Black “and” or “but” Beautiful?

The Great Song of the Old Testament, often called the Song of Songs (not to be called the Song of Solomon, though it could be called the Song about Solomon [and others]), requires some sensitive interpretation. For instance…

1. There are three main characters: the Shulammite woman, her lover/husband, and Solomon.

2. The book is a satire about Solomon because the Song is about his attempt to woo the Shulammite into his harem of many women and his failure to accomplish his designs; it is a glorious testimony to her faithful devotion to her husband/lover.

3. The Song is about sexual and human love but only later was allegorized into God’s love for Israel (and then later the church). The analogy is fair enough, but not at the expense of the human love poetry. Which is graphic, if one knows how to read the metaphors.

But, what about this woman, this Shulammite woman? Claude Mariotinni, in his splendid little collection of studies Re-Reading the Biblical Text, has a very good little study on one topic often neglected in readings of the Song.

4. Is Song 1:5 to be translated “black and beautiful” (NRSV) or “black but beautiful” (LXX, ESV, JPS, NIV11 perhaps)? Translation involves learning to read in context.

The verse continues with these lines:

dark like the tents of Kedar,

like the tent curtains of Solomon.

6 Do not stare at me because I am dark,
because I am darkened by the sun.”
My mother’s sons were angry with me
and made me take care of the vineyards;
my own vineyard I had to neglect.

Claude says she is speaking to the daughters of Jerusalem; her darkness is connected to exposure to the sun; there is not a statement here that her darkness is related to race (that she was African). She was sunburned and tanned; she looked like a peasant woman. His reading is that “dark like the tents of Kedar” is her tanned skin but she is nonetheless beautiful “like the tent curtains of Solomon.” These lines are parallels to “black” and “beautiful.”

She did not keep her own vineyard, which he reads as her surrendering of her virginity.

She is saying not that black is not beautiful but black is beautiful. Her statement is to be read then in the context of social prejudice and social status. She didn’t look like the upper class lighter-skinned ladies of Jerusalem but she was beautiful nonetheless. As a Semitic woman of that time, her skin would be considered dark by Euro standards before her working in the sun. She takes their categories — darkness is not as pretty — and subverts them.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Shane Scott

    Every time I read this passage I think of a friend of mine who misquoted it as “black and butt comely”!

  • Larry_Shallenberger

    This is a new idea to me. I’m familiar the notion of the book being a satire about Solomon, but never read about the triangle you suggest. Can you point me to more on this? Or is this theory also in “Re-reading the Biblical Text?”

  • Dan Yelovich

    I was always taught that in the Fertile Crescent mindset (especially
    in ancient Egypt), black was preferred over white. Black was beautiful because that meant that
    the soil was fertile. Contrasting that
    was white soil which indicated that it was depleted of all nutrients.

  • pduggie

    I would think graphic and metaphorical are usually polar opposites. Like, it’s not graphic because all the sexual acts are put into metaphors.

  • Westcoastlife

    There is no way a Semitic woman would “give up” her virginity willingly. Sorry, but that is 20th reading into ancient ways. Even 200 years ago (or whenever Jane Austin wrote) a woman who was no longer a virgin was ruined. No woman did that in the Middle East deliberately. So that reading of the allegory is bunk.

    Secondly, the Song being “later” allegorized into the love between God and Israel would require people knowing exactly when it was written. There is no proof it was written in Solomon’s reign in the first place, but it has, for a long time pre-Christ, been read as a love Song between God and his bride (be that Israel or the Church). If one reads it that way, then the neglected vineyard reads as: She has run around catering to other people’s demands, the Priests have burdened her to help in their vineyard (modern day equivalent: the church has depleted her own savings for church expansion/staff hirings). She is worn out and tired, dark due to hard work, not previous sexual flings.

    Anyways, I have read it both ways and much favour the allegorical images of a believer’s awakening love to Chirst, but, that is a hugely charismatic way to read it, and I realize many people never “fell in awe” of Christ and just can’t relate to him as anything more than a nice guy who happens to be God. Yet, when I read a book about the God/Israel allegorical reading, nothing in the human love real ever came close to how magnificent it was when read the God/Church way.

  • Alastair J Roberts

    Exactly. It only comes so close to the reality of sexual relations because it does so through the veil of poetic language. I wrote on this a while ago.


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