Wholesome Sex, Hebrew Style

A compelling vision lies behind the erotic poetry of the Song of Songs.


I’m amazed that the Song of Songs is included in the canon of the Old Testament. Although Jewish and Christian tradition has tended to regard it as allegory, its literal language is undisguisedly erotic.

That makes the book’s presence in the canon so surprising. How is it that those who decided to include it came to regard such erotic language as sacred scripture? Talk about a mystery.

One possible answer is that the Hebrew tradition did not have the same suspicion of sex that the Hellenic tradition had. The Old Testament sees sex as a creation of God, a part of God’s good creation (see the creation stories in Genesis 1-2). Those who decided to include it in the canon may therefore have seen in the Song of Songs a picture of what a healthy sexuality looks like. This then gives the book enduring value.

Yet the picture of sexuality that we find in the Song may not fit our preconceptions. Here are some of its notable features.

Are the Lovers Married or Not?

First, the book is somewhat ambiguous as to whether the two lovers are married or not. Though the male lover addresses his beloved as “bride,” he also addresses her as “sister” (see 5:1). A description of a wedding procession appears in 3:6-11, but allusions to sexual consummation precede that passage. We are never sure whether the lovers are already married or not. Ambiguity prevails.

This ambiguity does not legitimate the lovers’ sexual relationship on the legalistic basis of the marriage contract. Instead the depth of the mutual love between the two lovers gives legitimacy to their sexual relationship. You cannot use the Song of Songs, in my opinion, as a proof text that sex belongs exclusively within the bounds of marriage.

This viewpoint is one of the disconcerting features of the Song of Songs. It may be one reason why so many have felt compelled to allegorize its meaning.

The Prominence of Erotic Longing

Another odd feature in the Song: it emphasizes more the longing in the erotic relationship over the consummation. Only in one or two places does the poem hint at the consummation of the lovers’ love. It never describes that experience explicitly. The consummation remains veiled. It is acknowledged only by allusion.

This contrasts sharply to much erotic literature today, where we find detailed descriptions of what’s involved in the act of sexual consummation. This explicitness is a staple in many romance novels as well as in general fiction. The Song of Songs keeps the lovers’ consummation shrouded in allusive mystery. There is a respect for the privacy of the lovers and their intimate giving of themselves to each other.

What we find instead in the Song is passionate expression of the longing of the two lovers for each other. The female lover gives a particularly poignant expression of that longing in verses 5:2-16. There she speaks to her companions saying:

I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem,

if you find my beloved,

that you tell him

I am sick with love. 

 The reality of the relationship described in the Song is more one of a kind of hunger than of satisfaction. The wellbeing of the two lovers seems to be tied up in their mutual desire for each other.

This feature may be why so many mystics have turned to the poem to find words to express their spiritual relationship with God. The mystical experience is far more characterized by longing than by ecstasy. It is striking how parallel is the longing for God expressed by the psalmist in Psalm 42 to the longing of the lovers for each other in the Song. So close that the mystic feels right at home in the Song of Songs.

Lovers Tease Each Other

Another feature of the erotic relationship described in the Song is the way the lovers tease each other. A beautiful passage on this theme is 5:2-8. The woman hears her lover calling to her at night from outside the walls of her house. She arises and goes out to him, but he has vanished.

Likewise the woman calls out to her beloved in one passage saying:

Awake, O north wind,

            and come, O south wind?

Blow upon my garden,

            let its fragrance be wafted abroad.

Let my beloved come to his garden, 

            and eat its choicest fruits. 

This teasing seduction goes back and forth between these two lovers. It is part of the adult play of their relationship.

It is quite striking in the Song that there is no hint of inhibiting guilt or shame in this frank delight that the two lovers have in each other’s body. Instead we find the two lovers reveling in the beauty of each other’s body. Erotic desire has nothing impure about it.

The Earthy Character of Erotic Love

Throughout the poem we find frequent references to gardens, orchards, and the fields where the sheep graze. This suggests that for the author of the Song, sexuality exists in a continuum with the rest of the material creation. In the Song it is earthy in the sense that its proper setting is within the whole complex of sensual stimulation and delight that we experience as we live out our lives in the material world.

The author constantly draws upon sensual descriptions to describe the desire and delight the lovers take in each other. Fragrant perfumes waft around their bodies. Their voices are sweet. Their limbs recall sturdy trees in Lebanon. Their legs are smooth as alabaster. Their kisses drip with honey. Their intimate times together are compared to a lavish banquet.

The places where the lovers seek their moments of consummation are out in the fields, in the orchards and sheepfolds rather than in the city. The author seems to suggest that the proper setting for the expression of sexual love is out in the earthy countryside rather than in artificial environment of the city, even though the woman clearly lives in the city of Jerusalem.

All this shows a very different sensibility to that tradition in Christianity that maintains the superiority of the ascetic way. Rather than denial becoming the highway to spiritual fulfillment, the way of taking delight in all that the material creation has to offer becomes a royal road to God. How strikingly parallel is this sensibility to that of St. Francis in his magnificent canticle of creation. Francis seems to share the romantic cast of mind that we find in the Song.

Maybe this is one reason why our culture today is so soaked in eroticism. In our technological, industrial society with its heavy emphasis on intellectual achievement and sterile efficiency, we have lost touch with the earthy, sensual aspects of human life.

As a result we have become obsessed with those very aspects of life that we have denied. We long to regain wholeness, but we try to attain it by an over-compensation on that which we have lost. We need to regain a balance between city and countryside, between reason and emotion, between mind and body where all enrich the others.

An Ideal Vision

In the Song we also find an equality between the two lovers. Each takes the initiative not only in celebrating the other, but also in seeking out the other. Both are wooers. There is no hint of a patriarchal sensibility in the Song. Its sensibility is far from the viewpoint of Genesis 3 or of the Pauline passages that see the proper status of the woman in her subordination to a man.

Finally we note that there is no fear or anxiety in the Song about getting pregnant or disease. In fact, there is no reference at all to sex leading to child bearing. Sex in the Song exists for something different from procreation. It exists for the pleasure of the two lovers.

This omission tells us that what we encounter in the Song is an idealistic picture. In fact the author seems to be describing sex in the Garden of Eden before the Fall. Here is what sexuality would look like as God intended it in the act of creation. It is only after Adam and Eve have eaten their forbidden fruit, that they become conscious of their nakedness and feel the need to cover themselves because they feel ashamed (Genesis 3:7).

Since that Fall­–however it occurs for each of us personally–sex becomes fraught with anxiety, fear, and defensiveness. It takes real psychological growth for us to re-enter the paradise described in the Song.

But that is part of the sublime beauty of the Song. It ushers us into the vision of wholesome sexuality, what our sexuality can become when we have outgrown all those fears and anxiety that mar our normal experience. The Song becomes the gold standard by which we can measure how our own sexuality falls short of what God longs for us.

For this reason, we can be thankful for the unconscious intuition (if it was really unconscious) that this book of magnificent poetry belongs in the Bible. It contains a message our sex-obsessed culture needs to hear. Could this in fact be an example of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit that we Christians confess lies behind the Bible as Scripture?

Note: The image is a reproduction of “The Kiss,” by the Austrian painter Gustav Klimt, 1907.

Why Mystics Love the Song of Songs

The Erotic Poetry Mirrors the Mystic’s Yearning for God.

I sometimes wonder how the Song of Songs made it into the biblical canon. It is lushly erotic poetry. Bible translators often label the lovers in the poem the bride and the bridegroom, but it is not crystal clear that the lovers are indeed married. The poem may be celebrating pre-marital, not marital love.

The poem, with its slightly risqué flavor, does not seem like something sober rabbis and church fathers would find appropriate in holy Scripture. Yet there it is, with images that are so evocative of sensual pleasure.

One reason why it did get included in the canon is that many of those rabbis and church fathers read the poem as allegory. The real theme of the poem, they contend, is the passionate love between God and Israel, or between Christ and his church, or between God and the awakened soul.

Many modern scholars dismiss this allegorical interpretation as simply eisegesis, an interpretation that reads a meaning into the text that simply is not there. Yet we must deal with the fact that spiritual writers, especially of the mystical sort, have been drawn to this text from almost the time it entered Scripture. Through the centuries, spiritual writers, especially monastics and mystics, have written scores upon scores of commentaries on the Song of Songs. It could vie for the most popular book in the Bible during the Middle Ages.

Why? What is the connection between the text and those who are intense in pursuing the spiritual journey?

The Evocation of Desire

One of the striking things about the Song of Songs is that it says almost nothing explicitly about the sexual act itself. In verse 8:5, the poet writes, “Under the apple tree, I awakened you.”

If this is a reference to the act of sexual union, it is a highly allusive one. It hints, but does not describe. It leaves a lot to the imagination. This contrasts dramatically with all the explicit descriptions of sexual acts that we find in modern novels.

What we find instead in the Song of Songs is repeated description of erotic desire. The lovers are constantly searching for each other, longing to be together. And when they do seem to meet, almost immediately one of them, usually the male lover, mysteriously vanishes away.

Here is one example from chapter 5:

I slept, but my heart was awake.

            Listen! my beloved is knocking.

            “Open to me, my sister, my love,

            my dove, my perfect one…

My beloved thrust his hand into the opening,

            and my inmost being yearned for him.

I arose to open to my beloved,

            and my hands dripped with myrrh,

            my fingers with liquid myrrh,

            upon the handles of the bolt.

I opened to my beloved,

            but my beloved had turned and was gone.

            My soul failed me when he spoke.

            I sought him, but did not find him;

            I called him, but he gave no answer.

What makes the Song such powerful poetry is this ability to evoke the experience of desire, intense desire that lovers can feel for each other.

Spiritual Experience as Desire

This is the feature of the poem that so draws mystics to the Song of Songs, I believe. For in the lovers’ intense erotic desire for each other, mystics see mirrored the similar intense desire they feel for God. They long for God with deep longing. And the best analogy for this deep spiritual longing is the erotic longing the lovers feel in the Song.

The psalmist uses a different analogy to describe this intense spiritual longing. In Psalm 42, we find the psalmist writing:

As a deer longs for flowing streams,

            so my soul longs for you, O God.

My soul thirsts for God,

            for the living God.

When shall I come and behold

            the face of God?

My tears have been my food day and night,

            while people say to me continually,

            “Where is your God?”

In the psalm the longing for God is compared to a basic physical need. In the Song, the longing takes on a more deeply personal character. But both texts highlight the ever-continuing experience of desire, a desire that has yet to be consummated.

This is what attracts the mystic to the Song, as a moth to the shining light bulb. Desire lies at the heart of the mystic’s experience. So much so that the mystic’s experience can often be described as a never-ending search for union with the divine.

In fact, the early church father Gregory of Nyssa believed this spiritual longing will never be completely satisfied, even in the next life. In the fourth century, he wrote, “This truly is the vision of God: never to be satisfied in the desire to see him.” [Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses, Paulist Press, 1978, page 116] Whether Nyssa is right or not, he highlights that central place desire has in the spiritual journey of those who have developed a particularly close personal relationship with God.

So it may be eisegesis for the mystic to read the Song allegorically, but does that really matter? For the Song of Songs lays bare the dynamic of the mystic’s experience with God.