HSR Summaries: Section XV: Sexual Desire: Bodies, Bonding, and Boundaries in the Song of Songs
The Human Sexuality Report that came to Synod 2022 has been widely debated but seldom read. Its intimidating length and broad areas of discussion mean many have heard about it but few have dug into it for themselves. The debate at Synod centered almost exclusively on the issue of same-sex marriage, but the report is far broader than any single issue. In this series we want to give you an overview of the Human Sexuality Report in bite-sized pieces and offer pastoral implications for us to live into going into the future.
The Human Sexuality Report (HSR) ends as it begins: with scripture. Just as it laid its foundations in the scriptures, it ends there—only in a less familiar, less comfortable place: the Song of Songs. Song of Songs (SoS) is a book that through the centuries the church has not always known what to do with. It has often been seen as a metaphor for Christ’s relationship with the church, and even more recently used as a biblical erotica. As is often the case, the truth is somewhere in the middle, and the HSR helps to recover a more appropriate understanding of SoS by trying to draw the church back to a fuller understanding of the book. It does this through six subsections which will be summarized here.
Song of Songs helps us recover a theology of the body rooted in creation and resurrection theology
The church has long struggled with a dualistic notion of the body and soul. But the HSR makes the case that SoS helps us overcome that. “Created in God’s image, male and female, we are not just embodied souls but physical beings who will live forever in glorified bodies.” (pg. 141) When we see our body and soul as a God-created unit, it allows us to see sexual desire as a good thing. Not all passion is lust as the church has often thought. However, strong desire or passions can lead to sin much like many good things we have been given by God can be misused for sin. SoS, however, “unabashedly celebrates the physical nature of sexual love.” Our bodies were designed by God with five senses, all which SoS suggest are able to be used in a good way in an appropriate sexual encounter.
SoS approaches the physical sexual encounter as a gift from God and therefore to be received with joy in its proper place. It is also important to consider, according to the HSR, the physicality described in SoS. As the church we would do well to be aware of this and offer appropriate physical contact with those whom we are comfortable and who are comfortable with us such as hugs, handshakes, etc.
2. The poem addresses the intense longing we feel for a beloved when we are apart
SoS reminds us of the intense longing that may exist for those who desire to be in a sexual relationship but are not for a litany of reasons (divorce, loss, celibacy). This truth reminds the church to care for those who are in these situations with a special intentionality. The HSR suggests a willingness (maybe controversially) to discuss topics such as masturbation among other things to cultivate support and emotional intimacy amongst those in the church.
3. The song focuses on the uniqueness and value of the beloved one
SoS emphasizes the value and love of both members of the sexual union, constantly referring to one another as “my beloved” or “my love.” This is a confrontation with the idea that sex is simply about self-pleasure. Instead, as a gift of God, it is an opportunity to build a bond with one another, not simply consuming or objectifying one another.
4. The poetry highlights equity between female and male lovers
The HSR rightly highlights that SoS is written in the female’s voice at least as much as it is the man’s voice. This seems to be a way of highlighting the equality between the sexes which, of course, is affirmed through the entire witness of scripture. In the sexual encounter, “the woman chooses to give of herself. She is not given. ‘Let my beloved come to his garden, and eat its choicest fruits,’ she says.” (pg. 143) This refutes a consumeristic notion of sexuality or of conquest and domination. “Sexual intimacy will not be coerced or forced.” (pg. 143) Instead, “my own vineyard is mine to give.” (SoS 8:12)
5. Exclusivity in sexual love
In a culture that is obsessed with “hook ups” and pleasure, the SoS warns against license. “Do not arouse or awaken love until it so desires.” (SoS 3:5) The HSR argues rightly that the sexual union is meant for covenantal relationship, which is taught throughout SoS. Trust is built inside such a deep intimate union. The more love is established, the more the man and the woman give of themselves and receive each other’s love.
The HSR warns of the deep intimacy created through the sexual bond. “Love is as strong as death, its jealousy unyielding as the grave. It burns like blazing fire, like a mighty flame.” (SoS 8:6) Intimacy without the covenantal bond can lead to jealousy or even violence if there is betrayal in the relationship. This can happen with betrayal within a covenantal bond as well. However, without a commitment to each other in what Christians know as covenantal marriage, people get hurt and lives get ruined. Without the covenantal commitment, this possibility is increased. Therefore, SoS speaks firmly for exclusivity and covenantal commitment.
6. In the Song, God sings the intensity of God’s love for us
Section XV contains many beautiful parallels between the love of husband and wife and the love between God and his people. God longs for deep connection with us, his people; we are God’s inheritance, and he is ours (SoS 6:3). God seeks us, just as the beloved seeks his lover. He calls us to full intimacy and vulnerability with him, trusting his grace.
Many in history have read the SoS as a metaphor for God’s relationship with his people. Nowhere is this reading more clearly supported than when scripture calls the church the bride of Christ. SoS is then a deep expression of God’s love for us, his people. It is a call for us to act in love and fidelity toward him, as he acts with love and fidelity toward us, even sending his Son to die in our place to restore us to a right relationship with himself.