With breasts like twin gazelles – the Song of Songs

The Song of Solomon is one of several books (Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the deuterocanonical Wisdom being the others) to be attributed to Solomon because of the tradition that made him a proverbial figure of wisdom. Its traditional title, Song of Songs,1 indicates (according to Hebrew idiom) it is the best of all songs. Sadly, no readings from it occur in the shared lectionary tradition on a Sunday.2 One short passage is used as the first reading for the feast of St Mary Magdalene.

I once gave a talk – with selected readings – on books of the bible we hardly ever read in church. This was one of my selections, and I read a couple of the passages where the lovers in the song describe each other. Afterwards, an older and more senior priest took me to one side, and said: “I’m not sure you should really read those passages in church.” To which I protested mildly, “But that was rather the point of it.” He replied, “well, you didn’t have to sound as though you were enjoying it.”

The opening letter “O” (for osculum, meaning kiss) of the Song in a Latin manuscript.

It is erotic poetry, with, most likely a pair of teen lovers at the heart of it. Most hearers and readers may well come across it at a wedding:

Set me as a seal upon your heart,
as a seal upon your arm;
for love is strong as death,
passion fierce as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
a raging flame.
Many waters cannot quench love,
neither can floods drown it.
If one offered for love
all the wealth of his house,
it would be utterly scorned.

Song of Songs 8:6-7 NRSV

That reflects the way in which most modern Christians primarily draw on its literal sense. It is a set of poems, collected and edited together, presented as a dramatic dialogue between two lovers, with a chorus adding comment. The images are not always those we would think either complimentary or erotic in contemporary culture. I took the comparison of the woman’s breasts to twin gazelles from Song 4:5 for my title. Other images are just as strange to us, such as her teeth being like a flock of ewes (6:6).

There is no doubt that what we are reading is love poetry. However, we lack the cultural reference points to know how racy its apparent eroticism actually was. However, its inclusion in scripture, when read, as we often do today, in its literal sense, reminds us that the poetic celebration of physical love has its proper place in Christian spirituality.

There is, though, a traditional way of reading it which focusses not on the literal meaning, but on the spiritual. It was read as an allegory by Jews and Christians, of God with his people by the former, of Christ and his church by the latter. It has been favoured by mystics down the centuries as an allegory of God or Christ and the individual soul. They have been and are encouraged by it to seek a particular intensity in their relationship with God, one for which the language of erotic intimacy is an appropriate metaphor.

Today we need to honour both ways of reading, and neither let the spiritual sense drive out the literal one, nor vice versa.


Notes

  1. The book is known as the Song of Songs, the Song of Solomon, and, because of its title in the Latin Bible, as Canticles, or Canticle of Canticles. It is usually abbreviated either Song or Cant.
  2. The Revised Common Lectionary’s continuous track readings include the same passage – Song 2:8-13 – as a responsorial canticle for Proper 9, Year A, and as the first reading for Proper 17, Year B.

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