The Conversation

Why is a love poem full of sex in the Bible?

Jonathan Kaplan, University of Texas

Many Americans have heard the expression “I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine” – in fact, a quick Google search turns up myriad websites offering wedding bands inscribed with the much-loved line. Search Etsy for Valentine’s Day gifts, and you’ll see jewelry, T-shirts and coffee mugs printed with the phrase. But perhaps not all of the quotation’s admirers know that its origins lie in a biblical text: the Song of Songs, which has created difficulties for readers for 2,000 years.

Also known as the Song of Solomon or Canticle of Canticles, the Song of Songs stands out in the Bible because of its extensive and candid sexual content. It is a work of sensual lyric poetry that portrays scenes of actual and imagined trysts between the poem’s female protagonist and her lover.

Graphic descriptions of both male and female bodies pervade the work and are certainly titillating, even bordering on pornographic. Sensual metaphors such as “grazing among the lilies” and “drinking … from the juice of my pomegranates” suggest sexual practices that are anything but vanilla.

It’s not just the emphasis on sex that makes the text unusual. The Song of Songs is the only work in the Bible that focuses exclusively on human-to-human love, not human-to-divine – at least on the surface level of the poem.

Ancient Jews and Christians were troubled by the inclusion of such a graphic love poem in the biblical canon and came up with their own ways to remedy the dilemma.

The Bible includes other references to sex – including graphic depictions of sexual violence. And other books certainly contain depictions of human love, such as that of the patriarch Jacob, who labored for 14 years to win his wife Rachel in the Book of Genesis.

But when other biblical books talk about love and marriage, they primarily use this language to depict God’s relationship with people – specifically, the people of Israel, who have a special covenant with him according to the Torah. In contrast, the Song of Songs may possibly allude to Israel’s God only once, in chapter eight.

Yet ancient interpreters of the Song of Songs did not interpret this poetic work as a depiction of human-to-human love. In fact, while researching my book about early rabbinic interpretation of the Song of Songs, I noticed that no such interpretations – Jewish or Christian – survive from before the modern era.

Instead, the earlier commentators “reread” the Song of Songs exclusively as a portrayal of divine-to-human love, God’s relationship with a beloved individual or community.

In the modern period, even more understandings of the poem have emerged, including some about human-to-human love. For instance, feminist readings have highlighted the female character’s power, autonomy and sensuality. Conservative Christians, meanwhile, often approach the poem as an ideal expression of acceptable love between a husband and wife.

From the first few centuries up to today, these many meanings highlight readers’ creativity – and the evocative power of the Song of Songs’ poetic language.


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