Speaker: Cynthia Lapp
I recently participated in a four day seminar on the Song of Solomon with 15 other pastors. The first thing that I learned was that this often overlooked book of the bible is more properly called the Song of Songs, or Song of all the Songs or maybe Solomon’s Greatest Song. There are references to Solomon a few times in this poetry but it probably isn’t written by Solomon. In fact, this collection of love poems is more often in the voice of a woman; it switches to a male voice sometimes and there is a sort of chorus, the “daughters of Jerusalem.” While the author is unknown, Elaine James from Princeton who taught the seminar the other week, pondered whether these poems were passed down orally by women and then written down by a male scribe. Maybe Solomon’s name being associated with this collection of poems is what helped it get into the canon.
Before I go further, I want to recognize that we are a congregation that tries not to get too stuck in traditional gender roles and heteronormativity. It might feel a bit jarring to focus on this text, with all its sensualness between a woman and a man. This might feel uncomfortable for queer folks or for those who are single or those who are celibate. For whatever reason, if this is all too much, feel free to tune out or even step out this morning.
So often when we read the bible, or when I read the bible, I want to grab a hold of the meaning. You have probably heard me say that we should “wrestle” with the text. One pastor, who reads more poetry than I do, said that perhaps with the Song of Songs we should do less wrestling and more caressing of the text. Poetry is to be read aloud and listened to; it is to be experienced and savored. Less poking and grabbing; more embracing, even fondling of the text. Just a thought, for when you read the poetry of the Song of Songs in the comfort of your own home.
The love poetry of the Songs with all its metaphors of gardens and fruits, sheep and goats and gazelles, vineyards and orchards – these have made plenty of religious people nervous. In the rabbinical tradition one doesn’t even read the Song of Songs until age 33 – though now in many homes it is part of the seder on the first night of Passover. The Song of Songs is so hot and spicy that in the Jewish tradition this poetry is an allegory about Israel’s relationship with God.
The Christian tradition took it one step further, and in its customary way, removed Israel from the equation altogether. Early Christian scholars said this is an allegory about Jesus and the church. Elaine James says feminist scholars in the 1960s challenged this tradition and said ‘maybe this is love poetry between people.’ But love poetry makes us squeamish in religious settings; much more proper and palatable to understand it as an allegory. Is it any wonder that the LGBTQ community receives such hostility from the church, when the Christian tradition can’t even deal with heterosexual love – in the bible?
I was a little nervous about reading Song of Songs with other pastors. Could we read it out loud without blushing or giggling? Elaine James eased us into the reading by looking at the poetry from a number of perspectives, to better understand some of the metaphors in their original context. In terms of location, there are images of walled gardens and the more domesticated plants and fruits that grow there – though there are also some exotic, non-native fruits as well. There are descriptions of the trees and plants that grow outside the walls, a more agrarian context. And there is the city, dangerous and unpredictable, where love can get lost or even beaten.
Knowing these different settings helps make sense of some of the metaphors that sound comical or even grotesque to our ears. Elaine showed us art from this time period (a time period which is not certain but perhaps 500 years after Solomon.) A prominent tableau was one that featured the head of a woman looking out a window. Some of the descriptions in the Song are the literary equivalent. Imagine, the lover looking up and seeing the beloved through the window. The woman is described from the neck up.
from Song of Songs 4
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.
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.
How romantic?! What could this mean? I was relieved when the poet pastors helped us step back a bit, take a wider, less literal view. The eyes are lively behind the veil; the lover imagines them fluttering like bird wings. (bat eyelashes) Her hair is not the matted, tangled hair of goats. This is big picture, the whole flock of goats, wavy and swerving in the distance as you see them coming down a hill – over her shoulders. OK, but the teeth like shorn ewes, bearing twins? This one took a bit. Think about times before dental care: the beloved has beautiful white teeth, like clean wool, top and bottom, twins, none have fallen out. What a poetic way, particular to agrarian life, to describe the beloved.
There is much more that could be said; we did take more than 12 hours over four days to read and study these eight short chapters. We learned a song in Hebrew that sets some verses from the Song.
Dodi li va’ani lo haro’eh
bashoshanim dodi li.
(My beloved is mine and I am his.
He grazes among the lilies.
My beloved is mine.)
One of the most intriguing questions that Elaine James raised still has me pondering. What would happen if instead of marginalizing and allegorizing the poetry of the Song of Songs, we centered it? What if we used The Song of Songs as a lens through which to read other biblical texts? This is a bit unnerving since as Anabaptists we say we put Jesus at the center; we read the rest of scripture with the gospels as an interpretive lens. (This has its own problems when reading the Hebrew bible but that is for another day.) As a larger Christian body, my sense is that the garden of Eden often gets used as an interpretive lens for the way we understand the human experience.
When the woman saw that the tree was good for food and that it was a delight to the eyes and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. 7 Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked, and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.
In Genesis, fruit is dangerous. Nakedness is equated with sinfulness and relationships are broken. In contrast, the garden in the Song of Songs remains a place of expansive and diverse beauty. In fact, in some of the poems the lover herself is the garden.
Song of Songs 4:16
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
that he may eat its choicest fruits.
In the Song of Songs the garden is a safe home, and it is a place of love and desire. In this garden, love is celebrated and there is no shame. In Genesis, the garden is home but it is not totally safe. And the body is shameful. What if we looked more often through the lens of the garden in the Song of Songs instead of through the lens of the garden of Eden?
Another important garden in the biblical text, at least for Christians, is the garden where Jesus is buried. We read this in John.
from John 19
They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the Jewish burial custom. Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid.
It is in this garden, through her tears, that Mary Magdalene mistakes the risen Christ for a gardener.
from John 20
Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”
Hmm. What an interesting through-line to follow in the biblical text – gardens. Lovers in the garden; lovers as a garden; Jesus a mistaken gardener; maybe even God as gardener/creator (in Genesis.) There’s a study, where else do gardens appear in the biblical text? Starting from, or centering the Song of Songs opens up different perspectives or at the very least, invites us to get curious about new understandings and new ways of reading the text.
Let’s listen again to the passages that we heard earlier: from John, Song of Songs and Revelation. This time, try to hear John and Revelation with the Song of Songs in mind.
I give you a new commandment: Love one another.
And you’re to love one another the way I have loved you.
This is how all will know that you are my disciples:
that you truly love one another.
Song of Songs 1:17- 2:5
Ah, you are beautiful, my beloved,
truly lovely, in this royal bower of grass and flowers,
under the trees.
The beams of our house are cedar;
our only rafters these fir trees.
I am a rose of Sharon,
a lily of the valleys.
You are a lily, you are —
a lily among the thorns.
And you are as rare as an apple tree
in the middle of the forest.
With great delight I sit in your shadow,
and your fruit is sweet to my taste.
This will be our banquet hall,
here in this green valley,
and you shall be my roof:
spread your love over me like a canopy.
Sustain me with raisins,
refresh me with apples,
for I am faint with love.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth. The former heavens and the former earth had passed away and the sea existed no longer. I also saw a new Jerusalem, the holy city, coming down out of heaven from God, beautiful as two lovers on their wedding day. And I heard a loud voice calling from the throne, “Look! God’s Tabernacle is among humankind! God will live with them; they will be God’s people and God will be fully present among them.
What does Jesus’ new commandment to “love one another” sound like now? How do we hear or understand a new heaven and a new earth, a new Jerusalem, when we remember two lovers with trees as their home?
This is risky business, I know, taking an obscure and sidelined text like Song of Songs and giving it some prominence. Think of it as an interpretive experiment. It could go terribly wrong. Or it might turn out to be a kind of corrective after generations of body shaming and body hatred in the church. IF we took this approach for a time, centering Song of Songs, in several generations we may decide we need to swing back again to Eden. I think we are a long way from that right now. (It’s an idea.)
One more gift of the Song of Songs to share. When I returned from the seminar, pondering all of these things in my heart, I had lunch with Anna and Bruce. As I talked about the Song of Songs seminar, Bruce disappeared for a moment and then returned with a page from the St John’s Bible. (The St John’s Bible is hand written and hand illuminated or illustrated; with pages that are two feet by three feet, it is a kind of devotional art.) Bruce let me bring the framed copy of a page from the Song of Songs to share with you today.
As Michelle and I looked at this page from the St John’s bible, before Michelle went on sabbatical, it reminded me that poetry and art are similarly tricky to decipher and understand. One can try and make sense of it all or one can experience it, one small piece at a time, rolling it around in your mind, letting your eye rove around the page, savoring it until the flavor begins to emerge. At first glance the large red orb is in the way of the text. But look closer and is it a garden? Is that a doorway into that walled garden? a lock and key? Look, there are animals, there are flowers and fruits. I hope you will take an opportunity to look at these illuminated poems from the St Johns Bible. I will hang it back up in the foyer.
What a remarkable gift, the poetry of the Song of Songs. It invites and challenges us to love – love nature, love each other, love ourselves. God is not mentioned in the Song of Songs but perhaps when we love ourselves, love each other and love the beauty and rich diversity of nature, we are loving God. Perhaps that is what it means to love God. I give you a new commandment: love one another.