St. Alban’s Episcopal Church
August 29, 2021
By Barbara M.
For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is whenever we call to him? And what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today?
This passage is from the fourth chapter of Deuteronomy. It is from the Old Testament lesson appointed for today in the 1979 lectionary and is meant to be read in dialogue with the passage from Mark’s gospel that we just heard where Jesus deals with the ever-complaining Pharisees. This time it’s that Jesus and his disciples don’t follow the law of hand washing. It’s always something. We had healing on the sabbath not too long ago. But Jesus, again, focuses on intention and motivation, on inward and not outward purity. This answer reminds us of Jesus’ unfailing surprises, of his charisma. And we are reminded of why Peter’s answer to Jesus, as Larry so movingly set out for us last week, is so important. However challenged by the impossibility of words that explain what Jesus is, Peter can only say “Lord, to whom — [to whom else] — can we go?”
Poets and everyone else writes about relationships, about intimacy, but in the end of course the most important relationships exceed words. Peter simply knows that he is in the right place, the place of being bound to Jesus. And Jesus’ answer today doesn’t mean the end of the Law. The Torah matters. It too is the object of devotion and wonder that does nothing less than bring God into human life. It’s because of the law that the Deuteronomy passage can ask – “what other great nation has a god so near to it.” Our passages today are about intimacy, closeness, with God.
And what about the Song of Solomon? We are continuing the story of David and Solomon, our Old Testament story of several weeks – but what a continuation! We catch our breath as we move from chronicle, history, biography to a love song. The book isn’t long, and we get just a snippet of it here, but the whole is a song of mutual and passionate love, a song of longing, fervent admiration and praise, between a man, a shepherd no less, and a woman, the Shulamite woman. It is a poem filled with verdant, sometimes erotic, imagery. It follows poetic conventions of secular drinking songs.
Our psalm is in the same spirit, now cherishing, relishing, the beauty of a righteous king, blessed by God as “the fairest of men,” his words eloquent and gracious as “grace flows from [his] lips;” he is adorned with garments made fragrant with the choicest herbs, he is surrounded by music in the most elegant of palaces, he is accompanied by the noblest of women led by a queen adorned with gold. The psalm echoes the emotion of the Song in its virtually magnetic pull of the heart to a king whose beauty and qualities reach perfection. It is a wedding song, and may have been written for a specific royal occasion.
Why are these passages even in the Bible? To return to the Song, it has no mention at all of God, or prayer, or any customs or stories of the people of Israel. Why is it in the Bible and why did the lectionary genies appoint it for us to read today? There’s vast erudition about this that I don’t know, and, absorbed as I am by these wonderful readings, what I do know is that all I can do is nibble around the edges.
I looked for help, and via Google, I renewed acquaintance with Ellen Davis, whom I remember (Ellen Lewin then), as others may, from St Mark’s when she was a student at CDSP. (She went on to be a distinguished theologian at Duke.) In 2000 she published an essay, a book chapter, on the Song.[i] Over the centuries there has been debate about it. Is it completely out of place in the Bible? Or is it in fact the most “biblical” part of the scripture of all? Medieval commentators, it turns out, rejoiced in the book, seeing it as profoundly “biblical,” a text that they took as nothing less than a route to intimacy with God.
The Song, Ellen Davis suggests, can be read as a reversal of the ruptures of Eden. The man is not dominant; the earth is not cursed; the lovers live in a relationship of mutuality, fidelity, passion, and delight in each other. The Song places them back in the blooming, fragrant, fruitful world of the first garden in the first days. In our passage, the woman rejoices in the approach over the hills of her beloved, celebrating his graceful, powerful movements – he is a gazelle, a stag – and then his arrival at her window when the verse shifts to his words as he calls her to come to him in the re-born, springtime, flowering, fruit-filled, fragrant world, a world filled with the sound of birdsong.
This is love with no narrative, no story of obstacles overcome, no worldly concern with wealth or lineage. This is a timeless love to be savored; a beloved to be praised, adored.
With that, the poem became over the centuries a metaphor for the relation of God to God’s people. The Old Testament is filled with images of God as lover, as filled with grief at distance and disobedience of his chosen people, as rejoicing at reunion. The metaphor of the marriage carries over to the mutual love and longing of Christ and the Church, which, in turn, becomes a metaphor for marriage. In Ellen Davis’ words, this love becomes “the least inadequate metaphor [and model for] the love that we may hope to feel for God, the love that the saints and martyrs do feel.”[ii]
The rabbis imagined the Beloved of the song as the very Torah that brought God’s name to earth. Ellen Davis finds linguistic resonance throughout the descriptions of the lovers for each other, however, not with the Torah but with Solomon’s great temple in Jerusalem (that of course contains the Torah), for example, the fragrances of myrrh and frankincense that surround the lovers and also permeate the temple. The very Hebrew name “Song of Songs,” apparently an unusual locution for a superlative in Hebrew, evokes “The Holy of Holies.” And the attribution of the Song to Solomon is a clue to the metaphor of the temple, a fanciful attribution centuries after his time when his temple was no more and many of the people of Israel were scattered. The Song, like the temple, builds us a route to the divine, as the temple was.
Remember King Solomon’s prayer [1 Kings 8, 42-43] (that Deb read so evocatively last week) that the Temple would bring God near. It is a prayer for intimacy: “But will God indeed dwell on the earth?… O Lord my God, heeding the cry and the prayer that your servant prays to you today…” The house will not contain God, but God will be as close as the whisper of a prayer.
Can God dwell on earth? That question was the recurrent theme of our reflections and “participatory reflections” these last weeks. Jesus is “I Am” and Christ is the Beloved, the Bridegroom to the Church. We pray to be transformed by the body and blood, that Jesus lives in us and we in him.
The Song as not only a “metaphor,” a model “of” something else, but it is also a model “for.” How else does a person learn the love of God except through the human experience of loving and being loved in all the limited and fragmented and sometimes perfect ways that humans have. [The Muslim scholar/holy men I’ve long studied know that, and they set out a path of discipleship that takes a person from such intense love of a worthy guide, one who embodies God’s teachings, that that seeker becomes one with that guide; and from that foundation aspires to union with the Prophet; and thence for God’s most beloved friends for union with the Divine itself. But it all begins with human love.]
There is an irony to talk about intimacy – let alone hand washing – in these pandemic days. This is a hard time of seeming progress and then reversal that for many has been almost unbearable. There is a lot in these texts that would repay a lifetime of immersion, but they offer us Edenic visions, to contemplate, to sink into, and to live with.
[i] Ellen F. Davis, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2000). Most of this readable, brilliant chapter on the Song of Songs can be read at https://books.google.com/books?id=r6F1BwAAQBAJ
[ii] Ibid., p. 248