The Apostle Paul is both maligned by feminists as a misogynist extraordinaire and hailed by traditionalists as a champion of hard-and-fast gender roles.  Both of these interpretations of the Apostle to the Gentiles rest on but a handful of hotly disputed and, as we will see, highly questionable texts.  On the other hand, there are many who would suggest that Paul had a much more egalitarian approach to matters of gender than we have heretofore realized. Indeed, it has been suggested that in Paul feminists should find an apostolic ally rather than an adversary.  Over the next few weeks, I will try to work through these nettlesome issues but, as we will see, seriously raising the question of Paul’s stance on gender necessarily raises questions about the very character of the Bible, the nature of humanity and the enterprise of theology, and these questions, in turn, raise further questions still.  Like the Mandelbrot Set, the closer we examine the matter, the more complexity we will discover.

In Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth we read the following:

As in all the churches of the saints, 34 the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. 35 If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church. (1 Corinthians 14:33b-35)

These verses have been loudly and triumphalistically trumpeted by male chauvinists and equally loudly and roundly denounced by feminists.  However, while it may at first appear perfectly clear that Paul here places a universal gag order on women within churches and that readers need only to decide whether to follow or to part with Paul on this matter, I would suggest that the attentive reader of his letter should, at this point, be quite puzzled.  For in chapter 11 of the same letter Paul gives women some guidelines concerning their attire precisely for times when they speak in the church:

Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, 5but every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head- it is the same as if her head were shaven. (1 Corinthians 11:4-5)

This apparent inconsistency within the letter cries out for an explanation, and one isn’t far to find.

With respect to 14:34-35, the verses demanding women’s silence in church, several ancient manuscripts of the letter set the verses at the very end of the chapter, after verse 40, rather than in the place they are normally thought to belong (D F G 88* Ambrosiaster Sedulius Scotus).  The 6th-century Codex Fuldensis, which contains a Latin translation of the New Testament, has a scribal siglum following verse 33 directing readers to the lower margin of the page where the text of verses 36-40 is provided, perhaps indicating that they are not to be read in church as part of the lectionary.  These irregularities with the placement of these verses have led many scholars, not least Gordon Fee, to conclude that they were not originally in the letter and are not authentically Pauline.

In addition to the inconsistency between chapters 11 and 14 and the textual considerations, Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza has shown that women clearly played an active role in Paul’s mission and churches (Acts 18:18-28; Rom 16:1-2, 3-4, 7; Phil 4:2-3) and most likely participated in the preaching and teaching.  Finally, as Richard Hays points out, nowhere else in 1 Corinthians does Paul appeal to the universal practice of “the churches” (a phrase that smacks of late-1st, early-2nd century proto-catholicism) and “the unqualified appeal to ‘the Law’…is–to say the least–uncharacteristic of Paul’s way of appealing to Scripture as a source of behavioral norms.”

scribeIn short, it seems highly unlikely that verses 34-35 and their mandate for the hushing of women were actually written by Paul.  As Hays and others have suggested, in all likelihood, these verses were added by scribes/interpreters in the 2nd or 3rd century in order to square 1 Corinthians with the teaching of 1 Timothy 2:11-12.

And at this point some of you will be thinking, “Yeah, what about 1 Timothy 2?  Didn’t Paul write that?  Can’t we say, based on that text alone, that Paul required the silence of women in church?”  The text in question reads:

Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve; 14 and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. 15 Yet she will be saved through childbearing- if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control. (1 Timothy 2:11-15)

Here, it would seem, is a clear instance of Paul demanding the universal silencing of women within the churches.  Arguments suggesting that the passage addresses only a unique, local situation and does not have the church at large in view are ultimately unpersuasive.  The commands of verses 11-12 are justified by appeals to the created order (v. 13) and the events within the Garden of Eden (v. 14), not to the local circumstances of Timothy’s church.  So clearly here Paul calls for the ecclesiastical cowing of women.

That is, of course, if Paul wrote 1 Timothy.  And that’s quite a big ‘if’.  The evidence stacked against Paul’s authorship of 1 Timothy and the other Pastoral Epistles is considerable.  Some would say it is nigh unto insurmountable.  Kenton Sparks helpfully summarizes the lines of evidence as follows:

  1. We know from 2 Thess 2:2 and from numerous extant examples (3 Corinthians; Epistle to the Laodiceans; Letters to Seneca) that early Christians composed letters in Paul’s name.
  2. Furthermore, in the pastoral epistles, of which 1 Timothy is one, terms like “faith,” “truth” and “savior” take on senses unattested in Paul’s undisputed letters.  In other words, the vocabulary is uncharacteristic of Paul.
  3. P46, a collection of Paul’s letters dating to ca. 200 CE, omits the Pastorals and Tatian (c. 120-180 CE) partially rejects them.
  4. The Pastorals evince a hierarchical church structure unattested in Paul’s undisputed epistles and more characteristic of second generation Christianity.

All of this suggests that the Pastoral Epistles, including 1 Timothy, are probably pseudonymous letters composed several decades after Paul’s death.  There, are of course, counter arguments, but they tend to be quite weak.  Donald Guthrie is just flat wrong to suggest that we have no examples of pseudo-Pauline letters (see 1 above) and Carson, Moo and Morris are wrong to suggest that the Church never accepted such pseudonymous letters (the Epistle to the Laodiceans is a good example.  Whether Churches accepted pseudonymous letters knowingly is another matter).  At the end of the day, the weight of evidence suggests that the Apostle Paul did not write 1 Timothy.

So, what are we to make of this?  First, it seems that the key texts used for barring women from preaching, teaching and holding leadership positions within the Church have turned out not to be authentically Pauline.  Allegations against Paul of being misogynistic may need to be dropped.  Allegations against female pastors of being un-biblical may need to be dropped as well.  Second, it is clear from the foregoing discussion that rethinking Paul’s stance on women will have far reaching implications.  Even an initial foray into this question necessarily raises questions about the very nature of Scripture.  What are we to make of the problematic passing down of the Bible, wherein scribes occasionally edited and glossed over difficult passages?  How are we to think about the Bible’s inclusion of pseudonymous texts?  Are such texts any less authoritative?  If not, why not?  If so, how so?  But we have only scratched the surface of our initial question and I suspect that seriously rethinking Paul on gender will likely lead us to rethink just about everything.

"And her master rose up in the morning, and when he opened the doors of the house and went out to go on his way, behold, there was his concubine lying at the door..." (Judges 19:27)

"And her master rose up in the morning, and when he opened the doors of the house and went out to go on his way, behold, there was his concubine lying at the door..." (Judges 19:27)

Several months ago I was asked to teach a Sunday school on the last three chapters of the Book of Judges.  The Sunday school series for the most part had been standard evangelical, moralistic fare, looking to Gideon as an example for doubters and Samson as some sort of hero.  But Judges 19-21 is, to say the least, not particularly amenable to such moralistic readings.  Not many of us struggle with turning out our concubines to be gang-raped to death by angry mobs, or with dismembering their corpses and then FedExing their limbs to our relatives (chap 19).  At least we don’t on a regular basis.  And I may be wrong, but I doubt that many of us would endorse the “ambush, kidnap and force into marriage” approach to courtship (chap 21).  In short, it is probably unwise to treat Judges as a trove of tales about virtue and role models.

How, then, should we read Judges?  I would suggest that the Book of Judges should be read Messianically.  That is to say, the Book of Judges, as we now have it, points forward to the Messiah as the hope of Israel.

The Book of Judges is comprised of a bunch of stories that probably circulated orally and independently in Israelite society for quite some time before being put to writing and combined into a single narrative.  While the Book itself probably underwent many editions over the years, two editions of the Book of Judges are both easily identified and very important for understanding the book.

The first clue as to the existence and date of an earlier edition of the Book is provided by the phrase, “so the Jebusites have dwelt with the Benjaminites in Jerusalem to this day (hZ<)h; ~AYðh; d[;Þ)” (1:21b).  David routed the Jebusites from Jerusalem in 1003 BCE (see 2 Sam 5:6-9) and so, naturally, Judges 1:21b must have been written before that event.

This first edition is clearly a piece of Davidic propaganda that dates to the period when David was King only of the South and Ish-Bosheth, the son of Saul, ruled over the northern tribes in Ephraim (1010-1003 BCE) and when both kings had ambitions of controlling all of Israel.  Judges repeatedly evinces a pro-Judah (David’s tribe), anti-Benjamin (Saul and Ish-Bosheth’s tribe) polemic that ony makes sense within a context wherein both of these two houses were vying for control of Israel.  Some highlights of the Book’s pro-Judah/David and anti-Benjamin/Saul/Ish-Bosheth bias are as follows:

  • 1:1-2, The Lord specifically chooses Judah to lead the Israelite conquest of the land.
  • 1:1-34, Of the Twelve tribes, Judah alone succeeds in routing the people of the land (with the exception of the plain, for which the Book of Judges gives them an excuse!).
  • 1:21, The tribe of Benjamin’s failure to drive out the land’s inhabitants, namely the Jebusites (whom David would succeed in conquering.  Benjamin fails to take Jerusalem, a city which Judah had already (!?) captured, struck with the sword and put to the torch (1:8).
  • 3:7-11, The first judge treated in the Book is Othniel, a man from the tribe of Judah, and the report concerning him is completely benign.  His story is immediately followed by one of Ehud, 3:12-30, a left-handed Benjaminite. “Benjamin” means “son of the right hand.”  In the Ancient Near East being left-handed was highly stigmatized.  Benjamin assassinates the morbidly-obese king Eglon of Moab (whose name means “calf” or “heifer”) in the bathroom, spilling his excrement everywhere, and then apparently makes his getaway via the toilet.
  • 19:22-30, The Book of Judges narrates the decline of Israel the climax of which is the crime of the Benjaminite city of Gibeah (Saul’s hometown, 1 Sam 10:26).  The implication of the grotesque narrative is that the Gibeanites have turned out to be worse than foreigners (see 19:12).  In fact, Gibeah is portrayed as a new Sodom (compare with Gen 19).
  • 20:18, When the other eleven Israelite tribes go to war against errant Benjamin the Lord specifically chooses Judah to lead them just as He chose Judah to lead the conquest of the land in 1:1-2.
  • 20:48; 21:10-12, The force used against the Benjaminites resembles that which was normally reserved for the peoples that Israel was disinheriting (see Deut 7:1-2; Josh 6:15-21; 10:40, etc.).

The weight of this evidence makes it almost certain that the earliest edition of the Book of Judges was a piece of Davidic propaganda from the time when the Saul’s Benjaminite dynasty still constituted a threat.  That leaves us with a date somewhere between 1010-1003 BCE.

KingDavidWithin the context of this first edition, the Book’s four-fold refrain, “In those days there was no king in Israel,” (17:6; 18:1; 19:1; 21:25) should be understood as initially pointing to a specifically Judahite king,  namely David, as the solution to Israel’s plight.  The Book of Judges is structured by a cyclical narrative pattern: Israel apostasizes -> Israel is punished by YHWH with a military defeat and subjugation -> Israel is distressed -> YHWH raises up a judge who rescues Israel -> The judge dies -> Israel apostasizes again….  With each cycle the judges become less respectable and the narrative becomes increasingly grotesque, such that we should read the Book as depicting Israel as being in a downward spiral that hits rock bottom in deplorable behavior of the Benjaminites relayed in chapters 19-21.  Within this schema, Israel’s problem is that “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (17:6; 21:25).  The unsubtle implication of the Book is that Benjamin is very much a part of that problem and that a Judahite king, David is the answer.

The existence of a second (or, at any rate, later) edition of the Book of Judges becomes apparent in chapter 18, verse 30 which reads, “The Danites set up the sculptured image for themselves; and Jonathan son of Gershom son of Manasseh, and his descendants, served as priests to the Danite tribe until the land went into exile.”  This text refers to the capture of the land and expulsion of the people of Israel by the Assyrians in 722 BCE, nearly three centuries after the time of David (see 2 Kings 17:6).  The second edition of the Book of Judges must have been written after that event and in all probability post-dates the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BCE and the beginning of the Babylonian exile.

In the Exile the unthinkable had happened: the Davidic dynasty was more or less dethroned.  It seemed as though YHWH’s promises to David had failed (2 Sam 7).  During this period the Book of Judges was incorporated into a larger narrative stretching from Deuteronomy through 2Kings that scholars call, naturally enough, the Deuteronomistic History.  In this larger narrative the downward spiral of Israel resumes with the sin of Solomon, David’s heir, leading to the splitting of the Kingdom into two, the general apostasy of Israel’s kings (with some notable exceptions, such as Hezekiah and Josiah) and finally to the manifestation of YHWH’s wrath towards His people in the Assyrian and Babylonian exiles.

pantokrator3Despite the abysmal failure of the dynasty, exiled Israel, or, more specifically, the Judeans, still looked to members of the Davidic line as providing glimmers of hope for a brighter future (see 2Kings 25:27-30; Isa 9:1-7; Zech 4, etc.).  It is, I suggest, in this context of messianic hope that the second edition of the Book of Judges, now incorporated into the grand narrative of the Deuteronomistic History, should be read.  In this context the phrase “In those days there was no king in Israel” takes on deep and profound notes of messianic hope, pointing still to David but pointing also through  and beyond David to his long-awaited heir who would one day rescue captive Israel.

Thus, Christians need not try to find a moral in the disturbing stories of Judges 19-21.  Rather, with the aid of eschatological hindsight, Christians can find there something far better: their Savior.

The Atheneum Portrait by Gilbert Stuart, 1796

The Atheneum Portrait by Gilbert Stuart, 1796

The Reverend James Abercrombie, the assistant at Christ Church in Philadelphia, once preached a rather heated sermon against the “unhappy tendency of…those in elevated stations who invariably turned their backs upon the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.”  Though Abercrombie did not name names, then President George Washington, who was in the congregation that day, took the message to be aimed directly at him and thought it “a very just reproof.”  Washington’s custom had long been to excuse himself from church when it came time to partake of the sacraments and he now realized that doing so was deeply offensive to many.  Thus, Washington resolved from then on to skip church on Sacrament Sundays altogether.  (Holmes, pp. 63-4)

So, no, Washington was not an evangelical Christian.  Though he never, like Thomas Jefferson, went so far as to take scissors to the Bible, his faith was clearly a predictable sort of Deism.  In his letters to churches, for instance, he wrote in typical Deist-speak, variously referring to “Providence,” “the Deity,” “the Grand Architect,” and the like, but never to, say, the divinity of Jesus or the Holy Spirit.

Likewise, James Madison abandoned orthodox Christianity for Deism while in his twenties and John Adams was a Unitarian bordering on Deism who denied the existence of the Trinity and the divinity of Christ.  There were, of course, sincere orthodox Christians amongst the Founding Fathers, like Patrick Henry (who, however, sharply opposed ratifying the Constitution) and Samuel Adams (who historically was much better at brewing trouble than beer).  But orthodox Christians were by no means either the most numerous nor the most prominent members of the Founders.

Quickly surveying the faiths of the Founding Fathers, one cannot help but wonder how anyone ever got the idea that America is or ever was a fundamentally Christian nation.  Perhaps it is because we tend to associate the colonials of our land with the deeply Protestant Pilgrims, in celebration of whose first harvest we glut ourselves each November.  But, of course, we forget that Jamestown, a purely commercial colony, had been established several years before the Pilgrims sought religious refuge on these shores.  We also forget that the Puritanism of the Pilgrims in Massachusetts was a witch-burning, Baptist-beating, Quaker-branding form of Christianity, far removed from the religiously tolerant spirit of the Founding Fathers.

And if we insist on the silly Sarah Palin-esque notion of there being or having been a “real America,” why should Puritan Massachusetts be the paradigm?  What of Anglican Virginia or (at least initially) Roman Catholic Maryland?  Why not the religiously neutral, riff-raff populated Georgia or Quaker Pennsylvania?  At any rate, the Founding Fathers ultimately modelled our country on Roger Williams’s scandalously religiously tolerant Rhode Island (or “Rogue’s Island” as it was popularly called) by refusing to establish any church in the Constitution and by insuring religious liberty to all in the Bill of Rights, be they Methodist, Morman, or Muslim, Sikh, Southern Baptist or Secular Humanist.  In short, the Christian Right’s rhetoric of America being a “Christian nation” is, historically speaking, just plain nonsense.  

decline and fall of christian americaAnd, fortunately, the “Christian America” folks seem to have quieted down as of late, the wind having been taken out their sails.  An emerging Christian Left has taken away their monopoly on the language of faith and values.  An heir to the late Jerry Falwell has yet to emerge.  The Bush administration policies such as waging a war of choice on Iraq, waterboarding, and imprisoning men for years without trial have become increasingly difficult to justify theologically.  And President Obama has still inexplicably not yet come out of the closet as an undercover al-Qaeda operative, a secret Muslim or the Antichrist. 

The net result seems to be that James Dobson and Focus on the Family have gotten back to focusing on the family instead of on public policy, thank God.  Hopefully in this moment of silence members of the Christian Right are doing some serious soul searching and I would like to recommend to all of us the following theses for consideration:

  1. Our Nation was born out of a political experiment of the Enlightenment and, as such, is structured by presuppositions that may or may not cohere with Christianity. 
  2. American Christians should listen to the concerns of fellow Christians elsewhere in the world (nearly all of whom opposed the invasion of Iraq). 
  3. Church and State are separate for a reason.  The same anti-establishment clause that protected the rights of Baptists and other dissenters in the 18th century protects the rights of agnostics, atheists and liberal mainline Christians in our own.
  4. American society has from its inception been pluralistic and the Founding Fathers designed our government so as to protect that pluralism.
  5. If marriage is a sacred institution, then it is not the State’s place to either define or regulate it.  Constitutionally speaking, questions about who can marry whom must be decided by faith communities for themselves.
  6. War, capital punishment, health care and poverty are as much life issues as abortion and stem cell research.
  7. In many countries, Christianity is associated with Socialism rather than neo-Conservative Republicanism.  In short, the supposed connection between the Bible and, say, the theory of “trickle-down economics” are far from clear.
  8. It is the international, transcultural, catholic Church and not the United States of America that constitutes God’s chosen people and holy nation (1 Peter 2:9), and the agendas of these two nations (in which I hold dual-citizenship!) can be and often are at cross-purposes with each other.  We all need to think long and hard about where our ultimate loyalties really lie.

The following Gospel texts are from the conclusions of Jesus’ Parable of the Wicked Tenants.  Compare them and ask yourself the question, Who said “He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others”?

Matthew 21:39-41  “… 39 And they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.  40 When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?”  41 They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.”

Mark 12:1-11  “…8 And they took him and killed him and threw him out of the vineyard.  9 What will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others.  10 Have you not read this Scripture: “‘ The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone;  11 this was he Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?”

Luke 20:9-16   “…15 And they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them?  16 He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others.” When they heard this, they said, “Surely not!”

According to Matthew’s Gospel the crowd says it and according to Mark and Luke Jesus does.  In addition to that variation, the careful reader notices others as well.  Christians often perceive these variations as threatening the reliability of the Bible, but 4evangelists-smperhaps they need not be so.

For some time now the so-called (now quite old) New Quest for the Historical Jesus and many figures within the Jesus Seminar have argued that the Gospels relay sayings and stories that were grossly distorted through a sort of “telephone game” mode of transmission.  Supposedly, with each communication of a story about or saying of Jesus from one community to another the story underwent change, such that within a few re-tellings the story or saying being told hardly resembles what Jesus really said or did.  Against this thesis James D.G. Dunn and Richard Bauckham have both recently proposed that the discrepancies amongst the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) evince a pattern that suggests that they derive largely from well-controlled, orally transmitted testimony and, at least according to Bauckham, largely eyewitness testimony at that.  The upshot of of this thesis, if it is correct, is that, whatever the discrepancies may mean for our idea of Biblical inspiration, they can indicate that the Gospels’ portraits of Jesus is a generally reliable one.

Bauckham’s thesis is the bolder one.  He draws on the work of Kenneth Bailey who outlines several ways in which traditions are passed along orally:

  • informal uncontrolled oral tradition or “rumor tradition,” which is basically what one sees enacted in the “telephone game” and in high-school gossip.  Here stories and sayings are extremely vulnerable to gross distortion and exaggeration.
  • informal controlled oral tradition, which is when a community constrains the amount and the sort of variation that can be introduced in a given re-telling of a story, saying or tradition.  Here stories can be subject to creative liberties within certain parameters, but will generally retain their integrity over time.
  • formal controlled oral tradition, which is when officially designated authorities constrain the sort and amount of variation that can be introduced into the re-telling of  a story, saying or tradition.

Whereas Bailey argued only that the Synoptic Gospels record informal controlled oral tradition, Richard Bauckham does him one better and argues that the Synoptics were written while eyewitnesses to the events surrounding Jesus still lived and that they authoritatively constrained the transmission of stories about and sayings of Jesus within the early Church.  Therefore, in the Synoptics give us a cocktail of both formal and informal controlled tradition.  Thus, the variations between the Synoptic Gospels should give evidence of being products of the vicissitudes of individual and cultural memory.  On this hypothesis, a discrepancy between the Gospels (such as, Who exactly said what?–precisely the sort of thing most vulnerable to individual memory), paradoxically, can actually count in favor of the Gospels’ general historical trustworthiness

I would suspect that to the degree that Jesus (rather than an inerrant Bible) occupies the center of our faith, the work of scholars such as Dunn and Bauckham (and N.T. Wright and Fr. John Meyer and many others, for that matter) will be encouraging to classically orthodox Christians.

A fragment of the LXX text of Exodus from the 4th c. CE

A fragment of the LXX text of Exodus from the 4th c. CE

If one were to compare the account of the building of the Tabernacle (Exod 35-40) preserved in the Septuagint (aka, LXX; a Greek translation of the Torah dating to the 3rd c. BCE) with that preserved in the standard Hebrew Masoretic Text (MT) that underlies our English Bibles, or with that of the Samaritan Pentateuch, one would observe that the Septuagint version is significantly shorter and parts of it have a different arrangement.  In the LXX version of Exod 35-40 the following verses are missing:

  • 35:8, 18
  • 40:7-8, 11, 28, 31-32.
  • 36:10-33
  • 37:4, 11-12, 14, 20, 22, 24-28
  • 38:2, 5-7
  • 39:34, 39
  • The variations between the texts are too extensive to be explained away as mere scribal errors.  The sort of gross scribal incompetence necessary to produce this degree of textual variation can scarcely be imagined.  No, the variations most likely indicate that the translators of the LXX were working with a Hebrew text very different from the MT

    What that means is that well into the 3rd century BCE the text of at least this section of the Torah (or the Pentateuch) was not settled and was possibly still developing even then.  This evidence suggests, at least to my mind, that Julius Wellhausen may have been on the right track in thinking that the segments of the Pentateuch that scholars call the “Priestly material,” or “P” for short (of which Exod 35-40 is part) largely dates to the days of the Second Temple.  That is to say, we have in the LXX version of Exodus concrete evidence of the Pentateuch’s formation stretching well into the days of the Babylonian Exile and beyond.  Whether or not the development of the Priestly material began in the days of Moses, it was clearly still evolving for many, many centuries after.

    Anna Ruth Henriques,  Song of Songs- Verse III, 1993-94 on wood

    Anna Ruth Henriques, Song of Songs- Verse III, 1993-94 on wood

    When I was in college we worked through Tommy Nelson’s notoriously eisegetical series on the Song of Solomon (or better, ‘Song of Songs,’ ~yrIßyVih; ryviî).  The series construes the Song of Songs as being a poetic manual for “courtship” and takes some rather breathtaking liberties with the text.  It has always struck me as odd that evangelical ministers who are deeply concerned about chastity would recommend a book as risqué as the Song of Songs to single college students to guide their romantic lives.  The Rabbis forbade the young and immature to read it precisely because of the book’s intense prima facie eroticism. 

    Leaving aside questions of whether the Song should be read as a unified story or as an anthology, as genuine erotic poetry or as an allegory, there is one verse in particular that has always stuck out to me when I think about my old college Bible-study: chapter 6, verse 8.  In Hebrew the verse reads,


     rP”)s.mi !yaeî tAmßl'[]w: ~yvi_g>l;yPi( ~ynIßmov.W tAkêl’M. ‘hM’he’ ~yViîvi

     Now, a word of caution: if you do not read Hebrew and have looked the verse up in an English translation, there is one word that is consistently ignored in translations: the plural third person pronoun, ‘hM’he’, which is usually translated “they,” “these.”  English translations typically mute the pronoun, rendering the first phrase of the verse, “There are sixty queens…” (e.g., ESV, KJV, NRSV, TNK).  But, if one gives the pronoun it’s due weight, the verse reads, “There are these sixty queens…” or even “These are sixty queens….”  Read this way, it would seem that the verse has a specific group of women in view.  Because this particular group of women is composed of queens, concubines and damsels (tAmßl'[]w:, not “virgins”!) most likely what we have here is a harem.

    One of the odd things about the pronoun in this verse is that it is masculine, making its fit with its feminine referents a bit awkward.  But the reason for this, I would suggest, becomes clear when one reads the next verse:


     ayhiÞ hr”îB’ HM’êail. ‘ayhi tx;îa; ytiêM’t; ytiän”Ay ‘ayhi tx;îa;

    `h’Wl)l.h;y>w:) ~yviÞg>l;ypi(W tAkïl’m. h’WrêV.a;y>w:) ‘tAnb’ h’WaÜr” HT’_d>l;Ay*l..     

    Only one is my dove, My perfect one, The only one of her mother, The delight of her who bore her. Maidens see and acclaim her; Queens and concubines, and praise her. (JPS Tanakh)


     Here the pronouns become the singular feminine ‘ayhi and they all refer to the speaker’s beloved.  More strikingly the verbs describing the actions of the maidens, queens and concubines are all given masculine conjugations.  The pattern of the pronouns and conjugations paint a pretty clear picture.  The speaker is striking a stark contrast between his harem and his beloved.  So great is her perfection, her ideal beauty that the very femininity of other women is diminished.  In her presence, other women seem a bit mannish, as it were.

     In short, the speaker uses his harem as a foil for the ideal femininity of his beloved (not a particularly flattering role).  But, the fact remains: he has a harem!  Of course, this observation should come as no surprise to readers who identify the male voice in the Song with that of Solomon, who famously had 700 wives and 300 concubines from various and sundry countries (1 Kings 11:1-3; cf. 2 Chr 9:7).  Even if the speaker is not identified with Solomon, he does seem to be royalty (6:12) and in the Ancient Near East with royalty comes polygamy.
    Whether this observation surprises you or not, the point is that it seriously problematizes any attempt to straightforwardly use the Song as a handbook for Christian dating or marriage.  Again, we run up against a massive divide between the context of the text, where polygamy, especially amongst kings, was a given, and our own context, where polygamy is anathema.  All too often readers, especially evangelical readers, make a quantum hermeneutical leap over this gap without ever realizing what exactly it is that they are doing.
    To clarify the matter, we have in the male protaganist of the Song, not a single young man on the prowl, but rather a multiply-married man with many mistresses on the side who has fallen head over heels for another woman.  Of course, in an Ancient Near Eastern context, this situation poses no problem at all.  But in modern America any attempt to straightforwardly model one’s love life on the Song is likely to get one thrown in jail or worse.   So what then are we to do with the Song?  If the Song is not for providing plain and simple dating advice, what in the world is it for?
    To begin answering that question we must first pose another, namely, What is any song for?  In my humble opinion, songs are for inspiring.  They may do any number of other things as well, but inspiration, I think, is their base function.  The quality of a song is judged not by whether it is true or false, whether it is authoritative or whether it alters social reality, but, rather, by whether or not it inspires.  Songs, unlike paintings and sculpture, achieve this function by means of evocative language and music.
    What, then, does the language of the Song of Songs evoke?  The Song of Songs evokes the sort of intense, unbearable, irrational, hormonal, heart-palpitating, palm-perspiring, gastro-intestinal-butterfly-stirring puppy love that afflicts every adolescent sooner or later.  And it does so splendidly.  But why, we must ask, was this saccharine paean to eros considered sacred writ?  At this point, we can only guess.  Perhaps it is because it lays bare the aching beauty of one of the deep elements of the created order that God declared to be “very good.”  Perhaps in the Song we hear the sentiment only whispered by Adam, “This one at last Is bone of my bones And flesh of my flesh!,” set to music and blared at 1,000,000 decibals.  Perhaps, in a sense, the Song of Songs represents the canonization of passion.
    However one slices it, the Song of Songs, like Virginia, is for lovers, whether, as ancient interpreters held, lovers of God or, as modern interpreters suggest, lovers in thrall to earthly romance.  But to woo this ancient, exotic Song into our lives now, I would suggest, requires a more supple, sensitive, rapturous and, dare I say, poetic hermeneutic than the wooden would-be literalism to which we evangelicals have become accustomed.

    As I enjoyed my morning coffee earlier today, I was struck by these lines in the Amarna Letters:

    To the king my lord say: Message fo Abdi-Hepa your servant.  At the feet of the king my lord I have fallen seven and seven times…. (El Amarna, 290; trans. by Michael Coogan, my italics)

    To the king my lord, my god, my sun-god say: Message of Shuwardatu, your servant, the dust under your feet.  I have fallen at the feet of the king my lord, my god, my sun-god, seven and seven times…. (El Amarna, 271; ibid., my italics)

    The Amarna Letters are 350 pieces of Pharaoh Amenhotep IV’s (Akhenaten; 1352-1336 BCE) royal correspondence, recovered from the ruins of his capital city, Akhetaten (modern-el Amarna).  Many of the letters were written by rulers of independent states like Assyria and Babylonia.  Others were written by vassal kings who were subject to Egyptian rule at the time, like those from Palestine.  The Letters give us a great window into the  politics of the Ancient Near East in the 14th century, the Late Bronze Age.

    What jumped out at me about the lines quoted above was their parallel in Genesis 33:1-3:

    Looking up, Jacob saw Esau coming, accompanied by four hundred men. He divided the children among Leah, Rachel, and the two maids, 2 putting the maids and their children first, Leah and her children next, and Rachel and Joseph last. 3 He himself went on ahead and bowed low to the ground seven times until he was near his brother. 

    One of the Amarna Letters from Rib-Addi, king of Byblos, to Akhenaten

    One of the Amarna Letters from Rib-Addi, king of Byblos, to Akhenaten

    We see illustrated in the introductions of the Amarna Letters and here in Genesis 33 a stereotyped gesture of deference common in the Ancient Near East.  It is also worth noting that the vassal king I first cited, Abdi-Hepa, was the king of Jerusalem.  Of course, nobody needed the Amarna Letters in order to figure out that Jacob’s sevenfold bow was an act of deference toward Esau (of whom he was understandably terrified).  But parallels like these furnish us with salutary reminders of the fact that the Bible was not simply dropped out of the sky into the Church but rather was born out of the contexts, cultures, conceptualizations and, in this case, customs of the Ancient World.