I once heard ancient Judaism described as a male fertility cult, an impression that is reinforced by the repeated paternal genealogies encountered in my straight-through Bible reading.
What also comes through is the repeated conflict with the female fertility cults, obliquely referenced in the hilltop worship or, to my surprise, the continuing proliferation of human sacrifice — especially by the kings of Judah and Israel, presumably at the instigation of their foreign-born wives.
What we don’t have is an active, supportive Jewish female fertility paradigm.
To repeat a quote by Daphne Merkin: “As a daughter in an Orthodox household, I had no text to call my own. In contrast to Jewish sons … Jewish daughters have at best an oblique connection to the sacred volumes of their heritage.”
The imbalance obviously has consequences.
In the Scriptures, there is a repeated pattern of bigamy in which one wife is the fertile one, being fruitful and multiplying, in the manner of Genesis 1, while the other one is the beloved “suitable helpmeet” of Genesis 2-3. Quite simply, it never really works. Just look at Leah and Rachel, for starters.
Why polygamy, anyway? Because so many males die in combat? Or the availability of desirable women the victors carry away into captivity?
Marriage is never clearly defined in these texts, either, even in contrast to a concubine or a slave. Is it essentially in context of the surrounding cultures and their practices? Think of dowries and the like.
Another question is just when does Jewish marriage become monogamous?
The questions have the Song of Songs and Ruth ringing even more powerfully in my perspective.
The book is sometimes titled the Song of Solomon, but the male lover in this poem is monogamous, unlike any king with a harem. “My dove is my only one, perfect and mine,” the man proclaims in 6:9.
So get King Solomon out of this picture.
Also, the structure is not an allegory, despite attempts to sanitize the content. This is a dramatic dialog of erotic passion, sizzling and unrestrained, and while my New Jerusalem translation calls her the Beloved and him the Lover, that’s backward: she’s the more active, aggressive one here!
The voices of Poet and Chorus punctuate the intensity.
I possess a slim volume wonderfully rendered by poet Marcia Falk, where their voices are effectively contrasted through the use of different typefaces. There’s no mistaking the leading role the female plays here. Falk’s Translator’s Study that follows the poetry itself digs deep under the surface of the text. But since hers is a slightly abridged version, I stuck with the New Jerusalem in this straight-through reading.
Song of Songs comes as a great relief after so much of the misogyny in other Biblical books. There’s no need to mention the Holy One here, since this is a tactile embodiment of loving with all of one’s mind, body, and soul. It’s a yearning for completion, a gift of creation itself. This song’s seductive woman taunts the misery of Ecclesiastes.
Theologian Michael Birkel has cited those who call the Song of Songs the “fifth Quaker gospel” because its imagery and sensual awareness so infuse the writings of seminal leaders of the Society of Friends. His Bible half-hours at New England Yearly Meeting in 2013 examined key passages, dispelling for me any notion of early Friends as colorless or stoic.
Despite ancient editorial attempts to insert Solomon into the poem, the intrusions ring false. She’s an outcast from the gitgo, not a princess.
Grace Schulman’s analysis in Congregation: Contemporary Writers Read the Jewish Bible calls this an “awakening … a poem that glorifies new love and the green earth.” It’s “unmistakably sexual, with emphasis on smell and touch … built on an alternating pattern of ecstasy in the daylight and loss at night.” As Schulman remarks, “Passion and danger are the terrifying polarities of the Song.”
Drawing on verse 8:6, Schulman summarizes the Song: “Although passion is fierce, love is as strong as death and will triumph despite fears, ambivalence, and life’s decay. Love, tenacious as death, simultaneously terrifies and endures. Seemingly opposed, love and death have, in fact, one name … the startling truth that love is only apparently transient, but actually eternal.”
She sees “the depiction of one leading character throughout” as a “unifying factor.” Here we have “an active woman is the chief suitor” who “boldly expresses her longing. … She is the braver, he the more timidly withdrawn. … She calls, beckons, cajoles, pursues.”
Like the Psalms and other Biblical poetry, these lines are meant to burst out into song — or chanting. (I’m particularly fond of the polyphonic settings by William Billings and a CD of four Renaissance composers performed by Stile Antico, but the possibilities are endless.)
Crucially, as Schulman concludes, “The more its authors sing of love, the more they whisper of God.”
By this point in my parallel reading of essays in Congregation: Contemporary Writers Read the Jewish Bible, enough of the Jewish authors have remarked on the impact of the King James translation on their own experience of the Hebrew Bible, even once they had become fluent in the original.
Let me reiterate my decision to use less familiar translations in my straight-through reading, in part as an attempt to experience these texts for the first time.
The first KJV dilemma, of course, is mistranslation. Quite simply, many of the familiar passages simply aren’t true to the original. How do they get corrected? Something as simple as “hart,” or male deer (“buck”?), rather than doe in Psalm 42 presents a much different sense of the line.
As Leslie Fiedler admits of “reading and rereading and rereading [Job] ever since I was thirteen or fourteen — in the King James Version, in all of whose magnificent inaccuracy I will remember it, I suppose, until the day I die,” we gain a sense of the struggle.
That leads to the second dilemma. Many of the mistranslations have rung true in their own way and are solidly engrained in our linguistic and literary legacy. A rich harmony would be lost in the corrected translation.
As John Hollander adds, “For a modern reader, the language of the KJV is inherently poetic primarily because of the relation between its high, condensed diction and the impenetrability of so much of its language, caused by semantic change since the early seventeenth century.” He remarks, “I suppose that a poetic childhood consists in misunderstanding a good bit of what one sees and hears …”
That points to a third dilemma arising in their very familiarity.
“In short,” Hollander says, “losing the mysterious poetry engendered by mistranslation, or even by distance from the English usage of a much earlier text, it compensated many times over by re-entry into the original.”
In my read-through I carried a Jewish friend’s quip that this was his favorite Biblical book, thanks to its acerbic honesty.
Coming on the heels of Proverbs, its sardonic tone was a dash of refreshing water. Of course, in retrospect, I see that I had overlooked the ironic edge of Proverbs, which would have bridged the two books.
Less noted was their difference in point-of-view. Proverbs is in third-person, objective. It’s about behavior in an abstracted setting. Ecclesiastes is first-person, confessional, filled with details of personal encounter.
Neither book ever really addresses an individual’s relationship with the Holy One, but rather the realities of everyday societal interactions.
Ecclesiastes essentially strips away any idea of doing the right thing in anticipation of divine reward. Rather, I see it as pointing to doing the right thing simply because it’s the moral obligation, apart from any recompense.
Daphne Merkin’s essay in Congregation: Contemporary Writers Read the Jewish Bible deepened this understanding. Citing the opening passage’s “raging futility” and the “strange sense of invigoration that sadness can bring,” she calls “this slim book … a depressive’s lament — perfect for a gray day,” and “potentially the most subversive” in the Hebrew canon.
Pointing to the author’s persona of Qoleleth (Greek) or Koleleth (Hebrew), presumably King Solomon, “the wealthiest of Jewish kings,” she has me looking back on this from an entirely different viewpoint. Quite simply, its very bitterness can be a condemnation of all of Solomon’s “greatness”! She calls the author’s position one of “an acquisition-happy malcontent … blessed with the dazzling ‘life style’ of a corporate raider but burdened with the wrong soul” … a “connoisseur of ennui.” (My, her descriptions leave me envious. Damn, she’s good.)
The author, she contends, is not Solomon but a wealthy bachelor, “the uncommitted male,” childless, alone, a political conservative, “an older man looking back on his life from a position of material success as well as spiritual disappointment.”
One of the dimensions of the book, then, boldly satirizes worldly ambitions.
I skipped lightly through this book. Saw it mostly as quaint, practical advice to the sons. But what about the daughters? Especially when a strand of misogyny is detected? “What, son of my womb! What, son of my vows! Do not expend your energy on women …” (Proverbs 31:2-3), for example.
You know, a kind of Dear Abby or Ann Landers or the continuing slick advice of Job’s three “friends.”
Much of it, frankly, sounded like fortune cookies or Ben Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack or a succession of bumper stickers.
OK, much was also far more political than I’d anticipated, and there is a brief flash of Sophia in chapter 8.
One of the more developed ideas, the last chapter’s definition of a good wife, has a dark underside I hadn’t previously considered. She’s valued for her economic productivity, not her love. Is that another of the “practical” reflections of the real world of the time?
While these aphorisms are attributed to King Solomon, or more likely reflect the witty repartee of his courtiers, the fact is his own sons failed to follow these instructions.
I found them ultimately cloying.
David Shapiro’s essay in Congregation: Contemporary Writers Read the Jewish Bible has me seeing my reading was rushed. It needs to be sipped slowly. “The book is to become part of our body. Reading is vascular or nothing.” Furthermore, “much of the pithiness of the Hebraic proverb is lost on the smooth unraveling of the English mistranslations.” As he insists, “Proverbs demands patience.”