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Sex in the Song of Songs

Taking the form of a dialogue between an unmarried man and woman, the Song of Songs celebrates love and sexual attraction, in fantasy if not in reality, often in explicit language.

Marc Chagall

Like all humans, the ancient Israelites were into sex, and its presence pervades the Hebrew Bible. Much, but not all, of what the biblical writers had to say about sex was negative, either in the form of “thou shalt nots,” as in Lev 18 and Lev 20, or in narratives of sexual misconduct, like those about David and Bathsheba and Amnon and Tamar in 2Sam 11-13. In both, different rules applied to men and women.

An unmarried woman was expected to be a virgin until a contract of marriage had been made between her father and the family of the groom. After a marriage had been contracted, sex with a man other than her fiancé or husband was considered adultery and was punishable by death for both parties. A man, on the other hand, was not as restricted, as long as his sexual partner was not already married (Lev 18:20) (and was female, Lev 18:22). Having sex with a prostitute was looked down upon and discouraged in some texts, but not prohibited.

In light of these customs, the Song of Songs is unusual. Taking the form of a dialogue between an unmarried man and woman, it celebrates love and sexual attraction and even sexual intercourse, in fantasy if not in reality, often in explicit language. Toward the end of the book, the woman speaks to her beloved:

“Set me like a seal on your heart,
like a seal on your arm.
For love is as strong as Death,
passion as harsh as Sheol:
its sparks are sparks of fire,
flames of the divine.” (Song 8:6; author’s translation)

The woman urges—even orders—her lover to keep her close, like a stamp used for sealing documents, worn around the neck or on the arm, and perhaps more literally as the deep impression left by such a seal, a brand or tattoo as it were, permanently marking her beloved’s body and heart. She also gives voice to an implicit equality, in which, as she puts it earlier, “I am my lover’s, and his desire is for me” (Song 7:10). Neither she nor her lover can resist their  mutual attraction, which is both sexual and emotional.

In contrast with many other biblical texts, which emphasize premarital chastity, the lovers in the Song of Songs are unmarried. In ancient Israel’s patriarchal society, marriages were usually arranged without the woman’s consent; for many moderns, especially in the west, arranged marriages seem a barrier to love. But such marriages could nevertheless lead to love: Jacob loved Rachel (Gen 29:20, Gen 29:30) and Michal loved David (1Sam 18:20). Despite social and legal constraints in ancient Israel, as in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, where we find love poetry similar to the Song of Songs, love is a powerful—even supernatural—physical and psychological force, whether a couple was married or not. “Enjoy life with the woman you love,” says Ecclesiastes (Eccl 9:9); if we had more texts like the Song of Songs, we would, I think, find parallel advice given to women: “Enjoy life with the man you love.”

  • Michael Coogan

    Michael Coogan is Director of Publications for the Harvard Semitic Museum and Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at Stonehill College. His most recent book is God’s Favorites: Judaism, Christianity, and the Myth of Divine Chosenness (Beacon Press, 2019).