Friday, June 29, 2012

Song of Songs 2:8-3:5: Separation

8The voice of my beloved! Look, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills. 9My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag. Look, there he stands behind our wall, gazing in at the windows, looking through the lattice. 10My beloved speaks and says to me: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; 11for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. 12The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land. 13The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.
14O my dove, in the clefts of the rock, in the covert of the cliff, let me see your face, let me hear your voice; for your voice is sweet, and your face is lovely. 15Catch us the foxes, the little foxes, that ruin the vineyards— for our vineyards are in blossom.” 16My beloved is mine and I am his; he pastures his flock among the lilies. 17Until the day breathes and the shadows flee, turn, my beloved, be like a gazelle or a young stag on the cleft mountains.
1Upon my bed at night I sought him whom my soul loves; I sought him, but found him not; I called him, but he gave no answer. 2“I will rise now and go about the city, in the streets and in the squares; I will seek him whom my soul loves.” I sought him, but found him not. 3The sentinels found me, as they went about in the city. “Have you seen him whom my soul loves?” 4Scarcely had I passed them, when I found him whom my soul loves. I held him, and would not let him go until I brought him into my mother’s house, and into the chamber of her that conceived me. 5I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, by the gazelles or the wild does: do not stir up or awaken love until it is ready! (NRSV)
After a clean break with 2:7, we are thrust right back into the action! The man has burst upon the scene in search of his beloved. The man is young and vivacious. The woman so loves the man that she can't even relay his message without praising him. We now hear his voice. It's an invitation to the woman to enjoy the sights and smells of newness of life. As Longman puts it, he 'evokes a scene of newness, vigor, freshness, joy, expectation - a context for joyous lovemaking' (122). Spring is the time for love to blossom and to be fully experienced. An experience the man is calling the woman to join him in.[1]

The man is asking the woman to come join him, to leave her inaccessible station and to let him be exposed to her beauty more intimately. The desire that brought him to her mother's house with such rapidity drives him to beg that even at this moment he can have a small, first-hand experience.

The woman responds to the man, calling him a fox that roams freely. She can't allow him to roam freely for long. She must catch him and make him hers for good.[2] Mutual possession is what she's after. A possession that is permanent, unhindered. For now, though, she must bid him adeau, until the night comes when they can meet and enjoy each other without reserve.

In 3:1 we shift to a nocturnal scene. The man is not where he is desired, in bed with the woman. As seems to be the pattern night after night. She can't take it anymore, so she goes out in search of the man, throwing off all social restraint. Who knows where he is? She can't even wait long enough to hear the response of the watchmen. Finally she catches her fox![3]

I will discuss 3:5 in a separate post.

[1] So Bergant p. 30.
[2] Verse 15 is one of the toughest to crack in the whole Song, though I do believe that Exum has satisfactorily elucidated this enigmatic sentence.
[3] The sexual overtones of verse 4 are strong, between the parallelism in vs. 4 and the bed/bedchamber parallelism between vs. 1 and 4.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Book Review: The Use of Pleasure

The Use of Pleasure is the second volume of Foucault's trilogy on the history of sexuality. I did not review the first volume, though I have incorporated some of its insights into my studies on Song of Songs. This volume is much more straight forward and, as it is a historical study of Greek thought on sex, is directly and obviously applicable to biblical studies.

Foucault's goal is to draw out the differences between Greek and Christian ethical thinking on the topic of sex. As Foucault demonstrates, it's not a question of degree of moral laxness or strictness. Greek sexual ethics were not so much a separate topic in ethics as they were a piece of a larger ethical question.

Foucault organizes the book primarily around four topics: the moral problematization of pleasure, dietetics, economics, and erotics (the love of boys). The first of these sections is the most important as it provides the framework that you need for the subsequent sections. Foucault's basic argument in this chapter is that the Greeks by and large viewed sex as a pleasure, alongside many others, to enjoy in moderation. The goal of Greek ethics wasn't to promote or prohibit certain behaviors but to encourage elite males to model the ideal life, a life where one was free from being controlled by one's desires, where one was one's own master. Only if you could master yourself and your household where you fit for being a leader among your people.

The second part looks at, what to us is a surprising context, for the discussion of sexual activity, dietetics. Here sex is looked alongside diet and exercise and other things related to the body. Specifically, attention is paid to the season of the year and age. In different seasons one should either reduce or increase sexual activity depending on the needs of the body. For example, some thought it better to largely abstain from sex during the hot and wet portion of the summer, since sex too made you hot and wet. The goal was to help your health be at its peak. And certainly moderation lead to health, because the Greeks believed that through sex one lost part of his virility. Moderation, then, led not only to one's own health but also to the health of one's progeny.

Foucault then turns his attention to economics, meaning sex within the sphere of household relations. Elite males had a lot of power within their household and also could have sex with anyone they wanted except a married woman who wasn't his wife (relations between two free men were also frowned upon). However, the key here, again is moderation and self-restraint. It was encouraged, that upon marriage, one not have sex with your slaves or with women outside of your household. It was best for the harmony of the household if the wife was honored that way. Self-restraint resulting in an orderly and happy home showed one's capacity for civic leadership.

The last major portion was erotics, here being the love of boys. This section shows the greatest amount of tension in Greek ethical thinking. The difficulty wasn't with having sex with someone of the same gender. Greeks loved beauty and found the immature male body to be the zenith. It was over questions of social status. Being the passive member in a relationship meant that one was inferior or slighted (thinking that lies beneath phrases like 'that sucks' or "I'm f..."). Thus, most of the discussion centered around what age it was permissible for boys to have older male lovers, how easily the boy could give, what benefits the boy could receive, and when did these relationships turn into prostitution. There was a narrow window where it was ok. The boy had to be old enough to demonstrate potential for future leadership. He couldn't be too developed, otherwise it would be degrading to him. It was a very complex dance.

What I hope this review shows is the very different attitude towards sex that the Greeks had. Foucault argues his case very persuasively, quoting heavily from primary sources. This is critical background to have in mind, especially when studying Paul's advice to his pagan comments. It enlightens us to their background and will give greater insight into why Paul approached issues the way he did. Additionally we see just how different early Christian ethics are in comparison to Greek ethics. It is much more purity oriented, individualistic, and rule driven. The Greeks were much less concerned with discussing what types of activity were permitted or prohibited.

Overall, I consider The Use of Pleasure to be mandatory reading for anyone studying New Testament sexual ethics or sexual ethics more broadly. It gives both good historical information and is a model of how to be sensitive to the actual concerns of ancient writers and cultures rather than imposing one's own agenda upon them.