God is not a Gnostic

Seeing that my attention span was unusually short, even for me, during Thanksgiving week, I sorted through the piles of books I keep littered around the back seat of my car in search of something that could hold my attention for several days of vacation. I settled upon a book of erotic poetry.

I bet you didn’t see that one coming. Of course, if you knew me well you wouldn’t be too surprised to learn that I spent my Thanksgiving week meditating on such a thing. You may be disappointed to hear that it was a commentary on the Song of Solomon written by Tremper Longman, one of my favorite Old Testament scholars. I suppose it goes without saying that I enjoyed making my way through this book, and I had no trouble finishing it. In the process I was struck by a couple of realizations that I’d like to share:

First, I was floored by the intensity of sexuality in this book of the Bible. Once you get what these folks in the Song are saying, it’ll really get your blood going. Longman approaches the book with a presupposition that I find I can accept wholeheartedly: While both Jewish and Christian expositors have interpreted this book strictly allegorically from the time of the earliest surviving commentaries, it was originally written as an intimate love song—an ode to marital consummation. Because we Christians so enjoy the symbolism of Christ and His Bride woven into the fabric of marriage itself, we are quickly persuaded to jump to an entirely symbolic interpretation of this book of the Bible. But as Longman skillfully argues, there is nothing in the text of the Song itself which would suggest that it was written as anything other than a song about sexual enjoyment. Longman takes the view (and I find that I agree here as well) that this is a collection of love songs, not a linear story of one couple’s relationship. Once you get over the notion that this book can only be of value as an allegory about more “spiritual” things, the need to discover some narrative unity in this book recedes into the background.

As I began making my way through this book with that in mind, the eroticism of the text leapt off the page and grabbed my attention with force. Listen to some of these statements:

Until the day breaks and the shadows flee—turn, my lover, be like a gazelle or a young stag on the mountains of Bether.” (2:17)

Sounds like a pretty scene, right? Only there is no such place as “Bether.” Never was. So you have to look into the etymology of the word for insight. It turns out that the word “bether” means “to bisect,” so that she seems to be referring to a bisected mountain…you get where I’m going with this…but keep reading. In chapter four, after the man has finished praising her breasts as “twins of a gazelle,” he announces that he will go “to the mountain of myrrh and to the hills of frankincense” (4:6). To what exactly did I previously think he was referring here? I can’t remember anymore. I must have skimmed over it as so much flowery fluff and poetic puffery. Well, I doubt I’ll read it that way ever again.

It only gets more explicit from there. At the end of chapter four, our “young stag” unfolds a potpourri of garden images which teem over with alluring sights and smells as he describes the woman’s physical beauty. He tells her, “You are a garden fountain, a well of a living water, streaming down from Lebanon.” In case you haven’t caught up, he’s not limiting his admiring gaze to the woman’s upper half here. I’m willing to bet you’ve never had a Bible teacher of any stripe inform you that Ancient Near Eastern poets often employed such imagery when admiring a woman’s pelvic region. She responds to his advances thusly: “Let my lover come into his garden and eat its choice fruit” (4:16). The chorus of listeners exults in this passionate interchange and proclaims their approval with one voice: “Eat friends, drink! Be intoxicated, lovers!”(5:1). The next chapter only takes this bold revelry further on.

But I’ll stop now for you to regain your original color, and I’ll leave it to you to dig beyond the symbols and euphemisms into the intended meaning of the last two chapters of the Song of Songs. They’re pretty steamy, and Longman (who is an excellent Hebrew scholar) unpacks those references which the casual reader will miss until it becomes obvious that God wanted a book in the Holy Scriptures which openly celebrates sex! Which brings me to point number two:

We have a Bible that institutionalizes the enjoyment of sex! Do you realize how important that is? It’s no small thing at all. For a faith tradition so rooted in the transcendence of God, the otherness of God, a tribute to sex comes as a shock to the system for those with the nerve to look straight on without averting their eyes. It’s downright embarrassing! If God has a sense of humor (and I’m certain He does) then one of His greatest laughs must have come from including erotic poetry in the scriptural canon of the same religion that brought you monks, nuns, and a celibate priesthood!

Now, lest you think I am picking on only Catholics here, let this also be a check for us Protestants against our own inherent asceticism and Gnostic separation of that which is “spiritual” from that which is not. This danger becomes particularly acute if, like me, you run in circles that stress a difference between “soul” and “spirit.” Sometimes in our zeal we talk as if a human being can be neatly split up into separate and mutually exclusive substances; but that kind of compartmental thinking would sound strange in the ears of the authors of the Bible.

Let us recall how in the Garden of Eden the man and the woman were naked and felt no shame. Their enjoyment of one another was the product of God’s decree that they “be fruitful and multiply.” It was only after they “had their eyes opened” that they saw themselves differently. To this day, only human beings (particularly civilized human beings) show shame when it comes to sex. Consequently, the forbiddenness of this act fuels a trillion-dollar entertainment industry. But look underneath this fixation on sexuality and see that something good is drawing them towards perhaps the most beautiful picture of something eternal that this world has ever seen.

Yes, marriage (and certainly the marriage bed) pictures the relationship between Christ and the Church. But in our effort to see the thing signified we should not miss the enjoyment of the sign itself. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go do some gardening…


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9 Responses to “God is not a Gnostic”

  1. Anonymous Says:


  2. Jeremy Uriz Says:

    Longman… haha!
    On a more serious note, I hear what you’re saying and agree with you wholehearedly.

  3. Anonymous Says:

    I’m totally blushing.
    And gaping.
    And laughing.
    And agreeing.
    But only with squirms of embarrasment.

    I’m a little shocked at you, Neil! But I think you’re right on.

    Forget I ever said that.

    Signed- Anonymous’ wife.

  4. Neil Says:

    Wow! The great Anonymous! The most quotable man who ever lived! Together with his wife (HA! That’s cute)! Nobody has more insight than ol’ whats-his-name. I’m honored to have his comments.

    How confused those poor Pharisees must have been as they studied that Song. Somehow they were convinced it can’t be about what it seems to be about. Then there was Origen, who castrated himself for fear of enjoying his physical life too much. Incidentally, he became so obsessed with this book that he wrote like ten volumes on it, and dozens of sermons. I guess you can tell what we suppress the most by watching what we obsess over 🙂

  5. Herobill Says:

    Hey, Neil. Good post with a terrific point hiding in there somewhere! Really. B+ 🙂

    Does “gnostic” mean someone who doesn’t like sex? If so, you’re obviously not one, then, eh? 🙂

    Skyrockets in flight! Woooah…

  6. mba Says:

    Well, this points me back to the fact that the physical reality is very much a picture of a lord exploding with life!

  7. Anonymous Says:

    Curious, does April know about this?

  8. Jada's Gigi Says:

    Sounds like your Thanksgiving holiday went well…..very well indeed. 🙂

  9. Anonymous Says:

    Wow. I’ve been saying this for years and everyone was praying for me to be delivered. 😛

    Love your blog, and your site.

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