Sexuality in the Song of Songs – Part 4: Sexual Ethics

Shulamite BrideIt should be very clear at this point that the Song is unashamedly and explicitly sexual. Describing the growing love and passion between two individuals. While It remains uncertain if they are married (what the Song has to say about marriage will be considered later in this essay) the Song clearly describes a passionate love affair or courtship. This love that they share is expressed openly and passionately as the two lovers take turns describing each other. Nowhere in this song is there even a hint of shame or sin induced guilt. Hess argues that this “positive theme of physical love contrasts with the persisting negative statements on adultery, promiscuity and the images of Israel as the unfaithful wife as found in the prophets” (2005: 33), he goes on to state that the imagery of a sexuality that is praised “counters the negative association of these things with sin as developed in the prophets” (Hess quoting Hunter, 2005: 33).

The absence of sinfulness and guilt does not mean that the song portrays human sexuality as problem free, there are a couple of darker episodes of the Song that seem to point out, as Rob Bell states in his book Sex God, that: “Love is risky” (2007: 94). Earlier in the same chapter Bell comments on this risk, it is, when in a relationship you give the other person power by allowing that person to accept or reject you (Bell, 2007: 89). And this is what we see happening in the Song 5.2-6 if you choose to read the surface narrative. First the man takes a risk, knocking on her door late at night and she rejects him, when she realises what she has done she changes her mind but to late he has left and Bell comments: “Now she is the one risking, searching, trying to find him. And coming up empty. The heart has tremendous capacity to love, and to ache. And that ache is universal” (Bell, 2007: 95).

If the Song is a positive statement on human sexuality it is even more affirming about female sexuality. This has led to an argument for female authorship. Fifty-three percent of the dialogue is given to the woman (Hess, 2005: 19) and some of the thoughts expressed in the song have been considered so feminine that they cannot possibly have been written by a man (Estes, 2005: 394). Whoever wrote these love poems did give the woman an unusual role not only as she gets to speak for herself but when she does she claims to have complete control of her own sexuality (Murphy, 1999: 242). This of course stands in stark contrast to most of the biblical narrative where women may be “seen but not heard” as Freed comments on Luke which is to be considered as one of the more feminist texts in the Christian canon (Freed, 2001: 170). “The song presents a view of male-female sexuality which is neither exploitative or hierarchic. Both man and woman act on their own initiative as well as in response to one another” (Murphy et al. 1999: 242). It has been suggested that the imagery where the woman is portrayed as “succulent fruit” stands in stark contrast against the otherwise passive imagery of woman in other bible narratives like Samson’s metaphor for intimacy in Judges 4.18 (Hess, 2005: 29). Hess goes on to argue that this “provides a counterpoint to the institutionalized patriarchalism of much of Israelite society” (Hess, 2005: 33)

This places the Shulammite woman in the Song in the same category as Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Uriah’s wife (Baatsheba) who are the only women mentioned in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus (Eldredge, 2001: 190). These women are not soft spoken and demure, but rather women who stepped up and took matters into their own hands clearly in control like the Shulammite woman of the Song.

There is a striking resemblance to the story of Ruth, a narrative that is also part of the Megilloth who uses her own sexuality to secure a future for herself and her mother in law. Robert Beckford argues that the uncovering of Boaz feet is a euphemism and that Ruth, like the Shulammite woman, secure in her own sexuality, initiates a sexual encounter and seduces Boaz by uncovering not his feet but his manhood (Beckford 2008). Although Eldredge argues that Ruth and Boaz did not have sex that night, he states that: “There is no possible reading of that passage that is ‘safe’ or ‘nice.’ This is seduction pure and simple” (Eldredge, 2001: 190). The book of Ruth is just as the Song filled with “verbal sparring in which she [Ruth] employs subtle yet recognizable double entendres” (Brueggemann quoting Linafelt, 2003: 321).

As the Song promotes what seems to be at least equality, if not complete independence, for the woman it seems to point back to a time before the fall and the Song has been described as “an extended commentary on the very good spoken over creation, particularly the creation of humankind as male and female” (Murphy et al. 1999: 242). It has also been suggested, although it cannot be proven, that the phrase: “I am my beloved’s, and his desire is for me.” (Song 7:10) stands as a counterpoint to Genesis 3.16: “your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” (Murphy et al. 1999: 242) This seems to suggest at least by implication that in the union between man and woman the goodness of Eden can be found.

On the topic whether this is within marriage or not, the Song stays silent. Brueggemann asserts that: “it is love of an innocent kind unrestrained by morality or even a suggestion of matrimonial context” (2003: 325). Although Hess argues that the passion of the Song sets it apart from other wisdom literature, but that there is an “emphasis on commitment that prevents a capitulation to promiscuity” (2005: 32) He goes on to link this emphasis links the Song to Prov 5.15-19 and states that “some six or seven explicit verbal images relate this passage to the Song and render explicit the theme of exclusive commitment that is assumed in the love poetry” (Hess, 2005: 32). Although some scholars argue that chapters 4-5 include a marriage ceremony, the text “does not explicitly relate sexuality to marriage and overall does not seem to insist that the appropriate expression of sexuality is necessarily limited to marriage. Neither does it claim that marriage is insignificant. Marriage is simply is not an overt concern in the text” (Murphy et al. 1999: 243).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

To create code blocks or other preformatted text, indent by four spaces:

    This will be displayed in a monospaced font. The first four 
    spaces will be stripped off, but all other whitespace
    will be preserved.
    Markdown is turned off in code blocks:
     [This is not a link](

To create not a block, but an inline code span, use backticks:

Here is some inline `code`.

For more help see

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.