Your Channel Is An Orchard
How beautiful you are, my love,
how very beautiful!
Your eyes are doves
behind your veil.
Your hair is like a flock of goats,
moving down the slopes of Gilead.
Your teeth are like a flock of shorn ewes
that have come up from the washing,
all of which bear twins,
and not one among them is bereaved.
Your lips are like a crimson thread,
and your mouth is lovely.
Your cheeks are like halves of a pomegranate
behind your veil.
Your neck is like the tower of David,
built in courses;
on it hang a thousand bucklers,
all of them shields of warriors.
Your two breasts are like two fawns,
twins of a gazelle,
that feed among the lilies.
Until the day breathes
and the shadows flee,
I will hasten to the mountain of myrrh
and the hill of frankincense.
You are altogether beautiful, my love;
there is no flaw in you. – Song Of Songs 4:1-7
The Biblical book subject to the most commentaries in history isn’t the Psalms. It isn’t Romans, either. No, the book that monks, scholars, and just regular folk have turned to most often in the church’s history is The Song Of Songs. For centuries, folks have argued all sorts of things: Is it an allegory? Is it a wedding poem? Some scholars have noted similarities of phrasing, structure, and theme to the love poetry of neighboring societies, which, really, isn’t all that surprising. Tiny Israel, surrounded by enormous Empires, from Egypt and Assyria, the influx of the Phoenicians (referred to as the Philistines in Scripture) and even far flung Empires including the Persians and Akkadians and Etruscans. After all, Israel sat at the hub of major trade routes. They had to take in influences from all over the world.
Which is kind of back story, really. Because while interesting, this approach attempts to answer the unanswerable: From whence this poem? It should seem obvious through all the digging in lost Sumerian scraps, the writings of Ovid and Sappho, that this poem is a poem not just about love. This poem is a celebration of sex. It is a celebration of the beauty of the human body, male and female, and what happens when two people come together intent on enjoying and appreciating one another’s bodies. There is certainly love in this poem; chapter 8 insists that love is stronger than death. Yet, from the context of the whole poem it seems pretty clear this is a love born from a mutual physical appreciation.
I have written about the Song of Songs before, especially when Church Ladies, including the male Church Ladies, get all huffy about sex, as if somehow this generation of humanity has not only invented new ways of having sex, but of abusing the gift of sexuality. Even that last phrase, “gift of sexuality”, I’ve had questioned by some who find sex dirty – one person told me, insisted in fact, that even in marriage and between lovers, all sex is basically selfish – as if, somehow, sex were not part of what it is to be human. As early as the second chapter of Genesis, we read that before the Fall, the man and woman enjoyed sin-free sex, reveling in the joy of being together.
Before I turn to how lust can distort human sexuality, turning it into something horrific, I want to make clear that I firmly believe that, in and of itself, sexual desire is not bad. Not even the Bible argues that, taken as a whole. No, in the Song of Songs there are many references not only to the physical beauty of the male and female body, there are hints about how best to enjoy the beauty of your partner. Chapter 5, verse 5 certainly sounds like it is referencing female masturbation brought on by a sexual dream: “I arose to open to my beloved, and my hands dripped with myrrh, my fingers with liquid myrrh, upon the handles of the bolt.” Further down, in verse 15b, when describing her man, the woman says, “His appearance is like Lebanon, choice as the cedars.” Now, the cedars of Lebanon were renowned for being tall, straight, and thick, so please don’t pretend you don’t understand what she’s talking about here.
In the portion quoted above, the man insists “Until the day breathes and the shadows flee, I will hasten to the mountain of myrrh and the hill of frankincense.” That certainly sounds like oral sex to me. Apart from all the other references to sex, the poem really doesn’t pull too many punches, explicit in detail as well as theme: Sex is a beautiful thing, and creates a bond between lovers that is stronger than death. Passion, the author writes in chapter 8, is as jealous as the grave, refusing to relinquish its object. The sum total of this poem, whether liturgical or merely cultural in origin, is a praise for physical love unmatched in beauty of imagery or explicitness in detail of what physical love entails.
Which, of course, leaves us with a conundrum. The church has paid much attention to this particular poem throughout its history. In its earthiness and sensuality, however, many commentators have focused overmuch on the allegorical aspect, with the “bridegroom” God and the “bride” the church. Which, you know, is a beautiful imagery, too; that God would pursue the church, desire it as the man does the woman in this poem. Yet, even a careful reading of the details should make even the most ardent allegorical reader uncomfortable. It may well be true that God’s love for humanity is unending, even passionate just as the passion between lovers can be irresistible. All the same, the allegory fails, or at least should leave the reader uncomfortable, when we delve in to the details.
When the church was birthed, at the pinnacle of Roman power, sexual freedom (at least for men) was rampant. Temple prostitution was an enormous generator of cash. The wealthy enjoyed a kind of reveling in sensuality that would make most porn directors stop and think. The church’s earliest teachings against fornication, sodomy, and idolatrous sex can only be understood clearly against a background in which sex was a religious practice as well as the province of the wealthy, a kind of conspicuous consumption as well as display of power, particularly over women as well as over the poor, who were hemmed in by official rules and laws that were, in fact, quite restrictive on sexual activity. There was something countercultural about a religious body insisting its members refrain from sensuality, not only because some might believe the end of the world was nigh. It was a social and cultural distinction that would have set the earliest Christians apart even from members of the Jewish communities who probably enjoyed some of these fruits of the poisoned tree. When this practice and these admonitions met the neo-Platonic rejection of the body, we are left with a centuries-old denial of the basic goodness both of the human body and human sexuality that hangs on, to this day, even in societies where the opposite might well serve just and good and righteous ends far more than the rejection of human sexuality.
There is something empowering about discovering that human beauty, human sexual love, and the pleasures we all know come from mutual passion are celebrated in the Bible. There is something about that “Yes” that frees us from worry. At least, it should free us. It should be freeing to know we can enjoy the pleasures of sex without fear or guilt. Alas, we in the churches have far too many centuries of “No” through which we must burrow to arrive at that original Biblical “Yes”. We also have social and cultural forces that would insist on the “No”, not least because the abuse of human sexuality is all around us in popular entertainment. It would seem it’s up to us in the churches, however, to free even this from the clutches both of a tradition that has distorted the original beauty and power of the Song of Songs as well as a culture that degrades the gift of sex even while we as a people are either embarrassed or ashamed to speak openly of human sexuality in all its varieties.
Before we consider “lust” as a deadly sin, it is important to remember that sexual passion is a part of the original creation. It is something celebrated in poetry and song in the Bible. The beauty of the human body, the enjoyment couples have in sharing their bodies with one another, the love that becomes deathless because of such joy – this is all there, in the Bible. Just as I have done here, before we go around talking smack about sex, it is important we affirm what the Scriptures already affirm: that sex is a beautiful, good gift from a God who loves us enough to share this beautiful gift with us so that we can share it with one another.