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Five Scrolls: Song of Songs

On Sunday, we reached the end of our series on the Hamesh Megillot, with the fifith of the five scrolls, Song of Songs. As with the previous four installments, you might like to watch this video which gives an overview of the book, as well as reading the following notes.

I think the Song of Songs may have a claim to being the most difficult book of the Bible to teach on. Along with Esther, it is one of only two books of the Bible that doesn’t even mention God, and so its inclusion in the scriptures seems a little surprising. And it contains more innuendo than an episode of the Great British Bake Off, making a little racier than the material you expect to hear from the lectern. Still, it made it into the canon, and so we’re going to have a crack at it.

The name Song of Songs uses a formulation common in Hebrew - it follows the same pattern as king of kings and the holy of holies - and means that it is the best of songs. Even set against the beauty and emotion of the Psalms, this was seen as something special. It is also known as the Song of Solomon, although it is very unlikely that Solomon wrote it. Solomon does appear very briefly, but as a minor third person character, and most scholars date the song as later than Solomon’s time. It seems more likely that his name became attached to the song to give it more kudos, or because it was thought to be after the fashion of Solomon.

The book consists of a series of poems in which two lovers express their desire for one another. And desire really is the operative word here. In the first place, because for most of the book they are separated, and are expressing their longing for one another. The woman speaks of searching the streets for her love, and in several places appears to be dreaming of him. In the second place, because these two really fancy each other. They speak of physical intimacy, and many of the man’s lines are given over to descriptions of his lover’s body. As compliments go, they’re fairly unusual - I’m not sure I’d be too flattered if my husband described my hair as being like a flock of goats and teeth as being like sheep - but I can only assume from the tone in which they are delivered that, in a different context, they would have painted a much more alluring picture. The point is that there is a very physical dimension to their love, which is expressed without shame or abandon.

Throughout the course of the poem, we do learn a little about the two lovers. The main speaker is the woman, who says her skin has been darkened by the sun because her brothers forced her to labour in their vineyards, while her lover is described as fair and she searches for him among the city streets. They sound like they have come from two different worlds - she a hardworking country girl and he a privileged city boy - and her family seem determined to keep them apart. This is a relationship against the rules and against the odds.

This sense that they are transgressing boundaries is only heightened by the fact that there is no suggestion that they are married or even betrothed. The woman does caution against awakening love until it is ready, but she doesn’t make clear what ‘ready’ means, and it is difficult to read this as the traditional advice to wait until marriage given the unbridled passion of the rest of the song. I’m not going to try and unpack the rights and wrongs of Christian sexual ethics now, but I do think we need to recognise that this is certainly not the puritanical image of sex that we expect to find from a religious text. Which is why it’s really important to remember that this is a religious text. God may not be named, but because we find this song in the pages of the Bible, he hovers at the edges of the words, and that reminds us that love is a divine gift, and a joyous one at that.

Read plainly, Song of Songs is a celebration of romantic and sexual love, in all of its taboo breaking messiness and glory. A few years ago, a member of our church in Leeds produced and directed a theatre show called Dancing Bear, which dealt with the intersections of gender and sexuality and faith. One scene used some of the text of Song of Songs, with the woman’s lines being introduced with “the straight women and the gay men and the bisexual women and the bisexual men say...”, and the man’s lines being introduced with “the straight men and the gay women and the bisexual men and the bisexual women say...”. It was a beautiful way of gently pushing the text, opening it up to become an even more expansive celebration of love.

I said that read plainly, Song of Songs is a celebration of romantic and sexual love because that is not the only way to read it. There was some controversy over its inclusion in the canon of the Hebrew Bible, and it seems that one of the reasons it was accepted was that it had come to be read as an allegory for the love between God and Israel, a Jewish reading which led to a Christian interpretation of it as an allegory for the love between Christ and the church.

Human relationships are used as a metaphor in this way in several other places in the Bible - in the Old Testament, God declares he will betroth himself to Israel, while Israel’s idolatry is compared to a wife’s idolatry; and in the New Testament, the church is pictured as the Bride of Christ, while husbands are called to love their wives as Christ loves the church - so this approach has not been plucked from nowhere, but I am not entirely convinced this was the original intent of the text, and such readings have more recently fallen out of favour. The trope of relationship as metaphor is made clear where it occurs elsewhere in the Bible, but there is absolute nothing in Song of Songs that says that is what is happening, and to overwrite its plain and very human meaning with a figurative and overly spiritualised one loses much of what it has to say to us, and devalues the relationship it does portray.

Having said that, I do think there is something we can take from the allegorical readings of this text, because I believe that our human relationships can teach us about our relationship with the divine, in a way that doesn’t underestimate the former by implying that they are only intended to point to the latter. Emmanuel Levinas believed that God was revealed most clearly in the face of the other, and Victor Hugo declared that “to love another person is to see the face of God”. Our relationships with those around us have meaning and value in themselves, and we should celebrate them for all the joy and wonder they bring, but they can also help us to understand what it means to be loved by God. The relationship between the two lovers in the Song of Songs is beautiful as it is, and it doesn’t need to be any more than that in order to be a thing worth celebrating in scripture, but it can also serve as a picture of the passion God has for us.

To try and further illustrate what I mean, and suggest what this may mean in our own lives, I want to end with video I filmed for a series of Lent reflections shared by the Yorkshire Baptist Association in 2017, and then I encourage you to reflect on how your relationships - with partners or children or parents or friends - have revealed something of God to you.

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