By Jennifer Wright Knust
Part III: Biblical Desire
Attempting to describe the love of the soul for God, the third-century Christian theologian Origen of Alexandria turned to the biblical love poem the Song of Songs. Wounded by love’s desire, in the Song the soul seeks after God in gardens and eagerly anticipates the fulfillment “she” will attain in the bridal chamber. A few decades earlier, Rabbi Akiva described the Song as the “holiest of holies,” daring anyone to challenge the book’s canonicity. “The whole world is not worth the day on which the Song of Songs was given to Israel,” he declared. Both the theologian and the rabbi were well aware of the risqué content of this book, but to them this made Solomon’s poem all the more valuable since it accurately describes the love affair between the soul and God, God and the church, or God and Israel. Divine-human intimacy is highly charged, they assumed, and Solomon knew it.
More recently, the Song has been read not as a metaphor but as a frank description of pre-marital sex. Recalling the great love poetry of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, the Song vividly describes breasts, flowing black locks, honey-sweet lips and the joy of sexual fulfillment. Yet the Song does not limit sex and desire to marriage: the unmarried lovers meet in gardens and bedchambers over the objections of the woman’s meddlesome brothers. Unique among biblical books, the Song revels in erotic desire, and for its own sake.
Still, there is at least one other biblical book that portrays extra-marital seduction positively: the book of Ruth. When a famine forces Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi to return to Israel, the impoverished pair is reduced to gleaning in the fields for whatever grain they can find. Seeing Ruth in his fields, Naomi’s relative Boaz takes a shining to her, and the women conspire to take advantage of the situation. On the last night of the harvest, Ruth lies down next to the sleeping Boaz with every intention of “uncovering his feet,” a Hebrew euphemism for uncovering his genitals. Boaz awakens, praises the lovely Ruth and then spends the night with her, after which he arranges to take her as a wife. Against the odds, these two women secure their own futures, and also the future of the line of King David, by means of an extra-marital assignation undertaken at night in a field.
The Bible is therefore much more open about desire than readers have been led to expect, though other passages do insist that desire be carefully contained. The apostle Paul is especially famous for this point of view: looking forward to a time when God’s elect would be resurrected in bodies that engage in no sexual relations whatsoever, he urged Jesus’ followers to adopt celibacy. Yet he was also highly concerned about the dangers of illicit desire. His solution was marriage, which enables weaker Christians to engage in regular sexual intercourse so as to avoid sexual sin. The Book of Revelation is even more emphatic: the 144,000 men he envisioned surrounding the throne of God are all said to be virgins who have not defiled themselves with women. To many early Christians, sexual desire was an unfortunate symptom of bodily life that the best men readily overcome.
Yet neither Paul nor John of Patmos, the author of Revelation, renounced desire completely. According to Paul, all of creation is groaning in labor pains, eagerly awaiting the coming redemption. John yearns for the return of a heavenly Jerusalem in which the elect may live in peace, even as he imagines the torments that will be inflicted on his enemies, and in excruciating detail. The renunciation of desire was impossible, even for New Testament writers.
Admitting that we, too, want something, that we too have desires and longings, perhaps we can also admit that we never approach the Bible without some kind of agenda. We are not passive recipients of what the Bible says, but active interpreters who make decisions about what we will believe and what we will affirm. Since the Bible offers so little in the way of consistent advice about marriage, sexuality and desire, it is time to quit using it as a justification for our moral decrees. In conversation with the Bible, we might develop a more nuanced and informed perspective on what it has meant to be human, but we will not find easy solutions to the sharp debates that have been tearing apart communities and bodies for the last several decades. As my mother would say: stop it. Anyone who uses either God or the Bible to preach hate or to deny love and affection to others has failed as both a lover of the Bible and a person of faith.
Jennifer Wright Knust is an Assistant Professor of Religion at Boston University and has received fellowships and awards from the American Association of University Women, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. An ordained American Baptist pastor, she holds a doctorate in Religion from Columbia University and a Masters of Divinity from Union Theological Seminary in New York. She is the author of Unprotected Texts: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions About Sex and Desire.