Aug 8, 2010

Song of Songs: Black and/but Beautiful

After the last class, Sam wrote, saying: I have a feeling that skin color must have “meant” something in Biblical times; there may be no way to figure out what it was. In the Song of Songs, while the female narrator calls herself "black and beautiful," in the very next sentence, says "Don't look at me as black," and then goes on to say that she's just tanned from sitting out in the vineyards. What's that about?”
Here is some research into that question.  No answer is being given, just material for thought.  Maybe too much material.  

There verses to which Sam is referring are in Chapter 1: 5-6.  Here is the JPS Tanakh translation

5 I am dark, but comely,
O daughters of Jerusalem –
Like the tents of Kedar,
Like the pavilions of Kedar,
Like the pavilions of Solomon
6 Don’t stare at me because I am swarthy,
Because the sun has gazed upon me.

Here is the Hebrew English, JPS 1917 translation ( )
  שְׁחוֹרָה אֲנִי וְנָאוָה,
 בְּנוֹת יְרוּשָׁלִָם;
כְּאָהֳלֵי קֵדָר,
כִּירִיעוֹת שְׁלֹמֹה.
5 'I am black, but comely,
O ye daughters of Jerusalem,
as the tents of Kedar,
as the curtains of Solomon.
שֶׁאֲנִי שְׁחַרְחֹרֶת;
    שֶׁשְּׁזָפַתְנִי הַשָּׁמֶשׁ 

6 Look not upon me,
that I am swarthy,
that the sun hath tanned me.

The classic book on Song of Songs is the Anchor Bible series volume 7C by Marvin H. Pope, 1977, which is both translation and commentary.  Here is Pope’s translation (he uses the labels a, b, etc for ease of commentary)

a Black am I and beautiful
b O Jerusalem Girls
c Like the tents of Qedar
d Like the pavillions of Salmah

a Stare not at me that I am swart
b That the sun has blackened me.

Here is a translation by Chana and Ariel Block (1995).  They aim for a reasonably literal but more literary and poetic translation.

5 I am dark, daughters of Jerusalem,
and I am beautiful!
Dark as the tents of Kedar, lavish
as Solomon’s tapestries.
6 Do not see me only as dark:
the sun has stared at me

Here is a translation by Marcia Falk.  She creates a poetic translation that captures her interpretation and is often quite far from literal.   Because of it’s non-literalness, it’s hard for her translation to add to the current discussion, but it’s interesting.

Yes, I am black! and radiant –
O city women watching me –
As black as Kedar’s goathair tents
Or Solomon’s fine tapestries

Will you disrobe me with your stares?
The eyes of many morning suns
Have pierced my skin, and now I shine
Black as the light before the dawn.

Verse 5a:  Black and beautiful, vs black but beautiful

The conjunctive ve- most commonly means “and”.  It is less frequently used to connote the adversative meaning = “but” (Bloch).   
The Blochs suggest that the language is ambiguous and that the maiden could be either apologizing for her blackness or boasting of it. 
Both JPS translations take the adversative meaning “but.” 
Pope, Blochs and Falk chose “and.” 
The JPS may be heavily influenced by rabbinic interpretation.  Regarding this verse, the Soncino Song of Songs Rabbah [redacted circa 550 CE] translates “ black but comely” and the interpretation is adversative, saying “I am black through my own deeds, but comely through the works of my ancestors,” and “The Community of Israel said: I am black in my own sight, but comely before my Creator.”   Also, “R. Levi b. Haytha applied this verse in three ways.  ‘I am black all the days of the week and comely on the Sabbath;  I am black all the days of the year and comely on the Day of Atonement; (I am black through the Ten Tribes and comely through the tribes of Judah and Benjamin;) I am black in this world and comely in the world to come.’
Rashi (11th century) follows this interpretation and furthermore expounds the rest of verse 5 saying “If I am black as the tents of Kedar, which are blackened by the rain, for they are constantly spread out in the deserts, I am easily cleansed to be like the curtains of Solomon.”   In other words, the maiden may be black, but she can be cleansed.  In Rashi’s view, black AND beautiful do not go together.

Pope points out that black shows up as a positive color in several biblical verses:
healthy black hair as opposed to yellowish diseased hair (Lev 13:31,37) – when the black hair grows back in, it is a sign of health; 
the locks of the lover are “black as a raven” (SoS 5:11);
Zech 6:2-6 – there are 4 chariots representing the 4 winds and each has a different color horse.  The black horse represents the north wind.  “Those that went out to the regions of the north have done my [God’s] pleasure in the region of the north.”  None of the other chariots is mentioned.
In some cases black is opposed to ruddy/white and appears to be the antithesis of health.  In Lam 4:7f, whiteness and ruddiness represent health and purity while those who have debased themselves have faces blacker than soot.  Pope interprets that this opposition only applies in a case where the healthy normal skin would be ruddy/white, but “has no meaning with respect to innate blackness which has its own beauty.”  That is, he claims the blackness is not innately “bad” but rather a sign of loss of normal color.

Verse 5c: tents of Qedar

Pope:  Qedar = tribe of Northern Arabia, connected with one of Ishmael’s sons.  Pope says that in rabbinic usage, the term is applied to Arabs collectively.  The root qdr carries the idea of darkness.

Blochs:  the tents of the nomadic Bedouins were typically made of the wool of black goats.

SoS Rabbah says: “Just as the tents of Kedar, although from the outside they look ugly, black, and ragged, yet inside contain precious stones and pearls, so the disciples of the wise, although they look repulsive and swarthy in this world, yet have within them the knowledge of the Pentateuch, the Scriptures, the Mishnah, the Midrash, Halacoth, Talmud, Toseftas and Haggadah.”

Verse 6 a: al-tiruni she’ani shecharchoret:  Translated variously as:
don’t stare at me because I am swarthy (JPS Tanakh)
look not upon me that I am swarthy (JPS 1917 – this is the most literal)
stare not at me that I am swart (Pope)
do not see me only as dark (Blochs)

Pope says that al-tiruni [don’t look] has no hint of envy or disdain – it is non committal.  Blackness, he says, is striking and beautiful but not necessarily a cause for envy.  He translates “stare,” I believe, in the sense of look intently but neutrally
Shecharchoret, translated here as swarthy, swart or dark, is a hapex legomenon [biblical word that appears only once in it’s form].  It is taken as a diminutive of black.

Blochs consider this verse to be an admonition not to see the maiden in only one aspect, that is, not only as black.

SoS Rabbah says that “the sun of idolotry may have tanned us [Israel], but you [other nations] are swarthy from your mother’s womb;  for when a woman is pregnant she goes into her idolatrous temple and bows down to the idol along with her child.”
Rashi interpets “Do not look upon me disdainfully...because I am swarthy, for my blackness and my ugliness are not from my mother’s womb, but from tanning in the sun, for that blackness can easily be whitened by staying in the shade.”   That is, according to Rashi, the maiden is not idolatrous (black) from birth, but represents Israel, which can be whitened by moving out of the sun.

Verse 6: That the sun has blackened me (shezaphatni)

Pope: shezaphatni might come from two different roots: szp = see, look at; sdp = blasting or scorching of grain by the east wind.  So it could mean, “the sun has looked upon me,” or “the sun has scorched me.”   
The Blochs translate “has stared at me.”  They point out that shazaph outside of SoS is used in Job as “look upon” or “catch sight of,” when the eye is the agent.  If sun is the agent of sight, the meaning is secondarily “tan” or “sunburn.’  In modern Hebrew szp is used only for sunburn.

We have gathered very little Biblical evidence, through interpreting SoS 1:5-6, that “black” in the Bible carries a negative connotation.  That does not mean it is not there, as our search has been limited.  The negative connotation is, however, pronounced in the Midrash and in Rashi.  Both rabbinic sources identify blackness with something bad, which can, and hopefully will, be washed away.

Pope, in his discussion on SoS 1:5-6, says that although Rashi “apparently had difficulty conceiving that our lady could be both black and another connection...Rashi overcomes his melainophobia and goes to some trouble to demonstrate that black is beautiful.”  Pope refers to Rashi on the Cushite women, which is where we began investigating the connotation of “black” in the Bible. It’s worthwhile looking at what Rashi says regarding Num 12:1.  Following is Pope’s translation. 

The Cushite woman.
This teaches that everyone acknowledged her beauty, just as everyone acknowledged to the blackness of the Cushite.

Rashi proves by Gematria that black is beautiful by showing that numerically, “Cushitess” = “good-looking.”

I further found the following ( )

For, he married a Cushite woman.
What does the Torah teach? You find a woman beautiful in appearance but not beautiful in deed; in deed, but not in appearance. But this one was beautiful in everything. [explaining why the repetition, "because he married a Cushite woman." To teach that she was beautiful in both deed and appearance.]
The Cushite woman.
Because of her beauty, she was called "Cushite," like a man who calls his attractive son "Cushite" to ward off the power of the evil eye over him.


  1. I am far more inclined to Pope's reading, but I wonder if there is anthropological or other literary evidence to indicate the meaning of skin color to the Israelites in pre-Biblical--pre-Rabbinic times.

    I've been to anti-racism trainings that suggest racism from way back, but I'm not persuaded that Black means the same elsewhere or meant the same in other ages as it means in the West, especially in the U.S., today. (In fact, the meaning of Black in the U.S. was unhinged from skin color--you could have white skin and blue eyes but still be "Black" until relatively recently.) No one is born seeing skin color (or any other physical attribute) as salient in social relations. Sociocultural meanings are learned, but where, when, in what context, for any particular group?

  2. Great post, Penina! Very well researched and insightful.

    As a religious reader of the text, I'm less interested in the historicity of who thought what when, and more interested in what the living Torah has to teach us, today, about our responsibilities at the present time. Having said that, I think Judy's point is relevant here, and with all respect for it, I take the opposite view. Just as Judy finds it difficult to believe contemporary-style racial bigotry existed in ancient times, I find it difficult to believe it did not. When would it have been "invented"? We can agree that racial bigotry existed in 1607, when the first Blacks were taken to the future U.S. as slaves; we can agree that ethnic bigotry existed in 1492 when the Spanish Inquisition started. The Spanish conquistadors took a highly racist approach to the indigenous peoples of the new world, indeed enslaving them. Racism seems to have existed during the Christian Crusades, a large part of whose victims were actually Byzantine Christians, killed by Western Christians because they looked different. Rashi wasn't far before that. I'm afraid racial bigotry is an all-too-natural extension of pride in one's own nation, taken to a grossly distorted extreme. In an ancient era when every nation was in intense competition with every other, and there was no notion of stable national borders, let alone individual human rights, I think it's asking a lot of the available evidence to suppose that racism is a recent invention.

    I find it impossible to study this text without a sincere overarching sense of shame and teshuvah for the disastrous damage caused in human history by the Hamitic myth (that is, that Ham was cursed by being made Black, and therefore the curse of Ham is identified with Blackness, Genesis Rabbah). The fact that Jews are not the only ones responsible for this damage, or even remotely anywhere near as responsible as Christians, does nothing to diminish the fact of our responsibility to learn from our past mistakes. The Hamitic myth cannot be studied solely as an academic exercise, for to divorce it from an understanding of the horror it has caused is to misunderstand it. I think the religious reader can only approach Biblical treatments of race which are questionable with a heavy heart, ready to acknowledge and correct the exegetical mistakes of the past, full of a contemporary Jewish understanding of the full extent of the horror to which even the toleration of bigotry gives rise.

    Genesis Rabbah (midrash) states: "But when they came out of the ark after the flood, God commanded Noah, "Go out of the ark, thou and thy wife, thy sons and their wives" (Gen. viii. 16), thus putting the sexes together again. Ham among the human beings, and the dog among the lower animals, disregarded this injunction and did not separate from the opposite sex in the ark. The dog received a certain punishment, and Ham became a black man; just as when a man has the audacity to coin the king's currency in the king's own palace his face is blackened as a punishment and his issue is declared counterfeit."

    That negative stereotype of the Black man, written some 1500 years ago, sounds very familiar today, complete with the stereotype of the Black man as dirty and oversexed. It is our responsibility to reject all such horrific notions as the affronts they are to the One God. Perhaps our ancestors, in their innocence, said such things out of a lack of understanding of the shared intrinsic humanity of all people. Today we have greater responsibilities because we now know better.

  3. The passage of the Cushite woman must be read in the same vein. I'm not saying racism is the *only* way to read that passage, but I am saying we *must* at least commit to reading and studying it that way, however else we may also wish to delve into it. It is up to us, now, to make sure the racial implications of the text, which are clear enough, and which have done such damage in actual history, do not go ignored and unlearned from. Judaism must atone for these texts, and we are Jews. How do we know when our sin is forgiven? When the opportunity to sin recurs and we do not take it.

    Insofar as these racial bigotries are concerned, it seems our ancestors built an insufficient fence around God's revealed Law -- or else the fence they built has crumbled somewhat over time; perhaps both. Today, lacking the protective fence it needs, religion too often stumbles into racial bigotry, actively using the breached spiritual wall of the Hamitic myth as a weak point to fall through, or to let evil in. In a post-Holocaust world, where the Jew must constantly bear witness to the horror of bigotry and the need to eradicate it completely, rebuilding this spiritual wall is up to us -- by actively challenging every single incident in which the wall might be transgressed, getting to the bottom of every such inquiry, and being completely willing to excise previous interpretations and practices that are found to transgress the fence around the Law that we must rebuild, to keep our precious Torah safe from the invading forces of bigotry. This is how we must make the necessary teshuvah to rebuild our wall. "Then shall you be called repairer of the breach, restorer of streets to dwell in."

    Back to the issue of "and" vs. "but." My argument is simply that Judaism calls us to a moral responsibility to consider the racist implications of the text, and to identify and utterly reject them. We have a responsibility to entertain the notion that the text should be read "Black *and* beautiful." We also have a responsibility to consider that ancients might have meant "Black *but* beautiful," but we do not say such words without making it completely clear that we find them atrocious and unfit for religious use. While maintaining consciousness of the likelihood that at least some of our ancient teachers did mean "but," and showed evidence of racial bigotry in their writings and behavior, in my view Judaism requires us, today, to adopt the reading "and," and to be unafraid to excise and eject the filth of oppression from our rededicated sanctuary, which we must leave better than we found it.

  4. Might we want to make a couple of distinctions?

    1. Racism may or may not be the same as distinguishing one ethnic group from the other for the purpose of marriage, the inheritance of property, and choice of which gods to worship, and it may or may not be related to skin color.

    2. The biblical point of view might be quite different from later rabbinic commentary. Coming from different eras, different classes, different agendas, they should not be mushed together. Genesis Rabbah is not the same as Genesis by a long chalk.

  5. Hmm, well, these are good points. I think with point #2, the historical perspective may differ from the religious. I join with many (certainly not all) religious readers in approaching the Torah as timeless, so that the Oral Torah and the Written Torah can be viewed contemporaneously and very much as if they're speaking directly to us in the present. At the same time, I do see Judaism as a religion played out in history, so there's an apparent contradiction. I like to say the Law doesn't change, and Revelation doesn't change, but what changes is our ability to comprehend the words of Eternity -- and hopefully most of the time it changes for the better. At least I think that's our responsibility, to make sure we're learning from the past so that we do leave things better than we found them.

    This notion leaves me with a quandary in what to do with written text that seems quite wrong. My solution, personally, has been to say that even the original Hebrew text is merely a translation into human language of an ineffable revelation from God, and even the best translators make errors in translation, and at times fall into eisegesis.

    On point #1, there may or may not be differences, and definitions of these terms abound. The academic definition of racism that theorists use is "racial bigotry + power." That is, racism requires racial bias as well as the social power to enforce that bias and give it real-world consequences. Thus it's correct to point to racism as the cause of real-world suffering, as opposed to merely an ideology that people may or may not subscribe to.

    In any case, Penina, I'm not certain that the distinctions under your point #1 are useful here. We had this interesting discussion during your last class (which everyone reading this needs to come to, Penina is great!). Acknowledging that there is bias both related and unrelated to skin color -- gender bias being a very common example of the latter -- all of these biases cause trouble, and I think one has to admit that bias based on skin color, the most prominent of our physical features, exists.

    I don't know that the particular applications of the biases matter -- if we believe that all people are equal, then we have to support equal rights and nondiscrimination based on ethnicity (and gender), right?

  6. Thanks, Penina, for stimulating, fostering, and for sustaining thoughtful discussion!

    I like to cherish text for the way it resonates most meaningfully to me. The historical questions, how the Founding Fathers envisioned a well regulated militia, or whether the Song of Songs spoke to its original audience the way it does to me, are an inquiry apart - 'intersting, but not anything I feel calls for apologetics.