Sexy Spring Comes ’round Again, Just Like Back in Biblical Times

A version of this post first appeared in Christian Century‘s “Theolog.”

It’s spring, and Richmond is busting out in lush green. White pompoms of elderberry blossoms are bustling with bees. Hard new figs are attached impossibly to smooth branches, and my grape vine sports countless tiny clusters of lime green nubbins. The cats stretch out in the sunshine to doze. And on Fridays, the kids across the alley fire up their grill. My whole body breathes, with every sense, and exhales in well-being. The luscious smell of sizzling burgers, the hoo-hoo of doves and squawking magpies, the heat (ah heat) of a southern, not-quite-summer sun, the tender crunch of sugar snap peas, and the riotous beauty of blood red teacup roses nestled among dripping white honeysuckle. With all five, physical senses buzzing, a sixth, the spiritual, shimmers. In spring, it seems perfectly right that the Bible would include a Song of Songs, also called the Song of Solomon.
 But when I get around to teaching that book in my intro to Bible courses, it’s usually winter or still so cold that it feels like winter. And the whole thing seems shocking and out of place. The body typically gets short shrift in religious practice. And the Song of Songs is overlooked in favor of fasting and abstinence, elevation of the mind and soul, the eucharist rationed out in tiny thimble-shots of wine and quarter-sized wafer discs, a chilly church with measured liturgy and controlled ritual.

Yet the Bible tells also of a God of excess, drenching us with physical goodness and glorious too-much-ness, of feasting, music, and sex. Even sex. The Bible admits a place for the spiritual value of sensuousness. For no matter how you allegorize the book, the Song of Songs is still erotic love poetry. Some explain that it’s about God’s love for Israel; many Christians excuse its excesses as telling Jesus’ love for the Church. Okaaaaaay, but that’s some sexy love! Sight, smell, sound, taste, and touch, flooded with pleasure, longing, and delight in images drawn from the natural, physical world and all in the service of sensuous love. “Your lips are like a crimson thread, and your mouth is lovely”; “The fragrance of your oils is better than any spice”; “Let me hear your voice, for your voice is sweet”; “Your kisses are like the best wine that goes down smoothly”; “O that his left hand were under my head, and that his right hand embraced me.” Innuendos and double entendres abound. Find them, and they’ll make you blush.

And it’s all right there in the Bible. The presence of the Song of Songs nestled within sacred text whispers seductively that our God, this God of love, who made us embodied and with a powerful capacity to love, doesn’t deny wild sexy love. We are embodied, our spirits knit seamlessly into blood and bone, eyes like doves, and cheeks like pomegranates. “The winter is past, the rain over and gone. Flowers appear on the earth. It is time to sing.”

Comments

  1. It can be difficult to grasp the spiritual meaning even from the Bible’s easiest passages, by which I mean the stories, parables, letters and the parts written as if it they are history. The difficulty seems even greater when the teaching is in the form of a list of laws, or as poetry, or when the prophetic style of writing is used.
    SoS is not only in the poetry style, but it seems to me that the writer delighted in using as many spiritual metaphors as possible. I get the impression the style is as if we were going to ask someone to, “pour me a cup of hot coffee when you get a moment,” but being fond of science jargon we said, “in your nearest non-scheduled time interval, decant 300 ml of the bean derived beverage with an elevated temperature…”
    Maybe for children that would be a good way to talk sometimes. It might increase their vocabulary and give them practice parsing obtuse or legalistic ways of wording things. SoS may even have been written with a similar purpose in mind. Not for children of course, but for monks, Nazarites or whatever the initiates to the spiritual path were called at the time.
    While many little bits of meaning sparkle for me within this intriguing piece of poetry, much of its meaning is still beyond me. That the main male figure is Solomon seems obvious, that he represents a spiritually aware mind that is seeking wisdom, is less obvious. That the main female figure is “wisdom,” is frequently, but not universally recognized. Some even recognize the link to the virgin Mary and the black Madonnas, but apparently not the explanation.
    In the Bible, wisdom is often represented by virgins and barren women. Sarai, even at an age when she wouldn’t literally be a beautiful woman, was said to be “fair to look at.” Here in this book, wisdom, is “black and comely.” People often seem perplexed that she is black. Similarly there is a tendency to think that the “black Madonnas” are an anomaly, a discoloration due to time or perhaps a result of the materials available to work in. If Solomon’s companion had been white, bright, shiny, gold, silver, or even glow in the dark, I don’t think anybody would even raise an eyebrow, but since when is black an appropriate way to represent an important spiritual thing? Here’s my guess.
    The bible depicts wisdom as beautiful, fair, comely, etc. I agree, I find wisdom attractive. Even acquiring knowledge that is only of this material world, is a pleasant way for me to spend time, spiritual wisdom is even more attractive. However, until you acquire wisdom about a subject, that subject is dark to you. Quantum mechanics and microbiology are opaque (or black) to me. The wisdom we seek, is the wisdom that we do not yet have, thus “Wisdom” of the scriptures is appropriately “black and comely.”
    When we are able to grasp wisdom, it becomes understanding. Understanding is appropriately represented as white, bright, shiny, etc. In a bible metaphor from a different perspective, “feet” also represent understanding. The image of the moon beneath feet has to do with understanding wisdom. Earth as a footstool, represents having risen above material thinking and in that state of full understanding being able exist in the world without harm/(sin). One gospel metaphor puts it this way:
    Mark 16:18 “They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; …”

    Mary, the mother of Jesus, is a virgin. Of course, how could, Jesus, representing the highest spiritual consciousness possible, not be born of and closely associated with, spiritual wisdom? The mother, sister and companion of Jesus were all a Mary. Both Abraham and Isaac had barren wives that represented wisdom, and both had curious incidents where their wives were said to be their sisters. SoS has the female character (wisdom) called “my sister, my spouse,” in five different places. That Isaac is born of Sarah and Jacob of Rebekah, further indicates that they represent wisdom, (Isaac and Jacob being the spiritual figures that they were). Note that the significant spiritual figure of Moses had an older sister named Miriam. The reason that wisdom is said to be a sister to those that achieve significant spiritual understanding has not come to me yet, but portraying wisdom that way is clearly intentional, it must have a reason/purpose. Wisdom as a mother that gives birth to spiritual understanding makes sense to me, then as we travel the spiritual path having wisdom as a constant companion also makes sense. I wonder what having wisdom as a sister adds to the metaphor.
    When the Gospel of Philip says, “The perfect are conceived thru a kiss and they are born,” can we fail to understand that a kiss represents a transfer or exchange of spiritual wisdom? And when it says that Jesus kissed Mary on the mouth often, surely we can see that the meaning is that Jesus often received spiritual insights (wisdom).

    If you have ever struggled to solve a difficult problem, you probably turned it over and over in your mind, looking at it from every perspective that you could think of. You may have had to leave it and attend to other matters and come back to it when ever you had time. Finally you look at the problem in just the right way and insight strikes, and you have the solution.
    Now imagine describing that process from the viewpoint of the insight/wisdom, as if it had awareness and feelings, and it wanted to be found. This perspective seems like it might be what is intended in the first half of chapter five. (her beloved almost opening the door, but then not doing so)
    On the other hand, a gate or a veil is the more common barrier between a mind and spiritual insight, not door. A quick scan of the word “door” in the bible (KJV) didn’t reveal any obvious instances of door used as the barrier one should penetrate to reach wisdom. In some places “gate” seemed to meaning the opening and door referred to what is used to block that gateway.

    SON 8:8 We have a little sister, and she hath no breasts: what shall we do for our sister in the day when she shall be spoken for?
    SON 8:9 If she be a wall, we will build upon her a palace of silver: and if she be a door, we will inclose her with boards of cedar.

    It just occurred to me that the “little sister” here may be the other thing that “female” in the bible can represent, “our feeling side” as opposed to our intellectual side. She has no breasts because we don’t get spiritual wisdom (milk: easy or basic teaching) from her. But when we master our desires, we do gain wisdom, so maybe that explains the palace of silver to be built upon her. Silver being yet another way to refer to wisdom. Note that she is not the palace of silver, and she is not the boards of cedar; she is not wisdom or whatever cedars represent (uprightness perhaps), but she can exist with them in the right circumstances.
    The heavenly city always has a wall around it. But if the heavenly city is spiritual understanding, then wisdom is the wall you have to get through to enter the city. So naturally in the next verse wisdom describes herself as a wall. We still know the phrase “pearls of wisdom,” and the gates one needs to use to enter the city of understanding are sometimes called the “pearly gates.” In Genesis chapter three, the difficulty of reaching full spiritual understanding is not depicted as a wall around the holy city, but as cherubim with flaming sword turning every which way guarding the tree of life. The wall and the flaming sword doesn’t forbid us from reaching spiritual enlightenment, it is telling us that there are hurdles to clear before we reach that goal.
    Towers, in bible metaphor, seem to be structures of truths that take us to a higher place (not sure if it must always be spiritual truths). Mary Magdalene is another instance of wisdom associated with the idea of a tower. The tower of Babel was to reach to heaven, another association of “tower” with the spiritual path. The story in Luke about not starting a tower unless you are sure you can finish it, means that one shouldn’t dedicate the rest of your life to God, such as by becoming a Nazarite, unless you are sure that is a course you will not regret. Not promising your life to God is better than making the promise and not being able to live up to it. (not because of God, but because it is harmful to you).

    Wisdom, saying that she is a wall with breasts like towers, is good/sound spiritual metaphor, but it also inspires attractive imagery. Previously, when scripture depicted a women representing wisdom, as “fair” or “comely” I thought of attractive facial features. Apparently I was thinking to narrowly. Here it seems an attraction to spiritual wisdom is described as if it can have the power/intensity of sexual attraction. This is not the first time I have found that I was underestimating Bible meaning and I’m sure it won’t be the last.

    Isn’t it amazing that a poem that still grabs our attention on the literal level as a poem about love and desire, should also contain spiritual truths in almost every line, that almost no one seems to realize are there?

    I marvel at the writer, marrying spiritual wisdom with provocative images. Surely the writer had a sense of humor, but surely there is more to the choice of creating this sort of poetry with the available spiritual metaphors than just humor. Was the intent possibly to let the glare of the racy imagery blind all the the most sincere seekers to the inner truths beneath it. I’m sure that there is much more meaning in this book than I can yet grasp.

    Anyone interested in this level of spiritual meaning in the Bible should read Addington’s “The Hidden Mystery of the Bible.” His discussion of the meaning of Jacob and Esau, might open the eyes of someone with a latent ability to understand the Bible’s spiritual meaning.

  2. “The winter is past, the rain over and gone. Flowers appear on the earth. It is time to sing.” i like this verse … the flowers are indeed appearing in my little flower garden … i was so anxious to see those green shoots sprouting and tulips blooming … God’s promise of better things to come …

  3. Reading the Bible can be full of passages that are difficult to understand. We can only understand it with our faith in God and all his teachings. This one is a good example.

  4. The Hidden Mystery of the Bible is a fantastic book. I’d second your recommendation to read it over. The Bible is tricky enough as it is, and everything needs to be read in context. I’d say it is impossible for a layman to read and understand the Bible properly, without a good guide of course.

  5. I have been to bible studies many times in my life attempting to answer the questions I have in my mind. I have the answers now. Actually I was enlightened by the help of some bible scholars. But you know whats odd is that I feel well informed and that I did said to myself that I know the truth about God and everything about heaven and earth. Yes I know but I am not living accordingly to it. I can see people using Gods name to get money and the likes of it. There are feuds because of different understandings about the bible. Now, as I go og with my life, I can say the bible will always be humanity’s mystery til the end.

  6. We should not be literal when it comes to words in the bible because one sentence may mean entirely different.

    The Song of Solomon will keep your class warm during winter Kristin. 🙂

  7. I really like reading the content of this article because of the words and terms being used. It sounded like poems, riddles and verses and it contained a deeper meaning. It depicts how mysterious the words of God that was being written in the holy scriptures. I always like reading bible because it makes me feel good. Thanks for sharing.

  8. “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”
    Matthew 7:7

    Keep them coming, love reading your blog and the book is great

  9. Oh I get that feeling and it’s that one they call, earthy on cloud nine! I wish it could always be spring for all year long! No summer to bum yah and no rain or snow to keep you off from going outside!

  10. I do agree we need that and it must be clear to all that we are not like the Virgin Mary waiting for divine intervention. The world needs it to flourish and fill the void.

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