Just How Racy is the Song of Songs?

Today my class on the Bible focused on Song of Songs. This was my first time including the text as a focus. With so much to cover in a semester, it seemed in the past to be an obvious choice for something to leave by the wayside. But since it is highlighted in the textbook I am using for the first time this semester, The Back Door Introduction to the Bible, and since it illustrates just how diverse the contents of the canon are and just how different an outlook on sex some ancient religious people had than many modern ones, I thought I’d devote a class to it and see what happens. This post focuses on one of the topics we ended up talking about.

There is a long history of treating the Song of Songs as a metaphor, for instance as a metaphor for Christ and the church. Those who take it more “literally” treat it as a romantic or erotic poem.

But just how erotic? No one, in fact, treats the text as completely literally (as the cartoon below illustrates):

Everyone acknowledges the similes. The only debate is whether saying that someone’s teeth are like sheep was more of a turn-on in ancient Israel than it is today for modern English speakers everyone I’ve ever spoken to.

But what about language that is not explicitly said to be a metaphor, but could be? To paraphrase what is sometimes said regarding Freudian analysis, sometimes a pomegranate is just a pomegranate. But in erotic poetry? And surely when he plans to climb the tree to take hold of its fruit in chapter 7, the context makes it explicit what he is referring to, does it not?

And what about in chapter 5? Anyone familiar with Biblical euphemisms will know that “feet” can refer to other parts of the body than just feet. And when it refers to the male lover thrusting his hand through the latch opening (5:4), do we have any evidence about ancient doors that would even make it possible to understand the language literally?

Many people associate the Bible with prudishness regarding sex. But anyone who has read it knows that the Bible – particularly the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament – is anything but prudish.

I’m curious what others who have studied or taught Biblical studies at university have done with the Song of Songs in class. Were students comfortable or uncomfortable with discussing the possibly racy metaphors? Apart from the novelty value for some students that there is erotica in the Bible, what other points were offered for students to take away from examining the text and reflecting on its presence in the canon?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Bob-MacDonald/1043189517 Bob MacDonald

    I did a number of posts on the Song a few years ago. I had Song 2:15 as my email tag line for about 6 years – late 90′s early 2000′s but it wasn’t really formal enough. I wrote a little drash on the foxes here – you might get something from it. Ask the boss.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      You really think Springsteen has particular insight into the Song of Songs? ;-)

      • Pseudonym

        My love’s lips are those of chickens,
        Her hips are as those of lizards.
        Her eyes are alligator’s,
        And her legs are the monkey’s.

        Sorry, couldn’t help myself. Link for those who don’t get the reference.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

          I’m glad you included the link, as I didn’t get the reference. It did indeed connect both the Song of Songs and Springsteen!

          • Pseudonym

            The fact that this was the only one I could think of indicates just how unfamiliar I am with the Springsteen canon.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Bob-MacDonald/1043189517 Bob MacDonald

    related to foxes – Dr Seuss has a good book Fox in socks – pointer to the text is here. Must be read aloud – get your son to do it. You will roll in the aisles.

  • Bryan Bibb

    I did this text on Monday. In addition to the double entendre, my favorite aspect of the book is how it pairs the honest celebration of erotic love with a larger moral framework. Our culture seems to do either one of these well, but rarely both.

    As a class group exercise, I often have students prepare their own dynamic renderings of particular passages (after we have looked at a range of translations to see how they handle the metaphorical language). I have also had them compose new lines with contemporary idiom and share with the class. That is always a hoot.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      Thats an interesting idea! Sounds risky – or rather, risqué! :-)

    • Rain

      “I did this text on Monday.”

      I did this text on Tuesday. And it liked it! This text is worse than a revolving door. Good grief.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    Duane Smith has posted an abnormally interesting Sumerian erotic poem, which uses lettuce, among other things, as a sexual metaphor.

    http://www.telecomtally.com/blog/2012/11/sex_and_metaphorical_language.html

  • http://www.facebook.com/huwlev Hugh Levenbach

    I have often wondered about the politics involved in the final canonization of the bible. I mean that if one wished to argue strongly that the Song of Songs be included in the bible, you would not get very far by stating that “this book is really sexy.”

    If you want to get those serious old guys with the long beards to agree to include it in the canon, you’re going to have to make a strong case for symbolism, echoed by the 10th century scholar, Rashi who says it symbolizes God’s love for his people.

    My take on this is that the book is downright erotic and that eroticism is clear proof of God’s love for life and procreation.

  • PLT

    We discussed SoS in a seminary class several years ago. We discussed the very erotic imagery in the book, and also likened God’s passion, drive, and love for God’s people as that of a lover pursuing the beloved.

  • pastor luke

    There is a lot of paganizing of the church going on today. The bible interprets itself. Here watch this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rlxShsA-efE

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      When you say “the Bible interprets itself” presumably what you mean is that, by placing them together in this collection, those who did so have made it possible to interpret some of these texts differently than they might have been understood when they were merely independent works of literature.


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