Textbook Leftovers

The Song of Songs

Posted on: March 13, 2011

The Song of Songs (also called the Song of Solomon) is probably the most troublesome feature of the Old Testament for modern Christians. You see, it’s erotic poetry. And it’s right smack in the middle of the Bible.

Anybody who has ever been forced to endure a youth group session on this short poetic book (generally complete with a lesson on abstinence and courting, amirite?) will know that many Christian scholars try to explain that this is meant to be a metaphor for how Jesus loves us, or something like that.

No. Just … no. The poem is pretty explicit, and I don’t want to be thinking about Jesus during it. Like many love poems, the speaker(s) describe different bits of their lover’s body in a lovely poetic fashion, and it’s pretty darn awkward to think about Jesus while reading about how beautiful the human body is to a lover. “Thy lips… Thy neck… Thy two breasts.” “How much better is thy love than wine! and the smell of thine ointments like all spices!”

Or how about: “My beloved put in his hand by the hole of the door, and my bowels were moved for him.”

(And this is completely ignoring the fact that this poem is much, much older than the worship of Jesus, and therefore, cannot possibly actually be a metaphor for him at all.)

Let’s move on, shall we? I have another bone to pick. This book is usually presented as one singular poem, and often as a sort of dramatic tableau with different speakers taking to one another and to a chorus. While I do feel that a large portion of the current 8 chapters probably is a single cohesive dramatic poem (including that chorus, a precursor to the Greek dramatic tradition perhaps), I do not think that all of the current book is part of that same poem.

By my reading, chapters three through to the middle of eight (and possibly the first chapter as well) are indeed part of the poetic dialogue. They “feel” like the same writer throughout, and they tell a full story. However, the second chapter really sticks in my mud. It seems to have a very different voice and style, and the imagery is much more tame and dry. This chapter could conceivably be religious in nature (although I do wonder whether the Jewish people in Solomon’s time had that sort of “God loves me” relation to their God). As love poetry, it has too much “distance,” but from a religious perspective, it’s comforting and beautiful.

The dramatic dialogue that seems to make up the bulk of this entry is truly worth a look for those looking for love poetry. It speaks to the deep joy that lovers have in one another, as well as the insecurity and doubt that we all experience with our lovers. Both man and woman speak their minds eloquently, supported (maybe?) by the chorus (the “Daughters of Jerusalem) throughout their journey.

The last bit of chapter eight is very choppy reading, to my eyes. After much work, I finally broke it down thusly: the first several sentences make up the conclusion of the dialogue, followed by a short bit that seems to be spoken by a mother, and finally another short bit spoken by a girl and her brothers (possibly the same girl from the dialogue). I could be desperately wrong, but this is the configuration that makes the most sense to me.

I’d like to close by quoting the section that I believe is spoken by a mother. It contains some beautiful lines, and I can’t say it better.

“Who is this that cometh up from the wilderness, leaning upon her beloved? I raised thee up under the apple tree: there thy mother brought thee forth; there she brought thee forth that bare thee.
Set me as a seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm: for love is as strong as death; jealousy is as cruel as the grave: the coals thereof are coals of fire, which hath a most vehement flame.
Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it: if a man would give all the substance of his house for love, it would utterly be condemned.”

In the end, this book is never going to fit into today’s conservative Christian agenda (and still make any sense.) But that is okay! Because, if God’s opinion about things matters to you, you can take comfort in the fact that he thinks that sex is important enough to include in the Bible. Love and all its turmoil is timeless, and it matters.

[Housekeeping note: There are several more selections from the Old Testament in the NAWL, but I decided to leave them out. I have my reasons.]

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2 Responses to "The Song of Songs"

LOL. I once told a group of conservative Christians online that the church doesn’t have breasts, and they were flabbergasted that I would suggest that. Its true.

LOL that’s awesome, Mar. They sure are a predictable bunch.
I guess I have to summarize my feeling for SoS thus: as religious text, it’s ridiculous and stupid (except for the second chapter maybe). As love poetry, it’s not the best I’ve ever read (the Egyptian love poetry I reviewed a while back holds that medal for now), but it’s good. And I do like that whoever decided that it was canon apparently thought that sex was worth including. 😉

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