Reflection for Today ▶️ ⏩ ⏹️
The Shulammite Maiden (detail), Gustave Moreau, 1893
Iam black, but comely, O ye daughters of Jerusalem, as the tents of Kedar, as the curtains of Solomon. 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.
— Song of Songs 1:5-6
The term black, but comely has recently been cited as an example of how the (English translated) Bible is racist.1 The focus of the criticism lies in the use of the conjunction 'but' between the two descriptors. Interestingly the Hebrew conjunction can be translated equally correctly as 'but' or 'and'. Which term is chosen no doubt reflects the mindset/bias of the translator, and it is interesting that the three so-called literal translations (LSV, YLT, SLT) all translate the term as 'and' as does the most modern translation (NRSV). The very first English translation (Coverdale, 1535) uses neither conjunction, and simply makes the bold, undecorated statement: I am black. But to assume that 'black' is a statement of race is to impose a modern day political narrative on a three-thousand-year-old text. Reading the next verse provides some context, that many seem to want to gloss over or ignore, ...because the sun hath looked upon me.
The skin of the Shulamite2 is burned by the sun, because she is forced to work outdoors by her brothers, interestingly referred to as my mother's children, as if she herself, a daughter, is not her own mother's child. If we want to take offence at these verses, more useful, and more accurate I reckon to focus on the blatant sexism of that statement, and couple it with the inherent class injustice of workers of the field being less attractive than the ruling, idle classes. The Shulamite is essentially saying "I am beautiful despite the fact I am forced to work in the fields for my brother's benefit, and have no time to care for my own appearance" (mine own vineyard have I not kept).
The NRSV translation of I am black and beautiful comes under fire from author Alice Ogden Bellis as using political correctness—racialising a passage that is not about race or ethnicity—to achieve 'cheap grace'. According to Bellis this passage is "more about class distinctions than ethnic or racial ones".3
And what can we learn from this? It is very easy to take any passage from scripture out of context, and use it to further our own agenda. No doubt I have occasionally done this in my own reflections, and although I do strive to understand the greater context as best I can, one's confirmation bias has a way of leaking in. It's not that we should stay neutral: we read the Bible (I hope) to draw lessons from it for our lives today. But drawing out and inserting in are very different. Becoming indignant about Song of Songs, and claiming it to be racist is surely a case of the latter, and detracts from potentially more nuanced understandings of the text.
1 Both in serious critiques such as I Am Black But Comely: The Revelation of Black People in Scripture and loud pontifications such as The bible is racist and anti-black.
2 The female protagonist in Song of Songs doesn't have a name until 6:13 when the term Shulamite is used, possibly as a name, possibly as a descriptor of where she is from, Return, return, O Shulamite; return, return, that we may look upon thee. What will ye see in the Shulamite?
3 I Am Burnt but Beautiful: Translating Song 1:5a, Alice Ogden Bellis, Journal of Biblical Literature Vol. 140, No. 1 (2021), pp. 91-111