Monday, August 5, 2013

A question on the Song of Songs

I've been working on an essay on the Song of Songs. I'm pondering the purpose of S of S. Two question.

1. Do you think there's any way that a chapter which:

"first represents the woman's body as a mountainous landscape teeming with animal life, then evokes the actual mountains of northern Israel and Lebanon from which the lover asks his beloved to come down with him, and finally once again represents the woman's body as a landscape: this time, an enclosed bower ripe with fruit, moistened by a fresh-running spring that has its source in Lebanon, the water thus flowing underground  from the literal landscape just mentioned to the figurative garden."
Robert Alter in Bloch and Bloch The Song of Songs: A New Translation talking about Song of Songs chapter 4.

was not meant as a turn on?*

2. If you think it was meant as a turn on in some sense, do you find this problematic?

Most people are okay with the Song being an endorsement of sexual love within the biblical boundaries of marriage. But are you okay with it not being just a theoretical endorsement of (married) sex, but also... more than that. Poetry that makes us feel nothing is bad poetry. The language is meant to work on us and in us to do something... Are you okay with that? For married and unmarried readers?

* Of course, readers who have dulled their senses will find a 3000 year old unillustrated text not worth the effort.


  1. I personally suspect that a poem that was designed to make you believe that sexual love is as powerful as 8:6 says would be a bit silly if it didn't use the affective elements of the text to do so.*

    I don't think I'm allowed to find it problematic if it's in the Bible, am I? ;) It's an interesting angle to follow up in SoS, Simone. You going further with it? (pardon the pun)

    *if you don't get what I mean, that's a yes to q1.

  2. I've written an essay. Just editing it a little to try and limit the troubled reactions...

  3. My short answer is yes, but my longer answer is another question: 'what is the role of the erotic in the holy life'. Non-Christian historians sometimes like to sneer at early Methodist spiritual devotion as repressed sexuality. I like to annoy them by pointing out that early Methodists would assume that modern sexual devotion is just repressed spirituality.

    1. I like that!

      'what is the role of the erotic in the holy life'? Something to be received with thanks?

  4. No meaning it was obviously meant as a turn on? Or No meaning it's not meant as a turn on?

  5. I will need some convincing that a text that includes

    "Daughters of Jerusalem, I charge you by the gazelles and by the does of the field: Do not arouse or awaken love until it so desires"

    is also intended to arouse.

  6. Surely that depends on your interpretation of that verse? In the context of the narrative, that verse seems to be saying that misplaced desire is dangerous. Not that there is no place for desire. It might suggest that the text isn't to be read lightly or without understanding of its purpose.

    1. My translation renders it "swear to me.... that you will never awaken love until it is ripe."

      I don't think this verse has anything to say about having feelings aroused by a text. I think it is a warning against jumping prematurely into a relationship with a person. "For love is as fierce as death, its jealousy bitter as the grave..." Yes, it is wonderful and you want it (the text has made you want it even more!) but patience. Wait until the fruit is ripe.

    2. That sounds like the Driscoll interpretation as well.

      I seem to remember hearing him introduce a sermon on SoS by saying something like "This sermon [or maybe it was series] will make you glad you are married. And if you're not married then it will make you wish you were."

      I remember thinking at the time that it was a particularly cruel thing to say.

  7. Alistair of course then there's this:

    "Your stature is like that of the palm,
    and your breasts like clusters of fruit.
    I said, 'I will climb the palm tree;
    I will take hold of its fruit.'"

    Tell me that's not sexual!

    I'm sure you're well aware of the tradition of interpretation which sees this as a symbolic description of God and Israel/Christ and the Church. This kind of reverses the attitude Joanna alludes to - rather than spiritual activity being repressed sexuality, sexuality is kind of repressed spirituality. Jesus really IS my boyfriend!

    I think the fact that we find this embarrassing tells us that it's a challenge to our closet Gnosticism, our habit of seeing our relationship with God as nothing to do with our bodies or even our bodies as impediments to that relationship, to be starved and beaten into submission so we can get closer to God.

    1. Hi Jon

      I didn't say that Song of Songs is not sexual. I agree with you that it is.

      What I am disagreeing with is that the text itself is intended to be a sexual turn on for the reader.

    2. Yes, probably not in the pornographic sense, but it's hard to see how you can really grasp these images without being turned on, and the craftsmanship suggests that this is not an accident.