Since many of us have come to view the Bible as advocating a sort of sexual prudishness you should not be surprised to learn that one of the more enlivening classes I teach ((as part of my “What the Bible Really Says“)) is about sex, during which we dive into the erotic imagery of the Song of Solomon (a.k.a Song of Songs).
When I gave this class last year, Joel Hoffman ((author and editor of God Didn’t Say That – from which much of the content of my teaching on Song of Songs was taken)) coincidentally authored a post titled Recovering the Erotic Poetry of Song of Solomon in which Dr. Hoffman challenged translators to translate verses 1:14-15 in such a way as to recover the erotic content of these two verses without losing their poetic structure. Something that is all too common in many commercial Bibles.
You might find it instructive to take a moment to read Dr. Hoffman’s post to see how he motivates and frames the question. At any rate, here is my attempt to answer his challenge. I begin with a literal translation of the Hebrew from which I then derive and explain a more figurative, hopefully poetic, translation.
צְרוֹר הַמֹּר דּוֹדִי לִי בֵּין שָׁדַי יָלִין
a-pouch-of myrrh my-lover [is] to-me; between my-breasts he-lodges
אֶשְׁכֹּל הַכֹּפֶר דּוֹדִי לִי בְּכַרְמֵי עֵין גֶּדִי
a-cluster-of henna, my-lover [is] to-me in-the-vineyards-of En Gedi
Here, then, is my attempt to capture the sense of the original Hebrew (the female is the speaker):
My lover, like a necklace
Lies between my breasts.
A bouquet of spring blossoms
from the vineyards of En Gedi
I chose “necklace” because in many biblical cultures, beads of myrrh (a kind of resin) were strung as necklaces or belts and worn by women as adornments. I think myrrh would have been understand (or imagined – as poetic phrases should do). This would be consistent with the image this phrase invoked in my mind — that of a pendent hung on a necklace. As for myrrh, it was very valuable in those days. So valuable, in fact, that at times its value exceeded that of gold.
In this verse, then, the imagery is of a lover for whom the speaker’s sexual desire is obvious. Why obvious? Well, the necklace could have been described as “hung around her neck” or as “resting on her chest” or simply been described as a simple necklace. Explicitly locating the pendant of myrrh between her breasts is overtly sexual((The word for breasts, shadai, has two different meanings depending on context. One connotes nurturing (as in to suckle), and the other sexual (as in to caress). Nurturing is manifestly not in view here. The imagery is objectively sexual.)).
In the second verse, the poetic object is a flowering plant called henna. Among its other uses, henna has been used as a dye since antiquity. Women used henna to color their hair, their fingernails, and to apply non-permanent body art((Probably more like makeup and less like tattoos.)). Accordingly, the use of henna is associated with beauty and subsequent sexual arousal. Like myrrh, blossoms that adorn the body would evoke images of henna.
Finally, fertility, the biblical expression of sexual activity, is emphasized by connecting beauty and sexual desire with the oasis at En Gedi. Why En Gedi? Well, even though there are many springs around the Dead Sea, most of them have a high salt content. En Gedi is one of only two fresh water springs located on the western shore of the Dead Sea. As such, the vineyards and orchards of En Gedi are renowned for their fertility and productivity.
I’m not sure the poetry of the Hebrew can be expressed adequately in English, but I’m pretty satisfied that this [first] attempt captured the imagery of the original. As for the poetry, I could argue that since the two verses are parallel in meaning (but use different metaphors), the verses constitute what is classified in textbooks as synthetic poety. At any rate, I’m anxious to see what others come up with.
POSTSCRIPT: Since writing this post, I’ve come across (and bought and read) a book by Chana and Ariel Bloch titled “The Song of Songs“. I recommend it very highly. Here’s their translation of 1:14-15 (their verse numbering is different):
All night between my breasts
my love is a cluster of myrrh,
a sheaf of henna blossoms
in the vineyards of En Gedi
Honestly, I think their version is the better one.