Category Archives: Biblical Reflections

Song of Songs 7 Mutual Love in the Garden

By Egon Tschirch, a cycle of paintings on Song of Solomon, number 2, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=56842486

Song of Songs 7

Bolded is the woman’s voice, the man’s voice is not bolded in the poem (my interpretation)

1 How graceful are your feet in sandals, O queenly maiden! Your rounded thighs are like jewels, the work of a master hand.
2 Your navel is a rounded bowl that never lacks mixed wine. Your belly is a heap of wheat, encircled with lilies.
3 Your two breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle.
4 Your neck is like an ivory tower. Your eyes are pools in Heshbon, by the gate of Bath-rabbim. Your nose is like a tower of Lebanon, overlooking Damascus.
5 Your head crowns you like Carmel, and your flowing locks are like purple; a king is held captive in the tresses.
6 How fair and pleasant you are, O loved one, delectable maiden!
7 You are stately as a palm tree, and your breasts are like its clusters.
8 I say I will climb the palm tree and lay hold of its branches. Oh, may your breasts be like clusters of the vine, and the scent of your breath like apples,
9 and your kisses like the best wine that goes down smoothly, gliding over lips and teeth.
10 I am my beloved’s, and his desire is for me.
11 Come, my beloved, let us go forth into the fields, and lodge in the villages;
12 let us go out early to the vineyards, and see whether the vines have budded, whether the grape blossoms have opened and the pomegranates are in bloom. There I will give you my love.
 13 The mandrakes give forth fragrance, and over our doors are all choice fruits, new as well as old, which I have laid up for you, O my beloved.

The lovers in the poem see what the others cannot and should not. They see one another longingly and they desire to know every part of their loved one. The poetic description of the woman by the man indicates a view that requires a level of intimacy unavailable to the common observer and this may also be behind his rebuke at the end of the previous chapter to the daughters of Jerusalem calling the woman back that they may gaze upon her as ‘upon a dance between two armies.’ Her movements and her dance are to delight the greedy eyes of her lover and to overwhelm him with desire for her.

The two previous compliments of the man[1] have focused on the face and upper body of the woman, but now the man begins with her feet, proceeds through her midsection and ends with her neck and facial features. Thighs, navel, belly, and breasts would be obscured by clothing but here the man describes that which is hidden from all others to the woman he loves. His descriptions are not those of a man keeping distant, but a man who has closed the distance to where even clothing no longer obscures the woman’s beautiful body from his eyes. Others may have overlooked her, but to the man she is overwhelming. She has the feet of a queen, her thighs are a masterwork, her navel and belly are both fertile and desirable. She may not fit the cultural ideal of womanhood, but in his eyes she is the queen of his desire and from head to toe his desire is to drink in every part of her.

His amorous incantation is daring in its open expression of desire. He has come to her and his desire overcomes reserve or decency. His intention is the physical expression of his desire for her, that the long delayed time of union may finally arrive. That they may both delight in the touches and kisses that they share together and celebrate their mutual love and passion. She is a combination of the majesty of royalty, the beauty of the natural world, and the strength and beauty of the great cities. She is the queen of his heart, the nourishment he needs, the kingdom he serves, and a master work to be lifted up. The banquet of love has been delayed, but he too is drunk with love and ready to celebrate this feast.

Previously she has been beckoning to come into the house, while he has invited her outside. Now she invites him to join her in nature. He belongs to her, and she belongs to him. They desire one another and they are surrounded by the awakening of nature: vines have budded, grape blossoms have opened, pomegranates are in bloom, and mandrake puts forth its seductive fragrance. Mandrakes appear in Genesis 30: 14-17 where Rachael grants Leah a night with Jacob in exchange for mandrakes that Leah picks, but here there is no competition for the beloved’s attention: he is hers and she is his. It appears that the night of missed opportunities has been left behind and with the dawning morning the time is finally right for love.

Many readers have read within this section of the poem an allusion to the Garden of Eden and a return to the way relations were meant to be. This is heightened when one realizes that the rare Hebrew word used for desire (teshuqah) here is only used two other places: Genesis 3:16 and 4:7. The first usage in Genesis finds its reversal in Song of Songs: “yet your desire (teshuqah) shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” Genesis 3:16 now becomes “I am my beloved’s, and his desire is for me.” The distortion of desire that occurs at the expulsion from the Garden of Eden is now overcome as this man and woman are wrapped up in mutual desire as they enter this new garden anticipating love. The other use of teshuqah is in the story of Cain and Abel, where God warns Cain, “sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” Genesis 4:7 In that story jealousy and anger overwhelm the brotherly love of Cain and Abel and Cain is instead mastered by sin. Perhaps this love poetry helps us imagine a world where love can overcome anger and jealousy and desire rightly becomes a mutual invitation to enjoy the presence of one’s partner in the garden. Often Christian theologies have dismissed the passions and desires of the body as a part of the sinful nature of humanity, but Song of Songs (and I would argue the Bible in general) points to a fully embodied experience of love and passion and joy which is both mutual and strong. This man and woman have saved all of themselves for one another as they enter this new Eden of sweet and mutual love.

 

[1] Song of Songs 4:1-5 and 6:4-10

Song of Songs 6 The Fairest Among Women

By Egon Tschirch, A Cycle of Paintings “Song of Solomon” Study E, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=56954517

Song of Songs 6

Bolded is the woman’s voice, the man’s voice is not bolded, and the daughters of Jerusalem are underlined in the poem (my interpretation)

1 Where has your beloved gone, O fairest among women? Which way has your beloved turned, that we may seek him with you?
2 My beloved has gone down to his garden, to the beds of spices, to pasture his flock in the gardens, and to gather lilies.
3 I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine; he pastures his flock among the lilies.
4 You are beautiful as Tirzah, my love, comely as Jerusalem, terrible as an army with banners.
5 Turn away your eyes from me, for they overwhelm me! Your hair is like a flock of goats, moving down the slopes of Gilead.
6 Your teeth are like a flock of ewes, that have come up from the washing; all of them bear twins, and not one among them is bereaved.
7 Your cheeks are like halves of a pomegranate behind your veil.
8 There are sixty queens and eighty concubines, and maidens without number.
9 My dove, my perfect one, is the only one, the darling of her mother, flawless to her that bore her. The maidens saw her and called her happy; the queens and concubines also, and they praised her.
10 “Who is this that looks forth like the dawn, fair as the moon, bright as the sun, terrible as an army with banners?”
11 I went down to the nut orchard, to look at the blossoms of the valley, to see whether the vines had budded, whether the pomegranates were in bloom.
12 Before I was aware, my fancy set me in a chariot beside my prince.[1]
13 Return, return, O Shulammite! Return, return, that we may look upon you. Why should you look upon the Shulammite, as upon a dance before two armies?

The woman in her seeking has appealed to the daughters of Jerusalem to assist her in locating her beloved. Previously we have encountered violent resistance from the sentinels of Jerusalem, those entrusted with making the city a safe place. Most interpreters now interpret the response from the daughters of Jerusalem in a positive manner: the woman has appealed to them for aid and their interest, now piqued, causes them to ask where they might find the beloved. Yet, there is something in the tone of the two responses by the daughters of Jerusalem in this chapter which have made me wonder if they also may be resisting the desired union of the woman and her beloved.

From the very beginning of the poem, we have seen that the woman is outside the cultural expectations of beauty for a woman. She is black and beautiful to herself and her beloved but she remains outside conventional norms. What if the title granted to the woman by the daughters of Jerusalem, ‘O fairest among women’ is spoken ironically? What if their offer to help find the beloved one are not genuine? That would explain the woman’s answer which does not include the daughters of Jerusalem in her search as well as provide a way to understand the interaction between the man, the woman, and the daughters of Jerusalem at the end of the chapter.

The woman’s response to the daughters of Jerusalem rebuffs their offer to seek her beloved with her. It could be that she doesn’t want to share her beloved’s attention with any of the daughters of Jerusalem, but it may also indicate that their offer was not genuine or helpful. The woman’s response that her beloved has gone to his garden and is pasturing his flock there echoes the imagery of the first four chapters and while it may indicate a literal garden it may also indicate that the man is coming to her.[2] The woman and her beloved are solely for one another and not to be shared with the daughters of Jerusalem.

Even though her seeking has met resistance, we hear the voice of her beloved speaking to her and complimenting her again. The initial comparisons are to the cities of Tirzah (the original capital of Northern Israel) and Jerusalem.  Normally in the bible a capital city is referred to in feminine terms and feminine metaphors are used to describe Jerusalem or Bethel, but here the imagery is reversed where the beauty of a capital city is used to describe the woman. Many would expect Bethel to be paired with Jerusalem, but there are many possible explanations why the poet may choose Tirzah instead.[3] The woman is viewed as impressive and even overwhelming. She is like an army approaching in all its might and even her look upon the man is overwhelming. The man then returns to the language of nature, echoing his descriptions of the woman in 4:1-3. To the man she is more impressive than all the queens and concubines of royalty or any maiden among the daughters of Jerusalem. To the man she truly stands out as terrifyingly beautiful and desirable beyond all others. He is overwhelmed in her presence and yet he comes once again to her.

Verses eleven and twelve have puzzled interpreters, and the NRSV’s translation is merely one guess at what is occurring in these two verses. My best guess is that the man goes to the ‘nut orchard’ to look at the vines and the pomegranates. The imagery from throughout the poem would lead me to believe he has come seeking the woman to see if the time is ripe for love, or whether he is still too early. He has come to her, and she has been swept up together with him. Yet, as she has been swept up together with her beloved and they ride off into the sunset, the daughters of Jerusalem call her back. They call her to return so they may look at her. I read the response coming from the man, defending the woman, from the intrusion of the daughters of Jerusalem. His response essentially says, “why should you have the privilege of looking upon her as something to be exhibited.” It could also be the woman defending herself, but what follows in chapter seven is also coming from the man praising her beauty. In the man’s eyes she is the fairest of all women even if she might not be in the eyes of the daughters of Jerusalem.

One of the ways this passage has been read is where the woman has invited the nations of the world (represented by the daughters of Jerusalem) to come and know what her beloved (God) is like.[4] If this is the interpretive path chosen the woman clings to her faith and hope in her beloved even when she encounters resistance. Yet, once again the woman is described in terms that are almost godlike-being beautiful and formidable, awe inspiring and powerful. One of the gifts of poetry is the multiple ways it can be heard and bring meaning. Perhaps the man is defending his woman or metaphorically his God. Regardless, our two seekers are finding themselves again in proximity to one another despite the resistance of the sentinels of Israel and perhaps even the daughters of Jerusalem. They cling to one another even as others may attempt to make a spectacle out of them.

[1] Verse 12 is the most difficult verse to translate in the Song and interpreters disagree about what is actually said or who is speaking. The NRSV’s translation assumes that it is the woman speaking. As Stephanie Paulsell can say about this verse, “No one really has any idea what it means.” (Cox 2012, 251)

[2] See for example 4:12-14

[3] A couple plausible explanations include: 1) following the lead of the Septuagint, translators have read Tirzah as a nominal form of the Hebrew raza (pleasing) 2) The destruction of Northern Israel (Samaria) and the aversion between the people of Judea and Samaritans may have made the mentioning of Bethel problematic, while Tirzah has fewer negative associations. (NIB V:419)

[4] See comments on previous chapter.

Song of Songs 5 Love Isn’t Always On Time

By Egon Tschirch, A Cycle of Paintings on Song of Solomon, Study B, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=56954417

Song of Songs 5

Bolded is the woman’s voice, the man’s voice is not bolded, and the daughters of Jerusalem are underlined in the poem (my interpretation)

1 I come to my garden, my sister, my bride; I gather my myrrh with my spice, I eat my honeycomb with my honey, I drink my wine with my milk. Eat, friends, drink, and be drunk with love.
2 I slept, but my heart was awake. Listen! my beloved is knocking. “Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my perfect one; for my head is wet with dew, my locks with the drops of the night.”
3 I had put off my garment; how could I put it on again? I had bathed my feet; how could I soil them?
4 My beloved thrust his hand into the opening, and my inmost being yearned for him.
5 I arose to open to my beloved, and my hands dripped with myrrh, my fingers with liquid myrrh, upon the handles of the bolt.
6 I opened to my beloved, but my beloved had turned and was gone. My soul failed me[1] when he spoke. I sought him, but did not find him; I called him, but he gave no answer.
7 Making their rounds in the city the sentinels found me; they beat me, they wounded me, they took away my mantle, those sentinels of the walls.
8 I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, if you find my beloved, tell him this: I am faint with love.
9 What is your beloved more than another beloved, O fairest among women? What is your beloved more than another beloved, that you thus adjure us?
10 My beloved is all radiant and ruddy, distinguished among ten thousand.
11 His head is the finest gold; his locks are wavy, black as a raven.
12 His eyes are like doves beside springs of water, bathed in milk, fitly set.
13 His cheeks are like beds of spices, yielding fragrance. His lips are lilies, distilling liquid myrrh.
14 His arms are rounded gold, set with jewels. His body is ivory work, encrusted with sapphires.
15 His legs are alabaster columns, set upon bases of gold. His appearance is like Lebanon, choice as the cedars.
16 His speech is most sweet, and he is altogether desirable. This is my beloved and this is my friend, O daughters of Jerusalem.

Doctors John and Julie Gottman, who have done incredible work in understanding how relationships work and what causes them to fail, often use the term ‘bids for connection.’  One partner extends an invitation to connect: it could be an invitation to conversation, affection, or acknowledgement and the other partner has a choice of how to react. The partner can ‘turn towards’ their partner’s bid for connection by engaging in the conversation, returning the affection, or acknowledging their partner’s presence and needs, or they can ‘turn away’ where the bid for connection is missed or ignored, or they can be responded to with hostility where the partner making the bid for connection is rejected in a belligerent or aggressive manner. No relationship is perfect and even loving partners sometimes turn away when their partner reaches out to them.

The woman throughout the poem has been wanting her beloved to come to her in the house and the expected moment arrives when the beloved arrives, and she doesn’t get out of bed to open the door and let him inside in a timely manner. This is the crisis of the poem. We have been awaiting this moment where the lovers can be together, and the moment comes, and it is missed. The man comes and his intention is love, he is ready to be present with the woman. He knocks on the door, he asks for her to open the door for him, he attempts to reach inside to unlock the door so that he may enter. Perhaps he has been long in coming, perhaps it is late in the night, perhaps the woman is perturbed by his delay but in the moment he comes she makes excuses for why she doesn’t open the door: she has taken off the clothing she wore during the day, she has cleaned her feet. She delays. He departs. She desperately regrets the absence of her lover’s presence when her desire awakens, and she opens the door.

The poem does not measure time in minutes or hours but in the intensely personal and sometimes painful time of anticipation and the monumental moments when a missed opportunity has our lovers pass like ships in the night. The moment takes on monumental importance to both the man and the woman. The woman’s delay in rising from the bed to come to the door causes the man to walk away. The beloved’s departure at this moment causes the life to go out of her. Now she returns to being the seeker looking for him and calling out for him. This is the second time she has turned him away and now for the second time she attempts to seek him out again, to respond to him and bring him back. It may only be a moment too late, but that missed moment has monumental importance in the world of the Song.

The last time the woman sought her beloved (chapter 3) the sentinels guarding the city did not obstruct her search for her beloved. The city after dark was a place where the woman could go in search of her beloved, but now those charged with ensuring the city is a safe place prove to be a danger. Many women, minorities, and individuals who are LGBTQIA+ have experienced times when those in authority who are supposed to provide a safe environment are those who actively harm their bodies and their psyche. The language here is stark and may allude to an experience that is starker still: the authorities not only beat and wound the woman, but in taking away her mantle (cloak) the poem may want us to understand that these sentinels also may have raped her. This black and beautiful woman has experienced violence in her desperate search for her lover and she calls upon the daughters of Jerusalem to join her in the search. Perhaps it is only in the company of other women that she can be safe in her search for her beloved.

The daughters of Jerusalem ask why they should get involved. They wonder why this ‘fairest of all women’ is so completely enthralled to this beloved one of hers. There may also be the element of fear to become engaged in these affairs because of the threat of violence. They have their own lives, their own households, and their own relationships to tend to and yet she calls them to join her in solidarity to search for this man who she let depart without expressing that she is faint with love for him. If the daughters of Jerusalem join her search, they presumably know who the beloved one, but they see him through different eyes.

The woman’s response is our only look at the male body through the eyes of a woman in the Bible. (NIB V:415) Her pattern of describing her beloved is similar to his description of her in chapter four in it’s beginning with elements from nature and then switching to descriptions from the world of builders and artists. Her initial response is similar in his earlier order, beginning with the face, hair, eyes, lips. He is ‘ruddy’, a term used to describe King David when he was called from the fields and probably refers to the healthy tan of people who work outdoors under the sun’s rays. The description points to a man with wavy black hair, attractive eyes, lips that taste good, and cheeks that smell good. The description of his physique is statuesque: his arms are rounded and strong, his body (or loins) are firm and precious, and his strong legs and tall height are like pillars and tall trees. Yet, she ends not with a description of his physicality but of his speech. To the woman, the beloved is as attractive as nature, as physically imposing as a statue, and as speaks as sweetly as a poet and every part of him is desirable to her and so her pursuit of him continues amidst the danger and the missed opportunities.

Pulling back from our lovers and reading the Song as a dialogue between the people of God and their God, Isaiah 55:6 immediately comes to mind, “Seek the LORD while he may be found, call upon him while he is near.”  Yet, many faithful ones can look back and think of many instances where they were not receptive to God’s calling or they ignored God’s invitations. Many faithful ones can also talk about the experience of searching for God and being unable to hear God’s voice or understand where God is active, particularly when the people and groups that should be providing them shelter become a danger. Rabbi Akiba viewed the conversation between the woman and the daughters of Israel representing all the world coming to Israel and asking ‘what is so special about your beloved’ as they attempt to seduce the people away from their devotion to the LORD God. The woman’s response in the poem is an invitation to these nations to come to know what their God is like. (Davis 2000, 283) One of the gifts of the Song in both relationships between lovers and the relationship of faith is the honesty that there are times where one partner turns away from the other’s invitation to connect and the impassioned pursuit of the other to let them know that they are still the object of their affection, despite previous missed opportunities, and that they are still faint with love for the other even in the midst of a hostile and dangerous world.

[1] In Hebrew thought the nephesh (soul) is one’s life and a literal translation here would be “my life went out” (NIB V:411)

Song of Songs 4 A Dance of Desire

Song of Songs, a Cycle of Paintings no. 16 by Egon Tschirch (1923) Permission to use provided by his heir Wolfgang Adler under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0

Song of Songs 4

Bolded is the woman’s voice, the man’s voice is not bolded in the poem (my interpretation)

1 How beautiful you are, my love, how very beautiful! Your eyes are doves behind your veil. Your hair is like a flock of goats, moving down the slopes of Gilead.
2 Your teeth are like a flock of shorn ewes that have come up from the washing, all of which bear twins, and not one among them is bereaved.
3 Your lips are like a crimson thread, and your mouth is lovely. Your cheeks are like halves of a pomegranate behind your veil.
4 Your neck is like the tower of David, built in courses; on it hang a thousand bucklers, all of them shields of warriors.
5 Your two breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle, that feed among the lilies.
6 Until the day breathes and the shadows flee, I will hasten to the mountain of myrrh and the hill of frankincense.
7 You are altogether beautiful, my love; there is no flaw in you.
8 Come with me from Lebanon, my bride; come with me from Lebanon. Depart from the peak of Amana, from the peak of Senir and Hermon, from the dens of lions, from the mountains of leopards.
9 You have ravished my heart, my sister, my bride, you have ravished my heart with a glance of your eyes, with one jewel of your necklace.
10 How sweet is your love, my sister, my bride! how much better is your love than wine, and the fragrance of your oils than any spice!
11 Your lips distill nectar, my bride; honey and milk are under your tongue; the scent of your garments is like the scent of Lebanon.
12 A garden locked is my sister, my bride, a garden locked, a fountain sealed.
13 Your channel is an orchard of pomegranates with all choicest fruits, henna with nard,
14 nard and saffron, calamus and cinnamon, with all trees of frankincense, myrrh and aloes, with all chief spices —
15 a garden fountain, a well of living water, and flowing streams from Lebanon.
16 Awake, O north wind, and come, O south wind! Blow upon my garden that its fragrance may be wafted abroad. Let my beloved come to his garden, and eat its choicest fruits.

The intertwined voices of the lovers weave together very different sets of imagery to describe and compliment their partner in this lover’s dance of attraction. The majority of the fourth chapter is the man’s response to the woman’s seeking and compliments in the previous chapter and his voice begins by describing her attributes. The man begins his descriptions of the woman’s attributes by stating, “how beautiful you are, my love, how very beautiful’ and ends by stating, “You are altogether beautiful, my love; there is no flaw in you.” Between these two statements are metaphorical descriptions of her attributes. The use of seven in scriptural poetry is a way of designating completion and so both the descriptions, the structure and the bracketing of these compliments reinforce in the poem how completely beautiful this woman is to the man.

The imagery the man uses may seem strange to us in describing a woman’s body, but just because they use imagery that would be alien to our language to describe the object of our affection does not make them any less valued by the hearer of the poem. The images all come from the natural world and probably express the experiences of a person who works in the field and who may have been drawn into the military for service at times. Eyes being doves, hair being like a flock of goats, teeth like shorn ewes leave us wondering how the images are compliments but these animals are all viewed positively in an agrarian world where flocks and birds are a part of the life, particularly the life of a shepherd. Perhaps hair like a flock of goats is long and brown and moves with the wind, while teeth like shorn ewes each bearing a twin are white teeth in proper alignment with no missing teeth, but whatever the compliments were intended to mean the woman values them. Lips like a crimson thread are probably easier to envision as well as round cheeks like a half pomegranate. The militaristic image of the tower of David where one thousand shields hang could simply indicate a long, strong neck or it may, as Carey Ellen Walsh states,

suggests a fairly strong defensive system, namely, of a thousand infantry men manning the tower. In addition, it may reveal the lover’s insecurity over the woman’s other suitors: a thousand armed men may have beaten may have beaten him to her. (Walsh 2000, 97)

The man’s final attribute he compliments is her breasts, but even here the image is one from nature, and one she has used to talk about him, gazelles. The poetry is seductive but not pornographic, and the man as he is poetically describing the woman’s attributes instead of sexualizing her body uses the images from the natural world to express how altogether beautiful she is in his eyes.

There is a distance that exists throughout the Song. The woman is often seeking the man or beckoning him to come inside the place where she is while the man when he speaks invites her to join him outside. After complementing the beauty of the woman, he invites her again to come away. The man induces her to come away from Lebanon, the mountaintops, from the dens of lions and leopards. Perhaps the place where the woman resides is dangerous for the man, it is a place where he is out of his element. Perhaps the presences of other suitors make his approach as treacherous as going into a den of lions or the mountain lair of leopards. In approaching this dark-skinned woman, he may find himself as a stranger in a strange land and yet, in the language of the poem, he comes to entice her to journey from Lebanon and the mountains to join him.

The man’s heart has been captured by the woman. She has either ‘ravished’ or ‘stolen’ his heart, but regardless of which translational choice is made for the ‘heartening’[1] effect she has on the man, his will belongs wholly to her. The pairing of, “my sister, my bride” is strange in English but ‘sister’ is a common term of endearment in Egyptian love poetry (NIB V:405) and would probably be understood that way in Hebrew poetry. Calling the woman his bride picks up the image of the wedding procession at the end of chapter three and invites us to hope for an approach of the man to come and join the woman. Her glance, her jewelry, her scent (or the smell of her perfume/ointment), her kiss (or words), and her love are all intoxicating to the man. The woman is a garden or a fountain that only those who are privileged to be invited to view may admire, but this man knows that behind her walls are all the precious fruits and spices that he could want and the living water that can quench his thirst.

The man beckons the woman to come with him, the woman desires the man to come to her. She asks the wind to spread her fragrance so that the man might smell her and be entranced. She wants him to come to her and to enjoy and explore the garden that she is and to sample the harvest of love that awaits. The scent of this woman, the promise of exploring her beauty and tasting her love should draw her beloved to come to her. He has declared her altogether beautiful. She has ravished him with her glance, put on her best jewelry, perfumed herself and extended an invitation for her beloved to view her garden. We now wait with her for his response.

Christian and Jewish interpreters of the Song have often heard the man’s declaration of the woman’s beauty as an echo of the love of God for humanity, Israel, or the church. This woman, who is declared as the bride, has a resonance with the imagery of the land that is called Married in Isaiah 62: 4-5

You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no longer be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight Is In Her, and your land Married; for the LORD delights in you, and you land shall be married. For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your builder marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.

Many interpreters have understood the locked garden and sealed fountain as an allusion to the lost garden of Eden, and the invitation of God for the hearer to re-enter this lost garden where the beloved can encounter God without fear. The seeker is invited to come to a place that is hidden to the world, but a place where the desired intimacy with God can be achieved. Yet, in poetry the images can flow in multiple directions and the lesser taken path is hearing the woman representing the divine. Many of the images here in this chapter that the man uses to describe the woman echo what other cultures in the region of Israel have used to describe a goddess.[2] The woman’s looks and attraction are overwhelming to the man, and as Stephanie Paulsell notes, “If she views him as a king, he sees her as something even more awe inspiring.” (Cox 2012, 237) If the woman poetically is representing God, the God desires the seeker to come to the place where God dwells and sends out the alluring fragrance upon the winds to draw and entice the seeking ones. While the seeker attempts to draw the divine from the mountains, the sought one invites the seeker into the place into their home to come and know their presence. Either reading has its limits, as all poetry does, but whether speaking of human love or divine love we stand in the tension between these two parties who continue their dance of attraction and distance, desire and hope, and love and delight.

 

[1] The Hebrew is literally ‘to hearten’, the verbal form of the Hebrew word for heart.

[2] Stephanie Paulsell (Cox 2012, 237) cites Marvin H. Pope as making this claim (Pope 1977, 474)

Song of Songs 3 Seeking the King of Her Heart

Edward Poynter, The Visit of the Queen of Shebe to King Solomon (1890)

Song of Songs 3

Bolded is the woman’s voice, the man’s voice is not bolded in the poem (my interpretation)

1 Upon my bed at night I sought him whom my soul loves; I sought him, but found him not; I called him, but he gave no answer.
 2 “I will rise now and go about the city, in the streets and in the squares; I will seek him whom my soul loves.” I sought him, but found him not.
 3 The sentinels found me, as they went about in the city. “Have you seen him whom my soul loves?”
 4 Scarcely had I passed them, when I found him whom my soul loves. I held him, and would not let him go until I brought him into my mother’s house, and into the chamber of her that conceived me.
 5 I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, by the gazelles or the wild does: do not stir up or awaken love until it is ready!
 6 What is that coming up from the wilderness, like a column of smoke, perfumed with myrrh and frankincense, with all the fragrant powders of the merchant?
 7 Look, it is the litter of Solomon! Around it are sixty mighty men of the mighty men of Israel,
 8 all equipped with swords and expert in war, each with his sword at his thigh because of alarms by night.
 9 King Solomon made himself a palanquin from the wood of Lebanon.
 10 He made its posts of silver, its back of gold, its seat of purple; its interior was inlaid with love. Daughters of Jerusalem,
 11 come out. Look, O daughters of Zion, at King Solomon, at the crown with which his mother crowned him on the day of his wedding, on the day of the gladness of his heart.

During the day the woman sent the man away, presumably in this reading to deal with the issues that keep them apart, but now in the night she desires his presence. Although the translation of the Hebrew nephesh as soul has helped many traditional commentators see this as an allegory for the relationship with God, the meaning of nephesh would be closer to ‘with all my being.’ The very essence of the woman loves and desires the beloved and departs from the bed and the house to seek him. We join the woman in her desperate search for her beloved. Perhaps she regrets telling him to flee earlier or realizes that her desire for him is more powerful than her need for public acceptance of their relationship. Her search for him is desperate. This one whom she loves with all her being must be found and brought into her home.

Many readers hear of the sentinels finding the woman and anticipate this being a threatening scene for the woman. There are certainly many instances of men with power and authority taking advantages of a vulnerable woman and an unmarried woman walking through the city at night may be taking a risk. Yet, the sentinels here are not viewed by the woman as a danger but rather as a resource. They are someone who may have seen her beloved in their rounds, and so she asks them for information. The woman’s desperate search for the beloved overcomes any sense of danger these sentinels may pose, and she passes beyond them without harm or any additional information on the beloved’s location.

The desperate search in the night leads the woman to the one whom she loves with all her being and now she will not let him go again. Shortly after the encounters with the sentinels she finds him and brings him into her home. She brings him to the place where no other man is present, no brothers or fathers, and she brings him into a place where our lovers can close the door and keep the rest of the world outside. Perhaps previously she desired him to bring her into his own home, but for now she refuses to let go of him and brings him into her own home.

This passage presents an interesting contrast to the description of the dangerous woman in Proverbs 7. In Proverbs the dangerous woman also will not stay at home and:

Now in the street, now in the squares, and at every corner she lies in wait. She seizes him and kisses him, and with an impudent face she says to him: “I had to offer sacrifices, and today I have paid my vows; So now I have come out to meet you, to seek you eagerly, and I have found you! Proverbs 7:12-15

Proverbs would probably find the woman’s desperate search for the beloved distasteful, her seeking through the streets and the squares and her bold seizing of the man and bringing him back to her household as the antithesis to that book’s more chastened view of relationships. As Stephanie Paulsell states, “Proverbs tells this story with the woman in the role of the villain, the Song places the woman in the role of the brave heroine.” (Cox 2012, 222) I find it helpful that our scripture can embrace both a male and feminine perspective on a similar story. It is also ironic perhaps that the male perspective in Proverbs is threatened by the presence of daring (dangerous in Proverb’s view) women.

The second half of the chapter shifts into the language of metaphor and may initially seem out of place within this portion of the poem.  Verse six can be read in either voice, as the man complementing the woman which is answered by her long compliment of the man, or as the woman beginning her extended metaphor about her beloved. I read this entire chapter as the woman’s voice, and her question about “What (or who) is that coming up from the wilderness…” being answered by the exclamation “Look, it is the litter of Solomon.” In our culture we may think of women being the primary ones perfumed or wearing scents like “myrrh, and frankincense, with all the fragrant powders of the merchant” but especially with the metaphor of the beloved as Solomon this fragrant procession which produces a column of smoke makes sense in the poem.

The beloved one is probably not actually Solomon, or even the king, but instead it is a way of referring to the majesty, strength, and power of the beloved in the woman’s eyes. The normal procession for a wedding would be the bringing of the woman in the man’s household, but perhaps there is something in the ancient culture we have missed. Jesus tells a parable in Matthew 25: 1-13 of the bridesmaids waiting for the arrival of the bridegroom, where it is the bridegroom that approached the place where the wedding occurs. Here Solomon approaches in all his glory and wealth to the place where the woman is so they can experience the joy of their mutual love.

There is an absence of fathers in the Song. First the woman brings the man into her mother’s home and chamber, and then it is Solomon’s mother who crowns him. This is a pattern throughout the poem, but here is also makes sense within the metaphor. In 1 Kings 1, when Solomon is anointed and declared king, his father David is very old and feeble and apparently unable to participate in the coronation of his son. It makes sense in the logic of the story that it is Bathsheba who crown her son and rejoices with him in his role as the king of Israel and in his, in the poem, upcoming wedding.

The progression of the poem takes the woman’s search for the beloved and her action of bringing him back to her mother’s home into a metaphorical procession of Solomon departing his father’s house with his mother to come to a place where he can celebrate his love for this woman. The man is both the one whom she loves with all her being and metaphorically one who embodies the majesty, strength, and power of Solomon. At the very least this man is the king of her heart, and her desire is to be the queen of his. The poem continues to bring the lovers close together, but still builds upon the anticipation of a rendezvous that is not final.

This portion of the Song has a number of echoes throughout the scriptures and also has a rich history within the allegorical and mystical interpretations of the Song of Songs. The image of a pillar of smoke moving through the wilderness evokes the pillar of cloud and fire that is the physical manifestation of God’s leading of the people of Israel through the wilderness in the Exodus. (Exodus 13:17-22) Frankincense and myrrh are used in the temple as a part of the act of lifting up offering to God, and frankincense in particular in the Hebrew Scriptures is always used (outside of the Song of Songs) in reference to the cultic practices in the temple.[1] Myrrh can have the connotation of worship, royalty and lovemaking in the scriptures.[2] This divine royal connotation also is part of the imagery in Matthew’s gospel when the magi present frankincense and myrrh to Jesus.[3] Myrrh also enters into another ‘love song’ in Psalm 45, where the king’s robes are fragrant with myrrh. If verse six is read in the feminine voice referring to the male character, the male character adopts several kingly but also divine attributes.

The one seeking her beloved here forms a contrast to the frequent pattern of Israel failing to seek God who is their partner. One example of this would be Isaiah’s inviting us into God’s frustration and heartbrokenness over Israel’s continue unfaithfulness:

I was ready to be sought out by those who did not ask, to be found by those who did not seek me. I said, “Here I am, here I am.” To a nation that did not call on my name. Isaiah 65:1

Yet, the mystics have sometimes turned this around when God has been difficult to find.  Ellen Davis points to the Spanish mystic Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) and she confronts God saying,

How is this compatible with Your mercy? How can the love You bear me allow this? I believe Lord, that if it were possible for me to hide from You as it is for You to hide from me, that the love You have for me would not suffer it; but You are with me and see me always! Don’t tolerate this, my Lord! I implore You to see that it is injurious to one who loves You so much. (Davis 2000)

On both sides of the relationship between the seeker and the divine there are moments of deep intimacy and closeness and those frustrating moments of distance and division. One of the gifts of Hebrew wisdom literature is its ability to live in the complex reality of multiple perspectives. Wisdom can include the perspective where a woman seeking a lover in the streets can be a dangerous lure away from the relationship with one’s partner (as in Proverbs and metaphorically speaking of the relationship between God and Israel in Hosea) but she can also be an image for a love that will not be denied and something that moves the hearers beyond their complacency with the way things are. The woman wants everything her lover, her king, and even her God can offer her and will not settle for less. As others fail to seek, she leaves her bed in the night and is unwilling to settle for anything less than bringing her beloved into her presence.

[1] Exodus 30:34, Leviticus 2:1,2,11,15, 16; 5:11, 6:15, 24:7, Numbers 5:15, Nehemiah 13:5, 9, Isaiah 60:6, 66:3, Jeremiah 6:20, 17:26.

[2] Exodus 30:23, Esther 2:12, Proverbs 7:17

[3] Matthew 2:11.

Song of Songs 2 Desire and Distance

Tulipa Agenensis, Israel. One of the possible botanical references for the Rose of Sharon photo by Zachi Evenor shared under Creative Commons Attributions-Share Alike 4.0

Song of Songs 2 

Bolded is the woman’s voice, the man’s voice is not bolded in the poem (my interpretation)

1 I am a rose of Sharon, a lily of the valleys.
2 As a lily among brambles, so is my love among maidens.
3 As an apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among young men. With great delight I sat in his shadow, and his fruit was sweet to my taste.
4 He brought me to the banqueting house, and his intention toward me was love.
5 Sustain me with raisins, refresh me with apples; for I am faint with love.
6 O that his left hand were under my head, and that his right hand embraced me!
7 I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, by the gazelles or the wild does: do not stir up or awaken love until it is ready!
8 The voice of my beloved! Look, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills.
9 My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag. Look, there he stands behind our wall, gazing in at the windows, looking through the lattice.
10 My beloved speaks and says to me: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away;
11 for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone.
12 The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land.
13 The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.
14 O my dove, in the clefts of the rock, in the covert of the cliff, let me see your face, let me hear your voice; for your voice is sweet, and your face is lovely.
15 Catch us the foxes, the little foxes, that ruin the vineyards — for our vineyards are in blossom.”
16 My beloved is mine and I am his; he pastures his flock among the lilies.
17 Until the day breathes and the shadows flee, turn, my beloved, be like a gazelle or a young stag on the cleft mountains.

The distance between the two lovers in the poem makes the woman yearn for her beloved’s presence. Many of the botanical references in this passage are not certain, even if their poetic use in English has achieved wide recognition. The rose of Sharon and the lily of the valleys are wildflowers that are native to the region, the ‘rose’ may be the tulipa agenesis (pictured above) or the tulipa montana a red flower native to the hills of the Middle East and the lily may be a crocus or the Madonna lily. (lilium candidum) Beyond the precise botanical designation is the poetic function of the self-declaration of the woman of her beauty and flattering response of the man. Her usage points to its ordinariness, she is a wildflower-something pretty but common. Her beloved counters that she is exceptional. She is set apart from the other maidens who may attempt to attract his attention. She is something special. She responds by describing her beloved, using botanical imagery again, this time as a fruit tree. Though apple trees are well known in our context there is the objection that they may not be native to Israel. As Ellen Davis can also insightfully state,

At any rate, wild apples are acid, not sweet. The apricot has been suggested as a substitute. The scientific issue remains uncertain, but the suggestion makes good poetic sense. A sun-ripened apricot is a sensual delight, being rich in color, scent, taste and even touch, as it almost literally melts in the mouth (“his fruit was sweet to my palate,” v. 3). (Davis 2000, 251)

The woman and man use natural imagery to describe one another. She is beautiful and stands out as extraordinary among all the other maidens like a beautiful flower among the prickly vines. Her beloved stands out among other men as a sweet fruit tree among all the other trees, yet only he produces the sweet fruit this ‘rose of Sharon’ desires.

The poem abruptly shifts from botanical references to a scene of a ‘banqueting house’ (literally ‘wine house’) where the man invites the woman. This is supposed to be a place where their love can be fully sated. Yet, even within this time of invitation we are aware that the desire of the woman has not been satisfied. Previously she wanted to taste the fruit that came from his tree upon her palate, now she asks for the fruit of the vine and the fruit of the tree to sustain her because she is faint with love. Her love and her desire are awakened, and these emotions are powerful and threatens to overwhelm her in her waiting. Yet, even in this invitation to a place where passions can be embraced we as the readers have to wait with the woman. She wants to be wrapped up in the embrace with her beloved with his left hand under her head and his right hand around her, but we are still waiting for that embrace to occur. She is present in the banqueting house at the invitation of the beloved, but he is not yet there.

We dwell in the anticipation of the two lovers. The beloved man may not be there yet, but he is close enough that his voice is heard, and his movements can be observed. The man is pictured as a gazelle or stag quickly bounding over mountains and hills to close the distance between himself and the woman. He is near to the house, but not inside it. Instead, we wait as he looks longingly in through the windows and peeks through the lattice for a glimpse of the woman. Something keeps him from crossing the threshold of the banquet house where she is and embracing her, perhaps someone is obstructing the consummation of their love for one another. Perhaps someone in his or her family is keeping them apart, or perhaps there is some societal expectation that make their love unable to occur in a public place. We are caught with the two lovers on opposite sides of the wall until the man’s voice beckons the woman to leave the house behind and come away.

In the man’s voice we hear an invitation once again into nature. The man may have brought the woman to the banqueting house, but the nourishment they both seek seems to occur away from the confines of the wall or city. This beloved man speaks in imagery of the natural world. The time of winter and of the rains has past and now is the time to be out in the world. In the earth’s awakening for spring and songs of the migrating birds, and in the fragrant flowers and figs comes the invitation to embrace among the beauty of the creation. There is an invitation to a secret, hidden place: a small cave in the rocks or a thicket among the cliffs. A place where the lovers can be away from all others and be with one another without the interference of others.

Verse fifteen with the invitation to catch the foxes which ruin the vineyard has received a wide variety of interpretations and can be heard from either the woman or the man. Some options for understanding this verse include: 1) It is another invitation from the man for the woman to come outside and join him in a joyous chase after these quick animals. 2) Cheryl Exum suggests that this is the woman’s response to the man and the meaning is that she wants to capture him so that she can have her as her own. 3) Ariel and Chana Bloch interpret the foxes as the woman’s brothers who are preventing the two lovers from being together. (Davis 2000, 216) My personal interpretation follows the direction of the third option, but without indicating those interfering with the two lovers. I feel that the woman, frustrated by the boundaries separating them is calling out to the man to capture and remove those who are obstructing and attempting to ruin their love. I agree that the woman wants her beloved for herself and is not satisfied with attempting to steal these moments where they can be together. Her love is in blossom and is ready to bear fruit, and now it is his responsibility to move beyond the walls that keep them apart.

The chapter closes with the woman’s famous words, “my beloved is mine and I am his,” and yet she beckons him to flee. Her beloved approached her like a stag or a gazelle and now he is told to flee in the same manner to the mountains. Their meeting continues to be delayed and shadows continue to lurk over their relationship. They belong to one another, but his inability to come into the house where she lies fainting for love needs to change. She doesn’t merely want to hear his voice or see him peeking in through the windows, she wants his arms to embrace her and to allow their love to grow. Her love is awake, and it causes her to ache, yet there is something the man must do to make their love possible. Perhaps this one who is ‘black and beautiful’ is unwilling to remain in the shadows any longer. If she is truly a lily among the brambles then she wants to be more than just one more pretty flower. She wants all of her beloved and so we are caught with her, waiting on his action to remove the barriers that obstruct their love.

Moving into the mystical and allegorical tradition of reading this portion of Song of Songs has traditionally viewed the believer in terms of the feminine character and God in terms of the masculine character. In this reading God is able to say to the believer that they are beautiful and exceptional and not merely ordinary. I find the almost playful and lovestruck image of God leaping like a gazelle or peeking in through the windows and looking through the lattice as an attractive image and far different from the classical portrayals of God. Perhaps just as critical in the poetry is the distance that needs to be bridged between the beloved one and the woman, and that bridging needs to occur by the action of the masculine character in the poem. Only this beloved one has the power to overcome the obstacles which separate them so that they can share in the intimate relationship they were created for. Within the Christian idea of grace (which emerges from the Hebrew idea of hesed– steadfast or covenant love) is the understanding that the distance in the relationship is something that God must overcome because the believer is unable to do that on their own. One of the powerful things about poetry is the way it can embrace multiple perspectives, and since Song of Songs is primarily written in a feminine voice, perhaps the roles traditionally assigned in the poem can also be reversed with God now occupying the feminine voice unwilling to be settle for pretty words, wanting to be desired above all other options and sending the beloved one out until they are willing to leave behind all else and cross the threshold of the banqueting house of God. God in this role would be unwilling for merely an admirer who watches through the lattice but wants God’s beloved to be fully God’s as God fully shows God’s covenant love to the beloved one. Poetry is language that reaches for metaphors to express meaning and it is a different way of expressing things than doctrine or story. Perhaps the gift that this poem can grant us is an expansive set of images that can help our imaginations see both the way our relationship with our human lovers should be and to give us words to point to the desire and distance within our relationship with God.

Song of Songs 1 An Embodied Desire

Virgin’s Monastery (Benedictine) Petropolis, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil by Claudio Pastro, photo by Eugenio Hansen, OFS shared under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0

Song of Songs 1

Bolded is the woman’s voice, the man’s voice is not bolded in the poem (my interpretation)

1 The Song of Songs, which is Solomon’s.
 2 Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth! For your love is better than wine,
 3 your anointing oils are fragrant, your name is perfume poured out; therefore the maidens love you.
 4 Draw me after you, let us make haste. The king has brought me into his chambers. We will exult and rejoice in you; we will extol your love more than wine; rightly do they love you.
 5 I am black and beautiful, O daughters of Jerusalem, like the tents of Kedar, like the curtains of Solomon.
 6 Do not gaze at me because I am dark, because the sun has gazed on me. My mother’s sons were angry with me; they made me keeper of the vineyards, but my own vineyard I have not kept!
 7 Tell me, you whom my soul loves, where you pasture your flock, where you make it lie down at noon; for why should I be like one who is veiled beside the flocks of your companions?
 8 If you do not know, O fairest among women, follow the tracks of the flock, and pasture your kids beside the shepherds’ tents.
 9 I compare you, my love, to a mare among Pharaoh’s chariots.
 10 Your cheeks are comely with ornaments, your neck with strings of jewels.
 11 We will make you ornaments of gold, studded with silver.
 12 While the king was on his couch, my nard gave forth its fragrance.
 13 My beloved is to me a bag of myrrh that lies between my breasts.
 14 My beloved is to me a cluster of henna blossoms in the vineyards of En-gedi.
 15 Ah, you are beautiful, my love; ah, you are beautiful; your eyes are doves.
 16 Ah, you are beautiful, my beloved, truly lovely. Our couch is green;
 17 the beams of our house are cedar, our rafters are pine.

Song of Songs, often called the Song of Solomon in many modern translations, may seem like a strange book to include within the wisdom literature of the bible. The name of the book, which is a long poem, is Song of Songs. The opening line serves the same purpose as the superscription on many of the psalms, and here it gives both the title and the attributed author. Song of Songs is a superlative declaring that what follows is the greatest of all songs or the ultimate song. Although it may be composed of poems that are collected together in some historical reconstructions the intended meaning of this title is not that it is a song made up of songs, but rather that here is a masterpiece that surpasses other songs. Although Solomon is mentioned in the title and occasionally is used as a description in the Song of Songs, many people who spend a lot more time with the Hebrew language than I do will tell you that the Hebrew represented by the Song of Songs is more recent than Solomon’s reign. Regardless of authorship, the text was collected and celebrated as a part of both the Jewish and Christian scriptures and it is both a source of strength and discomfort for both traditions.

When I began spending time delving deeply into the Hebrew scriptures, or Old Testament, I was amazed at how earthy they are. This collection of books has little concern about the afterlife which had dominated my early formation in faith and were concerned about a life lived on earth. These writings speak to the experience of being a human, with human needs and desires, in a covenant with a God of steadfast love and faithfulness who is jealous for their fidelity. Learning from these books have caused me to look at life and faith in an embodied way. Much of Christianity has viewed desire and passion suspiciously and in much Christian theology there is a schism between soul and body. This is not the view of the bible. The bible celebrates that way that we as humans are created to be and Song of Songs revels in the sensual and embodied poetry of attraction and desire as wisdom worth celebrating.

Song of Songs begins and is dominated by the female voice longing passionately for her beloved. The first three verses of the poem summon four of our five senses: touch (kiss me with the kisses of your mouth), taste (your kisses are better than wine), smell (your anointing oils are fragrant and metaphorically your name is perfume), and hearing (the unnamed name itself). Only sight is not immediately invoked, and that will come. Immediately we are brought into the intimate and passionate desire of the woman for her desired one’s kiss. In the language of metaphor love becomes better than wine, a loved name on the tongue is like a sweet smell in the nostrils. Others can see and recognize the desirability of the beloved, but the woman wants his attentions all for herself. She wants to touch, taste, hear, smell, and savor this lover who is like a king to her. Her lover may be royalty, or he may not, but in her eyes he rules every part of her.

Every culture in every time has expectations of beauty and the woman does not fit within what is expected. She is black and beautiful in her own words, and the word (Hebrew sehora) is not merely dark as some older translations would state but black. Skin color has often been an attribute that denotes privilege and which limits which relationships are acceptable. Even though she may not meet the societal standards of acceptability and beauty her response is one of affirmation of her body rather than rejection. Within her poetic response there is also the possibility that her references to her working in her brother’s vineyards and inability to keep her own vineyard may be a poetic way to state that she has not been able to safeguard her own virginity, which would also make her less desirable as a marriageable woman, Yet, if this is the case, the woman is able to accept her past along with her skin and declare that in spite of all of this she is black and she is beautiful.

Throughout the poem the woman will be seeking her beloved, and for the first time she asks where she can find him. She asks the one who her soul[1] loves where she can meet him when he pastures his flock and has some free time, presumably for her affections, in the middle of the day. She doesn’t want to waste her time having to seek him out and find him or having to remain veiled around others. She would rather spend her time in his presence. In response we hear the man speak for the first time not to answer where he will be but to encourage her to seek him out. The man in the Song of Songs may be elusive but the woman is determined and passionately persistent.

The man’s description of the woman highlights a very different set of metaphors. The first image is a militaristic one: a mare among the chariots. In the tactics of the ancient world sending a mare out among your enemies’ chariots, pulled by stallions, would make it challenging for the enemy to control their horses. In the metaphor the woman drives the man wild. Then the man begins to praise individual portions of her body. He begins with her cheek and her neck and also pays attention to the adornments which accentuate these features. The man desires to give her silver and gold to adorn herself and to highlight her already maddening beauty.

The woman has been seeking her beloved out in the pastures, but now the metaphor shifts again to being in the place of dining (meals were eaten reclining on the couch). The fragrance of nard could be the rich perfume imported to attract her lover (who is now a king instead of a shepherd) or it could be smells her own body is producing in anticipation of time spent passionately with her lover. The imagery becomes even more sensual as she inverts the man’s desire to give her adornments to now wear her beloved as an adornment between her breasts. He is that pleasant smelling thing that rests on this space unseen by all but her beloved. He is the flower that rests in the vineyard, which is probably a sexual allusion.  Verses 15-17 can be read as two voices (as I do) or as all in the woman’s voice. Verse 15 seems to me characteristic of the male voice in describing her attributes: you are beautiful, my love, your eyes are like doves. If I am reading this correctly the woman responds to her beloved that he also is beautiful, truly lovely. Poetry loves to mix metaphors and while the description of where they are can sound like a grand house the green couch and cedar beams and pine rafters may point to an encounter on the ground beneath the trees where two lovers are stealing some time for one another in the midst of nature.

On the one hand it is important to hear Song of Songs in a literal sense, as poetry between two lovers and its affirmation of the attraction and desire that humans were meant to experience. Yet I also believe there is something to the mystical and allegorical path that has dominated both Jewish and Christian appropriations to this book. The relationship between God and God’s beloved has often been one of passionate seeking. The woman whose role we take on in this reading may not fit societal standards of beauty or purity but remains lovely to God. Much of the path of the faithful is longing for a closer encounter with the beloved who is king and shepherd and beloved and yet still remains elusive and needs to be sought out. The gift of poetry is its expansiveness. It can playfully and passionately attempt to describe the object of its desire, and yet that language only highlights aspects of the beloved. Yet, even in his elusiveness the beloved one still lets the seeker know that they are seen as beautiful and valuable beyond treasure.

[1] Remember that the Hebrew idea of soul nephesh is much different from how many modern people think of soul. The Hebrew idea is closer to saying, “you whom every part of me loves.”

Transitioning into Song of Solomon

Aharon April, The Song of Songs-Last 2005 Shared under Creative Commons-SA 4.0 https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Song_of_Solomon#/media/File:Aharon_April_Song_of_Songs-Last.jpg

Psalm 62 may seem like a strange place to pause in the midst of the psalms, but there is a logic behind pausing here. The book of Psalms is subdivided into five books, with book two ending at Psalm 72. My pattern has been to do roughly 10 psalms between other books, and this sets me up to complete book two of the psalms following the next book I work through. I planned to work through Song of Solomon, or Song of Songs, prior to beginning Matthew but that project refused to wait. So now, after a long delay, I am finally turning to this strange love song which falls in the heart of the bible.

Song of Solomon has always been a controversial book within the scriptures. When our Jewish ancestors were debating which books would be included in their sacred scriptures opinions were sharply divided on this book. Ultimately its attribution to Solomon and the allegorical interpretation of the book’s poetry allowed Rabbi Akiba (ca. 50-135 CE) to defend it stating, “all the scriptures are holy, but the Song of Songs in the Holy of Holies.” (Paulsell 2012, 172) Within Medieval Christianity it was one of the most frequently read and written about book with over one hundred commentaries appearing by the year 1200. (Davis 2000, 231) Yet in modern times the Song of Solomon has fallen into disuse and many modern interpreters struggle once again to find an appropriate way of integrating this poem into the broader library of scriptures.

On the one hand, Song of Solomon is poetry about two lovers and their passionate desire for the other. Unique among the bible is the prevalence of the feminine voice throughout the poetry and it gives voice to a female perspective on desire in relationships in the bible. Like Esther, God is not mentioned in this book nor are there allusions to any religious traditions. On the other hand, the placement of this love poem within the scriptures assumes that it has something to speak about God, the world, relationships, and the people of God.  Within the organization of Christian scriptures, Song of Solomon is the final book of Wisdom Literature and like Ecclesiastes, which precedes it, it is not a religious or churchy type of wisdom.

Eighteen years ago, I was asked to give my senior sermon before the worshipping community at my seminary on a text from the Song of Solomon. I was struck then by the placement of this very unique book near the geometric center of the bible. I was fascinated by imagining God in the person of the lover leaping like a stag or looking through the lattice. (2:9) My intention as I go through this short book is to hold the sensual literal reading and the church’s historical reading alongside each other. I think there is wisdom in reading this book as simply a passionate poem of love and allowing it to rekindle some of the desire within us. Yet, I also believe that our own experiences of love at its best come from and in some way shape our understanding of God’s love for us as well. I’m curious to see where this unique book takes me over the next couple months.

Psalm 62 Truly Faith Surrounds My Troubles

Wartburg Castle, Eisenach, Germany. Photo by Robert Scarth shared under creative commons 2.0

Psalm 62 Truly Faith Surrounds My Troubles

<To the leader: according to Jeduthun. A Psalm of David.>

1 For God alone my soul[1] waits in silence; from him comes my salvation.
2 He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall never be shaken.
3 How long will you assail a person, will you batter[2] your victim, all of you, as you would a leaning wall, a tottering fence?
4 Their only plan is to bring down a person of prominence. They take pleasure in falsehood; they bless with their mouths, but inwardly they curse. Selah
5 For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from him.
6 He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be shaken.
7 On God rests my deliverance and my honor; my mighty rock, my refuge is in God.
8 Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us. Selah
9 Those of low estate are but a breath, those of high estate are a delusion; in the balances they go up; they are together lighter than a breath.
10 Put no confidence in extortion, and set no vain hopes on robbery; if riches increase, do not set your heart on them.
11 Once God has spoken; twice have I heard this: that power belongs to God,
12 and steadfast love belongs to you, O Lord. For you repay to all according to their work.

In poetry structure can frequently be used to help those familiar with the medium understand the words at a deeper level. In this psalm there are a number of structural elements that are often missed in the English translations that help provide emphasis in the psalm of trust amidst trouble. The placement of this psalm between Psalm 61 and Psalm 63 (also psalms which declare the psalmist’s trust in God above all other things) also emphasizes this common theme. The “trilogy of trust” within the psalms, as J. Clinton McCann labels Psalm 61-63, (NIB IV:922) stand near the end of the petitions for help in this portion of the book of psalms. Even though the psalmist’s world is full of people who murder reputations with their duplicitous ways, the way of faith knows that God’s steadfast love will outlast the scheming of mortals.

Invisible to most English translations of this psalm is the repetition of the Hebrew ‘ak which begins verses 1,2,4,5,6 and 9. This word, translated ‘alone’ and ‘only’ in the NRSV, is used four times in relation to God and twice in relation to the working of humans. There is a strong emphasis on God ‘alone’ providing strength which thwarts the ‘only’ plans of those who are but a breath. In addition to this structural repetition is the nearly identical wording of verses 1-2 and 5-6. The complaints about the enemies who are assailing the psalmist and attempting to bring them down from prominence are structurally surrounded by God alone, who they wait for in silence. The psalmist may appear like a leaning wall or a tottering fence, but they are surrounded by their rock, salvation, and fortress. The faithful one can remain in silence while the wicked ones utter falsehoods for they know that this struggle takes place within the sheltering space of their God who will not allow them to be shaken. Even trouble is surrounded by faith and the deliverance from the ephemeral evils produced by the wicked rests in the hands of God who rescues not only life but also honor and reputation.

In verse eight the psalm transforms from personal trust to testimony. Now the psalmist takes on the role of the instructor to the people handing on the trust they have learned. What humans can do alone without God (in verse 9 this is the final time the Hebrew ‘ak occurs) is to be a breath or a puff of air. God alone can be salvation, rock, fortress, deliverance, and honor. Placing trust in human scheming, extortion, robbery, and even riches is foolishness. It is in God, not humans and their schemes, where power rests. It is God’s hesed (steadfast love) that is the guarantee of the future for the faithful. The actions of the faithful and the foolish are seen by God and the psalmist trusts that ultimately God’s steadfast love and power will lift up the righteous and bring down those who are working in falsehood to destroy the honor and perhaps even the life of the faithful ones.

 

[1] Although the Hebrew nephesh is often translated ‘soul,’ the Hebrew understanding of ‘soul’ is closer to ‘life’ than the Greek conception of soul most English speakers assume. The Hebrew idea is inseparable from the life of the individual.

[2] A more literal translation of the Hebrew rasah here would be ‘kill’ or ‘murder’ (NIB IV:923)

Psalm 61 A Life Dependent on God

Wartburg Castle, Eisenach, Germany. Photo by Robert Scarth shared under creative commons 2.0

Psalm 61

<To the leader: with stringed instruments. Of David.>
1 Hear my cry, O God; listen to my prayer.
2 From the end of the earth I call to you, when my heart is faint. Lead me to the rock that is higher than I;
3 for you are my refuge, a strong tower against the enemy.
4 Let me abide in your tent forever, find refuge under the shelter of your wings. Selah
5 For you, O God, have heard my vows; you have given me the heritage of those who fear your name.
6 Prolong the life of the king; may his years endure to all generations!
7 May he be enthroned forever before God; appoint steadfast love and faithfulness to watch over him!
8 So I will always sing praises to your name, as I pay my vows day after day.

In C. S. Lewis’ classic parable, The Great Divorce, the experience of hell is a grey city where the inhabitants choose to live a life that is increasingly joyless and friendless as they move further and further away from their neighbors. An escape from this grey city is readily available if the people of the place let go of their own security and accept their reliance on God’s grace (which is both a painful and healing process in the dream that forms the book) but most sullenly either remain or return to this increasingly private hell which they choose instead of heaven. One of the paradoxes of our current time is that we live in a time in society where we have resources and comforts unavailable to people at any other time in history and yet as our affluence has increased our depression and anxiety have also increased. Perhaps this poem that the psalmist lifts up from the end of the earth has something to speak to a people who have lived in the anxiety of attempting to make meaning for oneself and finding, in the words of Ecclesiastes, that it is all vanity. That perhaps Augustine’s confession that ‘our heart is restless until it rests in you” may be the gospel we need to lead us back home.

This psalm is the appeal of an individual for God’s help in the midst their trouble. The psalmist cries to God from ‘the end of the earth’ which could be a geographical location, being far away from the temple, but more likely is a perception of the psalmist’s distance from God. In the midst of the trouble, they are experiencing they have found their own resources insufficient. They are in need of a place they can escape from the rising floodwaters. They are faint of heart and fading fast.[1] The appropriate place to turn in their distress is to their God who in a flourish of images of strength is the psalmist’s refuge, strong tower, tent to abide within, and wings to be sheltered under. The crisis of the psalmist has shaken them out of their self-reliance, demonstrated their distance from their God, and caused them to cry out to return to their God’s presence.

The psalm moves from trouble to trust. The God of the psalmist is one who hears their petitions and vows. The heritage, or inheritance, mentioned in verse five is often associated with the land that God has promised. In an agricultural society one’s security is intimately linked to the land and the provision of weather at the appropriate time. Yet, one’s security is also determined by the actions of the leaders of that land. The king, and here it would refer to a Davidic king, would provide the physical security for the land. But theologically the king is merely a means by which God provides for the covenant people and the military security of Israel is ultimately provided not by swords and spears but by God’s protection. Martin Luther captures this idea when expounding on the petition asking God for our daily bread in the Lord’s Prayer noting that it not only includes food and drink but also, “upright and faithful rulers, good government, good weather, peace, health, decency, honor, good friends, faithful neighbors, and the like.” (Luther 1978, 36) The psalmist realizes that the way of self-sufficiency is vanity and that their life is dependent upon God’s gracious provision which comes in many forms.

The psalm promises a grateful response to God’s act of provision. A skeptical reader may view this as an attempt to bribe God to get one’s way, but the psalms have stated in other places that God needs nothing that the psalmist can give.[2] As Walter Brueggemann and William Bellinger can state, “Israel, however, was not aware that the transaction could be reduced to a quid pro quo, an attempt to bribe YHWH.” (Brueggemann 2014, 272) The appropriate response to God’s provision is praise, thanksgiving, promising to serve one’s God with whatever one has to offer. Self-reliance has led to isolation from God and trouble. Repentance has allowed one to return to reliance upon God’s provision and a response of gratitude for God’s gracious protection, provision, and shelter.

[1] As Beth Tanner notes, the root Hebrew word translated faint demonstrates a serious distress and proximity to death. (Nancy deClaisse-Walford 2014, 511)

[2] For example Psalm 50: 8-13.