The Song of Songs Rev Dr Durrell Watkins “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth! More delightful is your love than wine! Your name spoken is a spreading perfume – that is why the maidens love you. But you chose me!… Bring me…to your bed chamber… I am dark and very lovely… […]
The Song of Songs
Rev Dr Durrell Watkins
“Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth! More delightful is your love than wine! Your name spoken is a spreading perfume – that is why the maidens love you. But you chose me!…
Bring me…to your bed chamber…
I am dark and very lovely…
My brothers are angry with me; they have insisted that I tend the vineyards; but I have not taken care of my own vineyard.
Tell me, you who hold my heart, where do you pasture your flocks, where do you give them rest at midday. I need to know where you are so that I don’t wind up wandering after the flocks of your fellow shepherds…
I would compare you, my lover, to the horses that pull Pharaoh’s chariots!…
For your delight do I anoint myself with scented oils.
My lover is for me a sachet of myrrh to rest in my bosom…
O you are beautiful, my lover, and the green grass serves as our bed and the trees form the walls of our bedchamber…”
That’s the first chapter of the Song of Songs, sometimes called the Song of Solomon.
The Song only has 8 chapters, and from the first words of the first chapter we see a woman talking about her lover, comparing being in love with him to being intoxicated with wine.
The very first words of the song are her longing to be kissed by her lover. She describes his complexion and hers, his strong muscular neck, and she playfully reminds him to let her know where he is in the day so she doesn’t mistakenly wind up with some other shepherd.
She talks about the scent she wears to attract her lover and suggests that it must work, since the lover himself winds up where the perfume goes, in her bosom.
And then she concludes with a picture of outdoor lovemaking; apparently she found where he was resting his flock at midday, and the grass served as their bed and the trees as the walls of their chamber for their afternoon delight.
She then continues her song with some undeniable erotic play and more praise of her lover’s physique. Chapter two begins,
I am the lily of the valley…As an apple tree among the trees of the woods, so is my lover among men. I delight to rest in his shadow and his fruit is sweet to my mouth…his emblem over me is love…I should eat raisins and apples because I am weak from all this sharing of love! His left hand is under my head while his right arm embraces me…
And that’s where we pick up with this morning’s reading,
The voice of my lover! Look, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills. My lover is like a gazelle or a young stag. Look, there he stands behind our wall, gazing in at the windows, looking through the lattice. My lover speaks and says to me: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for it is springtime…The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land. 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.”
She will go on to say,
My lover belongs to me and I to him; he browses among the lilies…
Of course she’s already identified herself as THE Lily of the valley! Looking through the lilies, we can see which one he has chosen.
Now, so far I have added very little commentary. I’ve just read the song as it appears in our bibles. And I’ve only gotten through about a fourth of it and already we’ve seen outdoor lovemaking (to the point of needing to refuel with a snack), flirtation, praise of body parts, a lover staring at his beloved through a window while she sleeps, and the mention of the springtime when the bees are often doing their pollinating.
Throughout the song there are aphrodisiacs, love-making, romantic fantasies, naked dancing, and appreciation of physical beauty.
Even in the brief passage for today the woman says of her lover that he is like a stag or gazelle (strong, vigorous, enduring), and his enthusiasm is further highlighted as she describes him leaping across her “mountains” and bounding over her “hills.” And this is all in celebration, never condemnation, never with shame, only joy.
The song is actually a powerful statement about our sovereignty over our own bodies. Our bodies are not meant to be colonized by churches or courts, preachers or politicians. Bodies are good and when bodies express affection in ways that are consensual and joyous and not in violation of covenantal agreements then, such affection is nothing less than sacred.
The sex in the Song is consensual and joyous, but there is no mention of it being for the purpose of procreating or even of it being within the confines of a legal marriage. It’s just the way that two lovers choose to express their desire for each other. And what is especially noteworthy is that most of what is said, or sung, is by a woman.
Australian bible scholar Anna Grant-Henderson says, “The extraordinary thing is the fact that the woman is saying these words; one would have expected from within the culture that it would have been the declaration of the man. It is the only book in the Old Testament that has woman’s voice in such a prominent role.”
Let me share just a couple more statements from the song, and then, I’ll let you know why any of this matters.
The woman is the star of our little love story, but the man does have a few things to say, too. For instance, in chapter 4 he says to her, “Your breasts are like twin fawns…” (bouncy, like young deer).
He also tells her that she is like a garden that produces fruits that were thought to be aphrodisiacs. And when he tells her that she is his garden, her response to him is, “Let my lover come to his garden and eat its choice fruits!”
Chapter five shows our heroine experiencing a romantic fantasy, alone in bed. The scene is so explicit that I dare not read it aloud in mixed company, sacred text or no sacred text; suffice it to say that the woman in our story winds up, in her words, with her fingers dripping.
At the end of the song, the woman’s brothers still see her as their little sister. They don’t like her boyfriend and don’t really like that she has one at all. They threaten to build a wall to keep their sister locked up at home, a prisoner really, so she can’t see her lover any more. But she responds right at the very end of the song by telling her brothers that they don’t own her; these men can’t control her or make her choices for her.
She says, “My vineyard is at my own disposal.”
In other words, I own my body; I’ll make my own decisions about it.
The Hebrew scriptures come from a very earthy, lusty period in human history when people weren’t ashamed of their bodies and didn’t assume that physical demonstrations of love or desire were in any way problematic.
The Song of Songs has tormented religious prudes for millennia. They have ignored it, even though it wound up in our canon of scripture, a canon that many of them insist must be taken literally.
They have tried to allegorize it, while claiming the rest of the bible should be taken literally. And so this song about a passionate affair suddenly becomes for the literalists a non-literal allegory for the relationship between God and God’s people (even though God is never mentioned), or some have even said it represents Christ and Christ’s church, never mind that no such church existed when the text was written, and never mind if we used such erotic imagery for our understanding of Christ today they would call us perverse.
But the obvious truth is that The greatest of all songs in our bible, the Song of Songs, is a sexual song. And it is a song whose primary singer is a woman whose last word is that she will tend to her vineyard as she sees fit!
Sometimes people will try to use the bible to condemn divorce, or to condemn same-gender love and attraction, or condemn women pursuing various professions, including the priesthood, or even to limit choices available to women in matters of reproduction or healthcare.
But there are other faithful views to take, for instance, the Greatest Song, the Song of Songs, shows a strong woman sharing her story of love for love’s sake, of demanding the freedom to be able to love who and how she chooses, and of insisting that her body isn’t owned by anyone or any institution. On this weekend when many in the US celebrate freedom, the Song of Songs has something to teach us. And this is the good news! Amen.
© Durrell Watkins 2014