and between men and men and between women and women (and combinations of the above).
It all gets a little messy, doesn’t it? Even so, we (the church) can’t simply stay silent on these matters either, can we? We can’t condone young people racing around and engaging sexually with each other when they aren’t married because it says very clearly in the Scriptures that you can’t have sex unless you’re married.
For instance, it says it in … hang on … I’ve got a verse here somewhere …
The believers are those who protect their sexual organs except from their spouses.”
Whoops. Sorry. That’s the Qur’an (23:5-6)
OK. It does say very clearly “Thou shalt not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14) but that’s not exactly the same thing and, even there, commandments like this need to be understood in their context.
Now … please don’t hear me saying that we should disregard the prohibition against adultery, but I think we should recognise that, in the context of the commandments of the ancient Israelites, the seventh commandment is basically a law prohibiting property theft.
Thou shalt not commit adultery” is right alongside “Thou shalt not steal”, and in many ways anticipates the more comprehensive tenth commandment against coveting.
“Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is his.” (Exodus 20:17)
The use of the male pronoun here is deliberate and instructive, as the prohibition is directed against men who would take another man’s property – be it his house or his ass or his wife or any of his slaves (manservants or maidservants).
We don’t live in that kind of world any more (thanks be to God) – a world where men own women and where men and women own other men and women – and while I’m not suggesting that this makes the ancient commandments redundant, I am suggesting that we need to do our due diligence before directly applying these mandates to our relationships.
We live at a time when, as a society and as a church, we are being challenged to rethink our understanding of both sexuality and marriage. The church at large has been in the forefront of defending traditional models – maintaining the primacy of heterosexual monogamy to the exclusion of all other forms of relationship – but we who are more evangelically minded (who take the Bible as our starting and ending point in these considerations) recognise that the Bible itself embraces a number of different forms of marriage, and that on the subject of sex, our Scriptures have almost nothing to say.
You’ll have to forgive me if that sounds counter-intuitive. Those who haven’t read the Bible in detail might well assume that it has a lot to say about sex because the church has always had a lot to say about sex, and yet the truth is that both the Christian and Jewish Scriptures have very little to say on the subject of sex at all!
This is particularly obvious when we put the Biblical writings in their historic context and compare what is said in the Bible with the role sex played in competing religions.
When we think of the Hebrew Bible, the battle was always between the God of Israel and the Baals – the gods of the Canaanites. The word ‘Baal’ is somewhat generic in that it can be applied to a variety of gods, but when these Baals were turned into graven images, they were generally depicted as bulls with oversized genitals, as they were always fundamentally fertility gods.
Sex was a divine power in the religion of Baalism in all its manifestations. Hence the common practice of temple prostitution. Baalism was a religion of sex because sex was about life, fertility and abundance, and hence about survival.
The contrast between the religious environment of the Old Testament world and that of the New could not be greater in this respect. While Baalism divinized sex – making it a divine force – the religion of the Ancient Greeks, which dominated the spiritual landscape of the Roman Empire, demonized human sexuality!
It wasn’t just sex, of course, that was considered degenerate in the thinking of the Ancient Greeks. It was all that was fleshly. The goal was to elevate mind and spirit above the flesh and the baser instincts, which led to both misogyny towards women (who were seen as being more fleshly) and, simultaneously, to the promotion of pederasty, where older men would enter sexual relationships with younger men, as this was somehow seen as being more spiritual.
I think it goes without saying that the New Testament doesn’t buy into any of this. Indeed, it may be that St Paul’s statements about homosexual sex were directly targeting this kind of pederasty.
My key point, at any rate, is that whereas the religions of Baalism and Gnosticism either divinized or demonized sex, the Hebrew and Christians Scriptures do neither. In the Bible, sex seems to be regarded as human phenomenon.
Before leaving the world of the Bible, and issues of religion and sexuality in the ancient world, I feel compelled to mention briefly the most disturbing thing that I came across in my research on this subject, and that was the data on Roman religion and sexuality – male cult sexuality in particular – as uncovered by Craig Williams in his book on the ideologies of masculinity in classical antiquity1.
You’ll have to forgive me for using a rather explicit term here, but there is no other way of putting it. According to Williams, Roman male sexuality, as enshrined in their ‘cult of virility’ was all about penetration. The Roman male penetrated others – women, other men, children, etc. – but was never penetrated himself because this was how Rome dominated the world. Rome penetrated and dominated others – individuals and countries – but was never penetrated itself.
What makes this so repulsive, in my view, is that it explicitly combines religion with both sex and domination. A religion that combines sex and power is surely the very definition of perversity and spiritual corruption.
If we consider this Roman model alongside the beautiful text of the Song of Songs, the contrast could not be greater.
“O my dove, in the clefts of the rock, in the covert of the cliff, let me see your face, let me hear your voice; for your voice is sweet, and your face is lovely ...” My beloved is mine and I am his” (Song of Songs 2:14-16)
Here we read of no relationship of domination but one of beautiful reciprocity and mutual enrichment. The man speaks, the woman speaks, and neither is subordinated to the other, but both share equally in the joy of their romantic engagement.
This love is not a participation in any divine mystery any more than it is the work of the devil. Their love is theirs, and theirs to enjoy – a beautiful embodiment of what it means to be human, and indeed … an allegory of the relationship between Christ and His church.
Yes, I’ve come around on this one. Of course, I don’t think the relationship between Christ and His church is about sex but, having said that, I don’t think sex is really about sex either. When done right, I believe sex is about intimacy, and the relationship between Christ and His church is indeed also an intimate one – intimate and passionate.
“My beloved speaks and says to me: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land. The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.” (Song of Songs 2:10-13)
Williams, Craig A. (1999). Roman Homosexuality: Ideologies of Masculinity in Classical Antiquity. Oxford University Press.
First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill on Sunday 2nd September, 2018.
Father Dave: Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four – www.fatherdave.org