After the last class, Sam wrote, saying: I have a feeling that skin color must have “meant” something in Biblical times; there may be no way to figure out what it was. In the Song of Songs, while the female narrator calls herself “black and beautiful,” in the very next sentence, says “Don’t look at me as black,” and then goes on to say that she’s just tanned from sitting out in the vineyards. What’s that about?”
Here is some research into that question. No answer is being given, just material for thought. Maybe too much material.
There verses to which Sam is referring are in Chapter 1: 5-6. Here is the JPS Tanakh translation
5 I am dark, but comely,
O daughters of Jerusalem –
Like the tents of Kedar,
Like the pavilions of Kedar,
Like the pavilions of Solomon
6 Don’t stare at me because I am swarthy,
Because the sun has gazed upon me.
Here is the Hebrew English, JPS 1917 translation (http://www.mechon-mamre.org/ )
שְׁחוֹרָה אֲנִי וְנָאוָה,
5 ‘I am black, but comely,
O ye daughters of Jerusalem,
as the tents of Kedar,
as the curtains of Solomon.
6 Look not upon me,
that I am swarthy,
that the sun hath tanned me.
The classic book on Song of Songs is the Anchor Bible series volume 7C by Marvin H. Pope, 1977, which is both translation and commentary. Here is Pope’s translation (he uses the labels a, b, etc for ease of commentary)
a Black am I and beautiful
b O Jerusalem Girls
c Like the tents of Qedar
d Like the pavillions of Salmah
a Stare not at me that I am swart
b That the sun has blackened me.
Here is a translation by Chana and Ariel Block (1995). They aim for a reasonably literal but more literary and poetic translation.
5 I am dark, daughters of Jerusalem,
and I am beautiful!
Dark as the tents of Kedar, lavish
as Solomon’s tapestries.
6 Do not see me only as dark:
the sun has stared at me
Here is a translation by Marcia Falk. She creates a poetic translation that captures her interpretation and is often quite far from literal. Because of it’s non-literalness, it’s hard for her translation to add to the current discussion, but it’s interesting.
Yes, I am black! and radiant –
O city women watching me –
As black as Kedar’s goathair tents
Or Solomon’s fine tapestries
Will you disrobe me with your stares?
The eyes of many morning suns
Have pierced my skin, and now I shine
Black as the light before the dawn.
Verse 5a: Black and beautiful, vs black but beautiful
The conjunctive ve- most commonly means “and”. It is less frequently used to connote the adversative meaning = “but” (Bloch).
The Blochs suggest that the language is ambiguous and that the maiden could be either apologizing for her blackness or boasting of it.
Both JPS translations take the adversative meaning “but.”
Pope, Blochs and Falk chose “and.”
The JPS may be heavily influenced by rabbinic interpretation. Regarding this verse, the Soncino Song of Songs Rabbah [redacted circa 550 CE] translates “ black but comely” and the interpretation is adversative, saying “I am black through my own deeds, but comely through the works of my ancestors,” and “The Community of Israel said: I am black in my own sight, but comely before my Creator.” Also, “R. Levi b. Haytha applied this verse in three ways. ‘I am black all the days of the week and comely on the Sabbath; I am black all the days of the year and comely on the Day of Atonement; (I am black through the Ten Tribes and comely through the tribes of Judah and Benjamin;) I am black in this world and comely in the world to come.’
Rashi (11th century) follows this interpretation and furthermore expounds the rest of verse 5 saying “If I am black as the tents of Kedar, which are blackened by the rain, for they are constantly spread out in the deserts, I am easily cleansed to be like the curtains of Solomon.” In other words, the maiden may be black, but she can be cleansed. In Rashi’s view, black AND beautiful do not go together.
Pope points out that black shows up as a positive color in several biblical verses:
healthy black hair as opposed to yellowish diseased hair (Lev 13:31,37) – when the black hair grows back in, it is a sign of health;
the locks of the lover are “black as a raven” (SoS 5:11);
Zech 6:2-6 – there are 4 chariots representing the 4 winds and each has a different color horse. The black horse represents the north wind. “Those that went out to the regions of the north have done my [God’s] pleasure in the region of the north.” None of the other chariots is mentioned.
In some cases black is opposed to ruddy/white and appears to be the antithesis of health. In Lam 4:7f, whiteness and ruddiness represent health and purity while those who have debased themselves have faces blacker than soot. Pope interprets that this opposition only applies in a case where the healthy normal skin would be ruddy/white, but “has no meaning with respect to innate blackness which has its own beauty.” That is, he claims the blackness is not innately “bad” but rather a sign of loss of normal color.
Verse 5c: tents of Qedar
Pope: Qedar = tribe of Northern Arabia, connected with one of Ishmael’s sons. Pope says that in rabbinic usage, the term is applied to Arabs collectively. The root qdr carries the idea of darkness.
Blochs: the tents of the nomadic Bedouins were typically made of the wool of black goats.
SoS Rabbah says: “Just as the tents of Kedar, although from the outside they look ugly, black, and ragged, yet inside contain precious stones and pearls, so the disciples of the wise, although they look repulsive and swarthy in this world, yet have within them the knowledge of the Pentateuch, the Scriptures, the Mishnah, the Midrash, Halacoth, Talmud, Toseftas and Haggadah.”
Verse 6 a: al-tiruni she’ani shecharchoret: Translated variously as:
don’t stare at me because I am swarthy (JPS Tanakh)
look not upon me that I am swarthy (JPS 1917 – this is the most literal)
stare not at me that I am swart (Pope)
do not see me only as dark (Blochs)
Pope says that al-tiruni [don’t look] has no hint of envy or disdain – it is non committal. Blackness, he says, is striking and beautiful but not necessarily a cause for envy. He translates “stare,” I believe, in the sense of look intently but neutrally
Shecharchoret, translated here as swarthy, swart or dark, is a hapex legomenon [biblical word that appears only once in it’s form]. It is taken as a diminutive of black.
Blochs consider this verse to be an admonition not to see the maiden in only one aspect, that is, not only as black.
SoS Rabbah says that “the sun of idolotry may have tanned us [Israel], but you [other nations] are swarthy from your mother’s womb; for when a woman is pregnant she goes into her idolatrous temple and bows down to the idol along with her child.”
Rashi interpets “Do not look upon me disdainfully…because I am swarthy, for my blackness and my ugliness are not from my mother’s womb, but from tanning in the sun, for that blackness can easily be whitened by staying in the shade.” That is, according to Rashi, the maiden is not idolatrous (black) from birth, but represents Israel, which can be whitened by moving out of the sun.
Verse 6: That the sun has blackened me (shezaphatni)
Pope: shezaphatni might come from two different roots: szp = see, look at; sdp = blasting or scorching of grain by the east wind. So it could mean, “the sun has looked upon me,” or “the sun has scorched me.”
The Blochs translate “has stared at me.” They point out that shazaph outside of SoS is used in Job as “look upon” or “catch sight of,” when the eye is the agent. If sun is the agent of sight, the meaning is secondarily “tan” or “sunburn.’ In modern Hebrew szp is used only for sunburn.
We have gathered very little Biblical evidence, through interpreting SoS 1:5-6, that “black” in the Bible carries a negative connotation. That does not mean it is not there, as our search has been limited. The negative connotation is, however, pronounced in the Midrash and in Rashi. Both rabbinic sources identify blackness with something bad, which can, and hopefully will, be washed away.
Pope, in his discussion on SoS 1:5-6, says that although Rashi “apparently had difficulty conceiving that our lady could be both black and beautiful…in another connection…Rashi overcomes his melainophobia and goes to some trouble to demonstrate that black is beautiful.” Pope refers to Rashi on the Cushite women, which is where we began investigating the connotation of “black” in the Bible. It’s worthwhile looking at what Rashi says regarding Num 12:1. Following is Pope’s translation.
The Cushite woman.
This teaches that everyone acknowledged her beauty, just as everyone acknowledged to the blackness of the Cushite.
Rashi proves by Gematria that black is beautiful by showing that numerically, “Cushitess” = “good-looking.”
I further found the following (http://www.tachash.org/metsudah/m03r.html#ch12 )
For, he married a Cushite woman.
What does the Torah teach? You find a woman beautiful in appearance but not beautiful in deed; in deed, but not in appearance. But this one was beautiful in everything. [explaining why the repetition, “because he married a Cushite woman.” To teach that she was beautiful in both deed and appearance.]
The Cushite woman.
Because of her beauty, she was called “Cushite,” like a man who calls his attractive son “Cushite” to ward off the power of the evil eye over him.