Romance in the Bible?


As Valentine's Day approaches, the romantically inclined probably will not be looking to the Hebrew Bible for inspiration.

People justifiably find the Bible lacking in depictions of what we might understand as 'romance', with all the flowers, poems, candlelit dinners, and affectionate love. For instance, 1 Kings 11 highlights the unromantic size of royal harems, describing Solomon, David's son and successor, as "loving many foreign women" and "having seven hundred princesses and three hundred second wives." The Bible also presents us with the opposite of love through numerous stories of rape and violence such as the rape of Dinah, the daughter of Jacob and Leah, in Genesis 34 or the attempted rape of Joseph by the wife of the Egyptian official Potiphar in Genesis 39.

In contrast to the cold treatment of women and men in those scenes, there are some stories in the Bible that we might perceive as romantic. For instance, in Genesis, the patriarch Jacob loves Rachel so much that he pledges to his kinsman Laban to work for him for seven years to gain her hand. When Laban tricks Jacob into marrying his other daughter Leah, Jacob pledges to work another seven years for Rachel. Another possible example of 'romance' in the Hebrew Bible comes in the book of Ruth. This short story relates a touching nighttime encounter on a threshing floor between the Moabite widow Ruth and her Israelite kinsman Boaz. The two marry after a brief courtship, and their union results in the birth of the grandfather of King David.

The prophetic works in the Hebrew Bible take the image of a husband and a wife and employ it as a metaphor for God's relationship with Israel. But the description is in less-than-ideal terms and certainly devoid of romance. The prophet Hosea, writing in the eighth century BCE, decries Israel's abandonment of her 'husband', Israel's God, for the sake of other lovers (see Hosea 2). Here the relationship between 'husband and wife' has broken down because of Israel's adulterous devotion to gods other than her own.

The prophet Ezekiel, writing two centuries later, uses the same metaphor of adultery in chapter 16 to describe the southern kingdom of Judah's "whoring with (her) lovers." God's response is no less troubling--punishing Judah by publically shaming her and stripping her naked before her former lovers.

While the marital relationship between God and ancient Israel and Judah reaches the heights of dysfunction and acrimony in the prophetic texts, there are hints in the Bible of a more idyllic time in their relationship. The prophet Jeremiah, writing in the sixth century BCE, recounts God declaring affectionately to Jerusalem, "I remember the loving devotion of your youth, your love when you were my bride, when you followed me in the wilderness" (2:2). For Jeremiah, God's relationship with Israel in the wilderness after their exodus from Egypt was like two newlyweds on their honeymoon.

Jeremiah's picture of Israel's relationship with God in the period after the exodus as a time of love and intimacy is not unique in the Bible. In fact, the book of Deuteronomy, a work that is mainly a legal code, puts love at the heart of Israel's relationship with God. On a literary level, Deuteronomy is set during the end of Israel's wilderness experience, right before they enter the Promised Land. Deuteronomy calls Israel to love God with her whole being (see most famously chapter 6). This love has more affection to it than basic religious devotion. In chapter 11, Israel's commitment to God is expressed through her "cleaving" or "holding fast" to God. The verb used here in Deuteronomy to characterize Israel's relationship with God is employed famously in chapter 2 of Genesis to portray the union of a husband and a wife.

Despite the lack of explicit descriptions of romance elsewhere, the Bible does have one book that can be understood as extolling the virtues of romantic love, a work known as Song of Songs or The Song of Solomon. In its eight short chapters of lyric poetry, it recounts the longing of a woman for her often absent lover. The work drips with descriptions of lusty sensuality and pursuit such as the thinly veiled metaphors in chapter 5. It also contains stunning statements of mutual love and devotion like the famous refrain "I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine." It is not surprising then that some modern Christians have even come to understand Song of Songs as a divinely given instruction manual for romance.

Interestingly, Song of Songs becomes a resource for ancient Jews and Christians in thinking about their relationship with God. The early rabbis made the romance between God and Israel hinted at elsewhere in the Bible more explicit through their interpretations of Song of Songs, which were first recorded in the third century CE. The erotic love song of Song of Songs was reread as a divine love song between God and Israel. Through their interpretations, the rabbis made the Bible's story of God's relationship with Israel into a love affair. Early Christians read Song of Songs similarly as a picture of Jesus's relationship with the Church.

In the end, the Bible can be more romantic than we imagine it to be, and possibly even a source of inspiration for Valentine's Day.