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The Song of Solomon

[My class is beginning to tackle the Five Megillot today, so I figured I’d blog a little bit over the next few days parallel to the texts we’ll be studying.]

Many early church fathers taught that even within marriage, sexual intimacy was tainted by sin and at best a necessary evil. Other readers of the Bible would beg to differ. In Judaism, for example, sex as such has never been considered sinful, shameful or obscene. It is no more evil than other basic instincts like hunger or thirst, but like them must be treated appropriately. In the proper time, place, and manner, marital sex is considered a mitzvah—one of the 613 commandments Jews are obligated to observe. Thus, while the ancient church prohibited sex on the night before receiving Holy Communion, Jewish husbands and wives were encouraged on Friday nights to blend the joy of the Sabbath with the joy of lovemaking.

All this brings us to the Song of Songs. This book of love poetry has been taken as an allegory of the union of God and his people. I have no argument against such a reading, but I would hasten to point out that the allegory only works because sexual love between husband and wife is something to be celebrated. In the words of Rabbi David Feldman, it is “the ultimate human relationship.” That is why it can be a fitting allegory for the soul’s love affair with God.

The Song of Songs almost didn’t make it into the canon. We should be grateful it did, for it serves the noble purpose of rescuing us from any sort of dualistic nonsense about the body being evil. It embraces life, joy, and romantic love as gifts from God to be thankfully received, and just as thankfully shared. In a world saturated with pornography and paperback romances, we need books like that!

technorati tags: song of solomon, song of songs


  1. Here are a couple of quotes from R. Akiva which I noted last year when a choir I used to sing with did a program on the Song:

    …there is a warning from Rabbi Akiva (c100 CE) not to see the Song simply as entertainment. Whoever warbles the Song of Songs at banqueting houses, treating it like an ordinary song, has no portion in the world to come. (Tos. San. 12:10)

    We see from his record in the Talmud that he had a very high regard for this text. The entire world is unworthy of the day that the Song of Songs was given to Israel, for all of Scripture is holy, but the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies. (M. Yad 3:5).

    He went further than this, claiming that if Torah had not been given, that the Song would have sufficed for the guidance of Israel – I could not find the source of this one.

    These may be in Pope, Marvin H., Song of Songs, The Anchor Bible Commentary or in Harold Fisch – Poetry with a Purpose.

    Personally, I find the Song astonishing – I did a structural analysis – the second version is here


  2. D. P. says:

    Thanks for chiming in, Bob! And just in time to lift some of those Akiva quotations for class today! 🙂


  3. mike says:

    To be fair, other Church Fathers had a more positive view of sex — Clement of Alexandria, for example, and the later Chrysostom. (In the next few days, I’ll try to post my essay on Chrysostom and marriage.) Augustine is much maligned when this subject comes up, but I think he was realistic, drawing from his own experience of sex. He did say that our practice of sex almost always involves some venial sin. But that‚Äôs not a denigration of sex. My practice of phone conversation almost always involves some venial sin, but that doesn‚Äôt mean the phone is a bad thing.

    Many of the Fathers, reflecting on the Scriptures, thought that marriage would pass away, and was indeed already passing away. Their attitude is understandable when you consider that Christians were embracing the Gospel call to celibacy in astonishing numbers. There were several thousands of registered celibates in Antioch in the mid-fourth century. In later years, the Byzantine Empire actually deemed it necessary to impose legislative restrictions on the practice of celibacy!

    When moderns want to portray the Fathers as anti-sex, it seems that most of the material comes from ancient fervorinos addressed to monks.

    The Fathers associated pre-communion abstinence with the temporary abstinence of the priests and levites during their terms of service.

    I didn’t mean to go on so long. Thanks for the post!


  4. David Reimer says:

    Here’s a nice snippet from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison (p. 303 in my edition):

    “There’s always a danger in all strong, erotic love that one may love what I might call the polyphony of life. What I mean is that God wants us to love him eternally with our whole hearts – not in such a way as to injure or weaken our earthly love, but to proivide a kind of cantus firmus to which the other melodies of life provide the counterpoint. One of these contrapuntal themes (which have their own complete independence but are yet related to the cantus firmus) is earthly affection. Even in the Bible we have the Song of Songs; and really one can imagine no more ardent, passionate, sensual love than is portrayed there (see 7.6). It’s a good thing that the book is in the Bible, in face of all those who believe that the restraint of passion is Christian (where is there such restraint in the Old Testament?). Where the cantus firmus is clear and plain, the counterpoint can be developed to its limits.”



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