Part of my summer reading challenge is to read as much of the Bible in English as I can. I’m trying to diversify my intake by reading different translations and different commentaries. So recently I read Ariel and Chana Blach’s translation of Song of Songs. I really enjoyed it.
This edition has a lot to offer: a 42-page introduction that illuminated the text, an afterword by Robert Alter, an 88-page commentary, and a translation with the Hebrew text on the facing page. I didn’t check the Hebrew that much — Song of Songs is known for its difficult language — but the English flowed really well.
The Song of Songs itself is an erotic love poem, an obvious anomaly in the Hebrew Bible. Both Christian and Jewish interpreters (e.g., Bernard of Clairvaux, Rabbi Akiba) have allegorized it as a spiritual poem about God and Israel/Church/humanity. Its literary format is that of a dialogue between two young lovers and a few other figures, called in this translation the “brothers” and the “daughters of Jerusalem.” According to the Blochs, it was most likely written during the Hellenistic era:
It is clear that much of the Song is anomalous in the biblical context, and calls for explanation: the concern with the private life as opposed to the public and communal, the frank interest in sexual experience, the idealization of pastoral innocence, the aesthetic appreciation of the human body. All of this would suggest that the Song was composed in a Hellenized atmosphere. (27)
Apart from the specifics of the Blochs’ translation, what did I get out of this text?
- The Blochs claim that the Song of Songs is the only book in the Bible which celebrates eros for its own sake. Other books describe the importance of a strong marriage (Proverbs), or the trouble that lust gets people into (Jacob), or even the joys of marriage (Ecclesiastes). But I don’t see any hint that the protagonists of Song of Songs are even married at all. The fact that she orders him to leave before dawn (e.g. 2:17) points to the possibility that their love is illicit. Yet in this forbidden fruit the protagonists find a kind of divine intimacy. As the Blochs write:
The Eden story preserves a memory of wholeness and abundance from the beginning of time; the prophets look forward to a peaceable kingdom at the End of Days. The Song of Songs locates that kingdom in human love, in the habitable present, and for the space of our attention, allows us to enter it. (35)
- Although it’s pretty obvious this poem is about sex, the Biblical Hebrew always uses euphemisms for sex itself, such as using “feet” to refer to a penis. Here the pleasures of the flesh are symbolized by the fertile garden imagery throughout the poem. As an example of these fruitful metaphors:
Your branches are an orchard
of pomegranate trees heavy with fruit,
flowering henna and spikenard,
spikenard and saffron, cane and cinnamon,
with every tree of frankincense,
myrrh and aloe,
all the rare spices. (4:13-14)
These metaphors pile up on one another until both the man’s and the woman’s body contain all the pleasing sights and smells of every plant in the garden. In the afterward, Robert Alter writes:
In more explicit erotic literature, the body in the act of love often seems to displace the rest of the world. In the Song, by contrast, the world is constantly embraced in the very process of imagining the body. The natural landscape, the cycle of the seasons, the beauty of the animal and floral realm, the profusion of good afforded through trade, the inventive skill of the artisan, the grandeur of cities, are all joyfully affirmed as love is affirmed. (130)
Personally, I don’t have much interest in the allegories that make this poem a spiritual allegory, because then we miss all these wonderful affirmations of the world. But all of these metaphors and symbols used in the poem lead to the third point….
- The Song of Songs is a perfect example of how difficult it is to read ancient literature, because so many of its metaphors are lost on a contemporary audience. Take 1:13-14:
All night between my breasts
my love is a cluster of myrrh,
a sheaf of henna blossoms
in the vineyards of Ein Gedi.
I don’t know about you, but I have never seen myrrh or the vineyards of Ein Gedi. The only henna I have seen are tattoos, not blossoms. But even if I had seen these plants, would I really understand their metaphorical qualities invoked here? Not really. For much of the Song of Songs then, I appreciated the beauty of the language, and the broad fertility implications of the floral imagery, but I am just not able to grasp all of the metaphors.
I really enjoyed this translation. Right now I’m working through Michael Patella’s commentary on the Gospel of Luke. Onward and upward!