Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth! For your love is better than wine, your anointing oils are fragrant, your name is perfume poured out. … How beautiful are you, my love, how very beautiful. … Your hair is like a flock of goats moving down the slopes of Gilead … your lips are like a crimson thread and your mouth is lovely. … Your two breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle."

The words are not from a cheesy romance novel but from the Old Testament, specifically Song of Songs (1:1-2; 4:1, 3, 5). If these words are not familiar, it is because Song of Songs is one of the books contemporary Christians rarely read or study. Few pastors preach from the Song. The erotic language is off-putting and the metaphors ("Your hair is like a flock of goats") strange. What moral insight can lie within a text that is so explicitly sexual? How can a book that celebrates sex but never explicitly mentions God edify the Christian?

Christ's love song

The early Christians found the Song just as odd and its sexual language just as problematic as we do. But they took its very strangeness as an invitation to seek out a deep and hidden spiritual message. They could find meaning within its shocking imagery because they made use of allegory.

Not surprisingly, the man with whom the allegorical method is most famously associated, Origen of Alexandria, led the search for the Song's hidden meaning. Since every part of Scripture is inspired, reasoned Origen, every detail must have meaning. Where details, passages, or even (as in this case) entire books seem obscure or disturbing, one must read allegorically.

In Origen's commentary on the Song of Songs, he begins by explaining the literal sense of the Song. It is a "marriage-song" that Solomon ...

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