Proper 17, Year B gives us the lectionary’s only glimpse of the Song of Solomon. Pastors don’t know what to do with the Song of Solomon. Some scholars consider it an allegory of God and Israel or Christ and the Church. Other scholars take it more simply and consider it erotic poetry. Song of Solomon is attributed to Solomon. He is notorious for his hundreds of wives, so erotic poetry might be right up his alley.
But before you run home to use it to whisper sweet nothings in your beloved’s ear, know that it is full of imagery that seems more agrarian than erotic. In its eight chapters, there are enough animals to fill a zoo and plants to fill a grocery store.
The lectionary passage is rather tame and straightforward. The woman describes her beloved.
The voice of my beloved! Look, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills. My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag. Look, there he stands behind our wall, gazing in at the windows, looking through the lattice. My beloved speaks and says to me:
“Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land. The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance.
Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.” – Song of Solomon 2:8-13 (NRSV)
Song of Solomon is a duet – the voices of two lovers recounting their relationship and their longing for one another. We hear both voices in today’s passage. That these two voices both speak loudly is noteworthy. In both the culture of the time and Scripture as a whole, women are rarely given their own voice.
This is especially surprising, since biblical sexuality – as it relates to women – is usually seen as a source of shame. The exception being when they bear children, preferably sons. Even the New Testament avoids the issue of female sexuality when the Virgin Mary gives birth to Jesus.
Despite this, here in Song of Solomon, the woman is an equal partner. She pursues her beloved as much as she is pursued. This freedom in Song of Solomon pushes against the norms and confines of the time. It defies the rigid expectations – and sometimes laws – set up by (a patriarchal) society. The voice of this woman challenges societal boundaries and expectations even today.
If we were to read all of Song of Solomon, we would find that it doesn’t appear that these two lovers are married. The woman refers to her friends and the protection of her brothers. These two lovers need to meet in secret. Maybe they get married, but that’s not addressed in the book.This freedom in Song of Solomon pushes against the norms and confines of the time. It defies the rigid expectations set up by society. Click To Tweet
In ancient times, and really, still today, sexual relations were to take place within the structure of a marriage relationship. In ancient times – and in some cultures today, a woman was married soon after she became able to bear children. As a rule, the woman (really a girl) was younger than the man she married. Until then, “the woman was expected to be a virgin at the time of marriage, but the man was exempt from this requirement.”
In the Law, lack of proof of virginity could result in stoning. In the Law, the rape of an unmarried woman carried a much lesser penalty than adultery – and the woman was required to be married to the man who raped her. But Scripture is silent as to the man because the man isn’t property, the woman is.
The definition of adultery in the first century (and the millennia before that) was “sexual intercourse between a married or betrothed woman and any man other than her husband.” Adultery was not defined as sexual intercourse between a married or betrothed man and any woman other than his wife. Really, adultery mattered because of proof of paternity. Adultery wasn’t about a break in intimacy between a couple, but the risk (to the man) of an illegitimate heir.
For some reason God only knows, Song of Solomon is included in the canon. Maybe because it was associated with Solomon. Maybe because it could be explained away as allegory between Israel and God, or the Church and Jesus. It wasn’t until the 18th century that scholars in the mainstream began to suggest that it could be read literally for what it is – erotic poetry. Commentaries for pastors and lay people are still in the Middle Ages.
This is probably why it is essentially absent from the lectionary. And even the part included is pretty tame.
The Bible has a lot to say about sex outside marriage – that is, adultery. The Bible has a lot to say about sex without intimacy. The Bible tells us sexual violence is wrong. The Bible tells us to flee from sexual immorality – but doesn’t define what that is. (We do that, and that apply it to others.) What the Bible is rather silent on is sexual relationships between two unmarried but committed and consenting people. Except in Song of Solomon.What the Bible is rather silent on is sexual relationships between two unmarried but committed and consenting people. Except in Song of Solomon. #SexintheBible Click To Tweet
Here, we have a love story in its many facets. There is no judgement and no condemnation. And no guarantee of marriage. And we don’t know what to do with it. And that’s a tragedy.
Because the reality of the times we live in, is that we don’t marry our daughters off as soon as they reach child-bearing age, which is around age 13. Physically, they may be able to bear children but we know they are not emotionally mature enough. The average age of marriage in the United States is 27.4 for women and 29.5 for men.
So what do we do with all those years?
We mostly don’t talk about it.
I don’t remember much about my conversations about sex with my parents. What I do remember was that I wasn’t supposed to do it because it was wrong (probably with some general reference to the Bible) and that I shouldn’t get pregnant. I understood that pregnancy was what I wasn’t “ready for” rather than concerns for maturity in relational intimacy. What this meant was that as I headed off for college and entered a serious relationship, it was something we didn’t talk about. For the five years my husband and I dated, he slept in the basement when we visited my parents.
My brother and his girlfriend moved in together after college. They were engaged but were waiting a year to get married. But they still slept in separate rooms when the visited my parents until after they were married.
I think both of these were fine since we were staying at my parents’ house. During these years, we chose awkward silence rather than awkward conversation. I realize this was (is) the norm, but it wasn’t really honest.
Does this mean that I promote sex outside marriage? No. But I certainly don’t condemn it. My primary concern is the maturity and intention of the two people. Hormones will always play a part, but if the relationship is mature and love and commitment to one another are involved, I won’t object.
We’ve talked to our kids about sex. For emotional reasons, I’ve said that I think high school is too young. But when Eldest went to college, I put a box of condoms in his first aid kit because if he is going to have sex, I wanted him to protect his health. I wasn’t encouraging sex; I was being realistic about adult relationships.
When his college girlfriend has visited, we let them sleep together in the same room. I didn’t ask if they were having sex because it wasn’t so much about sex as our relationship with our son. We don’t want him to be a different person with us than who he really is. We’d like to keep the door open for him to discuss any aspect of his life and relationships with us that he chooses to.
Marriage in itself does not make sex right. Likewise, a pregnancy doesn’t make marriage right. In a way, I value marriage more than sex. If my kids are going to rush into either marriage or sex, I don’t want it to be a lifelong covenant relationship. But that doesn’t mean I don’t hold our sexual relationships in high regard. And by the inclusion of Song of Solomon in the canon, it appears God holds our sexual relationships in high regard as well.If my kids are going to rush into either marriage or sex, I don’t want it to be a lifelong covenant relationship. This doesn’t mean I don’t hold our sexual relationships in high regard. Click To Tweet
My intention isn’t to convince you of how you should view premarital sex. Rather, I’d like to encourage us to consider it in the reality of our humanity and marriage customs. What is a healthy and truthful way we can be talking about it in our families, churches, and communities? Just as we do with the other aspects of our scripture and our lives, how do we understand and accept the context of the biblical narrative while at the same time find a faithful application for it to our lives today?
Let’s talk about sex.
It’s mentioned as an optional accompanying passage one other time in Year C.
King, Philip J. and Stager, Lawrence E., Life in Biblical Israel. Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY (2001), 54.
Leviticus 20:10; Deuteronomy 22:28-29
Goodfriend, Elaine Alder, “Adultery,” in the Anchor Bible Dictionary.