The article of the month

Is That in the Bible? by Father Anthony Giambrone, o.p.

Shall I Compare Thee to a Pomegranate?

The love poetry of the ancient Near East requires some getting used to. An old Sumerian chestnut like “The Honey-man,” for instance, does the honey thing well enough, but also takes some puzzling turns towards leafy vegetables: “The honey-man, the honey-man sweetens me ever…. He is lettuce planted by the water.” This is not exactly the world of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18. “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day…or to cabbage?” Other poems move in odd mineral directions. “Inanna picks the head-stones, puts them on her head,/ She picks the duru-lapis lazuli stones, puts them on her nape,/ She picks ribbons of gold, puts them in the hair of her head.” The game continues, quickly becoming an anatomy lesson: “She picks cypress and boxwood, the lovely wood, puts them on her navel,/ she picks a sweet honey-well, puts it about her loins”—and so on, evoking all manner of intimate corporal regions better passed over in polite company.

Besides vegetable gardens and anatomical sketches, there is clearly much erotic meaning in these ancient verses. Contemporary scholars have accordingly devised some remarkably raunchy readings and applied it all to the interpretation of the Song of Songs. The biblical book, we are told, is an entirely profane, erotic production. Anything more is extraneous, secondary eisegesis—“reading into” or imposing on the text a theological significance.

In truth, the resemblances between the scriptural Song and this corpus of ancient love poems can hardly be denied. Yet for just this reason it is vital not to lose sight of the proper context of these poems. “The Honey-man” was, in fact, a liturgical hymn sung by a lukur-priestess for a hieros-gamos: a sacred marriage rite in which the people, through the agency of their king, was mystically wed to the tutelary goddess. It was pagan church music, in other words, not the adolescent doggerel of a love-struck fool. The stony survey of Inanna’s body was similarly a ritual hymn. Inanna is the tutelary goddess and bride; the precious materials mapping her body describe the beauty of her idol’s image. The point here is simple: such love poetry is profoundly religious, and not “profane.” It is an idiom crafted to express how the divine is “wedded” to the people.

From this perspective it becomes much easier to understand the force of the traditional allegorical, or “symbolical,” reading of the Song. It is indeed a poem of the love, of the sacred marriage, joining YHWH to his people. What thus otherwise appears embarrassingly clumsy in the Song’s gestures of wooing—Your nose is like a tower of Lebanon (Sg 7:5) would work poorly on a woman of today, even from the mouth of the most dashing of suitors—begins to make more sense. The bride’s organic body in the Song maps onto the Promised Land; she is a fruitful pleasure garden, fertile and flowing with milk and honey and dotted with toponyms from Gilead to Carmel. I come to my garden, my sister, my bride…. I eat my honeycomb with my honey, I drink my milk (Sg 5:1). When the bridegroom’s body is described with an inventory of precious stones, by contrast, we immediately recognize the code for a divine form: His head is finest gold…. His arms are rounded gold, set with jewels. His body is ivory work, encrusted with sapphires (5:11-14).

The Song of Songs has not merely borrowed a pagan idiom, of course, but also profoundly, even brilliantly, transformed it. These theological reconfigurations only become intelligible, however, once we recognize the essentially theological way these love poems work; for they are more significant than the charming rhymes we know from a Shakespeare, a Browning, or a Burns. If God’s “Luve is like a red, red rose,” it is the rose of Sharon (Sg 2:1), the ravishing beauty of the Promised Land’s coastal plain.

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Father Anthony Giambrone, o.p., is a Dominican priest of the Province of Saint Joseph and professor of the New Testament at the École biblique de Jérusalem.