Song of Songs — The Erotic Book of The Bible

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Adam and Eve Are Driven out of Eden
The “Song of Songs”, also known as the “Song of Solomon” or “Canticle of Canticles”, stands out in the Bible because of its extensive and candid sexual imagery and content. It is a work of sensual lyric poetry that portrays scenes of actual and imagined sexual relations between the poem’s female protagonist and her lover. Graphic descriptions of both male and female bodies pervade the work and sensual metaphors such as “grazing among the lilies” and “drinking … from the juice of my pomegranates” suggest sexual practices beyong the missionary position. [Source: Jonathan Kaplan, Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible and Ancient Judaism, The University of Texas at Austin, The Conversation, February 10, 2023]

Jay Treat of the University of Pennsylvania wrote: The Song of Songs "appears to be a collection of poetry on the theme of human love. It is often frankly erotic. The poems typically presuppose two primary figures: a male lover and a female lover. Like much poetry, its polysemy makes it both evocative and enigmatic. At some early point before our first explicit citation of it, it was seen as an allegory for God's love. It was "the most frequently interpreted book of medieval Christianity" (Ann Matter) and it inspired a great many medieval Jewish commentaries as well. The Song of Songs has played a fascinating role in Western culture. It has been a test case and a workshop for allegorical method. It has been a mainstay of asceticism and an impetus for mysticism.” [Source:]

Alan Humm at Excelsior College in Albany, New York wrote: “ When I was doing college teaching, I found that, periodically, students would begin to faze out, often because they were getting exams in other classes (at least that was what I told myself). But I was able to quickly regain their interest by doing a lecture that covered issues related to sex or drugs. Since there is plenty of sex in the Bible, this was not a problem. You have to work a little harder to drag in drugs, but it can be done. [Source:]

“So we will be looking at what is incontrovertibly the sexiest book in the Bible (Jewish, Catholic, or Protestant), the Song of Songs (also known as The Song of Solomon and Canticles). Even a cursory glance at the Song will tell you it is about love.” In 1.2-3a we read:
Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth!
For your love is better than wine,
Your anointing oils are fragrant,
Your name is perfume poured out…

“As it continues, it can get quite explicit (especially in Hebrew). Although it is always poetic, it is also always about romantic love. I remember in high school, having a teacher who thought that having this type of literature “in the Bible” was side-splittingly funny, and it is appropriate to ask why most people who take the Bible seriously aren't laughing with him. It could be because they are taking it a little too seriously. But it may be that they are seeing something in this openly romantic poem that my former teacher could not.”

Websites and Resources: Bible and Biblical History: Bible Gateway and the New International Version (NIV) of The Bible ; King James Version of the Bible ; Bible History Online ; Judaism Virtual Jewish Library ; Judaism101 ; ; Chabad,org ; Internet Jewish History Sourcebook Christianity: Christian Classics Ethereal Library ; Sacred Texts website ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins

Beginning of the Song of Songs

Song of Songs Chapter 1:
1 The song of songs, which is Solomon's.
2 Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth — for thy love is better than wine.
3 Thine ointments have a goodly fragrance; thy name is as ointment poured forth; therefore do the maidens love thee.
4 Draw me, we will run after thee; the king hath brought me into his chambers; we will be glad and rejoice in thee, we will find thy love more fragrant than wine! sincerely do they love thee.

GUGG (from the Song of Songs) Version II by Paul Klee

5 'I am black, but comely, O ye daughters of Jerusalem, as the tents of Kedar, as the curtains of Solomon.
6 Look not upon me, that I am swarthy, that the sun hath tanned me; my mother's sons were incensed against me, they made me keeper of the vineyards; but mine own vineyard have I not kept.'
7 Tell me, O thou whom my soul loveth, where thou feedest, where thou makest thy flock to rest at noon; for why should I be as one that veileth herself beside the flocks of thy companions
8 If thou know not, O thou fairest among women, go thy way forth by the footsteps of the flock and feed thy kids, beside the shepherds' tents.

9 I have compared thee, O my love, to a steed in Pharaoh's chariots.
10 Thy cheeks are comely with circlets, thy neck with beads.
11 We will make thee circlets of gold with studs of silver.
12 While the king sat at his table, my spikenard sent forth its fragrance.
13 My beloved is unto me as a bag of myrrh, that lieth betwixt my breasts.
14 My beloved is unto me as a cluster of henna in the vineyards of En-gedi.
15 Behold, thou art fair, my love; behold, thou art fair; thine eyes are as doves.
16 Behold, thou art fair, my beloved, yea, pleasant; also our couch is leafy.
17 The beams of our houses are cedars, and our panels are cypresses.

Author and Meaning of the Song of Songs

Alan Humm wrote: “Part of the reason it is in the Bible, of course, could simply be that it is attributed to Solomon. This may be implied by the first verse (“The greatest of songs, which is Solomon's). But the Hebrew here can be read, “…which is for Solomon,” and Rashi (a medieval Jewish scholar) read it as “…for the one to whom peace belongs,” (i.e. God) seeing “Solomon” not as a name, but as an attribute (from the Hebrew word, shalom=peace). Also, Solomon does appear as a character (8.11), making him less likely to have been the author. [Source:]

“But authorship was not what lead Rabbi Akiva (A.D. ca.50-ca.135), a well-known rabbi from the age when the final shape of the Hebrew Bible was still being debated, to say, “All the books of the Bible are holy; but the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies” (Yadayim 3:5). An assertion this strong suggests that not all agreed. Although their opinions have not survived for me to quote, the surface meaning of the poem, and the fact that God is never mentioned by name (only Esther shares this distinction in the Hebrew Bible), make it easy to imagine how some would feel that the Song did not deserve a place in the collection of holy scriptures. Enough people agreed with Akiva, though, that it continues to be a favorite among modern readers of scripture.

“The reason for this, and the reason it is in the Bible, is that it is generally seen as a metaphor for God's love for his people, and the reverse. When the girl says wonderful things about her lover, it is the God-lover speaking of the Divine. When the boy replies with his amorous thoughts, it is God speaking to people. If this is not the original meaning, who really cares? If it speaks to our hearts read this way, then even if this is not the original meaning, who really cares? However, that said, we will be looking in the next article at its closest literary parallels from the ancient world: the love songs of ancient Egypt.”

Sex in the Song of Songs

Samson and Delilah

Alan Humm wrote: “It is time to ask whether it is truly a spiritual composition or just about sex. It becomes immediately necessary to reply with the question, “Are those mutually exclusive categories?” If they are, the spiritual reading must be discarded, because sex runs through it like fat in bacon (you can cook out the juice, but can't really get rid of it) The position taken by Origen and those he influenced, that we must reject from the beginning the erotic underpinning of the poem, forces interpreters into what commentator Marvin Pope called an “allegorical charade,” and more importantly one divorced from context. Not that allegory is bad (Jesus' parables are all allegories), but as Thomas Percy (1729-1811) noted, it is necessary to understand the plain meaning of the poem before pressing on to its deeper symbolism. [Source:] “So how sexy is it, really? This depends a lot on who you ask. It is hard to read the Song without noticing that it is full of kissing, and breasts, and mutual admiration of physical attributes, but not much is going to get rejected by the family filter on your browser. This, however, may simply be because the family filter is not very good at reading between the lines. Some of us remember the old joke about the psychologist showing Rorschach pictures to a client who constantly sees erotic images. When the doctor points out that there may be an issue, the patient replies, “Hey, you're the one showing me all the dirty pictures!”

Are modern scholars simply seeing sex when there is none? We do seem to live in a sex-obsessed society. Certainly, Origen would agree with this, but consider the following oft-quoted passage:
Open to me, my sister, my darling,
my dove, my perfect one.
For my head is drenched with dew,
my hair with droplets of the night.

My love thrust his 'hand' through the opening,
and my feelings were stirred for him.
Song 5.2, 4 (HCSB)

“The context leaves us just enough wiggle room to read this as either sexual or chaste, depending on our own temperament. That restraint (or ambivalence) is one of the reasons for seeing more of an influence from Egyptian poetry, with its erotic metaphors, than from the more explicit Mesopotamian marriage of the gods material. There are some cases, though, where more risqué meanings may be hidden in double-entendre. 'Hand,' for example, may be a euphemism for male anatomy (as in Isa. 57.8, for a more extended discussion look at this page by Duane Smith), and 'mouth' for the feminine equivalent ( Prv. 30.20). In other cases the explicitness could be lost in translation. This is not to say the translations are bad, but the translators themselves may be concerned to keep it G-rated. Just as in English (and most other languages, truth be told) Some words could go either way.”

Particularly Graphic Parts of the Song of Songs

"I sat down under his shadow with great delight, and his fruit was sweet to my taste." 2:3
"His left hand is under my head and his right hand doth embrace me ... stir not up, nor awake my love, till he please." 2:6-7
"My beloved is like a roe or a young hart: behold, he standeth behind our wall, he looketh forth at the windows, shewing himself through the lattice." 2:9
"In the secret places of the stairs, let me see thy countenance ... for ... thy countenance is comely." 2:14
"My beloved is mine, and I am his: he feedeth among the lilies." 2:16
"Until the day break, and the shadows flee away, turn, my beloved, and be thou like a roe or a young hart upon the mountains. 2:17
[Source: Skeptic's Annotated Bible]

"By night on my bed I sought him whom my soul loveth." 3:1
"I found him whom my soul loveth: I held him, and would not let him go, until I had brought him into my mother's house, and into the chamber of her that conceived me." 3:4
"Stir not up, nor awake my love, till he please." 3:5
"Thy two breasts are like two young roes that are twins." 4:5
"How much better is thy love than wine!" 4:10
"Thy lips, O my spouse, drop as the honeycomb: honey and milk are under thy tongue; and the smell of thy garments is like the smell of Lebanon." 4:11
A garden inclosed is my sister, my spouse; a spring shut up, a fountain sealed." 4:12
"Thy plants are an orchard of pomegranates, with pleasant fruits." 4:13
"A fountain of gardens, a well of living waters, and streams from Lebanon." 4:15
"Come ... blow upon my garden, that the spices thereof may flow out. Let my beloved come into his garden, and eat his pleasant fruits."
Oh, so that's where "blow job" comes from! 4:16
"I am come into my garden, my sister, my spouse: I have gathered my myrrh with my spice;

“I have eaten my honeycomb with my honey." 5:1
"Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my undefiled." 5:2
"My beloved put in his hand by the hole of the door, and my bowels were moved for him." 5:4
"I rose up to open to my beloved; and my hands dropped with myrrh, and my fingers with sweet smelling myrrh, upon the handles of the lock." 5:5
"I opened to my beloved; but my beloved had withdrawn himself." 5:6
"His countenance is as Lebanon, excellent as the cedars." 5:15
"His mouth is most sweet: yea, he is altogether lovely. This is my beloved, and this is my friend." 5:16 < br> "The joints of thy thighs are like jewels." 7:1
"Thy navel is like a round goblet, which wanteth not liquor: thy belly is like an heap of wheat set about with lilies." 7:2
"Thy two breasts are like two young roes that are twins." 7:3
"How pleasant art thou, O love, for delights!" 7:6
"Thy breasts to clusters of grapes." 7:7
"Thy breasts shall be as clusters of the vine." 7:8
"Come, my beloved, let us go forth into the field ... Let us get up early to the vineyards ... there will I give thee my loves." 7:12
"I would cause thee to drink of spiced wine of the juice of my pomegranate. 8:2
"His left hand should be under my head, and his right hand should embrace me. 8:3-4
"Stir not up, nor awake my love, until he please." 8:4
"We have a little sister, and she hath no breasts ... But my breasts [are] like towers." 8:8-10

Song of Songs Also Stand Out For Not Having Much God In it

The Song of Songs stand out as a testimony on human love and for barely mentioning God. Jonathan Kaplan wrote in The Conversation: It’s not just the emphasis on sex that makes the text unusual. The Song of Songs is the only work in the Bible that focuses exclusively on human-to-human love, not human-to-divine — at least on the surface level of the poem. [Source: Jonathan Kaplan, Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible and Ancient Judaism, The University of Texas at Austin, The Conversation, February 10, 2023]

The Bible includes other references to sex — including graphic depictions of sexual violence. And other books certainly contain depictions of human love, such as that of the patriarch Jacob, who labored for 14 years to win his wife Rachel in the Book of Genesis.But when other biblical books talk about love and marriage, they primarily use this language to depict God’s relationship with people — specifically, the people of Israel, who have a special covenant with him according to the Torah. In contrast, the Song of Songs may possibly allude to Israel’s God only once, in chapter eight.

In the modern period”, new “understandings of the poem have emerged, including some about human-to-human love. For instance, feminist readings have highlighted the female character’s power, autonomy and sensuality. Conservative Christians, meanwhile, often approach the poem as an ideal expression of acceptable love between a husband and wife. From the first few centuries up to today, these many meanings highlight readers’ creativity — and the evocative power of the Song of Songs’ poetic language.

Ancient Interpretations of the Song of Songs Downplayed the Sex

Solomon and the Queen of Sheba

Ancient Jews and Christians were troubled by the inclusion of such a graphic love poem in the biblical canon and came up with their own ways to remedy the dilemma. Jonathan Kaplan wrote in The Conversation: Ancient interpreters of the Song of Songs did not interpret this poetic work as a depiction of human-to-human love. In fact, while researching my book about early rabbinic interpretation of the Song of Songs, I noticed that no such interpretations — Jewish or Christian — survive from before the modern era. [Source: Jonathan Kaplan, Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible and Ancient Judaism, The University of Texas at Austin, The Conversation, February 10, 2023]

“Instead, the earlier commentators “reread” the Song of Songs exclusively as a portrayal of divine-to-human love, God’s relationship with a beloved individual or community. Other scholars and I have argued that the earliest interpretations of the Song of Songs appear in late first-century works, such as allusions in the Book of Revelation — the final book in the New Testament, which describes prophetic visions of Jesus’ second coming — and 4 Ezra, another apocalyptic work included in some versions of the Bible.

In the first few centuries, rabbis began to interpret the Song of Songs as part of their commentaries on the Pentateuch, the first section of the Hebrew Bible. The Pentateuch describes the creation of the world and includes stories about the Israelites’ ancestors and their epic journey from Egypt to Israel. Over the course of several books, the Pentateuch shows them fleeing slavery, receiving revelation from God at Mt. Sinai, wandering in the desert for 40 years and finally entering the promised land.

These early rabbis envisioned that narrative as an extended, intimate story about God’s relationship with the people of Israel. And although they shied away from the more erotic dimensions of the Song of Songs, they used its language to depict God’s relationship with the people of Israel as more than a simple contractual arrangement. In my 2015 book, “My Perfect One,” I argued that the earliest rabbis characterized these bonds as deeply affectionate and marked by profound emotional commitment. For instance, in one passage, they interpret Song of Songs 2:6 — “His left hand was under my head, and his right hand embraced me” — as describing God’s embrace of Israel at Mt. Sinai. In a similar fashion, Christian scholars avoided the carnal dimensions of this poetic work. Rather than seeing the Song of Songs as a statement of God’s love for Israel, early Christians understood it as an allegory of Christ’s love for his “bride,” the church.

Other allegorical readings have also emerged throughout history. Origen, for instance, a third-century Christian writer, proposed that the Song of Songs could be interpreted as the soul’s yearning for God. Similar to other interpreters, Origen associated the soul with the female protagonist, and the divine with her male “beloved.” Another Christian approach to the Song of Songs was that the poem described God’s loving relationship with Jesus’ mother, Mary. These diverse interpretations may also have influenced medieval Jewish mystics. In Judaism, the divine presence or “Shekinah” is often thought of as feminine — an idea that became important to these mystics, who relied on the Song of Songs to describe the Shekinah.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, Schnorr von Carolsfeld Bible in Bildern, 1860

Text Sources: Internet Jewish History Sourcebook “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); “Old Testament Life and Literature” by Gerald A. Larue, New International Version (NIV) of The Bible,; Wikipedia, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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