By Jennifer Wright Knust
Hardcover, 352 pages
List Price: $25.99
The Bible and the Joy of Sex
Desire In and Out of Control
Every time you have sex, Christian educator Bonnie Park warns teenagers in a recent video, you are playing Russian roulette. "What if I want to have sex before I get married?" one boy asks. "Well," Ms. Park replies, "I guess you'll just have to be prepared to die, and you'll probably take you and your spouse and one or more of your children with you." The scare tactics employed in abstinence-only education programs developed by Ms. Park and others are not always this threatening, but the overall message is clear: teenagers who engage in premarital sex are risking both their lives and their bodies. Boys, abstinence-only educators argue, cannot possibly control their animalistic impulses without the assistance of God, strong parenting, and a godly girl. Since girls are responsible for monitoring both their own desires and those of the boys who long to touch them, parents must supervise their girls closely, ensuring that girls' bodies and minds remain pure for their future husbands. If either parents or children fail in this crucial endeavor, educators warn, disaster is sure to follow. But by claiming that the Bible supports their point of view, these educators are selling both kids and their parents a bill of goods. As this chapter shows, passages celebrating sexual pleasure outside the bonds of marriage can be found within the Bible and, remarkably, no one dies. In fact, two of Jesus's ancestors risked the conception of children out of wedlock — Ruth and Bathsheba — and yet neither these women nor their partners were killed. In these texts, extramarital sexual expression leads to God's blessing, not God's curse, and sexual longing is both productive and positive. There is so much more to the Bible's teachings on sex and desire than current fearmongering suggests.
The Song of Songs, an ancient biblical love poem that speaks frankly of towering breasts, flowing black locks, kissable lips, and the joy of sexual fulfillment, offers a particularly striking example of this phenomenon, but other biblical passages are nearly as forthright. Ruth, King David's grandmother, conspires with her mother-in-law, Naomi, to seduce Boaz, one of Naomi's wealthy relatives. "Uncovering his feet," a Hebrew euphemism for uncovering a man's genitals, Ruth succeeds at gaining a home for herself and for Naomi, a woman she has promised to love until they are parted by death. By loving both her mother-in-law and her partner, Boaz, Ruth's bold desire secures a future for herself and her family. The love between Naomi and Ruth is paralleled by the devotion of Jonathan to David, a friendship so strong that Jonathan comes to love David more than he loves women. After Jonathan's death, when David spies the beautiful Bathsheba bathing, he invites her for a sexual rendezvous in the palace, though he already had many other wives to enjoy. The child of their adultery dies, but Bathsheba later becomes pregnant with Solomon, the famously wise king and the purported author of the Song. In these biblical passages, sexual longing refuses to be limited to the love between a husband and wife, or even between a man and a woman. In the case of the Song of Songs, desire's heat can be applied not only to the love between a woman and a man, but also between humanity and God.
Many Waters Cannot Quench Love:
Desire and the Song of Songs
"Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth!" So begins the Song of Songs, an erotic poem that revels in desire postponed, fulfilled, and postponed again. "I come to my garden," the woman's lover proclaims, "I eat my honeycomb with my honey" (5:1). "Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my perfect one" (v. 2), he pleads, using a double entendre few could miss. "My beloved thrust his hand into the opening," the woman responds, "and my inmost being yearned for him" (v. 4). But then he withdraws, and so she laments, "I opened to my beloved, but my beloved had turned and was gone" (v. 6). Hoping to find him again, she searches throughout the city, faint with love, only to be beaten and wounded for her pains. Reunited, the man caresses her with his gaze from her sandaled feet to her purple tresses, describing her thighs, navel, breasts, and neck. Pledging her love in return, the woman promises spiced wine and strong scents, warm embraces in a budding vineyard, and the juice of her own pomegranates. At the close of the poem, she calls to him again, her desire as of yet unquenched. The frank eroticism of this poem, rare among the biblical books, suggests that the Bible's sexual mores can include sex outside of marriage. The Song of Songs, perhaps more than any other biblical book, refuses to be limited by common notions of "family values." Instead, this book celebrates pleasure for pleasure's sake.
Modern readers are sometimes surprised that this book is canonical at all. Can a book this sexy be biblical? Surely someone tried to keep it out of the Bible! But, in fact, the Song of Songs has been among the most widely read and closely studied of all the canonical books. Copies of the
Song were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, the collection of books hidden in caves in the desert outside of Jerusalem sometime before 73 ce, and it was included among the list of sacred books mentioned by an important first-century Jewish historian named Josephus. A Greek translation of the Song also appears in the very early fourth- and fifth-century copies of the Christian Bible, and it was included among the sacred books of the Christians listed by a fourth-century Egyptian bishop called Athanasius of Alexandria. In other words, however risqué the Song of Songs may be, its canonical status has never seriously been questioned.
The Writing of the Song
Though attributed to King Solomon, the Song was probably written much later, after the Babylonian exile and while Israel was a vassal state of either Persia (539–323 bce) or of the heirs of Alexander the Great (323–63 bce). As such, the Song may express Israel's longing for a time when Jerusalem was independent of foreign domination and Solomon's original temple still stood tall, at the height of its glory. References to "the curtains of Solomon," the "wood of Lebanon," and the "orchard of pomegranates" can be understood as allusions not to the woman or the man per se but to the curtain separating the Holy of Holies from view, the cedar from Lebanon that adorned the temple walls, and the latticework, ripe with bronze pomegranates, that once surrounded the temple courts. If this interpretation is correct, the Song employs human desire to offer a poetic description of Israel's love for her land while also expressing a sentimental longing for the glory the nation once enjoyed. Imagining the restoration of God's garden (Israel) and the centerpiece to that garden (the temple), the Song of Songs recalls the golden age of the time of Solomon and envisions a return to the productive "marriage" of God and his people in a peaceful homeland.
But the Song also recalls the great love poetry of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, in which lovers are "honey-sweet" and sexual consummation is urgently sought and then vividly described. These ancient Near Eastern poems are significantly older than the Song, but their language and poetic forms have left a mark nonetheless. Like these earlier poems, the Song does not shrink from describing genitalia, sexual intimacy, and climax. Read this way, "With great delight I sat in his shadow, and his fruit was sweet to my taste" can be understood as a reference to oral sex offered by the woman to the man's "tree"; "His left hand is under my head and his right hand caresses me" may describe the man caressing the woman's vulva; and "Let my beloved come into his garden, and eat its choicest fruits" (4:16) should be read as a frank invitation to sexual intercourse. The phrase "I compare you, my love, to a mare among the Pharaoh's chariots" (1:9) is also explicit, invoking the ancient military practice of sending a mare in heat amid the stallions as a distraction. Apparently, the woman's scent drives men equally wild.
But What Does the Song Mean?
Still, the metaphorical language of the Song does not require readers to envision particular sex acts and positions. Sexually explicit interpretations are possible, not obvious, and ready to be discovered by an enterprising reader eager to find them. Certainly the ancient Christian theologian Origen of Alexandria was worried that an immature reader might get the wrong impression:
For this reason I give warning and advice to everyone who is not yet free of the vexations of the flesh and blood and who has not withdrawn from desire for corporeal nature that he completely abstain from reading this book.
The Song of Songs is a poem, and, as such, interpretation is left open. Its metaphors remain ambiguous, even as they heighten desire through text, pattern, and language, mimicking the rhythm of sexual intercourse and titillating with sensual, luxuriant imagery. Climax is hinted at rather than described, leaving it to readers to supply what the poem refuses explicitly to reveal. Nevertheless, both the poem's beauty and its force depend upon sensual arousal and the awakening of erotic sentiments. And, interestingly enough, once awakened, desire — not marriage or childbearing — remains the focus. Voluntary intimacy and pleasure are the goal of these lovers, and social norms appear to be irrelevant to the delight they intend to pursue.
Excerpted from Unprotected Texts by Jennifer Wright Knust. Copyright © 2011 by Jennifer Wright Knust. Excerpted with permission by HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers. All rights reserved.