Solomon’s Sexual Wisdom

Solomon’s Sexual Wisdom November 29, 2017

The following is snipped from my essay in The Words of the Wise are like Goads.

The imagery of Ecclesiastes 7 hooks back to the imagery of Lady Folly from the early chapters of Proverbs, the exhortation to delight in the woman you love leans toward the Song of Songs:

“Go. Eat in happiness your bread, and drink with a good heart your wine, for already God has approved your works. At all times, let your garments be white, and oil on your head do not lack. See life with the woman whom you love all the days of the life of your hebel that He gave to you under the sun all the days of your hebel, for this is your portion in your life and in your work which you work under the sun.”

Solomon has issued several earlier exhortations to eat, drink, and enjoy life (2:24; 3:13; 5:18; 8:15), but this is the last and most elaborate, and, importantly, also the only such exhortation that explicitly links marital and sexual love with the other delights of life. It follows one of Solomon’s bleakest meditations on death.[1]

Righteous and wicked both go to the grave. Nothing – not righteousness, nor goodness, nor cleanness, nor sacrifice, neither swearing nor refusing to swear – nothing can stave off death (9:2; note the list of five categories). After a life of evil and even insanity, they all go to the same fate (9:3). Life is the great, the only value, so great that the living dog is superior to a dead lion (9:4). The dead at least have this advantage: They know nothing. For the living, the anticipation of death fills life and renders it hateful (9:5-6). Verses 11-12 return to the concerns of the opening verses, again listing five categories (swift, warriors, wise, discerning, men of ability) who are swallowed up by time, chance, and ultimately by devouring Sheol itself.

Nestled within this grim analysis of the inevitability and inescapability of death, Solomon contrasts the five lacks of the dead with the pleasures that the living can still enjoy.

 

Dead, vv 5-6                                          Living, vv 7-9

Know nothing                                     Eat and drink

No reward                                           God approves works

No memory                                         Clothes and oil

No hate or love                                   Enjoy life with woman

No portion                                          This is portion

 

In the context, “seeing life” with the woman one loves might be taken as a pleasurable escape from the gnawing expectation of death. Care is the enemy of life, but life and sex can be shield against care, especially cares about death. At best, Solomon seems to offer the wisdom of seduction poetry, which is the wisdom of death.[2] That is certainly part of the point, emphasized by the repetitive “all the days . . . of your hebel” in verse 9. He does not offer any hope that death can hebel can be overcome. This life, this life of hebel, is the lot of all human beings, and so should be grasped with enough fervor to squeeze out all that is in it. “Whatever your hand finds to do” – whether eating, drinking, or enjoying the wife you love – “do it with all your might,” because the opportunity to enjoy it will soon pass (v. 10).

I suspect something more is going on. What Solomon offers is not merely a defiant hedonistic fist shaken in the face of death, but a theologically grounded vision of life. In verse 7, the enjoyment of food, festivity, and sex is overseen by God. What gives one leave to enjoy life is the confidence that God has approved his works. Bread, wine, oil, and joy are, in the Hebrew Bible, particularly associated with the festivities of the sanctuary (Deut 12:1-19; 14:23), so Solomon’s exhortation to eat, drink, and rejoice is, in part, an exhortation to enjoy the gifts of God offered directly at His house. Further, the woman of verse 9 is the woman who has been “given,” implicitly given by God.[3]

Were life not a gift, were human beings simply thrown into a world not of our own making and called to live authentic human lives, we would have good reason to opt for one of the easy and obvious paths: postmodern Epicureanism or postmodern Stoicism. If, as Solomon thinks, this life comes from God, if the particular contours of life as Qoheleth lays them out are the particular contours of an unasked and undeserved gift, then the proper human response is the kind of response we make to gifts.

Wishing things were different is a form of ingratitude, and an obstacle to happiness. Whoever wishes things were different is not only a fool, but a spoiled brat of a fool, like the child who stomps out of the room and ruins Christmas for everyone because he got the wrong X-Box game. Brief, ephemeral, vaporous as it is, this life of eating, drinking, festivity, love, and work is the gift that God gives, and, like all gifts, it is to be received with grateful joy.

That line of meditation is clear from the whole of Ecclesiastes, but I suspect that something even more is going on in Solomon’s reference to the “woman you love.” Eccl 9:7-9 contains multiple connections with the Song of Songs. “Eating and drinking” comes at the center of the Song as a metaphor for delighted love-making (4:16-5:1),[4] and near the end of the Song the woman offers the “juice of my pomegranates” to her lover to drink (8:2). Wine – tasty, aromatic, intoxicating – is a polysemic symbol of love in the Song (1:2, 4), and oils and perfumes add to the sensual overload of sexual delight (1:3). In Song 4:10, love is again compared to wine, and the lover also revels in the “smell of your oils,” which are superior to “all spices.”

Most obviously, Eccl 9 reaches toward the Song with its reference to sexual love (Eccl 9:9). Qoheleth uses the verb “love” (’ahab) four times (Eccl 3:10; 5:10; 9:9) and the noun (’ahabah) twice (9:1, 6), but only in 9:9 does it overtly refer to a man’s love for a woman. In the Song, the verb is used seven times, and the noun eleven times, sometimes to describe the passion that sickens the woman (Song 2:5; 5:8), sometimes as a name for the beloved (7:6), and in one passage as an apparently omnipotent cosmic force (8:6-7).

Other verbal connections link Song 8:6-7 and Eccl 9:7-9. As noted above, the exhortation to eat, drink, and enjoy one’s wife is surrounded by stark reminders of death. In a neat bit of word-painting, the words môt (death) and “Sheol” lay siege to the words “bread, wine, and woman” just as surely as the reality of death surrounds the living. On the one side, Eccl 9 uses môt four times in three verses (9:3, 4, 5 [2x]), while on the other side Sheol opens his maw (v. 10).

Likewise, Song 8:6-7 affirms the power of death over Mot and Sheol, throwing in Reseph, god of fiery plague, for good measure.[5] In both passages, in short, sexual love is set in defiant opposition to the forces of decay that dominate human life. This is not about progeny. Neither passage suggests that death is overcome by producing children. Rather, Solomon’s sexual wisdom teaches that the wise face a world of death and hebel by clinging to those they love.

The two passages differ, however, in the power attributed to love. It is possible that already in Eccl 7:26 Solomon has made a teasing declaration about the power of sex. “More bitter (mar) than death,” he says of women, but Dahood and Lohfink both suggest that mar derives from mrr, “be strong.”[6] Hence, Eccl 7:26 could be read as an affirmation of feminine strength, a strength that overcomes death. This is not necessarily wholly positive, because an immortal feminine is so much more capable of setting traps, laying out nets, and chaining men (7:25-29). Given Solomon’s fondness for wordplay and riddles,[7] it is certainly possible that Solomon intended the word to bear both meanings: “More bitter than death is woman” and “Stronger than death is woman.”

Whether or not that interpretation of Eccl 7:26 is plausible, the Song makes a remarkable, theological declaration about the power of erotic love. Much of that declaration is uncontroversial. Love, which in the context of the Song means the erotic passion of a woman for a man and a man for a woman, holds the beloved as strongly as Mot grasps his victims, the protective jealousy inspired by love longs for the lover fiercely as Sheol longs for new flesh. Love is a fire that consumes the lover who wants to consume the beloved and make her his own; love is the fire that consumes both lovers until they can declare “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine” (Song 1:6; 6:3; 7:10).

More controversial is the claim that this love is divinely inspired, that the fire that burns the lovers is the flame of the Lord. The issue turns on the question of whether or not the suffix on the final word of Song 8:6 (šalhebetyah) is an intensifying or feminine suffix, or the divine name Yah. Richard Davidson has argued persuasively that the word should be translated as “flame of Yah.” The word is a causative form that anticipates a suffix that would name the agent that causes the flame (Davidson appeals to the parallel of Jer 2:31), and the surrounding lines are studded with words that name divine forces.[8] To verse 6’s references to Mot, Sheol and Reseph, verse 7 adds the phrase “many waters,” which are the cosmic forces of chaos that would quench any but the most vehement flame.[9] Far from being devoured by death, or quenched by the cosmic waters of chaos, the flame of Yah is a consuming fire that devours death.

The link between Qoheleth and the Song indicates that that the enjoyment of a woman’s love is not simply a gesture of defiance in the face of death. The passion of the man and woman in the Song is a spark from the flame of Yahweh himself, and as such holds a promise of conquest over death. Clinging to the wife you love is not a survival tactic, a desperate holding-out against the grave. Insofar as it participates in the fiery love that Yah is, just so much it is death’s equal, offering hope for a life beyond life under the sun, life beyond the whirling hebel.

Thus Qoheleth takes its place in the progression of sexual wisdom found in the sapiential tradition of the Bible. Proverbs instructs the young man, Choose the right woman. Ecclesiastes adds, Enjoy her love in a world of death and change. The Song of Songs gives the crowning assurance: In loving the right woman, you share in Yah’s conquest of death.

 

[1] I am adapting the analysis of Mercedes Garcia Bachmann, “A Study of Qoheleth (Ecclesiastes) 9:1-12,” International Review of Mission 91 (2002): 385-88.

[2] Here is the history of seduction poetry in a prosaic nutshell: Life is short, you and I are getting neither younger nor more attractive, so we’d better get it on now while we still want to.

[3] This point is emphasized by Johan Yeong Sik Pahk, “A Syntactical and Contextual Consideration of ’sh in Qoh. IX 9,” VT 51:3 (2001): 370-80. Pahk’s main interest is to show that the woman in 9:9 is the “given” wife, not just “any” woman.

[4] Many commentators have concluded that these are the structurally central verses in the Song. See, for example, Richard M. Davidson, “The Literary Structure of the Song of Songs Redivivius,” Journal of the Adventist Theological Society 14.2 (2003): 44-65.

[5] Marvin H. Pope, Song of Songs (AB 7C; New York: Doubleday, 1977), 670.

[6] Dahood, “Qoheoleth and Recent Discoveries,” Bib 39 (1958): 308-10; N. Lohfink, “War Kohelet ein Frauenfeind? Ein Versuch, die Logik und den Gegenstand von Foh 7, 23028, la herauszufinden,” in La Sagesse de l’Ancien Testament (ed. M. Gilbert; Gembloux: Leuven University, 1979), 259-87.

[7] See Scott B. Noegel, “‘Word Play’ in Qoheleth,” JHS 7.4 (2007): 2-28.

[8] Davidson, Flame of Yahweh: Sexuality in the Old Testament (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2007), 624-29.

[9] Herbert G. May, “Some Cosmic Connotations of Mayim Rabbim, ‘Many Waters,’” JBL 74.1 (1955): 9-21.

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