Show Summary Details

Page of

Printed from Oxford Research Encyclopedias, Religion. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a single article for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 09 December 2023

Desire, Love, and Romance in the Hebrew Biblefree

Desire, Love, and Romance in the Hebrew Biblefree

  • J. Cheryl ExumJ. Cheryl ExumThe University of Sheffield


In the Hebrew Bible human sexual desire is, for the most part, constructed as male and as dangerous. In the patriarchal economy of ancient Israel, in which women were subordinated to men and younger men to older men, desire poses a potential threat to the preservation of male status, privilege, and hierarchy, upon which the patriarchal system is based. It is viewed warily as an overwhelming urge that, unchecked, can cause a man to lose control and act in ways that might jeopardize his position in the patriarchal hierarchy and, if some texts are to be taken seriously (Proverbs, the story of Samson), even his life. Thus legal texts seek to regulate and control sexual behavior and thereby channel sexual desire in permissible directions; Proverbs responds to the threat that uncontrolled desire poses by offering the young man a patriarchally sanctioned object of desire, personified Wisdom, and narrative texts, such as the stories of Samson and Delilah and David and Bathsheba, provide object lessons in the dangerous consequences of desire. There are few places in the Hebrew Bible where one person is said to love (’ahab) another in an amorous or carnal sense, and in all these cases only one of the pair is said to love. This does not mean that love was not thought of as reciprocated in biblical times, but only that reciprocal love was not a concern of biblical writers, with the exception of the poet of the Song of Songs. The Song of Songs is the only text in the Hebrew Bible in which sex, desire, love, and romance can all be found. This short book, the Bible’s only love poem, gives its readers an unprecedented insight into what it is like to be in love from both points of view, a woman’s and a man’s.


  • Biblical Studies
  • Christianity
  • Judaism and Jewish Studies
  • Literary and Textual Studies

Desire, Love, and Romance as Cultural Constructions

The Hebrew word commonly translated in English as “desire,” teshuqah, appears three times in the Bible, twice in reference to human sexual desire.1 In Genesis 3:16, the woman, who considers the possibilities and chooses to disobey the commandment not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, is punished by being made subordinate to the man, who—though he is present during the discussion between the woman and the serpent—simply takes the fruit from her and eats it: “Your desire shall be for your man [or “husband”] and he shall rule over you.” Desire and subordination to the object of desire are thus linked. Desire is such an irrepressible force that it will lead the woman to submit to the man, to grant him power over her, even if it is not in her interest to do so. In Song of Songs 7:10 [7:11 in the Hebrew text], the female protagonist proclaims, “I am my lover’s and his desire is for me.” Here the situation is reversed, and the man’s desire for the woman puts him in her power. He admits to this in 4:8, where he speaks of love in terms of power relations: “You have captured my heart, my sister, bride, you have captured my heart with one glance of our eyes . . . .” This is not to say, however, that he is subordinate to her in the same way that the woman in the Eden story is made subordinate to her man, for the assumption and surrender of power over the loved one in the Song of Songs is a mutual negotiation, as “I am my lover’s” in the first part of Song 7:10 indicates.

“Desire” is a slippery term that, as Catherine Belsey points out in an important book on the subject, eludes definition, perhaps precisely because it is “the commonest and yet the most singular condition we know.”2 Human sexual desire may be universal, but how people construct desire—as well as love and romance—varies from culture to culture and over time. Moreover, given the complex ways sex, desire, love, and romance are often intimately connected, clear distinctions among these terms cannot be drawn. The Hebrew Bible was composed over centuries, does not speak in a unified voice, and does not address issues of sexual desire, love, and romance in any programmatic way. What can be learned from it about general attitudes to these important subjects in biblical times is largely incidental. Although examining various Hebrew words for desire is somewhat helpful,3 it is by focusing on the textual evidence itself and proceeding inductively that a broad picture can best be sketched of various ways that sexual desire, love, and romance find expression in the Hebrew Bible.

Legislating Desire: Legal Texts

The laws governing sexual relations in the Bible focus on prohibited sexual behavior. They are not sources one would turn to for ancient Israelite views on love and romance, and they do not all necessarily presuppose desire. They do, nevertheless, offer some insight into how desire was constructed, for they present a picture of social interaction in which sexuality is considered almost exclusively from the male point of view. Leviticus 18, for example, contains a detailed list of kinspersons with whom a man is not allowed to have sexual relations, among them his mother, father’s (other) wife, (half?) sister, granddaughter, (step)sister, father’s sister, mother’s sister, father’s brother’s wife, daughter-in-law, brother’s wife, a woman and her daughter or granddaughter, and a woman and her sister. Leviticus 18:19 forbids a man to have sexual relations with a menstruating woman, and 18:20, with his neighbor’s wife. Leviticus 18:22 prohibits having sexual relations “with a male as with a woman.” Similar laws are found in Leviticus 20 and Deuteronomy 22.4

With few exceptions, what is at stake in laws concerned with sexuality is the regulation of male sexuality. As Erhard Gerstenberger observes, “[I]t was largely or even exclusively to men alone that sexual needs were conceded in a patriarchal age.”5 On the whole, the laws do not address women; when woman do appear in the legal material it is as special cases: for example, where males are lacking in essential socioeconomic roles, where women need special protection, where sexual offenses involving women are concerned, and where sexually defined roles or occupations are dealt with.6 This situation is not so surprising given the traditional status of women as the property of their fathers, brothers, or husbands and subject to their control. Adultery, for example, is a crime a man commits against another man. A married woman who has sex with a man other than her husband commits adultery, but a married man who has sex with a woman other than his wife commits adultery only if that woman is another man’s wife.

The laws implicitly recognize male sexual desire as a powerful urge and a restive, fractious, unruly force. Giving in to desire could cause a man to lose control, to act in ways that might jeopardize his superior status and authority, or that might infringe upon the honor of another man. Losing control, as the narrative texts of desire examined below illustrate, threatens one’s position in the patriarchal hierarchy, one’s power over others, and particularly over the consummate other, woman. Unrestrained, desire can easily disrupt the patriarchal status quo, and so circumscribing, managing, and disciplining desire are crucial for the smooth functioning of society. In the Ten Commandments, which are addressed to Israelite males, not only is adultery prohibited but also simply desiring someone else’s wife is proscribed, so dangerous is the threat desire poses (“you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife,” Exod. 20:17; Deut. 5:21; cf. also Prov. 6:23–35).

Because they deal with specific situations, the biblical laws give us only a partial picture of the norms and values of ancient Israelite society. Narrative and poetic texts often offer a different picture of sexual activity and its consequences, but by and large they reinforce the idea that male desire poses a potential threat to the preservation of male status, privilege, and hierarchy, upon which the patriarchal system is based.

Educating Desire: Proverbs

There are better ways of ensuring a man’s acceptance of and co-operation with the demands of the patriarchal order than reliance on the law and fear of the consequences of breaking it. Educating males from their youth to uphold society’s values and, more important, to embrace them willingly is a more effective tactic and a course skillfully employed by the book of Proverbs. Proverbs adopts the authoritative voice of a father advising his impressionable son in order to instruct young men in the advantages of gaining wisdom and the danger of following the paths of wickedness and folly.7 Key to the father’s rhetorical strategy is the pitting of a legitimate, patriarchally sanctioned object of desire, personified Wisdom, against the illicit object of desire, the ’ishshah zarah, the quintessence of woman as other—strange, foreign, wanton, adulterous, seductive, deadly.8

Woman Wisdom is both object of desire and a desiring subject, actively seeking out the youth, calling him to a bountiful banquet (Prov. 9:4–5), and promising him a life of security and ease (1:33). Not only is the young man invited to capitulate to desire by a desiring lover (“Whoever is simple, let him turn in here,” 9:3), he is encouraged by the authoritative voice of the father, aligned with the authoritative voice of the text, to embrace Wisdom (4:8), let her into his heart (2:10), grasp her, hold on to her (3:18), and love her (4:6; cf. 7:4). If the usual expectation of a man is that he should dominate (recall Gen. 3:16), Proverbs seems to dangle before the youth the enticing possibilities of surrendering to the object of his desire and of finding his desire reciprocated, as in the Song of Songs. The satisfaction of desire, however, remains an elusive goal ever to be pursued, for Woman Wisdom is sui generis, a lover in the abstract, not the concrete. Impossible truly to possess or fully to master, she never surrenders to the man in return. To those who love her and diligently seek her, she offers instruction, counsel, riches, honor, wealth and prosperity, long life and God’s favor (8:1–21, 32–36). In return, her lovers must walk in her ways and follow her paths (8:32), fear God (1:29, 8:13), accept her instruction, counsel, and reproof (8:10, 33; 1:30), and, not least, obey the father’s commandments, for that is the way to find favor and approval in the sight of other people and of God (2:1; 3:1–4). Indeed, the youth, who never materializes as a desiring subject, who never consummates his relationship with Woman Wisdom who so ardently desires him, is counseled to find sexual satisfaction with the wife of his youth, “a loving doe, a graceful mountain goat” (5:18), a diminutive, docile figure when compared to desirable apotheosized Wisdom, companion of God (8:22–31).

Unlike the strange woman, with her seductive speech and wily ways, who personifies all that the patriarchal psyche finds most threatening, and paradoxically desirable, about real women—sensual and desirous (2:16–17; 7:10–18), risky (“stolen water is sweet,” 9:17), beauty that arouses desire and lips that drip honey, like the woman of the Song of Songs (6:25; 5:3; cf. Song 4:1–8; 6:4–5; 7:6–9; 4:11)—Woman Wisdom provides a means of controlling and channeling the son’s desire where the father, speaking for patriarchal values, wants it, and, as such, she is a powerful weapon in the patriarchal arsenal.

Tales of Love and Desire

Samson and Delilah are inextricably linked, in the popular imagination at least, as famous biblical lovers. What the Bible reports about them, however, does not really qualify as a love story, not so much because the hero is betrayed by the woman he loves and dies a grim death (Cecil B. DeMille was able to make a powerful love story out of this),9 but because we learn so little about the nature of their relationship (only eighteen verses, Judg. 16:4–21, are devoted to it). For example, although we are told that Samson loved Delilah, the text is silent about Delilah’s feelings for Samson. Did she love him in return? If so, why did she betray him? As in the legal texts and in Proverbs, it is the man’s desire—and, in this case, love—that interests the biblical narrator, not the woman’s.

The story of Samson, like the father’s advice in Proverbs, serves as a warning to men about the danger posed by women and about the difficulty, but importance, of resisting a woman’s allure.10 Samson does what the youth in Proverbs is counseled not to do, surrender to the wrong woman, the strange, or “foreign,” woman (that is, if Delilah is Philistine, which the text never states but simply encourages the reader to assume). Moreover, he does it not once, but twice. Before he meets Delilah, Samson has already succumbed to desire for a foreign woman, and he insists on marrying her, against his parents’ wishes (Judg. 14:1–3). When his Philistine bride complains that he does not love her because he has not told her the answer to his riddle, he gives in and tells her (14:15–18), with catastrophic results. In his ultimate, fatal self-revelation, he discloses the secret of his strength to Delilah when she accuses him of not really loving her even though he claims he does (16:4–20). In both cases, he proves his love by surrendering himself to the other, making himself vulnerable by furnishing a woman with knowledge that gives her power over him. It is women who should surrender to men, not the other way around, according to patriarchal ideology, but here it is Samson who loves and Delilah who has the upper hand. A man who surrenders himself to the temptation a woman offers is emasculated, he loses his manhood,11 and does so, as the father in the book of Proverbs emphasizes, at the risk of his life (Prov. 2:18–19; 7:22–27). “Samson yielded, and look what happened to him” is the lesson the story teaches.

With Delilah, Samson has three chances to learn his lesson about the danger of women, for three times he gives her a phony answer when she asks how to rob him of his strength, and three times she does exactly what he has told her. It is clear the fourth time that she will use this information against him, so why does he so willingly reveal his vital secret? Sexual desire may play a role, but something else seems to be involved as well, for Samson could satisfy his sexual urges with a prostitute without risking so much, as he does with a prostitute in Gaza (Judg. 16:1–3). If Samson tells Delilah how to subdue him, knowing what the consequences will be, it can only be because he must, because he has a deep need to do so.12 The power of desire and the attraction of losing himself in love, transcending the self through the intimate knowing of the other, is overwhelming. The Samson story thus illustrates how surrender in love is attractive but dangerous—it costs Samson his freedom, his sight, and his life. If even an apparently invincible hero like Samson can be undone by a woman, how much more so should the ordinary man be on his guard.

Like the story of Samson and Delilah, the story of David and Bathsheba in 2 Samuel 11–12 is a tale about desire and its dangerous consequences for the man. David and Bathsheba, like Samson and Delilah, are such a well-known biblical couple that many may think of their story too as a love story. It is not; in fact, love is never mentioned. In 2 Samuel 11:2–4, David sees a beautiful woman bathing, sends for her, and has sex with her, fully aware that she is the wife of another man. Such is the power of desire and the power of the king. But in biblical texts of desire the unchecked power of passion inevitably runs up against the uncompromising demands of the patriarchal order, from which not even a king is exempt. Gratification of desire not sanctioned by patriarchy cannot go unpunished, and so David’s desire and its consequences become the basis for a moral lesson.

The affair might easily have ended as suddenly as it began. What brings David and Bathsheba together again is not love or even simple renewed desire but necessity: Bathsheba’s pregnancy. That David intended to see Bathsheba again, that he wanted her either for his wife or his paramour, is not suggested. On the contrary, the text makes clear that David would prefer to have her husband Uriah assume paternity of the child and, presumably, continue in his marriage to Bathsheba as before. David has Uriah killed and then marries Bathsheba only because his ploy to get Uriah to go home and have sex with his wife fails (2 Sam. 11:11).

Texts of desire typically tell only one side of the story, the man’s. Of Bathsheba we hear only that she came to the king and returned to her house. Having been summoned by the king for sex, did she have a choice? No blame is assigned to Bathsheba by the biblical narrator, who, however, by withholding her point of view leaves her open to the charge of seduction. The narrator is preeminently concerned with male desire and its consequences. Desire’s irresistible power drives even the king chosen after God’s own heart to break three commandments: he covets another man’s wife, and he commits both adultery and murder. The moral message is encapsulated in God’s condemnation of David, delivered by the prophet Nathan:

Why have you despised the word of the Lord to do what is evil in his eyes? Uriah the Hittite you have slain with the sword, and his wife you have taken to be your wife, and him you have killed with the sword of the Ammonites. Now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house.

Because you have despised me and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife—thus says the Lord—I am raising up evil against you out of your own house, and I will take your wives before your eyes and give them to your neighbor, and he shall lie with your wives in the eyes of this sun. For you did it in secret, but I shall do this thing before all Israel and before the sun (2 Sam. 12:9–12).13

David has committed crimes against Uriah and against God, as guarantor of patriarchal statutes and values; he is not charged with any crime against Bathsheba, who is defined solely in terms of her relation to Uriah.

Punishment is swift and devastating, and the consequences are disastrous both for David and for his kingdom.14 The child Bathsheba bears to David dies, and David’s children reenact his crimes of passion and murder. His daughter Tamar is raped by her half-brother Amnon (echoing David’s adultery with Bathsheba), and, in revenge, Tamar’s brother Absalom has Amnon killed (echoing David’s murder of Uriah). Absalom is killed in an unsuccessful coup d’état against his father, but not before he has staked his claim to the throne by raping David’s wives in public (David’s punishment for taking another man’s wife in secret, and another indication of how irrelevant the woman’s point of view is). In all, three of David’s sons die by the sword, which, as Nathan prophesied, never departs from his house. The whole kingdom suffers the effects of David’s sin and in the aftermath is nearly torn apart, for Absalom’s revolt against his father is followed swiftly by another, when Sheba calls the northern tribes to revolt (2 Sam. 20). Although desire is David’s undoing, it does not destroy him, as it does Samson, for David survives these catastrophic events. He retains his throne and his reputation, in biblical tradition, as a great king, a reputation enhanced by his renown as the composer of psalms.

In the stories of David and Bathsheba, of Samson and Delilah, and in the book of Proverbs, women, as the activators of desire, are seen as the source of the problem. Giving in to desire creates a crisis. Even the story of Potiphar’s wife and Joseph in Genesis 39, which recognizes female desire and features a woman unhesitant in pursuing her sexual pleasure (not unlike the woman in the Song of Songs), is not really about the woman.15 It is about the principled, god-fearing Joseph, his success in the house of Potiphar, and his power to resist the foreign woman, who, like the strange/foreign woman so vividly portrayed in Proverbs 7:6–23, is represented as brazen, outspoken, adulterous, and carnal. She is vilified and not accorded the dignity of a name by the biblical writer.

Potiphar’s wife sees Joseph, desires him, but, unlike King David, she cannot, as a woman, simply take what she wants. She may be the wife of a powerful man, but Joseph the slave is the one in charge of the house. “[Potiphar] is not greater in this house than I am,” he protests, “nor has he kept back anything from me except you, because you are his wife” (Gen. 39:9). The wife of Potiphar is portrayed negatively from the outset. She tries to get Joseph to have sex with her, and she is persistent. She boldly and determinedly grabs hold of his garment. But the righteous Joseph escapes her clutches. She has power—Joseph is convicted on her word—but not the power to get what she desires.


Apart from the Song of Songs, there are few places in the Hebrew Bible where one person is said to love (’ahab) another in an amorous or carnal sense. In all these cases only one of the pair is said to love, as noted above with regard to the story of Samson and Delilah. Of course this does not mean that love was not reciprocated in ancient Israelite society, but only that reciprocal love was not a concern of biblical writers (apart from the poet of the Song of Songs). Solomon is said to have loved many foreign women (1 Kings 11:1–2), and Rehoboam is said to have loved Maacah more than his other wives (2 Chron. 11:21). Isaac loves Rebekah, and is thus comforted after his mother’s death (Gen. 24:67). Elhanah, Ahasuerus, and Jacob have other wives, but only one is singled out as the object of their love. Elkanah loves Hannah (1 Sam. 1:5) in spite of the fact that she has failed to bear him children, and he tries to comfort her in affectionate terms. “Am I not more to you than ten sons?” he asks (v. 8); however, the problem is not so serious for him as for Hannah, since he has children by his other wife, Peninnah. Ahasuerus loves Esther more than all the virgins brought to him as possible replacements for Queen Vashti (Esther 2:17). Perhaps showing her favor by allowing her to enter his presence unbidden and offering to grant her request, even to half his kingdom, are signs of his love (5:1–3). Jacob loves his cousin Rachel so much that the seven years he serves his uncle Laban as the bride price for her “seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her” (Gen. 29:20; also vv. 18, 30). It is difficult to draw conclusions about the nature of love in all these cases, given the scant evidence the texts provide.

In two accounts of rape, neither of whose purpose is to explore the nature of love, “love” nonetheless features conspicuously. Both tales are parts of longer, complex stories, those of Jacob and his family in the book of Genesis and of King David and his house in 1 Samuel 16–2 Kings 1. Genesis 34 tells the story of Shechem, who, having raped Jacob’s daughter Dinah, loves her (v. 3) and wants her for his wife. As proof of his love, he offers Jacob’s family any bride price they name. When Jacob’s sons demand that Shechem and all the men of his city be circumcised, “the young man did not delay to do the thing, because he had delight in [or “desired”] Jacob’s daughter” (v. 19). But only death and destruction come of this relationship so ill begun, and of Dinah’s point of view we hear nothing. In 2 Samuel 13 another story of love and rape ends tragically. David’s son Amnon “loves” his half-sister Tamar, but his love turns to hate as soon as he has raped her (which seems to be somewhat the reversal of Shechem’s experience). Here “desire” or “lust after” is clearly a better translation of ’ahab than “love.” Tamar dies a desolate woman in her brother Absalom’s house, and Absalom has Amnon killed—all part of the working out of nemesis in David’s house.16

Only once (apart from the Song of Songs) do we hear of a woman’s love for a man (1 Sam. 18:20, 28), but this relationship also ends badly. In a story in which politics and theology play a greater role than characters’ feelings, Saul’s daughter Michal, like Shechem, proves her love by her actions, defying her father by orchestrating David’s escape from the court when Saul seeks to have him killed (1 Sam. 19:11–17). But Michal is not treated well by David, who appears chiefly interested in her as a means to Saul’s throne.17 After he flees Saul’s court, David has two secret meetings with Jonathan but none with Michal. He finds refuge for his parents with the king of Moab, but he makes no effort either to include Michal in this arrangement or to take her with him, though he takes other wives while he is on the run (1 Sam. 25:42–43). Only after David has been made king over Judah and the issue of his kingship over the northern tribes is raised does David claim Michal, who, in the meantime, had been given in marriage to another man. Not surprisingly, by the time Michal and David have their final confrontation (2 Sam. 6), her love has turned to bitterness and hatred, which she vents in a veritable emotional explosion when he brings the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem. He rebukes her in equally harsh terms, followed immediately by the narrator’s report that Michal “had no child to the day of her death” (v. 23), perhaps a hint that David is responsible for Michal’s childlessness by ceasing to have sexual relations with her.

Michal is not the only one of King Saul’s children who loves David. Jonathan loves him too (1 Sam. 18:1, 3; 20:17), though whether or not this love includes a sexual element is debated.18 Like Michal, Jonathan saves David’s life when Saul plots to kill him (1 Sam. 19:1–7; 20:12–42), and, remarkably, he is even willing to yield his rightful claim to the throne to David: “You shall be king over Israel and I shall be your second-in-command” (1 Sam. 23:17). But did David love Jonathan? It all depends on how one understands his words in 2 Samuel 1:26, “Your love for me was wonderful, more than the love of women.” Does this mean that David loved Jonathan more than he loved women? Or should we take the comparison to mean “your [Jonathan’s] love for me is more wonderful than the love of women [is for me]”; in other words, is David saying that Jonathan has shown him greater love than women have? In light of all the references to Jonathan’s love for David, it is striking that David’s love for Jonathan is so shrouded in mystery. Perhaps, however, Jonathan’s love for David is not quite so altruistic as it seems. As later events reveal, he has reason to be concerned about the fate of his progeny should David usurp the kingship.19 He extracts an oath from David to show loyalty to him while he lives and to his house after he is dead (1 Sam. 20:14), and his statement about being second to David in command may be an attempt to secure a place for himself in a kingdom ruled by David. Jonathan’s death in battle with his father against the Philistines removes the danger he represents, actual or potential, to David’s advancement. Because he does not survive, his love for David—and David’s for him—is never truly tested.20

As these examples illustrate, sexual or affective love, though its strength is recognized, holds little interest for the biblical writers, and in some of these cases “desire” or even “lust after” would be a better translation of ’ahab than English “love.” None of them qualifies, in today’s terms, as a love story.

Love and Desire in the Prophetic Marriage Metaphor

In oracles aimed almost exclusively at a male audience, prophets sometimes appealed to the metaphor of God as husband and Israel as his wife in their invectives against what they saw as Israel’s violation of the covenant. They sexualized sins of social corruption and religious infidelity and projected these sins onto the woman. In the books of Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Lamentations, the nation’s unfaithfulness is described in terms of unrestrained female sexual freedom, and the promiscuous wife is subjected to horrendous punishment: she is publicly stripped naked and her genitals exposed (Hosea 2; Isa. 3:16–26; Jer. 13:22–27; Ezek. 16, 23), stoned (Ezek. 16, 23), mutilated (Ezek. 23), hacked to pieces (Ezek. 16), and slain with the sword (Ezek. 23). Although the intention of the husband–wife metaphor may have been to show God’s love for Israel and the intimacy of their covenant relationship, the picture that emerges is one in which the failure of the marriage is blamed entirely on the wayward wife by a longsuffering, angry, and abusive husband. Whereas sexual desire in the Hebrew Bible is routinely constructed as male, here we encounter female sexual desire and detailed descriptions of female lewdness and debauchery.

It would be a mistake to think of this construction of female sexual desire as anything other than a crude male caricature of female desire as unbridled lust. The irrationally jealous divine husband believes his wife will have sex with anyone. Her desire is insatiable; she is like a young camel or wild donkey in heat (Jer. 2:23–24). Pursuing any and all passers-by, she openly flaunts her finery and her nakedness (Hosea 2; Isa 3:16–23; Jer. 3:2; 4:30; Ezek. 16:15, 25, 28; 23:18), and unlike other prostitutes wants no payment (Ezek. 16:34). In addition, she is guilty of teaching wicked women her ways (Jer. 2:33). Given the carefully circumscribed social position of women in ancient Israelite society, it is difficult to imagine that any real woman could openly exhibit such unrestrained, bizarre sexual behavior as we find in these texts. Indeed, these diatribes tell us more about the men who composed them than about women; for example, Ezekiel’s obsession with the woman’s lovers, “desirable young men” (23:6, 12, 23), with penises the size of donkeys’ penises and ejaculations like those of stallions (23:20), betrays the male anxiety and sexual insecurity that fuels his misogynistic diatribe.

As in the legal texts and texts of desire examined above, the privileged point of view is male. The prophets present the abusive husband’s version of events as definitive. Abuse is viewed as instructional and as leading to reconciliation. The long-suffering divine husband still loves his wife, and the prophets hold out hope for forgiveness and renewal of the relationship, though how reassuring this is for women is debatable. In Isaiah 54:4–10, a compassionate God offers covenant loyalty (hesed) to the wife he had forsaken. In Hosea 2:14–19 [Hebrew vv. 16–21], he promises to speak tenderly to his wife and restore her to favor so that she will “respond as in the days of her youth” (or “be humbled/submit as in the days of her youth,” the translation is not certain) and to betroth her to him forever. In Ezekiel 16:59–63 the wronged husband promises to forgive his unfaithful wife, who, for her part, will never open her mouth again because of her shame.

We might ask what insight the prophetic marriage metaphor gives us, if any, into human desire, human love, and human marriage relationships. The picture we can construct is, first and foremost, one of inequality. The divine husband’s superiority over his nation-wife lends legitimacy to the human husband’s superiority over his wife, who, following this model, is subservient to him and totally dependent on him. Through messages about gender relations encoded in these texts, men are taught to exert their authority and women are taught to submit. It is the man’s responsibility to restrain the woman’s freedom and to punish a woman whose behavior brings dishonor upon him. By detailing the sexual abuse of an “unfaithful” wife, texts that employ the prophetic marriage metaphor rely on female fear of male violence in order to keep female sexuality in check. In Ezekiel 16, for example, the prophet compares the treatment of the woman Jerusalem to the way women who commit adultery are judged (v. 38), thereby providing an implicit warning to women in general, a warning made explicit in chapter 23, where the fate of the personified cities Samaria and Jerusalem has a moral for all women, “that all women may take warning and not commit lewdness as you have done” (v. 48).


Only once in the Hebrew Bible do we find desire, love, sex, and romance in the same text, the Song of Songs. There may be hints of romance elsewhere. In Genesis 24, for example, the right bride is sought for Isaac, the perfect woman is found, arrangements are made, and she agrees to be married without delay. The account has the makings of romance, but it is not developed. Many readers find romance in the book of Ruth. In terms of genre, romance, with its perilous journey, struggle, and exaltation of the hero set against the backdrop of an idyllic and idealized world of the past, fits the book well. The story is set in the period of the judges, but there is no hint of the violence and social and political upheaval so prominent in the book of Judges. Ruth is a variation on the fabula in which a poor maiden finds her rich prince. Girl meets boy, girl gets boy, with two climactic moments: (1) girl resorts to a risky ploy and boy agrees to marry (or redeem) girl, and (2) the question, “Will the nearer next-of-kin relinquish his right to redeem?” is resolved with a resounding “yes.” Presumably Ruth and Boaz live happily ever after; at any rate, a line of kings descends from them.

But in addition to the relationship between Ruth and Boaz there is another, equally strong bond in this story: the one between Ruth and Naomi. In fact, language used of the first couple in Eden and commonly understood to represent the marriage bond—“Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves (dabaq) to his wife” (Gen. 2:24)—is used of Ruth, who “left [her] father and mother” (Ruth 2:11) and “cleaved” (dabeqah) to Naomi (1:14). Ruth’s famous oath of loyalty in chapter 1, “Where you go, I will go, where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your god, my god,” is spoken to Naomi. Ruth makes no such vow to Boaz. Because Ruth vows by Naomi’s and her god that the bond between them will not be broken, she could not enter the household of a new husband if it meant that she would have to forsake Naomi.

The intensity of Ruth’s devotion to Naomi is routinely praised by commentators; at the same time, her relationship to Boaz is frequently romanticized. Romanticizing readings find more in Ruth and Boaz’s relationship than a kinsman’s willingness to take responsibility for the welfare of two needy female relatives, or the juridical issue of redemption, or the obligation of a kinsman to perpetuate his relative’s family and “the name of the dead in his inheritance” (4:10), or even a model for righteous living—all of which have been hailed as important themes of the book of Ruth. Romanticizing interpretations find emotions that the text barely hints at in order to develop the love interest between Ruth and Boaz.21

The vital scene for romantic interpretation is the encounter between Ruth and Boaz, at night, on the threshing floor (3:6–13). Following Naomi’s instructions, in preparation for going to the threshing floor, Ruth bathes, anoints herself, and dresses in her finest clothes. She waits until Boaz has eaten and drunk and, in a mellow mood, gone to lie down. She comes to him so softly that he does not notice her or the fact that she lies down at “the place of his feet,” for it is midnight before he wakes up with a start to discover a woman at his side. The text of Ruth 3:7 is not without problems. Whether “the place of his feet” is what Ruth uncovers (in which case “feet” could be—as it is sometimes used in Hebrew—a euphemism for the genitals) or whether she uncovers herself22 (and if so, her request that Boaz “spread your skirt over your maidservant” makes better sense) is a tantalizing question. So too is the question whether Ruth invites Boaz to have sex with her or asks him to marry her or both. The entire scene is rife with sexual innuendo, as biblical commentators point out, and as readers without benefit of Hebrew can easily recognize. Many questions are left unanswered. Is a marriage actually contracted or does Boaz simply promise to pursue the matter on Ruth’s and Naomi’s behalf? Why does Boaz tell Ruth to lie with him until the morning? Did they or did they not have sexual intercourse on the threshing floor?

Does any of this make the book of Ruth a love story or a romance? Whether or not the book itself privileges one relationship (Ruth and Boaz) over the other (Ruth and Naomi) is debatable. What is clear is that relationships in the book of Ruth are more complex than at first meets the eye, and much more is at stake in the book of Ruth than romance.

As the only true romance in the Bible, the Song of Songs stands apart and its presence in the Bible is all the more remarkable. Here we encounter mutual desire and satisfaction—and not a male point of view only—and a positive attitude toward a woman actively seeking to gratify her desire. Using direct speech exclusively, in a dialogue format, the Song explores love from both points of view, a woman’s and a man’s. Mutuality is what makes romance possible, although this does not mean that the dynamics of power operative in the texts discussed above are absent in the Song. Here as elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, the man enjoys a freedom of movement and social autonomy the woman does not share. His chastity, unlike hers, is not an issue (1:6; 8:1, 8–10). He is the suitor who comes to court her (2:8–17; 4:6–8; 5:2), and she is typically, though not exclusively, associated with the house, the woman’s domain. She also appears as an exotic pleasure garden (4:12–5:1), “worked upon, tamed, and subjected to cultivation,” symbolizing, if indirectly, her owner-lover’s economic status and power.23

As one might expect of a man in a patriarchal society, the male lover of the Song is accustomed to feeling in control. Love, however, makes him feel as though he is losing control, and he reveals his anxiety about relinquishing power in the way he speaks of love in terms of conquest and power relations. Unlike the woman, who expresses her feelings subjectively (“I am lovesick,” 2:5; 5:8), he does not say, “I am overwhelmed,” but rather describes the way he feels as something she has done to him: “You have captured my heart” (4:9); “Turn your eyes away from me, for they overwhelm me” (6:5). Like Samson yielding to love and David capitulating to desire, he is powerless to resist; his autonomy is challenged. But although surrender may be scary, its threat is diminished because, in this case, desire is mutual. He does not really want her to turn her eyes away from him, and to be held captive in her flowing hair (7:5 [v. 6 in the Hebrew]) is hardly cause for alarm.

The woman, in contrast, is used to a world in which men are in control, and to a view of love according to which women surrender to men. Whereas the man speaks of being captured by her, she speaks of surrender to him, comparing herself to a fortified city suing for peace (8:10).24 Her autonomy is not challenged because she does not have the kind of autonomy a man has. She is not in awe of him, as he is of her (“You are beautiful, my friend, like Tirzah, lovely as Jerusalem, as awesome in splendor as they,” 6:4); rather, she longs passionately for him and cannot do without him. From her female perspective, he seems, at times, elusive (1:7; 3:1–3; 5:6–8). The corollary, for him, is that she, on occasion, appears inaccessible (2:14; 4:8; 5:2–3).

The Song is unique not only in featuring as its protagonists a couple both desirous and in love, but also in offering a romantic vision of love. Romance is more than the lineaments of gratified desire. Romance transforms the way lovers look at the world around them; suddenly the whole world becomes more beautiful, more vibrant, more wonderful. This is what the lovers in the Song of Songs experience. Nature in all its glory reflects and participates in their mutual delight, and everything is felt more intensely. If we did not possess the Song, we might safely assume that people in biblical times fell in love, as people do, but we would not know how they felt about it, or dreamed about it, or envisioned its possibilities.

Poetry is the language of romance, and the Song of Songs conveys the lovers’ delight and wonder with vivid metaphors, luxuriously sensuous imagery, and sonorous cadences. Whereas typically in Hebrew poetry the second line of a couplet repeats or echoes the thought of the first, in the Song couplets and triplets seem to rush forward, spilling over each other, as though impelled by the desire they communicate.25 Poetic bodies clothed in striking, often erotically suggestive metaphors, are conjured up through speech and allowed to dematerialize in an infinite deferral of presence. Double entendre, circumlocution, and indirect language enable the poem to be read as both delicately and explicitly erotic.26

Because its subject is the relationship between a man and a woman, the Song of Songs is immensely important for understanding the construction of desire in the Hebrew Bible, but, at the same time, its value for this purpose is limited, for, like the fairy tale that ends with “and they lived happily ever after,” it does not move beyond courtship and intimate erotic encounters to describe other aspects of women’s and men’s lives.

Like any literary text, the Song is not a window through which the reality of the past can be transparently read, and what transpires in a love poem may or may not correspond to the typical behavior of most people in a particular bygone time. We do not know whether or not the situation—love, a one to one relationship—allowed a certain freedom from social constraints, or whether the genre, love poetry, or the social setting, private rather than public life, accounts for the Song’s unique portrayal of mutuality in love. Be that as it may, the Song should not be marginalized as an exception when describing gender relations in the Bible, as often happens, for the Song testifies to a worldview that included a vision of romance in which importance was attached to mutual desire. Without the Song, we could be tempted to conclude from the rest of the Bible that desire was constructed as male, and as dangerous, something to be repressed or controlled—as in the laws governing sexual relations, the advice of Proverbs to young men, and the “lessons” taught by the examples of heroes like Samson and David, led astray by their libidos. The Song not only testifies to the availability of romantic ideas and ideals within the larger culture but also, by its very existence and popularity, may have played a role in perpetuating them.

Review of the Literature

Scholarly research has not tended to focus on the general topics of desire or love or romance in the Hebrew Bible. An important exception is Athalya Brenner’s The Intercourse of Knowledge, where the reader can find both a wide-ranging discussion of gender and sexuality and a detailed examination of various Hebrew terms used of desire, love, and sexual behavior. Using a cognitive linguistics approach, Ellen van Wolde examines the different conceptualizations of love in English and biblical Hebrew and argues that in biblical Hebrew the verb “to love” (’ahab) does not imply romance but rather presupposes hierarchical relationships between people of different positions and ranking (Reframing Biblical Studies); her analysis does not include the Song of Songs. Van Wolde also discusses at length the relationship between Dinah and Shechem in Genesis 24. Richard M. Davidson’s Flame of Yahweh offers a useful compendium of texts dealing with sexuality in the Hebrew Bible, and Hilary Lipka provides a valuable overview of the issues involved in determining the construction of sexuality in ancient Israel in the Introduction to her study, Sexual Transgression in the Hebrew Bible.

Discussions of desire and love (and less often, romance) in the Bible frequently take place in the context of the study of specific texts through the lenses of various ideological criticisms; in particular, feminist criticism, gender criticism, queer theory, and masculinity studies. The two series of The Feminist Companion to the Bible edited by Athalya Brenner are excellent resources with which to begin. Mieke Bal’s Lethal Love, in which she analyzes the stories of David and Bathsheba, Samson and Delilah, Ruth and Boaz, Judah and Tamar (Gen. 38), and Adam and Eve, is essential reading as an entry into the complexity of the topic. In Plotted, Shot, and Painted, I also deal with David and Bathsheba, Samson and Delilah, and the Ruth-Naomi-Boaz triangle, as well as with the story of Lot and his daughters (Gen. 19), where the father’s desire to have sex with his daughters is displaced onto the daughters, and in Fragmented Women I discuss what René Girard calls triangular desire27 in the case of Abraham and Isaac (Gen. 12, 20, and 26), where the patriarch needs the foreign king’s desire to confirm the matriarch’s desirability and increase his own desire for her. The story of Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife is scrutinized from a range of perspectives by Alice Bach in Women, Seduction, and Betrayal in Biblical Narrative.

Discussions of the relationship between David and Jonathan can be found in the books by Ackerman, Heacock, and Harding (see Further Reading), and Deryn Guest’s Beyond Feminist Biblical Studies offers a salutary critique of the heteronormativity of both the biblical text and biblical scholarship. Her discussion of prophetic pornography merits consideration alongside more mainstream studies such as Moughtin-Mumby’s Sexual and Marital Metaphors in Hosea, Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Ezekiel. Fiona Black’s The Artifice of Love sheds important light on the intricacies of love and desire in the Song of Songs.

Primary Sources

The primary sources for information about desire, love, and romance in the Bible are the biblical texts themselves. Some texts (especially those discussed in this essay) have received considerably more attention than others because of their focus on relationships, but many other texts await exploration, for desire can take many forms, as some of the studies listed in the Further Reading section of this essay well illustrate. One could examine the biblical views of desire, love, and romance against the ancient Near Eastern background or look for Hellenistic influence on later biblical literature. Much work remains to be done in these areas. Some comparative analysis can be found in the books by Nissinen, Heacock, Ackerman, and Bach listed in Further Reading. Though it does not deal with the Bible, Gwendolyn Leick’s Sex and Eroticism in Mesopotamian Literature28 offers a fascinating treatment of the topic.

Further Reading

  • Ackerman, Susan. When Heroes Love: The Ambiguity of Eros in the Stories of Gilgamesh and David. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005.
  • Bach, Alice. Women, Seduction, and Betrayal in Biblical Narrative. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
  • Bal, Mieke. Lethal Love: Feminist Literary Readings of Biblical Love Stories. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.
  • Black, Fiona C. The Artifice of Love: Grotesque Bodies in the Song of Songs. London: T&T Clark, 2009.
  • Brenner, Athalya. The Intercourse of Knowledge: On Gendering Desire and “Sexuality” in the Hebrew Bible. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1997.
  • Brenner, Athalya, and Fokkelien van Dijk-Hemmes. On Gendering Texts: Female and Male Voices in the Hebrew Bible. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1993.
  • Brenner, Athalya, ed. The Feminist Companion to the Bible (1993–2004) and The Feminist Companion to the Bible (Second Series). Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Academic Press (now T&T Clark/Bloomsbury), 1998–2002.
  • Creangă, Ovidiu, ed. Men and Masculinity in the Hebrew Bible and Beyond. Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2010.
  • Creangă, Ovidiu, and Peter-Ben Smit, eds. Biblical Masculinities Foregrounded. Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2014.
  • Davidson, Richard M. Flame of Yahweh: Sexuality in the Old Testament. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2007.
  • Eilberg-Schwartz, Howard. God’s Phallus and Other Problems for Men and Monotheism. Boston: Beacon Press, 1994.
  • Exum, J. Cheryl. Song of Songs, a Commentary. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2005.
  • Exum, J. Cheryl. Plotted, Shot, and Painted: Cultural Representations of Biblical Women. 2d rev. ed. Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2012.
  • Exum, J. Cheryl. Fragmented Women: Feminist (Sub)versions of Biblical Narratives. 2d ed. London: Bloomsbury, 2016.
  • Fuchs, Esther. Sexual Politics in the Biblical Narrative: Reading the Hebrew Bible as a Woman. Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000.
  • Guest, Deryn. Beyond Feminist Biblical Studies. Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2012.
  • Harding, James E. The Love of David and Jonathan: Ideology, Text, Reception. Sheffield, UK: Equinox, 2013.
  • Heacock, Anthony. Jonathan Loved David: Manly Love in the Bible and the Hermeneutics of Sex. Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2011.
  • Lipka, Hilary. Sexual Transgression in the Hebrew Bible. Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2006.
  • Moughtin-Mumby, Sharon. Sexual and Marital Metaphors in Hosea, Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Ezekiel. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.
  • Nissinen, Martti. Homoeroticism in the Biblical World: A Historical Perspective. Translated by Kirsi Stjerna. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1998.
  • Wolde, Ellen van. Reframing Biblical Studies: When Language and Text Meet Culture, Cognition, and Context. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2009.


  • 1. The third reference, Gen. 4:7, where sin is personified as a desiring subject, is not relevant to the present discussion. Please also note that the present essay draws extensively on my article, “Sex, Desire, Love and Romance in the Hebrew Bible: An Essay,” in Reading Ideologies: Biblical Essays in Honor of Mary Ann Tolbert, ed. Benny Tat-siong Liew (Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2011), 273–287.

  • 2. Catherine Belsey, Desire: Love Stories in Western Culture (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994), 3.

  • 3. See the excellent study of Athalya Brenner, The Intercourse of Knowledge (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1997).

  • 4. For discussion, see Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus 17–22: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (New York: Doubleday, 2000); Carolyn Pressler, The View of Women Found in the Deuteronomic Family Laws (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1993); and Pressler, “Sexual Violence and Deuteronomic Law,” in A Feminist Companion to Exodus to Deuteronomy, ed. Athalya Brenner (Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Academic Press, 1994), 102–112.

  • 5. Erhard S. Gerstenberger, Leviticus, a Commentary (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1996), 249.

  • 6. Phyllis Bird, Missing Persons and Mistaken Identities: Women and Gender in Ancient Israel (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997), 13–51.

  • 7. See Carol A. Newsom, “Woman and the Discourse of Patriarchal Wisdom: A Study of Proverbs 1–9,” in Gender and Difference in Ancient Israel, ed. Peggy Day (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1989), 142–160.

  • 8. On the ’ishshah zarah (literally “strange woman” or “foreign woman”), see Michael Fox, Proverbs 1–9: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (New York: Doubleday, 2000), 134–141, 252–262; and Claudia V. Camp, Ben Sira and the Men Who Handle Books: Gender and the Rise of Canon-Consciousness (Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2013), 123–126.

  • 9. In his film Samson and Delilah, Twentieth Century Fox, 1949.

  • 10. J. Cheryl Exum, Plotted, Shot, and Painted: Cultural Representations of Biblical Women, 2d rev. ed. (Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2012), 250–256; and J. Cheryl Exum, Fragmented Women: Feminist (Sub)versions of Biblical Narratives, 2d ed. (London: Bloomsbury), 41–67.

  • 11. Susan Niditch, “Samson as Culture Hero, Trickster, and Bandit: The Empowerment of the Weak,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 52 (1990): 608–624 (616–617); and Exum, Fragmented Women, 60–61.

  • 12. Mieke Bal, Lethal Love: Feminist Literary Readings of Biblical Love Stories (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), 51–67; and Exum, Plotted, Shot, and Painted, 252–256.

  • 13. For this division of the Masoretic text, see J. P. Fokkelman, Narrative Art and Poetry in the Books of Samuel. I. King David (Assen, The Netherlands: van Gorcum, 1981), 83–86.

  • 14. For discussion, see J. Cheryl Exum, Tragedy and Biblical Narrative: Arrows of the Almighty (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 120–149.

  • 15. See Alice Bach, Women, Seduction, and Betrayal in Biblical Narrative (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 34–65.

  • 16. On these two stories, see Susanne Scholz, Sacred Witness: Rape in the Hebrew Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2010), 32–42.

  • 17. On the use of David and Michal’s relationship to serve the narrator’s political and theological agendas, see Exum, Tragedy in Biblical Narrative, 81–95; and Fragmented Women, 25–40.

  • 18. See, e.g., Anthony Heacock, Jonathan Loved David: Manly Love in the Bible and the Hermeneutics of Sex (Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2011); Susan Ackerman, When Heroes Love: The Ambiguity of Eros in the Stories of Gilgamesh and David (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005); and James E. Harding, The Love of David and Jonathan: Ideology, Text, Reception (Sheffield, UK: Equinox, 2013).

  • 19. In 2 Samuel 9, David’s installing of Jonathan’s son Mephibosheth in his court could be a way of keeping an eye on a potential Saulide threat to his throne (cf. 2 Sam 16:1–4); and in 2 Samuel 21 David allows other descendants of Saul to be killed, eliminating other possible claimants to the throne.

  • 20. For discussion, see Exum, Tragedy in Biblical Narrative, 74–81.

  • 21. A good example is Dana Nolan Fewell and David Miller Gunn, Compromising Redemption: Relating Characters in the Book of Ruth (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1990); and however, a good deal of implicit romanticizing takes place in even the most reserved scholarly prose. See Exum, Plotted, Shot, and Painted, 184–191.

  • 22. Kirsten Nielsen, “La choix contre de droit dans le livre de Ruth: De l’aire de battage au tribunal,” Vetus Testamentum 35 (1985): 201–212 (205–207); and Nielsen, Ruth, a Commentary (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1997), 68–70.

  • 23. Christopher Meredith, Journeys in the Songscape: Space and the Song of Songs (Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2013), 69–90; and citation from 78.

  • 24. J. Cheryl Exum, Song of Songs, a Commentary (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2005), 258–259.

  • 25. Exum, Song of Songs, 32–33.

  • 26. For detailed discussion of the poetic techniques by which the Song immortalizes love as “strong as death” (8:6); and see Exum, Song of Songs, 3–13.

  • 27. René Girard, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure (trans. Y. Freccero; Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1965), 1–52.

  • 28. Gwendolyn Leick, Sex and Eroticism in Mesopotamian Literature (London, Routledge, 1994).