“What a lot of tripe. Only a man would put such nonsense into the Bible.” Thus our dear friend, Rosemary Johnston — widowed war bride and spitfire — interrupted my sermon on the Song of Songs. Shocking even herself, she quickly apologized: “I’m sorry, David. Carry on.” Rosemary and I have shared much laughter since then, recounting the day she exploded in worship. “I don’t know what came over me!”
The Song of Songs overcame her. That poem, in the voice of two lovers and a chorus of maidens, is pretty steamy stuff.
The man says, “Your channel is an orchard of pomegranates with all choicest fruits.”
And the woman replies, “Awake, O . . . wind! Blow upon my garden that its fragrance may be wafted abroad. Let my beloved come to his garden, and eat its choicest fruits.”
It is a poem that drips with honey and spices and liquid myrrh.
Feminist theologians like Phyllis Trible read the Song of Songs as a positive expression of sexuality and egalitarian gender relationships. It is also the only book in the Bible where the primary voice is that of a woman in the first person. Some scholars argue that the imagery, language and emotions expressed in the poem suggest that the author was a woman. That was the straw of information that broke the back of Rosemary’s camel of credulity.
How did an erotic love poem make its way into the canon? Familiar biblical themes like peace, justice, liberation, righteousness or concern for the widow and orphan are nowhere to be found. Instead, we have a nice girl out running the streets at night in her pyjamas, searching for her lover and then taking him back to her chambers. God is not even mentioned in the Song of Songs.
The poem was added to the Jewish canon in the second century AD because it was attributed to King Solomon. Traditionally, it is interpreted as an allegory of God’s love for Israel. Similarly, Christians tended to read the poem as a depiction of Christ’s love for the church.
The ancient Greeks had six words for love. As Christians, when we say “God is Love,” we are talking about Agape, meaning love for everyone, or philia, deep friendship, or even pragma, long-standing, faithful love.
Could God be love as eros: erotic, passionate, romantic love? The body-spirit dualism expressed in the Epistles led many Christians to reject corporeality. Our early competition with fertility religions led to the suppression of eroticism in particular. We also know that wounded or distorted eros leads to all manner of deceit, brokenness, pain and infidelity.
Still, the Song of Songs seems to suggest that the Holy One can be known in romantic love, that we can catch glimpses of God in every form of human love, even those that are imperfect, wounded and fragile. A couple on their wedding day exchange verses from the Song, and a luminous presence comes near. Personally, I know that luminosity nowhere like I know it with my beloved.
On that summer Sunday when Rosemary surprised us all, there was a young couple visiting us. They canoodled in the back pew while I preached. Their smiles were radiant. Their faces glowed like those of mystics. At the back door after the service, the young man shook my hand and said, “We’re on our honeymoon, camping out at Pukaskwa [National Park]. What you said in the sermon about love? We know what you mean.” The young bride blushed. And God felt close.
Very Rev. David Giuliano is a former United Church moderator and a minister with St. John’s United in Marathon, Ont.
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