“The Best Song Ever” — that’s what the name Song of Songs means as the title of a beautiful love poem in the Jewish Old Testament. In our Christian Bible, the name of the book is the Song of Solomon.
I describe it as a love poem, but that’s really too genteel a label. It’s more like a series of passionate love letters, back and forth, between a young woman and a young man, and sometimes the language is even erotic. When you’re reading it, you may feel a little uncomfortable that you’re holding the Holy Bible. To make this more puzzling, Song of Songs is one of only two Bible books (with Esther) that doesn’t mention the name of God at all.
So, why is this lyrical poem in our Bible? The very first verse makes the claim that Solomon was its author, probably when he was a young man and long before he became King of Israel. This has been disputed by many Bible scholars for a variety of reasons. But the attribution became part of the text, and this is why the book became established as part of the Bible, along with other writings bearing Solomon’s name.
Early in its existence, the Song of Songs began to be interpreted as an allegory describing the relationship between God and his people, Israel.* In fact, many rabbis taught that it was sinful to read it any other way, especially as describing sexual attraction between a couple. When the Christian Church embraced the Jewish Old Testament as part of its Bible, the Song of Songs became part of the package. The allegorical interpretation was adapted to the new faith reality, and the man and woman lovers were seen as representing Christ and his Church. During the Middle Ages, developing mistrust and animosity between Jews and Christians led to competing allegories: Which one of us does God truly love?
An interesting side note: The Song of Songs is read the first night of the Jewish Passover season. This seems to be because of its allegorical emphasis on the reassurance of God’s covenant love toward his people. Some modern Jewish congregations are making this night a time to invite Christian friends to join them for the Song of Songs reading particularly because of their competing histories of interpreting the book. They’re trying to correct the centuries of animosity and affirm that God has committed himself to both of them.
My first encounter with the Song of Songs was in the King James Version of the Bible, and I remember reading in the young woman’s first poetic expression, “I am black, but comely” (1:5). It occurred to me that a person of color might feel bad when she read this, as if it’s surprising that a black girl can be attractive. Years later, I read this same verse in the Revised Standard Version, and was pleasantly surprised to read, “I am black and beautiful.” And instead of but. I checked out other versions and found that all the older ones had either but or yet, implying that it would be unusual for a black woman to be described as beautiful. When I studied Hebrew in seminary, however, I learned that the simple Hebrew word usually means and, but in some cases it can mean but, depending on the context. It dawned on me that virtually all the older translators had unconsciously (prejudicially?) selected the word but because of their bias that black women are less likely to be attractive. Though the following verse adds some complication,** the whole impression of the book is that this woman is celebrated for her beauty, which includes her skin tone.
“I am black and beautiful!” Embrace it, ladies.
— Pastor George Van Alstine
*For a deeper discussion of this, I recommend an article by a Jewish scholar: “Why Do We Sing the Song of Songs on Passover?”
**Verse 6 may seem to imply that people avoid looking at her because she is “dark,” but a closer reading will reveal that there’s some ironic word-play going on here. Talk to me if you want to discuss this.