Song of Solomon 2:8-13
Every Monday morning I create the bulletin for the next Sunday. This task involves writing a call to worship and a prayer based on the Psalm of the week, selecting two suggested texts, picking Hymns that will fit the selected texts and creating a temporary title for the sermon which is usually changed by Thursday. This has been my ritual forever and I doubt it will change any time soon. Sometimes a scripture sits there begging to have a new sermon written about it. Sometimes a scripture seems perfect for a particular time of the year. Sometimes picking the scripture is like pulling teeth. This week, there was never a doubt which scripture I would choose. A long time ago I made myself a promise before I reached 65 I would preach at least one sermon on every book of the Bible. As of last week I was at 65 books and holding. The one remaining book was Song of Solomon. In our lectionary list, a text from Song of Solomon only appears once every three years. I turn 65 in a month. Like it or not I figured this is my last chance to make good on a promise made over 30 years ago.
“Look, my beloved comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills. My beloved is like a young stag, gazing through my window and beckoning, “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away with me.”
I am not making those words up. In our Bible, right between Ecclesiastes claiming everything is “Vanity” and Isaiah lamenting, “Judah as a wicked nation laden with children who are corrupt and despise the One Holy God”, are eight chapters of love poems that would make D.H. Lawrence blush. What the heck is going on?
I spent a great deal of time last week reading and rereading, and then reading again the 22nd book of the Old Testament. For a denomination preoccupied with discussing sex for at least three decades, it is a wonder the Song of Solomon hasn’t been banned. I decided to do some research and discover how it was selected to be placed in the Bible. My studies were quite interesting.
Many Christian scholars claim the Song of Solomon has nothing to do with sex but is an allegory of Christ as the bridegroom of the church. Obviously they didn’t read the same poems I read. Sometimes Christians work way too hard trying to make the Old Testament a book that was only written to shed light on Jesus. My fellow preachers place post resurrection interpretations on scriptures which were not only written before the birth of Christ but scriptures which have significant meaning within the framework of the Jewish faith. While some selections of the Old Testament can be understood more fully in light of the Christ event, we need to carefully honor the original intentions of the text.
My confusion over Song of Solomon being seen as a representation of Christ as the bridegroom of the Church is after a careful reading of the poems, and trust me I read them very carefully, I never found God mentioned in the entire book. How can a book that doesn’t talk about God be about God?
Let me share some other interesting things I discovered. While it is listed in the Christian Bible as the Song of Solomon, in the Jewish Canon is it called the Song of Songs. Why is that? One reason would be while Solomon lived in the 9th century BCE, the poems were probably written six centuries later. The literary style is similar to Egyptian poems which were popularized by Greek poets. Three hundred years before Christ, Judah was heavily influenced by Greek Scholarship. More than likely these poems became integrated into the Jewish culture and were placed among the wisdom literature we find in the Jewish Apocryphal. 100 years after the death of Christ, because the Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed and Jews were migrating throughout the Mediterranean, Jewish scholars decided to compile a list of books that would officially be recognized as the Hebrew Bible. Books like Genesis, Exodus and Psalms were immediately included. Other books were not accepted so quickly. Each book had to reveal some revelation about God. After much discussion, the Jewish scholars, aware of the popularity of the poems, and noting one verse mentioned the name of Solomon, decided perhaps the poems were allegorical. They placed the book next to Ecclesiastes, another book which barely crept into the Jewish Bible. When the Christian Church compiled its own Canon, the Jewish Bible was accepted as a whole. 400 years later, celibate monks interpreting the Hebrew text into Latin, decided the book could not possibly be about sex. They changed the name to Song of Solomon, and declared the poems celebrated Christ and his bride the church.
So I ask you, why can’t the poem just be about a beautiful relationship between two people? Furthermore, why shouldn’t a poem celebrating love be in the Bible?
More years ago than I care to remember I was asked to fly to Kansas City to meet with Presbyterians from all over the United States. Our task was to review a new curriculum which was taking a creative and honest approach toward teaching human sexuality to young people between the ages of 13-16. It was advertised to be faith based and celebrated God’s gift of sexuality. After extensive training, I was instructed to go home to try this new approach.
I thought it was terrific. Every time I moved to a new church I exposed the youth to this curriculum. I taught classes in Wilmington NC, then Va. Beach, and later in San Angelo, Texas. Each group was composed of radically different young people and some very cautious parents, particularly in North Carolina. I taught these classes over a period of ten years and found the results to be absolutely amazing. Both my son and daughter were students and to this day I believe one of the reasons my son became involved in public health issues is because of the openness and honesty of those classes.
The tragedy of the story is that the curriculum was never published. An outcry in the Presbyterian Church emerged, claiming it was the role of the parents and not the church to teach sex education, no matter how faith based the curriculum might be.
Why are we so uncomfortable with public conversations about sexuality? The opening statement in the banned curriculum was, “God made human beings male and female for their mutual help comfort and joy. We recognize that our creation as sexual beings is part of God’s loving purpose for us. God intends all people to affirm each other with joy, freedom and responsibility. God created us and gave us the gift of sexuality.” That is hardly a radical statement, yet thirty years ago it was viewed as a dangerous theological assumption. For thirty years I have watched folks leave our denomination because of their fear of having an open and honest conversation concerning this God given gift.
Norman Pittenger wrote, “Christianity is not about good behavior, nor is it an interesting speculation about God. Christian faith is the commitment of the self to the reality of the cosmic Love which is in, and behind, and through, and under all creaturely experience. The church exists to enable men and woman to experience the love of Christ, consciously, intentionally, and attentively, thus finding wholeness in their lives.”
Admittedly finding Old Testament stories depicting sexuality as a gift are not easy to find. The early codes on sexuality are based on the desire to procreate and be fruitful. These laws were written before women were considered to be human beings. The only purpose for women was to have children. Ironically one of the last books to be written is the one we assume to be the oldest. In the prologue of the book of Genesis, sexuality is expressed as a God given gift. The Genesis stories, Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachael speak of two people finding completeness in each other. This theme continually surfaces through the post exilic texts and becomes dominate in the New Testament where God is understood as perfect, unadulterated love.
The Song of Songs was never about God’s relationship with Israel. It was about fulfilling God’s gift to humankind. The Song of Songs is not about Christ being the bridegroom of the church, but about celebrating Christ when we honor and respect our life long partner.
Sexual practices can be exploitive, cruel, and have nothing to do with love. The global market has made human sexuality a commodity for the promotion and sale of goods and services. This is a parasite on a God given gift.
Sexual exploitation is not unique to our century. We know from the beginning of time woman and children have been sexually oppressed. Perhaps in the third century before Christ, in the light of the abuse of a God given gift, a poet sat down to write. She wrote about her lover. She wrote about their commitment to each other. She wrote playfully, yet seriously. She included her hopes and dreams. She wrote lovingly in every sense of the word. Then she signed it, Solomon, hoping by using a cherished name from the past the poems might be read by those shackled by a culture’s misrepresentation of a God given gift.
Those that read the poems cherished them. Those that read the poems protected them. Those that read the poems preserved them for future generations. Then 400 years later, I would like to imagine that God spoke to a respected Rabbi who was one of many elected to choose the sacred text for the Jewish Canon.
God said, “Pick this one.” The Rabbi was aghast, “I can’t propose Song of Songs to be part of the Holy Words. It is so outrageous, plus you are not even mentioned.” God responded, “But it gives me such great delight.” Amen.