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RELIGION | BOOK REVIEW

'The Song of Solomon' Offers Enduring Beauty

THE SONG OF SOLOMON: Love Poetry of the Spirit; Edited by Lawrence Boadt; Foreword by John Updike; St. Martin's / Griffin; $10.95; 64 pp.

August 21, 1999|NICK OWCHAR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"The Song of Solomon" is a voluptuous song of love, an exquisite sequence of sensual and royal images that places love at the peak of human fulfillment. It was so popular in its day, John Updike writes in the foreword to the Classic Bible Series edition, it was stamped with the name of the legendary King Solomon to ensure its survival as a jewel of Hebrew literature (though today it is also known as "The Song of Songs").

The early commentator Rabbi Akiva, Updike writes, "claimed that 'the whole world is not worth the day on which "The Song of Songs" was given to Israel; for all the writings are holy, but "The Song of Songs" is the holiest of the holy.' "

Holiest, perhaps, and also the most controversial. For as the insightful commentary to this edition shows, "Song's" charged sexual imagery has caused plenty of unease among Jews and Christians who have struggled to justify its placement in the Bible.

"Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth," the poem begins, "for thy love is better than wine." As the poet Chana Bloch notes elsewhere, the word dodim is translated in this edition as "love" even though the word refers more specifically to sexual love.

That and other images--breasts "like two young roes" and honey "under thy tongue"--give "Song" a "lusty nature," writes editor Lawrence Boadt, that was "scandalous to many of the Jewish rabbis and as late as the 2nd century AD they still had not fully agreed that the book should be in the sacred canon." But even as debates have raged, Boadt writes, "Song" has remained a powerful source of teaching ordinary folk to "discover that love, sexuality and creation are gifts of God's goodness."

"The Song" emerged from obscurity in the 3rd century BC as an early wasf, or betrothal song, that generated an enormous and devoted following. Alternating between a young girl called the Shulamite (thought to come from the ancient name of Jerusalem, salem) and her lover, "Song" was originally an unbroken string of love lyrics, and one inferred the speakers' identities from the tone. But here, to avoid confusion, Boadt has labeled the parts as "Lover" and his "Beloved," and assigned "Chorus" to a third party sometimes addressed as the daughters of Jerusalem.

Following the opening lines, the lovers praise each other's bodies ("Behold," the lover tells his beloved, "thou art fair / Thou hast dove's eyes") and there's an explicit image that must have been startling to scriptural apologists ("He shall lie all night betwixt my breasts"). At one point, the Shulamite's fingers drip with sweet-smelling myrrh as if she were a dewy flower awaiting the bee, a rich image perhaps owing to the influence of ancient Mesopotamian fertility rites.

Despite its many expressions of sexual gratification thinly concealed behind nature metaphors ("I am come into my garden . . . I have eaten my honeycomb with my honey"), "Song" is primarily a poem of anticipation, of desire unfulfilled and the approach of love: "The voice of my beloved! / behold, he cometh / leaping upon the mountains, / skipping upon the hills." Even the poem's final words ("Make haste, my beloved") are again about waiting, which, Boadt points out, also anticipate the final words of Revelation: "Surely I come quickly. Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus."

In connecting "The Song" with one of the Bible's most allegorical books, the commentary is most enlightening. Sexual content aside, "The Song" posed problems to Jews and Christians because it never directly mentions God. That is why, from its earliest days, God's presence has been "forced" into "The Song" by interpreting it as an allegory of God's betrothal to his people.

Christian thinkers have willingly accepted this "bride-bridegroom" reading, and the commentary cites how the nuptial metaphor has been reinterpreted and developed through the centuries--sometimes beautifully, as in the sermons of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, who saw "The Song" as an allegory of Christ's love for the soul; and sometimes bizarrely, as in Heinrich von Frauenlob's 14th century poem depicting the bride as the Virgin Mary, whose "divine Lover . . . entered--as an infant--her maiden womb, making her at once bride and mother."

This edition of "The Song," like other books in the Classic Bible Series--on Job, the Hebrew prophets and John's Gospel--offers readers valuable literary context. Although there's not enough textual analysis on its own, read in conjunction with, say, Ariel and Chana Bloch's excellent translation, this edition reminds us that, even with the fall of Adam and Eve, a small bit of Eden is still attainable in one's love for another person.

*

Nick Owchar is an assistant editor of Book Review.

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