Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Christ the Lover: Song of Songs 3:8 – 5:1

The fifth Sunday of Lent marks the final two weeks before our celebration of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Historically, on this Lord’s Day, a liturgical shift occurs turning the focus of prayers, readings and song from our own personal fights against sin to the final days of Christ’s own struggle and passion. There is not a more fitting consideration as we turn our attentions toward these events than the love that drove Him to the cross.

The Text:
“Who is this coming out of the wilderness…” (Song of Songs 3:8 – 5:1)

Why Allegory
Apart from the overwhelming historical witness, there are a number of textual and contextual indications that point to the legitimacy of an allegorical reading. First, the name of the book is the normal superlative form in Hebrew meaning literally, ‘The Greatest Song’, reminding us of one of the most common superlative constructions, ‘The Most Holy Place’. Secondly, the vocabulary throughout the Song is architectural (e.g. 4:4, 5:15, 7:1, 7:4, 8:10). These sweet nothings present some awkwardness rhetorically that are difficult to overcome pleading for idiomatic oddity. Additionally, the recently constructed Temple fills a significant historical backdrop in Israel in general and for Solomon in particular. A third reason for considering the Song as an allegory, related to the second, are the particular ornaments, building materials and geographical references. It is difficult not to think about the temple with multiple references to cedar beams, lilies, pomegranates, palm trees, and Lebanon (compare 1 Kgs. 6-7). Lastly, the numerous prophetic references to Israel as the vineyard of God (e.g. Is. 5, Jer. 12:10, Matt. 20-21) as well as Paul’s exhortation to make the love of God for His people the standard for all earthly love (Eph. 5:25) would lead to us to consider the book in this light.

Coming Up from the Wilderness
It’s difficult to miss the historical allusion here to Israel’s own sojourn through the wilderness, particularly given what follows. Phrases like “columns of smoke”, “mighty men of Israel”, and even the reference to the “couch” of the king surrounded by an army remind us of the camp of Yahweh coming out of the wilderness (Num. 2). Apparently the portable couch finds its resting place as a palanquin or enclosed litter (v. 9). But this litter is built from the cedar of Lebanon. Thus King Solomon pictures the movement of Yahweh from the desert riding on a portable throne in the Tabernacle and coming to rest in the Temple, built from the cedars of Lebanon (1 Kgs. 5).

The Beloved
The beloved’s face is behind a veil (4:1, 3) which indicates that it is hidden and separated. This is what she said at the beginning of the Song as well (1:5). What are the “curtains of Solomon”? Overwhelmingly throughout the Old Testament this word for curtain refers to the curtains of the Tabernacle. While a number of the other descriptions may be obscure, describing her neck as the “tower of David” able to hold a thousand shields seems to further indicate that the beloved of the King is Israel. The references to spices, smells and in particular frankincense, remind us of the incense which was regularly offered before the Lord and often offered with sacrifices (Ex. 30:34). The phrase “honey and milk” (v. 11) is also hard to read without remembering the promises of God concerning the land of Canaan. Notice also the repetition of Lebanon. The fixation with the location (v. 8), the smell (v. 11) and the waters of Lebanon (v. 15) make best sense when considered in light of the cedar from Lebanon used to build the Temple.

A Garden Enclosed
While on the surface a “garden enclosed” could simply be referring to chastity and virginity, given all of the Temple imagery already clearly set before us, a “garden enclosed” could also simply be a reference to a house. Not just any house would fit this description, but one built of wood, decorated with palm trees, flowers and buds, one with chariots of water and an enormous pool inside of it would (1 Kgs. 6-7). And thus, not only is the Temple a garden enclosed, it is a spring shut up, a fountain sealed, a fountain of gardens, a well of living (running) waters, and streams of Lebanon (v. 12, 15). And thus to this garden, a new Eden – the Temple of Israel – the Lover comes to feast: to eat honey, to drink wine and milk, yes, to drink deeply (4:16 – 5:1).

Drinking Deeply
The temptations with allegory are either to make it irrelevant (over spiritualizing) or to make the story irrelevant (under spiritualizing). This means that we must insist that the Song is about the unsurpassed love of God for His people, and because this is so, it is also all about sex. And we must not forget either one. But striving to avoid both ditches, it is necessary to consider what this means in light of the Incarnation. Perhaps one of the most striking references to the Song in the New Testament is through the phrase “daughters of Jerusalem.” (1:5, 2:7, 3:5, 3:10, 5:8, 5:16, 8:4). If there was still any doubt, Jesus speaks authoritatively, interpreting the Song as His own Song on the road to Calvary (Lk. 23:28). It is the same Lover who wooed His bride, Israel out of the wilderness and into Canaan, it is the same Lover that rejoiced over his bride’s beauty and lavished her with jewels and perfumes and praise that now walks with criminals up a stony path to be crucified.

Looking at our dying Savior in the light of The Great Song reminds us in a powerful way why we call the cross of Christ His passion. This is a challenge to every husband or would-be husband to the nobility of real love, true passion. But considering Christ as the perfect Lover, demands furthermore that we live in the grace of forgiveness.


Friday, March 10, 2006

Big Yuck

Of course the most exciting news comes from HBO. The long time envelope-pusher is striking out again into the wilds of sexual improvisation and misogyny. In 'Big Love' the cable network introduces the first sitcom which centers around a man and his three lady friends and all of their children. Set in Salt Lake City (surprise!), Bill Paxton plays the "normal" middle aged, polygamist husband who strings three concubines, er, I mean wives along, seeking to hold their household(s) together.

I don't know; this is all really very boring actually. What I really want is for someone to be brave, really courageous. Quit pussy-footing around with this tame Mormon stuff; go for the gold. I want to see a sitcom about the exploits of a "normal" middle aged man in love with little boys. Of course being a 'principled' man, he would marry them along with their pet Labradors. Come on, HBO, is that as good as you can do?


A Tree in an Electric Storm

We know the Ten Commandments. We are respectable middle class American Evangelicals. We don’t sponsor orgies or raves. We don’t vote for democrats. We are pro-life and against homosexual marriage. But the life of righteousness is not just about labels. We are not first and foremost income brackets or political partisans. We’re people; we’re lives called to holiness. In particular, we are called to hate and defy every sin. We are called to mortal combat with the legions of sin that war on our flesh. We are not called to a label; we’re called to actually fight. The beginning of wisdom is to hate evil, the wise man says. Do you hate evil? Or do you just hate “liberals”? Do you hate the sin of murder or do you just hate the idea of being killed? Does your stomach turn? Are you physically ill about the widespread stealing that passes as re-zoning, taxing, or gambling? You are called to hatred. You are called to the hatred of evil. And remember, as you accept this calling, that the most perfect instant of wrath and hatred ever poured out in the history of the human race was also the single greatest act of love. Jesus Christ bore the sins of the world, and like a lone tree on the summit of mountain in the middle of an electric storm, the Father struck the Son in your place. The beginning of wisdom is to hate evil, and the cross is the wisdom of God.


Cash Hurt

It is difficult to listen to “Hurt” by Johnny Cash without feeling deep remorse. The lyrics fill Cash’s aged, haunting voice with a disgust for things in the past, and yet when heard through the pictures supplied in the music video, it is obvious that some sort of redemption or salvation is in view. The lyrics speak of pain, needles, killing, lying and hard memories. These are sung over images of a younger Cash running, riding trains, a room full of awards and trophies, ever returning to the central figure of Cash as an old man playing a guitar, sitting at a piano. Cash refers to all of his accomplishments as his “empire of dirt” that he would be willing to give up entirely if able to take back his mistakes. The video culminates with images of a crucifix, a Christ figure being nailed to a cross, ending with a brief clip of a cross and a dove flying to freedom. These images combined with the final words, promising a different sort of life indicate that Cash found some kind of final peace in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Thus, while the song is full of an overwhelming sense of regret, one is not left hopeless—only sober and repentant.


Thursday, March 09, 2006

Tongues of Fire

When the family of Aeneas is contemplating what to do after the Greeks have overthrown the city of Troy, a great omen occurs when a flame appears over the head of Aeneas' son Iulus. The flame is a portent that indicates the necessity for Aeneas and his father to flee the city, leaving their home and all their belongings to be ransacked and burnt. This of course reminds us of the story of Pentecost in Acts 2. The ascended Messiah sends the Spirit of the Father upon his disciples while they are praying in the upper room. But not only is the omen the same, the meaning is the same: leave the city. When the apostles are filled with the Spirit they speak in the tongues of the nations of the world that are gathered together in Jerusalem, and this is only the begining of the grand exportation of the Kingdom to the world. Of course it all starts in Jerusalem, but by the end of Acts Paul is in Rome and the disciples have scattered to the four corners of the earth. And Jesus had warned His disciples of the signs to look for: "When you see the abomination of desolation... let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains..." The judgment of God is coming upon the Jewish nation for rejecting the Messiah. But the portent is not only for flight, it is also a sign of a promised new city. Aeneas flees Troy in search of a new Troy, a new home, an eternal city. Likewise Christians fled Jerusalem and the wrath that God had promised it, in search of a new city, a New Jerusalem, an eternal and heavenly city. Of course Aeneas only founded Rome, and the apostles were the founders of a far greater city, the City of God which far supasses all that Virgil may have dreamed of.


Tuesday, March 07, 2006

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.


Monday, March 06, 2006

New Site

Of course hardly being able to keep up with anything here, it may seem rather presumptuous to start a new blog. But hey, this is for the children. Vote yes for kids.

Atlas School now has a blog. Over the coming months the idea would be to use this for posting students' work, announcements for families, assignments, and whatever else may be helpful as Atlas seeks to build a learning community here in Moscow.