Looking through the Lattice:
Rebekah’s Veil and the Harmonious Approach to Love
Sermon preached on the Fourth Sunday after Trinity (Fifth after Pentecost)
July 5, 2020
the Rev. Joshua Paetkau
Parishes of New Carlisle and Chaleur Bay
Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.
Wisdom is vindicated by all her children.
Nestled among the writings of the Old Testament, between the agonizing search for wisdom of the Teacher in Ecclesiastes and the thunderous vision of the God’s majesty and judgment in Isaiah, lies a strange and beautiful hymn to love; the Song of Songs. From its very first line the Song is charged with a passionate erotic intensity. Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth! For your love is better than wine... This is a poem which celebrates beauty, human sexuality, and bodily intimacy within the context of a holy, reverent, and mutual love. The Song admits to neither licentiousness nor legalism, as it strides forth on a path of love that is never prudish, but always pure.
It is remarkable, though, that the opening line of the Song should form such a stark contrast with last lines of the two preceding books in the biblical canon – Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. At the end of Proverbs we read that “Charm is deceitful and beauty vain, but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised. Give her a share in the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her in the city gates.” Similarly Ecclesiastes, which begins with the despairing statement that all is vanity, concludes with a strong emphasis on responsible action: “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil.” We leap, from the pragmatic strength of Proverbs and the mournful existentialism of Ecclesiastes into the rapturous delight of the Song of Songs, as it sings the beauty of the beloved and her lover.
Given the nature of this book, it is hardly surprising that its inclusion in the Hebrew Bible was a matter of some debate. There is some evidence that it was slipping into a more secular or profane usage, for Rabbi Akiva, a first century Rabbi wrote: “He who sings the Song of Songs in the banquet hall, and makes it a profane song has no share in the next world.” Rabbi Akiva was a staunch supporter of the Song, and went on to become, perhaps, its most famous interpreter. “The whole world was not as worthy as the day on which the Song of Songs was given to Israel,” he said, “for all the writings are holy but the Song of Songs is the holy of holies.”
Naftali Rothenberg, in his book Rabbi Akiva’s Philosophy of Love, names Akiva the Sage of Love, and finds in his writings, his life, and particularly his interpretation of the Song of Songs, an example of an harmonious approach to love.
“Most people,” he says, “recognize two approaches to love: the puritan approach associated with Scripture, religion, and ‘spirituality’ in general, and the permissive aproach often considered materialistic and anti-spiritual even in the eyes of its opponents... The harmonious approach to love proposes an alternative to this dichotomy, while rejecting both the puritanical and the permissive. Love, according to this approach emanates from the harmony of spirit and matter, mind and body. The texts we will see here seek to promote just such a relationship between man and woman, which exists simultaneously on three planes: the cognitive-intellectual, the spiritual-emotional - expressed in the feelings the partners have for one another; and the physical – that is the physical contact and union between them. Love’s survival depends upon the constant effort to maintain harmony between mind, spirit, and body. The repudiation of any of these three elements, according to the harmonious approach, will thus weaken and even destroy the love bond.1
“The practical realization of this love”, he continues, “poses the greatest challenge to the harmonious approach, as love often remains unfulfilled in the real world.”
The Puritan, with a fanatical distaste for the body and its pleasures condemns himself or herself to a life of drudgery. In this perspective, even the marriage bond becomes a heavy yoke and a joyless burden. If this is how our society has come to see marriage, it is small wonder that it has begun to reject it. The Permissive person, on the other hand, rejects the very idea of bonds of love and affection in order to pursue and gratify their desire wherever and whenever they can. This kind of person, believing himself or herself to be free, actually submits to a very heavy yoke which we might call addiction or compulsion. Blinded to the higher pursuits of the soul, they fall into routines which prove less and less satisfying each time – their very desire becomes weak and shallow, and they do not learn to swim in the deeper waters of love and desire.
Neither the puritanical approach or the permissive one is attentive to the call of the beloved; this generation, as Jesus said, is like children crying out in the marketplace we played the flute for you and you did not dance, we sang a dirge and you did not mourn.” In the end, these approaches to love can only end in tedious boredom and empty moralism, for they are not attentive to the voice of the lover and the singular beauty of the beloved. Faithfulness is the call to practice an ever more consistent and ardent love, and to bound up the mountain with the sure feet of a gazelle.
One of the things the Song of Songs teaches, I believe, is a practice of seeing with gentleness, and seeing the beloved as he or she truly is. This practice of seeing undoes simple gender dichotomies; the woman is allowed to be assertive and strong – the man is seen at times as vulnerable. Not weak, but gentle. In the first chapter of the Song the beloved adjures those around not to gaze at her with harsh unforgiving or lustful eyes, comparing this type of gaze to the burning sun under which she laboured without rest. “Do not gaze at me because I am dark, because the sun has gazed on me.” In the passage we have read this evening, however, the gaze is redeemed. There is no cruelty in the eyes of the lover, who stands like a deer gazing through the windows, and looking through the lattice. The glance that they share is filled with gentleness, and there is freedom in it.
When the lover speaks, it is not to impose himself upon her, nor to give her yet another burden to bear but to come away into an active sort of rest; an activity that is so joyful and easy that the doing of it energizes her and him rather than depleting their resources. It is, as Christ, the lover of our souls says to each one of us and to all of us as his Church, his beloved bride; “Come to me, all you that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest, take my yoke upon you and learn of me, for I am meek and lowly in heart, and ye shall find rest unto your souls.”
The scene from our Old Testament lesson, the story of Rebekah at well and her marriage to Isaac, gives us further insight into the nature of love that listens, searches, and scans the horizon. It is a familiar setting, and one which is repeated throughout the Scriptures. Christian interpretation has often wedded this story to the story of the Samaritan woman at the well, who is asked for a drink of water and then offered the life-giving water of Christ himself. There is value in interpreting the biblical stories together in this way, and searching for the common thread of life-giving love that we can read across the biblical passages.
Yet, it is also important to allow the biblical characters there own space and integrity, to give Rebekah the time to draw the veil across her face and to care for her own dignity, her own vineyard. To allow her the time to act according to the wisdom that God has granted her.
The story of the woman at the well is a fairly commonly told theme, not only in the bible but across many cultures. The well in ancient Chinese folklore, for example, symbolized the essentials of human community that pre-exists and transcends various political forms. The well is the source of life-giving water, for both humans and animals, and so is a fitting setting for intimate and life-giving actions of human beings, often depicted in the love-relationship between man and woman – though that is by no means the only such relationship that we need consider. Importantly, though, the existence of the well is by no means a guarantee of water being provided. If one gets almost all the way to the water and the rope is too short, or the jug breaks, misfortune and thirst will follow.
One folk song, originally actually from the Kangra valley in India, tells the story of a soldier who, after his marriage, goes away on service for several long years. On his return he pays a visit to his father in law to fetch his wife. He meets a young woman at the well and asks for a drink of water. He also pays a compliment to her beauty, at which she rebukes him and returns home. When she returns home her mother asks her to put on her best clothes and ornaments, for her husband has come back. She gets dressed up, only to realize that it is the very soldier that she had spoken to so harshly. She feels guilty, but soon the two are reconciled and are able to access the life-giving waters of the well together and live happily ever after.
In the Old Testament lesson, we see some of the same themes. In this scenario it is not the groom, but the servant Eliezar who approaches. He is searching for a woman who is, not only beautiful, but compassionate, caring, and insightful. Someone who, when asked for water will attend not only to the one who asks, but to the camels as well. He is more careful with his compliments, and watches attentively to see who she is, what kind of person he has encountered. Rebekah, too, is wise in her ways. She fulfills the signs that Eliezer asks for, but she does so in her own time. Between the time when she lowers her water jar to give Eliezer water and the time she rushes to feed the camels there is, in the scripture passage, a pause lengthy enough to cause the reader to wonder whether Eliezer has succeeded in his mission after all.
We also see, in the way the marriage negotiation takes place, that Rebekah will ultimately make her own decision. Her attentiveness is reiterated in the scene where she finally meets Isaac. Isaac, we are told, sees the camels first, but she sees him. The act of placing her veil over her face, which in that culture was a gesture performed by a free-born woman, is a further sign of her capability. The intimate relationship into which she enters is one that she has chosen and accepted; a bond that she has entered into freely, of her own volition, and with unclouded eyes.
Whatever will follow, this is the basis and the foundation for there life together. It is not that she knows everything that will happen. There may be harsh words, and even deception in later years, but there is an integrity to her life and to her love which she will never abandon.
Yet, the very fact that reality undermines the harmonious approach to love – the fact that “happily ever after” is a line that only occurs in fairy tales leads us back to that question. “How do we practice this harmonious approach, the marriage of mind, spirit, and body day after day, and in the face of everything that grieves, annoys, or frustrates us about those we love the most?” How do practice this in the face of death, which interrupts all relationships?” Particularly when, as St. Paul so agonizingly puts it, “the good I want to do, I do not do, but the evil I do not want to do this I keep on doing. Who will save me from this body of death?”
We do not always recognize the things that make for good love, and when we do we do not always find the strength or wisdom to fulfill them. To quote Naftali Rothenberg again, “The desire for the kind of union that expresses wholeness is frustrated by the desire for immediate, casual gratification and the desire for conciliation and acceptance, by illness, misfortune, and untimely death.”
Yet there are those who seek the path of love as the way of wisdom, and among them we have no higher example than Christ who is patient with our weaknesses, and for whom even the power of death will prove insufficient to stop the way of love from reaching her goals. Wisdom, as he says, is vindicated by her deeds, and the deed that he has performed is to rescue all of us from the clutches of what binds us. Wisdom, as the same passage in Luke’s gospel renders it, is justified by all her children and, as we know from John’s gospel, the simple act of believing wholeheartedly in the love of God and putting this love in practice as the foundation of our moral framework makes us children of God.
1Naftali Rothenberg Rabbi Akiva’s Philosophy of Love. 1
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