“Your navel is like a round goblet–Let mixed wine not be lacking! Your belly like a heap of wheat hedged about with lilies. Your breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle.” If I were to tell you that this ‘provocative’ statement came directly from the Old Testament, would you believe me? Well, you better start believing if you don’t already! Indeed, this phrase can be found in the Song of Songs (or the Song of Solomon) in chapter 7, verses 3 and 4. By simply reading this phrase without having any prior knowledge about this particular book of the Bible, one can deduce that it is coherently different than any other passages of the sacred text. Admittedly, the messages evoked in Song of Songs are much more tame than common themes of music and movies in the 21st century, however given the cultural and religious context one can conclude that the erotic themes of the book are rare for the given day and age. Often times Song of Songs is omitted from church services and sermons due to its blatant themes of sexuality, or it is reserved for older and more mature audiences. Since I think we all fit under that category, let’s ask some deeper questions of why this erotic poetry fits into the Old Testament, and how can it be interpreted?
It is no question that this book has been a topic of debate among biblical scholars for centuries. Before we dive into the popular interpretations of the book today, let’s travel back in time and explore the major theories regarding the eight chapters which unfold the story of two lovers. Depicted in Song of Songs is a man and a woman, who repeatedly sing the praises of the other by complementing physical features. The two lovebirds also describe feelings of want or longing throughout the poems as they experience time of separation, paired with feelings of happiness and excitation during times of togetherness. According to the introduction of Song of Songs in our translation of the Hebrew Bible, there are two major theories explaining the function of the book by past theologians. The first simply proposes that it is “a script of a drama which told the story of a love affair.” While this interpretation is plausible on some levels, more realistic and appropriate theories have taken told since this was proposed before the nineteenth century. The next theory that the introduction describes connects the sacred writings of Song of Songs to the ancient Mesopotamian writings as the two relate cultural ideals of marriage. This explanation is still receiving mild attention, yet the most popular interpretation of function explains that it is a “collection of poems about human love”, which ultimately may have been used during wedding ceremonies. Since there are repetitive uses of common poetic devices throughout the chapters, it is logical that this theory holds its ground above the rest. Yet the questions still remains, where is its place in Biblical context?
In order to interpret Song of Songs on a deeper level, which transcends the boundaries of the surface level explanation of a simple love story between a man and a woman, one can apply the themes on a larger scale of the relationship between God and Israel. Coming from a religious perspective, it is commonly thought that the closest humanity will ever get to comprehending the love of God is through the representation of marriage between a man and a woman. The limitations of the human mind prohibit the human race from fully understanding the limitless nature of a holy God. However through the commitment of love, we as humans get a glimpse of the mental, physical, and emotional battles that come along with every relationship. This includes earthly relationships between humans, as well as relationships between humans and the Divine. Perhaps the ultimate purpose of the erotic poetry in the book of Song of Songs is for God to have a way to explain his nature to this creation in a way that is tangible and relatable to the human mindset and lifestyle.
If this theory is true, why is ‘erotic’ poetry a necessary means of portraying this affection to the Israelite nation? Where does Song of Songs come into play on the timeline of God’s redemption of his people as we have seen thus far throughout the Old Testament? With Israel being the apple of God’s eye, it is plausible to think that he would want his people to have an example of of his nature. However, there are obvious challenges that come along with reading Song of Songs and analyzing it to this extent. To some, the task of interpreting a piece of sacred literature through erotic poetry is a difficult assignment. Getting past the provocative statements and dramatic love story in order to dive deeper into the text is demanding of most audiences, especially for those who are reading the text for religious guidance rather than literary critique. For the purposes of our class, it is challenging to approach the book and see it as a text meant for rebuke.
The pick-up lines from both central characters in the book are comical and unflattering from our modern day perspective. If a guy tried to hit on a girl by commenting that her hair was like a herd of goats, or her breasts were like the twins of a gazelle, a slap in the face would be a likely response. But, how erotic is this erotic poetry? The question that I have regarding this biblical book is, to what extent is Song of Songs seen in this light to biblical scholars? Again, taking into consideration the historical and religious context plays a role in such an interpretation. However, eight chapters of thought and dialogue about sexual desire is nothing to get anxious over. Is the text in Song of Songs really PG-13 in this day and age, or has it become more culturally acceptable as time has progressed? Perhaps at one point it made readers blush, but now it is just another typical ‘guy gets the girl’ love story.