Sex in the Song of Solomon

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Today and Everyday by Lucy Santiago (MC ’24) is a bimonthly column about faith and ritual.

My beloved thrust his hand into the opening, and my inmost being yearned for him. I arose to open to my beloved, and my hands dripped with myrrh…upon the handles of the bolt. I opened to my beloved, but my beloved had turned and was gone…I sought him, but did not find him. (Song of Solomon 5:4-6)

The Song of Solomon, also known as the Song of Songs, is a brief book tucked quietly between Ecclesiastes and Isaiah. It is blatantly sexual, describing a dialogue between a pair of soon-to-be-married lovers with enough potency to make Colleen Hoover quake in her boots. At the same time, it’s mostly secular. While it was a popular poem in its time, it’s an unlikely candidate for a religious text; it seems more sexy than sacred. Indeed, there was a ferocious objection over its inclusion in the canon from those who thought the Writings would be defiled by a nonreligious erotic poem. But the Song’s supporters argued that it was the most sacred of all the books for its beauty and vision. 

The Song of Solomon is magnificent but uncomplicated. Its metaphors are so powerful and simple as to be transcendent (see 2:14 and 4:2). Harnessing this beauty, religious authorities have written that the Song describes the purity of divine love. Scholars have interpreted the poem as a metaphor for God’s love for Israel, or Christ’s love for His bride, the Church. But these arguments are unconvincing. Stripping the Song of Solomon of its sexual power to compare it with perfect, divine love leaves it empty. Instead, the Song offers a compelling vision of human partnership, with all its pleasure and frustrations.

The Song immediately follows Ecclesiastes, a nihilistic book concluding that earthly pleasures should drive one’s life because divine reward is unreliable. In this context, it’s clear that the Song is imperative, putting forth an enthusiastic argument for the earthliest of pleasures: sex. The bride exclaims to her companions, “Draw me after you, let us make haste.” She’s filled with vitality and joy even when she isn’t with her lover. The passion of her sex life spills over, until it colors her whole life. (See: “I Just Had Sex” by The Lonely Island feat. Akon.) Sex stokes the fire that keeps you going, and helps you to find the beauty in your life.

In the Song, sex is seeking and finding. The poem is repetitive, describing a series of chases between the bride and her groom—in reality, in metaphor, in dreams. In the above passage, just as the bride is about to reach a climax, her lover is gone. Though he turns away, she does not panic. Instead, she reaches out to find him, to pull him back, to try again. The Song establishes a cycle of sexual pursuit and reunion that is equal parts thrilling and frustrating. The lovers don’t always find what they seek. Tension builds and breaks again in waves. To the author of the Song, nothing could be more natural. Sex is not a linear path towards perfect pleasure, but rather a series of imperfect interactions that reinforce the couple’s mutual desire. 

In practice, seeking a partner isn’t a chase through dreams or a search through vineyards. It’s a coming together. This is physical, and yes, hopefully literal. But it must be emotional, spiritual, and mental as well. It is an attempt to understand one another, not just one another’s desires. Moments of real connection, person-to-person, are exalted. These are the times you find each other. There are moments, too, of difference and frustration. Satisfaction is not guaranteed, but surprisingly, this can be freeing. In small doses, separation and difficulties are necessary parts of a natural cycle. These experiences force us to turn inward, to revise our own definitions of pleasure and consider how best to return to our partner. When we are ready, we emerge with a more powerful understanding of our desires and our identity that makes sex all the more wonderful.

Of course, biblical descriptions of sex have a limited scope. The Song of Solomon takes for granted that sex follows love, and doesn’t have much to say about hookup culture. I certainly don’t intend to beat the dead horse that is God and The State of Sex Among Youth Today. But while The Song might not make a very good Cosmo article, its vision holds up. Sex in the Song is passionate, flexible, and loving—whether that love is romantic or platonic. The bride says, “Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm.” She is saying: let our love carry you through your day.

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