Shabbat Shalom Magazine

Written by: Richard M. Davidson

Human Sexuality in the Hebrew Bible

Sexuality is writ large in the pages of Scripture. Genesis 1-2 sets forth God’s original design for human sexuality, and these first two chapters of the Torah constitute the foundation for the rest of the biblical treatment of the subject.

Towards the end of the Hebrew Bible, the Song of Songs comprises an entire biblical book extolling the beauty of human sexuality, illustrating the insights of Gen. 1–2. Many other biblical passages deal with sexuality, but in this Bible study, we will focus mainly on the divine design in Eden and the return to Eden in the Song of Songs. The biblical understanding of sexuality may be organized under seven major headings.

Sexuality as a Creation Order

In lofty grandeur, Gen. 1:27 portrays the creation of humankind: “So God created humankind (ha’adam) in His own image; in the image of God, He created it [humanity]; male and female, He created them.” This verse makes it clear, first of all, that sexual differentiation is created by God and not part of the divine order itself. This emphasis on the creation of sexual distinction appears to form a subtle but strong polemic against the “divinization of sex” so common in the thought of Israel’s neighbors. Throughout the fertility-cult mythology of the ancient Near East, the sexual activities of the gods formed a dominant motif, and creation was often celebrated as resulting from the union of male and female deities. In contrast to this pagan view of creation, the account in Gen. 1 radically separates sexuality from divinity. Gen. 2 removes any possible lingering thoughts that creation occurred by divine procreation, as it sets forth in detail God’s personal labor of love, forming man from the dust of the ground and “building” (Hebrew banah) woman from one of the man’s ribs.

In the Song of Songs, we come back full circle to the creation in the Garden of Eden. Underlying the entire song is the same high doctrine of creation, which forms the backdrop for biblical wisdom literature in general. Sexual love is assumed to be a creation ordinance, given by God for man to enjoy; it is a “flame of Yah Himself" (Cant. 8:6). In lofty lyrics, the lovers in the Song of Songs extol and enhance the creation of sexuality in Gen. 1–2.

A Duality from the Beginning

God created the bipolarity of the sexes from the beginning. The popular idea of an ideal androgynous being later split into two sexes cannot be sustained from the text of Gen. 1 or 2. The sexual distinction between male and female is fundamental to what it means to be human. To be human is to live as a sexual person. According to the divine pattern set with the first couple in the garden (Gen. 2:18–23) and the accompanying explicit command (Gen. 2:24), the sexual relationship is to be a heterosexual duality between “a husband and his wife.” The pairing of both nouns (‘man/husband’ and ‘woman/wife’) in the singular also clearly implies that the sexual relationship envisioned is a monogamous one, to be shared exclusively between two marriage partners. Although biblical characters at times deviated from this divine mandate, such practices were never cited approvingly and were often severely condemned throughout Scripture.1

Equality of the Sexes

A third insight into the biblical view of human sexuality stems from the equal pairing of male and female in parallel with “humanity” in Gen. 1:27. There is no hint of ontological or functional superiority or inferiority between males and females. In the wider context of this passage, both are given the same dominion over the earth and other living creatures (vv. 26 and 28). Both are to share alike in the blessing and responsibility of procreation (vv. 29–30). In short, both participate equally in the image of God.

Gen. 2 reinforces the position of Gen. 1. In Gen. 2, women, far from being inferior in status, are represented as the climax, the crowning work of creation. She is created from a rib from Adam’s side, not to indicate derived status but to show that she is to stand by his side as an equal. She is man’s ‘ezer kenegdo (Gen. 2:18); the Hebrew does not denote a subordinate helper or assistant, but an “equal counterpart” or “equal partner.” Man and woman before the Fall are presented as fully equal, with no hint of headship of one over the other or a hierarchical relationship between husband and wife.

The most extensive and penetrating Old Testament presentation of the divine ideal for husband-wife relationships in the post-Fall setting is in the Song of Songs. In parallel with Gen. 1–2, the lovers in the song are presented as full equals in every way. The keynote of the egalitarianism of mutual love is struck in Cant. 2:16: “My beloved is mine, and I am his.” The Song of Songs begins and closes with the woman speaking. The woman carries the majority of the dialogue. She initiates most of the meetings and is just as active in the love-making as the man. She is just as eloquent about the beauty of her lover as he is about her. The woman is also gainfully employed—as a shepherdess and vineyardkeeper. In short, throughout the song, she is fully equal to the man.

Sexuality as Wholeness

A fourth insight into the biblical understanding of sexuality emerges from the observation that in Gen. 1:27, the generic term for humankind (ha’adam) includes both male and female. The wholistic picture of humankind is only complete when both male and female are viewed together. Such a description points to the individuality and complementarity of the sexes. In Gen. 2, we encounter a twofold amplification of the meaning of sexual wholeness. First, Gen. 2:7 articulates a wholistic view of humanity. According to the understanding of anthropology set forth in this verse, a human being does not have a soul; he or she is a soul, a psychophysical unity. There is no room in the biblical view for a platonic dichotomy of body and soul. Excluded is the dualistic notion of the ascetics that the body is evil and therefore all expressions of body pleasures—including sexual expressions—are contaminated. The human being is a sexual creature, and his or her sexuality is manifested in every aspect of human existence.

The meaning of wholeness is also amplified in Gen. 2 with regard to the differentiation between the sexes. Whereas from Gen. 1 it was possible to conclude in a general way that both male and female are equally needed to make up the image of God, from Gen. 2 we can say more precisely that it is in creative complementariness that God designed male and female to participate in this wholeness. The Gen. 2 creation story opens with the creation of man. But creation is not finished. The man is alone; he is incomplete. And this is “not good” (v. 18). A man needs an ‘ezer kenegdo—a helper or benefactor who is his counterpart. Thus begins man’s quest to satisfy his God-instilled “hunger for wholeness.” Such hunger is not satisfied by his animal companions but by the sexual being God has “built” (Hebrew banah, implying even “aesthetically designed”) to be alongside him as his complement. As Samuel Terrien expresses it, “The woman brings out of the man and to the man the totality of existence. She comes as if he had cried out, ‘Help! Help!’”2 Adam, in effect, exclaims at his first sight of Eve, “At last, I’m whole! Here’s the compliment to myself!” He recognizes, and the narrative instructs us, that man is whole only in his complementarity with another being who is like himself. 

The concept of wholeness in sexuality is highlighted in the Song of Songs by one of the key themes in the song, the presence and/or absence of the lovers toward each other. Throughout the song, the fact of physical closeness is obviously important as the lovers speak and cling to each other: “His left hand is under my head, and his right arm embraces me.” (2:6; 8:3). Even more significant is the feeling of loss and anxiety in the absence of the partner. Already in Cant. 1:7, the desire of the beloved for a rendezvous with her lover is clear (“Tell me, you whom my soul loves, where you pasture your flock..."), but the motif reaches its zenith at the matched sections of the song in which the dreaming woman searches anxiously for her lover (3:1-3; 5:6). “Absence makes the heart grow fonder"—the absence motif serves to heighten the meaning of presence. Lovers need each other to be whole! In the song, man and woman each appear as individuals—capable, independent, and self-reliant—and at the same time, they have become “bones of one’s bones, flesh of one’s flesh.”

Sexuality as a Multidimensional, Intimate Relationship

The existence of the bipolarity of the sexes in creation implies not only wholeness but relationship. The juxtaposition of male and female in Gen. 1:26 intimates what becomes explicit in Gen. 2: the full meaning of human existence is not in male or female in isolation but in their mutual communion.

If Gen. 1 whispers that human sexuality is for fellowship, for relationship, in mentioning “male” and “female” together, Gen. 2 orchestrates this fact with a volume of double forte, and the melody and harmony of the narrative portray richness and beauty in the relational symphony of the sexes.

In Gen. 2, the creation of the woman takes place in the context of loneliness. The keynote is struck in v. 18: “It is not good that the man should be alone..." The underlying idea of vv. 18–24 is that sexuality finds its fundamental meaning in human sociality. Man is a social being; sexuality is for sociality, for relationships, companionship, and partnership. In principle, this passage may be seen to affirm the various mutual social relationships that should take place between the sexes (as is also true with the “image of God” passage in Gen. 1), but more specifically, the Genesis account links the concept of sociality to the marriage relationship. This is apparent from v. 24: “Therefore, a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.” The introductory “therefore” indicates that the relationship of Adam and Eve is upheld as the pattern for all future human sexual relationships. Significant insights into the nature of the divine ideal for sexual relationships emerge from this verse.

First, man leaves (Hebrew ‘azav). The Hebrew term means “to leave, abandon, forsake" and is employed frequently to describe Israel’s forsaking of Yahweh for false gods.3 The “leaving” of Gen. 2:24 indicates the necessity of absolute freedom from outside interferences that would encroach upon the independence of the sexual relationship. Just as the protection of boundaries around the relationship was essential in the Garden, it is crucial in all succeeding sexual relationships to form a distinct family unit publicly recognized and respected by the couple’s families, the community of faith, and society at large.

Second, man clings (Hebrew davaq). The original imagery of the Hebrew word is that of “clinging, sticking, remaining physically close, as girdle to loin, as skin to flesh and flesh to bone.” In the Old Testament, it is often used as a technical covenant term for the permanent bond of Israel to the Lord.4 As applied to the relationship between the sexes in Gen. 2:24, it clearly indicates a covenant context, i.e., a mutual commitment of the couple expressed in a formal marriage covenant, paralleling the “oath of solidarity” and language of “covenant partnership” expressed by Adam and Eve. But as was true with Adam, more is involved here than a formal covenant. The word davaq also emphasizes the inward attitudinal dimensions of the covenant bond: a devotion and unshakable faith between the marriage partners, mutual steadfast love, goodwill, fidelity, and commitment to permanence.

Third, man and woman “become one flesh.” Note that this “one-flesh” union follows the “cleaving” and thus comes within the context of the marriage covenant. The unitive purpose of sexuality is to find fulfillment within the marital relationship. The “one-flesh” relationship certainly involves sexual union and sexual intercourse. The physical act of coitus may even be seen in this passage as the primary means of establishing the “innermost mystery”5 of oneness. But this is by no means all that is included. The term “flesh” in the Old Testament refers not only to one’s physical body but to a person’s whole existence in the world. "One flesh” thus connotes mutual dependence and reciprocity in all areas of life, a unity that embraces the natural lives of two persons in their entirety. It indicates oneness and intimacy in the total relationship of the whole person of the husband to the whole person of the wife. Gen. 2:24c does not imply that one-fleshness is an instantaneously achieved state. The phrase “they shall be one flesh” is better rendered “they shall become one flesh,” implying a process of growth in intimacy, unity, and fulfillment in all aspects of their lives.

The Song of Songs reveals most vividly how paradisiacal sexual love after the Fall still means this exclusive, lasting, intimate relationship. The relational symphony of the sexes in the Song of Songs is a “live performance” of the “score” set forth in Gen. 2:24. As in Gen. 2, man “leaves”—he is free from all outside interferences in the sexual relationship—so in Canticles, the lovers are unfettered by parental prearrangements. They are in love for love’s sake alone. They are free for the spontaneous development of an intimate friendship. In freedom from outside interference, the couple may each find mutual attraction in the physical beauty and inward character qualities of the other.

As in the Genesis model, man and woman are to “cleave” to each other in a marriage covenant, so the Song of Songs climaxes in the wedding ceremony. The symmetrical structure of the unified song reveals an intricate design focused on a central section that describes the wedding of Solomon and his bride. Cant. 3:6–11 clearly portrays the wedding procession of Solomon “on the day of his wedding” (3:11). What follows in Cant. 4:1–5:1 appears to encompass the wedding ceremony proper. Only here in the Song does Solomon address the Shulamite as his “bride” (Kallah, 4:8, 9, 10, 11, 12; 5:1). There is the groom’s praise of the bride, paralleling the Arab wasfs of modern village weddings in Syria. Following this come the central two verses of the entire symmetrical literary structure of the song (4:16, 5:1), which seem to be the equivalent to our modern-day exchange of marriage vows.6 The groom has compared his bride to a garden (4:12, 15), and now the bride invites her groom to come and partake of the fruits of her (and now his!) garden (4:16), and the groom accepts her invitation (5:1a–d). The marriage covenant is solemnized, and the divine approbation is extended as the bride and groom “drink deeply” in the consummate experience of sexual union (5:1e).

In Gen. 2:24, we saw how “cleaving” referred not only to the formal marriage covenant but also to the inward attitudinal dimensions of the covenant bond. So in the song, there is revealed the fidelity, loyalty, and devotion of the partners, the steadfastness of their love, and the exclusiveness of their relationship (see especially Cant. 2:16; 6:3; 8:6, 7).

As in Gen. 2:24, the “one-flesh” union follows the “cleaving,” so in the Song of Songs, sexual intercourse occurs only within the context of the marriage covenant. If one takes seriously the unity of the song (“The Song of Songs” 1:1) and the testimony of the groom regarding his bride, at the time of the wedding she is "garden locked” (4:12), which most commentators recognize as referring to virginity. The groom is clearly announcing at the wedding ceremony that his bride is still a virgin. In fact, the high point of the ceremony and of the entire song is centered on the invitation and acceptance on the part of the bride and groom to “become one flesh” with each other through sexual intercourse. Sexual union is thereby reserved and preserved for husband and wife after marriage.

Franz Delitzsch, followed recently by Joseph Dillow and others,7 has argued rather convincingly that the Song of Songs contains a series of reflections encompassing the historical scope of the relationship between Solomon and the Shulamite from the first flush of friendship and love through the courtship period, reaching its climax on the wedding day and extending beyond with a depiction of married life together. Dillow has shown how this approach may actually provide in the song a “Biblical Guide to Married Love,” principles pertaining to each stage of the love relationship.

Sexuality and Procreation

It is clear from Gen. 1:28 that one of the primary purposes of sexuality is procreation, as indicated in the words “be fruitful and multiply.” But what is particularly noteworthy is that human procreativity “is not seen as an emanation or manifestation of his creation in God’s image. Rather, "human procreative ability “is removed from God’s image and shifted to a special word of blessing.”8 Procreation is thus shown to be part of the divine design for human sexuality, as a special added blessing to be taken seriously and acted upon freely and responsibly in the power that attends God’s blessing. But at the same time, the text makes clear that sexuality cannot be wholly subordinated to the intent to propagate children. Sexual differentiation has meaning apart from its procreative purpose. The procreative blessing is also pronounced upon the birds and fish on the fifth day (v. 22), but only humankind is made in the image of God. Gen. 1 emphasizes that the sexual distinction in humankind is created by God, particularly for fellowship and relationships between male and female.

The significance of the unitive purpose of sexuality is highlighted in Gen. 2 by the complete absence of any reference to the propagation of children. This omission is not to deny the importance of procreation (as becomes apparent in later chapters of Scripture). But by the “full-stop”9 after “one-flesh” in v. 24, sexuality is given independent meaning and value. It does not need to be justified only as a means to a superior end, i.e., procreation.

This is underscored most conspicuously in the Song of Songs. The song contains no reference to the procreative function of sexuality. As in the Creation account of Gen. 2, the sexual experience within marriage is not linked with the utilitarian intent to propagate children. Love-making for the sake of love, not procreation, is the message of the song. This is not to imply that Canticles is hostile to the procreative aspect of sexuality; the lovers allude to the beauty of their own conception (Cant. 3:4; 8:2) and birth (Cant. 6:9; 8:5). But in the song, sexual union is given value on its own, without the need to justify it as a means to some superior (procreative) end.

The Wholesome Beauty and Joy of Sexuality

A final insight from Gen. 1 into the theology of human sexuality emerges from God’s personal assessment of His creation. According to v. 31, when “God saw everything He had made"—including the sexuality of His crowning work of creation—"behold! it was very good.” The Hebrew expression tov me’od (“very good”) connotes the essence of goodness, wholesomeness, appropriateness, and beauty. The syllogism is straightforward: (1) sexuality (including the act of sexual intercourse) is part of God’s creation, part of His crowning act. (2) God’s creation is very good. (3) Therefore, declares the first chapter of Genesis, sex is good—very good. It is not a mistake, a sinful aberration, a regrettable necessity, or a shameful experience, as it has so often been regarded in the history of Western thought. Rather, human sexuality is divinely inaugurated; it is part of God’s perfect design from the beginning and willed as a fundamental aspect of human existence.

The narrative of Gen. 2 highlights the divine initiative and approval in the relationship between the sexes. After the formation of women, the Lord God “brought her to the man” (v. 22). The Creator himself, as it were, celebrated the first marriage. Sexuality is wholesome because it is inaugurated by God Himself. Since the inauguration occurs within the context of a divine-human relationship, sexuality must be seen to encompass not only horizontal (human) but also vertical (spiritual) dimensions. According to the divine design, the sexual relationship between husband and wife is inextricably bound up with the spiritual unity of both man and woman with their Creator.

A final word on God’s Edenic ideal for sexuality in Gen. 2 comes in v. 25: “And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.” The Hebrew construction of the last English phrase may be more accurately translated as “they were not ashamed before one another.” Viewed in contrast with the “utter [shameful] nakedness”10 mentioned in Gen. 3, the intent here is clear: shameless sexuality was divinely ordered; shameful sexuality is the result of sin. According to God’s original design, sexuality is wholesome, beautiful, and good. The sexual relationship is designed by God as an experience of love, pleasure, celebration, and bonding between husband and wife, a blessing to be enjoyed without fear, inhibitions, shame, or embarrassment. Sexual intercourse and love play are seen as wholesome, delightful expressions of togetherness that promote ever-increasing closeness, happiness, and security between spouses.

Just as the “one-flesh” experience applied to more than the physical union, so the concept of nakedness connotes more than physical nudity. As Walter Trobisch states it, there is implied the ability “to stand in front of each other, stripped and undisguised, without pretensions, without hiding, seeing the partner as he or she really is, and showing myself to him or her as I really am—and still not be ashamed.”11

The wholesome beauty of sexuality between faithful marital partners is assumed throughout the biblical witness and is given the most lavish attention by King Solomon. In his book of Proverbs, the wise man is not ashamed to employ expressions of frank eroticism to describe the divinely designed sexual relationship. He counsels without hesitation (Prov. 5:18–19, AB): “Be grateful for your own fountain, and have your pleasure with the wife of your youth, a lovable doe! A sweet little mountain goat! May her breasts always intoxicate you! May you ever find rapture in loving her!” Physical sensuousness—a husband’s joyous satisfaction [literally “drenching, saturation”] with his wife’s breasts and exhilarating pleasure—his continuous “intoxification” with her love—such is the portrait of wholesome, God-ordained sexuality.

In the Song of Songs, as in Gen. 1, sexuality (along with the rest of God’s creation) is portrayed as tov me’od—“very beautiful or good,” to be celebrated and enjoyed without fear or embarrassment. As in Gen. 2, lovers in the song stand “naked and... not ashamed before each other.” In Solomon’s Song of Songs, we have returned to Eden. Though in a sinful world, lovers after the fall may still bask in the beauty of Paradise.

Set against the backdrop of a garden where all is sensuously beautiful, the lovers in the song celebrate the beauty of married sexual love. In a language that is erotic and sensual yet in delicate taste, the lovers extol each other’s beauty. By means of poetic metaphors and double entendres that both reveal and conceal, the ecstatic pleasure of sexual intercourse is described. The very apex of the book—the exact center (4:16, 5:1, with 111 poetic lines on either side)—consists of an invitation and acceptance of the invitation to consummate marriage through sexual union.

A whole book is taken up with celebrating the wholesome beauty and enjoyment of human sexual love! How can the inclusion of such a book be justified in the Sacred Canon? No further justification is needed! Those who have resorted to an allegorical interpretation to legitimize the existence of canticles in Scripture have missed the crucial point—the Song of Songs in its plain and literal sense is not just a “secular” love song but already fraught with deep spiritual and theological significance. From the Old Testament Hebrew perspective, God is not absent from the song, nor are His love and concern for His creatures unmanifested in it. Rather, they are clearly shown in the enjoyment and pleasure (given by God to man in creation) that the lovers find in each other and in their surroundings.

In harmony with the presentation of creation in Genesis, sexuality in the song is part of God’s good creation, and since it is created by God as a “flame of Yah” (Cant. 8:6), it speaks eloquently—perhaps most eloquently of all—of His love for His creation as it is enjoyed in harmony with the divine intention. The affirmation of human sexual love in the song is therefore an implicit affirmation of the Creator of love. In the Song of Songs, we have come to the supreme Old Testament statement on sexuality, even to—as Rabbi Akiba puts it—”the Holy of Holies!”12

 1 Mosaic legislation specifically forbids adultery and other extramarital sexual activity (Exod. 20:14,17; 22:16-17; Lev. 18:6-18, 20; 20:10-12, 14, 17, 19-21; Num. 5:1-31; Deut. 22:22-24; 23:17-18, 30), homosexual activity (Lev. 18:22; 20:13; Deut. 23:17), bestiality (Exod. 22:19; Lev. 18:23; 20:15-16; Deut. 27:21), and polygamy (Lev. 18:18; Deut. 17:17). For analysis of these and related passages, see especially Walter Kaiser, Toward Old Testament Ethics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983), pp. 114-118, 181-204. Regarding homosexuality, see especially Ronald M. Springett, Homosexuality in History and the Scriptures (Washington: Biblical Research Institute, 1988). Regarding polygamy, see especially Ron du Preez, Polygamy in the Bible (Berrien Springs: Adventist Theological Society, 1993). These same activities (and especially adultery) are condemned in the Prophets (e.g. Hos. 4:2; Jer. 5:8; 7:8; 13:27; 29:23; Eze. 22:9-11; 33:6).

2 Samuel Terrien, Till the Heart Sings: A Biblical Theology of Manhood & Womanhood (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985), p. 11.

3 See Deut. 28:20; Judg. 10:13; 2 Chr. 34:25; Isa 1:4; and many other passages.

4 See, e.g., Deut. 10:20; 11:22; 13:4; Josh. 22:5; 23:8.

5 Otto A. Piper, The Biblical View of Sex and Marriage (New York: Scribner, 1960), pp. 52-67, explores the possible dimensions

of this “inner mystery.”

6Franz Delitzsch, Commentary on the Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes, translated by M. G. Eaton (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1952), p. 89, argues that “between iv. 16 and v. 1a the bridal night intervenes.” This is possible, but the evidence from the text set forth by William H. Shea, “The Chiastic Structure of the Song of Songs,” Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 92 (1980), p. 394, appears to argue more strongly for linking 5:1 with what comes before, all as part of “the wedding service proper.”

7Delitzsch, Song of Songs, pp. 10-11, and passim; Joseph C. Dillow, Solomon on Sex (New York: Nelson, 1977), passim; cf. S. Craig Glickman, A Song for Lovers (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1976), passim.

8Gerhard von Rad, Genesis: A Commentary, revised edition (London: SCM, 1972), pp. 60-61.

9Walter Trobisch, I Married You (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), p. 20.

10Gen 2 and 3 utilize two different Hebrew words for “naked.” In Gen 2:25 the word for “naked” is ‘arom, which elsewhere in Scripture frequently refers to someone not fully clothed or not clothed in the normal manner. In Gen 3:7, 10, 11, the word for “naked” is ‘erom, which elsewhere in Scripture always appears in a context of total (and usually shameful) exposure, describing someone “utterly naked” or “bare.”

11Trobisch, pp. 82-83.

12Mishnah, Yadaim III, 5.

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