Holy of Holies: Returning to Eden – the Song of Songs, Sexuality & SpiritualityAuthor: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Bible, Contemporary Ethics, Exegesis, Hebrew Bible, Sexuality, Song of Songs
“For in all the world there is nothing equal to the day on which the Song of Songs was given to Israel, for all the writings [i.e. Scriptures] are Holy, but the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies.” (Rabbi Akiba, Mishnah, Yadaim 3.5)
“Holy love is the only subject treated in this Song. We must remember that love reveals itself, not by words or phrases, but by action and experience. It is Love which speaks here, and if anyone wishes to understand it, let him first love. Otherwise it would be folly to read this song of love, because it is absolutely impossible for a cold heart to grasp the meaning of language so inflamed.” (Bernard of Clairvaux, Sermon 70.1)
Song of Songs: Entering the Holy of Holies
The Bible. Sexuality. What word comes to mind next? Very few people I know, Christian or otherwise, would exclaim “Spirituality.” Indeed though, as Richard Davidson has massively shown, “Sexuality is writ large on the pages of the OT”  the church, long infected with virus of Platonic dualism, has often made the assumption that Spirituality and sexuality are polar opposites. Because the church has viewed it this way the world has no reason to disagree!
The Song of Songs has always been a dangerous book for many precisely because it so viciously attacks any notion of dualism and is so unabashedly … erotic. Erotic is the correct word – not pornographic – but erotic. And it is in the Bible. Which by its very nature demands we examine our, often, not only unbiblical, but anti-biblical assumptions about Spirituality and sexuality. Those are two notions that lie at the very core of being a human. Churches, and the world, are hurting deeply for the lack of witness of the Song of Songs.
Though many churches/Christians act as if they are embarrassed by the Sublime Song of Songs (echoes of the notion that sexuality is somehow tainted or less than holy – i.e. dualism!) it has historically been one of the most important books in the Christian canon. In another post I will give a brief overview of the history of the book, but for now we can say that during the medieval period the Song was viewed as a sort of Fifth Gospel! There are more surviving Latin manuscripts of the Song of Songs than any other biblical book. There are more medieval sermons from the Song than any other biblical book except the Psalms. Origen produced a massive 10 volume commentary on the Song. For comparison purposes there are 32 surviving Latin commentaries on the Song from the 6th to 11th centuries while Romans is represented by 9 and Galatians by 6. Bernard of Clairvaux (of whom I will say much more later) spent eighteen years studying, singing, praying and preaching through the Song … and only made it to the beginning of chapter 3. The Jews have historically affirmed a very high view of the Song as witnessed by Rabbi Akiba and that the Song is read publicly as the text for the holiest worship day of the year – Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement).
Today the Song is, honestly, practically ignored among most Evangelical type Christians. It is true that much of the history of interpretation of the Song has been allegory but still the church was not afraid to read and preach the Song. However, as Roland Murphy has pointed out, with Bernard specifically in view, “it is paradoxical that Bernard, for all his allegorical flights, often captured the literal meaning of a passage ON THE LEVEL OF EXPERIENCE” . The monks understood on an intuitive level that God was in the mix – even in sexuality.
Yet it was the cancer of Platonic dualism drove many to view sexuality itself as nothing more than a “necessary evil.” Thus the Song could not actually be celebrating something that was merely a necessary evil – that is needed for procreation. It was believed that to be truly “spiritual” one had to transcend the body, its functions and its needs/desires. This same worldview, and doctrine, moved some early Christians to deny the reality of the physical incarnation of the Logos and the Gnostics to deny the physical bodily resurrection of Christ and of believers. The Song is a neo-platonic ascetic nightmare! It had to be “fixed!” For many that solution was allegory but we will see that Bernard though he embraced allegory never de-sexed the Song.
Modernists, with a “modern” worldview, often claim the Song is “secular.” This is even the view of many Christians, who radically misunderstand their own faith and worldview. These readers fail to grasp the worldview of ancient Israel – NOTHING WAS SECULAR in ancient Israel! These Israelites did not walk around dividing their days into sacred and the secular as the heirs of the Enlightenment do. They did not have “spiritual” time and “secular” time. Instead they viewed life holistically.
Love is a human passion that is God inspired. Those readers who do not see “God” in every line of the Song have a malady that is largely self-inflicted. For the Israelite every moment of life was “infected” by God and this included sexuality. There are many “echoes” in the Song of other biblical stories so much so that ancient Israelite would in fact have seen sexuality, marriage, and burning desire for you mate as sacred. There is no dichotomy: Sexuality is Sacred precisely because it is from God … and because that passionate intimacy mysteriously mirrors God’s own Trinitarian passion. More on that later too.
There are many connections between the Sublime Song and the first three chapters of Genesis and I will argue for these as my blogs move forward . In the Garden of Eden, the Bible remembers a paradisaical world. It was a world of love, a world of shalom, a world of mutuality, a world lacking shame.
The Fall, Genesis 3, reveals that this world of beauty has been vandalized, even raped. The world in which Israel actually lived, that you and I live in, is a post Genesis 3 world. A world full of sub par relationships on every level. The “symphony of love” begun in Eden becomes the “cacophony of abuse” in the Fallen world.
But I submit to you that the Song of Songs pictures the redemption of that symphony of love … the Song is God’s call for a return to Eden in the most holy relationship known to humanity – that between a husband and a wife. In the sexual relationship the Song loudly, and proudly, proclaims Paradise Regained. Even in the Fallen world we can experience Eden in our relationships – that is the vision of the Sublime Song. As we will see the Song does not see the couple as the “first couple” from Genesis. The Song is deeply aware that we live in a Fallen world but it shows the the woman and the man rediscovering Edenic values in even the most intimate area of their relationship. They relish one another.
Sex is Good
In light of my conviction that Akiba was right, that the Song of Songs is inherently Spiritual, and inherently theological, I offer the following seven themes as a mini-Song of Songs theology of Sex as we move into these blogs. I believe these are all the Edenic values that God desires to be in our marriages. Each of these could be expanded greatly but for now I offer just brief commentary.
First, and this is so important, Sexuality is GOOD. Underlying the Song of Songs is the same profound Doctrine of Creation that permeates all of the Hebrew Bible. It is this high view of creation that biblical Spirituality revels in. The Song of Songs is the verbal photo commentary on Ecclesiastes 3.11, God “has made everything beautiful in its time.” The Song extols and exhibits the creation of sexuality by God in Genesis 2.
Second, Sexuality is for Couples. Some have proposed various roles for Solomon, the shepherd and the woman. I have doubts that Solomon has any real role in the Song at all. Rather I see the woman calling her man “Solomon” is ancient flattery like a woman today bragging on her husband saying he is hotter than Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt or even Batman. This kind of ancient flirting is actually paralleled in the Ancient Near East as seen vividly in Egyptian love songs. In a return to Eden this couple is utterly “in to each other” and they make no Platonic apologies for it. May more wives and husbands embrace this biblical Spirituality.
Third, Sexuality, contrary to the Fall, is egalitarian. The Sublime Song represents a complete reversal of the values of the Fall. The woman in Song of Songs is hardly a passive docile “lady” in the Victorian Ideal. The egalitarian note is sung by her in 2.16 “my beloved is mine and I am his!” In fact the Woman Lover is the dominant personality in the Song. She carries on the majority of the dialogue (81 verses to 49). She initiates the meetings for lovemaking, she extols his “beauty” passionately … in fact the man has no extensive voice until chapter 4. One of the most interesting questions in the Song is whether or not 7.10, “I am my lover’s and his desire (tesugah) is for me” is a commentary of sorts on Genesis 3.16, “your desire (tesugah) will be for your husband.” In the relationship, as God created it and as God desires it and the Song pictures it the man and woman in a mutual joyful love.
Fourth, related to the above theme, Sexuality is about wholeness. We are not creationally “whole” by ourselves. This theme is graphically shown in the Song by the anxiety the lovers feel during periods of the mate’s absence (3.1-3; 5.6). Absence brings out the meaning of “presence” for the lovers. Lovers need each other to be whole. Each is capable of being independent but they have become “one flesh.”
Fifth, Sexuality is multidimensional. Perhaps we can see the passionate love in the Song as a “live performance” of Genesis 2.24-25. The man is free and unfettered in the Song, and so is the woman. The woman and the man are in a free and spontaneous relationship. Within the Song they are in love for the sake of love. They find joy in mutual physical attraction with unapologetic, and sensually explicit, praise for one another as well as inward qualities of one another. Their relationship is total. After making him feel like he is Mr. Universe she turns and says “this is my beloved and he is my friend” (5.16). The Song reveals fidelity, loyalty and devotion to ones lover. The relationship is God’s creational gift in its totality.
Sixth, Sex, is by God’s design and intent, Pleasurable. Christians with a biblical worldview (as opposed to a neo-platonic, even neo-Gnostic, worldview) should not shy away from this. But sexuality is not simply intercourse but we need not be platonically ashamed or embarrassed of the goodness and “fun” of sex in our covenant relationship. Too long have we in the Church given the impression that a husband or wife are somehow less than Spiritual, holy, or godly if they are sexually excited by their spouse. They are supposed to be!
It is overlooked often so it needs to be stated forthrightly … and in light of what many have claimed in the past … sexuality is not by God’s design fundamentally about procreation. That belief is a concession to Platonic dualism with no basis in Scripture at all. The Song of Songs contains not a single reference to the procreative function of sexuality. As in Genesis 2, the sexual relationship between the Lovers is not linked to any utilitarian agenda. Sex in our covenant relationship does not need any justification to a “superior” end. The union of the lovers – the intimacy – alone is the joy and purpose of sexuality. The Song is not hostile to babies coming but that is not presented as the purpose of sexual intimacy. The Oneness, the intimacy, points beyond itself and mirrors our union with God himself. No wonder it is rapturous!
Seventh, finally, Sexuality is beautiful. Sexuality itself is presented in the Sublime Song as wholesome, good, enjoyable, something that is desired, that is enjoyed without the slightest embarrassment … it is beautiful! As in Genesis 2, the Lovers in the Song are “naked and … NOT ASHAMED!” Far from shame they relish it!
Final Song Thoughts
In the Song of Songs, though we live in the Fallen world, we have returned to the Garden of Eden. Though living in a sinful world Lovers, even after the Fall, can still bask in the beauty of Paradise. The vision of the Song of Songs for our marriage relationship is nothing short of breathtaking. It is a vision we need to teach, preach, proclaim … and model.
God knew what he was doing when he gave Israel the Song of Songs. Rabbi Akiba was right. Bernard was right! One will never understand such passionately, even erotically, “inflamed” language if he or she is not first a lover. The plain, literal, sense of the Song of Songs is fraught with Spiritual and theological significance. From the “Old Testament” perspective God is everywhere involved in the Song and his creatures are shown enjoying his good gifts. They are shown basking and demonstrating Yahweh’s own passionate love. Their love is just a reflection of that divine love. At the climax of the Song we read
“For Love is as strong as death,
passion as fierce as the grave;
The flash of it is a flash of fire,
a flame of Yahweh (salhebetyah) himself!”
(8.6, my translation)
The passionate love of humans is actually a flash of God’s own love. Our experience of Love, as Bernard correctly (inspite of allegory) suggested points to the Lord of Passionate Love! Such is the theology and the gift of the Song of Songs for the church so horribly mired in platonic dualism.
Now here is a thought to think upon: What if when Lord commanded us to “love him with all your heart, with all your soul and all your might” (Deut 6.4) he had something like the passion revealed in the Song of Songs in mind!? I think he did.
Blessings as we read the Song of Songs together.
1]Richard M. Davidson, Flame of Yahweh: Sexuality in the Old Testament (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2007), 1. Davidson’s study is far and away the most exhaustive study of sexuality in the Hebrew Bible measuring 700 pages of text and 150 pages of notes and bib. I disagree with Davidson on some particulars but this book is foundational now.
2] Roland Murphy, “The History of Exegesis as a Hermeneutical Tool: The Song of Songs,” Biblical Theology Bulletin 16 (1986): 89
3] See especially Francis Landy, “The Song of Songs and the Garden of Eden,” Journal of Biblical Literature 98 (1979), 513-528; Phyllis Trible, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978), 145-165; Richard Davidson, Flame of Yahweh, pp. 545-632