Today, I want to talk about what it means to be human. Below your skin, below your bones, below your nervous habits, and favorite Netflix shows. Like normal, we have quite the ground to cover.
Whips and Chains
The Bible is a diverse anthology, and yet one book stands out a lot. I think you know which one I mean.
Readers of the Bible have long struggled with Song of Solomon. The book is a back and forth between two lovers—the Israelite King Solomon and an unnamed (and probably teenage) girl. And, by “back and forth”, I mean mostly of erotic poetry. Some of its eroticism is right there on the surface; much of it comes by euphemism. But it is highly sexual, highly lustful, and ridiculous—even for erotic poetry.
When the two lovers are away, they descend into obsession. They see each other in trees, and towers, and goats, and . . . the pools of Siloam?
“My beloved is radiant and ruddy, outstanding among ten thousand.
His head is purest gold; his hair is wavy and black as a raven.
His eyes are like doves by the water streams, washed in milk, mounted like jewels.
His cheeks are like beds of spice yielding perfume.
His lips are like lilies dripping with myrrh.
His arms are rods of gold set with topaz.
His body is like polished ivory decorated with lapis lazuli.
His legs are pillars of marble set on bases of pure gold.
His appearance is like Lebanon, choice as its cedars.
His mouth is sweetness itself; he is altogether lovely.
This is my beloved, this is my friend, daughters of Jerusalem.”
“How beautiful are your sandaled feet, O prince’s daughter!
Your graceful legs are like jewels, the work of an artist’s hands.
Your navel is a rounded goblet that never lacks blended wine.
Your waist is a mound of wheat encircled by lilies.
Your breasts are like two fawns, like twin fawns of a gazelle.
Your neck is like an ivory tower.
Your eyes are the pools of Heshbon by the gate of Bath Rabbim.”
“Your nose is like the tower of Lebanon looking toward Damascus.
Your head crowns you like Mount Carmel.
Your hair is like royal tapestry; the king is held captive by its tresses.
How beautiful you are and how pleasing, my love, with your delights!
Your stature is like that of the palm, and your breasts like clusters of fruit.
I said, ‘I will climb the palm tree; I will take hold of its fruit.’
May your breasts be like clusters of grapes on the vine,
the fragrance of your breath like apples, and your mouth like the best wine.”
In one scene, Solomon comes to her by night, but because she is a teenager, she is living in what is probably her family’s house. Solomon—who is totally not a creeper—can only peer at her through some opening. And he most certainly does.
This is Song of Solomon, and it too is in your divinely inspired Bible.
A little more than ten years ago, one of my relatives, who has been an elder in the church for decades and who was on the board of a highly conservative Christian college, confessed to me that he didn’t think Song of Solomon should be in the Bible. Seeing as I saw nothing theologically important in it, I agreed with him.
This is because I was a modern conservative evangelical, and modern conservative evangelicals are trained to read the Bible to mean exactly “what it says it is.”
Genesis begins “In the beginning,” so Genesis must be about the beginning. Joshua describes a war in Canaan, so there must have been a war in Canaan. Revelation describes a war in Heaven, so Revelation must be about Heaven. And Song of Solomon contains erotic poetry between Solomon and just one of his many love interests, so Song of Solomon must be about sex.
Which means every once in a while, you get that hip, “edgy” preacher who tries to make Song of Solomon into a great sex counseling guide for married couples. But Song of Solomon isn’t really useful for any of this (unless, I suppose, you are among the 0.000000001% of married people who struggle with whether sex is a good thing). Worse, these almost exclusively male preachers almost inevitably descend into some thinly veiled version of, “See, women, God put this in the Bible so you would know how much your husband needs sex, and that it’s your duty to God to give it to him whenever he wants it.”
(And we also start wondering what kind of intimacy problems the preacher must be having at the moment.)
Never mind the woman in the poems expresses her sexual desire more than does the man. And never mind the harm this kind of thinking has done to women.
And never mind Solomon.
You need to understand, the people who wrote your Bible were not remotely impressed with that man. Especially as Solomon ages, the Bible depicts him in ways that were meant to remind the Hebrew readers of Pharaoh—a domineering, insecure, power-hungry, ruthless egomaniac. For the same people who felt the whip of slavery in Egypt, Solomon builds a temple out of—guess what?—slave labor. He is paranoid, insecure, and vindictive. And Deuteronomy, which is outwardly styled as the second telling of the law by Moses—but which really was written during the chains of more foreign domination—takes aim at Solomon in no uncertain terms.
Notice how neatly the telling of the “law of kings” in Deuteronomy corresponds with what you read later.
The king, moreover, must not acquire great numbers of horses for himself or make the people return to Egypt to get more of them, for the Lord has told you, “You are not to go back that way again.” He must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray. He must not accumulate large amounts of silver and gold.
The weight of the gold that Solomon received yearly was 666 (!) talents, not including the revenues from merchants and traders and from all the Arabian kings and the governors of the territories. . . .
Solomon accumulated chariots and horses; he had fourteen hundred chariots and twelve thousand horses, which he kept in the chariot cities and also with him in Jerusalem. The king made silver as common in Jerusalem as stones, and cedar as plentiful as sycamore-fig trees in the foothills. Solomon’s horses were imported from Egypt and from Kue—the royal merchants purchased them from Kue at the current price. They imported a chariot from Egypt for six hundred shekels of silver, and a horse for a hundred and fifty. . . .
King Solomon loved many foreign women besides Pharaoh’s daughter—Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Sidonians and Hittites. They were from nations about which the Lord had told the Israelites, “You must not intermarry with them, because they will surely turn your hearts after their gods.” Nevertheless, Solomon held fast to them in love.
(that exclamation point isn’t in the real text, but it might as well be)
It’s as if the writer of Deuteronomy had a manuscript handy of what would later become the finished version of I Kings right in front of him, and he wanted to explain how Israel’s present problems with global empires looked a whole lot like their checkered past.
And, as you evaluate the usefulness of Solomon’s wisdom to your relationship with your life partner, if you still want to ignore Solomon’s shortcomings as a man, you just can’t ignore that Solomon saw no problem with taking hundreds of both wives and sex slaves—a point that should make inherently suspect anything he penned down. In fact, at one point in Song of Solomon, Solomon finds it meaningful and appropriate and I guess sexy to emphasize the superior beauty of his lover with reference to the many other women in his harem.
“Sixty queens there may be, and eighty concubines, and virgins beyond number; but my dove, my perfect one, is unique.”
(McNeal Revised Standard Version: “Gurrrrrrlllllllll, I’ve been with so many women, but you da best.”)
So, yeah, eroticism is good, but you don’t need Song of Solomon to know that. Solomon was a bad man, and there are better sources on how to spice up your love life. Which begs the question, if Song of Solomon is not a good book to discover the eternal secrets of love and romance and whoopee, then
why is that darn book in your Bible?
I have the answer: It’s the Sh’mah.
Fruit and Chocolate
On one occasion, a member of the Pharisees asked Jesus which command is the most important command of the Torah. Most Christians are familiar with Jesus’s answer here and commonly think that it was some major break from all that “rule following” of Judaism. His answer is prong one of the oft-written “love God, love people” religious views answer you find on thousands of people’s Facebook profiles.
However, Jesus’s response to this Pharisee’s question couldn’t have been more Jewish. It actually came right out of Deuteronomy c6, which reads:
Hear, O Israel: Yahweh our God, the Lord is one. Love Yahweh your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.
Jews name this command the Sh’mah—the Hebrew word for “hear”—and it is central to both the Jewish and Christian faith traditions. Jews have been reciting the Sh’mah every morning and every night for thousands of years. They even begin their worship services with it. After all, immediately after the Sh’mah, they’re commanded to.
These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.
Christians and Jews to this day unite around the Sh’mah. Yet, for all its importance, for all its centrality, the Sh’mah is surprisingly mysterious in a way that you would never know from your English Bible. The Hebrew word translated in most Bibles strength is me’od, but me’od doesn’t mean strength at all. In fact, it’s not even a noun.
Me’od means “very.”
Which is grammatical nonsense.
Just think about what we have in our Bibles. The Sh’mah is universally recognized as the most important command of both the Jewish and Christian traditions. Jews agree on this. Jesus agreed with this. Followers of Jesus agree on this. And yet, grammatically it doesn’t mean anything. Bonkers.
Which leads you to wonder.
If only there was a book of the Bible that illustrated what it looks like to love in a way that is as totally hysterical and nonsensical as this totally hysterical and nonsensical command. And since poetry often works so well to describe such non-formulaic, nonsensical things, if only there was perhaps some poetry—perhaps even erotic love poetry—that described the alternative universe of loving with all your . . . very.
I’d like to reintroduce you to Song of Solomon.
More likely than not, it was written for exactly the purpose you see on the surface. But for some reason, the writing stuck around for centuries. And, as the second century rabbis of the Talmud struggled to imagine and articulate to their disciples loving Yahweh with all their very (it sounds awkward every time I type that), they saw in Song of Solomon a picture of exactly the kind of passionate nonsensical devotion demanded in the Sh’mah.
Yes, the poems are about sex. Which, for the record, is perfectly great. But what the Rabbis understood was that where there is sex there is also so much more than sex. Who could be surprised with how much we can learn about being human from the most quintessentially human activity there ever was? Second century rabbi Akiva ben Joseph, in one of my favorite rabbinic quotes of all time, put it like this: “He who sings the Song of Songs in wine taverns, treating it as if it were just some vulgar song, forfeits his share in the world to come.”
Haha. I guess in the 2nd century, they were getting drunk to songs from Song of Solomon.
So, what can we learn from it? First, let’s talk about fruit.
Fruit plays a major role in many of these poems. Fruit and gardens.
Like an apple tree among the trees of the forest is my beloved among the young men. I delight to sit in his shade, and his fruit is sweet to my taste. . . . .
I said, “I will climb the palm tree; I will take hold of its fruit.” May your breasts be like clusters of grapes on the vine, the fragrance of your breath like apples, . . .
Awake, north wind, and come, south wind! Blow on my garden, that its fragrance may spread everywhere. Let my beloved come into his garden and taste its choice fruits. . . .
I have come into my garden, my sister, my bride; I have gathered my myrrh with my spice. I have eaten my honeycomb and my honey; I have drunk my wine and my milk. . . .
My beloved has gone down to his garden, to the beds of spices, to browse in the gardens and to gather lilies. . . .
Of course, these images are saturated in sensuality (I’ll leave the specifics to your imagination), but they were also meant to strike a chord with its ancient Jewish audience who would instantly connect these images to the garden and fruit in Genesis. The fruit is insatiable desire and curiosity.
It is all-consuming desire no matter the consequences. No matter what harm may come.
For many people today, this would be like chocolate, which suddenly you’re already thinking about, aren’t you? (“No, Chris, I’ve already been thinking about it.”) Desire is not some foreign thing to you. It’s something you know well, so let’s talk about it.
Costumes and Roleplay
We desire many things, but I think at the core of the human is the desire for deep passion. I think it is the engine of our souls. Think about the times when you felt most alive. You didn’t feel distant. Isolated. Passive. Or uninterested.
Your pupils dilated. Your veins surged with oxygen. Your synapses fired. You gave a damn.
As ridiculous as Song of Solomon is and as terrible of a man as Solomon was, I actually think your life should look like the two lovers in Song of Solomon. No, I’m actually not talking about going to more church, or singing louder in church, or praying harder in church, or even reading the Bible more when you leave church. Most of you are probably doing this fine—and the prophet Amos was hardly impressed with any of it.
And neither am I talking about a life of indulgence—the kind I see in so many people I observe. The life of moving from one thing to the next out of boredom is not a life of passion. No matter how fun it may be at the time.
I’m talking about making the conscious choice that some things have more weight than others.
Have you ever randomly gotten emotional at something and your friends wondered what was wrong with you? And you struggled to explain yourself? That there is so much more going on than they could see? That it may seem like this silly little thing, but it’s actually connected to this thing and that thing and that thing? And all these things together mean so much to you? That the moment felt heavy? And the more you tried to explain it, the more overcome with emotion you became? And in the end you just sounded ridiculous?
The Hebrew word for weight is kavod. We usually translate it “glory.”
A life of passion begins with the acknowledgment that some things are full of kavod and other things are not. If you still need me to spell it out for you, your favorite football team is not the important thing you think it is. I love football like every other red-blooded American, but I’ve lost no joy from not knowing the quarterback ratings of each of the last year’s starting quarterbacks in the SEC.
Most people basically live this way. It may not be a football team, but your energy is probably going mostly to things of equal uselessness to yourself and other human beings. And your soul is dying a slow death. You were made for intimacy and passion, but the real you is safely hidden in a costume, playing out a role designed and scripted by a few very rich people who profit off of your life of nothingness. Your naked self was lost when you set your desire on the tree in the garden—the tree that promised safety and power. That you would be like God.
But when you find something worth giving yourself to, you give your whole self. You put yourself out there. You make yourself vulnerable. Risk things. Even when it’s lonely. Even when people don’t “get” you. When your body becomes weary.
“Many waters cannot quench love;
rivers cannot sweep it away.”
You make the world better when you devote yourself to the things that have kavod. And you stick with those things through the best and the worst because they feel more important than you. Weightier than you. More prized. More jealously guarded. Meanwhile your friends think you’re obsessive. They start saying words like that’s nice but maybe you could tone it down and I think it’s important that we exercise moderation. You hear their words of wisdom, but you don’t care. Because you feel privileged to even have this thing. To sacrifice for it. You even feel unworthy of it, just as Solomon’s lover did. You study, learn, and observe everything about it, and even see it connect to the world around you in the most random ways (“Your eyes are the pools of Heshbon by the gate of Bath Rabbim.”).
Further, when you’re away from it, it is the thing you think about. Where you long to be. You wonder whether it will come back or be gone forever.
“All night long on my bed
I looked for the one my heart loves;
I looked for him but did not find him.
I will get up now and go about the city,
through its streets and squares;
I will search for the one my heart loves.
So I looked for him but did not find him.”
But despite all the energy it demands from you, satisfaction is always the end. This is the life of passion for things that have weight. This is loving God with all your very.
Because the most sexual things sometimes involve sex.