“The voice of my beloved! Look, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills.” (Song of Songs 2:8)
It’s a verse from the ‘Song of Songs’, and if you didn’t recognise it that’s OK. It’s probably not one you learnt as a memory verse in Sunday school. Indeed, I don’t think verses from the Song have ever been taught in Sunday school, and this for obvious reasons! The book is a part of the plastic-sealed section of the Bible. It only gets opened once every three years in most churches!
That’s certainly how our church lectionary deals with the Song of Songs – allocating us only one small snippet of the book once every three years, and that’s surely not because the book is too boring. On the contrary, the problem may be that it’s just too saucy!
The Song of Songs is a book that deals with adult themes (to use the language of the Australian Film and Classification Board). More specifically, it is a book about sex and romance, and so (not surprisingly) it has been at the centre of a great deal of ecclesiastical debate over the centuries!
It is often said of our white-Australian culture that we are obsessed with sex. I think that is probably quite correct, and that may be equally true of other Australian sub-cultures and of any number of other cultures around the world at the moment. I’m not sure. If we do though live in a sexually-obsessed society perhaps it should be a basis for some pride that we, as Christians, can lay claim to a long history of sexual obsession!
Nobody over the last few centuries has talked more about sex than the church, though, in contrast with our non-church-going contemporaries, our focus has generally been on mandating a list of thou-shalt-not’s to the broader community rather than with celebrating freedom of sexual expression.
I read an interesting essay many years ago on the sexuality of Jesus – a topic that I’ve never seen much written about since. I remember well though the basic thesis of the article – namely, that while both the church and the broader culture may be obsessed with sex, the Christian Scriptures themselves are not!
The author pointed out that most ancient religious texts tend to either divinise or demonise sexuality – seeing it either as a divine force from above or as the devil’s own source of power! The Bible, on the other hand, seems content to treat human sexuality as a human issue!
Jesus never really touches on the subject of sex as such, and the New Testament as a whole likewise has very little to say about it, especially when compared to other traditional religious texts. The Hebrew Bible likewise doesn’t have a lot to say about sex or romance except at one point, and that point is here – in the Song of Songs – where it’s all about sex and romance!
“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; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone” (Song of Song 2:9-11)
Evidently the action section of this story still lies somewhat ahead of today’s reading, 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 I use the word ‘affair’ deliberately, for the real scandal of the passage is that these two lovers don’t appear to be married! Indeed, the whole depiction of them sneaking around necessitates that we assume that they are not in a publicly legitimized relationship!
“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 2:12-13)
It’s not only the church fathers that had a problem with this. Our Jewish mothers and fathers in the faith struggled with it before they did! Even as late as the Council of Jamnia in AD 90, the Jewish Fathers were debating the place of the Song of Songs in the Scriptures. As to the church, Theodore of Mopsuestia was probably the most prominent Church Father to question the legitimacy of the Song, though he was overruled by the Second Council of Constantinople in 553 which defended the place of the Song in Scripture!
During the Reformation, controversy over the book arose again as Sebastian Castellio was forced to leave Geneva, unable to be reconciled with John Calvin over whether the Song should not be torn from the pages of holy writ!
What these churchmen had trouble with was not simply the bawdy nature of the Song but equally with the fact that it never seems to mentions God. In its apparent godlessness the Song is only rivalled by one other Biblical text – namely, the Book of Esther – a book that is as notorious for its wanton violence as the Song is notorious for its apparent celebration of debauchery!
Both books had their defenders too, of course, and in the case of the Song, most of the greatest minds in the history of both Christian and Jewish debate have ultimately recognised the Song of Songs as being inspired Scripture. Even so, the only thing that we may find disconcerting about those who have defended the Song is that they’ve always done so on the basis of allegorisation.
Allegorisation is that approach to Biblical interpretation where passages are not taken literally but are instead treated as being something like parables, where each element in the text is taken as being a symbol for something else. Those who take this approach don’t see the Song as a celebration of human love at all, but rather as an allegory of the love between God and humanity or, in the case of specifically Christian thinkers, as an allegory of the love between Christ and His Church!
In the standard Christian allegorical interpretation of the Song of Songs, the man in the story is Christ and the woman is the church. His kisses (1:2) are the Word of God while the girl’s dark skin (1:5) is sin. Her breasts (which are referred to with discomforting regularity [eg. 7:7]) are seen as the church’s nurturing doctrines, and her two lips (4:11) are the law and the gospel (the latter lip obviously being the softer and the sweeter of the two)!
Most troubling of all in the history of Christian allegorical interpretation of the Song of Songs, in my opinion, has been the popular association (first made by St Ambrose) of the woman with the Virgin Mary! Not only can I personally see no reason to associate the woman with Mary, but any balanced reading of the text would suggest that the girl in the story is almost certainly not a virgin!
Now I apologise if that statement leaves you thinking, ‘this is hardly the sort of subject we should be discussing in church’, but that surely begs the question! For this is today’s reading, and if there is a place for the Song of Songs in our weekly Bible readings then this is exactly the sort of subject that is brought before us this morning for discussion!
The association of the young maiden in the Song of Songs with the Blessed Virgin is, I believe, unsustainable, and for this and for any number of other reasons you would be hard pressed today to find any prominent Biblical scholar who takes the allegorical interpretation of the Song of Songs seriously – at least in so far as upholding that this is how the original author (or authors) of the song intended it to be read. No. The Song was written as a love poem, and it was most surely originally intended to be read as a love poem.
The Song of Songs was composed as a celebration of human sexuality, and the sad history of debate over this book’s place in the Bible, and the history of its defense by the way of allegorisation, probably says more about the church and our negative view of human sexuality than it does about the Bible which, as I’ve suggested, doesn’t actually have a lot to say on the subject, but what it does have to say – most notably here in the Song of Songs – is overwhelmingly positive.
I found it helpful when thinking about this to take a step back (so to speak) and look broadly at the Biblical teaching on sexuality, on the one hand, and the history of ecclesiastical debate about sexuality on the other, as I think it may be paradigmatic of the way we as Christians work (or rather, fail to work).
When it comes to issues of human sexuality, the Biblical record is not extensive and most of the relevant texts (such as these in the Song of Songs) are rarely read or quoted, and yet it seems that the church has always been in the forefront of debate on sexual issues and has historically been the last line of defense against any and every sexual revolution!
As I say, I think that this pattern may be somewhat paradigmatic. When we think of other similar issues that the church has focused on, and continues to focus on with great energy, such as marriage equality and homosexuality, these too are issues about which the Bible says very little (Jesus indeed said nothing about homosexuality) and yet they have become major points of debate within the church that threaten to tear entire denominations apart!
The tragic flipside of all this, of course, is that when it comes to the issues that the Bible does focus on extensively – such as caring for the poor, sharing our wealth, and not being religious hypocrites – so often we have nothing to say!
Now I know it’s not a black and white situation, and I know that there are plenty of Christians who are not obsessed with sex and gender issues, just as there are plenty of wonderful Christian people around the world and throughout the history of the church that have given themselves sacrificially in service to the poor. Even so, the big picture is unsettling, and as someone who still sees himself as an evangelical, my feeling is that this reflects a fundamental failure to take the Bible seriously and to reflect in our communal life the priorities of Scripture!
I don’t want to conclude today on a cynical and condemning note – not when preaching on the Song of Songs – and I don’t even want to leave you with a feeling of cynicism concerning the way in which the church has handled this book historically by transforming it into an allegory as I think that, on one level, it’s quite correct to read the Song of Songs as an allegory!
I remember I discussed this issue some years ago with my dear friend Father Elias (who is both a mad monk and a great academic) and I was scoffing at the history of allegorical interpretation of the Song and he was agreeing with me for the most-part but concluded by saying “Yes, but in the end it has to be an allegory of the love between Christ and the church because no one loves us with greater passion than He does!” And I guess that’s right!
The Song of Songs is about love, and God is about love. Indeed, as St John says, ‘God is love’ (1 John 4:8), and so if we’re singing about love we must at the same time be singing a hymn of praise to God, for God is love and all love is God’s love. I appreciate, of course, that there is a real distinction be made between human sexuality and romance, on the one hand, and divine love on the other. Even so, we make a big mistake, I think, if we conceive of God’s love as therefore being something purely spiritual and sterile. Christ’s cross is His passion, and embodies the passionate love God has for us!
In Christ the Word of God comes to us in a way that is far more tangible than mere words. God comes to us in the body of Christ, showing us that there is room in the person of God for all that is truly human, and He bleeds for us in His body – loving us in a way that is just as bold and confronting as anything we find in the Song of Songs!
In affirming this allegorical reading of the Song of Songs I’m not suggesting that we need to downplay the saucy (or even bawdy) elements of the text. The allegory rather reminds us that Christ doesn’t simply love His people (the church) with nice words spoken from distance, but that He loves us in a way that is up close and personal, with His body and His blood!
As holy writ in the canon of Scripture, the Song of Songs is an allegory – a hymn of praise to the God of love. It is at the same time what it was originally composed to be – a celebration of human sexuality and romance – and we will not have appreciated the impact of the Song of Songs today if we don’t go home feeling inspired to spread the love In some creative way!
That might sound like a very dangerous exhortation to close with when dealing with this particular piece of Scripture, but let’s be honest – falling in love with Jesus is a dangerous thing to do!
There was a time when I considered offering grape juice in addition to wine at our Communion table, until a wise man said to me ‘grape juice is a refreshing (if someone insipid) thirst-quencher on a hot day. Wine, on the other hand, is volatile stuff! You’ve got to know how to handle it! If you have too much of it you can get a little amorous and a bit crazy! Which of those two sounds more like the Gospel to you?’
And so we stick with wine only at Communion here, and we continue to read and to preach from the Song of Songs!
“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 … Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.”
First preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, on Sunday the 30th of August, 2015.