A Temple Affair
I’ve been doing some studying of Song of Songs recently. Throughout the history of the church there have been many who held that the book was allegorical, depicting some embedded (no pun intended) love story between God and his people. Recognizing the prudishness and anti-sexual tendency of many Christians throughout the history of the church, this is hardly surprising. The text becomes a manual for de-sexing the world. “See? Breasts are just metaphors for the towers of the New Jerusalem descending out of heaven.” And thus our (my) general reaction is ‘bah’. Of course there are some eunuchs for the gospel, but the New Testament makes it clear that this is not the norm. But there’s the baby and the bath water bit. As we have been wont to argue elsewhere, there are many legitimate and complementary facets to any number of biblical texts. This book can be no exception. After reading and rereading the Song, I’m convinced that it is definitely a full on allegory and not just the Reformed Christian’s Kama Sutra. And here’s why:
It pretty much boils down to the vocabulary. First, consider the language of love being employed, “Your eyes are like doves”, “His legs are pillars of marble”, “You are as beautiful as Tirzah, lovely as Jerusalem, awesome as an army with banners”, “your navel is a rounded goblet”, (and one of my favorites) “your nose is like the tower of Lebanon which looks toward Damascus.” Everyone reads these metaphors and cringes. Or perhaps at best looks confused. No woman wants to be told that her neck is a tower built like an armory which could hang, say, a thousand shields. But then we wave our hands and say, ‘well, that’s Hebrew for you… different cultures you know…” But the fact of the matter is that while there pockets of idiomatic expressions and constructions throughout the Hebrew Bible, it should be odd to us to relegate an entire book to such a category (especially in the name of ‘poetry’).
Next, notice the preoccupation with the trees (wood), buildings (towers, walls), and Lebanon. What’s with Lebanon? “Come with me from Lebanon, my spouse, with me from Lebanon.” (There was an echo in the room it seems.) “… and the fragrance of your garments is like the fragrance of Lebanon.” And describing the spices of the garden of his lover, he describes it as a “fountain of gardens, a well of living waters, and streams from Lebanon.” Notice also all the trees and wood: “The beams of our houses are cedar and our rafters of fir.” “Like an apple tree among the trees of the woods, so is my beloved…” “Of the wood of Lebanon (!) Solomon the King made himself a palanquin.” “All the trees of frankincense…” “His countenance is like Lebanon, excellent as the cedars.” “I will go up to the palm tree, I will take hold of its branches…” And I’ve already pointed out a few of the architectural metaphors: towers, high walls, battlements, armories, pillars, etc.
The allegory is of Yahweh’s love affair with Israel in and through the temple. The temple is the marriage bed of this couple. This is why the lover can speak of herself as a “garden enclosed”; Israel is to see herself personified in the temple. There the Lord comes and dwells intimately with his bride. All of the garden imagery of course hearkens back to Eden where intimacy with God was lost. The temple then, is a glorification of the Garden, the communion of God and man. But all of the references to Lebanon can’t be confused with anything else. The temple was constructed with the cedars of Lebanon. Furthermore, throughout the narrative, pomegranates and lilies are spoken of. Of course pomegranates adorn the tops of the pillars outside the temple and lilies are scattered throughout as well. The great bronze sea poured out through the chariots that lined the temple walls (at least symbolically). These are the ‘fountain gardens’ spoken of. Notice also the references to “veils” –reminding us of the curtain separating the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place. Consider even the priestly connotations of taking off a robe, washing one’s feet, being purified. The spices and incense that fill the temple are the perfumes of the lovers as they unite. There are references to eating, banqueting tables, drinking wine, and even the fire of the Lord (8:6). Anyone familiar with Old Testament sacrificial literature would recognize the explicit references to sacrifice and offerings being made, again, communion with the God of Israel.
But of course even granting this spectacular allegory, the covenant love of God for his people immersed in the intrigues of sexual attraction, pursuit and consummation does not do away with any of the practical ramifications for Christian lovers today. St. Paul’s command was for husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the Church. And by analogy, surely we can apply this to the Old Covenant as well: Husbands, love your wives as Yahweh loved his bride, Israel. If Hebrews teaches us anything, it’s not that the New Testament lowers the bar and lessons the expectations. Just the opposite: if the Song was an allegory of the Old Covenant, the immature sex of newly weds, then the New Covenant’s picture of covenant love is far more robust, far more enthusiastic, and far more fulfilling. And if God has so loved His Church, how much more so ought Christians to be known for their passionate love of their spouses.