Just How Racy is the Song of Songs?

Just How Racy is the Song of Songs? November 28, 2012

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?

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