Levenson-sex and theology in the Song of Solomon

I continue to read Jon Levenson’s The Love of God

Levenson cannot help but discuss the Song of Solomon as he discusses the erotic or romantic metaphors the Hebrew  Bible uses for the love of God.  Some have insisted that the Song is a straightforward, explicit love song similar to the much later work of the Persian philosopher Omar Khayyam: “A jug of wine, a loaf of bread, and Thou”. Others have seen it as an allegory about God as the male lover and Israel as the female lover.

This has been cast in recent times into a gender wars context with the observation that in the Song of Solomon the female makes the first move and is the sexual aggressor. Writers have pointed to a contrast between this and the shaming of female sexuality in Hosea and Ezekiel.

People who are not familiar with ancient writing are often surprised by the explicit and highly charged sexual imagery in the Song of Solomon or the very idea of using sex to make a theological point.

Let me assure you that this is nothing compared to some other ancient writing.  I think that Queen Hatshepsut of Egypt made even me–who grew up watching cattle and horses hook up–blush with her description of her own conception when she imagines the god, Horus, becoming incarnate in her father and inseminating not only her mother, but the land of Egypt itself.  She was, of course, arguing that she was just as divine as a male Pharaoh.  But she goes into considerable X-rated detail to make her case.

Levenson makes an important point when he argues that a theological interpretation of the Song of Solomon does not require you to think it is an allegory.  He uses, instead, the rabbinic category of midrash.  Midrash, he says, “seeks to bring different scriptural texts into productive relationship with each other and, in the process, to bring the deeper unity of the scripture to light” (p. 132).

So, because the Song is part of the Bible, you have to relate it to other parts of the Bible.  To the rabbinical mind the question was not whether this was a secular love song or an allegory.  Rather, the question was “with regard to what place in the Torah was this said” (p. 132).  So rabbis argued about whether the opening stanza of the book was about Israel’s experience at the Red Sea or at Mount Sinai or some other point in Israel’s history with God.

Levenson goes into much detail about the various ways the rabbis used midrash to interpret the Song.   At the end of this discussion he says, “Ideally, when Jews involve themselves in Torah, they are singing a love song to God and responding to his love song to them.  The Torah is narrative, and the Torah is law, but within both law and narrative lies the Torah as love” (p. 138).

The problem with this was that sometimes when someone pointed out the plain, erotic sense of the words of the Song, someone else would accuse them of impiety or indecency.  Overall, though, Judaism has not been so puritanical.  It has celebrated sexual love.

I think it is interesting that the Song was ascribed to the famously polygamous Solomon.  I don’t know if this is too close to allegory, but doesn’t God have a relationship with of all nations (see Amos 9:7)?  Yet God’s favorite out of this harem is his special beloved, Israel.

There may be sixty queens,

and eighty concubines,

and young women without number.

But she is unique!

My dove, my perfect one! (Song of Solomon 6:8-9 NET Bible)

On one level the Song of Songs is about sex. But Judaism, according to Levenson, can use this as a way to transcend the purely fleshly understanding of sex.  Sex, after all, is a reaching out to the beloved.  The modern tendency is to think of sex as only an instinct or only an expression of hormone-driven passion.  But, if you believe that humans are more than physical beings, sex will  point to something higher.  He even quotes C. S. Lewis in The Four Loves on this point.

For my part, I thought of the late Leonard Cohen, whose songs are both spiritual–in a way partly shaped by his upbringing in the Synagogue–and blatantly erotic.  A verse of Hallelujah often omitted in popular performances of the song goes:

There was a time you let me know

What’s really going on below

But now you never show it to me, do you?

And remember when I moved in you

The holy dove was moving too

And every breath we drew was Hallelujah

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Levenson-the erotic dimension

My reading project is Jon Levenson’s The Love of God.

One of the complaints about the so-called feminizing of the church is that some contemporary worship songs are basically about Jesus as my boyfriend.  Of course, it is not just contemporary songs that do this.  Think about the Mary Magdeline reference in the popular old hymn, “In the Garden”.  “He walks with me and talks with me and tells me I am his own”

Those of us who don’t like this would find an ally in Jon Levenson, who fears “the perception that all talk of God’s love or loving God is, at base, a treacly thing that appeals only to the emotionally weak–a crutch,perhaps, to help them avoid facing the lovelessness, or some kindred deficiency, in their own lives” (p. 91).

The preeminent metaphors for God’s love and relationship to us are king-subject, father-son, and shepherd-flock.  To concentrate, as modern, romantic sentiment would entice us to do, on the metaphor of lover-beloved would detract from these.  However, the love of men and women is still a biblical metaphor for God’s love.  So Levenson has a discussion of this “erotic dimension” of the love of God.

He notes that the Bible, in Deuteronomy 7:7, it says that God has “set his heart” on Israel and that this is the same phrase used in Genesis 34:8 for Shechem’s crush on Dinah.

Today I will just deal with what he says about the metaphor in the Book of Hosea where sexual infidelity gets extensively compared to Israel’s lack of loyalty to God. God’s people figuratively become prostitutes.  Levenson points out that prostitution itself did not carry the same stigma in ancient Israel that it did later, but that for a married woman to act like a prostitute is what carried the stigma.  And this is what Hosea applies to Israel.

So the comparison between Israel and an unfaithful wife is in the covenant breaking, not the promiscuity itself.  So, unlike in modern America, the solution is not simply for the couple to break up or divorce and go their separate ways.  This is not possible because covenant includes  permanence and unconditionality in its nature.

But Hosea does not call for reconciliation by simply forgiving and forgetting.  There is no cheap grace here.

He calls on his children to renounce their mother and he apparently physically prevents her from going to her lovers.  Levenson says that it is unlikely that those who heard Hosea’s prophecy would have heard it in the same offensive way modern feminists do.  Men would not have identified with God as a vengeful husband.  They would have identified themselves with Israel as the shamed, wayward wife.

Levenson thinks that the notion that love requires equality is modern and has nothing to do with the biblical idea of a suzerainty covenant between unequal kings.  Hosea’s wife, Gomer, and God’s covenant partner, Israel, have both failed to respond with gratitude to the gratuitous love of their benefactor.  So they have committed violence against the covenant.

Yet at the end of Hosea 2, God promises to heal and renew the relationship.  God betroths Israel again and apparently pays a new “bride price” for her.

In human law Hosea could have divorced Gomer or, in literal biblical law, even charged her with a capital crime. But God calls upon him to restore the relationship with Gomer as a sign of God’s willingness to restore his relationship with Israel.  This is more profound than the schmaltzy ideas of romantic love.

The words of Hosea 2:19-20 (verses as in English Bibles) :

I will betroth you to Me forever;

Yes, I will betroth you to Me in righteousness and in justice,

In lovingkindness and in compassion,

And I will betroth you to Me in faithfulness.

Then you will know the Lord (NET Bible).

are in the Jewish liturgy for putting on the tefillin when wrapping them around the knuckle.  So each weekday the person observing this ritual “accepts God’s offer of marriage, pledging himself individually to faithfulness within the larger relationship of God to Israel.  The strap around the finger has become, as it were, a wedding ring” (p. 107).

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Levenson-heart, soul, and might

I am reading and blogging about Jon Levenson’s book, The Love of God.

Levenson deals with midrash and other interpretations of the Bible in rabbinic writings.  I don’t know a lot about rabbinic thought.  Some of this chapter touches on controversies and ideas that I know little about.  So I am going to just try to summarize his main thoughts and pick out some of the ideas that interest me.

One of the concerns of the rabbis was the contrast between love and fear.  In the Bible fear of God often meant something closer to awe.  But many saw fear as the dread of punishment.  So the rabbis took up the question of whether someone could love God if the motive was fear.  They often concluded that fear detracted from love, which should be pure and inspired by God’s person rather than concern about one’s own fate.  However, the rabbis also considered human beings to be imperfect.  So the motive of fear was sometimes needed.

Mostly Levenson deals with the interpretation of the command to love God with all your heart, and soul and might from Deuteronomy 6:4.

In the Bible, and often in the rabbis, the heart was not the seat of emotion.  So to love God with your heart was not understood as emotional love.  The heart was the seat of thinking.  So this kind of love meant bringing the mind to bear upon God.  This is partly behind the rabbinic idea that study and scholarship of the Torah are a form of prayer and devotion.

Also often misunderstood is the command to love God with one’s soul.  The biblical idea of the soul was that it was life.  To love God with your soul meant with your whole life.  Especially with the Maccabees in mind, the rabbis interpreted this in relation to martyrdom.  To love God with your soul was to be willing to die for God.

To love God with all your might suggested the intensity of commitment.  We might say today that you were “all in” for God’s cause.  Both love with your soul and with your might suggested the idea that love must involve sacrifice.

The rabbinical writings tended to interpret Job with this in mind.  Job was an example of fully loving God, because Job loved God in spite of his personal circumstances, in spite of whether God blessed him or not.  Also some of them interpreted Job’s impassioned questioning of God as a form of loving God will all his heart.

Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac was another passage interpreted through this lens. You need to love God more than life, even the life of your son.

This passage is one that Levenson comes back to in more than one of his books.  I remember how in his The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son, he spoke of the impulse to human sacrifice in some of the Canaanite and Mesopotamian religions and how the Bible transposes this into ultimate devotion to God, while abolishing human sacrifice.

There was a good deal of rabbinic discussion about the meaning of Psalm 44:22:

Yet because of you we are killed all day long;

we are treated like sheep at the slaughtering block (NET Bible).

What does it mean to be killed all day long (or perhaps it means “every day”)?  Rabbi Simeon ben Menasya wrote that it meant that God credits the faithful with daily death, so that even the ordinary, daily life of a righteous person equals martyrdom in God’s way of figuring.

All of this is interesting and, since I have not done enough reading about rabbinic thought, I have no way of evaluating Levenson’s views.  Basically, it looks like he is saying that, even though Greek ideas like an immaterial soul and heroic death sometimes influenced the rabbis, they brought these ideas back to their authentic Hebrew base.

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That statue in Cairo is probably not Ramses II

The latest news about the statue just discovered in a Cairo neighborhood is that the initial identification of the Pharaoh depicted is suspect. In other words, it probably is not Ramses II, but a much later Pharaoh. See the very short news clip here.

The name of Psamtik I was found engraved on the statue, although it is possible that he reused an old statue of another Pharaoh.

At any rate, the lesson of this is that one should not rush out with the news as soon as a discovery is made. In this case, there was a lot of hype in the media, because the pictures were great. I even saw the story playing over and over on the TV at a doctor’s office last week.

But now that the story has changed, it will not get the same coverage. People have moved on. So one should withhold judgment. Breaking news often has faulty details.

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Levenson-love as reciprocal loyalty

In The Love of God, Jon Levenson uses the Amarna Letters to talk about the love of God for us.

He has used the ancient suzerainty treaties as the source for the biblical notion of love. In those treaties the lesser or vassal king pledges to love the higher king. Applied to God, this meant that Israel and individual Israelites show their love of God by service. But what about the love that moves from higher to lower? What about the love of God for his people?

In the Amarna letters, clay-tablet letters that represent the relations between the pharaoh and his Canaanite vassals in about 1350 B.C.E., we find language that shows the pharaoh was expected to love his vassals.  One king writes that if the king “loves his loyal servant” he will come to his aid.  Another is cast into despair by the thought that the king might reject him and not love him. In appealing to the king of Egypt for help, the petty kings in Canaan appealed to the king’s love for them (p. 36).

Of course, this is not an equal love. The vassal loves the great king by serving him. The great king loves the vassal by protecting him and providing for him. So God is the superior party in the relation between Israel and God. Yet God’s love gets expressed in passion-like language.

For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. He has chosen you to be his people, prized above all others on the face of the earth.

It is not because you were more numerous than all the other peoples that the Lord favored and chose you – for in fact you were the least numerous of all peoples.  Rather it is because of his love for you and his faithfulness to the promise he solemnly vowed to your ancestors that the Lord brought you out with great power, redeeming you from the place of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt (Deuteronomy7:6-8 NET Bible).

Now Levenson wants his readers to understand that the romantic, emotional idea of love does not fit with the biblical idea of covenant love, which derives from treaties that did not require emotion or sentiment.

That is not all there is to say, though, because there is what he calls an “affective” aspect to this kind of relationship. It comes in the language of gratitude, which is clearly a biblical idea. The people of God owe a debt of gratitude.

Gratitude creates a new dynamic in any relationship. Suppose someone you don’t know stops and helps you when you have car trouble. Further suppose that you later encounter the person who helped you in a situation where they need your help. Levenson imagines that they are in the same checkout line and are accidentally short a few dollars. Whereas you might feel no need to help a complete stranger in this situation, due to the new relationship that results from having received help, you now have both a felt obligation and a motive to come to this person’s aid.

This sheds some light on how the Jewish view of the love of God is not just a call for submission to duty. It is warmer than that.

So Levenson speaks of “covenental loyalty” and the need to be true to the gratuitous love we have received. This love involves mutual gift giving and a passionate desire that the other party keep the terms of the covenant.

He makes a very profound statement:

But graciousness does not mean normlessness, and if love is to be a relationship and not just an ephemeral and episodic sentiment, it must impose norms of its own (even if violating them does not terminate the relationship). Perhaps the norms are best seen as the expectations that the lover has of the beloved. For surely we all want those we love to be the best they can be and the relationship of love to be the highest relationship it can be (p. 54).

This is relevant to those who talk about law and grace or treat them as opposed to each other.


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The mysterious rock tombs of the pre-Israelites

I will get back to the Jon Levenson book on the love of God, which is my current project.  But I have been distracted by some amazing archeological discoveries that have shown up in the news in recent days.

Yesterday I posted about some finds in Egypt.

Today I want to link to this article about a new finding associated with Gonen Sharon, an Israeli professor.  The Israelis have excavated a big dolmen overlooking the Hula Valley.  This dolmen has rock drawings.

In Bashan–Golan Heights–and north of the Sea of Galilee we find many very old dolmens and standing stones.  These mostly date to a time before the biblical patriarchs.  But they have been there ever since and people knew of them and reused them in biblical times.  The standing stones or masseboth probably continued to have religious meaning.

One interesting idea is that the statement in Deuteronomy 3:11 about King Og’s iron bed derives from these dolmens.  The NET Bible translates:

Only King Og of Bashan was left of the remaining Rephaites. (It is noteworthy that his sarcophagus was made of iron. Does it not, indeed, still remain in Rabbath of the Ammonites? It is thirteen and a half feet long and six feet wide according to standard measure.)

His “bed” was his resting place, that is his bier or sarcophagus.  It may have been decorated with iron. Indeed, all the legends about giants having once lived in that land (the Raphaites) may have come from later people trying to imagine the kind of people who moved big rocks and set up these Stonehenge-like structures.

One possibility about the dolmens as tombs is that they were used for excarnation. That is, bodies were exposed on top of the dolmens until the flesh was gone.  Then the bones were put inside the dolmens.

The question of how people built them is still being asked.  The article linked above raises the possibility that during a period of the early and middle bronze age when we do not find evidence of urban life, there still may have been a  sophisticated society:

“Even though we don’t have any regular archaeological evidence, like cities and towns and tels, it doesn’t mean there’s nothing here,” said Sharon. The Mongol Empire, the largest land empire in history, was forged by tent-dwellers who left little trace, he argued.

“Dolmens suggest we’re looking at a much more complex governmental system. To build this kind of dolmen you have to gather enough people, you have to feed these people, you have to accommodate these people, you have to have the architectural and construction knowledge, and you must have a boss. Somebody needs to tell them what to do.”

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Egyptian gods and kings

In the last month there have been existing discoveries about late Bronze Age Egypt.

First, a trove of statues (idols) from the 14th century reign of Amenhotep III have come to light at Luxor in upper Egypt.  He was the father of Akhenaten and some of the Amarna letters are to and from him.

For text and pictures, see here.

The leader of the German mission, Hourig Sourouzian, said some pieces found are of the goddess sitting, and others of her standing and holding the symbol of life and a sceptre in the form of papyrus, according to the statement.

He confirmed they are well preserved and are of high artistic, scientific and archaeological value because they represent a complete image of the temple.

The figures are of the goddess Sekhmet. She was a goddess of destruction, whose festival was a drunken affair with wild music.  Her popularity has come back with references in songs of some death metal bands.  Apparently the idea of the festival was that she mistook beer for blood and if she got enough beer at the festival, her appetite for blood would be sated.  Did this have anything to do with the biblical plague of the Nile turning to blood?

Then, as you may have seen on the news, a really big statue (26 feet tall, if reassembled) has been found in the mud of a crowded section of Cairo.  It is probably a statue of Ramses II, the great 13th century ruler, whose cities the Israelites may have helped build (Exodus 1:11). It was found in the section of Cairo that in ancient times was the city of Heliopolis or On. For text and pictures, see here.

The method of excavating the Ramses statue has taken criticism.  For a response, see here.

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