Thursday, April 9, 2009

The "Erotic" Song

As many may already know, the Song of Songs (known also as the Song of Solomon) is my favorite book in the Bible. I have gleaned many wonderful insights from this amazing book, and I continue to do so every time I encounter it. This tiny little book, all of eight chapters long, has been the cause of many scintillating and provocative interpretations over the years. I have been amused by many.

What I do not find acceptable, however, is when people say that the Song is "erotic." I have heard this over and over again. Even the Pope seems to hint at this idea. Just yesterday, while listening to a Podcast by a conservative Christian philosopher I highly respect, I heard him repeat this idea as well.

The problem is, such a claim does not hold water when one studies the evidence. There is no doubt that the Song is highly sexual; but this doesn't necessarily make it "erotic." And anyone who insists that erotic love is necessary for any sexual relationship - and points to the "sanctified" Song of Songs as an example - is greatly mistaken. The book simply does not make the case for this.

What it does make the case for is the fact that agape love - othercentered, alterocentric love - is the basis for sexual relationships. After all, when translators came along and translated the Old Testament into Greek, they had a perfect opportunity to bring out the supposed erotic nature of the Song by translating the Hebrew word for love (ahabah) as eros. Quite surprisingly, they did the opposite. Over and over again - 19 times, in fact - they utilized the word agape, while never using eros.

Of course, the LXX translators weren't necessarily inspired like the original Old Testament authors themselves. They were prone to making mistakes. But I don't think that they did in this instance. After all, when the New Testament authors came along, never once did they use the word eros either. They didn't use it in reference to God (and yet the Pope, in the above article, mysteriously would have us believe that God's "love may certainly be called eros"), nor did they use it in reference to the love that husbands and wives should have for one another. Quite simply, the Bible (with the exception of two instances in the book of Proverbs) does not touch erotic love.

To put it simply: erotic love is unbliblical.

Why all the fuss? Because we have subtly bought into the idea that selfish "love" is somehow acceptable. And that is what eros is, plain and simple (despite what others may have us think at times). Sexuality, in its pure and biblical sense, is not about erotic love; it is about agape love. And the same holds true, of course, for all of our interpersonal relations - sexual or otherwise.

Thus, Carsten Johnsen fittingly reminds us:
I am not saying one single disparaging word about the natural beauty in a woman's body. It certainly is not Eros who has had anything to do with creating that. The Creator's name is Jesus Christ, and He is Agape. It is not Eros who has made sex a pleasant experience, any more than he has made strawberries taste delicious. It is God, and God only, who has prepared all things that are good - really good. It is He who has invented feminine beauty (Agape and Eros, p. 40).
He then goes on to say, quite appropriately:
Accordingly, there could be nothing whatsoever wrong with that beauty; that is - and here is the important point - as part and parcel of the woman possessing the beauty. And when I am speaking about a "woman," I am again speaking about a totality, including an endless number of realities such as her God-dependence as a creature, her rights and responsibilities as a person endowed with freedom of will, etc., etc.

In fact, there need not be anything wrong at all about that woman as the gorgeously beautiful one, in terms of a real object, reasonably seen. On the other hand, there may be something terribly wrong with the eyes that see. For an eye that stares its eyeballs out at torn-off (that is bleedingly lacerated) particles of an original totality, or at sheer emptiness, that eye is bound to become torn and empty itself. That is where the tragedy comes in (Ibid., pp. 40, 41).
So let's make sure we get it right about eros and agape. That is, erotic love has nothing to do with the Bible, God, or Christians.


Kyle Baldwin said...


I generally agree with where you are going however I have a few reservations. While I agree with you that the word "eros" can be defined as self-serving love, the bible often uses the agape and phileo interchangeably. Case in point the apostle "John uses the terms interchangeably in his Gospel, e.g. in the statement that 'the Father loves the Son' (agapao in 3:35; phileo in 5:20) and in references to 'the disciple whom Jesus loved' (agapao in 13:23; 19:26; 21:7, 20; phileo in 20:2)." (

It may be difficult to state that God is only agape when He uses also uses phileo so often.

David Hamstra said...


You define erotic love as "selfish love," but perhaps you are setting up a straw man here. Most people today understand the erotic to pertain to sexual desire, and that desire may or may not lead to selfishness. Under this definition, erotic could refer to the desire to get pleasure, to give pleasure, or both.

If "erotic" is defined simply as pertaining to sexual desire, then I don't think erotic and agape love are mutually exclusive, but rather erotic love can be motivated by agape love in specific instances. I think this definition of erotic is helpful (even necessary) because I need a way of talking about the type of agape love I have towards my wife as distinct from the agape love I have towards, for example, you. The love I have for my wife is, ideally, agape love, but that love has sexual, that is, erotic, dimensions that are reserved for her alone. It is when erotic love is taken out of the context of agape love that it becomes selfish love.

Brent Buttler said...

I agree that there is more to "ahabah" than we may think. It is used to define godly love between a man and a woman (as in the Song as well as in regards to Jacob's love for Rachel), but it is also used in regards to God's love for his people as well as the love between David & Jonathan. A cognate for ahabah (ahav) is used to define how Amnon felt for Tamar (2Sam 13), which was definitely not godly love.

To piggy-back a little bit off of what Kyle wrote, a few weeks ago I heard a sermon regarding love. The main thrust was that we can be confused about how to define it. We build up "agape" as this wonderful, transcendent kind of love that only God can give, but there are a number of passages in the Bible that use agape which talk about people loving ungodly things (see Lk 11:43; Jn 3:19; Jn 12:43; 2Ti 4:10; 2Pe 2:15). To make a long story short, "agape" appears to connote a conscious decision to love someone or something regardless of our feelings.

What I am trying to say is that love is a very complex thing. I sometimes wonder if we can fully understand it. After all, "God is love", and we will never be able to fully understand Him.

Andrew said...

As the other comments point out, the claims made from the pulpit about the three (Greek, New Testament) words for love are often homiletic rather than exegetical - in the NT they are used more interchangeably than the sermon lets on, and extra biblical usage of these Greek words does not always support the preacher either!

But I have a more basic question (although I agree with David, your definition of erotic love may be at fault here)- where does erotic love come from?

If we are created in the image of God, we have two choices; either it reflects an aspect of God and his love, or it is an aspect of God and his love marred by the fall and sin.

If it is the first your argument here falls. If it is the second then we have some difficulties reading certain biblical passages (alluded to in the other comments).

Shawn Brace said...

Gentlemen, thank you for your thoughtful feedback. I will respond to each one of you individually, but before I do that, I need to recommend that you go find a copy of Carsten Johnsen’s Agape and Eros and buy it as quickly as you can. I think it will go a long way in sorting out some of these things. Johnsen was a Norwegian philosopher who taught for many years at the SDA Seminary. A very, very deep mind.

Now, on to your individual points.

Kyle: I am fine with much of what you said. I don’t know that we have any disagreement. I did not say that God cannot be described with any other type of love. I simply said that Bible does not associate God with eros. That the Greek word phileo is used in reference to Him does not diminish this fact. Nor does it diminish the fact that His essence is essentially that of agape love – at least according to John.

David: thanks for your thoughts as well. I am not sure that I can totally agree with your points, though. No straw man here. I will simply appeal to the biblical witness. The idea that erotic love is at all connected with Christians – in any context – is definitely not a biblical concept. You will not find it anywhere in scripture. Thus, you must appeal to something outside the Bible to make such a claim. (By the way, if you do not agree that eros is “selfish love,” how would you define it?)

Interestingly, as I mentioned before, there are only two places in all of scripture that the Greek utilizes eros – and these are both in the LXX version of Proverbs. It is extremely enlightening to notice in what context they are used as well. Notice Proverbs 7:18, “Come, and let us enjoy love until the morning; come, and let us embrace in love [eroti].” Interestingly, if you look at the context of this verse, you would notice that this is being said by a prostitute (v. 10) and the very next thing she says after inviting the writer to “embrace in [erotic] love” is that “my husband is not at home; he has gone on a long journey.”

In other words, the LXX translators interpreted erotic love within the context of forbidden and unfaithful love that needs to satisfy its lust.

The other place that it is used in the LXX is Proverbs 30:15, 16, and notice what it says: “There are three things that will not be satisfied, Four that will not say, ‘Enough’: The grave, and the love [eros] of a woman, and the earth not filled with water; water also and fire will not say, It is enough.” This shows us just what erotic love leads to: never being satisfied — which seems to be what much of the world’s definition of sexuality leads to. Hence the need for more and more erotic love-making practices, multiple partners, etc.

As far as your appeal to the idea that there must be a different quality of love between what you have for your wife and what you have for me: I have heard this idea before and never given it much thought. But it does occur to me that the “type” of love need not necessarily be different. The only difference is how that agape love is given to your wife or to me. We are called to love everyone with agape. However, just because I am to love everyone with agape, it doesn't follow that that love is manifested in the same way towards all. Thus, while agape love might compel me to buy my child a present for Christmas, this doesn’t necessarily mean I am going to do the same for the lady who works at my post office. She would interpret that gesture on my part in a way that I would not want her to.

Thus, the way I might show my wife my agape love (in bed, trying to bring her joy and satisfaction), is different than how I would show it to another woman. But the principle is still the same. In each case I am called to love selflessly, seeking to give joy, pleasure, and satisfaction to all I encounter.

But certainly I couldn’t use this as an argument to sleep with any woman I want to, because that would not truly be the most loving and selfless thing I could do with a woman who is not my wife.

Brent: thank you for your thoughts. My thoughts were not necessarily dealing with the Hebrew word ahabah. I will admit that I have not really grappled with the implications of ahabah. It is worth noting, though, that agape is often used to translate the Hebrew word chesed as well.

I have also noticed that agape has been used in the NT in reference to people loving ungodly things. This has been interesting to me. I don’t know that it necessarily contradicts what I’m saying, however, nor am I implying that agape is purely God’s love that only He can give (the Greek word was used, after all, about other things long before the NT authors ever used it). I think that, along the lines of what you have said, agape love primarily denotes some type of selfless commitment to the other. Thus, and unfortunately, many people are selflessly committed to worldly things.

And finally, Andrew: I would remind you that eros is never used in the NT, so any homiletical exposition on it from the pulpit is just that: homiletical. I am very comfortable with the idea that we can talk about agape in a very responsible and exegetical way, though.

As far as your question as to where erotic love came from: you wonder whether it came from God and is a part of His love, or you wonder whether it is an aspect of God that has been marred by sin. My answer: neither. This is a false dilemma. There is a third option. The fact that the Bible never associates erotic love with God, or tells husbands and wives to love with eros, tells me that it did not come from God at all. If it did, I think the Bible would have been happy to make such a claim.

Instead, I think its source is the devil. Of course, the Bible does not spell this out either. But I think it is interesting, as noted above, that the 2x eros is used in the LXX it is in reference to a prostitute and the fact that erotic love can never be quenched or satisfied.

It seems to me that the biblical authors steered clear of counseling us to love with eros because they knew the human heart was naturally oriented in this direction as a result of sin. Thus, it is eros that the human heart needs to get over, so as to love with selfless and committed agape love.

Thank you all again for your comments!