Reflection 8/30: Song of Songs
Dear Beloved Community of St. John’s,
Love poetry in the Bible: Doesn’t that sound sublime, even a little edgy, in the best possible way!
It has often been noted that so much of the Hebrew Scriptures is written as poetry. One of the themes of our sermon journey this summer has been to elevate the stories of the Old Testament to stand alongside the towering epic poetry of Greece, the ancient Middle East, and even the Far East. We should stand in awe as we contemplate how the Ancients could weave the answers to how everything came to be in grand and magnificent ways. Poetry is the best way to do that.
This Sunday, among our readings is a passage from the wild Song of Songs. This book is a series of twenty-five love poems, mostly erotic, about the suitor and the beloved (the speaker switches back and forth as the poetry progresses), and their ultimately successful union. We’ve prudishly tried to allegorize the poetry to being about the relationship of God with his people; and in Christian sensibility, Christ and his bride the Church.
However, my basic sense of how to understand the Bible is to first pursue the Bible in terms of the obvious, rather than the allegorical. Song of Songs is obviously a cycle of poems about how two lovers yearn for each other in the fullness of human embodiment, until everything else is brushed away in the moment of fulfillment. That God gave human beings bodies is the existential reality of our creatureliness. Then God told humans to be fruitful and multiply. Well, why wouldn’t love poetry be enshrined in sacred text? Love poetry is fundamental to the literature of most of the world’s great religions. Putting theology and erotic imagery together seems to elevate both theology and the erotic in ways upon which, God would certainly smile.
Song of Songs doesn’t focus on God, covenant, salvation, or redemption, per se. For all of those who have loved deeply and in the moment—at the beginning of a new, exhilarating relationship—really, God isn’t the first thing on people’s minds. I’m convinced that ancient writers, understanding human nature as they obviously did, embedding love poetry into scripture reflected an essential wisdom about one of the ways many of us come to God.
Lots of things go on in the Bible, and people falling into love is a common and repetitive theme. Love poetry speaks truth. If it causes a cheek to blush and the temperature to rise—isn’t that after all, in God’s name, how human beings were created? And didn’t God called creation good?