There is a certain type of Christian — usually a man — who’s very proud of the fact that Bible has one book in it wholly devoted to sex. Give this guy a microphone and he’ll adjust his tie, get a crafty grin on his face and say something like, “Let’s look at what the Bible says about sex. That’s right, folks, we say the S-E-X word here. I know, I know—” he’ll say, waving away imagined outcries of horror. “But, believe it or not, the Bible actually says God created sex to be good!”
There’s not necessarily anything wrong with that. Sure, it can be a little irritating when people dress Song of Solomon up as the work of an edgy shock jock. But it’s true that there’s a whole book in the Bible that pushes back against the notion of Christians being anti-sex. Song of Solomon is so explicit in its sexiness that it can feel a little off with the rest of the Bible. The Psalms are emotionally raw poetry. The Proverbs are practical life advice. Ecclesiastes is full of existential musing. And Song of Solomon? Well …it’s …about sex.
For those not in the know, the Song of Solomon follows the romance of a Lover and his Beloved. Some interpretations hold that we follow one single couple all the way through the book, from courtship to marriage to wedding night. Some people think the book is more of anthology, following the stories of a few different couples that were then compiled into one book. The original text of the Song of Solomon gives us very few contextual clues, so there is a lot of room for interpretation. The one thing that does seem clear is that the book is about sex, and gets into some pretty lurid descriptions, from fanciful depictions of the naked female form (breasts like twin fawns, lips like silk red thread) to poetic explorations of pretty much all the bases in baseball.
In fact, the book’s road to canonization wasn’t exactly straightforward. For much of the first century, many Rabbis had sort of a low view of the book, and there is at least some evidence that there was talk of kicking it out of the canon altogether. But since it was generally accepted that the book had been written by Solomon himself, the book stuck around. It’s around this time that you can find the first interpretations of the book as an allegory between God and Israel instead of a book of sexually explicit poetry.
And yet, this allegory didn’t diminish the value of the book in anyone’s mind. The famous first and second century Rabbi Akiva defended its inclusion in the canon fiercely. “For all of eternity in its entirety is not as worthy as the day on which Song of Songs was given to Israel,” he once said. “For all the Writings are holy, but Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies.” Today, portions of the book are read ahead of Shabbat eve or at Passover.
Early Christians had a similar wrestling match. By the second century, Hippolytus was writing that many Christians interpreted the Song of Solomon as an allegory of God’s love for the Church, and this view found a champion is famous Church Father Origen. This interpretation isn’t exactly easy to maintain, and the early Church found some creative ways to read spiritual meaning into the sexual metaphors, like calling suggesting that being taken “into the bedchamber” just meant becoming a Christian. They even taught the book’s reference to breasts was a reference to the Old and New Covenants.
Subsequent generations of Christians started layering other meanings on top of this one — like the idea that the “bride” in Song of Solomon was supposed to be the Virgin Mary, and certain ethical teachings — until it became a little convoluted. Nevertheless, the Church largely (though not entirely) held that the Song of Solomon was strictly allegorical for a long time. It was the predominant view until just a couple centuries ago.
Several competing ideas for what the Song of Solomon means started getting more traction in more recent years. Some have suggested that the book is actually intended to be a play, with two main characters (the Lover and the Beloved) and a chorus section. In the nineteenth century, a German scholar suggested there were not one but three main characters — the woman, the poor shepherd she loves and the king who attempts to woo her before ultimately returning the woman back home to the man she loves.
The “literal view” of the Song of Solomon — in which it’s taken as granted that the book describes exactly what it seems to — has always been around, but it hasn’t always been popular. In fact, the Second Council of Constantinople dismissed this view as heresy in A.D. 553. But the literal interpretation persisted for a pretty straight forward reason: It’s the natural reading of the book. There may still be questions about the exact narrative (or, according to some interpretations, narratives), but the subject of the Song of Solomon is pretty clear.
There is an argument to be made that the Song of Solomon can be about more than one thing — both literally about sexuality while also pointing towards a higher view of divine love. That’s a fair take. But any idea that the Song of Solomon isn’t about sex is a huge stretch.