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A Life-and-Death Erotic Love in the Song of Songs

Scripture: Song of Songs 8:6-7

by Christina Wong Wai Yin

Christina is an active senior friend of SCM HK and currently the Executive Secretary of Hong Kong Women’s Christian Council.

When I discussed 2006 sermon arrangements with the Blessed Christian Minority Fellowship[1], I knew that I would have to study a particular book from the Bible in each month. As I work for Hong Kong Women Christian Council and have an interest in feminist theology, I hope to provide a feminist interpretation of the Bible. Therefore, I have chosen to talk about Song of Songs. However, when I try to think about what message to share with the congregation, I have found it very difficult. I have never heard of a pastor using Song of Songs as a sermon. Should I talk about the goodness of sex, enjoying sexual desire, or how to have sexual pleasure? How many of us here are younger than 18 years old as today I try to share a very sensitive topic in our Chinese culture?

Most of the time in Church Bible study classes we use spiritual interpretations to understand the words and sentences in the Song of Songs as the love between God and the people. All the sexual connotations are made spiritual. For example, in Song of Songs 1:15, pastors understand “Ah, you are beautiful, my love; ah, you are beautiful; your eyes are doves” as eyes looking up—eyes that look at God. Traditional theologians feel that Song of Songs signifies the love between Christ and the Church, as they consider (actually a lot of believers as well) that the Old Testament’s value is only in verifying Christ’s redemption. This misses the Jews’ experience of the faithfulness of God and their encountering with God. In fact, the Jews experience God’s salvation and covenant as they struggle together as a nation.

I think the Song of Songs is a praise song about erotic love. A lot of churches or ministers think that it is not appropriate to give a sermon about such intimacy between humans. They shudder at the thought that God might want to talk about sex! As many of you have foundations in faith and are open to differing theologies, I challenge you to take off the chastity belt and join me in exploring the Song of Songs.

It is not just the churches today that do not know how to handle the Song of Songs. Church history tells us that it was a controversial inclusion in the canonical process of the Hebrew Bible. The reason for this is simple; there is not a word on God’s works. In short, Song of Songs is a poem in Hebrew and praises erotic love and sexuality. Where is God in it? It is not an easy question to answer.

1. Pursuit for erotic love is human nature.

The first message that I would like to bring out is that, human sexuality is part of God’s creation. Sex is a basic instinct. There are many animals and plants mentioned in the Song of Songs. For example, a dove is the sign of love between man and woman. Apples and raisins in ancient West Asian cultures were used as love symbols in the worship of the god of love. They are also aphrodisiacs and symbols of orgasm (2:5-6). Pomegranates and myrrh trigger sexual desires. Apart from plants and animals, the whole book is filled with scenes of spring and natural beauty and even describes the couple enjoying sex in the wilderness! For instance, verses 16-17 in Chapter One read, “Ah, you are beautiful, my beloved, truly lovely. Our couch is green; the beams of our house are cedar, our rafters are pine.” (1:16-17). All these examples illustrate the theme of creation, that all things in heaven and earth are created by God. Love and sexual relationships are part of God’s creation.

2. Erotic love is our inborn desire, but it also implies the costs of desire. Love has the power between life and death.

There are a lot of passages with sexual metaphors. There are mutual praises for each others’ naked bodies between the lover and the beloved. There are three passages where the woman’s body is praised by the man (4:1-5; 6:4-9; 7:2-10) and the man’s body praised by the woman (5:10-16). The woman’s breasts are, not surprisingly, as the focus of the man’s praises.

Song of Songs is not a book presenting Plato’s love which separates the spirit and the body. It is a book about love in spirit and desire for bodily connection. Song of Songs graphically expresses the pinnacle of love between man and woman—sex!

I have to mention that Song of Songs breaks the notion that the man should be proactive and the woman passive in sex. Woman takes initiative to pursue her desire for intimacy. Statistically speaking, 53% of the book is expressed in the female tone, while only 34% of the book is expressed in the male tone. The female voice in the book is passionate and direct, expressing desire for her lover and hatred of his departure. Apart from the expressions of love, the man has no other voice. Song of Songs seems to be the woman’s love history. She even initiates sex, not once, but over and over again. Feminist theologian Phyllis Trible claims, “The Song of Songs redeems a love story (that of the second Genesis creation account) gone away.”

The most touching part of the book is when, at the same time as expressing her desire for love, the woman also expresses the genuine loss of self entailed in the experience of eros. This is a kind of interior soliloquy which expresses the loss in the deepest part of her heart. Let’s see the illustration of the Scripture: Song of Songs 3:1-4; 5:2-8.

Some biblical scholars believe that the repetition of these two verses is not necessarily genuine narrative, but pseudo-narrative. While the structure is the movement from calm alertness booming into anticipation (5:2, “I slept, but my heart was awake...”) to the physical ache of desire on the verge of fulfilment (5:4, “my beloved thrust his hand into the opening, and my inmost being yearned for him”) to the retrospective realization of the inevitable emotional cost of erotic love (5:6, “My soul failed me when he spoke”). The reflection of the bride is that love and desire brings hurt. Apart from NRSV translation, a Biblical scholar Tod Linafelt translates this verse literally from Hebrew, “I nearly died when he spoke.”[2]

The book mentions the power to hurt by love and sex. Love makes us delirious, excited and passionate, but at the same time can make us feel lost. Of course, this is not the total loss of self that constitutes death, but it is loss nonetheless, the feeling that a piece of one’s self has gone missing, that one’s life-force has been compromised by being bound up with another. Some even consider love as suicidal. This is the cost of love.

“I am my beloved’s, and his desire is for me.”(7:10)—it implies that the individual who desires love has to pay the price of love. Even the beloved admits that she is sick with love. In verse 5:7 it described those who block her from the city walls. We may understand these as limitations arising from social boundaries, but it can also be a metaphor for the physical harm on the body. The fear and thread from love lie in the fragility and hurt from life experiences. This does not mean that we should avoid love and desire, but that we should be aware of the complexities of erotic love, which is a matter of life and death. Song of Songs let us see the dynamics and mutuality of erotic love, which leads our own subjectivity or sense of self has been challenged, divided, fragmented.

I have spent a lot of time talking about love and sex as a basic instinct, as part of the creation of God. If traditional faith or biblical interpretation is negative towards body and sexuality, Song of Songs suggests that body is created from God can eat and drink, and have love and sex. This body is holy. In response to the verse today, passion and erotic love are parallel with death, with very strong power. It is like God (Isaiah 42:2) as it is not threatened by death or fire or floods. Love is not only a substitute for God and the Dead of God. Song 8:6 and 7 suggest that Love displaces not only God but Mot, “Death,” and the primordial personified waters of chaos subdued by God.

As I said, the Song of Songs which is talking about erotic love is a great resource for us to develop Eros Theology, because in Eros theology contains we see the following elements:

For our audience I must mention the limitation of Song of Songs is that it is only about heterosexual love and hence limits the diversity of human sexuality. I would understand this is a limitation from the social situation of the time.

  1. The Blessed Christian Minority Fellowship is the only gay church in HK.
  2. Tod Linafelt, “The Arithmetic of Eros,” Interpretation 59:3 (2005), p.256.

Note: Acknowledgement to Jennifer Chan for the translation of the article and Simon for editorial work.