February 17: Song of Songs 1:5-6

Song of Songs 1:5-6

“Black (am) I, and (yet) beautiful,
(you) daughters of Yerushalaim,
like (the) tents of Qedar,
like (the) hangings of Salmah.
Do not look at me (because) I (am) black,
(it is because) the sun caught sight of me.
(The) sons of my mother (also) burned on me:
they set me (at) keeping the vineyards,
and my vineyard, which (belongs) to me, I could not keep.”

The young woman is speaking in these verses, as in those previous; however, there is no clear connection between vv. 5-6 and 2-4, and these lines may well reflect (originally) a separate poem. There are two principal themes in this poem: (1) the “blackness” of the girl, and (2) the “vineyard” as an image of sexuality.

The first motif is expressed by the adjective rj)v* (“black”), and the expanded form rj)r=j^v= (in v. 6). Clearly, the adjective is used in connection with skin color. However, in this regard, the designations “black” and “white” should not be read in terms of the unfortunate racial distinction such words typically have in modern Western culture (and American society). Here it is simply a question of darker or lighter skin color—which, indeed, is all that is indicated by our modern usage as well (gradations/shades of pigment having been turned into a stark opposition: white vs black). There are many instances in ancient and traditional love poetry where it is clear that dark-skinned beauties are just as appealing (and sexually attractive) as lighter-skinned ones (cf. Theocritus’ Idylls 10.26-29, and other examples given by Pope, p. 311).

This is not to say that there is no negative connotation in our passage, for the young woman realizes that her darker skin color contrasts with certain ideals of feminine beauty. The conjunction in the first line, should, indeed, be read in a contrastive (or exceptive) sense: i.e., “I am black, and (yet) beautiful”. The reference to the “daughters of Jerusalem” here is meant to bring out the point of contrast.

Even so, her dark color has its own beauty, which she compares to the “tents of Qedar”. The term rd^q# (“Qedar”) refers to a Northern Arabian tribe (Gen 25:13; Isa 21:16, etc; in Assyrian records, qi-da-ri), which came to be applied to Arabia (and Arabs) collectively. Along with commentators such as Pope (p. 320), Würthwein, Fox, et al, I vocalize hml? as hm*l=c* (“Salmah,” the name of an ancient Arabian tribe), rather than the MT hm)l)v= (“Solomon”). “Salmah” is, clearly, a much better fit for the parallel with “Qedar”. The “hangings” (or “curtains”, touyr!yK!), which sway and flutter in the wind, refer to the same Bedouin tents of the previous line, woven out of black goat’s hair, and thus traditionally colored black. The root rdq itself denotes darkness, and so there is almost certainly an additional play on the name Qedar.

As verse 6 makes clear, the girl’s darker skin color is the result of spending time outside in the sun. She is thus a member of the working class; the context here suggests that she and her family are tenant farmers, working in the fields (specifically in vineyards). This makes her stand out in comparison with other, more privileged or well-to-do girls in Jerusalem, and she realizes that such women would be apt to look at her disparagingly. The verb is the simple ha*r* (“see, look”), but used in somewhat negative sense of “look at, stare at”.

She tells them, “do not look at me (negatively) because I am black”. The use of the relative particle –v, prefixed here to the pronoun yn]a& (“I”), is rather difficult to translate in this context. The sense is of her attribute of ‘blackness’ (i.e., unusually dark skin), which is so striking and peculiar (and contrary to certain ideals of beauty)and the reason for which is simply her prolonged exposure to the sun. The relative particle in the following line expresses this relationship. There is also a playful parallelism at work: the other young woman are not to “look at” her (vb ha*r*) with surprise, since her dark color is the result of the sun “catching sight” of her (vb [z~v*). Her exposure to the sun is thus described in terms of the sun’s eye (i.e., its rays and heat) looking at her.

By this certainly is meant that she has spent prolonged time working outdoors. As the context of verse 6 makes clear, her family works in the vineyards, presumably as tenant farmers. For this, she somewhat blames her family; in particular, her brothers are noted, referred to here as “the sons of my mother”. The use of this common expression is probably to avoid the specific term “brother”, since the appellations “brother” and “sister” tend to be reserved in the Song for the two lovers.

The word- and image-play continues here; note the following chain of parallel motifs:

    • the Jerusalem girls “look” at her =>
      • the sun similarly ‘looks’ at her, ‘burning’ her with its heat =>
        • her brothers also “burn” on her (vb rr^j*), implying that they are angry with her

The reason for her brother’s ‘anger’ is unclear. But two aspects of meaning are likely in view: (a) it relates to the family-circumstances that require her to spend time toiling outdoors, and (b) it probably implies a protective attitude toward her (regarding any sexual activity). Attempts by the girl’s family to keep her away from young men (or a particular lover) are fairly common as a motif in love poetry. One Egyptian example may be noted:

“…Though he is among the neighbors of my mother’s house,
I cannot go to him.
Mother is good in commanding me thus:
‘Avoid seeing him!’
(Yet) my heart is vexed when he comes to mind,
for love of him has captured me.”
(P. Chester Beatty I, group A poems; Fox, p. 32 [no. 32])

The girl does seem to blame her brothers primarily for making her work in the vineyards: “they set me (at) keeping the vineyards”. As a result, she is unable to “keep” her own vineyard. This involves a bit of double meaning (and double entendre) regarding the idea of the vineyard (<r#K#). The first occurrence here refers to actual vineyards, however the second is figurative, using the vineyard as a symbol of female sexuality. Such symbolism is relatively common in love poetry, with the vineyard-motif (along with that of the orchard, garden, etc) being a specific form of the wider agricultural imageryof the field as a female sexual symbol (cf. examples cited by Pope, pp. 323-6). One example, from the Nikkal hymn from Ugarit, may suffice, in which the bridegroom (a deity) says of his bride:

“I will make her field (filled with) vineyards,
the field of her love (with) orchards”

The sexual implication of the imagery of the field being plowed, cultivated, and irrigated, etc, should be obvious; certainly it was to the ancient Near Eastern poets and singers (and their audience).

The girl’s final statement, “my vineyard, which (belongs) to me, I did not keep”, has been controversial, since it could be taken as implying that she has been sexually promiscuous and has not kept her virginity. It goes without saying that, for many Jews and Christians, such an interpretation would be highly objectionable. And, while it is likely that certain poems in the Song do involve premarital sexual relations, I do not think it is correct to read it into the statement here. The girl’s lament is that she is not able to tend to her own vineyard (i.e. her sexuality). Though the verb rf^n` (like rm^v*) has the fundamental meaning of “guard, keep” (implying protection), it can also be used in the agricultural context of tending, cultivating, etc. There would seem to be two aspects to the meaning of the girl’s statement:

    • Because of her work in the vineyards, she is not able to cultivate her appearance in the way that other “daughters of Jerusalem” do
    • It also means that she does not have as much time (as she would like) to cultivate her sexualityi.e., pursuing romantic/sexual relations with the young man she loves

As noted above, it is also likely that the reference to the brothers’ anger with her may imply other social and familial obstacles to her desire to be with her lover.

Jewish and Early Christian Interpretation

Jewish and Christian commentators had considerable difficulty with the idea of the woman’s “blackness”, associated as the term often was with evil, corruption, and immorality. The Targum and Midrashim connected it with the sin of idolatry in Israel’s history; once the people were punished (as by the heat of the sun = God’s anger) and repented, then they became ‘white’ and beautiful again.

Early Christian interpreters (like Origen) were a bit more flexible in explaining the imagery. One line of interpretation built upon the traditional conflict between Jews and Christians, with Christians considered to be “black”, and regarded in a negative light by the Synagogue (the “daughters of Jerusalem”) and contemporary Jews (the “mother’s sons”). The ‘burning’ against Christians could allude to the early persecutions by Jews, such as recorded in the book of Acts and Paul’s letters. In a more general religious sense, the “black but beautiful” concept could signify the presence of sin (and sinners) among the saints of the Church. The Church, as a whole, was still beautiful, in spite of the sin which needed to be treated properly through repentance and punishment.

The more mystical approach, evident in Origen’s Commentary, and even more so in Gregory of Nyssa’s cycle of Sermons, interpreted the imagery in terms of the need of the soul to purify itself from its passions and desires (i.e., the ‘blackness’), which allows it to find union with the Word of God (Christ) and to be transformed into that which is most beautiful.

References above marked “Fox” are to Michael V. Fox, The Song of Songs and the Ancient Egyptian Love Songs (University of Wisconsin Press: 1985).
Those marked “Pope” are to Marvin H. Pope, Song of Songs, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 7C (1977).

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