IF YOU CONTINUE TO READ, you will be reading not me.
I’m about to turn someone loose on you.
Here’s why. I’m nervous.
I paraphrased the Song of Songs and when I asked my wife what she thought of it, she said just one word: racy. Then she turned and walked away.
I didn’t even get a chance to say, “Huh?”
I’m about to unleash Bob Huber (Robert V. Huber), a still-working retired Reader’s Digest Books editor and co-author I have been blessed to know and work with for the past couple of decades. Bob lives in New York City.
Bob has been helping me polish my paraphrasing of this beta edition of the Casual English Bible. He has been looking at the books already posted on my website. But when I started paraphrasing the Song of Songs, I did something different.
I knew Bob has a passion for the Song of Songs, so I asked him if he would like to see my first draft paraphrase chapter by chapter as I worked on it.
He was gracious enough to look it over and help me polish the work. He probably steered me into trouble, too. But I was already headed there. It’s easy to hide the nature of the Song in Elizabethan prose from Shakespeare’s day, when the King James Version of the Bible was translated. It’s not so easy to do that when you put those words in everyday English, easily understood.
I’ve never invited anyone to write a guest feature for this blog. Until today.
—MY ONLY GUEST WRITER EVER: Bob Huber
Steve’s got me all riled up over a passionate love poem. I’ve known Steve for many years—that’s Stephen M. Miller I’m talking about. And don’t worry, I’m not in love with Steve (not in that way, anyhow), but I am in love with the Song of Songs, a poem from the Bible, and Steve has let me help him polish his paraphrase of that book of the Bible. In the past I had taught an entire graduate course in the Song of Songs and was anxious to see Steve’s take on it. Not surprisingly, it is brilliant—and like the poem itself, just a tad shocking.
Before I ever knew anything more about Song of Songs than its title, I was touched by it in widely different ways. First, I was a bit shocked when I read a meditation by a Catholic Saint, Clare of Assisi, who thought of being loved in a physical way by Jesus, asking Jesus to hold her in his arms. How could such a pure woman, a cloistered virgin, even think such impure thoughts? Later, when I first read Song of Songs, I realized that she was quoting the Bible. Going to the other extreme, earlier, as a teenager I had read Oscar Wilde’s scandalous play Salome, a perverted take on the Bible story of the beheading of John the Baptist. In that somewhat scandalous play, Salome looks at the prophet lustfully, describing him in language that, I later recognized, echoed the language of Song of Songs. When I finally studied Song of Songs in graduate school, I realized that this magnificent love poem, with its bold sexual overtones, had been read in a multitude of different ways throughout the centuries.
Jews before the time of Jesus—and after—saw the Song of Songs as reflecting on the relationship of God and Israel. Early Christian readers saw it as reflecting the love of Jesus for his church, or sometimes as a passionate love affair between Christ and an individual Christian’s soul (the Latin word for soul, anima, is feminine). Some went so far as to identify the woman in the Song of Songs as Mary, the mother of Jesus! Commentators also believed that the book was written by Solomon (based on the first verse, which says that it is a song of Solomon), and also about Solomon, even though the two lovers see Solomon passing through, which excludes the possibility of his being one of the lovers. Later, interpreters saw the poem as a picture of a perfect marriage, even though there are passages that distinctly indicate that the couple was not married (See verse 8:1). Finally, most interpreters today hold up the Song of Songs as a celebration of the holiness of true love, a celebration of relationships.
However we read it, the Song of Songs is a work of beauty, music, and magic, a song that values love above everything else in the world. Its climax comes in verses 8:6–7 which speak of love itself as the strongest and most precious gift we have. And, yes, the Song of Songs is very sexual. But what better way to explore the greatest spiritual gift, love, than through an exploration of our most powerful physical urge, sexuality. Sexual passion is not love and love is not sexual passion, but both consume us with an intensity that has no equal. In the end, of course, it all comes down to the fact that God is love and we should love God with all the intensity we ever felt for a fellow human being and much, much more.
Steve has managed to pack all of this into his paraphrase of the Song of Songs and it has been a joy working on it with him. He riled me up but good, and I have spent the last weeks relishing the lush beauty of this ancient love song. Take a look at what Steve has done and I’m sure you will agree.
Steven David Grisetti
Nice job smoothing out some of those clunky metaphors, Steve. (“Thy two breasts are like two young roes that are twins.”)
It still cracks me up that Christians dance around this book like it’s the PG-13 section of the Bible. I even attended a church service in which the preacher apologized for preaching on it and preceded his talk by inviting easily offended parents to take their kids out of the sanctuary for half an hour. Seriously.
It’s definitely an interesting inclusion among the other holy writings. But then again, so is Ecclesiastes, a book that riffs on the meaninglessness of life.
Stephen M. Miller
Thanks Steve. I do anticipate some push back, once people actually start reading the paraphrased version of the Song of Songs. I tried to imagine my wife and I reading the lady and gent parts of the Song to each other, but all the very idea of it did was make me laugh. This Song seems laughably romantic…like talk you might expect to hear from teenagers headed to a honeymoon.