A Celebration of Sexual Love (August 31, 2018)
Did you know that there is a celebration of sexual love in the Bible? Yes, the Bible.
You may be thinking “Where? I don’t remember reading that!” You may even think, “No way! Isn’t the Bible supposed to be against sexual love?”
Check it out … it’s in the Old Testament, and called “The Song of Songs.” We don’t know who the poet is, or when it was written. Traditionally the book was titled “The Song of Solomon”, and while Solomon is mentioned in the book (chapter 3), it doesn’t credit him as the author, and there is no other connection to him in the rest of the poem.
In fact, that old title is inaccurate. The original Hebrew is best translated as “The Song of Songs”. To take it a step further, the phrase used for the title actually refers to a superlative — hence the most appropriate title for this series of poems would be “The Most Beautiful Song”.
It’s an apt title, for this is a profound and illuminating testimony to the wonder of sexual love. The very earliest rabbis who interpreted the text were not blind to this fact. They wrote of the quite explicit and unmistakable references to acts of sexual intercourse that are described in the poems.
But it didn’t take long for readers, both Jewish and Christian (but mostly Christian) to decide that these poems simply couldn’t be what they most obviously were. They couldn’t imagine that a poem celebrating sexual love would ever be included in sacred Scripture.
And since that interpretation didn’t mesh with their understanding, they decided that this series of poems was “really” about God’s loving relationship with Israel. They took a very physical text and spiritualized it. Christian interpreters went even further, deciding that this song was “really” about Jesus Christ’s love for true believers.
What we see here is an example of what happens much too often when people interpret texts. Instead of letting the text speak for itself, they come with preconceived notions and make the text fit their understanding rather than the other way around. They read into the text what they think it should say.
The argument runs like this: surely the Bible doesn’t condone sexual love, so this poem can’t be about that. Therefore it must be an allegory for God’s love.
But it ain’t so.
Here’s an example of how it works. Chapter 7:2–3 reads, “Your navel is a rounded bowl that never lacks mixed wine. Your belly is a heap of wheat, encircled with lilies. Your two breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle.” It’s pretty clear that a lover is describing his love. Prudish readers determined that the navel really described the church’s baptismal bowl and the two breasts referred to the two covenants of law and gospel!
We may laugh at this interpretation now, but such a way of reading texts like this used to be taken very seriously. Part of the reason was an increasing denigration of sexuality. We see it in Augustine. In the 5th century, he decreed that original sin was passed from parent to child through the sexual act. Sex was bad! Therefore we must hide it.
But that’s not so. These delightful poems honour sexual romance and celebrate a sexual love between two people. These poems are a wonderful announcement of the power and beauty of sexual love.
You don’t need to be a subtle reader to discern what this poet had in mind: “My beloved thrust his hand into the opening, and my inmost being yearned for him.” (5:4) Or again, “You are stately as a palm tree, and your breasts are like its clusters. I say I will climb the palm tree and lay hold of its branches. O may your breasts be like clusters of the vine, and the scent of your breath like apples, and your kisses like the best wine that goes down smoothly, gliding over lips and teeth.” (7:7–9)
This ancient poetry is a wondrous description of the intricacies and delights of the act of sex. It is among the finest literary descriptions of the physical acts of two people attracted to each other.
But why include this text, this love poem, in a collection of sacred scripture?
For me, the answer is quite direct and obvious. Sexual love is an important element of human life. Why shouldn’t we expect our sacred book to hallow acts of love as a joyful and celebratory part of what it means to be fully human?
That’s even more important in the wake of recent revelations of clergy abuse of children in Philadelphia. To forcibly impose celibacy on clergy announces clearly that sexual activity is central to what it means to be a human being. When priests are unable to overcome the sexual needs of their humanity, they end up abusing and destroying thousands of victims throughout the centuries.
It is clear to me that sexuality and its expression is one of God’s great and good gifts. It is a delight and pleasure given to us who are made for one another.
One final curious thing about “The Most Beautiful Song”: God is not mentioned a single time. It may well be that the author was simply writing a celebration of sex for its own sake, and those who chose to include these poems in our sacred Scripture knew that we must celebrate the goodness of life as fully as we can.
It has been said that on Friday nights after Jewish services were completed some centuries ago, it was a divine duty that a couple go home and make love. After all, the act of lovemaking was as close to God as human beings were likely to get. I think the author of the most beautiful song knew that well.
Rev. Yme Woensdregt