Songs of Love
I learned about sex when I was six years old. I was always precocious and independent, so when adults kept mentioning sex in hushed tones when they thought I wasn’t listening, I did the only logical thing: I went to my room and looked it up in my copy of the Merriam-Webster dictionary. When I read the definition, I was both grossed out and incredulous. Yeah, right! Like anyone would want to take their clothes off and touch each other where they went to the bathroom.
Fast forward several years. My friends and I were still skittish about sex, but we were all firmly boy-crazy by this point, so Pathfinder camping trips became the location of a strange, absurdly Christian ritual. We would find out the name of the boy someone had a crush on, and then we would do a dramatic reading of the entire book of Song of Solomon, substituting their names for the “Lover” and “Beloved.”
If you grew up Christian, you know that the church pushes a lot of conflicting, often troubling messages about sex. We’re obsessed with sex: who is having it, when they’re having it, and how they’re doing it. Most Christian denominations discourage or outright condemn sexual intercourse prior to marriage, and more than 70% of American identify as Christian, yet studies have shown that 9 in 10 adults have had sex prior to marriage. Christian bloggers wax eloquent about the capacity of women’s yoga pants, tank tops, and bikinis to lead otherwise righteous men of God to filthy and immoral thoughts, suggesting that grown men are ruled by their genitals and women and girls as young as 12 or 13 are responsible for their actions. Purity balls, abstinence pledges, and comparisons of sexually active people to chewed up gum, crumpled wrapping paper, and broken cookies reduce complex human beings to objects whose worth is determined entirely by their virginity.
Again and again individuals raised in this toxic purity culture discover they have difficulty enjoying sex once they are married, citing both emotional obstacles, such as feelings of disgust and the loss of self-worth, as well as physical ones. As Dianna E. Anderson points out in Damaged Goods, attitudes that paint sex as overwhelmingly powerful and evil outside of marriage and perfect within it are damaging to an entire spectrum of people, including victims of rape and sexual abuse, and married partners with no concept of consent.
A Christian sexual ethic which preaches avoidance of sex while constantly fixating on it, which creates black-and-white standards which allow for endless technical exceptions, which teaches people to say “no” but not how to respect someone else's "no", and never how to say “yes” when the time is right, is both self-contradictory and entirely inadequate.
In order to be people who recognize each other as complex and inherently valuable individuals created in the image of God, we have to develop a more nuanced and mature sexual ethic. In doing so, I think it’s helpful to return to the only place my innocent 11-year-old self knew to look for sexual content: Song of Solomon.
While some may claim that Song of Solomon is meant to be an allegory for the love between Christ and the church, this interpretation becomes unconvincing, even creepy, in light of the specific, physically explicit language used in the book: for example, the lover tells his beloved, “Your stature is like that of the palm and your breasts like clusters of fruit. I said, I will climb the palm tree; I will take hold of its fruit’” (7:7-8 NIV).
No, the book of Song of Solomon is an often-explicit picture of the romantic and sexual love between a man and a woman. “Textual clues,” Anderson writes, “indicate that this particular song is taking place prior to a wedding ceremony – with the groom coming to the bride’s family home and singing at the gate.”1 While many of the more explicit scenes are written as expressions of wishes and desires rather than reports of actual activity, and the scenes tend to cut off before things get completely explicit, the text nevertheless is not afraid to explore these desires. The Bible is not afraid to talk about the desires that unmarried people have.
That being said, while the couple may not be married yet, they are certainly committed to each other. And the text also comes with a stern warning for the beloved’s friends who are considering love and sex: “Do not arouse or awaken love until it so desires” (2:7 NIV). The Song of Solomon isn't necessarily an instruction manual on sexual ethics - other parts of the Bible cover that. Forcing Song of Solomon to be something it is not robs it of it's power. What it does do is present us with a beautiful and healthy human expression of romantic interest.
The couple in Song of Solomon reveals a sexual ethic that is respectful and joyfully consenting, embraces commitment, boldness, and passion, and emphasizes the vital presence of love. We observe an equal level of enthusiasm from both sides - a crucial element to be maintained even once marriage vows have been taken. While the lover and beloved may spend stanza after stanza in raptures about each other’s skin, hair, mouths, and bodies, the heart of the book is a declaration of love:
“Place me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm; for love is as strong as death, its jealousy unyielding as the grave. It burns like blazing fire, like a mighty flame. Many waters cannot quench love; rivers cannot sweep it away” (8:6-7 NIV).
Related texts or passages to consider: 1 Corinthians 7; Genesis 2:24-25; Proverbs 5:19; Proverbs 7:19
• Song of Songs is one of the only two books in the Bible that does not mention God or prayer at all (the other one is Esther). Why do you think this is in the Bible? Is this book a book of advice about sexual morality, or a celebration of sexuality?
• If Song of Songs were not primarily a book about sexual moral advice, would that take away from the moral teachings of the rest of the Bible?
• Some people who grow up in Christianity find that Christians are very shy about talking about sexual things. This is not true of Song of Solomon. Read the following verses from the Bible. What are they saying? Don't be afraid to answer honestly. How does it make you feel, knowing that these statements are contained in the Bible? (Song of Songs 1:12-14; 3:1-4; 4:1-7, 4:12-16; 5:16; 7:1-13; 8:10)
• What are some ways in which purity culture can be damaging? How does it affect victims of rape and sexual abuse? How can Christians have healthy, safe conversations about this?
• Read our blog on Soulmates. Do you think it's possible to truly love more than one person in your lifetime? What about people who remarry after their spouse dies? How should this affect our view of sexuality?
• If you choose not to have sex before marriage, where do you draw the line? In Bible times, men and women might not have touched each other in any way before marriage. Then again, they in some cases may have barely met before beginning the wedding plans. What about today?
• How would you define "virginity"? At one point do you stop being a virgin? Can you think of Biblical examples? Do you think defining this matters?
• How can Christians find good role models or advice about healthy sexuality? How can families have healthier conversations about this topic?
Anderson, Dianna E. Damaged Goods. New York: Jericho Books, 2015. 150. Print. ↩