Too Racy for Bible Study

by Warren Smith

Origen could not believe the Song of Songs was a hymn to erotic love. So what did it mean?

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue 80 in 2003 ]

LET HIM KISS ME with the kisses of his mouth! For your love is better than wine, your anointing oils are fragrant, your name is perfume poured out. . . . How beautiful are you, my love, how very beautiful. . . . Your hair is like a flock of goats moving down the slopes of Gilead . . . your lips are like a crimson thread and your mouth is lovely. . . . Your two breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle.”

The words are not from a cheesy romance novel but from the Old Testament, specifically Song of Songs (1:1–2; 4:1, 3, 5). If these words are not familiar, it is because Song of Songs is one of the books contemporary Christians rarely read or study. Few pastors preach from the Song. The erotic language is off-putting and the metaphors ("Your hair is like a flock of goats") strange. What moral insight can lie within a text that is so explicitly sexual? How can a book that celebrates sex but never explicitly mentions God edify the Christian?

Christ’s love song

The early Christians found the Song just as odd and its sexual language just as problematic as we do. But they took its very strangeness as an invitation to seek out a deep and hidden spiritual message. They could find meaning within its shocking imagery because they made use of allegory.

Not surprisingly, the man with whom the allegorical method is most famously associated, Origen of Alexandria, led the search for the Song’s hidden meaning. Since every part of Scripture is inspired, reasoned Origen, every detail must have meaning. Where details, passages, or even (as in this case) entire books seem obscure or disturbing, one must read allegorically.

In Origen’s commentary on the Song of Songs, he begins by explaining the literal sense of the Song. It is a “marriage—song” that Solomon composed as a drama. The bride and bridegroom sing to each other words of love, and at times they sing to their friends who accompany them to the wedding.

But Solomon uses the erotic language of romantic love between man and woman to describe something deeper. The book is really expressing what it means for the Christian to love God with her whole heart and soul and mind and strength. The bride is the church or the soul of an individual “burning with heavenly love” for the Word of God, symbolized by the bridegroom.

A more mature understanding

The problem of the Song’s sensual language, Origen says, lies not with the Song, but with the reader. He believed that only those Christians who have purified themselves by turning from the pleasures of the flesh and the world can recognize the spiritual sense of Scripture. Solomon’s Song, with its carnal but symbolic language, is not milk providing nourishment for children in the faith, rather it is “strong meat for the perfect.”

The immature cannot understand the Song because they are still too fleshly, “not knowing how to hear love’s language in purity and with chaste ears.” They are concerned with the things of the material world, which they know through their senses, rather than the invisible realm of ideas, which only the intellect trained in philosophy can apprehend. Therefore, they are never able to get beyond the sensual language in its literal meaning to behold the hidden spiritual sense.

Origen therefore counsels that the childlike Christian “who is not yet rid of the vexation of flesh and blood and has not ceased to feel the passion of his bodily nature” should refrain from reading the Song, lest he think that Scripture is “urging him on to fleshly lust.” Since, as the Greek maxim says, “like is known by like,” Origen concludes that only those whose minds have become spiritual can know the God who is “spirit and truth.”

Origen’s treatment of the opening lines of the Song shows how he saw the spiritual sense symbolically represented in the literal sense of the drama.

Solomon’s Song begins with the bride who, tired of waiting so long for her beloved to come, asks the bridegroom’s father, “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth.” The bride’s cry is the voice of Israel’s faithful, who are not satisfied with intermediaries such as Moses and the other prophets, but desire the Divine Word himself. Moses and the prophets have prepared her. They have trained her to love the Word. But she wants more; she wants to see the Word face to face.

The Father, hearing the prayer and knowing that the bride desires the Word with a suitable passion, sends the Son. The bride is now ready to be united with her beloved because she has attained a perfect love for the Word.

The fragrance of salvation

When the bridegroom comes, the bride says to him, “Your love is better than wine; and the odor of your perfumes better than all spices.” In this verse, Origen explains, the bridegroom is a symbol for Christ. The Greek word Christ means “the anointed one"—the one anointed with oil. The bride’s description of “the odor of [his] perfumes,” Origen claims, alludes to the oil mentioned in Psalm 44:8, “Thou has loved Justice and hated iniquity: therefore God, Thy God, hath anointed Thee with the oil of gladness above Thy fellows.”

Origen sees perfume as a symbol of the Word’s power to sanctify those who love him. For 2 Corinthians 2:14 says that the Church is “the good odor of Christ in every place.” When the bride is united to her beloved, the perfume that covers the bridegroom’s body rubs off on the bride. Even as the bride takes on the fragrance of her new husband’s perfumes, so too the soul united with Christ is made holy by their intimate communion. The stench of sin is replaced by the sweet smell of virtue and righteousness. The Church that is spotless takes on the aroma of Christ’s holiness by being taken to Christ’s bosom. When the Church is united with Christ it becomes like him, restored to the image of God.

Solomon’s language of desire is shocking, Origen admits, but only if we fail to appreciate its symbolic meaning. Personal virtue and correct interpretation are integrally linked for Origen. The interpreter must possess virtue in order to see beyond the carnal sense of Scripture. But if the Christian has made God, rather than the world, the object of her deepest desire, then she will be able to recognize the truth hidden in the Song’s erotic language: only such language can adequately describe the intensity of perfect love for God—and the ecstatic joy the soul finds in loving and being loved by God. CH

Warren Smith is assistant professor of historical theology at Duke Divinity School, Durham, North Carolina.

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