Sex, Love, and God on St. Valentine’s Day

The Song of Solomon, also called the Song of Songs, is by far the sexiest book in either the Old or New Testaments. It has been interpreted by Jews as an allegorical hymn celebrating God’s love for His Chosen People, and by Christians as an allegorical hymn celebrating Jesus’s love for his Church. Biblical interpretation, to be sure, is a culturally complex and theologically freighted enterprise, but in this case both readings strain to avoid the plain sense of the erotically-charged text. Insofar as it can be summarized, the book consists of a poetic dialogue between a young bride and her beloved groom which runs a gamut of archetypal lovers’ emotions—longing, doubt, reassurance, anxiety, seduction, surrender, and union:

Bride: I have taken off my robe;

How can I put it on again?

I have washed my feet;

How can I defile them?

My beloved put his hand

By the latch of the door,

And my heart yearned for him.

I arose to open for my beloved.

And my hands dripped with myrrh,

My fingers with liquid myrrh,

On the handles of the lock.

I opened for my beloved,

But my beloved had turned away and was gone. (5:3-6)

 

And again:

 

Beloved: How beautiful are your feet in sandals,

O prince’s daughter!

The curves of your thighs are like jewels,

The work of the hands of a skillful workman.

Your navel is a rounded goblet;

It lacks no blended beverage.

Your waist is a heap of wheat

Set about with lilies.

Your two breasts are like two fawns,

Twins of a gazelle . . .

This stature of yours is like a palm tree,

And your breasts like its clusters.

I said, “I will go up to the palm tree,

I will take hold of its branches.”

Let now your breasts be like clusters of the vine,

The fragrance of your breathe like apples,

And the roof of your mouth like the best wine. (7:1-9)

 

To read the Song of Solomon as a spiritual allegory, therefore, takes considerable ingenuity, and the fact that such efforts are traditional underscores the Judeo-Christian ambivalence on the subject of sexuality. But it is an ambivalence, not an aversion. The caricature of the person of faith as a hypocritical prig, quivering with repressed desires, terrified of his humanity, and determined to stamp out earthly joy wherever he might find it is exactly that—a caricature. The Bible itself is shot through with sexual themes, celebrations and condemnations of the physical dimension of human love; making sense of them is often difficult.

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