Hannah and Papa J

Hannah and Papa J

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The problem with the Song of Solomon

Dear Hannah,

If anyone really wants to know what the most interesting thing about the Song of Solomon is, I wouldn't tell him, like our dear, late friend Mr. Caldecott, that it's interesting because of its physical position in the Bible.  It may be true that it's halfway through the Bible; it may be true that God's passionate love for us is central to the meaning of the Bible, and that the Song of Solomon is a powerful allegory about God's desire.  But if anyone was to ask me why it's really interesting, I would tell them it's because Solomon was already married when he pursued the Shulamite.


It doesn't take much of an examination to prove that this is true.  Take a close look at the Book of 1 Kings, and you'll find that the first mention of Solomon's wives concerns an Egyptian princess (1 Kings 3:1).  You'll find later that the same book mentions he piles wives upon wives after marrying this princess -- poor girl! -- and that his seven hundred wives and his three hundred concubines were eventually his downfall (1 Kings 11:1).  Now, I'm not really certain whether the Shulamite is his second or his thousandth; but whether we speculate that she was a common concubine (from the Latin root which means to lay with) or a princess and a wife, we know she wasn't the Egyptian.  Egyptian princesses -- princesses in general, we might say -- aren't dark from laboring in the sun like the Shulamite; and no mention is made of the Shulamite's royalty.  We might even say that everything points to her poverty.  In essence, the Song of Solomon is a story about a successful and married politician going after his local barista; or maybe considering the part where her brothers joke about her lack of breasts, it's something even less comfortable, like Lolita (see chapter 8).  Nowhere mentioned is Jack's unfortunate Jacqueline; nobody gives a hoot about the feelings of his first wife.  For the duration of the story, she's entirely irrelevant -- and in her personal life, she would continue to become more irrelevant the longer her marriage lasted. 

If this is an allegory about God's love for us, it's certainly a curious one -- God chasing us in spite of a wife.  Maybe if we wanted to play the allegory game, we might say that it's about God chasing us against all the rules of justice; which would be perfectly fine, if we consider that Solomon said it was an abomination to punish the innocent (who happened to be Jesus) and clear the guilty (who happen to be the rest of us).  If we say that it's inspired, the method becomes even more curious -- God was speaking through Solomon when he talked about a woman's navel.  If we want to generalize things, and say that it's a story about desire, and leave it at that, then this is probably easier: but then we could say that any desire, no matter how crude, could be an allegory for God's desire for us.  The alcoholic at the tavern wants a drink just like Solomon wants another woman -- both very strongly; both very wrongly.  But they want -- and God's desire for us is apparently the theme of the Bible.   

Some men like Mr. Caldecott say that the Song of Solomon is the glue that holds the Bible together, and I admit they may be right.  They certainly have history and tradition behind them.  But in my limited and oftentimes fallible perspective, Solomon is the wedge that drives the Bible apart.  Fidelity is tarnished and questionable; monogamy is nearly meaningless; the ordinate gives place to the inordinate; the feelings of our first wives -- the women we promise to love, and the bonds which are greater, more solemn, and more holy than anything between parent and child -- are irrelevant.  If the Song of Solomon is inspired, it proves that ignorance and inspiration and sin may and do coexist in the same sentences -- which one would think is impossible.  But I have another perspective on the matter.  Consider it description instead of prescription, and history instead of an allegory, and human poetry instead of inspiration, and the Song can be a brief picture of sexual desire -- perhaps not a perfect one; but it has yet to be proved which of ours is.

Our sexual desire is broken, but its shards still remain beautiful; our poetry is often impoverished, but still essential to our existence.  The Song of Solomon is a picture of a muddied ecstasy in the midst of a broken creation -- and for this alone, it belongs in the Bible.  God is gracious, in that we still receive good despite our badness.  Solomon is our man not because he's perfect, but because he is a typical man -- we could say that like us he was handed the world and ruined it.  Jesus is our Savior, because He's anything but typical -- we could say He was handed something ruined, and told us we could have it whole again.  If The Song is our song, it's our song because God still loved Solomon like He loves us: despite ourselves.  If it is an allegory, it's an allegory about us chasing all the wrong things, in the ages before we discovered that God had actually been chasing us.

Your Father,
-J

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