Song of Songs 5:1-6a; Matthew 4:1-11
The book most of us grew up calling Song of Solomon is now more frequently being referred to as Song of Songs. When we called it Song of Solomon, we did so because we thought it was written by Solomon or at least attributed to him. However, as the book has begun to be more deeply read and examined, we’ve come to realize that at least 60% of the book is written from a woman’s point of view.
In fact, though the action of the book can be a little difficult to follow at times, the female narrator has a distinct voice as she makes her case for being allowed to be with the man she loves. We may long have attributed the book to Solomon because it’s kind of a racy book and, according to biblical sources, Solomon knew his way around a, ahem, bedchamber. (See 1 Kings 11:3)
That worried feeling that you having right now, the one that I might start talking about sex, that feeling has accompanied biblical interpreters for years when they come to Song of Songs. A book that so frankly approaches human desire and physical longing makes everyone a little nervous. And, when the clergy was mostly male and celibate, a book that makes feminine sexuality couldn’t be interpreted as anything but allegory.
So, for much of history, allegorical interpretation was the way Song of Songs was read. It was considered a demonstration of God’s love for Israel, Christ’s love for the church or even the Spirit’s love for the individual soul. But look at what we read today. Does anything in that passage make you think of God’s love?
Stay with me here for a moment. I don’t think Song of Songs was initially included in the Hebrew Scriptures because it’s allegorical. In some deep way, this book expresses a truth about how human relationships reveal divine love. In some way, this book’s uncomfortable stanzas about the desire of the body for fulfillment help us to be in touch with our struggle in what it means to be human.
Songs of Songs is part of the Wisdom literature, like Psalms, Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes. We don’t interpret Psalms allegorically. We read the psalms of joy, the psalms of lament, the psalms of anger and fear and the emotions resonate with us. We learn from the Psalms that there is no human cry that God has not already heard and, therefore, we should not be afraid of our prayers. Proverbs and Ecclesiastes are interpreted as wise sayings or philosophy. We don’t make them allegory. And we read Job, again and again, to understand how we can keep going in the face of tragedy and for the assurance of God’s presence and awareness of our pain.
If allegorical interpretation is not generally a part of Wisdom literature, why would we apply it to Song of Songs? Is it possible that this book, this poem of poems, was brought into the Scripture because it celebrated the mysteries of human love, an experience we believe God created us to enjoy?
Song of Songs is very similar to other ancient Middle-Eastern love poems that were used as funeral or wedding songs, affirming the power of love in life and over death. Is it possible that this book, this poem of poems, was brought into the Scripture because it celebrated the mysteries of human love, an experience we believe God created us to enjoy?
That’s the hard part. Most of us have absorbed and internalized negative ideas about bodies, about sex, and about our physical selves that we are unable to separate those feelings from what we think about God. That’s the first temptation of the devil with regard to our physical selves. If we can be made to believe that God is only interested in our souls, we will either ignore our bodies to their detriment or we will think what we do with them doesn’t matter.
If God didn’t want us to have bodies, God wouldn’t have given them to us. If our physical selves didn’t matter, then God would not have sent the Son, in the flesh, so that we might know more fully God’s love. In addition, Jesus’ temptation in the desert wouldn’t matter because we would have nothing to gain from knowing God’s body was hungry, tired or bruised. Furthermore, if God had no interest in our bodies, then we would be able to God’s work with our minds. How’s that working out for any of you?
The second temptation of the devil with regard to our bodies is that if God so loves our bodies, then sex corrupts them. True enough, through lust, shame or misuse, sex can cause us to sin and to feel separated from God and from other people. However, that’s not the only thing that can happen. The church draws boundaries around sex not because of its corrupting power, but because of its creative power. I don’t just mean creative power in the sense that you can procreate through sex. I mean that sex makes co-creators with God. A healthy sexual relationship between two committed adults nurtures respect, hope, confidence and future fulfillment. In that love-making, we get a glimpse of God’s hope for us, God’s desire for the fulfillment of creation, God’s deepest desires for our redemption. That’s powerful and God desires that for us as much, or more, than we desire it for ourselves, not some cheap imitation of it.
The third temptation of the devil is that if our bodies matter, then our bodies define us. Each of us, right now, could probably fill a sheet of paper with what we would like to fix about our physical selves. Some of us might have a slightly longer list, some of us shorter ones. Some of the repairs might be cosmetic while others are for deeper physical struggles. Some people really struggle with their physical image and the way they feel about their bodies gets in the way of their ability to believe in God’s grace. If you have changes to make, make them and if things can’t be changed, let them go. The woman speaker in Song of Songs had very dark skin, a flat chest and hair that looked like a flock of goats running down a mountain. She thought she was beautiful, as did her lover, and we’re still talking about her as a paragon of beauty. God defines us through Christ and Christ’s body alone.
Song of Songs deserves our attention as the deep, erotic hymn to human love that it is. This hymn of hymns keeps us from ghettoizing our sexual selves, keeps our bodies at the forefront among our gifts from God, reminds us of women’s voices in Scripture and in the world and serves as resistor to temptations from the forces that oppose God. That’s pretty good for a book with only 117 verses.
At its finest, the Scriptures remind us of what it is to be human, both the highs and lows, and where God meets us in our humanness. “I opened to my beloved, but my beloved had turned and was gone.” That verse alone reminds us why Song of Songs isn’t allegorical. Human love, even its best form, bring disappointment. God’s love for us does not fade, not for our spirits, not for our bodies, not for eternity.