Biblical Studies

Why I read the Song of Songs V

Auguste Rodin, Kissers
Auguste Rodin (1840–1917), ‘Kissers’

Many of us will have come across statistics like: the average man thinks about sex every seven seconds. I have always thought this to be a rather timid estimate. My fifth reason for reading the Song of Songs is that it makes me think about sex all day.

I have been seriously tempted to hit the ‘Publish’ button after finishing the previous sentence. Perhaps I should have done. I am rather worried though that I could be misunderstood, that I could be taken seriously. Of course, I don’t buy that statistic. It seems ludicrous to me, and yet I do believe that there is nothing wrong with thinking about sex all day. In fact, given Christianity’s tarnished reputation in this area, perhaps more of us should think about sex all day, provided we manage to move beyond that endless preoccupation with sexual ethics to a simple enjoyment of our sexuality and sensuality. Should that not always have been the starting point, in our thinking and our talk about sexuality? The Song of Songs would seem to suggest so.

So, yes, I read this delightful book because it makes me think about love, sex and sensuality. Nothing wrong with that, is there?

Biblical Studies

Why I read the Song of Songs IV

My last post in this series was about the imagery of the Song of Songs. And so is this one, because, having commented on its strangeness, I must say something about its dazzling beauty as well. Or perhaps illustrate it with some further examples:

O that he would kiss me with the kisses of his mouth,
for your lovemaking is better than wine.

You are so beautiful, my love.
You are so beautiful.
Your eyes are doves.

Like an apricot among the trees of the forest,
so is my lover among the young men.
In that shade I always delight to sit;
the fruit is sweet to my palate.

Prop me up among blossoms,
spread me out among apricots,
for I’m sick with love.
His left hand is under my head,
his right hand embraces me.

My lover is mine and I am his.
He feeds among the lotuses.
Until the day breathes
and the shadows flee,
turn, be like a gazelle, my lover,
or like a young stag on the cleft mountains.

You’ve stolen my heart, my sister, my bride.
You’ve stolen my heart with one glance of your eyes,

How beautiful is your lovemaking,
my sister, my bride!
How much better is your lovemaking than wine,

Your lips drip honey, my bride.
Honey and milk are under your tongue …

You are beautiful, my love, as Tirzah,
lovely as Jerusalem,
awesome as the stars.
Turn your eyes away from me,
for they make me tremble.

Come, my lover,
let’s go out into the countryside,
let’s spend the night among the henna shrubs.
Let’s go early to the vineyards
to see if the vine has blossomed,
if their blossoms have opened,
if the pomegranates are in bloom.
There I’ll give you my love.
The mandrakes give off their fragrance;
at our doors are all kinds of delicious fruits,
new as well as old,
which I’ve stored up for you, my lover.

I delight in the fact that the Old Testament features a whole book of love poetry, one of the many reasons why it deserves far more attention than it usually gets these days. I do realise, of course, that these extracts contain some further examples of imagery that may not be entirely intelligible for those unaccustomed to the Song of Songs’ ancient language, but I hope that they nonetheless illustrate its supreme beauty. The translation, still a work in progress, is, as always, my own.

So, my fourth reason for reading the Song of Songs is its beautiful poetry and imagery.

Biblical Studies

Why I read the Song of Songs III

Like an apricot among the trees of the forest,
so is my lover among the young men.

Your hair is like a flock of goats
streaming down Mount Gilead.
Your teeth are like a flock ready to be shorn
that have come up from the washing pool,
every one of them having twins,
not one of them bereaved of offspring.

Like a slice of pomegranate gleams your brow
from behind your locks.
Like the tower of David is your neck,
built to perfection.
A thousand bucklers hang on it,
all kinds of warriors’ shields.
Your breasts are like two fawns,
twins of a gazelle,
which feed among the lotuses.

His cheeks are like a bed of spice,
towers of herbal spices.
His lips are lotuses,
dripping liquid myrrh.

Your belly is a heap of wheat
fenced about with lotuses.

Your eyes are pools in Heshbon
by the gate of Bath-Rabbim.
Your nose is like the tower of Lebanon,
overlooking Damascus.

This stature of yours is like a palm tree
and your breasts like the clusters.

This is a selection of the Song of Songs’ intriguingly exotic imagery. To modern readers, it can be somewhat impenetrable. Even scholars have struggled with it at times and have thought of some of these comparisons and metaphors as ‘bizarre’, ‘grotesque’, ‘comical’ or ‘puzzling’ (as noted by Marcia Falk, Love Lyrics from the Bible: A Translation and Literary Study of the Song of Songs).

That kind of effect was obviously not intended by the author, who in these lines describes the beauty of the Song’s two protagonists. It is simply our distance from the culture that produced this ancient text that causes us such difficulties of perception.

And that brings me to my third reason for reading and studying the Song of Songs, which is my desire to come to a better understanding of the Song’s imagery and poetic language.

Biblical Studies

Why I read the Song of Songs II

My second reason for reading the Song of Songs is connected with the book’s decline in popularity, which I mentioned in my previous post on this topic. I have always been puzzled by the fact that preachers would rather talk about the Parable of the Prodigal Son for the 47th time than explore some new territory. Now I do of course realise that the Song of Songs is not an easy text to preach on, nor is there anything wrong in principle with another sermon on the Parable of the Prodigal Son (provided it’s a good one), but I have always been attracted by the texts that others ignore. The Old Testament features many fascinating texts that hardly ever get a look in, but few perhaps as fascinating as the Song of Songs. Personally, I have been intrigued by this book for over twenty years and so have finally decided to give it some proper consideration.

I’m afraid, my second reason for reading the Song of Songs is therefore just as prosaic as the first: it is that the book tends to be ignored by others. I would like to think though that my reasons for devoting time to the Song (currently, I can think of twelve) are not all as banal as the first two but are getting progressively more interesting as we go along. That’s the idea anyway.

Biblical Studies

Why I read the Song of Songs I

So why do I read the Song of Songs, or more to the point, why am I spending so much time with it? Having raised the question a little while ago, I am conscious that I still owe an answer. Or maybe several.

Here’s my first, which is probably self-evident. Then again, it doesn’t seem to be, at least not to most people. As a Christian, one might have thought that the book being part of the Bible would be reason enough to read it. Sadly, that is not, or perhaps it’s best to say no longer, the case. Having been one of the most read, preached and commented upon books of the Bible in medieval times, the Song of Songs features hardly at all in contemporary Christianity and spirituality.

It is easily demonstrated that the decline of the Song’s popularity began precisely at the point when it was increasingly recognised that it celebrates human love and sexuality rather than being concerned primarily, or even exclusively, with spiritual matters (of course, this is not to deny that there is a deeply spiritual side to our sexuality).

So does the Song of Song’s celebration of human love and sexuality (and the body!) lessen its relevance and importance? I would have thought not. Quite the opposite. But that is a different matter that I shall have to come back to some other time.

For the time being, my first answer is quite simply that I read the Song of Songs because it’s in the Bible.

Biblical Studies

Why read the Song of Songs?

I am hoping, in due course, to share some of the fruits of my engagement with Song of Songs 4:1-7 with readers of this blog. However, before I get on to that, I thought it interesting to address the question why we would want to read this book in the first place. It is, after all, quite an ancient text, which originates from a different time and culture and, being full of rather bizarre-looking metaphors, is not an easy read either. So why might we want to read the Song of Songs?

There won’t be any suggestions just yet. I am happy simply to pose the question for now, although I will be back with some thoughts.