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sexy bible

retreat address on the Song of Songs

Readings from the Song:
Woman: 1:5-6 (don’t despise me because I am black)
Man: 4:9-16 (you are beautiful and you smell sexy)
Woman: 5:2-8 (ready for “bed” and can’t find lover)
Man: 7:1-9 (you’re beautiful, this time with food)

I joked with my students in describing this retreat
that it was going to be about the sexy, sexy Bible. Was I kidding?
For centuries, we’ve tried to figure out this poem.
Some see it as a kind of performance art,
reenacting a fertility rite to bring good fortune to crops.
Others as an allegory
—a one-to-one metaphor for God’s love for recalcitrant Israel.
It’s read on Passover in many Jewish households because,
in the words of my friend Rabbi Yitz,
“Passover is the dating process
of the just-born Jewish nation with G-d,
culminating in the Marriage Ceremony
under the canopy of Clouds at Mount Sinai.”
For many Christians, it’s been God dating the Church instead.
Others see it as a celebration of physical and romantic love, God-given.
Still others wonder why it’s in our Scriptures at all
—God’s not mentioned once.
Do we ever read it in church? Not much.
And then only the least racy parts.
Like, not the bits with dripping nard or channels or bellies
and breasts and lips.
That stuff is best kept far away from Sunday morning.
Only, why? Are we embarrassed?
We are certainly embarrassing as a Christian people
to non-Christians who don’t understand why
we’re so embarrassed about our bodies and what they do.
The Song of Songs is, at least a little bit, all these things.
The woman who wrote the Song
and the men who included it in the canon of scripture
and the millions of Jews and Christians who have read it
across the centuries have already voted.
This Song is scandalously specific and ambiguous.
It is almost pornographic and deeply spiritual.
The Song of Songs is about sustaining relationships
and about constantly striving
and it is about the love which is the ground of all our being
in one way or another.
First, it’s poetry. Some of your eyes are lighting up at the thought,
others are bracing yourselves for a long, boring lecture
and ultimately not understanding any more than when you began.
Don’t worry, I only mean that it means more than it seems to mean.
Like the TV show Lost. Or whatever your favorite pop song is. Only better.
So, The Song of Songs is about a woman
who is deeply in love and lust with her beloved
who may or may not be King Solomon. Probably not.  
And they have frequent trysts but apparently don’t live together.
Or maybe they’re married,
though the text doesn’t offer much support for that.
Or maybe their relationship is scandalous somehow
since she gets beaten at one point for trying to find him.
It’s not a straightforward story-poem
with a beginning, middle, and end,
nor is it entirely clear who the characters are.
It reads a bit like a series of monologues
between the man and the woman
but they don’t always flow from one to another.
The language, as you might expect, is heightened, is metaphorical;
“your teeth are like a flock of goats,”
“your neck is like a tower, all it’s stones in courses.”
It’s like saying, “your skin is as soft as a kitten’s fur”
or “your hips are as curvaceous as the Guggenheim Museum
and truly, they don’t lie.”
Her neck is not a tower, not really,
and her teeth aren’t hairy like a flock of goats.
It’s about taking inspiration
from the natural and human-made world
—what’s beautiful to you?
That’s what you compare your love to.
“Your body,” she says in one place, “is like ivory.”
Which, it turns out, is a lot like other places in scripture
when someone sees someone else’s “feet,” meaning genitals.
The Hebrew word translated “body”
means a man’s midsection,
so the woman is speaking of the man’s penis as like ivory,
like an elephant’s tusk.
Yes, in a lovely, poetic way, she’s saying,
“my beloved is well-hung.”[1]
Second, the Song of Songs is part of a theology called “Bridal mysticism,”
the theology derived poetically
that Jesus is our collective and individual boyfriend.  
If you think of it literally, it’s a bit creepy.
But also beautiful and has a long history in the church.
We see married people all the time
—certainly we see broken marriages,
but also connectedness and reliance and mutual giving.
Of course we’d use it as a metaphor for our relationship with God.
Bridal mysticism takes Jesus as the boyfriend to its logical extreme
and puts the mystic or the reader in the place of the bride
—when we read these passages, when we pray,
we can experience the great hope a bride feels,
the anticipation of new life,
the excitement of being with the one our heart most desires
—you know this feeling.
Not just the heart palpitations of a crush,
but the deep connectedness to someone we truly love
and who loves us back.
For some of you, that might be a romantic or married partner,
for others it might be a deep soulfriend,
for others it could be the relationship you have
with a parent or sibling.
These are beautiful experiences and we ought to want them—
but they require a certain vulnerability on our end.
We have to be able to be vulnerable to God.
Bridal mysticism requires us to present ourselves
exactly as we are to our bridegroom Jesus.
Third, and maybe most important,
“the protagonist in the Song is the only unmediated female voice in scripture.”[2]
Meaning, every other woman’s story is told by someone else,
either by another character in a story or by the writer of the book.
Here, the woman speaks in the first person,
she is a woman in touch with her own heart and mind,
a woman in touch with her sensuality,
a woman empowered.
And so, because her story needs to be heard, I’ll tell it to you,
at least, an imagined story of how she came to write this poem.

I was told I had to work in my brothers’ vineyards.
I was told I had dark, ugly, black skin.
I was told I’d never amount to anything, that I was unloveable.
I was told I would have babies and that would make me valuable.
I was told to be quiet in church, to submit to my husband, to lie back and think of England.
I was told it was all in my head, that it was my fault.
I was told.
And now I will tell.

When I saw him the first time, I came over all giddy.
I was talking to my friend and suddenly I was stammering
and my hands were shaking and my nipples were hard
and I couldn’t stop staring.
When he talked to me the first time,
I looked down at my shaking knees,
knowing he couldn’t possibly find me pleasant to look at,
but he lifted my chin with a finger and looked at me
like no one else ever had.
He really saw me—what did he see?
He said that I was more beautiful than a flock of goats on the hillside,
more sweet than persimmons dipped in honey,
more elegant the Temple Mount itself.
He said, “she’s a brick house!”
He compared my breasts to round baby sheep
nursing at their mother’s side.
He said my heart was bigger than the Jerusalem marketplace,
that my mind was sharper than the rocks at the shore
which tear up the hulls of boats,
that my ass was as round as melons
and how he wanted to take a bite.
How could he see this when I am, at best, average?
He saw me and he loved me.
And I saw him and I loved him.
We devour each other with our eyes.
When we see each other around town, from yards and yards away,
we cannot resist seeing, we cannot resist knowing.
I know that last night we spoke of philosophy and the nature of God,
we spoke of politics and farming and birds and bees,
we spoke of our fears and of our darkest fantasies.
And we touched each other
—we removed each other’s clothes slowly, achingly slowly,
fingers tracing the hollow of the throat,
like the curve of a spoon dipped in custard,
fingers circling wrists vulnerable as newborn puppies,
fingers caressing inner thighs,
open like a book revealing its secrets.
And today, when we see each other,
we know, deeply, what the other looks like under their clothes,
how they respond to kisses and challenges.
We devour each other with more than our eyes.
Yet I cannot see him now.
And so often, I cannot find him.
He doesn’t respond when I text and our friends have not seen him.
I run across sidewalks and fields,
through the autumn trees smelling of wet leaves and death
and I weep.
I meet people as I wander and they look at me in disgust.
They speak harshly, telling me no one could love me as he does,
telling me I’m making a fool of myself,
telling me to not to speak up for myself,
telling me to go home.
And so I return to my bed, to my empty apartment
which still smells of his soap and his skin and sex.
I return to my shower and wash away my tears in hot water.
I rub lotion into my skin and put on my pajamas,
giving in to exhaustion.
I tell myself it will be better tomorrow.
I tell myself he will return.
I tell myself to fall asleep.
I give in memories and touch myself.
And just on the edge of sleep, I think I hear him next to me,
his hand on my belly, his lips at my ear.
I wake with a jolt but he is not here.
I run to the door,
my hands still slick with lotion and my own moisture,
my feet bare,
but he is not there.
And later we have carved out time to lie on the grass,
feeling the warm sun on our skin,
seeing the red glow of it through our eyelids,
smelling burning leaves and each other’s familiar scent.
Cloves and eucalypus and nard filling my nose and my heart.
His hand in mine, our only touchpoint, yet containing multitudes.
I bask in my beloved’s presence and he in mine.
And tell him,
Many haters cannot quench your love for me.
Many insults will not quench my joy in my own body
nor the want I feel for you, my beloved.
Many sorrows and arguments will not quench our commitment.
Many wars cannot quench the spark of the divine and the hope of peace.
Many waters cannot quench the fire of my love,
neither can floods drown it.

For the holiness of all that is love, hear me tell you my story and know this same love.

[2] Women’s Bible Commentary, “Song of Songs” by Renita J Weems, 164