Andrews University Seminary Studies, Spring 1989, Vol. 27, No. 1, 1-19.

            Copyright © 1989 by Andrews University Press. Cited with permission

 

 

THEOLOGY OF SEXUALITY IN THE SONG OF SONGS:

                           RETURN TO EDEN

 

                               RICHARD M. DAVIDSON

                                     Andrews University

 

            “For in all the world there is nothing to equal the day on

which the Song of Songs was given to Israel, for all the writings

are Holy, but the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies.”1 Such was

the vision of the exalted importance of the Song of Songs as

purportedly expressed by Rabbi Aqiba at the Council of Jamnia

(ca. 90 A.D.). According to tradition, Aqiba's speech helped confirm

the Song's place in the canon of Scripture.

 

                        1. Allegorization of the Song of Songs

 

            Unfortunately, the speech did not equally serve to confirm a

lofty conception of sexuality. Even the Jewish rabbis, with their

basically healthy and robust view of sexuality, apparently had great

difficulty seeing how what seemed to be a purely secular love song

could be included in the sacred canon. Therefore they adopted and

developed an elaborate allegorical interpretation of the Song which

downplayed the literal sense in favor of a hidden, spiritual mean-

ing. When Aqiba said the Song of Songs was the Holy of Holies,

what he probably had in mind was that the Song was a detailed

allegory of the historical relationship between the Divine Presence

(the Shekinah in the Holy of Holies) and the people of Israel from

the Exodus to the coming of the Messiah.2 Thus, Aqiba warned

against taking the Song of Songs only as a human love song: "He

 

    1 Mishnah, Yadaim III, 5.

    2 See Marvin Pope, Song of Songs, AB (Garden City, NY, 1977), pp. 89-112, for a

detailed description of the development and content of the normative Jewish in-

terpretation of the Song of Songs as pioneered by Aqiba and found full-flowered in

the targum to the Song of Songs. In the latter the following historical periods

appear to be the allegorical referents of the major divisions:

            1. Exodus and Entry into Canaan-Cant 1:2-3:6.

            2. Solomon's Temple-Cant 3:7-5:1.

            3. Sin and Exile-Cant 5:2-6:1.

                                                                        1



2                                  RICHARD M. DAVIDSON

 

who trills his voice in the chanting of the Song of Songs and treats

it as a secular song has no share in the world to come."3

Christian allegorists went even further than the rabbis: They

not only downplayed, but rejected the Song's literal sense alto-

gether. Influenced by the pagan Greek philosophies (i.e., Platonic

dualism, stoicism, and the Hellenistic-Roman cults), they posited a

dichotomy between things of the flesh and things of the spirit.

Purity was associated with sexual renunciation, and all expressions

of bodily pleasure--including sexual expression--were considered

evil. In the Song of Songs all erotic imagery was allegorized as the

yearning of the soul for union with God, or an expression of

Christ's love for his church. As by allegory the Greek philosophers

had succeeded in transforming the sensuous gods of Homer and

Hesiod into ethereal, spiritual ideals, so the celibate church theo-

logians were "able by allegory to unsex the Sublime Song and

make it a hymn of spiritual love without carnal taint."4

Origen of Alexandria (ca. 185-254), one of the foremost Chris-

tian proponents of the allegorical method of Biblical interpretation,

wrote a 10-volume commentary of nearly 20,000 lines on the Song

of Songs. In the prologue he warned that the Song of Songs is safe

reading only for mature persons no longer troubled by sexual

desires: "I advise and counsel everyone who is not yet rid of the

vexations of flesh and blood and has not ceased to feel the passion

of his bodily nature, to refrain completely from reading this little

book and the things that will be said about it."5 Origen further

pleads: "We earnestly beg the hearers of these things to mortify

their carnal senses. They must not take anything of what has been

 

            4. Rebuilding of Temple-Cant 6:2-7:11.

5. Roman Diaspora and Coming of Messiah-Cant 7:12-8:14.

(See Pope, pp. 95-101, for a detailed analysis.)

    3 Tosephta Sanhed XII, 10, quoted in Roland K. Harrison, Introduction to the

Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI, 1969), pp. 1054-1055. William E. Phipps,

Recovering Biblical Sensuousness (Philadelphia, 1975), p. 47, alternatively argues

that Aqiba is opposed to the use of Canticles as a "vulgar" or "bawdy" song outside

of the context of marital love.

     4 Pope, p. 114. For a discussion of medieval allegorizing of the Song of Songs

and samples of the specific exegesis, see pp. 112-124, and passim.

     5 R. P. Lawson, trans., Origen: The Song of Songs, Commentary and Homilies,

Ancient Christian Writers, vol. 26 (Westminster, MD, 1957), pp. 22-23, quoted in

Pope, p. 117.



THEOLOGY OF SEXUALITY                                 3

 

said with reference to bodily functions but rather employ them for

grasping those divine senses of the inner man."6

For fifteen centuries the allegorical method held sway in the

Christian church, and the Song of Songs became "the favorite book

of ascetics and monastics who found in it, and in expansive com-

mentaries on it, the means to rise above earthly and fleshly desire to

the pure platonic love of the virgin soul for God."7

During these 1,500 years only one church leader of stature

dared to protest against the allegorical interpretations. Theodore of

Mopsuestia (ca. 350-428) asserted in his commentary that the Song

should be understood according to its plain and literal sense--as a

love song in which Solomon celebrates his marriage. This view

was considered so radical that even his student, Bishop Theodoret,

considered Theodore's literal interpretation "not even fitting in the

mouth of a crazy woman."8 The Second Council of Constantinople

(553) anathematized Theodore and condemned his views as unfit

for human ears.

The allegorical interpretation of Canticles continued its dom-

inance in Roman Catholicism until very recently and was also

generally accepted among Protestant scholars until the nineteenth

century. Luther, though breaking formally with the allegorical

method, still criticized those who attempted to interpret the song

literally.9 The Westminster Assembly in the seventeenth century

censured blasphemous Presbyterians who "received it as a hot

carnal pamphlet formed by some loose Apollo or Cupid."10 John

Wesley wrote to his Methodist followers that

 

    6 Origen, Commentary on the Song of Songs, 1.4, quoted in Phipps, p. 51. So,

e.g.,

the kiss of Christ = the Incarnation

the cheeks of the bride = outward Christianity, good works

the golden chain = faith

spikenard = redeemed humanity

hair like flocks of goats = nations converted to Christianity

navel of the Shulamite = cup from which God gives salvation

the two breasts = the OT and NT

     7 Pope, p. 114.

      8 Johannes Quasten, Patriology (Utrecht, 1966), 3:540, quoted in Phipps, p. 59.

     9 Jaroslav Pelikan, ed. Luther's Works (St. Louis, MO, 1972), 15: 192-195; cf.

Phipps, pp. 57-58.

     10 Westminster Assembly, Annotations upon All the Books of the Old and New

Testaments (London, 1951), 1: n.p., quoted in Phipps, p. 58.



4                                  RICHARD M. DAVIDSON

 

the description of this bridegroom and bride is such as could not

with decency be used or meant concerning Solomon and Pharaoh's

daughter; that many expressions and descriptions, if applied to

them, would be absurd and monstrous; and that it therefore

follows that this book is to be understood allegorically concerning

that spiritual love and marriage which is between Christ and his

church.11

 

2. The Literal Interpretation of the Song of Songs

 

The allegorical interpretation still has its representatives,12 but

fortunately it is no longer anathema (at least in most circles) to

interpret the Song according to its plain and literal sense. The

break with the traditional allegorical view was foreshadowed in

John Calvin. The Reformer maintained that Canticles is both

inspired by God and a song of human love. The English Puritan

Edmund Spencer seems to have been among the first to concur with

Calvin, and two centuries later the German Romanticist J. G. von

Herder also interpreted the Song as a natural expression of human

love.13 Since the time of Herder a number of novel interpretations

of the Song have arisen, attracting some adherents;14 but in recent

decades "there has been a notable trend toward the interpretation

of the Song of Songs as human love poetry."15 Although diverging

in a number of significant details, contemporary interpreters gen-

erally do not feel constrained to "unsex the Sublime Song." H. H.

Rowley, after a thorough review of the Song's hermeneutical his-

tory, gives a judgment consonant with the literal interpretations of

Theodore, Spencer, Herder, and in harmony with today's prevail-

ing scholarly assessment: "The view I adopt finds in it nothing but

what it appears to be, lovers' songs, expressing their delight in one

 

     11 John Wesley, Explanatory Notes upon the Old Testament (Bristol, Eng.,

1765), 3: 1926, quoted in Phipps, p. 58.

     12 See, e.g., A. B. Simpson, The Love-Life of the Lord (Harrisburg, PA, n.d.),

and the notes in the Jerusalem Bible.

     13 See Phipps, pp. 59-61; Pope, pp. 126-127; 131-132.

     14 For details on the various dramatic and dream theories, cultic/liturgical

interpretations, wedding-week theory, etc., see Pope, pp. 133-192, and Harrison,

Introduction to the OT, pp. 1052-1058.

     15 Pope, p. 192.



THEOLOGY OF SEXUALITY                                 5

 

another and the warm emotions of their hearts. All of the other

views find in the Song what they bring to it."16

If one interprets the Song according to its plain and literal

sense, then it must be concluded that one whole book of the OT is

devoted to celebrating "'the dignity and purity of human love."17 A

whole book extolling the beauty of human sexual love! How could

Scripture more forcefully proclaim that human sexuality is not

cheap, ugly, and evil, but beautiful, wholesome, and praiseworthy!

 

3. The Song o f Songs, the Garden o f Eden,

                        and the Nature of Sexuality

 

In the Song of Songs we have come full circle, in the OT, back

to the Garden of Eden. Several recent studies have penetratingly

analyzed and conclusively demonstrated the intimate relationship

between the early chapters of Genesis and the Song of Songs.18 In the

"symphony of love," begun in Eden but gone awry after the Fall,

Canticles constitutes "love's lyrics redeemed."19 Phyllis Trible sum-

marizes how the Song of Songs "by variations and reversals creatively

actualizes major motifs and themes" of the Eden narrative:

Female and male are born to mutuality and love. They are naked

without shame; they are equal without duplication. They live in

gardens where nature joins in celebrating their oneness. Animals

remind these couples of their shared superiority in creation as

well as their affinity and responsibility for lesser creatures. Fruits

pleasing to the eye and tongue are theirs to enjoy. Living waters

replenish their gardens. Both couples are involved in naming;

both couples work.... Whatever else it may be, Canticles is a

commentary on Gen. 2-3. Paradise Lost is Paradise Regained.20

 

    16 H. H. Rowley, The Servant of the Lord and Other Essays on the Old Testa-

ment (London, 1952), p. 233.

    17 E. J. Young, An Introduction to the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI, 1949),

p. 336.

    18 See especially Phyllis Trible, "Depatriarchalizing in Biblical Interpretation,"

JAAR 41 (1973): 42-47; idem, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality (Philadelphia,

1978), pp. 145-165; Francis Landy, "The Song of Songs and the Garden of Eden,"

JBL 98 (1979): 513-528; and idem., Paradoxes of Paradise: Identity and Difference in

the Song of Songs (Sheffield, Eng., 1983), pp. 183-265.

     19 Trible, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, p. 144.

     20 Idem, "Depatriarchalizing," p. 47.



6                      RICHARD M. DAVIDSON

 

The Song of Songs is a return to Eden, yet the lovers in the

Song are not to be equated with the pre-Fall couple in the Garden.

The poetry of Canticles reveals the existence of a world of sin and

its baleful results:: There are the angry brothers (1:6), the wet winter

(2:11), the "little foxes that spoil the vineyards" (2:15), the anxiety

of absence from one's beloved (3:1-4; 5:6-8; 6:1), the cruelty and

brutality of the watchman (5:7), and the powerful presence of death

(8:6). Yet the lovers in the Song are able to triumph over the threats

to their love.

In parallel with Gen 2:24, the Song depicts the ideal of "wo-

man and man in mutual harmony after the fall."21 The theology of

this inspired reflection and elucidation of the divine ideal for post-

Fall sexuality may be discussed under the major subheadings that

emerged in my treatment of sexuality in Gen 1-2 in a previous

article.22

 

Sexuality Is Good

First, underlying the entire Song is the same high doctrine of

creation that forms the backdrop for biblical wisdom literature in

general.23  Without explicitly mentioning that God "has made every-

thing beautiful in its time" (Eccl 3:11), the author describes the

beauty of God's handiwork made during the six days of creation

week in the lovers' natural surroundings: brilliant light, fountains

and springs, many waters, mountains and hills, pastures and vine-

yards, trees and flowers, sun and moon, birds and animals.24 Like-

 

    21 Ibid., p. 48.

    22 See Richard M. Davidson, "The Theology of Sexuality in the Beginning:

Genesis 1-2," AUSS 26 (1988): 5-24.

    23 The majority of scholars represented, e.g., by James Crenshaw, ed., Studies in

Ancient Israelite Wisdom (New York, 1976), p. 5, would exclude Canticles from

discussion of wisdom literature; but Roland E. Murphy, The Forms of the Old

Testament Literature, vol. VIII: Wisdom Literature: Job, Proverbs, Ruth, Canticles,

Ecclesiastes, Esther (Grand Rapids, MI, 1981), p. xiii, argues that although not

technically wisdom literature, the Song "emphasizes values which are primary in

wisdom thought (cf. Prov. 1-9)." Murphy, ibid., cites a number of scholars who are

becoming "open to ascribing the preservation and transmission of these poems

[Canticles] to the sages of Israel." For a discussion of the doctrine of Creation in

wisdom literature, see, e.g., Crenshaw, Studies, pp. 22-35.

    24 The six days of Creation are profusely represented:

1. Light: "flashes of fire" (8:6) of YAHWEH--cf. below, p. 18.



THEOLOGY OF SEXUALITY                                 7

 

wise, sexuality is assumed to be a creation ordinance, given by God

for man to enjoy.25 In lofty love lyrics "the voices of the Song of

Songs extol and enhance the creation of sexuality in Gen. 2."26

 

Sexuality Is for Couples

Secondly, the man and woman are a duality, as in the be-

ginning--a lover and his beloved. Hypotheses which suggest a

lovers' "triangle" in the Song, with a rustic shepherd and King

Solomon vying for the same Shulamite, are not convincing.27

Furthermore, recent studies provide strong evidence for the unity of

the Song, rather than its being a collection of unrelated love poems.

Roland Murphy points to recurring refrains, themes, words, and

phrases;28 J. Cheryl Exum analyzes numerous structural indications

of "a unity of authorship with an intentional design";29 Michael

Fox elaborates on four factors that point to a literary unity: (1) a

network of repetends (repetitions), (2) associative sequences, (3) con-

sistency of character portrayal, and (4) narrative framework;30 and

William Shea seems to clinch the case for unity by his persuasive

 

   2. Water and air: springs of fresh water, fountains or wells, many waters,

        wind (North and South)

   3. Land and vegetation: mountains and hills (Lebanon, Amana, Senir,

       Gilead, Hermon, Carmel); pastures, vineyards (Ein-Gedi); trees (palm,

        cedar, pine, apple, fig, pomegranate, nuts); fragrances (nard, saffron, cala-

        mus, cinnamon, frankincense, myrrh, aloes); etc.

   4. Luminaries: sun, moon

   5. Birds (and fish): turtledoves, ravens

   6. Animals (and man): gazelles, young stags, hinds of the field, flocks of

       goats, sheep, lions, leopards, etc.

   25 See below, pp. 18-19, for a discussion of the divine origin of love in the Song.

   26 Trible, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, p. 145.

   27 The "Shepherd" hypothesis argues for three characters: the Shulamite, her

shepherd-lover, and King Solomon, who carries the Shulamite by force to his harem

and, after unsuccessfully attempting to seduce her, allows her to return home to her

rustic lover. This view (popularized by H. Ewald and accepted by S. R. Driver, C. G.

Ginsburg, and many others) is discussed (with major proponents) and critiqued in,

e.g., Harrison, Introduction to the OT, p. 1054; cf. Pope, pp. 136-141.

     28 Roland E. Murphy, "The Unity of the Song of Songs," VT 29 (1979): 436-443.

     29 J. Cheryl Exum, "A Literary and Structural Analysis of the Song of Songs,"

ZAW 85 (1973): 47-79.

     31 Michael V. Fox, The Song of Songs and the Ancient Egyptian Love Songs

(Madison, WI, 1985), pp. 209-222.



8                      RICHARD M. DAVIDSON

 

demonstrations of an overarching chiastic structure for the entire

Song.31  It is in a unified song, therefore, that the love relationship

between a couple--man and woman--is extolled and celebrated.

 

Sexuality Is Egalitarian

Third, the lovers in the Song are presented as equals in every

way. Canticles "reflects an image of woman and female-male rela-

tions that is extremely positive and egalitarian."32 The keynote "of

the egalitarianism of mutual love"33 is struck in Cant 2:16: "My

beloved is mine and I am his." The Song of Songs begins and

closes with the woman speaking. The woman carries the majority

of the dialogue (81 verses to 49 for the man)." She initiates most of

the meetings and is just as active in the lovemaking as the man.

Likewise, she is just as eloquent about the beauty of her lover as he

is about her. The woman also is gainfully employed as a shep-

herdess and vineyard keeper. In short, throughout the Song she is

"fully the equal of the man."35 As in Gen 2, she is man's "part-

ner . . . , ‘the one opposite him.’"36

            Feminist readings of the Song of Songs have tended to argue

for a reversal of the divine judgment given in Gen 3:16, so that the

"Return to Eden" in Canticles means the recovery of the pre-Fall

male-female relationship.37 However, attempts to contrast the "re-

covery of mutuality" in the Song with the "male power" of Gen

3:1638 misconstrue both the nature of the divine judgment and the

meaning of mutuality. In my discussion of Gen 3:16 in a previous

article,39 I set forth evidence that God's judgment was prescriptive,

 

     31 William H. Shea, "The Chiastic Structure of the Song of Songs," ZAW 92

(1980):378-396.

     32 Leonard Swidler, Biblical Affirmations of Women (Philadelphia, 1979), p. 92.

     33 Ibid.

     34 The count may vary, depending upon the interpretation of the sometimes

ambiguous first-person statements.

     35 Trible, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, p. 161.

     36 Foster R. McCurley, Ancient Myths and Biblical Faith: Scriptural Transforma-

tions (Philadelphia, 1983), p. 101.

      37 See especially Trible, "Depatriarchalizing," p. 46; idem, God and the Rhetoric

of Sexuality, pp. 159-160.

     38 Ibid.

     39 Richard M. Davidson, "The Theology of Sexuality in the Beginning: Genesis

3," AUSS 26 (1988): 121-131.



THEOLOGY OF SEXUALITY                                 9

 

not simply descriptive. It did not portray the perverted use of male

power that would result from sin, but rather it gave the divine

normative pattern for the achievement of true mutuality after the

Fall. This pattern did not nullify the full equality ("one-fleshness")

between husband and wife set forth in Gen 2:24, since the latter

verse, as we noted, is specifically addressed to post-Fall conditions.

Yet in the context of sin, God appointed the husband to "rule"

(masal)--in the sense of "protect, love, care for," rather than "subju-

gate, coerce, tyrannize"--as a blessing for the maintenance of union

and preservation of harmony within the marriage setting.

In the Song of Songs, as we have already noted, the voices

repeatedly speak of post-Fall conditions which impinge upon the

couple's relationship. The way of "woman and man in mutual

harmony after the fall"40 is likewise portrayed in imagery conso-

nant with the divine norm given in Gen 3:16. Note in particular

Cant 2:3:

As an apple tree among the trees of the wood,

            so is my beloved among young men.

With great delight I sat in his shadow,

            and his fruit was sweet to my taste.

 

Francis Landy has not failed to catch the intent of the imagery:

The apple-tree symbolizes the Lover, the male sexual function in

the poem; erect and delectable, it is a powerful erotic metaphor. It

provides the nourishment and shelter, traditional male roles--the

protective Lover, man the provider....41

 

Cant 8:5 seems to continue the apple tree/protector motif:

Who is that coming up from the wilderness

            leaning upon her beloved?

Under the apple tree I awakened you....

 

Thus the Song of Songs has recovered the true "lyrics" of the

"symphony of love" for post-Fall sexual partners. In the garden of

Canticles the divine plan for man's post-Fall role in the sexual

relationship--masal, "to protect, love, care for"--is restored from

its accumulated perversions and abuses outside the Garden of Eden.

 

40 Trible, "Depatriarchalizing," p. 48.

41 Landy, "The Song of Songs," p. 526.



10                    RICHARD M. DAVIDSON

 

That this masal is the "rule" of love and not tyrannical power is

made explicit in the Song by attributing to the man the "strong

desire" (tesugah) which is connected with the woman in Gen 3:16.

As in the divine judgment God promises to the woman that still

"Your desire (tesugah) shall be for your husband," now in the

Song the woman says, "I am my lover's and for me is his desire

(tesugah)" (7:10). She thus joyfully acknowledges the mutuality of

love that inheres in the ideal post-Fall relationship even as she is

leaning upon, and resting under the protecting shadow of, her

lover.

 

Sexuality Is Related to Wholeness

Closely related to the motifs of equality/mutuality, we note,

fourthly, the concept of wholeness in sexuality. That concept is

highlighted by "one of the key themes in the Song"--"the presence

and/or absence of the lovers to each other."42 Throughout the

Song the fact of physical closeness is obviously important as the

lovers speak and cling to each other: "His left hand is under my

head, and his right arm embraces me" (2:6; 8:3). Even more sig-

nificant is the feeling of loss and anxiety in the partner's absence.

Already in Cant 1:7 the desire of the beloved for, a rendezvous with

her lover is clear ("Tell me, you whom my soul loves, where you

pasture your flock ... ?" ), but the motif reaches its zenith at the

matched sections of the chiasm43 in which the dreaming woman

searches anxiously for her lover:

Upon my bed at night

I sought him whom my soul loves;

I sought him but found him not....

"Have you seen him whom my soul loves?"44

I opened to my beloved,

but my beloved had turned and gone....

 

 

     42 Roland E. Murphy, "A Biblical Model of Human Intimacy: The Song of

Songs," in Concilium: Religion in the Seventies, vol. 121: The Family in Crisis or

in Transition, ed. Andrew Greeley (New York, 1979), p. 63.

     43 See Shea, pp. 388-389, 396, for structural analyses of the dream sections (3:1-5;

5:2-8).

     44 Cant 3:1-3 (cf. vss. 1-5).



THEOLOGY OF SEXUALITY                                 11

 

I sought him, but found him not;

I called him, but he gave no answer.45

 

The absence motif serves to heighten the meaning of presence.

Lovers need each other to be whole. In the Song man and woman

each appears as an individual--capable, independent, self-reliant--

and at the same time they have become "bone of one's bone, flesh

of one's flesh."

 

Sexuality Is a Multidimensional Relationship

From the aspect of wholeness and solidarity we are led to a

fifth insight into the nature of sexuality: Paradisiacal sexual love

means a multidimensional relationship. The relational symphony

of the sexes in the Song of Songs is a "live performance" of the

"score" set for them in Gen 2:24. As in Gen 2 man "leaves" (i.e., he

is free from all outside interferences in the sexual relationship), so

in Canticles the lovers are unfettered by parental prearrangements46

or political promises." They are in love for love's sake alone. They

are free for the spontaneous development of an intimate friend-

ship.48 In the freedom from outside interferences the couple may

find mutual attraction in the physical beauty49 and inward character

qualities50 of each other.

 

     45 Cant 5:6 (cf. vss. 2-8).

     46 Numerous references in Canticles are made to the mothers of the lovers (1:6;

3:4, 11; 6:9; 8:1, 2, 5), indicating the closeness of ties that continue between parent

and son (3:11)/daughter (3:4; 8:2). But in all of this there is nothing of the parents'

interfering with the lovers' freedom of choice and action. Thus both the fifth

commandment and the "leaving" of Gen 2:24 are upheld.

     47 I concur with F. Delitzsch, Commentary on the Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes

(Grand Rapids, MI, n.d.), p. 3, that according to the most natural reading of the

text, the Shulamite is not the daughter of Pharaoh (as maintained by many), but "a

country maiden of humble rank, who by her beauty and by the purity of her soul,

filled Solomon with a love for her which drew him away from the wantonness of

polygamy, and made for him the primitive idea of marriage, as it is described in

Gen. 3:23ff., a self-experienced reality."

      48 The Shulamite is considered as close as a sister by her lover (4:9; 5:1; etc.), and

she in turn can say of him, "This is my beloved and he is my friend" (5:16).

     49 For a discussion of the mutual, frank, and erotic expression of praise for each

other, see below, p. 17.

     50 See Thorleif Boman, Hebrew Thought Compared to Greek (New York, 1960),

pp. 77-89, for a discussion of how the imagery used in praise of bride and groom in



12                                RICHARD M. DAVIDSON

 

As in the Genesis model, in which man and woman are to

"cleave" to each other in a marriage covenant, so the Song of

Songs climaxes in the wedding ceremony. The chiastic structure of

the unified Song reveals a symmetrical design focused upon a

central section which describes the wedding of Solomon and his

bride.51  Cant 3:6-11 clearly portrays the wedding procession of

Solomon "on the day of his wedding" (3:11). What follows in Cant

4:1-5:1 appears to encompass the wedding ceremony proper.52 Only

here in the Song does Solomon address the Shulamite as his "bride"

(kallah, 4:8, 9, 10, 11, 12; 5:1).53 The groom praises the bride,

paralleling the Arab wasf of modern village weddings in Syria.54

Following this come the central two verses of the entire chiastic

structure of the Song (4:16, 5:1), which seem to be the equivalent to

our modern-day exchange of marriage vows.55 The groom has

compared his bride to a garden (4:12, 15); now the bride invites her

groom to come and partake of the fruits of her (and now his)

garden (4:16), and the groom accepts her invitation (5:la-d). The

marriage covenant solemnized, the invitation is then extended to

 

Canticles penetrates beyond the surface to describe dominant and admirable qualities

of the partners.

Cf. Delitzsch, p. 5: "That which attached her [the Shulamite] to him [Solomon]

is not her personal beauty alone, but her beauty animated and heightened by

nobility of soul. She is a pattern of simple devotedness, naive simplicity, unaffected

modesty, moral purity, and frank prudence,--a lily of the field, more beautifully

adorned than he could claim to be in all his glory. We cannot understand the Song

of Songs unless we perceive that it presents before us not only Shulamith's external

attractions, but also all the virtues which made her the ideal of all that is gentlest

and noblest in woman."

   51 See Shea, pp. 387-395.

   52 See ibid., p. 394, for discussion of supporting evidence for this conclusion;

Pope, p. 508, lists other commentators who have come to similar conclusions.

   53 See Delitzsch, pp. 81, 90-91, for the significance of the term kallah here.

"For illustration and analysis of the wasf (the "description" of the physical

perfection and beauty of the bride and groom sung in the modern village wedding

festivals in Syria), see Delitzsch, pp. 172-176; Pope, pp. 55-56 (includes further

bibliography); Marcia Falk, Love Lyrics from the Bible: A Translation and Literary

Study of the Song of Songs (Sheffield, Eng., 1982), pp. 80-87.

   55 Delitzsch, p. 89, argues that "between iv. 16 and v. la the bridal night

intervenes," but the evidence from the text set forth by Shea, p. 394, appears to argue

for linking 5:1 with what comes before. Thus all is part of "the wedding service

proper."



THEOLOGY OF SEXUALITY                                 13

 

the friends of the bride and groom to join in the wedding banquet

(5:1e).

In Gen 2:24 the "cleaving" refers not only to the formal mar-

riage covenant, but to the inward attitudinal dimensions of the

covenant bond. Likewise, the Song reveals the fidelity, loyalty, and

devotion of the partners,56 the steadfastness of their love,57 and the

exclusiveness of their relationship.58 The description of the "cov-

enant partnership" between Solomon and the Shulamite, like the

word dabaq, "connotes a permanent attraction which transcends

genital union, to which, nonetheless, it gives meaning."59

As in Gen 2:24, where the "one-flesh" union follows the "cleav-

ing," so in the Song of Songs sexual intercourse occurs only within

the context of the marriage covenant. Those scholars who argue to

the contrary60 have failed to take seriously the unity of the Song

and the testimony of the groom regarding his bride. Solomon

likens his bride to a garden during the wedding ceremony proper.

More precisely, she is a locked garden (4:12):

 

   56 See, e.g., Cant 3:1-5; cf. 2:16; 6:3; and the general use of the possessive

pronouns and language of ardent devotion throughout.

    57 See especially Cant 8:6, 7; cf. discussion and references in Pope, p. 195.

    58 This seems to be implied in, e.g., Cant 2:16; 6:3; R. G. Laurin, "The Life of

True Love: The Song of Songs and Its Modern Message," Christianity Today 6

(1962): 1062-1063, argues for this motif also in Cant 7:13. Of course, the reference to

the 60 queens and 80 concubines (of Solomon?) in Cant 6:8 must also be taken into

account. Delitzsch, p. 111, takes the low number (compared to the record in 1 Kings

11:3) as an indication of the occurrence of the marriage early in Solomon's reign, yet

indicative of the fact that Solomon himself did not live up to the ideal of exclusive-

ness. Joseph C. Dillow, Solomon on Sex: The Biblical Guide to Marital Love

(Nashville, 1977), p. 121, postulates that this harem may have been inherited from

his father David, and "Solomon may not have been sexually involved with those

many concubines until later in his reign, when we know he began to degenerate

into lustful polygamy." G. Lloyd Carr, The Song of Solomon, TOTC (Downers

Grove, IL, 1984), p. 148, notes that it is not necessary to equate this harem with

Solomon's: "More probably, no particular harem is being considered. Note the text

does not say ‘Solomon has’ or ‘I have,’ but it is a simple declaration: ‘There are . . .

and my beloved is unique’ (vs. 9, NIV)."

    59 Raymond Collins, "The Bible and Sexuality," BTB 7 (1977): 153; see the

discussion of dabaq in Davidson, "Gen 1-2," p. 21.

    60 See, e.g., Trible, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, p. 162: "to the issues of

marriage and procreation the Song does not speak." Cf. McCurley, p. 101: "It is not

even clear in the Song that the man and woman are married to each other."



14                    RICHARD M. DAVIDSON

 

A garden locked is my sister, my bride,

a garden locked, a fountain sealed.

 

Modern commentators generally concur that here "the locked gar-

den denotes virginity."61 If this interpretation is correct and the

Song is a unity, then the groom is clearly announcing at the

wedding ceremony that his bride is still a virgin. In fact, the high

point of the ceremony and of the entire Song is focalized in the

invitation and acceptance on the part of bride and groom to "be-

come one flesh" with each other through sexual intercourse. Sexual

union is thereby reserved and preserved for husband and wife after

marriage.

The pivotal, central section of the Song, with its description of

the wedding ceremony of Solomon and his virgin bride, must be

given due weight in the interpretation of what precedes and fol-

lows. In light of the information from this midsection, the love

lyrics of Cant 1:3-5 cannot describe premarital sexual intercourse.

The earlier sections of the Song may consist of later reflections

upon the love relationship as it developed up to the time of the

wedding, including poetic descriptions of sexual relations in the

bridal chamber on the wedding night. Franz Delitzsch, followed

recently by Joseph Dillow and others,62 has argued rather convinc-

ingly that the Song of Songs contains a series of reflections encom-

passing the historical scope of the relationship between Solomon

and the Shulamite from the first flush of friendship and love through

the courtship period, reaching its climax on the wedding day and

extending beyond with a depiction of married life together. Al-

though Delitzsch should probably be faulted for his emphasis upon

the melodramatic character of the Song (six acts, each with two

scenes) and for his interpretation of certain details, yet his overall

analysis has much to commend it.

Dillow has shown how this approach may actually provide in

the Song a "Biblical Guide to Married Love"--principles pertain-

ing to each stage of the love relationship. We note a few of Dillow's

 

     61 Pope, p. 458. Carr, p. 123, sees the garden here as a euphemism for the female

sexual organs and concludes that "a fountain sealed and a garden locked speak of

virginity." Cf. Delitzsch, p. 84: "To a locked garden and spring no one has access

but the rightful owner, and a sealed fountain is shut against all impurity."

     62 Delitzsch, pp. 10-11 and passim; Dillow, passim; cf. S. Craig Glickman, A

Song for Lovers (Downers Grove, IL, 1976), passim.



THEOLOGY OF SEXUALITY                                 15

 

points. In the bride's wedding-day reflection of Cant 1:1-8, for

example, Dillow draws attention to her healthy attitude toward

sexuality in anticipation of the wedding night (1:2-4), recognition

of the principle of natural versus contrived beauty and acceptance

of the special value of physical imperfections (1:5-6), the need for

counting the cost of commitment to the relationship (1:7-8), and

the virtue of modesty (1:7b). Again, according to Dillow, in the

reflection over the lovers' courtship (2:8-3:5), the Song emphasizes

how the relationship of Solomon and the Shulamite developed as

they spent time together getting to know each other (the springtime

visit, 2:8-17) and worked through problems (the "little foxes," 2:15-

17) gnawing at the love relationship. Dillow also explores the

portrayal of the sexual relations of the bride and groom in their

bridal chamber (1:17-2:7) for insights into the nature of sexual

intimacy and how to enhance it.63 As a final sample, we note

Dillow's analysis of later sections of the Song, interpreted as refer-

ring to the couple's married life subsequent to the wedding: The

dream of 5:2-8 is seen to reveal sexual problems arising in their

marriage (Solomon's late-night approaching and her lack of in-

terest), while Cant 5:9-6:13 presents a working out of those sexual

problems through a change of attitude and action.64

Whether or not one accepts the historical-biographical inter-

pretations of Delitzsch/Dillow, it may be affirmed that the Song of

Songs parallels and expands upon Gen 1-3 in its portrayal of a

multidimensional sexual relationship between Solomon and the

Shulamite.

 

Sexuality Is Pleasurable

As a sixth insight into the nature of sexuality from the Song of

Songs, we note one aspect that is not mentioned. The Song contains

 

    63 Dillow, pp. 26-41.

    64 Ibid., pp. 98-147. According to Dillow, pp. 129-130, the "three basic attitudes

adopted by Shulamith and Solomon in the interim between the beginning of the

sexual problems and their solution" include: (1) "the assuming of responsibility for

one's own behavior instead of blaming the mate"; (2) "to render a blessing when

hurt or offended by one's mate," and (3) "a complete and transparent communica-

tion of one's feelings." The change of action involves the Shulamite's aggressively

taking the initiative in the loveplay (ibid., pp. 130-147). Note also Dillow's analysis

of the wedding night (4:1-5:1) as providing insights into the sexual intimacy

between bride and groom (pp. 72-97) and of the final section of the Song, sum-

marizing how love is awakened, defined, developed, and enjoyed (pp. 148-157).



16                                RICHARD M. DAVIDSON

 

no reference to the procreative function of sexuality. As is true with

the Creation account of Gen 2, the sexual experience within mar-

riage in the Song is not linked with utilitarian propagation. Mc-

Curley expresses it nicely: "The love affair is by no means designed

for the production of progeny. The pleasure of the bedroom rather

than the results for the nursery occupies the poet's concern here."65

Lovemaking for the sake of love, not procreation, is the message of

the Song. This is not to imply that Canticles is hostile to the

procreative aspect of sexuality: The lovers allude to the beauty of

their own conception (3:4; 8:2) and birth (6:9; 8:5). But in the Song

sexual union is given independent meaning and value; it does not

need to be justified as a means to a superior (i.e., procreative) end.

 

Sexuality Is Beautiful

This leads us to the final insight and the major statement of

the Song of Songs regarding the nature of sexuality. In living

pictures sexuality is presented as wholesome, beautiful, and good;

something to be celebrated and enjoyed without fear or embarrass-

ment. In the Canticles, as in Gen 1, sexuality, along with the rest of

God's creation, is tob me'od--"very good." As in Gen 2, lovers in

the Song stand "naked and ... not ashamed" before each other.

We have returned to Eden. "The Song," says Herder, "is writ-

ten as if in Paradise. Adam's song: Thou art my second self! Thou

art mine own! echoes in it in speech and interchanging song from

end to end."66 Though in a sinful world, lovers after the Fall may

still bask in the beauty of Paradise. "Male and female," writes

Trible,

first became one flesh in the garden of Eden. There a narrator

reported briefly their sexual union (Gen. 2:24). Now in another

garden, the lovers themselves praise at length the joys of inter-

course. Possessive adjectives do not separate their lives. "My

garden" and "his garden" blend in mutual habitation and har-

mony. Even person and place unite: the garden of eroticism is the

woman. In this garden the sensuality of Eden expands and

deepens. Emerging gradually in Genesis 2-3, all five senses capitu-

lated to disobedience through the tasting of the forbidden fruit.

Fully present in the Song of Songs from the beginning, these

 

     65 McCurley, p. 101.

     66 Quoted in Delitzsch, p. 5.



THEOLOGY OF SEXUALITY                                 17

 

senses saturate the poetry to serve only love. Such love is sweet to

the taste, like the fruit of the apple tree (2:3; cf. 4:16; 5:1, 13).

Fragrant are the smells of the vineyards (2:13), the perfumes of

myrrh and frankincense (3:6), the scent of Lebanon (4:11), and the

beds of spices (5:13; 6:2). The embraces of lovers confirm the

delights of touch (1:2; 2:3-6; 4:10, 11; cf. 5:1; 7:6-9; 8:1, 3). A

glance of the eyes ravishes the heart (4:9; 6:13), as the sound of the

lover thrills it (5:2). Taste, smell, touch, sight and hearing per-

meate the garden of the song.67

 

Set against a backdrop where all is sensuously beautiful,68 the

lovers in the Song celebrate the beauty of married sexual love. In

language that is erotic and sensual and yet in delicate taste, the

lovers extol each other's beauty. By means of poetic metaphors,

double entendres that both reveal and conceal, the ecstatic pleasure

of sexual intimacy is described.69 As we have already noted, the very

apex of the book--the chiastic center (4:16-5:1)--consists of an

invitation to consummate marriage through sexual union.

 

4. Conclusion

A whole book taken up with celebrating the wholesome beauty

and enjoyment of human sexual love! How can the inclusion of

such a book be justified in the sacred canon? No further justification

is needed. Those who have resorted to an allegorical interpretation

to legitimize the existence of Canticles in Scripture have missed the

crucial point-the Song of Songs in its plain and literal sense is

not just a "secular" love song, but is fraught with deep spiritual,

theological significance. From the OT Hebrew perspective God is

not absent from the Song, nor are his love and concern for his

creatures lacking in it. Rather, they are clearly shown in the enjoy-

ment and pleasure (given by God to man in the creation) which the

lovers find in each other and in their surroundings.70

In harmony with the presentation of creation in Genesis, sexu-

ality in the Song is part of God's good creation; and since it is

 

    67 Trible, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, pp. 154-155.

    68 See above, p. 6, note 24; ibid., pp. 155-157; Falk, pp. 88-106; and Murphy,

"Human Intimacy," p. 64.

    69 For an analysis of the imagery of intercourse in the Song, see, e.g., Trible,

God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, pp. 152-153, 157; Dillow, pp. 28-32, 72-86;

Exum, pp. 57-58, 71.

     70 Stephen Sapp, Sexuality, the Bible, and Science (Philadelphia, 1977), p. 26.



18                                RICHARD M. DAVIDSON

 

created by God, it speaks eloquently--perhaps most eloquently of

all--of his love for his creation as it is enjoyed in harmony with

the divine intention. The affirmation of human sexual love in the

Song is therefore an implicit affirmation of the Creator of love.

The Song of Songs also may contain an explicit indication of

the divine source of human love. The climax of the Song is gener-

ally recognized to come in the great paean to love in Cant 8:6-7. A

number of scholars have suggested that the best translation of

salhebetyah in v. 6 should be "a flame of Yah(weh)." The whole

verse would then read:

For love is as strong as death,

ardent love as relentless as Sheol;

the flash of it is a flash of fire,

a flame of Yah(weh) himself.71

 

If this interpretation is correct, then true human love is expli-

citly described as originating in God as "a spark off the original

flame." To put it another way, human love at its best, as described

in the Song, points beyond itself to the Lord of love.

In the final analysis, therefore, the allegorical interpretation of

the Song may be correct in its conclusion that the Song shows God's

love for man, but incorrect in the way in which the conclusion is

reached. The love relationship between Solomon and the Shulamite

is not a worthless "husk," to be stripped away allegorically to find

the Song's kernel or the "true" meaning--the love between God and

his people. Rather, the love relationship between husband and wife,

described in the Song, has independent meaning and value of its

own that is affirmed and extolled. At the same time this human love

is given even greater significance as it typologically points beyond

itself to the divine Lover in the Song's climax (8:6). Rather than

an allegorical understanding (with its fanciful, externally-and-

arbitrarily-imposed meaning that is alien to the plain and literal

sense), the Song itself calls for a typological approach,72 which

 

    71 See the Jerusalem Bible translation; Delitzsch, p. 147; Robert Gordis, The

Song of Songs: A Study, Modern Translation and Commentary (New York, 1954),

p. 74; Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Toward Old Testament Ethics (Grand Rapids, MI,

1983), p. 195; Murphy, "Human Intimacy," p. 65; cf. BDB, p. 529. Delitzsch, p. 147,

argues forcefully for interpreting salhebetyah as a true subjective genitive ("flame of

Yahweh") and not as a mere superlative strengthening of the idea ("mighty flame").

    72 For the distinction between allegory and typology, see Richard M. Davidson,

Typology in Scripture: A Study of Hermeneutical Tu<poj Structures (Berrien Springs,

MI, 1981), pp. 20, 81, 100-101.



THEOLOGY OF SEXUALITY                                 19

 

remains faithful to, and even enhances, the literal sense of the Song

by recognizing what the text indicates--that human love typifies

the divine. Thus human sexual love, already highly esteemed in

Scripture, is given its highest acclamation. The Song of Songs,

therefore, becomes the fitting climax and the supreme statement on

the nature of sexuality in the OT. We have indeed reached the

"Holy of Holies."

 

 

 

This material is cited with gracious permission from:

Andrews University Seminary Studies

SDA Theological Seminary
Berrien Springs
, MI 49104-1500

http://www.andrews.edu/SEM/

Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at:  thildebrandt@gordon.edu