The Song of Songs
The Song of Songs
And now for something completely different.
The Bible is like my grandmother's basement, which is a magnificent hodgepodge of everything from jam jars to 83-year-old report cards to failed perpetual motion machines. The Bible, too, has everything under the sun. A creation story? Check. Law books? Yup. Genealogical tables, prophecies, history books, ritual instructions, self-help manuals—they are all in there. And now, right after the grimness of Job—we get … erotica!
The Song of Songs—aka the "Song of Solomon"—is like nothing else so far in the Bible. It's an eight-chapter poem, narrated by two lovers. She's dark, young, and foxy. He's strong, sexy, and seductive. (He may even be Solomon, the purported author of the song.) No doubt some Bible scholars claim that the song is just an allegory, that the lusty images and panting verses are really enthusiastic prayers. No way. This is no religious metaphor. This is sexy time. This is Last Tango in Judah.
The song is a duet, with the lovers alternating passages. She starts, and begins with a bang: "Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth! For your love is better than wine." Now that's an opening line!
Incidentally, the song is one of the only parts of the Bible written from a woman's perspective. The song of Miriam after the Red Sea crossing, way back in Exodus Chapter 15, is another female passage I can remember. Are there others? I can't think of any. (Before anyone raps me for not mentioning the books of Ruth and Esther, let me note that they come later, after the Song of Songs in the Hebrew Bible.)
In one of my translations, our songstress describes herself as "dark and swarthy but beautiful." The other translation—New Revised Standard—uses a more jaunty, modern coinage: "I am black and beautiful." In both translations—even the "but" one—it's clear that she's proud of her dark skin, though it's not fashionable.
Midway through the chapter, the fellow jumps in to admire her good looks. They trade compliments of the sappy moon/June variety: Her cheeks are "comely." He's a "bag of myrrh … between my breasts." Her "eyes are doves."
She's very forward, our dusky beauty. Her lover is an apple tree, "and his fruit was sweet to my taste." (Right after that comes the phrase "comfort me with apples," borrowed by both Ruth Reichl and Peter De Vries as a book title.)
In the middle of her reverie, she pauses to speak to the young girls in the audience: "I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem … do not stir up or awaken love until it is ready!" This is the most important verse in the song, so crucial that she repeats it twice in later chapters. What does it mean and why does it matter? As I read the verse, it's very sensible advice to be careful when you fall in love. Most of the song is charged and erotic: She includes this caution to remind us that she can be this heedless only because he is her one true love. She has guarded her heart and found the right man, and that has freed her to indulge her sensual desires. She wants girls to be careful, not to give away their heart—or their virginity—too easily. This lesson—that love rewards patience—makes the otherwise spicy poem suitable for church and synagogue.
A gorgeous exchange between the two of them—he's a gazelle, she's a dove—climaxes with a line that has been co-opted by brides and grooms everywhere: "My beloved is mine and I am his."
A delightfully steamy passage: She's in bed at night and she can't sleep, so she gets up and wanders the city, seeking him out. (See: Patsy Cline, "Walking After Midnight.") She finds him, brings him back to her mom's house, and … well, you'll have to imagine the rest.
Solomon's wedding procession comes to town. He's riding in a palanquin, and he has seriously pimped his ride for maximum scoring: "He made its posts of silver, its back of gold, its seat of purple; its interior was inlaid with love." Inlaid with love, O my! On the back, Solomon attached a bumper sticker: If this palanquin's a rockin', don't come a knockin'.
It's the guy's turn to give the compliments. Either he's not as good a poet as she is, or you talked differently to girls back in the day. "Your hair is like a flock of goats … your teeth are like a flock of shorn ewes." Your brow is like "pomegranate split open." "Your neck is like the tower of David." You're so beautiful—your hair looks like goats! Your forehead is a pomegranate—a fruit that resembles, um, acne. And you have a neck that seems to be made of brick. Hmm. These lines wouldn't go over well at my house.
The most famous of his bodily tributes is: "Your two breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle." This one isn't exactly insulting, but it's confusing. Fawns are bony, muscular, and jumpy—which is not how I would describe breasts.
He calls her a "locked garden." She takes up the metaphor, enthusiastically! "Awake, O north wind, and come, O south wind! Blow upon my garden that its fragrance may be wafted abroad. Let my beloved come to his garden, and eat its choicest fruits."
This is probably the hottest passage in the song. Her beloved is knocking on the door. Then he "thrust his hand into the opening, and my inmost being yearned for him. I arose to open to my beloved, and my hands dripped with myrrh, my fingers with liquid myrrh, upon the handles of the bolt." How do you say "Penthouse Letters"in Biblical Hebrew?
She praises his good looks. Her compliments, unlike his, withstand the test of time. He's "radiant and ruddy." His hair is black like a raven's. His cheeks "are like beds of spices … his lips are lilies … his arms are rounded gold … his legs are alabaster columns. …" Is it any wonder the lady digs him?
He is her true love. But is she his true love? In this chapter, he mentions 60 queens and 80 concubines then says she's the finest of them all, the only lady he really cares about: "My dove, my perfect one, is the only one." Should we believe him? It depends on how you interpret the queens and concubines line. If the author is just a regular guy, and he's saying that his love is more beautiful than any queen—the way you hear guys brag, "My girlfriend looks like Salma Hayek, only hotter"—then perhaps he does love her truly. But as I read it, the author—perhaps Solomon—is referring to these 60 queens and 80 concubines as his own queens and concubines. And that sets off the alarm bells. If he has already run through 140 women, he'll run through one more. (And if the author actually is Solomon, he'll run through 860 more women, since he ends up with 700 wives and 300 concubines.) All his sweet compliments mean nothing: They're just lines he's using to get her in his palanquin.
More backhanded compliments from him. "Your rounded thighs are like jewels." Good start! But then: "Your navel is a rounded bowl, that never lacks mixed wine." Huh? "Your belly is a heap of wheat." That could get you slapped!
In a wonderful passage, she proposes that they go for a walk in the fields and vineyards, to see if the blossoms have opened: "There I will give you my love."
Here's a fascinating section, given all that we have been reading recently about women in Islamic countries. She wishes that her lover were her brother. Then they could be together in public. They could kiss in the street, and no one would notice. (This reminds me of an enthralling article in the current Atlantic about homosexuality in Saudi Arabia. The author argues that even though homosexuality is a capital crime, it's almost easier to be gay than straight there. Because men may keep company only with other men, and women only with other women, you can't have any kind of straight liaison. But you can see someone of the same sex without limit.)
She says he can drink "the juice of my pomegranates."
Oh, and one final line plagiarized for weddings: "Set me as a seal upon your heart."
Next, the Book of Ruth!
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David Plotz is the Editor of Slate. He's the author of The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank and Good Book. He appears on Slate's Political Gabfest.