Be drunk with love
Based on Song of Solomon 4:16-5:2, 8:6-7
Those of you who were part of the parish back in 2007 will probably remember the Bibleathon that was held as part of our parish centennial celebrations. This was a continuous reading the of Bible – well the shorter Protestant version of the Bible – from start to finish, that is from Genesis to Revelation. It ran for about 72 hours non-stop.
Volunteers had to be present for particular timeslots, and they would read for ten minutes at a time, then another reader would take over. It was well organised, and it all went very smoothly.
I was the parish’s people’s warden at the time, so I had to drop in a few times over the course of the event to see how things were going, as well as to participate. And while one parishioner was reading, I got the distinct impression that she was surprised to find the content she was reading was in the Bible.
I don’t remember exactly what the text was, but I think it might have been from the book of Ezekiel, chapter 23, which is primarily a fairly explicit account of the sexual exploits of two sisters, Oholah and Oholibah, with the Assyrians and the Egyptians.
We were using the Contemporary English Version or CEV translation, which considerably tones down the text in question; other translations go into much more graphic detail. But even though we were using a somewhat sanitised Bible, it still came across as a bit of a shock
I remembered this incident while I was reflecting on this evening’s reading from the Song of Solomon, also known as the Song of Songs, which is part of the section of the Older Testament known as the Ketuvim, or Writings.
The Song of Solomon is an erotic love poem, attributed to King Solomon, but it was almost certainly written centuries after him. It may not be quite as explicit as parts of Ezekiel, but I was somewhat surprised by some of the content when I first read it when I was about 12. The themes are passion and intimacy, with none of the emphasis on marriage or fertility we woudl expect to see.
Like the reader at our Bibleathon, I was surprised to discover the Bible has some quite erotically charged content. Indeed, I recently read an article by Reverend Debra W. Haffner in the USA in which she reported that she had counted 35 sexually themed stories in the Book of Genesis alone. She also noted that St Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians addresses 17 of the 37 topics that should apparently be addressed in a comprehensive sexuality curriculum.1
In my own readings of the Bible – and I have read it in its entirety – I have encountered rape, incest, lust, infidelity, and much more. I have even found a text that appears to command priests to force women suspected of infidelity to have abortions!2 I really struggle with that one.
So how do we reconcile the Bible being our scriptures with it containing some quite racy material?
At this point you may be wondering where I am going with all this. What I have said so far may come across as being at best an odd choice of material for a sermon, and at worst, somewhat salacious. Now it is not my intention to make anybody feel uncomfortable today. But one of my main theological interests is the theology of human sexuality. And I believe the approach we take to sexually themed content in the Bible is important.
It would appear that, more often than not, the Church’s approach is often to simply ignore such texts or pretend they don’t exist. I have word searched the lectionaries for this year and last year, to see if there was any mention of the text from Ezekiel Chapter 23 that I referred to earlier, and I could not find any. Not that I expected to; I don’t remember hearing them in church. And neither can I remember hearing most of the other highly charged texts I am aware of.
Another case in point: tonight’s reading from the Song of Solomon only comprises some of the tamer content and jumps around to avoid some of the steamier parts.
The other main approach seems to be to attribute a different meaning to the text. Despite the Song of Solomon clearly being an erotic love poem, it was only accepted into the canon of Jewish scriptures on the basis of it not being erotic at all but an allegory for God’s love for Israel.
The text continued to be used for other purposes though; apparently the first and second century Rabbi Akiva forbade the use of the Song of Songs in popular celebrations, reportedly saying, "He who sings the Song of Songs in wine taverns, treating it as if it were a vulgar song, forfeits his share in the world to come".3
The Christian understanding of the Song of Solomon has changed over the centuries, but for the most part, it has been seen as an allegory for the love of God, or specifically the Christ, and all people, or specifically the Church.
But the Song of Solomon is very clearly what it is. And I say it for a third time. It is an erotic love poem.
It would seem that some of the writers of the Bible – especially the Older Testament – did not have the same reluctance to discuss matters pertaining to sexuality than many of us have today. I was brought up to believe that politics and religion were not polite topics for conversation, although that list also should really have included sex and death. But for some reason they did not need to be specifically identified. Thankfully, our reluctance to discuss such matters seems to be waning.
I say we should acknowledge the erotic content of the Bible for what it is, and not pretend it is not there or try to make it be about something else.
Whether we are comfortable admitting it or not, we are sexual creatures. Assuming nobody here is an alien or the product of IVF, how else did we come into the world? And given the scriptures contain advice for dealing with some of the most fundamental aspects of life, there is much to offer on how we should – and should not - behave when it comes to issues like love, sex, romance, and marriage.
Our sexuality is a gift from God. While we are all created in God’s image, each of us is unique, and part of our uniqueness is our individual sexuality. And sex has long been associated with the sacred and with the divine.
Yes, sex has always had its darker side. From Samson letting his guard down with Delilah, to King David’s seduction of Bathsheba and his plotting the death of her husband Uriah the Hittite, to Herod Antipas’ rash promise to give the daughter of Herodias anything she wanted, the Bible – and human history in general - are full of stories of those who have been led astray by their passions.
I can even recall reading a religious tract many years ago that claimed that the ‘original sin’ of Adam and Eve was sexual intercourse! This particular gift from God can be – and is – abused. And it's ironic that some of the most revered characters in the Bible also had some of the most dysfunctional family lives.
However, there are also many positive portrayals of sex, sexuality, and romantic love in the Bible. Such as the Song of Solomon.
So I commend it to you as a positive
affirmation that physical love is a gift from God that can be used for
pleasure as well as procreation. And not something we should feel guilty
(So) Eat, friends, drink,
and be drunk with love.4
9 May 2021
2 Numbers 5:11-31
3 Phipps, William E. (1974), "The Plight of the Song of Songs", Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 42:1 (March 1974), P 85
4 Song of Solomon 8:6-7
All Bible references are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) unless stated otherwise.