Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Song of Solomon 4: Teeth twins

The Song of Songs--or Song of Solomon, as it is alternately titled--is a fun Biblical book because, well, it seldom feels very Biblical. The whole work is a collection of love poetry--beautiful love poetry, moving love poetry, and often to the surprise of stodgier readers, erotic love poetry. Too often, religion is equated with chastity--those suffering under such a delusion should give the Song a quick read.

The book is also unique in that it never once mentions God. Rabbinic and early Christian scholars argued for its canonization by suggesting that the poems' lover is Yahweh (or Jesus) while the beloved is either the Israelite people or the church. Perhaps, but this seems--to use Harold Bloom's term--a strong misreading at best, and the book's inclusion in both Hebrew and Christian Bibles remains an enduring mystery.

However, I turn to the text tonight because of its unique (or unique-to-us) use of metaphor. The Song is ancient Hebrew society's version of "My love is like a red red rose," and it hints at both how an ancient Jerusalemite might have set up a booty call and how ancient authors understood the romantic idiom.

The author starts conventionally enough in chapter 4: "Your eyes are doves behind your veil" (4:1). Standard stuff, I think. But the second half of the verse gets stranger. "Your hair is like a flock of goats." A flock of goats, eh? I'm not sure I'm going to try that one at the bar next week (and not just because my lovely girlfriend would leave me), but I respect the effort to shoot for a more challenging simile.

We move on: "Your teeth are like a flock of shorn ewes / that have come up from washing" (4:2). I laugh, but I'm clearly not from a pastoral society; poets and lovers alike use the cultural tools at hand, and our author seems to be intimately familiar shepherding life. He continues, and I laugh a bit more, "all of which [these ewes] bear twins, and not one among them is bereaved." Let me tell you, these are some fertile sheep-teeth! But let's take some time to paraphrase this unexpected praise: the author is complimenting his love for her complete set of chompers. Dental hygiene sure has come a long way in 2500 years, and I'm happy that I've been able to take a full complement of teeth as a given in looking for dates.

We can learn a bit about the poem's historical setting from a later idiom: "Your neck is like the tower of David, built in courses; / on it hang a thousand bucklers, all of them shields of warriors" (1.4). At this point, I'm not sure if our lover is complimenting or shaming his giraffe-girlfriend, but we may wonder if he is perhaps more familiar with military threats than he would prefer. (Of course, Israelite history is sometimes little more than a sequence of wars, near-wars, or threats of war.)

But perhaps I should shut up for a moment and let the language--even in translation--speak for itself:

Your two breasts are like two fawns,
twins of a gazelle,
that feed among the lilies
Until the day breathes
and the shadows flee,
I will hasten to the mountain of myrrh
and the hill of frankincence ...
You have ravished my heart, my sister, my bride,
you have ravished my heart with a glance of your eyes,
with one jewel of your necklace. (4:5-9)

Beautiful.

Granted, as I've mentioned before, we don't necessarily have access to much of the ancient Israelites' cultural context, so there is every chance in the world that for contemporary audiences, the "Song" was little more than a compendium of hackneyed lines--the love doggerel of 4th-century B.C.E. Judah. But they are certainly not conventional to us, and a closer reading may allow us to fill the world with revitalized silly love songs.

Hence, I dedicate this entry to my beautiful girlfriend, whose eyes are like doves and whose wooly teeth all give birth to healthy teeth-twins.

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