Sexy Beast: The Song of Solomon by Barbara Hamby

Sexy Beast: The Song of Solomon by Barbara Hamby
January 24, 2024 Hamby Barbara

Sexy Beast: The Song of Solomon

In an essay appropriate for Valentine’s Day, as well as the entire short month of February, Barbara Hamby combines exemplary exegetical skills with colorful commentary in her analysis of the biblical poem, The Song of Songs in her essay  titled “Sexy Beast, The Song of Solomon.” Although the Song of Solomon’s quizzical inclusion in the Old Testament, as well as its precise origin remains unclear (biblical scholars can only guess that it was written sometime between the tenth and second centuries BCE by either a man or woman), Hamby succeeds in conveying the poem’s timeless appeal as a metaphor for divine love in sexual terms. With unabashed, scholarly scrutiny, she assays the ironic, erotic conceit of Eros as an inherent attribute, as well as reification, of God’s love for mankind.

–Chard DeNiord



What the hell is this book doing in the Bible? It’s not really like any of the other books in the Old Testament. It doesn’t lay down the law like Leviticus with its prohibitions against same-sex love and tattoos. It doesn’t narrate God’s dealings with the people of Israel like Moses parting the Red Sea and smashing the golden idol, and it’s not really a book of wisdom like Proverbs or Ecclesiastes. It has more in common with the Psalms in that it is a song of praise, but God is not the focus. The Song of Solomon is a love poem about sexual love. The lovers praise each other, they bill, they coo, they all but slather each other in scented oils and get out the sex toys. It may not be biblical, but that’s enough to make it an ode in my book, to use one of my mother’s favorite expressions.

There are dozens of evangelical Christian marriage manuals that use The Song of Solomon as a guide. And others refer to it as a metaphor for Christ and his Church or for rabbis the covenant between God and the people of Israel. I’m certain Saint Teresa of Avila, with her erotic take on her divine bridegroom, would embrace this definition, but no matter how you deal with it, it’s some of the most erotic writing ever, buried right in the middle of the Old Testament. We don’t even know when it was written or whether Solomon wrote it.

The text we have uses language from a much later time than Solomon’s reign from 961-931. Linguistic detective work dates the Song of Solomon to the third century BCE. However, when thousands of years are in question in a time of shabby record-keeping practices, it’s hard to pin down the details. It could have been written by someone who was translating an older text. It could have been written by Solomon or someone from his royal court or someone from a later time trying to evoke the worldly court of Solomon, who was famous for his many wives. What we do know about Solomon was that he was the tenth son of David and the second of David’s sons by Bathsheba, the beautiful married woman who got him in so much trouble with God.

The lyrical language of the book has parallels with some Sumerian poems, especially “Message of Ludingira to His Mother.” Compare this passage from the Song of Solomon to the following one from “Message of Ludingira”:


My beloved is white and ruddy, the chiefest among ten thousand.
His head is as the most fine gold.
His locks are bushy and black as a raven.
His eyes are as the doves by rivers of waters, washed with milk, and fitly set.
His cheeks are as a bed of spices, as sweet flowers: his lips like lilies,
dropping sweet smelling myrrh. (Song of Solomon 5:10-13)


My mother is brilliant in the heavens, a doe in the mountains,
A morning star abroad at noon
Precious carnelian, a topaz from Marhasi,
A prize for a king’s daughter, full of charm,
A nir-stone seal, an ornament like the sun,
A bracelet of tin a ring of antasura,


Both of these passages compare the subject of the poem to precious metals and gems as well as nature. The erotic language in the Sumerian song to a mother might be seen as a little weird, but this is the culture of Inanna and later the Babylonian Ishtar with their erotic temple cults. The mother was most likely a manifestation of Inanna. The poem seems to be rooted in festive performance, and connections have been proposed with the “sacred marriage” of Inanna and Dimmuz or the Babylonian Ishtar and Tammuz. Whether these rites were symbolic or acted out on the temple altar is hotly contested by scholars.

And who is the woman at the center of Song of Solomon? It is written in part from her point of view, and it is not inconceivable that it was the work of one of the members of Solomon’s court or a woman of a later time. Solomon was a great collector of women. He had a harem of 300 concubines and 700 wives. There is speculation that the woman in the Song of Songs is a daughter of the Egyptian Pharaoh. Thus her dark skin: in SoS 1:6, she says,” I am black, because the sun hath looked upon me.” Here I am reminded of Ishmael Reed’s marvelously inventive, “I am a Cowboy in the Boat of Ra,” in which he reclaims the African Egyptians from the whitewash of white Egyptologists.

But who wrote the poems? First in line is Solomon, but there’s no real archeological evidence that he even existed, unlike David, who appears in inscriptions. Some Talmudic scholars have attributed the book to King Hezekiah, who lived c. 715-686 BCE. Another possibility is that it was written by a court poet, someone who was in the luxurious and worldly court of Solomon but not at its center. Another possibility is that one of the women in Solomon’s harem wrote the poem. One might imagine that there was a temple scribe who was a woman who may have written these passionate verses. Whoever wrote them, they are some of the most beautiful erotic poems of praise ever composed. It is as if a lyric genius rose out of the Sumerian and Babylonia erotic temple cults and found true love.

Chana and Ariel Bloch, in their contemporary translation of this poem, decide to sidestep all the historical questions. They say this is a poem of sexual awaking of a young woman and her lover:


In a series of subtly articulated scenes, the two meet in an idealized
landscape of fertility and abundance—a kind of Eden—where they discover
the pleasures of love. The passage from innocence to experience is a subject
of the Eden story, too, but there the loss of innocence is fraught with
consequences. The Song looks at the same border-crossing and sees
only the joy of discovery.


They go on to say that King Solomon is part of the lovers’ fantasies. His court was one of opulence, and in their trysts, they try to conjure up the same luxury. And it was common in ancient texts to rope in prominent people from earlier times to give cachet to a piece of writing. We see this in the Psalms. Not all of them were by David, but many of the poets of the Psalms called up his golden aura to shine on their work.


The Structure of the Song of Solomon


Although the book has no real plot, there is a concatenation of unfolding events that make it possible for a reader to gin up a narrative of sorts. The first verse seems tacked on, as if to legitimize the love story that follows: “The song of songs, which is Solomon’s.” You can see why some ancient scholar might have said, “These are too sexy for a holy book. Let’s say that they were written by Solomon. He had 700 wives in his harem. He probably knew a thing or two about sex.” But then the pronouns get a bit gnarly:


Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth: for thy love is better than wine.
Because of the savour of thy good ointments thy name is as ointment poured forth,
therefore do the virgins love thee.
Draw me, we will run after thee: the king hath brought me into his chambers: we will
be glad and rejoice in thee, we will remember thy love more than wine: the
upright love thee. (1:2-4)


This seems to be a nod to the Solomon story, but it can also be read as a metaphor, according to the Blochs. Poetry doesn’t give up its mysteries easily, and a thousand years of editing can accent those mysteries. Still we are left with the questions: who is the “he” in verse two? Is it the same person as “thy?” Why the jump from third to second person? Then in verse four—huh? There’s a “me,” “we,” and “thee.” Is this describing a three- or four- or fivesome lit by oil lamps or out-of-control editing?

The book continues with the lovers speaking to each other (1:7–2:7). Here the imagery begins to build power.


I am the rose of Sharon, and the lily of the valleys.
As the lily among thorns, so is my lover among the daughters.
As the apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among the sons.
I sat down under his shadow with great delight, and his fruit
was sweet to my taste.


The palace of these lovers is nature—roses, lilies, trees, forests. She describes her lover as a roe or young hart, young and vigorous. He is doesn’t come across as an overactive monarch with a thousand women at his disposal. This is the song of first love.

The female speaker also addresses a chorus of women whom she calls “the daughters of Jerusalem.” I like to think of this as a chorus of girlfriends. Like any teenager in love, she has to tell them about her meetings with her boyfriend. But she also tells them about her fever dreams of chasing him around the city. She sees a royal wedding procession (3:6–11), which was probably a common occurrence since Solomon had so many wives. The man gushes about the woman’s beauty. She gushes about his, but just when you think you have a handle on the poem it turns all Alice-in-Wonderland on you, which always says to me—let the language wash over you and don’t try to figure it out or you might kill its beauty. (Actually, that’s me channeling John Keats.)

So let’s concentrate on the beauty of the language, its praise of love and the natural world, because its beauty is the reason scores of editors couldn’t let it go and included it in the Bible, thus making it less Holy Writ and more a kind of anthology of the great writing of the Hebrew people. Like Ovid’s Metamorphoses and countless other works at the heart of common culture, it begins with the creation of the world, but instead of many gods there is only one god who makes everything in seven days. We have the creation of man and woman and the story of the Hebrew people—their ups and downs—their poetry, their wisdom, and their passion for a place in their world.

There are so many beautiful passages in the Song of Solomon, but perhaps my favorite is the beginning of Chapter Seven:


How beautiful are thy feet with shoes, O prince’s daughter! the joints of thy                                               thighs are like
jewels, the work of the hands of a cunning workman.
Thy navel is like a round goblet, which wanteth not liquor: thy belly is like a heap of                                 wheat set
about with lilies.
Thy two breasts are like two young roes that are twins.
Thy neck is as a tower of ivory; thine eyes like the fishpools in Heshbon,
by the gate of Bathrabbim: thy nose is as the tower of Lebanon which looketh
toward Damascus.
Thine head upon thee is like Carmel, and the hair of thine head like purple;
the king is held in the galleries.


Who wouldn’t want to be described in such terms? The line “How beautiful are thy feet in shoes, O prince’s daughter” slays me every time I read it. To have the Southernmost part of your body exalted and the rest mounted the way Romeo climbed toward Juliet’s balcony rung by rung?  It’s a young woman’s dream, fueled by hormones and inexperience.

And her dreams! Who expected an erotic dream in the middle of the Bible? I certainly didn’t, but here it is:


My beloved put in his hand by the hole of the door, and my bowels were moved for him.
I rose up to open to my beloved; and my hands dropped with myrrh, and my finger with                            sweet
smelling myrrh, upon the handles of the lock.

I opened to my beloved; but my beloved had withdrawn himself, and was gone: my soul                           failed when
he spake: I sought him, but I could not find him; I called him but he                             gave not answer.


If that’s not a dream, I’ve never had one. You’re all hot and bothered and then poof, you’re back in your mother’s kitchen slicing green beans for supper.

What is the poem saying? So many things and some of them don’t really jibe. But when has poetry had an equal sign between two numbers that lead to a sum? In the heart, two plus two can equal minus eleven or four thousand and fifty-three. At the end of the Song of Solomon, the poet says, “Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it: if a man would give all the substance of his house for love, it would utterly be contemned.” You have the drowning images, and then the warning. That’s the King James translation. In the Bloch translation, it goes this way:


Great seas cannot extinguish love,
No river can sweep it away.


If a man tried to buy love
with all the wealth of his house,
he would be despised.


Bloch is exalting love and not retribution. What is being offered in this ode to love is something that is above the wealth of Solomon. It cannot be bought or sold, and nothing can destroy it. Whoever the writer is—Solomon, a court poet, a member of Solomon’s harem, a woman looking back on her sexual awakening—we are left with images of a love built from the natural world—the night, the grasses, the wild animals running through the fields, the lilies and the spices that infuse the poems with the rich scents of the night. We are left with our bodies and the ecstasy that is possible within every human being.




Works consulted:

Bloch, Chana and Ariel Bloch. The Song of Songs; Random House (Modern Library), New York; 1995.


Cooper, Jerrold S. “New Cuneiform Parallels to the Song of Songs,” Journal of Biblical Literature , Jun., 1971, Vol. 90, No. 2 (Jun., 1971), pp. 157- 162.


Hagedorn, Anselm C. (ed.). Perspectives on the Song of Songs. Walter de Gruyter, Berlin and New York; 2005.


Kugler, Robert A.; Hartin, Patrick (2009), The Old Testament between theology and history: a critical survey, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, ISBN 9780802846365


Loprieno, Antonio (2005). “Searching for a common background: Egyptian love poetry and the Biblical Song of Songs”. In Hagedorn, Anselm C. (ed.). Perspectives on the Song of Songs. Walter de Gruyter. ISBN 9783110176322.


Victor Sassoon, “King Solomon and the Dark Lady in the Song of Songs,” Vetus Testamentum, October 1989, Volume 39, Fasc. 4, ppl 407-414.

Barbara Hamby’s sixth book of poems is Bird Odyssey (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2018). Poems in that book were first published in The New Yorker, Poetry, American Poetry Review, Ploughshares, and Plume.