THEOLOGY OF SEXUALITY IN THE SONG OF SONGS:
RICHARD M. DAVIDSON
“For in all the world there is nothing to equal the day on
which the Song of
Songs was given to
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
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.
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,
Biblical Sensuousness (
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
(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,
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,
9 Jaroslav Pelikan, ed. Luther's Works (St. Louis, MO, 1972), 15: 192-195; cf.
Phipps, pp. 57-58.
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
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
Wesley, Explanatory Notes upon the Old
1765), 3: 1926, quoted in Phipps, p. 58.
12 See, e.g., A. B. Simpson, The Love-Life of the Lord (
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
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
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
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-
17 E. J. Young, An Introduction to the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI, 1949),
18 See especially Phyllis Trible, "Depatriarchalizing in Biblical Interpretation,"
JAAR 41 (1973):
42-47; idem, God and the Rhetoric of
1978), pp. 145-165; Francis Landy, "The Song of Songs and the Garden of Eden,"
JBL 98 (1979):
513-528; and idem., Paradoxes of
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
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
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
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
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
32 Leonard Swidler,
Biblical Affirmations of Women (
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-
37 See especially Trible, "Depatriarchalizing," p. 46; idem, God and the Rhetoric
of Sexuality, pp. 159-160.
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
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
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;
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
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
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
THEOLOGY OF SEXUALITY 13
the friends of the bride and groom to join in the wedding banquet
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
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
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
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
ten as if in
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
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
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
frankincense (3:6), the scent of
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.
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 (
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),
74; Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Toward Old Testament Ethics (
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."
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