Six years ago, HBO's risqué series "Sex and the City" set out to answer once and for all the question "What do women want-and how are they finding it?" Echoing the sociological, if salacious, tone of the nonfiction newspaper column that inspired it, "Sex and the City" -- which ends its run this weekend -- was supposed to explore (and revel in) the twists and turns of modern mating rituals.

Why the show struck a chord, however, may not be so modern: It pictured female sexuality as a search for perfection in a lover. It did so deliciously, candidly, and still after six years, controversially. But the show's themes are not so different from a famous biblical love poem, the Song of Songs. In the canon of television, "Sex and the City" became a Song of Songs for our time, fulfilling a deep human need to celebrate our sexuality.

The Song of Songs (also known as the Song of Solomon), which appears between Ecclesiastes and Isaiah in the Old Testament, was written as early as 3000 years ago. It chronicles the love affair of a young couple who long to be promised in marriage, but who are being kept apart. Their sexual relationship is "stunningly anti-patriarchal," says Dr. James B. Nelson, a retired Christian ethics professor and author of "Body Theology." "The woman in Song of Songs takes the initiative and pursues the relationship in a way that strongly critiques the male-dominated social structure of the time." Paging Carrie Bradshaw.

The Song of Songs so scandalized religious leaders that many Jewish and Christian interpreters insisted we not take the its metaphors literally. First-century Rabbi Akiba ben Joseph said even holding Song of Songs to read it "defiled the hands." Today most scholars accept the book for what it is-a secular love poem. But the question of how such an erotic book made its way into the Bible remains a mystery. "The easy answer is that it got into the Christian canon because it was already in the Jewish canon," says Hebrew scholar Michael V. Fox from the University of Wisconsin. "And the main criterion for Jews in deciding the sacredness of a certain book was its presumed antiquity."

Hebrew Bible scholar (and Beliefnet columnist) Renita Weems, author of the forthcoming "What Matters Most: Ten Passionate Lessons from the Song of Solomon," says the early attribution of the poem to Israel's revered King Solomon bolstered the love poem's status. "Also, by the time it came to settle on which books to include in the Christian canon, it was common to read Song of Solomon as an allegory of God's love affair with Israel or Christ's love affair with the Church."

Like the "Song," "Sex and the City" is for mature audiences. The show is a collection of stories about four Manhattan women-Carrie, Miranda, Samantha, and Charlotte-who claim the right to enjoy sex and pursue the relationship of their choice, just as the young woman in Song of Songs does. Both depict the gift of erotic love as the source of much pain as well as joy. And while both are graphic in their portrayals of passion, both give voice to a woman's understanding of love-not sex alone. "The point of 'Songs' was not sex for sex's sake," says Weems. "The underlying subtext was the protest on the poet's part for the right of two lovers-separated by caste, class, and perhaps ethnicity-to fall in love and unite."

The following are some verses that reveal amazing correspondences between the "Song" and "Sex and the City":

"Our vineyards are in blossom." (Song 2:15)
The vineyard being a metaphor for female fertility, the lovers revel in their readiness for both love and sex, just as the women of "Sex and the City" fully acknowledge their passions and discover their longing for love. Even Samantha, who acts as if sex is her only interest, softens toward love in the last season as her young boyfriend, Smith, demonstrates his loyalty despite her infidelity and a brush with cancer.

"I sought him, but found him not;..." (3:1)
The young woman in the "Song" is longing for her missing lover and is determined to make us understand the power of her passion for him, saying she will search the entire city to find him. Charlotte would understand, having spent five seasons searching Manhattan for her mythical soul mate. She finally married Harry, who, however unlikely, appeared to fit the bill.

"Eat, friends, drink and be drunk with love." (5:1)
Of course "drinking and being drunk with love" can backfire. A hungover Miranda awoke one morning to find her date had vanished, leaving behind only a phone number for Alcoholics Anonymous. But "Sex and the City" updated the simple truth that food and love go together. The four friends spent much of the previous six years lunching together and drinking Manhattans at trendy spots while dishing on their lovers.

"How graceful are your feet in sandals, O queenly maiden!" (7:1)
Hard to believe, but the shoe fetish is scarcely a modern phenomenon. When Carrie and her pals don their Manolo Blahniks to attract guys, they are tapping into ancient wisdom.

"My beloved is all radiant and ruddy..." (5:10)
"Sex and the City" centers on the women's desires and needs for sexually attractive men whose fashion sense, grooming, and manners are dissected ad infinitum. Carrie's recurring boyfriend, Big, with his dark eyes and winning smile most exemplifies this "radiant and ruddy" allure.

"Do not stir up or awaken love until it is ready!" (2:7)
The heart of the matter in Song of Songs is that because love is so powerful, it needs to be contained and protected. It is too important to be taken lightly. "Sex and the City," being a comedy, takes love and sex lightly at least part of the time. It treats the search for romantic love like a lottery you just keep playing until you win. But it also depicts the consequences of love and sex being taken "too lightly," with relationships burning out before they've had a chance to develop, bonds broken by infidelity, and the specter of sexually transmitted diseases.

"Love is strong as death. Passion fierce as the grave." (8:6)
The young woman in the "Song" wants us to believe that she will die if she can't be with her lover. The women of "Sex and the City" instead want to convince us of their strength-that no man's love is so important that they would feel like dying if it were withheld.

Still, the show gives hints of this "passion fierce as the grave." After betraying her live-in boyfriend, Aidan, in an affair with Mr. Big, Carrie pleaded with Aidan, "You have to forgive me!" But he didn't, and the relationship suffered a painful death. Her tryst with the married Big is an object lesson in just how lethal the role of mistress is for a young woman seeking lasting love.

People who study Song of Songs are fond of saying it promotes an "ideal" of human love. Lofty love poems were big entertainment in the ancient Near East. When it comes to love today, though, television viewers are more attuned to representations of the real than the ideal. The beauty of "Sex and the City" is that, for its six seasons, it gave us a bit of both. Ideal love examined and defined for this culture and time by strong, smart, high-heeled women who stirred up real passion wherever they went.

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