We spoke last time from Proverbs 5 of the “wisdom” required to maintain sexual purity as an adolescent and unmarried young adult. The wise father instructed his son to remember the power and prevalence of sexual temptation, the destructive consequences of sexual sin, and, above all, to avoid occasions. Don’t ask the Devil to tempt you: he will always obliged!
But that determination to avoid a stumble here and that wise avoidance of occasions is not the primary or the lasting antidote to sexual sin in the teaching of the Bible, either in the OT or in the NT. That antidote, that solution to the problem posed by the strength of sexual desires and the blandishments of sexual temptation is an erotically fulfilling marriage. And it is to this that the wise father turns after the warnings with which he began in 5:1-14. The best defense against sexual disaster (or, for that matter, a sexual life that is intoxicating but offensive to God) is a fulfilling sexual relationship with one’s spouse, and in the context of Prov. 5, with one’s wife.
- 5:15-16: every culture prefers to speak of both death and sex euphemistically rather than clinically. We speak of “making love” or “sleeping” with another person. Well the ANE had its euphemisms also. Here sexual desire is likened to the body’s need for water. He is speaking about quenching one’s sexual thirst, but in the right way. One’s own cistern, one’s own well. Interestingly, we find these same metaphors used in the same way in the Song of Songs. Cf. 4:12; 5:1. (There is a debate among commentators whether in v. 16 we are still speaking of the woman as the object of the man’s sexual desire, or the man, whose sexual vitality, in an obvious metaphor, is represented in terms of flowing water. It seems to me more likely that v. 16 is still speaking of the woman insofar as “fountain” in the Song of Songs is definitely a reference to the woman and seems to be again here in v. 18.) In a land where water can be scarce, it is often in the Bible an image of blessing and fullness of life. It is often an image of salvation, indeed, but here of sex and sexual pleasure.
- 5:17-18: the admonition is clearly to find one’s sexual pleasure in the privacy and intimacy and commitment of marriage, not in flings with other women. It is a strongly monogamous text and one of many reminders that, though biblical heroes sometimes had more than one wife, monogamy was always the biblical ideal.
- 5:19: the word “loving” deer means the “love-making” deer. The emphasis continues to rest upon sensual love, not simply romantic love in a more abstract form. ANE culture found images of erotic love in animals. We find the same in the Song of Songs in reference both to the woman and the man (4:5; 2:9). Bruce Waltke writes of these comparisons:
“I had difficulty identifying with that culture and imagery until on one occasion, high up on Tel Hesi, I came into close contact with mountain goats and observed their bright, black eyes, their graceful limbs, and their irresistible silky hair.” [Proverbs, i, 321]
The reference to the wife’s breasts here is obviously erotic. These are breasts not for the suckling of an infant but for the sexual pleasure and fulfillment they provide the husband. The idea is of a man who is intoxicated with his wife’s body and love-making with her. [Longman, Proverbs, 162]
We have this same sort of image in Song of Songs 1:9. [We will return, even after Prof. Collins’ lecture next week, to the interpretation of the Song as a whole, but, at this point it is worth our notice of this positive emphasis on sexual distraction: i.e. a man who can’t keep his mind off her body and the prospect of love-making.] What was once thought to be the sense [e.g. George Burrowes] fails the test of its ANE context. “In ancient Egypt, after the middle of the second millennium B.C., mares were never used to draw chariots. Stallions, hitched in pairs, were the standard motive-power of both war-chariots and other royal vehicles.” [Carr, TCOT] So a mare, set loose among all of these stallions, would produce intense excitement, distraction. It was even, apparently, a battle-tactic! Well the father wants a wife for his son who produces that kind of sexual fixation! She will leave him with no interest in other women.
- The remaining verses of the chapter sum up and return to the warning. But you see the main point. Not marriage itself, but an erotic marriage, a sexually fulfilling marriage is what this father hopes for his son and urges upon his son as the true solution to the power of sexual desire. NB, however, the use of the Lord’s name, Yahweh, in v. 21. The covenant name of the Lord. All of this is the working out of life in covenant with God, even this dimension of life, that of erotic love.
Now, you are aware that Paul makes the same point in 1 Cor. 7, though in a much more prosaic way. “It is better to marry than to burn with passion,” he says in a context in which he is advocating an erotic marriage and condemning the ascetic ideal of a spiritual marriage (an idea that continued to appeal even in the 4th century; cf. Chrysostom’s scathing denunciation of the practice). He requires husbands and wives to be sexual lovers over against the idea, congenial in a Greco-Roman Christian context, that even in marriage the less physical, the less sensual, the better.
1 Corinthians 7:1-5
- 1 Cor. 7:1: a mistranslation in the NIV. Literally, “to touch a woman,” (e.g. Gen. 20:6), meaning to have sex with a woman, not to marry her.
- 1 Cor. 7:2-5: Paul is not talking about whether men and women should marry (though he will get to that subject) but about whether married men and women should have an erotic marriage. And in v. 5 he speaks of a spouse “depriving” the other – the word is the same word as that translated “defraud” in 6:7-8 – a strong characterization of a sexless marriage.
- It is in this context of erotic marriage that Paul then in v. 9 advises those – and they must be the vast majority – who cannot live singly without great difficulty to marry, precisely for this reason, that marriage is the divinely ordered, the sound, the life-giving way to express, to enjoy, and to satisfy sexual urges. “It is better to marry than to burn with passion.” Here “burn” is used in the sense of “destructive burning.”
Now, with that foundation laid, the foundation of an erotic marriage as the blessing of life and the intention of God, let me now elaborate on several dimensions of that picture, especially as they are presented in the more vivacious way of the Old Testament. Let me begin with another text that sets forth in a very earthy way the celebration of the physical and sensual character of married love
- v. 19: the way of a man with? or in a maiden. The Talmud, Keil and Delitzsch, Bruce Waltke, e.g. take it as a reference to intercourse and for these reasons.
- The preposition, בּ, is the ordinary word for “in.”
- The comparisons all have to do with marvelous, mysterious motions of something in a medium: the large and heavy eagle that seems to defy gravity; the snake that uses sideways motion to slither straight ahead so quickly, and the ship that riding on the surface of the ocean defies the limitless depths below. Well there is something very mysterious and wonderful about this motion as well!
- The contrast with v. 20 suggests a contrast between pure sexual love and impure. This is the first, the initial sexual act, virginal marital sex. The word for maiden is almah, the famous “virgin” of Isaiah 7:14.
- Here, then, following upon 5:19 we have another celebration of the erotic element in life and in marriage.
- The earthiness of the description is also worth pointing out. The text invites the image of the sexual motion itself. We have noted that modern English translations tend to tone down this element of the Hebrew text as it has here with with instead of the more physical in. Another example was provided us several weeks ago in Ezekiel 16:25, in the description of Israel’s promiscuity and adultery as the Lord’s unfaithful beloved, where the NIV has “offering your body with increasing promiscuity to anyone who passed by.” The ESV has “offering yourself.” But the ESV at least includes the marginal note that the Hebrew literally reads “spreading your legs.” The Bible is chaste. It is never prurient. But it is very definitely not prudish whether speaking sarcastically about sin or positively about wedded love. It does not scruple to speak directly of the mystery and the wonder of a man in a maiden.
Nor, as we saw in 5:19, does it scruple to revel in the erogenous parts of the human body and, especially, the female human body.
Song of Songs 7:1-9
We have read already of the woman’s breasts and the sexual fulfillment they provide her husband. Here, we have the entire body. Now, a word in the way of introduction to this text. The Bible does sometimes draw attention to the appearance of men. We are told, for example, that Joseph, David, and Daniel were handsome men. But much more often the Bible draws attention to the appearance of women. Over and again it describes a woman as beautiful, or beautiful in form and features. Sarah was very beautiful (Gen. 12:11); Rebekah was very beautiful (24:16); Rachel was lovely in form and beautiful (29:17); in Deut. 21:10 it is assumed that Israelite soldiers would be attracted to the beautiful women among their captives; Abigail was an intelligent and beautiful woman (1 Sam. 25:3); Bathsheba was very beautiful (2 Sam. 11:2); so was Tamar, the beautiful sister of Absalom (13:1); Queen Vashti was lovely to look at (1:11); Esther was lovely in form and features (2:7); so were Job’s daughters (42:15); and so on. Beauty is a blessing from God and, like all other blessings, something to be grateful for, something to put to its proper use, and something to be cultivated. For this reason the accentuation of beauty in the Bible, while possibly a snare (so Paul and Peter) is entirely acceptable in its own right (Ezek. 16; Song of Songs). What is beauty in this respect? In the eye of…standard differs from man to man, culture to culture, time to time.
- Christian College professor who concluded he would never again compliment a woman on her appearance. Too much pressure on them in our culture. That there is too much pressure and that girls and women feel it is entirely true and we should address that directly and firmly. But that is doubtfully a biblical solution. The Bible quite often compliments appearance. However, this fact must be held in constant tension with the Bible’s assertion that “Charm is deceptive and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised,” and with Paul and Peter’s warnings against feminine vanity based on appearance.. Simone Weil (an unattractive woman) on beauty of women.
- Nevertheless, we have in such statements, the biblical acknowledgement of an indisputable fact. Women’s bodies, their shapes, their appearance are of the most intense interest to men, even to human beings generally. And this is all the more true insofar as the female form is productive of sexual interest and desire. All of this is true of women in a way it is simply not true of men.
- The amount of space devoted to female fashion compared to male in the department store [e.g. Nordstrom in Tacoma]; so jewelry; cosmetics (all having to do with impression).
- The cultural significance of women’s clothing: in the 60s women burned their bras; men had nothing to burn by which to make a social statement because men’s clothing does not carry the same social significance.
- The Tacoma Mall has a Victoria’s Secret; at last check there was still no Prince Albert’s Secret;
- The Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition;
- American advertising
- There is nothing here that is unusual or hard to understand given the Bible’s own acknowledgement of the mesmerizing effect of the female form. The Bible’s moral context is largely forgotten in our culture, but the fact of this attraction is acknowledged openly in the Bible and is, as we have seen, even made a means of great blessing in human life.
Now in the Song of Songs there are four descriptions of the human form: three of the woman and one of the man. Three of them are overtly erotic and two of the descriptions of the woman radioactively so, 4:1-7, where the man begins his description of her body at the head and moves downward, and here in chapter 7, where he moves upward from the feet. The description of the man, in 5:10-16 is erotic, but nothing like so explicit as the two longer descriptions of the woman.
- This description in chapter 7 is almost certainly more erotically explicit than the English translations indicate. The lover is explaining his inability to take his eyes of her. The context may be the appearance of her body as she dances, as the previous verse suggests.
- 7:1: rounded or curved thighs (NIV’s “graceful legs” is less explicit), the perfection of her thighs.
- 7:2: the word translated “navel” occurs only twice more in the OT and there is a debate about its meaning here. It either means navel or vulva, which one reaches before the waist in the motion upward in this description. There are technical arguments that I am not in a position to judge, and that on both sides, but some of our own men are persuaded that the vulva is meant, not the navel. The NIV’s waist should be “belly,” the lower abdomen with its glistening wheat-colored skin. ‘Belly,” again, a more explicit term than waist.
- 7:3: the upward movement covers the most powerfully sexual part of her body: her upper legs, her vulva or navel, her belly, and her breasts.
- 7:6 completes the description itself. The following represent either the lover’s intention to make love to his wife and take pleasure from her body – and to give pleasure to her in turn – or he is reminiscing his wedding night experience. [More on that when we return to Song later.]
Taking all of this material together we draw the following conclusions:
- The Bible is unashamed of the erotic dimension of human life;
- It is aware of and trades in the erotic power of the human body and the female body in particular;
- The mystery and fulfillment and joy of erotic love it regards as a particular blessing of life, both for itself, and the protection it provides against sexual sin.