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