In my previous post in this series, Finding Joy in Futility, I noted that one of Qohelet’s recommendations for enjoyment is to “enjoy life with the one whom you love” (Ecc. 9:9). Where Qohelet hints at sexual love, the Song of Songs takes up his recommendation with gusto in a full-blown, eight-chapter erotic love poem. And with all the memes joking about a future boom of quarantine babies, it’s clear that sex is on everyone’s mind anyway, so why not dive into the Song of Songs and learn more about what this giggle-inducing book of the Bible has to say to us in the midst of a pandemic?
The Song of Songs is typically not considered wisdom literature, but it has affinities with the wisdom genre that lead some scholars to identify it as wisdom – or at least a blend of genres, perhaps a wisdom framework applied to the genre of love poetry. These affinities include the Song’s focus on the created world, life lived well, and the tensions in life that characterize the human experience. I wrote about how the divine speeches in Job showcase the tension between order and chaos, and how Ecclesiastes teaches us about the tension between hevel and joy. The Song of Songs embodies the same approach to life – it recognizes the tensions between love and loss, security and danger, and yet it paints a picture of living fully and loving with abandon. It recognizes the vulnerability that comes with giving oneself freely to another.
For the most part, the landscape of the Song is one of extravagant beauty, unrestrained passion, and delightful mutuality between the lovers. They take the time to gaze at one another, admiring every feature in detail. They make love surrounded by the beauty of the natural world. It is springtime in the Song; the rain is gone, the flowers are blooming, and everything is fair and fragrant. The imagery throughout most of the Song seems so blissful and serene that it leads Old Testament scholar Ellen Davis to suggest that the Song is a reclamation of the wholeness of relationship in Eden before the fall; relationships between God and humans, men and women, humans and the earth, are imagined to be in harmony (Davis, “Reading the Song Iconographically”).
And yet there are woven into the poetry, sometimes more explicitly than others, hints that all is not well in this idyllic landscape. No one is entirely sure what they mean. The scene in which the beloved searches the city streets for her lover, only to be beaten and possibly otherwise assaulted by the guards (5:7). The brothers of the beloved, forcing her to hard labor in their anger (1:6). The strange admonition to catch the foxes who, running wild, may destroy the blossoming vineyard (2:15). Elaine James notes the threat the foxes could pose, as they can prey on both doves and gazelles – the zoomorphic representations of the lover and the beloved.
And finally, there is the reflection on love at the end of the poem: “Love is as strong as death, passion as fierce as the grave” (8:6). Here the hints at danger become most explicit, as the presence of death is acknowledged; rhetorically speaking, here love and death meet each other face to face and are revealed to be an equal match.
Although the lovers seem at first glance to enjoy one another without a care – although they give off an air of youthful exuberance and naivete – the poem reveals knowledge of risk, potential harm, and even the inevitability of death. James writes, “The suggestive quality of death’s presence…presses us to imagine the lovers in a landscape that is aware of its finitude” (James, Landscapes of the Song of Songs, 86). They are not naive about the world or about their own vulnerability. They choose to risk love anyway, despite any threat to their relationship – or do they perhaps love so passionately because they are aware of love’s fragility?
I do not think the Song paints a picture of a perfect love, untouched by cares and hardship. Instead, I think it depicts a love that is only able to be as passionate as it is vulnerable.
The Song’s emphasis on human bodies and physical pleasure implies great vulnerability. First, I think it is often easier and feels safer to think abstractly, to focus on our minds. We tell ourselves that we love someone’s mind or spirit, rather than confessing that we love their soft lips and supple body, because we like to pretend that we are above such earthy, sensual things. Even talking about the Song makes us blush. Sharing anything about our own body feels intensely vulnerable. Many of us even find it hard to love our own bodies, let alone feel free and unrestrained in them. In our post-Enlightenment western world, it is much more comfortable and much less vulnerable to be a mind than a body. Second, by de-emphasizing embodiment, we can also rationalize loss away. We can look at a body in a casket and tell ourselves that “she’s not really there” or “that’s not really him,” to minimize the pain of seeing the live, warm, moving body we love lying so terribly still. It protects us against the vulnerability of embodied love.
But to the degree that we minimize the role of the body, we also minimize our potential for full engagement in the world, for passionate love. Activities like cooking become a chore to be gotten over with as quickly as possible. We work out at gyms for efficiency’s sake, staring either at TV’s or sterile white walls because our bodies don’t naturally move as much as they should anymore. And yes, we are having less sex than we used to, perhaps partially due to technology (https://www.today.com/health/americans-are-having-less-sex-here-s-why-it-matters-t151817). Programmed to sublimate physical pleasures to mental productivity, we miss out on so much of the enjoyment that God has for us here, in the world, in this moment. Because the truth is, we are embodied creatures meant to experience a physical world.
And so the message of the Song, I think, extends beyond sexual encounters. Cheryl Exum writes, “Among other things, the Song contributes to the Bible an unparalleled affirmation of the pleasures of the flesh, the strength of love, and the beauty of the created world” (Exum, Song of Songs, 72). In the Song, love for another, love for one’s self, and love for the created world all seem to be bound up together. But one thing is for sure: the Song is surely one of the most physical books of the Bible, that takes pure and unashamed delight in beauty and pleasure.
For me, the combined experience of quarantine and a recent miscarriage has put me more in tune with my body, and caring for it more, than I have in a long time – even though sex hasn’t been an option for the better part of a month. I’ve been charting my cycle and paying close attention to how my body feels. Taking long, hot bubble baths, where my whole body sinks into the water like a contented sigh. Going for long walks in the woods every day, noticing the beauty of the world around me, making sustained eye contact with squirrels and feeling gleeful about it. Cooking healthy meals and experimenting with new recipes, dancing in the kitchen, sipping wine while smelling and tasting soup. Holding hands with my love and savoring kisses. I think Qohelet and the Beloved would both be proud. And I think God is, too.
So as I wrap up this series on reading wisdom literature in a pandemic, allow the sages to assure you that however you are coping in these times is likely okay. As Qohelet would say, “God has already approved what you do” (Ecc. 9:7) – because God has made you human and placed you in a world where these things happen. And so it is good to grieve. It is also good to have moments of pleasure and joy. They go together, because that is part of what it means to be human, to be embodied, to be what God created us to be.
These three books – Job, Ecclesiastes, and the Song – seem to promote similar ideas: that terrible things happen in the world, that “playing it safe” cannot guarantee our safety, and that the best response to life’s uncertainty is to live as fully as one can. Even for those who are quarantined at home, threats loom all around like foxes at the edge of our vineyard. But we cannot let fear of the future or of the unknown keep us from being fully present to our lover, to ourselves, and to our lives. Because, as Qohelet has already told us, the pure and simple enjoyment of love is our portion in life.