Thursday, November 3, 2011

Sex and the Bible: Thoughts on the Song of Songs

The Song of Songs is one of those books in the Bible that we don't know what to do with. The book is a poem about two lovers and the way that they long for one another.It moves from courtship to consummation of the relationship. At times the language is very erotic, to the point of almost embarrassment. The only other piece of scripture that comes close to the erotic descriptions of Song of Songs is the allegory of the two adulterous sisters in Ezekiel 23.

Over the centuries it has been difficult to explain why this book is in the Bible since it does not provide any obvious basis for faith and practice. Both Jewish and Christian interpreters have traditionally seen it as an allegory; Jews see it as a description of God's love for Israel and Christians a description of Christ's love for the church. The book is not quoted in the New Testament and it is not until the the third century CE with Hippolytus that find the first Christian attempt to interpret it.

Over the last two centuries, however, it has become more common to interpret the Song of Songs not as an allegory, but a love poem.

The Scribal Pen, a new blog by my colleague Ramone R. Billingsley, looks at the Song of Songs and the way that it can make us uncomfortable. Here is a bit of what he has to say.

To describe desire, the Song uses a various images that are foreign to modern ears. For instance, the male persona in Song of Songs 2:9 compares his lover in this way: “I compare you, my love, to a mare among Pharaoh’s chariots.” (NRSV) I think many women would be upset if their significant other compared them to a mare! Also, the Song uses other startling images to express intimacy. For example, the male describes his beloved’s beauty in yet another way: “Your hair is like a flock of goats, moving down the slopes of Gilead. Your teeth are like a flock of shorn ewes that have come up from the washing, all of which bear twins, and not one among them is bereaved.” (Song of Songs 4:1c-2) On the other hand, some of the Song’s imagery is like watching a Rated R movie on Cinemax: “My beloved thrust his hand into the opening, and my inmost being yearned for him.” (Song of Songs 5:4) Hmm.

One of the things I like most about the Song of Song is its subversive nature. The Song is about two lovers who pursue their desire for sexual intimacy. It is an unrestrained, bold, risky and audacious desire. This desire is a seeking and finding that fulfills a lack. It is, in raw form, a full portrait of human love and sexuality. Yet, this is done in a very unconventional way.

You can read his full post here.


  1. I've never talked much about Song of Songs in my survey classes, but in my recent class on the Kethuvim we spent a day on it and I was struck by the difference between the dispassionate praise by the Husband in Proverbs 31 and the passion of Song of Songs.... Jonathan Lawrence

  2. I have heard 2:9 explained as this... pharoah's chariots would have been harnessed to great powerful male horses. To see a chariot harnessed to a beautiful graceful mare would have made anyone look twice, and most definitely would have caused a stir among the other horses!

    SoS 1:9 reiterates this with, "You, my love, excite men as a mare excites the stallions of Pharaoh's chariots. "