Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

The Song of Songs is a celebration of erotic love,

September 2, 2012

Alternate First Reading
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Commentary on Song of Solomon 2:8-13

The Song of Songs is a celebration of erotic love,

not surprisingly its literal reading was quickly abandoned in favor of allegorical readings in much of Judaism and Christianity where it has been read as symbolizing the love of God or Christ for Israel or the Church. A literal reading requires coming to terms with the raw sexual desire and gratification called for by this woman to her man in the scriptures which many readers found — and find — incompatible with their notion of scripture in spite of the fact that these verses are enshrined and canonized in scripture.

In many readings that do celebrate the sexual love between the couple, their marriage is asserted in spite of the fact that the text does not state that they are married. The man does refer to the woman as his bride (4:8-12; 5:1 and sometimes as his sister) — but it is not clear whether they are betrothed or married, and if they are married why she spends so much time looking for him or they feel the need to sneak around, (see also 1:7; 3:1-4; 5:2-7; 6:1-2; 8:1-2, 14). The Song is attributed to Solomon who is mentioned in it; it is more likely that the Song is dedicated to him through these associations rather than that he is its author or subject.

The Song of Songs is unique in the scriptures for its passionate lyrics extolling the physical love between a woman and a man, and for the dominance of the woman — in voice and agency — in the composition. It can be difficult to distinguish the voices in English; in Hebrew nouns and pronouns and their adjectives and verbs are gendered and numbered for individual and collective women and men or mixed-gender groups, making it possible to identify the speaker and the addressee.

In addition to the two lovers there are at least two groups, the daughters of Jerusalem and a group of male voices (possibly two) who appear in the book; each group acts as a chorus. However in today’s lesson only the woman speaks, she does so quoting the man has spoken to her. For example, the woman says in verse 8, “my [male] beloved…” repeated in verses 9-10. She says that he says to her, “my [female] love…” in verses 10 and 13.

Today’s lesson, like the larger work celebrates human sexuality as part of God’s good creation; the garden setting may well be intended to evoke the Garden of Eden (as convincingly argued by Phyllis Trible in God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality). In the Song, the woman and man are in harmony with one another and with the natural world; the brokenness of relationships between humans and between humans and the earth is healed.

The garden is a sustaining oasis nourishing its human, plant and animal occupants. The woman and man are in an egalitarian, non-hierarchical relationship. Yet the world of the Song is not paradise; there are threats: There is some degree of societal and familial disapproval of their love demonstrated by the attempts of some men to regulate the woman’s sexual expression, (5:7; 8:8-9).

In the unit assigned for this Sunday the lovers articulate their love for each other’s physical person. This text is a lovely reminder that our physical bodies are beautiful and beloved, and that loving relationships occur within and not in spite of human bodies. The lectionary portion begins with the woman extolling the way the man moves in verse 8. Then she exclaims over the way he stands still and looks out the window in verse 9; she is besotted with every little thing he does.

She repeats his words to her — it is unclear when he first spoke them. (The Song is a collection of poems with little underlying narrative or chronological ordering.) The man asks his love to run away with him; it does not appear that they are running away from anything or towards anything. They just want to be together. The natural beauty of the world around them reflects their love, blossoming flowers, fruit-laden trees, singing birds. It is paradise.

The natural world evokes all of the senses as does the love between the couple. The very physicality of this text as scripture is its gift. The woman, man, their love and their world are all God’s good, very good, creation. There is no division between body and soul.

The Greek philosophical tradition that will become so important to the Church Fathers as many of them reject and restrict sensuality, sexual love and bodiliness is unknown here. This text does not share the later dualism separating flesh and spirit inspired by Greek philosophy in which the body and its desires are regarded as being lower or lesser than spiritual things. Body and soul are one here, united in love.

As a part of the larger Christian canon, this passage is also available for an incarnational reading, focusing on the humanity in which Jesus of Nazareth was clothed. That humanity was not just miserable unredeemed flesh, but also joyful, loving, touching, sexually mature flesh.