The Bible’s View of the Human Body 3: Beauty

We can find at least two major opposing views of the human body in our culture today: apathy and vanity.  On the one hand, social scientists, queer theorists, and many in the media tell us that our physical bodies aren’t important.  Someone’s biology may be male, but if his mind disagrees, he may identify as female.  They say we shouldn’t let our bodies define us.  If they conflict with our “true selves,” then we can just alter our bodies to align with our perceived identity.  On the other hand, our culture remains fixated upon physical beauty, including entertainers, athletes, and especially models.  One cannot buy groceries without exposure to dozens of airbrushed idealized specimens of perfect humanity.  Social media like Instagram and Snapchat has intensified our body aesthetic, as young people take dozens of pictures and then apply filters to manufacture the perfect image for public consumption.  As ever, physical beauty remains an idol at whose altar most of us pay homage and some of us offer great sacrifices—even if it harms our health or robs us of inordinate amounts of time.  Bleached teeth, make up, designer attire, tattoos, piercings, died hair, body building, endless diet fads, tanning salons, plastic surgery, manicures and pedicures are all ways we modify our physical bodies in order to make ourselves look better.  On the one hand, our culture tells us our bodies don’t matter, then on the other, it says our bodies are all that matters.  Isn’t this confusing?  Though it’s the last place many twenty-first century Americans would think to look for guidance on how to think about their bodies, the Bible offers an excellent middle ground between apathy and vanity.

We’ve already explored the Bible’s ennobling view of our origins as well as its realistic perspective on our fallenness.  Now let’s consider how it addresses the delicate subject of physique and romance.  For the sake of brevity, we will limit our focus to the biblical book with the greatest interest in this subject—the Song of Songs (SOS).  Although our culture tends to stereotype the Bible’s sexual ethic as puritanical and stifling, SOS celebrates romance and erotic love in an unashamed but delicate manner.  Through metaphor, it evokes eros while avoiding the crassness characteristic of our culture’s more brazen songs.  To give one example, let’s take the second most viewed video on the planet, Ed Sheeran’s Shape of You (over 3.9 billion views on YouTube), and compare it with an excerpt from SOS.

Shape of You The club isn't the best place to find a lover So the bar is where I go Me and my friends at the table doing shots Drinking faster and then we talk slow Come over and start up a conversation with just me And trust me I'll give it a chance now Take my hand, stop Put “Van the Man” on the jukebox And then we start to dance And now I'm singing like   Girl, you know I want your love Your love was handmade for somebody like me Come on now, follow my lead I may be crazy, don't mind me Say, boy, let's not talk too much Grab on my waist and put that body on me Come on now, follow my lead Come, come on now, follow my lead   I'm in love with the shape of you We push and pull like a magnet do Although my heart is falling too I'm in love with your body And last night you were in my room And now my bedsheets smell like you Every day discovering something brand new I’m in love with your body... Song of Songs 2:4-7; 4:16-5:1 He brought me to the house of wine, And his intent for me is love. Refresh me with raisins, Revive me with apples, Because I am faint with love. His left arm is under my head His right arm embraces me.   I want you to promise, O young women of Jerusalem, By gazelles and does of the field, Do not disturb, do not excite love, Until it desires…   Awake, O north wind, Come, O south wind, Blow upon my garden, Let its spices spread, Let my lover come to his garden Let him eat its best fruit.   I have come to my garden, my sister and bride, I have plucked my myrrh with my spices, I have eaten my nectar with my honey, I have drunk my wine with my milk.   Eat, friends, drink, And become intoxicated with lovemaking. [1]  

Although the contexts of these songs couldn’t be more different, their similarities are striking.  Which is more erotic?  I suppose the answer depends on the eye of the beholder.  One is a “hookup,” while the other involves a married couple, but both are overwhelmed with the feeling of love.  In a preindustrial, agrarian society, talk of raisins, apples, gazelles, does, spices, honey, wine, and milk evoke luxurious tastes and flavors, which by analogy convey the pleasantness of the couple’s relationship and lovemaking.  Our culture may benefit from a thorough consideration of this book—not because it challenges sexual expression, but because it does so well talking about it.  SOS is “a work of subtlety and sophistication, remarkable for its artistic control and elegant finish.”[2]  It addresses the same God-designed gift of romance that our love songs handle, but it is at once more voluptuous and more restrained.[3]  It does not reduce love to sex or lovers to bodies, but it offers an integrated celebration of them all.

Of particular interest throughout SOS is the role of the woman. She has a realistic though confident body image (SOS 1:5-6).  Not only is she the dominant voice throughout, but her speech begins and ends the book.  She boldly pursues her beloved throughout, even when it puts her life at risk (SOS 5:7).  She utters the most profound lines in the whole book:

Song of Songs 8:6-7  

Love is strong as death,

Jealousy is fierce as the grave.

Its flashes are flashes of fire,

The very flame of the LORD. 

Many waters cannot quench love,

Neither can floods drown it.

If a man offered for love all the wealth of his house,

He would be utterly despised.

Far from relegating women to a passive role, SOS affirms a woman’s desires and her pursuit of them.  She does not ignore her body’s yearnings, nor is she ashamed of them.  Our heroine knows who she is; she’s in touch with her sexuality.  She goes after him, attempting to woo him with her charms.  Over and again the two get separated, and one searches for the other until they find each other, panting with desire.  Then the section abruptly ends, and the two find themselves apart again, ready to repeat the cycle. 

Sprinkled throughout the book, we find four wasfs—poems describing and marveling at the other’s body.[4]  These are particularly significant for understanding the Bible’s view of the body.  Although their metaphors may strike us as either confusing or amusing, it’s impossible to miss the fact that both had a high view of the human body.  Here are two of the wasfs:

Female Wasf
(Song of Songs 4:1-7)   How beautiful you are, my love, my friend! The doves of your eyes Looking out from the thicket of your hair.   Your hair like a flock of goats Bounding down Mount Gilead.   Your teeth white ewes, All alike, that come up fresh from the pond.   A crimson ribbon your lips— How I listen for your voice!   The curve of your cheek A pomegranate in the thicket of your hair.   Your neck is a tower of David raised in splendor, A thousand bucklers hang upon it, All the shields of the warriors.   Your breasts are two fawns, Twins of a gazelle, grazing in a field of lilies.
Male Wasf
(Song of Songs 5:10-16)   My beloved is milk and wine, He towers above ten thousand.   His head is burnished gold, The mane of his hair black as the raven.   His eyes like doves By the rivers of milk and plenty.   His cheeks a bed of spices, A treasure of precious scents, His lips red lilies wet with myrrh.   His arm a golden scepter with gems of topaz, His loins the ivory of thrones inlaid with sapphire, His thighs like marble pillars on pedestals of gold.   Tall as Mount Lebanon, A man like a cedar!   His mouth is sweet wine, he is all delight.

In this adulation, we see how the both employed metaphorical language to compare body parts with beautiful and luxurious objects in their world.  Of course, as Chana Bloch points out, “The images are not literally descriptive; what they convey is the delight of the lover in contemplating the beloved, finding in the body a reflected image of the world in its freshness and splendor.”[5]  It’s hard to imagine a more positive view of the human body than what we see here in the Bible.  However, there’s still restraint.  SOS stops short where Frank Sinatra continued when he sang:

Fly Me to the Moon[6]

Fill my heart with song

Let me sing for ever more

You are all I long for

All I worship and adore

In SOS we have adoration, appreciation, and celebration of the body, but not idolatry.  No matter how exalted and overcome with love each partner gets, they never cross the line into body worship.  In this way, SOS strikes the perfect middle ground between the apathy and vanity of our age.  It recognizes the incredible significance and grandeur of the body without making it an ultimate pursuit. 

Before concluding this section, I need to address the issue of premarital sex in SOS.  It is true that some commentators today see SOS as a premarital affair, but that’s far from clear.  Bloch writes, “It is often hard to tell what is real and what is imagined; for that reason, many readers have found the poem to be dreamlike, with a freedom of movement, a dizzying fluidity, that conveys the intoxication of the senses.”[7]  Richard Hess argues on the basis of six usages of “bride” in SOS, that the lovers are either married or fantasizing about marriage.[8]  (Whereas in our culture romance precedes marriage, in a world of arranged marriages, romance follows the wedding night.)  Plenty of other interpreters see the book as an anthology of loosely connected love poems.  But even if SOS is not clear on the issue of sex before marriage, the rest of the Hebrew Bible leaves no room for doubt.  It roundly condemns premarital sex, adultery, and a whole range of other sexual misbehaviors as we will see in the next article on boundaries.

Lastly, it’s important to understand that although SOS is by far the most explicit meditation on romance and physical beauty in Scripture, it is certainly not the only book to address the subject.  As we have already seen, Genesis begins with a garden, much like the one in SOS, except there, the lovers are naked and commanded to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.  The sage in Proverbs commands husbands to take delight in their wife’s breasts, always being intoxicated with their love (Prov 5:19).  Amid all the vanity and emptiness of the human experience, the preacher in Ecclesiastes tells men to “enjoy life with the wife whom you love” (Ecc 9:9).  Unlike Catholicism and Buddhism, Judaism has not produced monks who deny bodily pleasures in an effort to better connect with God.  No, physical pleasure and spiritual pleasure go side by side.[9]  The biblical narratives that mention marital relations do so in a matter of fact way—without shame or braggadocio.  However, both in the Old and New Testaments, we find quite a few prohibitions of sexual misbehavior.  These typically deal with scenarios where someone takes sex outside of the boundary of marriage.  It is to these that we will turn our attention in the next issue.

[1] Translation by Richard Hess, Song of Songs in Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms, ed. by Tremper Longman III (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic 2005).  Though some translations obscure it by translating it “love,” the word דּוֹדִֽים (dodim) refers to the physical act of sex (see Hess, p. 49 or Bloch p. 3).

[2] Bloch, p. 19.

[3] “The language of the Son is at once voluptuous and reticent.  ‘Let my lover come into his garden and taste its delicious fruit’ (4:16) is characteristic both in what it boldly asserts and in what it chooses to leave unexpressed” (Bloch, p. 14).

[4] “The Song contains three description of the female’s body (4:1-7; 6:4-7; 7:1-7) and one of the male’s body (5:10-16).  These reflect a form known elsewhere to drive from an Arabic term for ‘description’ (wasf).  A wasf is an Arabic love song in which the lover praises the physical attributes of his or her partner” (Hess, p. 31).

[5] Ariel & Chana Bloch, The Song of Songs: A New Translation with an Introduction and Commentary (NY: Random House, 1995), p. 15.

[6] Originally written by Bart Howard in 1954 and performed initially by Kaye Ballard.

[7] Bloch, p. 15.

[8] Hess writes, “Phipps is correct when he rejects as anachronistic a view that the Son deals with free love and sexual experimentation…The language of commitment pervades the whole Song and provides one of the most important interpretive keys for understanding the work” (Hess, p. 28).

[9] For example, in the 18th century, Israel ben Eliezer (Baal Shem Tov), the founder of Hasidic Judaism taught that a physical act can become a spiritual act if it is done as worship to God.

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