Phyllis Trible in her book God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality writes that the Song of Songs is the redemption of the Garden of Eden. Whereas the third chapter of Genesis, expels humanity from the Garden, Song of Songs welcomes us back with a come hither wink.
After Adam and Eve eat the apple in Genesis, they are ashamed of their nakedness. Not so in the Song of Songs. There is no shame at all. There is only joy and longing and excitement.
Trible writes: “It speaks from lover to lover with whispers of intimacy, shouts of ecstasy, and silences of consummation. At the same time, its unnamed voices reach out to include the world in their symphony or eroticism. This movement between the private and the public invites all companions to enter a garden of delight” (p.144)
The book has three voices: A woman, her shepherd lover and the daughters of Jerusalem. The woman is the most prominent throughout the book.
We’ll have four weeks to look at it and it doesn’t seem like enough.
This little book of wisdom literature buried in between the Psalms and the great prophets of the Hebrew Bible is a subversive text.
In its pages are contained some of the most erotic and beautiful poetry about love ever written.
As I think back on the hundreds of sermons I have heard, very few if any were ever from the Song of Songs. In preparation for this sermon, I looked at the Lectionary and surprise surprise, there was no reading from the Song of songs in the entire three-year cycle. What is in this book that is so subversive?
Why is it that this book almost didn’t make it into the bible? A narrow canonical vote got it included.
Why is there no mention of God? The same goes for the book of Esther.
Why is the church so hung up on sex and sexuality?
Well, it can’t be about sex. It must be an allegory. The woman is the church. The daughters of Jerusalem are the synagogue. The shepherd is God. Obviously. Bernard of Clairveaux wrote a sermon on each verse, but stopped at the second chapter. It’s the most commentated on book of the Bible and the least read in church. What is up with that?
Renita Weems in her book, “What Matters Most” writes: “It refuses to let its steamy tale of desire and lust be explained away, however exaltedly, as metaphor for our religious longings. Sexuality is as old as creation itself, it insists. In fact, the sexual part of our humanity is as strong as death and as unquenchable as fire. That is because sex is frequently the drama around which we attempt desperately to capture our deepest desires, our most feverish longings, our recurring dreams, and our most aching loneliness.”(p.4)
So let’s redeem this book and in the meantime, maybe redeem our ability to talk about the erotic beauty that God created and talked about it here in church!
Verse 5 of the first chapter is perhaps the most well-known of the verses. I am Black and beautiful. At my first church, we had a visit from the contestants of the Miss West Indian Pageant. I preached on this scripture saying beauty is only skin-deep. That true beauty lies not in someone’s transient outward appearance, but in their strength of character, their commitment to justice and wholeness, their capacity to love and commitment to God.
Our entertainment industry has taught us well that in order to be beautiful, you have to be young, thin, wear expensive clothes, re-proportion yourself with silicon and make-up, die or straighten your hair and more often than not be white.
Unfortunately, our Biblical translators believed for centuries that it was impossible to be both black and beautiful. Most Biblical translators were white. King James authorized a translation of the Bible in 1611 making sure that the things he wanted got translated his way.
So in the King James version, verse 1:5 says I am black but comely, or I am black but beautiful, As if to say, “in spite of the fact that I am black, I am still beautiful, or if you can just overlook the color of my skin, you can see that I am beautiful. The Hebrew word translated as “but” can also be translated as “and”. So as Bess sang, "The things that you’re liable to read in the Bible, it ain’t necessarily so.”
What is so is that the Shulamite woman was beautiful. She says it of herself and her lover says it of her, too.
The Shulamite is the only woman in all of scripture who describes herself in her own words. And what does she use? I am black and Beautiful.
But it is more than that, her brothers have forced her to work outside, deepening her complexion in the hot desert sun. She claims herself as Black and beautiful to reclaim her place. The Shulamite is not ashamed of her body, nor is her lover. This must have made Paul squirm.
Renita Weems says, “the Shulamite steps onto the pages of biblical history to create a space for women like the wife of Potiphar and the Samaritan woman. She comes on the scene as headstrong and full of passion, and challenges our notions of female decency, respectability and honor.”(p.37) Why does the one guy preacher get to start this series?
Weems further says, “To think that her fantasies got preserved here in scripture without comment, without censure, and without criticism makes us want to know more about her. They also make us wonder about where we got our notions of womanhood.” (p.37)
So it makes me think, what love poetry draws you in? What images dance in your imagination? Could that be consistent with God’s desires for all of us?
God made us sexual beings. It’s a great gift. It’s creative. It’s beautiful. It’s fun. It’s scary.
Most of what we know of as erotic is a feeling. It’s celebrating beauty. It’s drinking in the wonder of creation. It’s delighting in the fragrance of the flowers and the juiciness of the garden. It’s that reproductive nectar that keeps us going. It’s those pheromones doing their magic. It’s recognizing beauty. It’s a blessed gift from God.
The Shulamite sings to her lover saying that she is the rose of Sharon and the lilly of the valley. She’s ripe. In the Garden of Eden, the tasting of the fruit brought the first couple’s downfall. In the Song of Songs, her beloved is compared to the apple tree, and his fruit was sweet to my taste. She delights in apples and raisins and figs and flowers.
The woman sings of her beloved. Her beloved responds with words of affection and love. The daughters of Jerusalem, the Greek chorus are told to let love happen in its own rhythm, without being forced: “I adjure you o daughters of Jerusalem, by the gazelles or the hinds of the field that you stir not up nor awaken love until it is ready.”(2:7) There are other much more explicit and risqué chapters of this scripture than the first and second chapters. I’ll let you discover that on your own, like so many teenagers have done at Bible camp after dark—doing Bible study by flashlight. Could it be that in this steamy summer, we’ll read the Song of Songs and study scripture more than in December with the familiar stories? Let us make these poems about love as common as Luke’s nativity story or John 3:16 or Micah 6:8.
In Genesis, the animals, especially the snake, denote danger. In the Song of Songs, the animals leap and dance along with the human actors. They are emblems of joy. “The voice of my beloved, behold he cometh leaping upon the mountains skipping o’er the hills. My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag.” (2:8-9)
Renita Weems writes, “It is impossible to keep up with the lovers. But isn’t that just like love, certainly new lusty love? Time blurs. Personalities mesh. Speech trails off. Emotions are hijacked. The scenery goes out of focus…Something in her poetry convinces me that the Shulamite was young when she was in the throes of composing her poems to the shepherd. She seems convinced that love will rescue her from a miserable past. But it doesn’t. Your past isn’t something for you to be rescued from. Your past is what you learn from as you figure our how to integrate those lessons into the you you’re still becoming.” (pp42-42)
The book ends with these words. “Set me as a seal upon your heart…for love is stronger than death, passion fierce as the grave…Many waters cannot quench love neither can floods drown it…O you who dwell in the gardens, my companions are listening for your voice. Let me hear it.” (8:6,7,13) Kim put a part of that poem to music for our wedding 20 years ago.
When the Hebrew Bible was canonized in the 90th year of the Common Era, its first book was Genesis and its last book was the Song of Songs. The Hebrew Bible began and ended in paradise.
So what does this possibly have to do with us today? Well everything. We were given to this world to have unity with creation, not disconnection with it. We were given to this world for love, not violence. We were given life so that we could share in God’s bounty and rejoice when others shared in it too. We were given life so that we could see God in the created order and each other and it would cause us to treat each other with the utmost of respect.
We are called to recognize beauty, especially the beauty of those we love. How do you express your longing, your desire, your lust, your hopefulness? What poetry might you be inspired to write or read? How might your steamy summer imagine beauty.
This is a summer of love, given the marriage equality measure passed by the MN legislature and strengthened by the Supreme Court. I know already that there will be weddings and each one is an opportunity to remember our longings for what is right in the world. I look forward to celebrating with them and to imagine together a garden of paradise, where all is as it should be. That’s what the Song of Songs gives us: a blessed view of heaven on earth. It ought to be sung and celebrated over and over again.
Imagine God in a delightful garden, dancing with us—tumbling and rolling around in ecstasy. The world was created as a symphony for our senses and the Song of Songs unlocks a long-dormant portion of our true selves. And God says to us:
“Arise, my love, my fair one and come away” (2:10)
Come away from boring predictability and embrace possibility.
Come away from what binds you and come to the garden that sets you free and unlocks your passion.
Come away from that which you know in your heart is wrong. Arise, my love. Come and plant in this garden and see what we can create together.
“For lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land.”(2:11-12)
Renita Weems said that well-behaved women rarely change history. Let us risk and imagine like the black and beautiful Shulamite woman. Let us give voice to our deepest desires and claim our partnership with God in creating and sustaining beauty.
Let me close with a poem by a black and beautiful woman perhaps inspired by the Song of Songs.
Still I Rise, by Maya Angelou
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I'll rise.
Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
'Cause I walk like I've got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.
Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I'll rise.
Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.
Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don't you take it awful hard
'Cause I laugh like I've got gold mines
Diggin' in my own back yard.
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I'll rise.
Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I've got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?
Out of the huts of history's shame
Up from a past that's rooted in pain
I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that's wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.