Written by Pastor Ed
Comfortable in Our Own Skin
Song of Songs
February 15, 2015
As I was laying out my plans for Books of the Bible, I noted that Song of Songs, or as many people know it Song of Solomon, was slated for the Sunday following Valentine’s Day, which seemed appropriate somehow. And just as there are all kinds of valentines, there are all kinds of approaches to this little book of the Bible.
And just as some valentines are humourous, here is Ted & Lee’s somewhat humourous look at the Song of Solomon.
Video clip 55:50 – 1:02:34
So how did this little collection of love poetry make it into the Bible? The book doesn’t mention God and really has no teaching in it. It’s poetry that extolls the natural world and talks about things like lips, breasts and legs as well as the dreams and desires of lovers. It’s not 50 Shades of Grey, but for many its descriptions and similes of the body and the longings for the other are not something we generally talk about in church, although I’ll suggest later that we have paid a price for that. My guess is that very few of you spend time reading the Song of Songs, and it certainly isn’t included in any lectionary of sermon texts. This may be the first sermon you’ve ever heard from the Song of Solomon.
Its setting seems to mostly be rural, with all the descriptions from nature. As with most collections, it is hard to date the book, probably over a span of time. It uses many foreign terms, taken from Persian and Greek sources, and also uses many terms that are used nowhere else in scripture. 49 words are unique to Song of Songs, but then the topic is also somewhat unique so maybe that’s not so surprising.
So how did it get into the canon as an approved book of the Bible and, in fact, gain some prominence in Jewish literature. Rabbi Akiba, in A.D. 90 said,
“For all the world is not as worthy as the day on which the Song of Songs was given to Israel, for all the writings are holy, but the Song of Songs is the Holy of holies.” Rabbi Akiba A.D. 90
And another Rabbi noted,
“He who trills his voice in the chanting of the Song of Songs in the banquet halls and treats it as a secular song, has no share in the world to come.” Tosef. Sahn. 12:10 – Rabbinic rebuke IDB Vol. 4, p. 421
Well, there are several answers to that question. The first, as with Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, is that it has often been attributed to Solomon. While the book itself never claims to have been written by Solomon, he is mentioned several times. The beginning reads, “The Song of Songs, which is Solomon’s.” But the phrase could mean “in the style of Solomon” or even “in honour of Solomon.”
Most modern scholars identify it as a collection of love poetry, much of it in the style of Egyptian love poetry, some of which may have referred to Solomon, as with the description of the king coming for his bride in 3: 6-11. So one of the reasons it made it into the canon was its attribution to Solomon.
But perhaps the main reason it is in our Bibles, is because of how it was interpreted at the time of the forming of the canon and for many years after. Among Jewish scholars before Christ and many early Christian scholars the most popular form of interpretation was that of allegory, where under every plain reading of the text was a hidden, spiritual meaning.
So in the Song of Songs, the lover becomes God and the beloved is either Israel for the Jews, or the church for the early Christians. And these allegories could become rather elaborate. Origen, in the 3rd century, wrote a 12 volume commentary on the Song of Songs. And Bernard of Clairvaux, some time later, preached a series of 86 sermons from the book, which only covered the first 3 chapters, using the same methods.
The difficulty with such interpretation, however, is that it is totally subjective, and certainly doesn’t follow the principle that the writing has to make sense to the first readers. And it can become rather comical and far-fetched at times. Just as an example, chapter 1, verse 13 which reads,
“My beloved is to me a bag of myrrh that lies between my breasts.” became for one Jewish commentator a description of God dwelling between the two cherubim on the ark of the covenant, and for Bernard to refer to Christ being crucified between two thieves!
Or the verse at 7:2 about the navel as a rounded bowl of mixed wine and the belly as a heap of wheat were seen as prefiguring the 2 sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Or the wine and the wheat could have just been seen as referencing the two elements of the Lord’s Supper. It’s great fun. Even today, while generally discounted as an interpretive method, you will find evidence of this reading of the book. Many of you have probably sung the camp song, “His banner over me is love” which uses the words from Song of Songs in this way.
So if we throw out allegory as a way to read the Song of Songs, how shall we read it? Does it have anything important to say to us, or should we mostly ignore it and hope our kids don’t stumble across it. I think there are some things we can say.
First of all, we need to accept it for what it is; a collection of love poetry that celebrates God’s gift of love between a man and a woman. And that includes the physical delights in each other’s bodies. It does not attempt to teach anything, as with proverbs it is descriptive, not prescriptive. It doesn’t make any moral judgments or promote promiscuity or monogomy or anything else. Contrary to some “Christian” books, it doesn’t teach the right way to have sex.
The book simply recognizes that as humans we are made with physical bodies, and they were deemed “good.” Sexuality, our bodies, are a part of who we are as created beings and to deny that is to deny part of who we are. Over the years I have come to see our sexuality and our spirituality as very closely related. Both arise from, or give rise to, our strong desire to be connected to someone outside of ourselves, whether that be God or another human being.
And, as the poetry of Song of Songs is clear, both of those desires are strong and not to be taken lightly. As verses 6-7 of chapter 8 say,
6 Set me as a seal upon your heart,
as a seal upon your arm;
for love is strong as death,
passion fierce as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
a raging flame.
7 Many waters cannot quench love,
neither can floods drown it.
If one offered for love
all the wealth of one’s house,
it would be utterly scorned.
So the author warns, in a refrain repeated three times in the book, “Do not stir up or awaken love until it is ready.” There does need to be some restraint to that desire, an appropriate time for love.
Our sexuality is not all of who we are, and we need to be careful that we don’t define ourselves or others by that one part of us, but it is part of us, a given, and so we need to be able to talk about it and accept it. And I think that is important and something the church has tended to neglect. I think that is part of the reason we are having such a debate and divide in the church currently over issues of sexuality and sex.
In a time and society where either we are inundated with images and talk about sex or where it a taboo subject, and where the idea of a perfect body – which no one has- is held up as some kind of ideal, we need to recover the Biblical message of creation that we were created with bodies and they are good. Not only that but we are told we will have bodies even in the resurrection.
Our bodies are part of who we are, our sexuality is built into us and we need to acknowledge that, be able to talk about it, and, yes, even celebrate that. If we can’t talk about our bodies and learn to be comfortable in our own skin, then we will fail both ourselves, and our children. I’m not talking about flaunting our bodies, or being immodest, but neither do we need to be ashamed that we have bodies.
The ancient Jews who wrote and compiled these love poems recognized one of God’s good gifts to humankind –our capacity to love and find pleasure in intimacy with another human being. It’s part of what makes us human and to share such intimacy with another is to find a special bond which can be celebrated, as we do in marriage.
One of the issues many people, especially young women, deal with today is that of body image and being comfortable with who they are. Certainly what is held up as the ideal body has changed over the years, after all telling someone their nose is like the tower of Lebanon probably won’t get you very far as a pick-up line today, but the quest for a perfect body, whether that’s thinness or a 6-pack, or young, or whatever, is one of the causes of a great deal of anguish, depression, and even suicide among those who become obsessed with such a quest.
As Oprah Winfrey has said:
“This is a call to arms. A call to be gentle, to be forgiving, to be generous with yourself. The next time you look into the mirror, try to let go of the story line that says you’re too fat or too sallow, too ashy or too old, your eyes are too small or your nose too big; just look into the mirror and see your face. When the criticism drops away, what you will see then is just you, without judgment, and that is the first step toward transforming your experience of the world.”
I found this picture, which perhaps everyone needs to copy and place on their mirror. It reads, “Warning: Reflections in this mirror may be distorted by socially constructed ideas of beauty.”
God has made us with bodies, in all shapes and sizes, and they’re all good. None of us is perfect, and as one writer said, “Even the models who portray the “perfect body” wish they actually looked like that.” But they don’t, because no one does. The Song of Songs may not be the most used or popular book of the Bible, but it does remind us that our God and our faith encompass all of life, and that includes our bodies.
I think if we can accept that and become comfortable in our own skin, then we will be able to find greater joy in a relationship of love with another and celebrate God’s good gift of love, both emotional and physical.