Medieval Christians were obsessed with the Song of Songs. No book of the Bible received such intensely devoted attention in commentary and preaching. Bernard of Clairvaux preached eighty-six homilies on the Song and died just as he was getting started on chapter 3. The Song has a much-diminished place in the modern Christian imagination. The time is far past to reverse that trend, but it is worth reversing only if the Song is recovered as allegory.
Christians today often read the Song as lusty celebration of sex. Some try to wipe away the prudish poetry to peep at the sex acts of Solomon and his Shulammite. Such an approach simply projects contemporary obsessions into an ancient text. It assumes that we already know what real sex is. We have outgrown romance and now know that sex is no more than a clash of bodies and an exchange of fluids. There is no magic, no mystery, only friction, only technique. Reading the Song as disguised pornography reinforces and sacralizes the sexual confusions of our age.
Even as an erotic poem, the Song has much to teach. Robert Alter observes that in much of the world’s erotic literature, “the body in the act of love often seems to displace the rest of the world.” By contrast in the Song, “the world is constantly embraced in the very process of imagining the body. The natural landscape, the cycle of the seasons, the beauty of the animal and floral realm, the profusion of goods afforded through trade, the inventive skill of the artisan, the grandeur of cities, are all joyfully affirmed as love is affirmed.” Solomon is no courtly lover who abandons the world and all to chase after his bride. When he turns from the world, he rediscovers his world in her. That insight alone is enough to justify the Song’s inclusion in the wisdom literature.
But the poem itself invites us deeper. The verse that everyone recognizes as the Song’s theme (8:6) gives the poem a cosmic scope. Love’s strength is comparable to relentless forces of decay and destruction—death (Hebrew, mot) and Sheol. Love is no ordinary fire, but a flash from the very “flame of Yah.” “Mot” is the name of a Canaanite deity, so the conflict of Love and Death is a war of gods. The placement of this verse is a rhetorical tour de force. Near the end of a poem that might be read as nothing more than a love poem, the poet drops in the short form of the name of Israel’s God. It is not even a separate word, but a suffix to the word “flame.” With a subtle gesture, the poet encourages us to re-read the entire poem, now aware that love burns as divine fire.
When we do, we find Yah everywhere. Edmee Kingsmill has made the extraordinary discovery that the Song contains a coded reference to YHWH. The poem uses the phrase “my beloved” (Hebrew, dodi) twenty-six times, which is the numerical value (gematria) of the name YHWH. That lends an invigorating liturgical layer to expressions like “How handsome you are, my Beloved, and so pleasant! . . . The beams of our houses are cedars, our rafters, cypresses” (1:16-17). The passion is the passion of the devoted soul longing for the courts of his Lord.
Recovering the Song as allegory does not mean that we ignore the erotic surface of the poem. Rather, everything takes on (at least) a double sense, as the poem shifts swiftly from register to register, and swiftly back. The love like wine (1:2) is the intoxicating desire of sexual attraction, also the disorienting love of a God who invites his beloved into the “house of wine” (2:4). Wine is a fitting trope for the one love because it is a fitting trope for the other. Forests, orchards, and gardens are figures of the temple, YHWH’s “trysting place” with Israel, and the sensual delights of love-making echo the sensory pleasures of worship. The lover’s enthrallment to his beloved is the Lord’s enthralled fascination for his people, black but beautiful.
The Song helps us relearn what nearly every civilization before ours already knew: Sex is allegory, and as allegory it is metaphysics and theology and cosmology. For Christians, sexual difference and union is a type of Christ and the church: How could an erotic poem (and in the Bible!) be anything but allegory? From the Song we relearn that poetic metaphor does not add meaning to what is itself mere chemistry and physics. Nor is erotic poetry a euphemistic cover for Victorian embarrassment. Poetry elucidates the human truth of human sexuality, and it seems uniquely capable of doing so. Only as allegory does the Song have anything to teach us about sex. Only as allegory can the Song play its central role in healing our sexual imaginations.
Peter J. Leithart is pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow, Idaho, and Senior Fellow of Theology and Literature at New St. Andrews College.