Hair like flock of goats and kisses sweeter than wine

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, February 9, 2011

So, you women out there among my coffee companions, how would you feel if you received a Valentine card with this inscription?

“Behold, thou art fair, my love.
Thy hair is as a flock of goats,
Thy teeth are like a flock of sheep.”

Or you guys, how would you feel if you received a Valentine with these words?

“Your belly is as bright ivory overlaid with sapphires.
Your legs are as pillars of marble, set upon sockets of fine gold.”

Perhaps you might find these words more desirable:

“Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth:
For thy love is better than wine.”

These lines may sound familiar. They’re from the ancient love poem known variously as Song of Songs or Song of Solomon, an amazing piece of writing contained in the Hebrew Bible (also known as the Old Testament).

I say amazing, because it is the only example of sustained explicitly erotic writing in the entire Bible.

Its eight short chapters have long been associated with King Solomon, who had a flair for attracting women. Indeed, he had way more ladies in his life than James Bond had girls – 700 wives and 300 concubines, they say.

The setting for the poem – or collection of poems – features a romantic dialogue between a shepherd and his rustic lover. Its metaphors have an earthiness to them: the beauty of the fields in bloom, the sight of sheep and goats, the texture of honey and milk, the scent of spices and myrrh.

And birds and bucks. “Behold, thou art fair, my love; behold, thou art fair; thou hast doves’ eyes,” he says to her. “My beloved is like a roe or a young hart,” she says of him.

These two lovers can’t keep their eyes off each other, so smitten are they. Head to toe and back again, they praise each other’s physical attributes and wind up in an embrace, treasuring the taste of each other’s lips.

Although a book of the Bible, the poem makes no mention of God or of anything vaguely resembling a more traditional image of religion. Ancient rabbis debated whether it should even be included in the canon – or list – of sacred writings because of this and its intimate descriptions. Yet the famous Rabbi Akiva, reflecting on its inclusion among the sacred Scriptures, declared: “All the writings are holy, but Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies.”

Down through the ages, many have interpreted the poem as an allegory, a picture of God’s love for His people and their love for Him.

But at the most basic level, it is truly a celebration of creaturely, passionate, sensuous love. His kisses are sweeter than wine, and his cologne really turns her on. She is the apple of his eye, a lily among the thorns.

The elegant language of the King James Version of the Bible, translated in 1611, expresses the lovers’ longings with memorable phrases:

“He brought me to the banqueting house, and his banner over me was love,” she says.

“Set me as a seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm,” he says.

For gaining an understanding of the text in more modern wording, however, I’ve come to appreciate Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures, a recent translation by the Jewish Publication Society. Take, for example, this excerpt from chapter 4, where he says to her:

“You have captured my heart,
My own, my bride,
You have captured my heart
With one [glance] of your eyes,
With one coil of your necklace.
How sweet is your love,
My own, my bride!
How much more delightful your love than wine,
Your ointments more fragrant
Than any spice!
Sweetness drops from your lips, O bride;
Honey and milk
Are under your tongue;
And the scent of your robes
Is like the scent of Lebanon.”

Many years ago I attended the wedding of two of our coffee companions. The preacher who tied the knot fashioned his remarks around this wonderful poem, and concluded by speaking to the bride and groom just one word: “Enjoy!”

Happy Valentine’s Day, dear readers. Or, as Song of Songs puts it, “Eat, lovers, and drink: Drink deep of love.”

© 2011 Warren Harbeck

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