Readings: Song of Songs 2:1-6; 7:6-8, 11-12
Woman: I am a rose of Sharon, a lily of the valleys.
Man: As a lily among brambles, so is my love among maidens.
Woman: As an apple tree among the trees of the wood,
so is my beloved among young men.
With great delight I sat in his shadow,
and his fruit was sweet to my taste.
4 He brought me to the banqueting house,
and his intention toward me was love.
5 Sustain me with raisins,
refresh me with apples;
for I am faint with love.
6 O that his left hand were under my head,
and that his right hand embraced me!
Man: How fair and pleasant you are,
O loved one, delectable maiden!
7 You are stately as a palm tree,
and your breasts are like its clusters.
8 I say I will climb the palm tree
and lay hold of its branches.
Woman: I am my beloved’s,
and his desire is for me.
11 Come, my beloved,
let us go forth into the fields,
and lodge in the villages;
12 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.
There I will give you my love.
Untitled poem, by Rumi
With passion, pray.
With passion, work.
With passion make love.
With passion eat and drink and dance and play.
Why look like a dead fish
in this ocean
It was the end of my first year in seminary, and I was taking a class on the Song of Songs, a short, relatively unknown book in the Old Testament, or Hebrew Bible. At the same time, I was taking my second semester of biblical Hebrew, and my professor, Wyn, a brilliant woman who could read thirty languages, assigned her students to memorize and recite a short passage of Hebrew. I was working on an exegesis paper for the Song of Songs at the time, so I chose the passage I was working on, Song 8:1-2:
“O that you were like a brother to me,
Who nursed at my mother’s breasts;
I would find you in the street, I’d kiss you,
And they would not despise me.
I would lead you, I would bring you
To the house of my mother—of her who taught me;
I would give you spiced wine to drink,
The juice of my pomegranate.”
When I read this passage in Hebrew class, Wyn just looked at me for a moment, then exclaimed, “That’s in the Bible?!”
It is in the Bible. As is the passage we heard this morning, about breasts like clusters of fruit, and secret assignations in the orchards. And let me tell you, that passage is pretty tame; there are much more explicit lines in the Song of Songs, if you know how to read them. Almost all the language of the book is couched in metaphor, but once you get the feel of the language, you realize it’s pretty shocking stuff.
The Song of Songs, also known as the Song of Solomon or the Canticle of Canticles, gets its name from the Hebrew of the first line: Shir hashirim, literally the song of songs, can also mean “the best song of all,” “the greatest song.” Rabbi Akiva, a great rabbi of the 1st to 2nd centuries, famously said, “The whole world is not worth the day the Song of Songs were given to Israel. All the books of the Bible are holy, but the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies.” And in the Middle Ages, more sermons were preached and more commentaries were written on this book than on any other book of the Bible, aside from the Psalms or the Gospel of John. The reason for this is that the book was read almost purely as an allegory for the relationship between God and the soul, or between God and the church, or between God and the Jewish people. As allegorical interpretation became less common, in the wake of the Protestant Reformation, and with the rise of critical biblical scholarship, the Song became kind of an embarrassment. It is a book without any mention of God, that focuses on the passionate love of two people who enjoy each other’s bodies with abandon.
Over the last 200 years, there have been many discoveries of texts from non-Israelite cultures in the ancient Near East. Many of these have greatly informed our understanding of the Bible, because biblical authors often repurposed these stories and poems, often in a polemical or argumentative way. And like the story of the Flood and the collection of sayings in the book of Proverbs, the Song of Songs has parallels in other ancient texts. In fact, the first named author in the whole world was a woman named Enheduanna, who was high priestess in the ancient country of Sumer, who wrote erotic poetry about the one night each year that she slept with the king of Sumer, in a ritual for fertility and blessing for the gods. An ancient Arabic form of poetry, called the wasf, is closest in genre to the poems in the Song of Songs, consisting mainly of descriptions of the lover, from head to foot.
So it’s easy to see how religious communities may have become uncomfortable with the Song of Songs. What was once taken as an account of the soul’s love for God and God’s for the soul has been found to have started its life as frankly sensual erotic poetry, and most religions have a fraught relationship with sexuality and the body. On top of this, modern, Western culture often has a problem with ambiguity: we tend to want things black and white. We now know that the Song is ancient erotic poetry; therefore, it’s harder for us to see it as an expression of love between human and divine.
But the Song remains in the Jewish and Christian Bibles as a challenge to us. It invites us to do several things: to see bodies, sexuality, and pleasure as intrinsically good; to encourage such celebration as a spiritual gift; and to love and give thanks to the One who created our bodies, and all they can do.
Bodies are sacred in the Song. Both the woman and the man celebrate each other’s bodies and praise them in detail: “Your lips distill nectar,” the man says; “honey and milk are under your tongue; the scent of your garments is like the scent of Lebanon.” And the woman describes her beloved, “My beloved is all radiant and ruddy, distinguished among ten thousand. His head is the finest gold; his locks are wavy, black as a raven.” They find each other intoxicating, describing their state as being “drunk with love.”
The Song gives clues that the lover and her beloved are unmarried: first, they meet in secluded outdoor places, fields and vineyards, places where a married couple would not need to go. Outdoor assignations have always been the prerogative of young or illicit lovers, and the couple in the Song are no exception. Intriguingly, the Song also mentions many substances that were used in the ancient world to prevent conception. So it’s hard to argue that the real focus of the text is marriage or reproduction: no, the focus is on love and taking pleasure in one’s sexuality.
The Song is even more surprising in that it places a woman’s desire front and center. The dominant speaker in the Song, often referred to as the Lover (as opposed to the Beloved, who is male), is a woman, and much of the poem consists of her direct speech. Whereas other biblical texts (Proverbs, for example) warn of the dangers of a forthright, confident, and candidly sexual woman, this book celebrates her. Even in modern culture, which often views frank sexuality as the purview of a man, the role of the woman in the Song can be surprising. We are so used to having depictions of desire mediated to us through the male gaze, with the woman as object, never the desiring, powerful subject. Yet even many of the words of the Beloved in the Song are not direct, but are rather communicated to us through the Lover’s voice. “My beloved speaks and says to me,” the woman says, “ ‘Arise my love, my fair one, and come away.’ ”
In the context of the Song, love is to be celebrated. “Eat, friends, drink, and be drunk with love,” the woman tells her friends. The lovers are depicted as feasting on each other, and on love itself. And the Song revels in nature—in the gardens and vineyards in which the couple meet, the fawns and flowers to which the lovers compare each other, the raisins and apricots they feast on to keep up their strength. In this emphasis on the natural world, the Song celebrates the physical. It is a book about delight.
This is highlighted in Jewish Sabbath celebrations. The Sabbath is, in Jewish theology, the consummation of weekly life, just as heaven is the consummation of earthly life; some Jews speak of the Sabbath as preparation for the delights of heaven. The great Sabbath hymn is called Lecha Dodi, or, “Come, my beloved.” In Jewish liturgy, the Sabbath is a Queen, a queen among brides, and one song speaks of running out to meet her, dressed in fine clothes, lighting candles. But not only is the erotic a metaphor for the delights of Sabbath, the Sabbath is actually set aside as a time when couples should make love! Wayne Muller, in his wonderful book on the Sabbath, explains that the Talmud “prescribes the Sabbath as a time for making love [so that] we feel in our bodies the delicious union with God and our beloved, to bridge any separation we may feel from our divine nature or our natural joy.” So along with singing, worship, feasting with friends, and blessing each other, the Jewish Sabbath is a time for loving sex.
This affinity between Sabbath imagery and theology and the Song of Songs beautifully depicts the way sexuality and spirituality—and metaphorical and literal readings of the Song—can complement and even encourage each other. A spirituality that encompasses the goodness of bodies, the goodness of sexuality, the goodness of the created world, the goodness of physical matter itself—such a spirituality of passion is what many of us need to energize us, to help us fall deeper in love with God and with the world, to stand up for the goodness of both ourselves and those who differ from us. I can’t imagine a better message for our children and grandchildren than that they and their bodies are beautiful, holy, inviolable, and good. I can’t imagine a better message for the world than that matter matters, that this world, as made by God, is sacred and precious and worth protecting. And I think that people of faith especially need this message now, when so many are still judging people with expressions of gender and desire that differ from their own. An erotic spirituality is, perhaps, what the church needs to affirm not only the value of heterosexual sexuality, but also the full humanity and value of its lesbian, transgender, bisexual, and gay members.
I want to be clear that a spirituality of celebration, an erotic spirituality of love and desire for God, for beauty, for wholeness, is not something that only the happily partnered can partake of. It is possible for those who are single, who are separated from their beloved in some way, and for spouses and partners in a difficult stage of their relationship. I think it’s essential here that we do not blur the difference between erotic love and sexual love. Sexual love is an expression of erotic love, but only one expression. The word eros has connotations of a love that desires, that longs, that is passionately engaged in the life and being of the beloved. As David Carr writes in his book, The Erotic Word, the eros to which the Bible calls us “is not an eros that pursues every sexual urge. It is not a flitting to and fro in search of the things that advertising and media tell us we should want. It is identifying and answering God’s deepest call to us through the goodness of creation. It is listening to that part of ourselves that was created for deep connection to others. It is risking vulnerability to God and others in intimacy.”
This can be a terrifying invitation. It is certainly risky to become vulnerable. But there is no love without vulnerability, really. Saying I love you for the first time is a profound emotional risk. Having children is risky. Saying yes to God is risky. God’s love for us is risky. Erotic spirituality is, to paraphrase Frederich Buechner, to go “where our deep gladness meets the world’s deep need,” to take the energy of divine love and use it to transform ourselves, and our world.
Theological language can sometimes hide the biblical picture of God’s relationship with us. Descriptions of God as omnipotent or unchanging obscure the truth of a God who risks everything for love of us, which makes it essential to validate the ancient metaphorical readings of the Song, along with the more modern literal reading. The God of the Song is a God who says longingly to you, “Oh, how beautiful you are, my beloved – your eyes are like doves!” A God who is intoxicated with love of you, saying, “You have captured my heart, my own, my bride, you have captured my heart with one glance of your eyes.” A God who calls us to passionate relationship, to revel in the physical delights of the world God has created, to walk with God in the garden alone, where the dew is still on the roses, to quote from that old hymn.
My prayer for each of us is that we encourage an erotic spirituality, that we love and delight in the pleasures of the world and our bodies as much as we are able, and that we experience the love of God as a life-changing romance, one which affirms us in the very core of our beings, and gives us all healing, and courage, and joy. Amen!