Prior to the Song of Songs, women’s bodies are mainly described in terms of function. Eve is the “mother of the living”; wombs are for giving children; breasts are for nursing. Rules of uncleanness for women focus on childbirth and menstruation, again relating the woman’s body to conception, gestation, and birth. Women’s bodies are of interest mainly because they give new life.
Everything seems to change in the Song. Solomon revels in the woman’s body as an object of artistic delight and erotic desire. Breasts are not for nursing babies but are “clusters of the vine” and the clusters of a palm tree (7:7-8). The bride’s belly is like a heap of wheat (7:2), the emphasis being on the fact that she is delicious to her lover when he comes to the garden to feast on her (5:1).
Have we left all interest in procreation and children behind? Not exactly.
It seems instead that the lover himself seeks new life, new energy and liveliness, by enjoying the body of his beloved. She is like a palm tree or a vine – that is, as Keel suggests, she is a tree of life. Her love is like wine (4:10; 5:1), like milk and honey (4:11; 5:1), which, as we know from the stories of Samson and Jonathan, refreshes and brightens the eyes. Contact with the bride, it appears, is like a new birth for the lover, a return to childhood vigor and self-forgetful delight. It is not a Freudian return to the womb, but it’s a return to childlikeness.
This is why, it seems, the Bible shows us sexual love as a response to death. Isaac is comforted after his mother’s death when the servant returns with Rebekah, and Judah, less honorably, seeks renewal after his wife’s death by visiting a prostitute. This is not, or not primarily, about children as a blow against devouring death. It’s more that Isaac died with his mother, and receives new life from his wife.
This works typologically as well, though we have to shift registers. The bride of the Song is the church, one flesh with her Husband, and it’s through contact with that bride – through the refreshing water of her garden, and through drinking of the wine she offers and eating from the wheat she brings – that we are reborn and become as little children.
posted by Peter J. Leithart on Wednesday, February 24, 2010 at 1:22 pm
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