X is for X-rated

Throughout this acrostic series we have celebrated how Psalm 51 has inspired great music (A is for Allegri), challenging sermons (J is for John Donne), uplifting commentary (E is for Eleanor Hull) and theological reflection (L is for Luther). Not everything that Psalm 51 has inspired has been so lofty and in tune with the cry Miserere mei, Deus. For example, the Books of Hours which were primers for lay piety had woodcuts showing the naked bathing Bathsheba with David looking onwards. In an age when this was the only mass media it seems likely that such imagery would have inflamed in some the very lust that prayer was meant to quell.

The same subject informed the Western art tradition and the naked Bathsheba provided a pious umbrella of religious propriety under which to practice voyeurism. Paintings by Rubens (c.1635), Rembrandt (1654) and Hayez (1845) are among the most famous of this very focused genre.

There is enormous irony that Psalm 51 might, albeit very indirectly, give rise to the voyeurism that was the downfall of its supposed author. Sadly, the story of Bathsheba from inception to the present bears the all too familiar hallmarks of patriarchy at its worst. The Bible has scant details about the nature of Bathsheba’s complicity in adultery. Little imagination is required to picture various scenarios that lie a long way from consensual sex, especially given the power of a king in a patriarchal culture.

This is of course speculation but what is clear is that over the centuries Bathsheba has been assumed to have invited David’s attention. Even the positive outcome of David’s penitence, contrition and compunction side lines Bathsheba as an object in the story. Too few have even paused to ask with genuine openness whether she was victim or co-sinner in the light of celebrating David as sinner turned penitent. There is of course little evidence to go on, but we would all do well to at least pause to remember that Bathsheba was a frail human being whose role as victim, sinner and penitent remain opaque.

N is for Nathan

Nathan gets the briefest of mentions in the heading of Psalm 51:

To the leader. A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.

Nathan was a prophet. Like the best of prophets, he was required to speak truth to power. The Book of 2 Samuel provides the details of his brave mission which could so easily have ended in him suffering the fate of so many other prophets. In chapter 11 we read that God was angry with David for committing adultery and the murder of her husband Uriah. God sends Nathan to confront David with the facts of his sin. The heading of Psalm 51 claims that the psalm is the resulting prayer.

Like the best prophets Nathan was not only brave but also wise. He realises that confronting David head on is likely to have a less than good account for him. So, he tells David a story. The episode is far enough away from David’s specific sins so as to not arouse his suspicions but close enough to do its job of forcing David to recognise his iniquity. Nathan’s parable, 2 Samuel 12:1–6, portrays David as someone who has everything he could ever need but is happy to take all from those who have less. In this sense the point we saw Luther make, two posts ago, is made: sin is both a deep-rooted reality and specific acts that arise from this disposition.

After this story, Nathan then speaks God’s assessment of David. God, through Nathan, points out that he had been given everything by God, including a journey from despised shepherd boy to King. Yet, this is clearly not enough for David.

The outcome of this confrontation is a complex one. There is judgement in that the child born to Bathsheba and David dies. There is also mercy in that David receives God’s forgiveness:

David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.” Nathan said to David, “Now the Lord has put away your sin; you shall not die. Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the Lord, the child that is born to you shall die.”
2 Samuel 12:13–14, NRSV

This story captures the paradox of David as the worst of sinners and yet the best of penitents. At some level we might find the mercy of God here unfathomable, and yet who is not grateful that their own misdemeanours do not exact death? At least not our death.

Nathan was a faithful prophet to David. When we read Psalm 51 as David’s prayer he becomes a prophet to us. Like Nathan he speaks of sin’s ugly power but also of the glorious quality of God’s mercy.

H is for Hallelujah

Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah has a life of its own Western culture. I have lost count of the covers I have heard, and the number of films it has been used in. It is a riff on Psalm 51, the ultimate evolution from Allegri who we met in the first of these posts.

It opens with David as the psalmist:

Now I’ve heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don’t really care for music, do you?
It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth
The minor falls, the major lifts
The baffled king composing Hallelujah

Leonard Cohn, Hallelujah

David might be the celebrated psalmist, but all is not well because he’s a bewildered composer of prayers. There is something of Cohen as well as David here. The biblical David is of course multidimensional. Throughout these reflections on Psalm 51 we have the interplay of David as songwriter, the worst of sinners, and the chief of penitents. There are times when for some he has been one of these to the point that his other facets are eclipsed or entirely displaced. But for Cohen we have David is all his rich perplexity, warts and all. A later verse clearly makes reference to his fall:

Your faith was strong, but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew her
She tied you to a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah

Leonard Cohen, Hallelujah

David’s temptation which led to both adultery and murder is here, along with the domestication that followed in his new marriage. The hallelujah is no longer a cry of abandoned worship but the words of sexual satisfaction. A very different reference to the sexual act than Psalm 51’s, see verse 5. The close of the song refers to a very different cry on David’s lips—his miserere. His cry for mercy has been heard. This is evident in both Psalm 51 and the narrative in 2 Samuel 12.

And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand right here before the Lord of song
With nothing, nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

Leonard Cohen, Hallelujah

Here we have the same merciful outcome as the original miserere. The sinner is free, having journeyed from being a sinner to an abandoned worshipper, via Psalm 51 and its words of penitence.

S is for Song of Songs

Perhaps one of the last things the person new to the Hebrew Bible might expect to find is a book of erotic poetry. This is, however, exactly what the Song of Songs appears to be at face value—eight chapters of poetic episodes that speak of the intimate sexual relationship between a man and a woman. This erotic poetry has traditionally been seen as the work of King Solomon and the text itself mentions him several times. It is likely, however, that he is the deliberate subject of the book rather than its author. The clearest evidence of this is that once we have appreciated the obvious erotic nature of this book, it becomes clear that there is more going on than just love and sex. In particular it becomes apparent that the sexual relationship between King Solomon and his many wives is contrary to the rich mutuality intended by God for the relationship between a man and a woman.

In this way the broad nature of Song of Songs dismisses any idea that the Bible is prudish or rejects the importance of, and positive aspects of, human sexuality. For here in the Hebrew Bible we see the sexual union of man and woman celebrated joyfully. The more subtle agenda is however a critique of the all too commonplace corrupted sexual relationships in which the relationship is uneven.

A large number of interpreters of the Song of Songs have supressed both of these perspectives by either dismissing or at least subordinating the eroticism of this poetry beneath an allegorical interpretation. To be fair, allegorical interpretations abounded from early on in the history of the interpretation of this book. It is likely that for cultural reasons both within Judaism and early Christianity that the allegorical interpretation eclipsed the literal one because of a wider cultural disdain for sex—gnostic influences sought to separate the supposedly corrupt body from the purity of the spirit. This is not to say that there is no intention of allegory in these poems. It is very much the case that the collectors of the texts that now make up the Hebrew Bible saw not only erotic poetry but also a connection between the love between man and woman with that of the love between Yahweh and Israel. In this way it is vital that an allegorical interpretive dynamic should neither overshadow the literal celebration of the sexual union of man and woman, nor should it become fanciful, as allegory can so easily become. Rather than using the term allegorical, the term parable is probably a more appropriate one. Viewing these poems as parables implies that they have an analogical function in connecting the erotic relationship of love with that of God for his people. Allegory would attempt to interpret every detail in a fashion that is clearly forced and alien to any authorial or editorial intent.

A lot of attention has focused on identifying the narrative of the Song of Songs. Some see a simple story of lover and beloved. Others have seen a more complex narrative in which the shepherd and the king are two separate male characters. In this latter interpretation, followed by Iain Provain [1] for example, a contrast emerges between the true love between the women and the peasant shepherd with that of a forced relationship between the women and Solomon. I am more persuaded by Tremper Longmann III [2] who sees the book as an anthology of erotic poems. Free from an imposed storyline these poems speak of the delight of sexual intimacy and carry an analogical insight into the love of God for humanity and the possibility of its reciprocation. There is also within the poem an implied criticism of the still prevalent practice of powerful males purchasing women as commodities. In all of these ways it really is a Song of Songs.

 

References / Further Reading

  1. Iain Provan, Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs: An NIV Application Commentary, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001.
  2. Tremper Longman III, Song of Songs: New International Commentary on the Old Testament, Downers Gove: Eerdmans, 2001.