Religion and Sexuality
Wisdom on Sex
"...Love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame. Many waters cannot quench love; neither can floods drown it. If one offered for love all the wealth of his house, it would be utterly scorned" (8:6b-7).
The Song is set in springtime, in the city of Jerusalem with its outlying vineyards and pastures. It is an invitation to a tryst by the male beloved to his female lover. Throughout the collection of poems, the woman is assertive and sensuous, pursuing her lover (3:1-4, 5:6-7), inviting him boldly (4:16, 6:11-12, 7:13, 8:2, 5), not acted upon, as women are portrayed in the priestly genealogies and typical depictions of sexual relations.
In the Song the lovers take turns inviting one another, and love is wholly reciprocal (Bloch, 4). Both are described in tender images (lilies, doves, gazelles) as well as forceful, stately terms (pillars, towers). The love between the two is faithful, joyful, satisfying, passionate, and mutual. In many familiar love stories, like Romeo and Juliet, love is closely tied to loss and death. For Tristan and Isolde or Heathcliff and Catherine, love itself is a form of suffering. The lovers in the Song savor love rather than suffer from it (Bloch, 7).
While the Song has similarities with Egyptian love poetry, in the context of the Hebrew scriptures it affirms unique themes. They include the celebration of erotic love not tied to marriage or procreation and a depiction of a woman as a partner in sexual pleasure rather than acted upon. The prominence of women in the Song, the association of women with poetry and song in the Bible, and the unusually sympathetic portrayal of a woman's perspective on sexuality has led some readers to wonder whether the author might have been a woman (Bloch, 20-21).
The Song is not completely at odds with the rest of the Hebrew scriptures in its view of sexual pleasure. Sex is no sin in the Old Testament. Sexual attraction is counted as one of the wonders of the world in Proverbs (Pr. 30:18-19). Proverbs dramatizes the perils of adultery (Pr. 7:16-18); Folly is personified as a woman just as Wisdom is. Whereas Woman Wisdom is a reliable moral guide whose way leads to life (Pr. 3:13-18), Folly is a sleazy temptress whose way leads to death (2:16-19, 5:1-14, 7:10-27).
But at the same time that it warns against infidelity, Proverbs recommends erotic pleasure in the context of marriage (Pr. 5:15, 18-19). Even the melancholy Qohelet sees love as a God-given consolation for the pains of daily life (Eccl. 9:9)(Bloch, 11-12).
We misunderstand the Song of Songs if we assume its point is the casual condoning of premarital sexual relations. The Song of Songs is a poetic fantasy. Poets don't always reflect social mores; sometimes they ignore or subvert them. The collection's agenda is not deliberately to defy social strictures on premarital sex, but rather to accept sexuality with naturalness and delicacy. (See Michael V. Fox, The Song of Songs and the Ancient Egyptian Love Songs, Madison, Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1985, 314.)
The Book's attitude toward the lovers' relationship is anything but casual. The book has a sexual ethic, but this ethic is not chastity, but fidelity, sexual exclusiveness. The lovers embody unquestioned devotion to one another, a love that is as strong as death, a constancy that is innate to their relationship rather than a virtue they have to work at (Fox, 315).