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Song of Songs: Not Just a Dirty Book
Pornography! This is the label some scholars give to the Song of Songs. They dismiss the book as nothing more than a source of lewd entertainment for the ancient male power elite. These lusty men slipped the salacious Song into the canon of Scripture by claiming it was only an allegory describing the relationship between God (represented by the male lover) and Israel (the female). But is this true? Is the Song of Songs just a dirty poem written to satisfy prurient interests? Or is something more going on in this text?
Compared with the rest of the Hebrew Bible, the Song of Songs does present an unusual view of sex.
The first few biblical references to sex are merely descriptive. So Genesis 2:24:
For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.
And Genesis 4:1a:
Adam lay with his wife Eve, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Cain.
This same descriptive tone is used in Genesis 4:23a to describe the polygamy of Lamech, whom the text describes as Adam’s great-great-great-great grandson:
Lamech said to his wives, “Adah and Zillah, listen to me, wives of Lamech.”
and the premarital sex of (or the invitation to rape?) Lot’s daughters in Genesis 19:8:
Look, I have two daughters who have never slept with a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you can do what you like with them.
Overall the Book of Genesis takes neither a positive nor a negative view of sex. Instead, it emphasizes the results in the form of the family history that is recorded in the genealogies of chapters 4, 5, 10, 11 and throughout the book. The command to be fruitful and multiply is the only one given to both animals and humans (Gen 1:22, 28, 9:1), and it provides the most frequent context for sex in the first book of the Bible. Although some see sex as a cause for the Fall (the eating of the fruit, according to this theory, symbolizes sex) and others see it as a cause for the Flood, it is nowhere stated as such in the Bible. The Fall is a result of disobeying God’s command not to eat the fruit of a particular tree (Genesis 2:16–17, 3:6); and the direct cause for the Flood is related to human wickedness and violence (Genesis 6:5, 11–13).
Elsewhere in Genesis sex shows up with Noah, whose sex is revealed to his son (Genesis 9:20–27), with Lot and his daughters (Genesis 19:30–38), with Jacob and the daughters of Laban and their slave girls (Genesis 29:10–30), with Shechem and Dinah (Genesis 34), and with Judah and Tamar (Genesis 38). The elderly Sarah’s unexpected “pleasure” in Genesis 18:12 may also refer to sex or perhaps to a child. In every example, the concern is to describe the offspring and the generation of new peoples and nations.
If the first book of the Bible is ambivalent about sex itself, it presents a negative picture of its results. The relationships between Sarah and Abraham, Isaac and Rebekah, and Jacob and his wives and slave girls result in dysfunctional families with many problems.
Further, when it comes to the Hebrew Bible’s evaluation of sexual activities, we encounter restriction and prohibition wherever the constraints of Genesis 2:24 (“A man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife ...”) are not followed.
Premarital sex (Deuteronomy 22:28–29; 22:13–14, 20–21, 23–24), adultery (Exodus 20:14; Deuteronomy 5:18), incest (Leviticus 18:6), prostitution (Hosea 4:14), rape (Deuteronomy 22:25–27), homosexuality (Leviticus 18:22, see also 20:13) and bestiality (Leviticus 18:23, see also 20:15)—all are singled out for condemnation in various biblical verses.
Granted, the interpretation of some of these passages is disputed. But they demonstrate the wild and uncontrolled power of sex in the lives of women and men—a power that the Bible recognizes as dangerous and, in its legal texts, often seeks to contain and control.
The prophets, too, have little to say of the value of sex. Lust, adultery and prostitution are preferred topics for Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Hosea in particular. Again and again, these prophets condemn both men and women for participating in sexual vices (often as part of the process of worship). They reserve their strongest condemnation for Israel as a nation. The people are pictured as a woman who is married to Yahweh but lusts after other lovers—that is, gods and goddesses other than Yahweh. Hosea 2:13 describes Israel’s worship of foreign gods in terms of a promiscuity worthy of punishment:
“I will punish her for the days she burned incense to the Baals; she decked herself with rings and jewelry, and went after her lovers, but me she forgot,” declares the LORD.
The prophet Jeremiah (2:23–25) likens the nation to a donkey in heat:
How can you say, “I am not defiled; I have not run after the Baals”? See how you behaved in the valley; consider what you have done. You are a swift she-camel running here and there, a wild donkey accustomed to the desert, sniffing the wind in her craving—in her heat who can restrain her? Any males that pursue her need not tire themselves; at mating time they will find her. Do not run until your feet are bare and your throat is dry. But you said, “It’s no use! I love foreign gods, and I must go after them.”
These pictures of sex are charged with descriptions from the natural world. Oaks and other spreading trees provide shade for the Israelites to indulge their appetites (Isaiah 57:5; Jeremiah 3:6; Hosea 4:13–15). A wild donkey in heat seeks out satisfaction for her craving (Jeremiah 2:24). The adulterers burn incense to express their pleasure (Jeremiah 7:9), which is fulfilled on a bed of lovemaking (Ezekiel 23:17). For the prophets, these images reinforce their indictments of the sin of Israel, sexual, religious and political. In the Song of Songs, these same images will appear in an entirely different sexual context.
Taken all together, the Torah and the Prophets describe a world in which sex is part of a good creation but is constantly used for the wrong purposes. If one reads only these books, it is difficult to come away from the Bible without an impression that sex is a terrible thing. It is powerful and drives people to hurt and kill, to betray and avenge, and to manipulate and demonize. It must be limited and strictly controlled by laws of every kind. Beyond mention of its basic function of procreation, there is virtually nothing good that is said about sex.
The Song of Songs rescues the Old Testament from this predominantly negative view of sex.
Interpreters have emphasized the restorative role of the Song. In Genesis, in the Garden of Eden, something went terribly wrong. In the Song of Songs, the garden is again good and beautiful, a place for enjoyment. Here, physical love may be celebrated, in the context of the couple’s committed relationship.
Issues of marriage, procreation and propriety are not the concern of the Song, as they are in the Bible’s legal writings on sex. We do not even know whether the couple is married. The term “bride” (Hebrew kallāh) appears six times in the middle of the book (4:8–5:1), but it is not clear whether the couple has wed or if this the direction that their shared love is taking them. They never talk about having children. The Song puts no restrictions on their activities.
The Song is also not about theology. Indeed God is not mentioned directly, unless one recognizes the deity in the unique expression of 8:6, “a flame of Yah,” where Yah is a shortened form of Yahweh. Perhaps he also is the artist of 7:1, where the male describes his lover’s attributes:
How beautiful are your feet in sandals,
O daughter of a prince,
The curves of your hips are like ornaments,
The work of an artist’s hands.
On the other hand, the book does not aim to deny the importance of theology or marriage or procreation. All such matters are left behind in a sweeping passion. Love and its enjoyment predominate and overpower everything else. The lovers focus only on one another; nothing else matters.
As elusive as the question of marriage is the matter of the consummation of the sexual relationship itself. It is never made clear or explicit and remains covered with a richness of metaphor found nowhere else in the Hebrew Bible. As in the love poetry of many eras and cultures, the love poetry here describes a fantasy of desire.
Indeed, desire is one of the key themes of the poem, and as such has been well studied and appreciated. The second major theme—commitment—has not received equal attention from scholars, however. Reading through the poem, we find that the two themes are woven together as the two characters express their desire for one another and their commitment to one another in each of the six major sections of the work. Although some understand these sections as separate poems, the unity of themes and the repeated use of similar vocabulary, phrases and vivid pictures interlock the whole as a single, unified composition.
In each section, the emphasis on commitment and desire serves to distinguish this grand poem from other erotic forms of entertainment. Much more than sexual fascination, experimentation or voyeurism, the couple’s devotion attests to a depth of love that likely accounts for the work’s inclusion in the Bible and in the great literary heritage of ancient Israel.
Part One: Song 1:1–2:7
Love and lovemaking capture each of the senses from the very beginning of the book (1:2–3):
2May he kiss me with the kisses of his mouth,
Because your love making is better than wine.
3Your name is cologne poured out,
it is the fragrance of your best colognes.
Therefore, the maidens love you.
Here is the whole person in full sensuality. The touch of the kiss, the taste of the wine and the aroma of the cologne—all are put to the service of capturing the desire expressed in words to be heard.
When the female longs to be with her lover in the midst of the day, the male guides her and praises her beauty (1:8–9), as though to reassure her earlier protests to the contrary:
8If you don’t know, most beautiful of women,
Follow the sheep paths,
Graze your goats by the shepherds’ tents.
9To a mare among pharaoh’s chariots,
Do I liken you, my darling.
Always the move is to greater closeness and intimacy (1:13):
13A sachet of myrrh is my lover to me,
Between my breasts he spends the night.
Part Two: 2:8–3:5
The female praises the male for his movement towards her, which expresses his desire for her (2:8–9).
8The sound of my lover.
See! He comes,
Leaping over the mountains,
Springing over the hills.
9My lover is like a gazelle,
Or a young stag.
See! He stands behind our wall,
Staring through the windows,
Peering through the lattice.
Yet, surprisingly the female sends her lover away (2:16–17):
16My lover is mine,
And I am his,
He feeds among the lotuses.
17Until the day breezes gently along,
And the shadows flee,
Become like a gazelle, my lover,
Or a young stag upon the mountains of Bether.
They are in love but she is unprepared to consummate that love. Gratification of the desire remains for the moment delayed. Unfulfilled passion drives her from her bed to seek her lover and find him (3:1, 4):
1Nightly on my bed,
I have sought the one whom my heart loves,
I have sought him but I have not found him ...
4As soon as I left them,
I found the one whom my heart loves,
I caught him,
I would not release him,
Until I brought him to my mother’s house,
To the chamber where she conceived me.
Is this a fantasy? If so, it may suggest that the whole of the love poetry is fantastic, a characteristic of ancient and modern representatives of this genre. This allows engagement of the imagination so that passion and desire are not reduced. Rather, they are dramatically increased.
Part Three: 3:6–5:1
The male values his lover as a princess safe in his protection. To describe this he pictures her in the safest of places, surrounded by Israel’s greatest warriors and kept secure within the royal escort (3:6–11).
Three times the male engages in a rapturous description of his lover’s body. The first such poem opens with a stress upon her physical form and ends with the desired intimacy inhibited by physical distance (4:1, 8):
1Look at you, so beautiful, my darling!
Look at you, so beautiful,
Your eyes are doves
From behind your veil,
Your hair is like the flock of goats,
That descend in waves from Mount Gilead …
8Come with me from Lebanon,
My bride,
Come with me from Lebanon,
Travel from Amana’s peak,
From Senir’s peak,
From Hermon,
From the den of lions,
From the mountain lairs of leopards.
The desire for lovemaking, despite the distance, is immediately followed by 4:9–15, where commitment emerges as a key theme alongside desire. Here that commitment is expressed in the male’s description of his lover as his bride (4:10–11):
10How delightful is your love making,
My sister and bride,
How much better is your love making,
Than wine,
And the fragrance of your perfumes,
Than all the spices.
11Your lips drip virgin honey,
O bride,
Honey and milk are beneath your tongue,
And the fragrance of your garments,
Is like the fragrance of Lebanon.
Committed to only one lover, the woman is like a “locked garden” (4:12):
12You are
A locked garden,
My sister and bride,
A locked pool,
A sealed fountain.
The female invites the male to her garden. The male responds with more word pictures of the delights of his lover’s garden (5:1a).
1I have come to my garden, my sister and bride,
I have plucked my myrrh with my spices
I have eaten my nectar with my honey,
I have drunk my wine with my milk.
Part Four: 5:2–6:3
This picture of commitment and desire leads to a scene of even greater passion, here expressed in patently erotic overtones (5:2–5).
2I slept, but my heart remained awake,
The sound of my lover knocking,
“Open to me, my sister, my darling,
My dove, my perfect one,
My head is drenched with dew,
My locks with the night’s damp.”
3“I have taken off my robes,
Must I put them on?
I have washed my feet,
Must I dirty them?”
4My lover stretched his hand through the keyhole,
My inmost being was overcome with desire for him.
5I arose to open to my lover,
My hands dripped with myrrh,
My fingers with myrrh,
Flowing over the sockets of the bolt.
The reference to “hand,” a term used elsewhere in the Bible for the penis, cannot help but bring to mind a picture of sexual intimacy overlaying this scene of the male’s search for his lover. However, the passion is frustrated (5:6–7):
6I opened to my lover,
But my lover had turned,
He had departed,
I fainted at his flight,
I sought him but I did not find him,
I called for him but he did not answer me.
7The guards found me,
Those who go through the city,
They beat me, they wounded me,
They removed my shawl from me,
Those guards on the walls.
These scenes when the couple are apart not only highlight their desire to be together again but their dedication to one another. In this instance, the woman willingly suffers a beating to be with the male lover.
Unable to locate her lover, the female describes him to her friends. This description, which corresponds to his descriptions of her body, focuses on his strength and his ability to provide protection and security (5:10, 15):
10My lover is dazzling and ruddy,
Better looking than ten thousand …
15His legs are pillars of alabaster,
Set on sockets of fine gold.
His looks are like Lebanon,
Choice as the cedars.
However hopeless, the lovers do find one another and join in their erotic pleasures (6:2–3):
2My lover descended to his garden,
to the spice beds,
to graze in the gardens,
and to gather lotuses.
3I am my lover’s
And my lover is mine,
He gathers among the lotuses.
Part Five: 6:4–8:4
As the female reflects the power of her beauty on the male, the male pleads for her return to him (6:13, Hebrew 7:1):
13Return! Return! O Shulammite!
Return! Return! That we may gaze on you.
How would you gaze on the Shulammite?
Like the dance of Mahanayim.
A third poem of praise of the female (7:1–9a, Hebrew 7:2–10a) emphasizes those aspects of her body that are most arousing for the male. Her body originated with the “artist” and so is good (7:1, 8, 9a; Hebrew 7:2, 9, 10a). The poem climaxes in the male’s assertion that he will fulfill his desire for love with her.
1How beautiful are your feet in sandals,
O daughter of a prince,
The curves of your hips are like ornaments,
The work of an artist’s hands …
8I said,
“I shall climb the palm tree,
I shall seize its branches.”
May your breasts become as clusters of the vine,
May the fragrance of your breath become like apples.
9aYour palate,
Like the best wine ...
As I understand the poem, the male stops in mid-sentence and the female finishes her lover’s thought (7:9b; Hebrew 10b):
9b... flowing smoothly to my lover,
gliding over sleepers’ lips.
This expresses the unity of the two in thought as in desire. The female goes on to stress how her lover possesses her with his desire (7:10–8:4; Hebrew 7:11–8:4).
10I am my lover’s,
And his desire is for me.
Part Six: 8:5–14
The final section of the book focuses on a confession of the power of love (8:6):
6Set me like the seal on your heart,
Like the seal on your arm;
For as strong as death is love.
As difficult as Sheol is jealousy.
Its flames are flames of fire,
A flame of Yah(weh).
The ardor of passion burns deep and with it there forms a commitment whose strength can best be likened to death, whose grip cannot be released. Just as there is no escape from death, there is no salvation from the eternal passion of this love. Time does not dim the desire for the flames come from God, whose power and eternity are without end.
The twin emphasis of desire and commitment continue to the end of the book (8:13–14), where the delight of love is still heard in the voice to the female and her words remain part of that exclusive dialogue:
13You who live in the gardens,
With friends attending,
Let me hear your voice.
14Flee my lover,
Become like a gazelle,
Or a young stag upon spice mountains.
The ending remains open. This is not a drama with a resolution. It is a poem describing a desire that is not satisfied but continues to grow stronger and stronger. It is the secret of love and the secret of life, whether human or divine. The relationship, strengthened by commitment and fed by desire, has no ending. It continues to grow and will do so forever. The Song praises desire and commitment as part of the full pleasures of sex that the “artist” has given to his children.
The Song makes its way into the Hebrew Bible not because it is pornographic, but because it provides a balance to the negative views of sex elsewhere; it celebrates the importance and value of sex as a divine gift. That the lovers express both the delights of sex and an unwavering commitment to one another is not an insignificant point. The emphasis on commitment, wherein the couple exclusively devote their attention, praise and love to one another from the beginning to the end of the Song, lifts the work far above the ramblings of soft pornography and trashy entertainment in general. As already noted, this commitment may well account for the Song’s inclusion in the Bible. It is likely the point that Rabbi Akiba is recorded to have made in the second century of our era: “All the ages are not worth the day on which the Song of Songs was given to Israel; for all the Writings are holy, but the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies.” Ever since, Jewish, Christian and other writers have agreed.
All translations of the Song of Songs come from the author’s new translation, Richard S. Hess, Song of Songs, Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2005). All other biblical quotations are from the New International Version of the Bible.