If I remember correctly, the Bride was black and beautiful in Song of Songs, Chapter 1, verse 5, and that nobody else in the whole Scripture was black, and that beauty itself was a little suspect, at least in the sense that it correlated better with trouble than virtue.
Chapter 1, verse 6: Look not upon me, because I [am] black, because the sun hath looked upon me: my mother's children were angry with me; they made me the keeper of the vineyards; [but] mine own vineyard have I not kept.
It’s worth pointing out, then, that she is black because she is deeply tanned, rather than because she is, oh, I don’t know, of African ancestry. And she is tanned, not because she’s been lying out on the beach, but because she’s been working out in the vineyards, and not even in her own vineyard, but in the vineyard of her brothers. Or half-brothers, anyway. I doubt that I’m even going to get around to having anything coherent to say about the Bride’s attitude toward her mother, but I will say that the mother shows up a fair amount on the edges of this poem, and I find the references ... complex. Incoherent, I might say. Anyway, she’s sunbaked, beautiful, and she doesn’t seem to get along well with her family.
So, if the Bride is the people Israel, what does that say? Are the people Israel beautiful, all the more so because the nations (or whoever) have kept them out in the fields until their skin got all leathery? Or can we draw the line from beauty to vulnerability, and talk about the people Israel’s weakness? Another question: is it a Good Thing to be a vinemaiden as opposed to a Princess, and if so, is it a Better Thing to be a vinemaiden for your family, even to neglecting your own vines? What are our vines, and how should we be tending them? To tend the garden, here, is natar, which King James’s’s’sses gang calls keeping the garden but I might call guarding it. A possible pun, there, about guarding a garden. Anyway. Look at Psalm 103:9, where the Lord will not keep his anger forever, although I’m not actually convinced it’s the same root. Still, I like the image of tending one’s anger like a guardian or, better, like a gardener. But surely that isn’t what’s intended here?
Or (going back to a woman, not a people) are we not talking about grapes? Are we talking about virginity? Are we talking about a girl who has to marry well (leaving her grapes unguarded) to support her family? I don’t really get this verse at all, frankly. Let’s move on.
Chapter 1, verse 7: Tell me, O thou whom my soul loveth, where thou feedest, where thou makest [thy flock] to rest at noon: for why should I be as one that turneth aside by the flocks of thy companions?
She’s talking to her shepherd again, and is (this caught my imagination) is asking him where they can meet in the middle of the day, so she doesn’t have to embarrass herself asking for him. She’s worried about looking like a slut (like a veiled woman, in the Hebrew, or in the NLT like a prostitute, although it’s possible that she is actually talking about wearing a covering, so people don’t recognize her on her way to her assignation).
The other thing in this verse is that she addresses him as sh’ahavti nafshi, the love of my soul, nefesh being the soul, or the breath, or the person. It’s the breath, particularly, but as a sort of Schenectady for the whole being. I think the King James gang allowed themselves to be too influenced by the mind-body duality business, though, as “thou who my soul loveth” seems to imply an ethereal kind of love, unlike the equally valid “who I love with all my breath” or “thou, my body’s love”. The Vulgate uses anima here, from the Greek which is Psyche (caveat: I have no Latin or Greek, and am going by eyeball here). I’m not sure there is a simple, short, and sonorous translation for anima (which is not to say you Can’t Say It In English, just that it might take a while, and ruin the rhythm of the poem). Anyway, my point was that you might think of the Shepherd as sh’ahavti nafshi; some translations call him the Beloved.
Chapter One, verse eight: If thou know not, O thou fairest among women, go thy way forth by the footsteps of the flock, and feed thy kids beside the shepherds' tents.
Perhaps follow on the heels of the flock is better. And tent is mishkan, and that’s the only place mishkan is translated as tent. I’m not saying that the translation is wrong, just that I might have chosen dwelling or something. Clearly the text doesn’t mean mishkan in the sense of, you know, mishkan, of tabernacle, but then why use it? The vulgate goes right with tabernacle—and by the way, is the word tabernacle used anymore, other than as a sort of an archaic name for a Ye Olde Churche/Synagoguee? Anyway, I can’t help thinking that the writer wanted us to associate the work mishkan with the word mishkan, and all that goes with it.
Anyway, this is the Shepherd’s first speech, responding directly to the Babe. The odd thing about it, really, is that after her last speech (please tell me where you’ll be, so I can jump on you without anybody knowing), he seems almost to be putting her off. What does he mean If thou know not? Didn’t she just tell him she didn’t know? Not only that she didn’t know, but that if he didn’t tell her, she would ask all his friends? And then, not I’ll be by that big cedar, not the two together, but the one with the big sideways branch, and I won’t be wearing pants, but follow the flocks. So what’s going on: is he being a jerk, or is he not all that into her?
An answer is that it’s a poem, and not an attempt to make realistic dialogue, and the poet wants to introduce the theme of seeking and finding, and not finding, and all that goes with that. Which brings us back to the analogy, because the experience of seeking is a powerful religious one, and that when we read the text as an analogy, it’s moving because of that. We beseech the Divine tell us where to find you and the Divine says keep looking. It’s not that the Divine isn’t that into us, it’s that He can’t tell us where He is, because when it comes down to it, He’s not contained in the mishkan. Or anywhere else.
chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,