Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Song of Songs

Well, I had been looking forward to the Song of Solomon -- or what my translation turns out to call the "Song of Songs" -- for obvious reasons. It is, after all, what a learned friend of mine recently referred to as "sexy time in the Bible." Yet, although it's never really my intent in this project to out-and-out critique the Bible -- it's not like I'm reviewing Avatar here -- I have to say that the Song of Songs is really something of a disappointment.

First of all, it is not nearly as sexy as its reputation. It's a poetic dialogue between the "Lover," the "Beloved," and a chorus of "Friends," and the presence of the Friends puts a fairly demure cap on any steaminess. There are a few vague gestures towards getting a little tipsy and getting out of town for the night, but the bulk of the dialogue consists of our lovers crafting various metaphors for each other or each other's body parts. Breasts are like twin baby gazelles, or towers, or clusters of fruit. Hair is like a flock of goats, or black as a raven, or like a royal tapestry, or like the fetters of a king. These are easy kinds of lists to make, and frankly a lot of the metaphors don't really transition well into the 21st Century:

Your temples behind your veil are like the halves of a pomegranate.
Your neck is like the tower of David, built with elegance;
On it hang a thousand shields, all of them shields of warriors.
There are good bits too, for instance:
Strengthen me with raisins, refresh me with apples, for I am faint with love. (2:5)
But really, anybody can get bits of a love letter right if they approach it in the right spirit, and while these come-ons are of historic interest simply because they are so very old, they are hardly remarkable examples of the genre.

Secondly, why is this in my Bible? I mean, I've come to accept that the Bible is not (as billed) any kind of organized handbook of how to live a religious or virtuous or meaningful life. To this point, it has pretty much been a scrapbook of ancient Hebrew civilization. But even in this context, this mash note from Solomon to, well, whom? one of his more than a thousand wives? seems like a particularly egregious inclusion. It does not, I believe, mention God. It does not suggest any general principles for how one ought to conduct a meaningful relationship. The best excuse I can think of for its presence would be to institutionalize some notion that physical love is OK in God's book -- literally. But if that was the idea, it would have been nice to had it back in the Pentateuch with the shalts and the shalt nots.

Next Week: Isaiah!


Elizabeth said...

I've always thought that it was an extended metaphor about one's relationship with god. I seem to recall a good bit of Hindu devotional texts involving references to "beloved" or "lover" in referring to the human/divine connection, and I wouldn't be surprised if that terminology appeared in the major Mesopotamian theologies of the time as well.

rebecca said...

I found this site when I was looking something up in Leviticus last monday, and I've read up until now.
So..nothing since January?

Michael5000 said...

Yeah. New job's keeping me hopping. I'll be back.

rebecca said...

Sounds good :)

Nichim said...

Hurry up! I'm dying to know what happens next! Been doing tons of reading in the fine genre of theology, but it's not the same without Michael Reads the Bible.