Time for a cold shower this week as we take a look at a book unique in the Bible – a collection of erotic love poetry. There is no mention of Yahweh, little which looks like wisdom literature, and no reference whatsoever to God’s law. The only clue to its dating is the ascription in 1:1 to Solomon, although the form of the language, as Aramaic gradually replaced Hebrew as the language of Israel, makes this seem unlikely and the date at least post-exilic, if not later. There seems to be little structure, although it is possible to discern three voices, which some translations like the NIV helpfully add as titles in the text. There is a man, a woman and a group of friends who act a little like a Greek chorus to help the readers see the scenes. These divisions of the text are not there in the original, and are largely deduced from the gender of the Hebrew terms.
The man and the woman are clearly very much in love, and there are some pretty graphic descriptions, but at the same time there is a certain restraint and chastity running through the poems, which make it not in the same league as 50 Shades. Some of the more erotic parts are only enacted in dreams, and the woman repeatedly tells her friends ‘not to awaken love until it is ready’. She is described as a locked garden, a spring enclosed and a sealed fountain in chapter 4, all symbols of chastity. All this gives the effect of real sexual desire, and real eroticism, but strictly within appropriate limits.
Jews were a bit reluctant to admit this book into the canon of scripture, while interestingly Christians had no problem with it. But in the first century Jewish commentators began to interpret the book allegorically, as a poem about God’s love for Israel, which therefore made it OK to read as Scripture. Christians soon followed suit, and beginning with Origen in the 2nd century the book was interpreted as being about the love of Christ for his bride, the church. This is still how many Christians read it today.
On the basis of the hermeneutical principle that ‘a text cannot mean anything the original writer didn’t mean the original readers to understand it to mean’ we can safely say that this is a book about sex, not Jesus. Christians of course have a bit of a reputation for being down on sex, or at the very least pretty coy about it, and at different times in history we have been disgusted by the whole dirty business. Theologian Peter Lombard said in the 12th century that the Holy Spirit leaves the room when a married couple have sex, even if they do it without passion. This book reminds us that it is a gift of God for our pleasure, for making love grow and develop, and as such is to be celebrated and enjoyed to the full. But when taken in the context of other biblical stories we are also reminded that such a powerful area as human sexuality has great power to lead us astray if left unbounded. Like everything else it has to be enjoyed within God-given limits, but enjoyed it undoubtedly should be.