The With-God Life: Song of Songs

A couple of rules I live my life by:

  1. Use the lectionary as an opportunity to read scriptures that are easy to skip over.
  2. Don’t embarrass myself or anyone else by writing about sex.

Normally, these two don’t come into conflict. But I’m writing a daily series of devotions, and today’s readings include some verses from the most erotic text in the Bible: Song of Songs. It concludes:

Make haste, my beloved,
and be like a gazelle
or a young stag
upon the mountains of spices! (Song of Songs 8:14)

So I’m stuck. But at least I’m in good company.

As Tremper Longman (this book’s commentator in the Renovaré Bible) acknowledges, the “presence of such a passionate and intimate book in the canon of sacred Scripture has troubled Jewish and Christian interpreters for as long as we have records of interpretation.” Since the early days of the Church, people as easily embarrassed as me resorted to allegorical interpretation to explain away the overt sexuality of this poem. So verse 10 in today’s selection — “I was a wall, and my breasts were like towers” — had a chaste, ecclesiastical meaning for Ambrose of Milan: “The wall is the church and the towers are her priests, who have full power to teach both the natural and the moral sciences.”

But I think Longman is right that, among its many drawbacks, “the modern era is better suited to recover the sexual frankness of the Song,” which, taken “at face value is part of the remedy against treating body, emotions, and sex as somehow distinct from spirituality. The Song is an incarnational celebration of our spirituality.”

So I’m trying not to overthink, or “desexualize,” the most famous verse in this passage:

Set me as a seal upon your heart,
    as a seal upon your arm;
for love is strong as death,
    passion fierce as the grave. (v 6)

This sculpture in an Austrian cemetery is inscribed with the German translation of “love is strong as death” – Creative Commons (Luftschiffhafen)

Before anything else, this text should make me think about — and feel about — my relationship with my wife. It reminds me that, in the midst of the death inherited from Genesis 3, marriage gives us redemptive glimpses of the whole-person kind of love humans experienced in Genesis 2, when Adam and Eve “were both naked, and were not ashamed” (2:25).

Surely, Longman is right that the woman singing this portion of the song is expressing the Eden-old “desire that we all have to be intimate and safe in the presence of another.” But as surely, he adds, we should not “swing the pendulum too far the other way” and interpret this poem as if it has nothing to say about our relationship with God. Even before becoming “one flesh” with the first woman, the first man experienced intimacy with the God who “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life” (Gen 2:7) and walked through the very garden that Adam kept.

Ambrose interpreted the “seal upon your heart” as Jesus: “that we may always love him,” and that his “image” might “shine forth in our love” of others. But given that I’m in the middle of Jay Phelan’s new book on Judaism, I’m also trying to read this passage in light of the Jewish belief in a God who “is both transcendent and intimate (rather than simply immanent)” (Separated Siblings, p. 24). The first books of Scripture themselves result from the “unprecedented intimacy” that a revealing God gives to Moses (p. 47). The legal texts of the Torah seem to have nothing in common with the erotic poetry of today’s Song, yet “set me as a seal upon your heart” sounds like at least a distant echo of Deuteronomy’s command to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” — words that are to be kept “in your heart” and bound as a sign, if not a seal, “on your hand” (Deut 6: 5, 8).

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