Sex in the Song of Songs by Michael Coogan

Like all humans, the ancient Israelites were into sex, and its presence pervades the Hebrew Bible. Much, but not all, of what the biblical writers had to say about sex was negative, either in the form of “thou shalt nots,” as in Lev 18 and Lev 20, or in narratives of sexual misconduct, like those about David and Bathsheba and Amnon and Tamar in 2Sam 11-13. In both, different rules applied to men and women.

An unmarried woman was expected to be a virgin until a contract of marriage had been made between her father and the family of the groom. After a marriage had been contracted, sex with a man other than her fiancé or husband was considered adultery and was punishable by death for both parties. A man, on the other hand, was not as restricted, as long as his sexual partner was not already married (Lev 18:20) (and was female, Lev 18:22). Having sex with a prostitute was looked down upon and discouraged in some texts, but not prohibited.

In light of these customs, the Song of Songs is unusual. Taking the form of a dialogue between an unmarried man and woman, it celebrates love and sexual attraction and even sexual intercourse, in fantasy if not in reality, often in explicit language. Toward the end of the book, the woman speaks to her beloved:

“Set me like a seal on your heart,
like a seal on your arm.
For love is as strong as Death,
passion as harsh as Sheol:
its sparks are sparks of fire,
flames of the divine.” (Song 8:6; author’s translation)

The woman urges—even orders—her lover to keep her close, like a stamp used for sealing documents, worn around the neck or on the arm, and perhaps more literally as the deep impression left by such a seal, a brand or tattoo as it were, permanently marking her beloved’s body and heart. She also gives voice to an implicit equality, in which, as she puts it earlier, “I am my lover’s, and his desire is for me” (Song 7:10). Neither she nor her lover can resist their  mutual attraction, which is both sexual and emotional.

In contrast with many other biblical texts, which emphasize premarital chastity, the lovers in the Song of Songs are unmarried. In ancient Israel’s patriarchal society, marriages were usually arranged without the woman’s consent; for many moderns, especially in the west, arranged marriages seem a barrier to love. But such marriages could nevertheless lead to love: Jacob loved Rachel (Gen 29:20, Gen 29:30) and Michal loved David (1Sam 18:20). Despite social and legal constraints in ancient Israel, as in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, where we find love poetry similar to the Song of Songs, love is a powerful—even supernatural—physical and psychological force, whether a couple was married or not. “Enjoy life with the woman you love,” says Ecclesiastes (Eccl 9:9); if we had more texts like the Song of Songs, we would, I think, find parallel advice given to women: “Enjoy life with the man you love.”

Michael Coogan, "Sex in the Song of Songs", n.p. [cited 27 Nov 2022]. Online:


Michael Coogan

Michael Coogan
Director of Publications , Harvard Semitic Museum

Michael Coogan is Director of Publications for the Harvard Semitic Museum and Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at Stonehill College. His most recent book is God’s Favorites: Judaism, Christianity, and the Myth of Divine Chosenness (Beacon Press, 2019).

Characteristic of a deity (a god or goddess).

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

A social hierarchy based on men and paternity.

Lev 18

Sexual Relations
1The Lord spoke to Moses, saying:2Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: I am the Lord your God.3You shall not do as they do in the lan ... View more

Lev 20

Penalties for Violations of Holiness
1The Lord spoke to Moses, saying:2Say further to the people of Israel:
Any of the people of Israel, or of the aliens who re ... View more

2Sam 11-13

David Commits Adultery with Bathsheba
1In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab with his officers and all Israel with hi ... View more

Lev 18:20

20You shall not have sexual relations with your kinsman's wife, and defile yourself with her.

Lev 18:22

22You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.

Song 8:6

6Set me as a seal upon your heart,
as a seal upon your arm;
for love is strong as death,
passion fierce as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
a raging ... View more

Song 7:10

10I am my beloved's,
and his desire is for me.

Gen 29:20

20So Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her.

Gen 29:30

30So Jacob went in to Rachel also, and he loved Rachel more than Leah. He served Laban for another seven years.

1Sam 18:20

20Now Saul's daughter Michal loved David. Saul was told, and the thing pleased him.

Eccl 9:9

9Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that are given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil ... View more

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