Anti-Gnostic Song of Solomon Translations and Commentaries

Commentary and translation choices are always tricky. The Bible has inspired a lot of comment and translation over the years, and a surprising amount has been poorly done. Nowhere is this more true than with the Song of Solomon.

The first and most blatant problem is the number of interpreters whose starting point is a red-faced “It can’t possibly be saying that!!! So they gin up a flimsy excuse and explain how the Song is really about Christ’s love for the church.

Apparently the church has captivating hair, an intoxicating navel, and really nice breasts (Song 7:1-5). Of course, the real problem with this view is not the patent absurdity of it — and it is absurd — but the starting premise. Why shouldn’t the Song be exactly what it sounds like — a frank celebration of married love in all its complexity, delicacy, and lush sensual splendor?

The answer to that question is another post entirely, but for the moment let it suffice to say that people who take a low view of the physical creation God made and the physical pleasures He built into it will also take a low view of marriage and sex, and then read their perverted view back into the Bible, to its detriment and theirs.

A lot of commentaries on the Song, perhaps even most of them, struggle with this problem to one degree or another. So it is with some pleasure that I recommend Intimacy Ignited: Conversations Couple to Couple by Joseph and Linda Dillow and Charles and Lorraine Pintus. Although you wouldn’t know it if you saw the book on the shelf (until you read the table of contents), it’s a devotional commentary on the Song of Solomon, and the authors have no trouble seeing the Song for what it is. Clear, concise, heavy on application and brimming with practical wisdom, this book is a must-read for married couples.

The ‘practical wisdom’ part of that last sentence bears further discussion. There’s a sizable difference between being able to explain what the Word says and being able to help someone apply it effectively to the twisty ways of the human heart. As a seminary instructor and pastor, I can tell you that ability is what separates a technician from a teacher, a lecturer from a shepherd. The Dillows and the Pintuses have it, in spades, and it is in the no-nonsense clarity they bring to their teaching that the lessons of the Song hit home as they are meant to.

If you’re looking for a detailed discussion of the Hebrew grammar of the Song, you’ll have to look elsewhere. Although there is academic rigor behind it, this book isn’t aimed at the classroom; it’s aimed at the bedroom. But then, so is the Song.

A couple determined to learn the lessons of the Song can use a good commentary, for sure. But as their understanding grows, they will want a translation of the Song they can just read together. Here they will immediately encounter another problem: most translations are terrible.

I don’t mean that the translations are inexact or inaccurate. There are many translations that go to truly excruciating lengths to achieve the highest possible level of scholarly precision in the translation — and succeed, God help us all.

And that’s the problem.

It’s not a lecture, it’s a song. And at that, it’s not just any song, it’s the Song of Songs, Solomon’s greatest song. It’s lyrical, extravagant, and — let’s face it — steamy. It’s love poetry, and they make it sound like a guy in tweeds at a lectern. Those translations may be useful for understanding precise shades of meaning when you’re studying the Song, but when you’re reading it, you want something that conveys the feeling. You shouldn’t be thinking “He chose this word to convey the fiery passion he feels for his bride” — you should be a little flushed, because the translation actually conveys the passion to you.

I’m sad to say that I don’t know of a single evangelical commentator whose translation I could recommend without significant reservation. Not one. And I’ve looked. The problem is that the mechanisms poetry depends upon for its effects are often specific to the language it’s written in. Translating poetry is not just a matter of rendering the denotation from the source language into the target language, as if you were translating a lecture; you have to rewrite it so that the connotations, sounds, and cadences work properly in the target language. Most scholars competent enough with Hebrew to undertake the translation to start with aren’t anywhere near good enough with English to do this effectively.

Enter Ariel and Chana Bloch, a translating team absolutely without peer. He is an expert on Semitic languages and professor emeritus of Near Eastern Studies at UC-Berkely. She is an award-winning poet, English professor, and director of the creative writing program at Mills College. Together, they have created a translation of stunning genius. For reading, it may be the best translation of the Song ever done in English; certainly it’s the best I’ve ever read. The accompanying commentary, although wrong on the overall picture of the Song, is very detailed, and very useful in wrestling with some of the minutiae. Unlike most commentators, who intersperse the text with the relevant sections of commentary, the Blochs have done much better: they put the whole text up front, by itself, so you can read the Song from end to end without having to hunt through the book for the next stanza.

There’s a new paperback printing of the book out, but do yourself a favor — buy one of the nice hardcover editions (there are two, both out of print but easy to find online). You’ll be glad you did.

I could continue to bore you with descriptions, but the whole point of poetry is that it has to be experienced. Here’s a sample (1:12-17):

My king lay down beside me
and my fragrance
wakened the night.

all night between my breasts
my love is a cluster of myrrh,
a sheaf of henna blossoms
in the vineyards of Ein Gedi.

And you, my beloved,
how beautiful you are!
Your eyes are doves.

You are beautiful, my king,
and gentle. Wherever we lie
our bed is green.
Our rooftops are cedar,
our rafters fir.

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