Black “and” or “but” Beautiful?

Black “and” or “but” Beautiful? October 9, 2013

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.

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