Corrupt Affections

Song Of Solomon, also called Song of Songs, is one of the most controversial books in the bible. I have, in my Christian experience, only rarely heard the book preached from and only in the context of godly romance (universally glossed over as “romance” as opposed to godly sex) within marriage or as an allegory of Christ and His Church. Neither interpretation is wrong, but neither takes Songs simply or literally at its word. Song of Solomon does not emphasize marriage, though the marriage bond is implied by use of terms like “bride” and “groomsman,” words later echoed by Jesus Christ in the parable of the Ten Virgins. However, putting the emphasis on marriage in the teaching or preaching of Songs is like placing your finger on a scale while weighing objects to tilt the numbers in your favor. Songs is not about marriage, not about a wedding. Songs is about intercourse. It is about sex. It follows a couple, presumably written by and, scholars argue, for King Solomon, from courtship to copulation. In its larger eschatological consideration, Songs broadly echoes the divine relationship between Christ and His Church, but it places such divine revelation in the context of erotica. This seems a strange choice of the prudish God of Assumption most Christians worship, and most preachers are embarrassed to read the steamier passages of the book from the pulpit.

Our discomfort with Songs stems largely from our discomfort with sex, a prudish immaturity which casts a shadow upon a magnificent gift and perfect expression from God. Just the mention of sex invites the scrutiny if not the ire of conservative and even liberal Christians, who demonize any and all sexual conduct, issuing only a reluctant waiver to married persons while insisting all other Christian believers repress any and all sexual urges under fear of spiritual death and eternal damnation. None of this is scriptural. None of it comes from God. Christian pastors stress abstinence, prize and even reward celibacy as somehow noble, a meeting of God’s standard. Which is faulty exegesis. God’s standard is not celibacy. God’s standard is holiness. You can be as celibate as a Franciscan monk and still miss the mark of God’s calling, which is to be Holy, to emulate Him [I Peter 1:16]. Equating celibacy with Holiness blasphemes God by reducing His dominion in our lives to what’s in our underpants. It makes God seem petty and ridiculous and it demeans His creation by reducing complex human values to simplistic yes/no on/off Heaven/Hell equations. Our humanness is of divine origin. Our carnal thinking—demeaning our own divine origin—is a far greater sin than whatever is going on in our bedrooms.

The biggest problem with most Christian interpretations of Song of Solomon is that they are, in fact, Christian interpretations. We bring our modern-era Christian mindset to a work written more than 900 years before Christianity even existed. We apply a moral standard of premarital chastity into an at best ambiguous and self-serving rambling from a person to whom such a standard was meaningless. King Solomon had 700 wives. Many if not most of them were political liaisons, women he likely only met at the wedding ceremony while he worked out treaties with their fathers. He additionally kept 300 concubines—women he either could not or would not marry for political or ethical reasons—whose sole purpose was to satisfy him sexually. Our modern view of premarital abstinence and post marital monogamy is misplaced in the study of Song of Solomon. To properly receive what God has for us in this book, these are moral values we need to leave in the parking lot.

Matthew Henry, considered one of history’s most renowned biblical authorities, regards Song of Solomon only or specifically as a parable, one intended to reveal Christ’s relationship to his church. In his introduction, he warns, “…to those who come to the reading of it with carnal minds and corrupt affections [Song of Solomon] is in danger of being a savior of death to death…”

It is certainly not my place (or desire) to debate learned biblical scholars, but I am left wondering why, if God wanted to tell us something, He would go out of his way to disguise it as something else? Why, if human sexuality is considered a “corrupt affection” (presumably outside the bonds of marriage), would God choose such a vivaciously stirring sexual context in which to place His divine revelation? I’m sure somebody with letters after their name can explain that to me, so I’ll just assume this all somehow makes sense.

Eye Of The Beholder? Chapter 4: "Awake, north wind, and come, south wind! Blow on my garden,
that its fragrance may spread abroad. Let my lover come into his garden and taste its choice fruits."

Chapter 5: "I slept but my heart was awake. Listen! My lover is knocking: "Open to me, my sister, my darling, my dove, my flawless one. My head is drenched with dew, my hair with the dampness of the night." I have taken off my robe-- must I put it on again? I have washed my feet-- must I soil them again? My lover thrust his hand through the latch-opening; my heart began to pound for him. I arose to open for my lover, and my hands dripped with myrrh, my fingers with flowing myrrh, on the handles of the lock..."

Do we really believe such provocative imagery is an accident?

Not The Word of God

By its own testimony, Song of Solomon is not the word of God. It is an erotic poem. Like all books in the bible, Songs is included in scripture for our benefit [2 Tim 3:16], which is to say all scripture is God-breathed or God-inspired, whether or not God Himself is specifically speaking in those specific words. This is the thorny truth about The Apostle Paul’s letters in the New Testament, upon which we Christians base most of our doctrinal conclusions about right and wrong, good and bad. Those letters, called epistles, are not the word of God. They are, by their own testimony, the word of Paul. But we believe them to be God-breathed and God–inspired and, thus, meaningful and purposeful in our lives and in governing our Christian conduct. The catch is: we can’t just toss the words out into the atmosphere and claim them to be direct and unambiguous commandments from God.

In the Moses story, Moses returned from Mount Sinai with stone tablets etched by the hand of God. Thou Shalt Not Kill. The word of God. Paul, however, was never speaking universally or unambiguously, “Thou Shalt Not.” Paul was always speaking TO someone ABOUT something, and, by reading Paul’s mail, we are walking in at the middle if not the end of a conversation we need to fully understand in order to put Paul’s words in their proper context. But that's not what we do. Ironically, the platform for much of our Christian conduct is based on a plain-text reading of Paul and applying his words, spoken to specific people and specific matters, in a universal manner. This is the foundation of the prudish Christian mindset regarding human sexuality and the church's traditional repression of women: the baggage we bring with us when we consider Song of Solomon.

This is ironic because, the every same ignorant refusal to properly exegete Paul becomes our rationale for picking Song of Solomon apart. We take Paul at his word, in a plain-text reading, but a pain-text reading of Song of Solomon is s sexually provocative that, were it not smack in the middle of our King James, we'd lynch people for reading it our loud in church. Our regressive Christian sensibility tells us Songs couldn't possibly be about sex, so we have to explain it somehow. we have to invoke God where He is not mentioned, not worshipped, not even alluded to. So we help God out, shoehorning in morality lessons where none exist. And the sex in Songs must, we insist, be between two married persons.

Maybe it is, maybe it isn't. The point of this essay isn't to settle that debate, other than to say insisting Songs must be referring to two married persons is just us bringing our baggage to the study. We believe we're pleasing God somehow by insisting Songs is something it isn't. Songs is not about marriage. Is not about morality. Is certainly not the lesson in abstinence some of us quizzically insist it is. Song of Solomon is about sex. We want it to be about love, about romance. It is about desire. It is one of history's most revered and well=written erotic poems. This is something we all, as Christians, need to come to terms with and stop breathing an inappropriate self-righteousness into this work.

I Am Black: Imposing our sexual hang-ups on an erotic poem.

Keeping Your Own Vineyard

I am black, but comely, O ye daughters of Jerusalem, as the tents of Kedar, as the curtains of Solomon. Look not upon me, because I am black, because the sun hath looked upon me: my mother's children were angry with me; they made me the keeper of the vineyards; but mine own vineyard have I not kept. —Song of Solomon 1:5-6

The girl was black. This is significant only to the extent that it is so rarely mentioned. Actually, the whole book, Song of Songs, is rarely mentioned and then typically only in the arena of Christian teaching on marriage or as an allegory, Christ and the Church or Christ and the human soul, as husband and wife. Only, God is not mentioned anywhere in this book, nor are thanks or praises offered, or even oblique references made to Him, nor is Song of Songs quoted anywhere in the New Testament. Song of Songs is one of the megillot (scrolls)—found in the last section of the Tanakh (the canon of the Hebrew Bible), known as the Ketuvim (or "Writings"). It is also known in English as Canticle of Canticles or simply Canticles.

Were these people married? There is no mention of a wedding until Chapter 3 v11, and is referred to obliquely, the scripture talking not about the wedding but about the crown King Solomon wears, "...which his mother crowned him On the day of his wedding, The day of the gladness of his heart." Solomon’s numerous references to his lover as “my bride” are often accompanied by other descriptors, including, “my sister” (chapter 4 v9), “my dove, my flawless one…” (Chapter 5). She is most often referred to as "beloved," he as "my lover." She does not refer to him as, “my husband.” The references are sexual, not matrimonial. Of course, this  does not preclude their having been married, but the conventional presumption of marriage in Songs is largely an invention of Christian theology and doctrine. Whether these characters were married or not is not a imperative for the narrative. If it were, we would likely not see verses like Chapter 8: “Oh, that you were like my brother, Who nursed at my mother's breasts! If I should find you outside, I would kiss you; I would not be despised.”.” This is not a sentiment expressed by married women, in politically safe and God-blessed relationships.

The king (or his scribe)’s lavish flourishes of admiration and undying love are undermined by the fact he has 699 other wives and has, possibly, said very similar things to all of them. Holding Song of Songs up as our standard for sexual intimacy only within the bonds of marriage is, at best, specious, considering not only the 699 additional wives but the 300 other women Solomon was not married to but whose singular purpose was for his sexual indulgences.

There’s interesting and useful themes within this book both for the purposes of exploring our relationship to Christ and our relationships with one another, but using it as a model for proper Christian sexual conduct is a gross distortion of the book’s purpose and meaning.

“Promise me, O women of Jerusalem, by the swift gazelles and the deer of the wild, not to awaken love until the time is right.”  —Song of Solomon 2:7 ( NLT)

“Don’t excite love, don’t stir it up, until the time is ripe and you’re ready.
—Song of Solomon 2:7  (The Message)

“… do not stir up love until the appropriate time.”
 —Song of Solomon 2:7  (Holman Christian Standard)

“After studying these verses and several others from the Song of Solomon, (3:5, 8:4) a common theme stands out – beware of awakening romantic love before it is time. Romantic awakenings lead to thoughts, accompanied by feelings that lead to actions. It is God’s wonderful plan for romantic love. However, if these awakenings happen during a season when they can’t be righteously fulfilled, they often lead down a path of hurt and regret, not only a loss of virginity.” —Vivian Padilla-Chapman, West Carrollton Nazarene Church

I have no quarrel with my sister’s messaging, overall advice and conclusions regarding teen sex, but, in love, I’ll disagree with hers (and many Christian pastors and scholars’) interpretation of the above verse. To me, this is another example of Christians approaching scripture form a predetermined conclusion. In other words, we believe thus-and-so and then scour the scriptures to find verses to support that point of view, rather than studying the scriptures in an unbiased fashion and being led by what we discover there. Churches using Songs 2:7 to further their puritanical stance on sexuality conveniently skip the original King James which, in context, underscores the element of time as opportunity, as opposed to appropriateness. This was a lament of a woman in the throes of longing (or overcome by horniness, depending on how you look at it). The verse has nothing to do with being married or not married, but with the timing of her lover’s arrival:

I charge you, O ye daughters of Jerusalem, by the roes, and by the hinds of the field, that ye stir not up , nor awake my love, till he please. 8 The voice of my beloved! behold, he cometh leaping upon the mountains, skipping upon the hills.9 My beloved is like a roe or a young hart: behold, he standeth behind our wall, he looketh forth at the windows, shewing himself through the lattice.10 My beloved spake, and said unto me, Rise up , my love, my fair one, and come away. —Song of Solomon 2:7-9 (KJV)

Too Hot For Sunday Morning: Pomegranate, possibly the forbidden fruit of the Garden of Eden.

Penthouse Letters

This is an erotic text, written or at least commissioned by King Solomon for whatever purpose. It was likely included in the biblical canon on the strength of its allegorical fit to Christ and His Church, but biblical scholars are increasingly focusing on the book’s literal meaning. It is the biblical equivalent of a class porno flick or one of those Penthouse Magazine letters.

Biblical scholars Noegel and Rendsburg, in their work, Solomon's Vineyard: Literary and Linguistic Studies in the Song of Songs, conclude: “The Song of Songs was written circa 900 BC, in the northern dialect of ancient Hebrew, by an author of unsurpassed literary ability, adept at the techniques of alliteration and polyprosopon [a dialogue of speakers], able to create the most sensual and erotic poetry of his day, and all the while incorporating into his work a subtext critical of the Judahite monarchy in general and Solomon in particular.”

At the end of the day, much of the bible is a mystery, one we piece together at our own peril. Apocalyptic texts like Daniel and The Revelation are full of cryptic imagery. We dive in, we take our best shot at figuring things out, based one both historical and theological exegesis. No matter what somebody tells you, Song of Solomon is, at the end of the day, one of those texts: a book eliciting strong differences of opinion about its message, purpose and meaning. We should accept the possibility that we won’t actually know, specifically and to the note, all the answers about this text. In the meantime, we should stop distorting it to fit our idea of what things should be like. We should encounter the bible on its own terms and let God speak to us.

Christopher J. Priest
23 September 2012

Sex & The Single Christian   STUDY   American Gothic   Sex & The Single Christian   What The Bible Says   What The Bible Means   The Secret Garden   Teens & Sex