What does the Bible say about sexual desire?

By Jennifer Wright Knust Part III: Biblical Desire Attempting to describe the love of the soul for God, the third-century … Continued

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.

  • central1942

    In Genesis 1;22 God is supposed to have commanded: “Be fruitful, mulitply and fill the earth.” Nothing is said about “You must be at least —years of age, married, etc.” Kings were evidently permitted to have hundreds of wives (although a wife could have but one husband, in keeping with the totally sexist content of the Bible.) Most of the taboo about sex has been filled in by writers, who try to justify their puritanic views by the Bible, which has very little to say abut the subject. The Bible and other history sources would indicate that the folks of “way back when” had much looser attitudes toward sex than today’s do-gooders, who would do well to cite examples of results of today’s sexual habits than blaming them on what the Bible is supposed to say.

  • RoundlyMocked

    There are so many places to disagree, it is hard to know where to begin. 1. The Song of Songs – as I believe you referenced – is a descriptive poetry about love between God and a soul. Thus – though using imagery that is familiar to human experience – it is meant to describe in the most distant sense the pure joy of spiritual union with God. Let’s not degrade the love between God and the soul by putting it on the same level as love between a man and a woman. 2. Thou shalt not commit adultery…10 Commandments, any one?3. Take a stab & read about Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body – I think you will be genuinely suprised by the comprehensive, positive place that Catholic theology can have for the love between men and women. 4. In general, healthy Christian morality does not deny the fact that we have desires. All humans have sexual desires – the point is not to repress them but to exercise self-control so that those desires can be expressed is in an appropriate, self- and other-affirming way. Even priests and religious have natural sex drives, but they choose to exercise self-control for the greatest good – God Himself…a foretaste of the heavenly glory that awaits those who have faith & live by it. As regards Genesis – the first few chapters give the basics…woman is created as a partner for man (not man for man/woman for woman)…men must take care of their wives, wives will yearn for their husbands…be fruitful and multiply (since Adam & Eve were de facto married – as there were no other humans around at this point) likely applies to child-bearing within marriage – which if you take my suggestion & read about the Theology of the Body – procreation is the way that married couples actually participate in the love of God. I could go on…

  • eezmamata

    Maybe you can explain some things to me, RoundlyMocked – sorry you feel such a thing by the way – Cain killed Abel. At the time then there were only three humans in existence, Adam and Even and Cain.Where did everybody else come from? I won’t imagine the christian myth says that Cain and Adam both were ‘knowing’ Eve, so where did the other people come from? Who did Cain have sex with, who was he fruitful with?Did these other people descend from Adam and Eve? If not, then they didn’t inherit their sins, did they?Really, this makes no sense to me. It makes even less sense that anybody can believe this. Maybe you can help me here, since you seem to be (or claim to be) so knowledgeable about what goes on in your bible.

  • usapdx

    Religion uses the desire of sex as a CONTROL of the membership by way of the guilt trip even though many in religious life have a UNNATURAL life style that they live.

  • ringostone78

    People will interpret scripture to their benefit. I have read and studied the Bible for many years. The reporter is way off base on this issue. Sex starts in the book Genesis. Unmarried sex is a sin. Sex is to be between husband and wife. You may compromise with Gods word but it does not change Gods word. Even if you lust for a woman in your heart it is adultery. That is why our nation is in turmoil to much rebellion against God.

  • rambollini-1

    And does Pastor Knust actually believe in angels? Apparenty, she does:”The first time angels dared to mix with humans, God flooded the earth, saving only Noah, his family, and the animals. In the case of Sodom, as soon as men attempted to engage in se-xual activity with angels, God obliterated the city with fire, delivering only Lot and his family. S-ex with angels was regarded as the most dangerous and offensive s-ex of all.”Pastor Knust: It is called the Great Angelic Con Game:Joe Smith had his Moroni.Jehovah Witnesses have their Jesus /Michael the archangel, the first angelic being created by God;Mohammed had his Gabriel (this “tin-kerbell” got around).Jesus and his family had Michael, Gabriel, and Satan, the latter being a modern day dem-on of the de-mented. The Abraham-Moses myths had their Angel of Death and other “no-namers” to do their dirty work or other assorted duties. Contemporary biblical and religious scholars have relegated these “pretty wingie thingies” to the myth pile. We should do the same to include deleting all references to them in our religious operating manuals. Doing this will eliminate the prophet/profit/prophecy status of these founders and put them where they belong as simple humans just like the rest of us. Some added references to “tinkerbells”.Apparently hallucinations did not stop with Joe Smith.

  • RoundlyMocked

    Dear eezmamata,I wish I knew enough about the Bible to effectively answer your question. Unfortunately, I haven’t studied that aspect of the Bible – but thank you for highlighting it…I will have to look into it. I do believe that all humans descend from Adam & Eve and thus all share in their original sin. As to particulars, I’m in the dark — but it’s a tenet of my faith and I hold fast to it because for me it makes everything else make sense.Again I wish I could be a better defender on this question, but thanks for highlighting this point. God bless you.


    IN REPLY TO (IRT)IRT:ANS: The host’s distortion is taken out of context of the customs of the times.4.”GO IN, AND UNCOVER HIS FEET AND LAY THEE DOWN”–Singular as these directions may appear to us, there was no impropriety in them, according to the simplicity of rural manners in Beth-lehem. In ordinary circumstances these would have seemed indecorous to the world; but in the case of Ruth, it was a method, doubtless conformable to prevailing usage, of reminding Boaz of the duty which devolved on him as the kinsman of her deceased husband.”Boaz probably slept upon a mat or skin; Ruth lay crosswise at his feet–a position in which Eastern servants frequently sleep in the same chamber or tent with their master; and if they want a covering, custom allows them that benefit from part of the covering on their master’s bed. Resting, as the Orientals do at night, in the same clothes they wear during the day, THERE WAS NO INDELICACY IN A STRANGER, OR EVEN A WOMAN, PUTTING THE EXTREMITY OF THIS COVER OVER HER.”9.. “I AM RUTH THINE HANDMAID: SPREAD THEREFORE THY SKIRT OVER THINE HANDMAID; FOR THOU ART A NEAR KINSMAN”–‘She had already drawn part of the mantle over her; and she asked him now to do it, that the act might become his own. To spread a skirt over one is, in the East, a symbolical action denoting protection. To this day in many parts of the East, to say of anyone that he put his skirt over a woman, is synonymous with saying that he married her; and at all the marriages of the modern Jews and Hindus, one part of the ceremony is for the bridegroom to put a silken or cotton cloak around his bride.”15. BRING THE VEIL THAT THOU HAST UPON THEE, AND HOLD IT-“Eastern veils are large sheets–those of ladies being of red silk; but the poorer or common class of women wear them of blue, or blue and white striped linen or cotton. They are wrapped round the head, to conceal the whole face except one eye.”The Fox comes in sheep’s clothing. Moral of the story, don’t believe everything you read unless you wish to be stupid.


    SEXUAL DESIRES:Moreover, she has insinuated the Song of Songs, a beautiful poem exalting the wondrous joys inherent in marriage, permits extra marital sex. In Galatians 5:23 Paul writes, “Mildness, faith, modesty, continency, chastity. Against such there is no law.”“According today’s scientific research, the person is so profoundly affected by sexuality that it must be considered as one of the factors which give to each individual’s life the principal traits that distinguish it. In fact, it is from sex that the human person receives the faculty that, on the biological, psychological, and spiritual levels, makes that person a man or a woman, and thereby largely conditions his or her progress towards harmony into society.In the present period, the corruption of morals has increased, and one of the most serious indications of this corruption is the unbridled exaltation of sex. Moreover, through the means of social communication and through public entertainment this corruption has reached the point of invading the field of education and of infecting the general mentality.In moral matters, man cannot make value judgments according to his personal whim: in the depths of his conscience, man detects a law that he does not impose on himself, but which holds him to obedience. For man has in his heart a law written by God. To obey it, is the very dignity of man; according to it, he will be judged. There can be no true promotion of man’s dignity unless the essential order of his nature is respected. Of course, in the history of civilization many of the concrete conditions and needs of human life have changed and will continue to change. But all evolution of morals and every type of life must be kept within the limits imposed by the immutable principles based upon every human person’s nature and essential relations— elements and relations which transcend historical contingency.These fundamental principles, which can be grasped by reason, are contained in “the Divine Law—eternal, objective and universal—revealed in the Scriptures and by the Church that has been given Divine Authority to teach them. Whereby, God orders, directs, and governs the entire universe and all the ways of the human community, by a plan conceived in wisdom and love. Man has been made by God to participate in this law, with the result that, under the gentle disposition of Divine Providence, he can come to perceive ever increasingly the unchanging truth. This Divine Law is accessible to our minds. Unfortunately, or host has attempted to impugn its efficacy and integrity.

  • BrettTonaille

    How can anyone POSSIBLY claim that verses like these are about a believer’s love for the Church:”3. …we will exult and be glad in thee, remembering thy breasts better than wine; the upright love thee.4. I am black, but comely, O ye daughters of Jerusalem, as the tents of Kedar, as the curtains of Solomon.5. Look not upon me because I am dark-colored, because the sun hath tanned me; my mother’s children strove against me; they made me keeper in the vineyards; mine own vineyard have I not kept.”Specifically erotic images of a woman’s body; mentions of prejudice because of skin color – what does all this have to do with the Church?This is an erotic poem; more than that, it is a frankly erotic poem. It takes a great deal of mental contortions to pretend otherwise.