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Song of Solomon covers many topics that are euphemistically and overtly sexual in nature and it is, at times, very graphic.

The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English defines erotica as

literature or art intended to arouse sexual desire

Similarly, Mirriam-Webster defines erotica as

  1. literary or artistic works having an erotic theme or quality
  2. depictions of things erotic

It seems then, that if Song of Solomon is intended to sexually arouse the reader or the theme of Song of Solomon is sexual in nature, Song of Solomon is a type of Erotic literature. Characterizing Song of Solomon in this way can, however, be problematic for many people as these definitions of erotica tend to indicate that erotica can encompass many other genres including:

  • Erotic fiction
  • Erotic non-fiction
  • Erotic poetry
  • Erotic prose

An can also span mediums:

  • Erotic graphography (writing)
  • Erotic photography (pictures)
  • Erotic cinematography (movies)

This means that erotica can encompass pornography as Mirriam-Webster's dictionary defines Pornography as

  1. the depiction of erotic behavior (as in pictures or writing) intended to cause sexual excitement
  2. material (as books or a photograph) that depicts erotic behavior and is intended to cause sexual excitement

In fact, Oxford's dictionary lists erotica as a synonym for pornography and defines pornography as:

Printed or visual material containing the explicit description or display of sexual organs or activity, intended to stimulate erotic rather than aesthetic or emotional feelings.

It seems then that if we do characterize Song of Solomon as erotic literature, we might be characterizing it as a type of Pornography, a suggestion which many would find offensive. It is due to the sexual nature of Song of Solomon that some would seed to interpret it as allegorical. Others would seek to draw a distinction between erotica and pornography in which erotica is artistic and tasteful and pornography is obscene and might therefore regard Song of Solomon as erotic, but not pornographic. Still others might characterize erotica as describing a literary medium and pornography as encompassing more visual mediums.

Despite this, good hermeneutics often seeks to view scripture through a lenses which is untainted by modern culture which could include modern sexual taboos.

It seems that Song of Solomon is most closely related in style (and therefore, perhaps purpose) to several sexually graphic writings in Mesopotamia such as The Love Song of Shu-Sin and other Sumerian love songs and study of these might prove helpful in interpreting Song of Solomon within the context of that sexual culture.

With all of this in mind, What genre of writing is Song of Solomon?

I would think that good answers should avoid superficial distinctions like saying Song of Solomon isn't pornographic because it is between a married couple (this type of communication can still be pornographic; don't make me provide examples), but instead should provide substantive distinguishing factors or similarities between Song of Solomon and other works.

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    Read literally, the Song of Solomon is the story of pre-marital love between a young farm girl and a shepherd boy. It is not mere erotica, because she imagines him to be like Solomon. I have read that the Song was originally part of an operetta. – Dick Harfield Jun 28 '16 at 22:27
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    Related (at least as background)? "How is genre determined?" – Dɑvïd Jun 29 '16 at 16:01
  • To my mind, erotic literature is designed to "warm your cockles". I think Song is a paean to Solomon's virility (from an adoring bimbo's point of view). She loves the way he smells to the point where he is heroic in her eyes. She is all butter in his embrace. She is thrilled and orgasmic at his touch. She wishes she didn't have to sneak around to have wild and crazy trysts with him. But one isn't aroused. If it is at all sacred literature then it is intended to ascribe to Messiah virility and manhood to the maximum. – Ruminator Jul 4 at 2:24
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The Mirriam-Webster dictionary definition of poetry includes the following:

writing that formulates a concentrated imaginative awareness of experience in language chosen and arranged to create a specific emotional response through meaning, sound, and rhythm

The Old Testament books are not organized chronologically but by category. The categories are:

  • The Pentateuch,
  • History,
  • Poetry and (Wisdom) Writings,
  • Major Prophets, and
  • Minor Prophets,

Song of Solomon is included within the Poetry and (Wisdom) Writings category. By the definition above, it is clear that Song of Solomon is poetry.

As you suggest, one should seek to develop a hermeneutic strategy that is unbiased by modern culture. Following that remark, one might consider that the Greek πορνεα is generally translated contemporarily to mean sexual immorality in general, and not erotic material. In fact, instances of "fornication" are renderings of πορνεα from the Greek. As such, the book should only be classified as pornography in a traditional sense if it is of an immoral character, which it is clearly not.

Song of Solomon is certainly not the only content in the Old Testament that contains imagery or allegory of sexual activity. For example, consider Proverbs 5:15-19, which by tradition shares the author of the book in question:

Drink water from your own cistern
And fresh water from your own well.
Should your springs be dispersed abroad,
Streams of water in the streets?
Let them be yours alone
And not for strangers with you.
Let your fountain be blessed,
And rejoice in the wife of your youth.
As a loving hind and a graceful doe,
Let her breasts satisfy you at all times;
Be exhilarated always with her love.

Because is quite possible to read the book in a manner that could be classified as sexual immorality, the distinguishing factors between Song of Solomon and some other poetic works that might be considered pornographic are not primarily substantive but accidental. Persons who are sexually immoral tend to engage immorally in myriad activities which would otherwise be innocent. However, the inclusion of the book in every canon by groups that also denounce sexual immorality is evidence that the book should not itself be considered πορνεα.

There are substantive differences, however. Note that the definition given here for poetry contradicts that which you gave for erotica, since poetry is intended by its author to create a specific emotional response while erotica is "intended to stimulate erotic rather than aesthetic or emotional feelings". So according to these definitions, we might say at most that erotic poetry is an oxymoron, or at least that not all erotic poerty is erotica. That is, not all literature that includes sexual imagery or allegory should be considered erotica or pornography.

The Oxford definition of poetry is

Literary work in which special intensity is given to the expression of feelings and ideas by the use of distinctive style and rhythm; poems collectively or as a genre of literature;

A quality of beauty and intensity of emotion regarded as characteristic of poems;

So, the substantive distinction between poetry and erotica hinges on authorial intent and aesthetic. The intent of the author that is demonstrated throughout the book in narration and also in statements to the audience is an aesthetic celebration of purely expressed love.

The context of Song of Solomon 5:1 suggests it is directed to the audience of the poem as by a chorus, saying, “Eat, O friends, and drink; drink your fill, O lovers.” The author's intent is to encourage lovers in the audience to "eat and drink their fill" of love, and not just to engage in wanton sensual indulgence.

Consider the following passage, in closing:

Ibid. 8:6-7 - “Place me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm; for love is as strong as death, its jealousy unyielding as the grave. It burns like blazing fire, like a mighty flame. Many waters cannot quench love; rivers cannot wash it away. If one were to give all the wealth of his house for love, it would be utterly scorned."

This passage, like the book as a whole, is intended by the author to extol love and to encourage the desire within individuals to love purely and to seek out a deep and consuming love, not to elicit sexual desires rather than the former. According to many critics, it also possesses a rich aesthetic. In fact, the titular designation "Song of Songs" is a superlative meant to designate primacy within a category (eg. King of Kings, Lord of Lords) as if to say, "this song is the greatest of all songs". More recently, the book has been called "intimate poetry at its finest," "the world's first great love poem," and "one of the greatest love poems of all time." As such, the book is not erotica but poetry.

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  • This seems to be a good case for Song of Solomon not being pornographic, but the OED does not define erotica as "intended to stimulate erotic rather than aesthetic or emotional feelings," but rather, this is their definition of "pornography". As such, if a distinction is drawn between πορνεα and ἔρως (eros; erotica) then this work could potentially be characterized as ἔρως but not πορνεα. Poetry can in fact be erotic and collections of such things exist (reader discretion is advised when reviewing those citations.) – James Shewey Jun 28 '16 at 23:13
  • Instead the OED defines erotica as art or literature of a sexual nature. And art and literature are expressions of aesthetic and emtional feelings. Sexuality is not restricted to merely erotic expression either - but can (and does_ include and encompass the emotional and aesthetic. I'm afraid I am still unable to see any substantive distinction between this and other eroitc poetry. – James Shewey Jun 28 '16 at 23:13
  • @JamesShewey The definition I quoted is from the OP. My personal opinion is that the book does constitute erotic poetry, but not erotica, since erotica is a synonym of pornography that includes literature of a pornographic nature, while not all erotic poetry is pornographic, and so not all erotic poetry is erotica, the difference being the intent and aesthetic, as noted in the included definition and discussed in the answer. Of course, aesthetic is subjective and some people with weak constitutions might consider art like The Birth of Venus, for example, to be pornographic. – Andrew Jun 28 '16 at 23:56
  • @JamesShewey The substantive difference then, as included in the definition and discussed in the answer is intent, as intent should be considered when appreciating The Birth of Venus, since pornography is intended to stimulate erotic rather than aesthetic or emotional feelings. It is clear to me, and to a long tradition of Biblical commenters and scholars, that the authorial intent of this book is to stimulate aesthetic and emotional feelings, not erotic ones rather than those and so is not erotica. – Andrew Jun 29 '16 at 0:05
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Song is an ode or paean to King Solomon's sexual prowess from a woman's point of view. It is poetry in that it uses many metaphors and similes, romantic situations and depictions of graphic sex, lightly veiled. The woman also is idealized and romanticized.

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The Song of Solomon was classified as one of the Wisdom books by the early Church. The Orthodox Study Bible provides this introductory summary:

Major Theme: Love between husband and wife. The Song of Songs is a hymn used by the Jewish people for centuries to celebrate human love at wedding feasts. The theme is symbolic of God's love for His faithful people and their reciprocal love. Christians have tended to emphasize the allegorical interpretation of Christ's love for His Bride, the Church.

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    OP says "good hermeneutics often seeks to view scripture through a lenses which is untainted by modern culture ..." and requests " substantive distinguishing factors or similarities between Song of Solomon and other works". Do you feel this answer meets both those objectives? – Dick Harfield Jun 28 '16 at 22:36
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In the analysis of the books in the Thompson Chain Reference Bible - the books is described as "an Oriental Poem, the ardent expression of which can only be properly interpreted by a mature spiritual mind'

It has been criticized over the years because of its amorous language. But the defenders of the book regard it as a spiritual allegory, representing the holy affection existing between God and his people.

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  • Welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics SE, thanks for contributing! Be sure to take our site tour to learn more about us. We're a little different from other SEs. Our community looks for answers to reflect a good degree of research and references. Typically, we like answers that cite scholarly references. Don't just tell us what you know, tell us how you know it. – James Shewey Jun 30 '16 at 19:28
  • Accordingly, if you have a moment to actually quote and link to the Thompson Chain Reference Bible and provide a summary of the criticisms, with a few excerpts, this would be appreciated. – James Shewey Jun 30 '16 at 19:29

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