A reflection on the Song of Songs by Nathan Nettleton
If you were to listen to some Christians, you’d think that human sexuality was beyond redemption and that the less we have to do with sex the closer to God we’ll all be. Well, I’d love to hear how those people explain the presence of the Song of Songs in the middle of the Bible. Actually, I know how they usually explain it — they say that it is not sexy at all, it is an allegory of God’s loving relationship with the church. Now they are probably right that one of the main reasons it was included in scripture was because of that allegorical use, but the fact remains that, no matter what allegorical use it might be put to, it is first and foremost a collection of highly erotic love poetry. The ancient Hebrew variety, for sure, and with a long history of religious use, but highly erotic nevertheless. And it seems to me that if God didn’t like that sort of thing, then it wouldn’t be used to illustrate the way God relates to us.
There quite a few sexy bits in the Bible, especially in the books that come from pre-Christian times. It is amazing how coyly they are often translated though. It is as though the censors got to our Bibles and cleaned them up for us before we got to read them! They can get away with this because many of these passages are allegorical. They use sexual allusions or suggestions to describes something else, and so the blushing translators just try and tell us what it meant without letting us hear the original allusions. Have a look for example at Job 28:27. It is the climax of a long poem celebrating God’s love of wisdom and it pictures Wisdom as a woman. A fairly literal translation of verse 28 says something like:
At that instant, he sees her and celebrates her;
He embraces her and penetrates her.
The New Jerusalem Bible translates it:
then he saw and evaluated her,
looked her through and through, assessing her.
Several others, like the NIV, even resort to neutering her:
then he looked at wisdom and appraised it;
he confirmed it and tested it.
They still convey the implied meaning of the original text, but they rob it of its original flavour and leave it rather passionless and bland. Why? Maybe it made them blush!
Much of the way Christians have often thought about sex has been shaped by the mindset of the Greek philosophies that were influential at the time of the early church (and still have a lot of influence today). It is from that mindset that we get our ability to think of the body as being the opposite of the mind or spirit, and even to think of them as being in conflict with one another. That would have been nonsense to the older Hebrew mindset, and when you think about it, it is. How can you describe as opposites two things that can’t exist independently of each other? The pathway to greater health and wholeness is the greater integration of the body and the spirit, not the suppression of either by the other. But the mindset that can separate them is responsible for our tendency to think that sexuality and spirituality are at odds with each other. The Hebrew poets didn’t think that way, and that’s why we get so startled when we hear them using sexy talk to describe the things of the Spirit. It came rather naturally to them. If you wanted to describe the extraordinary depth of God’s desire for intimacy with us, what other language could you use but the language of the most passionate human desire for intimacy – the language of sex?
The Christian understanding of God emerged from the Hebrew understanding of God. Right at the beginning of the Christian understanding of God is what we call the incarnation – God becoming flesh. And at the culmination of Christian thinking about God is the resurrection – the human body restored and glorified. Christian thinking then must always remain “incarnate” – that is to say it must always remain embodied, fleshly, earthy. Any spirituality that sees human bodily needs and desires as irrelevant or as an obstacle to spiritual growth has dubious claims to being Christian. Any spirituality that sees sex as a problem to be overcome is getting itself seriously out of step with the Christian tradition.
One of the problems with the negative attitudes to sex that have infected Christian thinking is that we start hearing them even when they are not there. We start thinking that the Christian attitude to sex is “Just say No!” Proverbs 5:15-20 is a bit of ancient poetry advising men against adultery. If you were to read in the Good News version you could easily hear it as ‘just say No’. But if you read it in the Jerusalem Bible or the NRSV you’ll begin to get another flavour. The original is closer to this:
Sorry, let’s start again in English! I can’t read the Hebrew either.
Drink waters from you own reservoir,
And running water from you own spring.
Should your fountains overflow on the street,
And your water brooks on the public squares?
Let you fountain be blessed,
And have joy from the woman of your youth,
The hind of many loves, the gazelle with gracious favors!
Let her breasts inebriate you at all times,
Her love constantly ravish you!
For why should you be ravished by a stranger,
And embrace the bosom of another woman?
That is a long way from “Just say No!” It is more along the lines of “Sex is like champagne – don’t splash it around like cordial!” Basically it is advising against adultery on the grounds that the sex will be a lot hotter if you stick with one partner and don’t have to keep going back to square one. It is an argument that values and celebrates good sex, even promotes it, instead of fearing it and trying to suppress it.
So what are we to make of the presence of the Song of Songs in the Bible? Unlike the passage from Proverbs it is not attempting to give advice on sexual ethics. Unlike the passage from Job it doesn’t directly relate its imagery to aspects of our understanding of God. It is just a collection of deliciously sexy poems that make no attempt to explain their presence. So what are they doing there? Well, the most obvious answer, and surely at least part of the truth, is that they are just there as a celebration of one of God’s gifts to us, the gift of sexual intimacy. And perhaps they are also there to remind us that sex is a precious gift and shouldn’t be disparaged by those who love God.
But perhaps it is also true that they are there because their unabashed passion does tell us something about God and about God’s feelings for us. If so, what can we conclude from the fact that the Bible is not embarrassed to use highly erotic literature to lead us into a greater understanding of God? Well, we can begin to see that the Bible is encouraging us to have what we might call a ‘sacramental’ view of sex. Things are sacramental when they use physical means to bring us into contact with God. Bread. Wine. Water. Sex? Yes, sex. If the Song of Songs is a celebration of God’s love for us, then sexual intimacy is something that draws us closer to the heart of God, closer to the experience of God. The more loving, faithful, joyous and passionate our experience of sexual intimacy, the more truly it is a taste of the nature of God.
Of course it is true that because sex is so powerful, when it is twisted and abused it is extremely damaging. But that’s no excuse for us to be afraid of it and try to suppress it. Bread, wine and water are at the centre of some of the world’s most horrendous abuses and atrocities too, but we never lose sight of their basic goodness (Okay maybe with wine we do sometimes!). Every good thing has a twisted mutant counterpart that is evil, but God wants us to have what is good and healthy and life-enhancing. And the message of the Song of Songs is that sexual intimacy is not only a good thing, but something through which we can be drawn a little more deeply into the wonderful mysteries of the God who is love. Something sacred!
Questions for thought and discussion.
- What sort of attitudes to sex have you experienced within churches?
- In what ways might sexual love and intimacy give us insights into God?
- Do the dangers associated with the misuse of sex also tell us something about God?
- How would you describe the relation ship between healthy sexuality and healthy spirituality?
- What relevance does any of this have to those who are not in sexual relationships?