I Hebrew Bible/Old Testament
Lust is an oft-used translation in the HB for a strong desire, which can be positive, negative, or neutral. Lust has its origins in a neutral connotation of the term; however, it has evolved into the meaning of strong sexual desire, often illicit and forbidden. While a number of Hebrew terms translate as “lust” or denote a desire,ʾāwāh/ʾiwwāh and ḥāmēd are excellent examples of the problematic translation of “lust.”
ʾĀwāh/ʾiwwāh appears to represent any desire or longing and even God and animals can exhibit such longing and desire. God desires Zion as a dwelling place (Ps 132:13) and God acts as God desires (Job 23:13). The wild ass in heat cannot restrain her desire to procreate (Jer 2:24). In Num 11, the Hebrews tire of manna and desire meat. God provides them quail and then proceeds to send a plague against the people for their longing for meat rather than manna. In a more positive turn, God allows the ancient Israelites to slaughter and eat any approved meat that they desire (Deut 12:15) and David desired water to drink, which he sacrificed to God instead (2 Sam 23:15). The text occasionally uses ʾāwāh and nepeš together, which generally denotes a person’s desires versus God’s or an animal’s desires. One can see this combination in Ps 10:3 and Prov 10:3. Nepeš can stand alone to represent desire as well (Ps 78:18).
Ḥāmēd also appears to have a range of meanings that center around a desire or longing for an object. Similar to Ps 132:13, God desires a mountain for God’s abode (Ps 68:16). The most well-known use of ḥāmēd is in Exod 20:17 and Deut 5:21 in the command not to covet. The command against coveting includes more than desiring the wife of one’s neighbor; God also commands the ancient Israelites not to covet a neighbor’s house, fields, slaves, livestock, and anything else that belongs to the neighbor. Ḥāmēd also denotes sexual lust in Prov 6:25 in which the son is warned not to lust after the wife of another or the smooth-tongued adulteress.
Genesis 3:6 uses ḥāmēd in the niphal to speak about the tree of the knowledge of good and evil as being desirable for wisdom. Ḥāmēd is neutral in its basic meaning of desire and Westermann argues that “the desire as such is neither bad nor suspect nor sinful … It is rather the completely natural, normal and God-given reaction to the fruit of the trees in the garden” (1994: 249). Due to the use of ḥāmēd, this verse has been interpreted as the woman “coveting” the fruit as this term is also used for the tenth commandment regarding coveting. The tree becomes more than desirable for knowledge and returns to the sense that the tree is forbidden because the object of covetousness is forbidden to the one doing the coveting and God has forbidden eating from this tree.
Two other Hebrew words express the modern sense of lust. Ḥāmam generally means “to become warm” but that warmth ranges from the literal warmth of a fire to the warmth of lust. In Isa 57:5, the ancient Israelites lust after other gods in a metaphorical sense. ʿĀgab is possibly the best choice for expressing sexual lust. Ezekiel 23 uses ʿāgab repeatedly to describe the figurative actions of the metaphorical sisters Oholah (Samaria) and Oholibah (Jerusalem) who become lovers of the other nations and their gods.
The variety of Hebrew terms which have been translated as “lust” does not quite equal the more widely held connotation of lust as sexual desire. God does not sexually desire Zion and the Hebrews in the wilderness do not sexually desire meat. God longs for a habitation among the people. David longs for water to drink but chooses to pour it out to God. At the same time, however, these terms can indicate illicit sexual desire for another person, such as the adulteress of Proverbs.
1. Rabbinic Literature
There is no exact equivalent for the English word “lust” in post-biblical Hebrew. Rather, several words with varying nuances are used to express a range of cravings. A sense of intense desire, to which no moral value is attached, is expressed by the word teshuqah. Thus, Bereshit Rabbah 20:7 lists four types of longing in the following comment on “Yet your desire (teshuqatekh) shall be for your husband” (Gen 3:16): “There are four desires: a woman’s only desire is for her husband; the desire of sin is solely for Cain and his associates … the desire of rain is solely for the earth … and the desire of the Blessed Holy One, is only for Israel.”
The word taʾawah, with the sense of desire or appetite, sometimes refers specifically to sexual passion, as in mAv 4:28, “Jealousy, lust (taʾawah), and ambition remove a person from the world.” Similarly, Qohelet Rabbah 12:5 interprets we-tafer ha-aviyyonah (and desire fails) (Eccl 12:5), as “the cessation of sexual desire (taʾawah), which brings peace between husband and wife.” BerR 85:8 refers to the “the angel who is in charge of desire” (malʾakh she hu memunneh ʿal ha-taʾawah) in its exposition of the story of Judah and Tamar (Gen 38). A more negative term attaches to a reference to lust in bMeg 15a, in a discussion of four beautiful biblical women, who readily aroused desire (zintah): Rahab, with the mention of her name, Yael, with her voice, Abigail, by remembering her, and Michal by her appearance.
The word ʿaverah (transgression or sin) is often applied to behavior motivated by lust. An example is BerR 90:3, where Pharaoh’s gifts to Joseph are understood in each case as a reward for Joseph’s avoidance of a specific act of sexual intimacy when he evaded the advances of Potiphar’s wife (Gen 39). Zohama, designating sexual desire without moral constraint, is invoked in an aggadah in bYev 103b (and also bShab 145b–46a) that imagines the serpent in the Garden of the Eden seducing Eve in order to implant sensual lust in human beings: “R. Johanan stated: When the serpent copulated with Eve, he infused her with lasciviousness. When the Israelites stood at Mount Sinai, their lust came to an end, but the lust of the idolaters who did not stand at Mount Sinai did not come to an end.” The most frequent discussions of lust appear in discourses about the yetser ha-raʿ, the evil inclination. Rabbinic Judaism posits a constant battle within each individual between a good inclination (yetser ha-tov) and an evil inclination (yetser ha-raʿ); the outcome determines one’s fate not only in this life but in the life to come. Thus, mAv 2:16, “The evil eye, the evil desire (yetser ha-raʿ), and hatred of one’s fellow creatures put a person out of the world.” The yetser ha-raʿ is often associated with the overwhelming power of human sexuality, as in QohR 4:13, 1, which recounts that the yetser ha-raʿ exists in a person from early childhood while the yetser ha-tov appears only at puberty, the time when an individual traditionally takes on adult responsibilities as well as adult sexual urges. In order to enable human beings to combat the yetser ha-raʿ, rabbinic Judaism teaches that God revealed the Torah and ordained its observance and study. Thus, bQid 30b (and bBB 16a) teaches that “God created the evil passions, but He also created the Torah as their corrective.”
Just as the Torah guides the individual away from sin, so ongoing Torah study encourages construction of barriers against occasions for sin (mAv 1:1). To guard against sexual distractions and inappropriate desires, men should avoid contact with all women except for family members. The Talmud (bBer 24a) catalogs the ways in which women may, however inadvertently, incite licentiousness (ʿaverah) in men who are not their husbands, through inadequate covering of their bodies and hair or the sweetness of their voices,” while bQid 80b–81a lists a number of circumstances in which a man may not be alone with one or more women. Similarly, a man should direct his son away from professions that bring him into frequent contact with women (bQid 82a).
The suggested remedy against sexual temptation is early marriage and satisfactory sexual relations for both marital partners. Indeed, so important is marriage as a fence against lustful thoughts, that the sages recommend that it take place shortly after puberty. The Talmud (bQid 30a; also bKet 61b) states that a man who has not married a woman by the time he is twenty years old will spend all of his days in sinful imaginings, and continues, “Rava said to Rabbi Natan bar Ami: While your hand is still on your son’s neck, find him a wife.” Yet married men, too, are subject to inappropriate lust. Based on Genesis 8:21, “For the inclination of a man’s heart is evil from his youth,” bQid 30b offers the following warning, “A person’s inclination overpowers him every day and seeks to kill him. And if not for the fact that the Blessed Holy One assists each person in battling his evil inclination, he could not overcome it.” Even scholars are not immune to the power of the yetser ha-raʿ; bSuk 52a remarks, “The greater a man, the greater his evil inclination.”
Several didactic anecdotes about respected sages who were overcome or almost overcome by their desire for illicit sexual activity (bAZ 17a–b; bQid 81a–b; bMen 44a; SifBem 115) demonstrate both the strength of lust and the possibility of sincere repentance.
2. Medieval Period
Jewish medieval and later teachings on lust maintain the rabbinic approach, emphasizing the ubiquity of sexual temptation and citing the remedies of Torah study, avoiding idleness and inappropriate contacts with the opposite sex, and channeling sexual desire into a loving mutually satisfying marriage. In his Mishneh Torah, Moses Maimonides (d. Fustat, Egypt, 1204) wrote that a man should subdue lustful inclinations through “unbounded sanctity, pure thought, and a disciplined moral disposition,” as well as marriage. And most important, “a man should direct his mind and thoughts to the words of the Torah and enlarge his understanding with wisdom, for unchaste thoughts prevail only in the heart devoid of wisdom” (“Book of Holiness” 22.18–21). Moral virtue, he taught, is found in the mean between lust and insensibility” (Eight Chapters on Ethics 4). In his Guide of the Perplexed, Maimonides wrote that a major purpose of circumcision was to diminish a man’s lustful tendencies (3.49).
The pietists of 12th- and 13th-century Germany were particularly concerned with illicit sexual desires and actions and prescribed ascetic atonements, such as immersion in cold water or fasting (Sefer Ḥasidim, Bologna ed., par. 176). Eleazar b. Judah, of Worms (d. ca. 1230) advised, “A man should avoid looking at other women … and have sex with one’s wife with the greatest passion … because she guards him from sin” (Eleazar b. Judah: Hilkhot Teshuvah, no. 20. p. 30). However, these pietists, whose writings were extremely influential for later Jewish mystical movements, directed their most intense cravings to God, placing the passion for the divine over marital devotion: “‘The root of loving God is loving God with all your heart’ (Deut 6:4) … And the joy of this love is of such intensity … that even after many days of not being with his wife and having a great desire for her … [a man] does not find [marital relations] as satisfying as the intensity and power of loving God and finding joy in his Creator” (Sefer Ḥasidim, Bologna ed., par. 14).
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In Christian theology lust connotes a strong desire or longing. It is often fueled by bodily appetites, seeks out material (vs. spiritual) pleasures, and inspires shame with immoral and debaucherous pursuits. Although lust can have any number of objects (revenge, money, adoration, ruling), when no object is specified, lust refers specifically to sexual desire (Augustine, Civ. 14.15). Lust of this variety is popularly recognizable as one of the seven deadly sins, and is included in Pope Gregory I’s traditional list of capital sins – vices from which additional sins follow, ultimately threatening to corrupt one’s spiritual well-being. Lust for sexual pleasure stands out as the most dangerous form of desire and when disordered, leads to sexual immorality that can have dire consequences, including jeopardizing one’s salvation or inciting God’s retribution.
Lust first takes on a necessary and systematized connection to sin, the body, sex, and shame in the work of Augustine of Hippo. Augustine draws a direct line from his theology of original sin to a post-Fall human condition that includes lust. God issues a just punishment for the original sin of disobedience, namely that human beings now experience disobedience within themselves, manifest in the recurring experience in which the mind and flesh are no longer capable of being controlled by the will. For Augustine, lust literally refers to arousal of the genitalia, which post-Fall can no longer be moved or restrained by human willpower. The advent of and bondage to lust signifies the shameful divorce between the will and the body, as well as the rupture of the relationship between God and humanity. For this reason, shame is inextricably bound to lust.
Furthermore, Augustine (Civ. 14.16) insists that the height of sexual pleasure to which lust aspires, “the greatest of all bodily pleasures,” is the exemplar in all of human experience (with the exception of death) of the will’s inability to control the mind and the body. It follows that lust necessitates containment and control because it aims at such disordering pleasure through various forms of sexual activity. Augustine offers two options for faithful Christians. The first option: get married and limit sex acts with one’s spouse to only those capable of producing offspring. This option contains lustful impulses while honoring God’s original intentions for humanity (marriage, sex and reproduction). The second option uses lust itself to undercut the first: dedicate one’s self, as Augustine eventually did, to a life of continence, one that refrains from indulging the lustful impulse in favor of the pursuit of more worthy, spiritual things.
Some of the most influential theologians who succeed Augustine reaffirm theological suspicion with regards to lust. Aquinas (Summa Theologiae 2–2.153.1), for example, defines lust as the desire for wanton pleasure, and although he acknowledges that the term is not reserved for the desire for sex, such lust ranks highest in its negative impact on the human spirit. His critique of lust, for which he often substitutes the word “lechery,” rests in his expectation that these desires be guided by reason and channeled toward procreation. But lust remains suspect because reason, he argues, cannot attend to spiritual things and pleasure simultaneously. Aquinas (Summa Theologiae 2–2.153.1) famously proclaims, “the pleasures that most unloosen the human spirit are those of sex.” Thus, lust that is not channeled toward procreation (which only allows for heterosexual intercourse within marriage) is a sin.
Managing lust also preoccupies the defense of marriage in Reformation theology. Martin Luther (1966: 8) warns that the desire for companionship and children is tainted by the pursuance of wicked lust. The strength of this desire demands marriage to counteract the sin of lust (1 Cor 7:9). Without marriage, lust constitutes a mortal sin and sex acts have grave consequences for the soul (ibid.: 10). To further complicate things, Luther not only prescribes the conjugal duty, but also warns against it in excess. “Although Christian married folk should not permit themselves to be governed by their bodies in the passion of lust, as Paul writes to the Thessalonians [1 Thess 4:5], nevertheless each one must examine himself so that by his abstention he does not expose himself to the danger of fornication and other sins” (Luther 1962: 36). Spouses should not indulge their lustful impulses to excess, but they also must be wary of their decision to abstain, lest lust move either partner to commit any number of fornications, adultery, or other sin.
John Calvin also condemns the indulgence of lust in the form of any sex outside of marriage. He points to the punishment of death listed in the tenth chapter of Corinthians as proof that God does not tolerate sexual immorality and seeks retribution for fornication. Calvin (1969: 405, 407) also names marriage as the “remedy to keep us from plunging into unbridled lust,” while cautioning couples “not to pollute marriage with uncontrolled and dissolute lust.” Immoderation with regards to the latter involves not only acting upon lustful impulses, but also simply contemplating them. “And that is why our Lord Jesus Christ says that when a man looks upon another man’s wife with lust, he is an adulterer in God’s eyes (Calvin 1980: 171).” Lust need not lead to immoral action; it is equally sinful as a condition of the heart (Matt 5:27–28).
The legacy of lust as sinful, indulgent, embodied and shameful is a weighty one for Christians. Since the mid-20th century, there have been theological efforts to redeem desire – the word “desire” being preferable to the word “lust.” Paul Tillich (1954: 29) offers the following corrective: ἐπιθυµία, the Greek word for lust traditionally identified with the desire for sexual pleasure, seeks not the fulfillment of pleasure as its goal, but the union with that which fulfills the desire. More so, according to Tillich, this desire for union is a quality of love that is part and parcel of every love relation. Thus, sexual desire is not evil insofar as it seeks reunion and resists using the other as primarily a means for pleasure (ibid.: 117).
Some feminist theologians aim to redeem desire after deconstructing the historical bonds that tie lust to shame, defilement of body and soul, genital sexuality, women in so far as they were aligned with the bodily, and alienation from God. Sallie McFague (1987) proposes the metaphor of “God as Lover,” attributing the qualities of passion, desire, and eroticized longing to God. She encourages readers to consider what it would mean for God to passionately desire creation. The model of “God as Lover” prioritizes desire and attributes for God that run counter to the classical characteristics of disinterested, unmoved, self-sacrificial agape love.
Lesbian theologian Carter Heyward undertakes a book-length reclamation of eros that prioritizes desire in human anthropology and theological understanding of the divine. She defines the “erotic,” traditionally defined as sexual love, as an embodied yearning for mutuality, the desire in every part of one’s being that seeks relationships that foster human own growth, as well as the growth of those with whom one is in relationship (Heyward: 191). Instead of eliciting shame, this desire should be lauded. Heyward’s “erotic” celebrates the body and its pleasures, including, but not limited to, sexual desire (Friedman/Irwin: 391). Finally, to speak of the erotic is also to speak of God – “God is our power in mutual relation” who makes mutual, life-giving relationships possible (Heyward: 188).
Most recently, Queer theology and Womanist theology make further efforts to show how theological renderings of lust have maligned and oppressed marginalized populations. Robert Goss suggests that a persistent discomfort with lust finds its outlet in scapegoating queer sexuality. “What gay men represent,” he argues, “is the unbridled lust of sexual pleasure, but underlying this representation of same-sex sexuality is a great amount of psychological projection and fear of human sexuality, especially when it is uncoupled from procreativity” (Goss: 206). Goss points to a persistent (and very historical) struggle in Christianity to shake the shame and guilt of sexual desire and pleasure that does not have procreative ends. Kelly Brown Douglas (1999) asserts that the historical and contemporary association of Black embodiment with sensuousness and excessive lust also gives reason for deeper consideration of what the redemption of sexual desire means for the whole of the Christian community. The impact of this kind of ongoing objectification and dehumanization of the black body affects black self-esteem, fuels anxiety, disdain, and ambivalence about Black bodies, and encourages the adoption of a “hyperproper” sexuality modeled on white culture and the body-negative narrative of the Western Christian tradition.
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The biblical warnings and prohibitions against lust (Deut 5:2; Matt 5:28; 1 John 2:15–17), together with such admonitory tales as those of Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife, David and Bathsheba, Judith, and Susanna make clear the destructive effects of lust for those who succumb to its promptings. Amongst early literary treatments of Judith, the Old English poem Judith (ca. 1000) goes to some lengths to create a binary opposition between the culpability of Holofernes in his lust and the moral purity of Judith in a version in which she attends a banquet at which Holofernes has already got himself drunk before he meets Judith and which excises the biblical passage in which the heroine adorns herself with jewelry in order to entice the warrior.
Lechery as lust expressed in action became the second of the seven deadly sins of medieval moral teaching, exemplified in Passus V of Langland’s Piers Plowman (ca. 1360–70) where Lechery personified is the enemy of the Church. In Dante’s Inferno (ca. 1320) amongst the sinners encountered those guilty of being overcome by lust occupy the second circle (in Canto V), a less serious grade than gluttons (the third circle) and much less serious than the treacherous (the ninth circle). Other medieval tours of hell such as the Vision of Tundall and the Vision of Lazarus, however, drew less fine distinctions and indeed relied on graphic depictions of the dismal fate of fornicators and adulterers.
Both Boccaccio and Chaucer teased their readers with tales in which lust was implicated in the downfall or the mockery of the protagonists. The most famous is Chaucer’s “Merchant’s Tale,” part of The Canterbury Tales (ca. 1392), an elaborate parody of the Genesis Eden story, where the aged Januarie succumbs to cuckoldry through his own misguided following of the supposed teachings of Solomon (later condemned as a lecher by Proserpina as a commentator on the story). Adding further irony, the list of biblical models cited by Januarie in his verbose account of his own reasoning include Judith.
Among the Morality Plays of the 16th century lust could propel the youthful protagonists towards eventual repentance and salvation (as in Lusty Juventus) or simply towards a violent death (as in Nice Wanton).
Milton was a writer much exercised with biblical notions of lust. In Paradise Lost XI a clear connection is established between lust and violence which later finds its fullest outworking in Samson Agonistes (1671) where concupiscence and violence are, as Clay Daniel puts it, “two fatal sides to the same wicked coin” (Daniel: 7). Samson’s overwhelming lust expressed through his marriage first to the woman of Timna and then to Dalila is accompanied by acts of escalating violence leading to his own self-destruction as he brings down the Temple of Dagon – or as Providence inflicts its punishment on the concupiscent and violent.
More sensational (and lubricious) was the treatment of the lust of the elders in some Susanna plays, such as Nicodemus Frischlin’s Susanna (1577), although it was left largely to visual artists to exploit the subject’s salacious potential (Casey: 10–108).
As Puritan sensibilities began to decline in Europe, both Oscar Wilde and André Gide played up the erotic in their respective biblical plays, Salome (1891) and Säul (1904). In the first it is the uncontrollable and perverted lust of Salome for John the Baptist which propels the drama. In the second King Saul develops strongly lustful feelings in turn for David and for his own shield-bearer. D. H. Lawrence’s novella The Man Who Died (1929, originally titled The Escaped Cock) plays with the idea of Jesus engaging in a life of carnal pleasure with a pagan priestess after he survives the crucifixion. It seems likely that it influenced Kazantzakis’ novel The Last Temptation (1955), in which during the famous dream-episode at the end (and just before the crucifixion) Jesus imagines an alternative erotic life with Mary Magdalene. For many readers who are not offended by this passage this might be described as the life of healthy lust which Jesus resisted in choosing the path of self-sacrifice.
Part of the author’s general campaign against prudery, Ernest Hemingway’s short story, “The Light of the World” (1933) uses the logion of Jesus in John 8:12 (“I am the light of the world”) to act as the title of an oblique rewriting of the story of the encounter of Jesus with the woman taken in adultery which is found in the contested verses of John 8:3–11. This riff on a biblical theme inscribes a sleazy bar-stool world in which an ageing and obese prostitute fantasizes that she has previously been married to a celebrated prize-fighter, Steve Ketchel. For this woman, described simply as the “Peroxide,” the boxer was the one part of her memory which was salvific or which at least sustained her (“Leave me with my memories … ,” Hemingway: 297) Ketchel in the story was an exceptional man. in that he was killed by his father, underlining the implication that for the woman he was an imaginary Christ-figure.
Ernesto Cardenal in his biblically-inflected Cosmic Canticle (2002) treats lust as one of the elemental forces driving the universe as well as human nature. It is active in creation from the attraction of algae cells to each other right up to the erotic attraction of human beings to each other and to the interactions of the Trinity. The forty-first section of that work, “The Canticle of Canticles,” links together Genesis and the Song of Songs.
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V Visual Arts
Lust as a “motif” in iconography, particularly the biblical stories, is even more difficult to grasp than “love” as a motif, especially since we must distinguish between the corresponding representations of the countless images from the non-biblical portrayals. Even differentiating between “obscenity” and “lust” is not always easy. Is the display of male genitals during the Easter liturgy in the context of the so-called “Easter laugh” (which is a more or less post-medieval, and sometimes rude, custom to kindle the joy of resurrection) (male) or gentials on the metope of the 12th-century cathedral of Modena (female) obscene, or are they merely punctuated by lust? In contrast, the Vice of Extravagance or Lust by Jacob de Backer (1570, National Museum of Capodimonte, Naples) seems harmless, although pictures can be very explicit as with Hans Sebald Beham’s print, Death and the Indicicent Pair (1529, private collection). On the other hand, not all biblical passages where desire is explicitly addressed are illustrated (Hos 6:6: “I desire love”; Song 4:5: “Your two breasts are like two young fawns, twins of a gazelle”; or 7:10: “his desire is for me”; Prov 5:19: “may her breasts satisfy you at all times”).
The decisive factor must, therefore, be whether a narrative or a theme is motivated by lust; it is not important if the images are then illustrated with an emphasis on the lust of the subjects. From here, we must first identify those lustfully charged paintings whose underlying textual basis does not thematize the lust as a subject. This phenomenon is encountered, above all, among the so-called orientalist artists, who enjoyed the nakedness of the protagonists (Edwin Long, The Finding of Moses, 1886, City of Bristol Museum; Francesco Hayez, Ruth, 1835, Municipal Collection, Bologna; Pierre Bonnaud, Salome, ca. 1900, Musée Hébert, Paris). Here, we must assume the voyeuristic lust in the mind of the artist or the beholder. In the same category, there may be representations of the Virgin Mary with child, whose breast is exposed (Jean Fouquet, Melun Diptych, ca. 1450/60, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp). These representations of Mary may also be the expression of a sublimated and sacred lust/sexuality, as seen by those variations of the nursing Mary, in which Mary presses her breast so that a stream of milk flows out (Pere Lembri, Madonna of the Milk with the Child between Saint Bernard of Clairvaux and Saint Benedict, ca. 1410, Museo del Prado, Madrid).
Lust clearly played a role with Rachel, who, because of her infertility, pleads with Leah for the lust-enchancing fruit of the mandrakes (Gen 30:14). The miniature in the Millstätter Genesis (ca. 1200, Klagenfurt, Kärtner Landesarchiv, Cod. GV6/19, fol. 40v) depicts Ruben giving the fruit to his mother, Leah, which she in turn passes on to her sister, Rachel. Lust was probably also the driving force behind the inhabitants of Sodom (Gen 19:5) as well as the story of Gibeah (Judg 19:15–28), in which a guest is taken in by an inhabitant of the city. In Sodom, Lot offers his daughters in place of his guests; in Gibeah, the host offers the concubine of the Levite. In the Cotton Genesis (6th century, London, British Library, Cotton MS Otho B.VI, Fragment 4; Gen 19:1–11), we see the Sodomites standing around the house of Lot; through the intervention of the two guests, Lot and his daughters were spared. The situation, however, is different in Gibeah, where the rape of the woman leads to her death (second half of the 11th cent. Jerusalem, Greek Patriarchy, Cod. Taphou 14, fol. 110r.). Amnon also rapes his half-sister Tamar (2 Sam 13:11–14) and then sends her away. In the Middle Ages (middle of the 13th cent., Crusader Bible, Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, fol. 43r [originally part of the Crusader Bible kept in the Pierpont Morgan Library, New York]), both Tamar and Amnon are simply depicted lying in bed, but the theme in modern art (Eustache Le Sueur, The Rape of Tamar, ca. 1640, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) is characterized by the violence and nudity of those depicted. The same can be observed in the depiction of the seduction of Joseph by Potiphar’s wife (Gen 39:11–12). The formulaic portrayal of the woman lying in bed is similar to the depiction of the rape of Tamar. In this story, Potiphar’s wife grabs at Joseph, causing him to lose his garment. Just like in the portrayal of the rape of Tamar, Potiphar’s wife is clothed in the early period (6th cent., Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Cod. theol. gr. 31, fol. 16r). However within modern art, her seductive nudity is emphasized and, moreover, her youthfulness is underscored (Carlo Cignani, Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife, ca. 1680, Gemäldegalerie, Dresden) (see → plate 2.a).The extent to which Adam and Eve (Procreation of Cain, 13th cent., San Marco Venice) can be included in the category of lust is left undecided. However, the idea of lust, which arises through the “original sin,” is illustrated in some paintings by means of nakedness and the holding of the apple before the eyes (Hans Baldung Grien, Adam and Eva, ca. 1531/35, collection of Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid). Lust may also be behind those images that depict the nudity and the youthfulness of Hagar as Sarah leads Hagar to her old husband (Gen 16:3; Matthias Stomer, first half of the 17th cent., Swedish Art Museum, Gothenburg; both in Liebesspiel: Georg Pencz, 1548, University Library, Warsaw). This a theme that has been repeated with Jacob and Zilpah (Gen 29:24) as well as Bilhah (Gen 30:3), although without experiencing the same artistic expression.
Lust, however, was clearly in play with the two judges who spied on the married Susanna while she bathed in her garden and were so excited that they wanted to sleep with her (Sus). Hardly any other biblical theme has so fascinated artists, especially those of modernity. In early Christian art, Susanna is depicted alone with the elders flanking her (Glass from the necropolis of Abbeville-Homblières, second decade of the 4th cent., Louvre, Paris); in the modern era, the event is – in almost all occurrences – displayed with an erotic emphasis (Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Susanna and the Two Elders, 1722/23, Wadsworth Athenaem, Hartford [Connecticut]). This theme is also repeated by David (2 Sam 11), who looked in Bathsheba’s neighboring garden from his palace while she was bathing. Eventually, David had Bathsheba’s husband killed so that he could take her as his wife. Because the story was obviously less scandalous than that of Susanna, it was rarely depicted in comparison to Susanna (Lucas Cranach the Elder, David and Bathsheba, 1526, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin). Nevertheless, Bathsheba’s nakedness is lacking in the Middle Ages (middle of the 13th cent., Crusader Bible, Pierpont Morgan Library, New York, fol. 41v), yet is quite apparent in the modern age (Karl Pavlovich Brullow, Bathsheba, 1832, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg).
The situation, however, is different with Judith who, using her beauty and clothing, deliberately seduced Holofernes, but did not desire to have intercourse with him. Accordingly, she is often depicted clothed but – especially in the modern age – she is often reduced to nakedness (Franz von Stuck, Judith and Holofernes, 1927, the collection of Otto Heilmann, Munich, see → EBR 9, plate 16).
Because of the Egyptians’ desire for his wife on account of her beauty, Abraham was afraid and requested that Sarah declare herself to be his sister (Gen 12:11–20). The fraud, however, was discovered and resulted in Pharaoh’s return of Sarah. In vain, Abraham repeated this same scenario before Abimelech. Isaac also had his wife tell Abimelech that she was his sister, and he did so for the same reasons as his father (Gen 26:1–11) (6th cent., Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Cod. theol. gr. 31, fol. 8v).
To sum up, lust in a modern and explicit form is more or less absent from biblical iconography. This may be due to the self-restricting nature of the Christian ethos, which has found its clearest expression in canon 100 of the so-called Quinisext Council. This council, also called “Trullanum,” took place in 691/2 CE. It stipulated that nothing shall be depicted that could arouse shameful desires.
Rotter, E./G. Rotter, Die Geschichte der Lust (Berlin 2002).Google Scholar
One of the most spectacular biblical operas focusing on (sexual) lust is Richard Strauss’ opera Salome (1905) set to the composer’s own adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s play of 1893 (from Hedwig Lachmann’s German translation). Ultimately, the opera (as well as numerous other artistic representations of Salome especially in the 19th and early 20th cent.) is based on Mark 6:14–29. Following Wilde’s text, it radically distorts and supplements the biblical storyline, which emphasizes a political aspect, i.e., John the Baptist’s criticism of the alliance between King Herod (Antipas) and Queen Herodias. Herodias wants revenge and tells her daughter (Salome in Wilde’s play and the opera; in the biblical account she is unnamed) to ask for John the Baptist’s head as a reward for her dancing for the king and his guests, as the king had offered her whatever she wanted. The only hint or suggestion of lust in the biblical narrative concerns the king: the dancing girl “pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, ‘Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it’” (Mark 6:22).
This hint is magnified into an important theme in Wilde’s play and the opera. However, in Wilde’s play (and the opera) Salome’s lust or obsession with John the Baptist became an even more important motif, which is not found in the Bible. In the play, the combination of the king’s infatuation with Salome and Herodias’ disgust with her husband (she also does not want Salome to dance) provides a psychological background for Salome’s personal decision to ask for the beheading of John as her reward. Salome asks for the beheading of John as a result of her unrequited lust (or love?) for John. It is a kind of lustful, perverse revenge that leads to the immensely provoking final scene of the opera where Salome kisses John’s decapitated head while singing triumphantly and with extreme sensuality, (not least) expressed by her final words: “Ah! Ich habe ihn geküsst, deinen Mund, es war ein bitterer Geschmack auf deinen Lippen. Hat es nach Blut geschmeckt? Nein? Doch es schmeckte vielleicht nach Liebe. Sie sagen, dass die Liebe bitter schmecke. Allein was tut’s? Was tut’s? Ich habe deinen Mund geküsst, Jochanaan. Ich habe ihn geküsst, deinen Mund” (Strauss). The almost identical text appears in Wilde’s play (originally written in French, here quoted in Alfred Douglas’ English translation): “Ah! I have kissed thy mouth, Iokanaan, I have kissed thy mouth. There was a bitter taste on thy lips. Was it the taste of blood? … But perchance it is the taste of love … They say that love hath a bitter taste … But what of that? what of that? I have kissed thy mouth, Iokanaan” (Wilde). In both versions (Wilde and Strauss), the horrified Herod orders Salome to be killed.
Strauss’ opera (and Wilde’s play) are examples from a far reaching biblical reception history involving Heine, Flaubert, Jules Massenet, and others (Weidmann). However, among biblical texts there are certainly numerous other narratives also involving (sexual) lust which have been set to music. Among these, not least, is the example of the story of David and Bathsheba (2 Sam 11–12). David’s infatuation with Bathsheba led him to commit adultery with her and to ensure the death of her husband Uriah. This narrative has been included in many musical settings (see Leneman, “Bathsheba VII. Music” and “David VIII. Music”). Similarly, the dramatic story of Samson and Delilah (Judg 16) also seems to have lust as a core element. How else could the pious and strong judge Samson get involved with a woman who betrayed him to the Philistines?
The biblical narratives in both above mentioned examples are not, however, unequivocally stating that it is about (sexual) lust, as the modern psychological rendering of the stories will almost inevitably do. In these biblical texts, it is not so easy to separate the notion of lust from the broader notion of love. This is the case especially in the story of David and Bathsheba, where the moral aspect is strong (David commits both adultery and murder). In the case of Samson, the narrative simply explains that he gives his secret away to Delilah because he is tired out by her insistence (Judg 16:16–17). However, the modern psychological inference that he is bound to her by his love or lust is not explicitly found in the text.
Camille Saint Saëns’ famous operatic setting of the story, Samson et Dalila (premiered in Weimar in 1877 in German, through the influence of Franz Liszt), has a strong focus on Samson’s ambivalence and (finally) his remorse at having betrayed his God and Israel because of Delilah (esp. beginning of Act 3). Toward the end of Act 1, Samson expresses his ambivalence, his weakness, and thus also his infatuation in the following words: “Oh that flame that my heart oppresses,/ burning anew in this hour,/ Before my God, before my God give o’er thy power!/ Lord, pity him who his weakness confesses!” (Saint-Saëns/Lemaire: 7). He sings these words, in an almost despairing tension, while an Old Hebrew warns him against Delilah and Delilah seduces him with sweet song. A rubric immediately afterwards states that “Samson anxiously tries, but in vain, to avoid Delilah’s glances” (Saint-Saëns/Lemaire: 64–68) while enticing music accompanies the following dance of the priestesses of Dagon. Again, here, although it is much more in agreement with the overall plot of the biblical narrative than in Strauss’ Salome, explicit expressions of lust had to be added to the biblical narrative for its audience.
Many biblical references in musical works regarding lust or sexual enticement are thus interpretive (psychologically inferred) additions to the narratives set to music. They also often involve a (more or less) biblically based critical attitude to human sexuality, or at least to the moral complexities involved in sexual relationships. In some cases, this also involves the possibility of forgiveness for (sexual/moral) transgressions. Thus, the biblical reception of lust in music involves much more than just the setting to music of biblical narratives involving (or interpreted as involving) lust. In a number of cases, also non-biblical narratives about human lust or love are contextualized in ways informed by theological notions, which are ultimately founded on biblical ideas.
As dealt with under “Guilt VI. Music” and “Grace VII. Music,” the protagonist in Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser (1845, rev. 1860) is forgiven at the very end of the opera through the invocations of Elisabeth. The sin for which he needs to atone is that of sexual lust, after he had spent time on the mount of Venus, a medieval mythological place of sexual lust. In Tannhäuser, as well as in Wagner’s Parsifal (1882), the tensions between (sexual) lust and (pure) love are dealt with in a way that is to a high extent informed by traditional, biblically based, Christian theology. This is also true in W. A. Mozart’s and Lorenzo Da Ponte’s Don Giovanni (Prague 1787) about the punishment of the seducer and womanizer Don Giovanni, (see “Fate VIII. Music”).
One biblical text in which sensuality seems to be treated without any complicating or negative allusions is Song. However, in a long-standing tradition, the love between bride and bridegroom in Song was interpreted spiritually. In Christianity, it was principally interpreted as the love between the faithful and Christ, to a high extent removing it from aspects of sensuality (see “Bride VIII. Music”). There are, however, exceptions. Danish composer Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen’s (1932–2016) recent opera Sol går op sol går ned (premiered 2015; The sun rises and the sun goes down; Eccl 1:5) is based on excerpts from Eccl and Song juxtaposed with modern texts by Ursula Andkjær Olsen. The plot of the opera is completely static (see “Historiography VIII. Music”), including the figures of Young King Solomo, Sulamith, and Old King Solomo (all appear simultaneously on stage throughout the opera). The idea came from the (traditional) presentation of the two mentioned biblical books as being written by King Solomo. The composer had seen this in an 18th-century exemplar of the Old Testament, which he had received as a gift. His idea was to present the two opposing life experiences of the same person: the youthful zest for life of King Solomo the Young, author of Song, and the disillusioned outlook of King Solomo the Old, author of Ecclesiastes. Thus, the opera presents exchanges of sensuous longing and loving between Sulamith and King Solomo the Young juxtaposed with King Solomo the Old’s expressions of the bitter experience that everything is vanity.
Sulamith’s and King Solomo the Young’s exchanges include, for instance, paraphrases of Song 1:2–4, 16 adapted to fit Sulamith as well as King Solomo the Young: “Draw me after you, my friend, kiss me with your mouth, kiss me with the kisses of your mouth, come, come, come, kiss me with your mouth, come for you are lovely, you are lovely … Your love is better than wine” (“Drag mig med, drag mig min ven, kys mig med din mund, kys mig med din munds kys, kom, kom, kom, kys mig med din mund, kom for du er dejlig, du er dejlig … Din kærlighed er mere skøn end vin”; Gudmundsen-Holmgreen: 49–57). It is made explicitly clear in stage directions that such paraphrases are to be taken at face value.
Gudmundsen-Holmgreen, P., Sol går op sol går ned: Musik og Skue Spil (The sun rises and the sun goes down, Music Drama and Spoken Play; Score Copenhagen n.d.).Google Scholar
Leneman, H., Love, Lust, and Lunacy: The Stories of Saul and David in Music (Sheffield 2010).Google Scholar
Saint-Saëns, C./F. Lemaire, Samson and Delilah. Opera in three acts. Vocal score with English text (trans. N. Haskell Dole; New York 1892).Google Scholar
Strauss, R., Salome. Libretto. Opera Guide: the virtual opera house. [available at www.opera-guide.ch]Google Scholar
Weidmann, H., “Die doppelte Salome: Zur Konstruktion der Femme fatale,” KuPo 4.2 (2004) 149–72.Google Scholar
Wilde, O., Salome (trans. Lord A. Douglas; London 1907). [available at https://www.gutenberg.org/files/42704/42704-h.htm]Google Scholar
Lust is a popular theme throughout biblical film. It is often explored in connection with biblical narratives, which may be rendered faithfully, expanded upon, or creatively reinterpreted. Lust has also appeared independent of biblical narrative while remaining closely linked with scripturally-inspired morals and categories.
In early film, lust is often treated in conjunction with Weibermacht or “the power of women,” an artistic topos showing distinguished men brought low by feminine beauty and wiles. Joseph in the Land of Egypt (dir. Eugene Moore, 1914, US) portrays Joseph’s headlong flight from the lustful designs of Potiphar’s wife and his subsequent imprisonment on account of her manipulations. In Judith of Bethulia (dir. D. W. Griffith, 1914, US), the heroine captures the attention of Holofernes to such a degree that he ignores the “Dance of the Fishers,” presented by the “artful women of the Temple of Nin.” Using her powers of captivation for good, Judith is shown imploring heaven for strength before the fatal blow and the film ends with her triumphal homecoming.
Filmic meditations on Weibermacht led to the development of “the vamp,” a seductress able to render men devoid of all willpower. In A Fool There Was (dir. Frank Powell, 1915, US), Theda Bara definitively established the archetype in her portrayal of “The Vampire” who seizes control of a diplomat and family man; “so some of him lived, but most of him died.” It is easy to see antecedents for vamping in morality plays concerning lust and dangerous women of the Bible. Bara herself would go on to portray the title role in Salomé (dir. J. Gordon Edwards, 1918, US) dancing for the head of John the Baptist as part of a larger “Salomania” sweeping European and American culture at the time. With scant biblical material to work from, most films on this topic draw from Oscar Wilde’s 1892 play to imagine Salome as the embodiment of lust wreaking vengeance on a holy man who spurned her advances. Combining orientalist fantasy with eroticism, these films promise skimpy costumes, the dance of the seven veils, and a moral at the end. In her own take on the character Salomé (dir. Charles Bryant, 1922, US), the great Russian stage actress Alla Nazimova dances amidst Art Deco accoutrement for a Herod who leers, gapes, and literally shakes in a total loss of self-control. Replete with stories of sex and violence, the Bible offers filmmakers the opportunity to titillate audiences with familiar stories while maintaining at least a pretense to piety. Even when the star was not a vamping villainess, costuming could emphasize exotic sexuality as with Betty Blythe’s transparent garments in surviving stills from The Queen of Sheba (dir. J. Gordon Edwards, 1921, US).
Biblical movies had a surge of popularity in the 1950s and lust came with them. These full-color, sword-and-sandal epics were ushered in by Samson and Delilah (dir. Cecil B. DeMille, 1949, US), a huge moneymaker with Victor Mature and Hedy Lamarr in the lead roles (see also “Lamarr, Hedy”). To put a romance at the center of the film, Delilah becomes a conflicted character who brings about Samson’s downfall through seduction while falling genuinely in love. “He was not captured by force of arms, but by their softness,” says the leader of the Philistines. Betrayal and vengeance take the place of lust as the most damning sins of the story. In David and Bathsheba (dir. Henry King, 1951, US), Gregory Peck and Susan Hayward negotiate their own romance after neatly doing away with deeply problematic implications and ambiguities in the biblical text. The marriage between Uriah and Bathsheba is loveless. King David does not rape Bathsheba through coercive power. “Now go,” he tells her, “Be thankful that I am not Pharaoh.” For her part, Bathsheba knew David would be on his terrace while she bathed: “I had heard that never had the king found a woman to please him. I dared to hope that I might be that woman.” The role of lust in the story dwindles to nothing and it becomes a tragedy of internally conflicted, star-crossed lovers who make selfish decisions in order to be together.
In a more daring reconfiguration, The Last Temptation of Christ (dir. Martin Scorsese, 1981, US) offers some consideration of lust in relation to the gospel. Sex is a temptation in the film, and its depiction of Jesus in a sexual relationship remains highly controversial, but the last temptation of the title is something more profound – the temptation to reject a divine mission and embrace all the joys and sufferings of a mortal life.
Along with varied approaches to biblical narrative, lust is present within a small but persistent tradition of cinematic reflection on the seven deadly sins. Les Sept Péchés Capitaux (dir. Louis Feuillade, 1910, FR) combines the two ideas by illustrating each sin with a biblical story – Susanna and the Elders for lust. Interestingly, Susanna and the Elders also plays a role in Psycho (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1960, US). A painting of the topic covers the peephole Norman Bates uses to watch Marion Crane undressing. A lighthearted take appears at the height of the French New Wave in Les Sept Péchés Capitaux: La Luxure (dir. Jacques Demy, 1962, FR). Two men discuss childhood misunderstandings of lust before imagining the surrounding occupants of a Paris café as the nude inhabitants of Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights. This contrasts heavily with Seven (dir. David Fincher, 1995, US), a grim crime thriller featuring a serial killer who uses the seven deadly sins for inspiration. There is a partial resemblance to biblical portrayals since lust, like all the sins of Seven, is answered with horrific violence.