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The Song of Songs

Translation by Marcia Falk, 1990 (& 2004)

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Falk's translation of these passionate, enigmatic Bible verses

  • Oct 29, 2010

I review the 1990 edition; the 2004 reprint apparently excises a hundred pages of commentary and works cited by translator Marcia Falk. Her edition cannot be faulted in its earlier version.

Barry Moser's illustrations intrigue, for they depict flora and fauna, but no men or women. An interesting choice, given the intensity of the erotic and the passionate that infuses this text.

For readers who may not have access to the whole as she intended, in the fuller version, Falk prefaces her own reconstruction of this erotic, but often tamed by teachers, book of the Bible. She divides it into 31 Hebrew verses with a summary of the major interpretations. 1a) Jewish: Allegory of love between God and the people of Israel, 1b) Christian: allegory between Christ and the Church (or the individual). 2a) Drama between Solomon and the Shulammite, 2b) Drama with Solomon and "two country lovers." 3) Wedding song cycle. 4) Liturgy, "the residue of an ancient fertility cult." 5) Love poem, "structurally unified." 6) Love poems, as a collection or an anthology.

She favors the last choice. She discerns six types of lyrics, as monologues and dialogues within. She reminds us how women's words "do not seem filtered through the lens of patriarchal male consciousness." Women being central, their speech sounds truer.

However, she cautions any reading that marginalizes men or posits "female domination." For Falk, the men speak as naturally as the women, because the language shows them speaking to each other with the same sensuous expression. No hierarchies remain; for once in the Bible, a balance of the sexes emerges.

Four contexts also arise: the countryside, the wilder landscape, the interiors of dwellings, and city streets. Love dialogues and many monologues happen out in the open but cultivated or habitable stretches of the open. More remote nature suggests awe, even being overwhelmed by love and emotion. Chambers and interiors stimulate dreams and fantasies, and the imagination in this third realm appears most free. Finally, the tense and intense relationships  pull the lovers into the streets. Here, threat and tension arrive. "The daughters of Zion (or Jerusalem)" as the city women seem to scorn the dark beauty of the Shulammite.

The beloved's beckoned, the beloved's banished. The beloved's searched for, the self searches in a hostile world. And, love's praised. These constitute the five themes Falk finds in over half of the poems. She favors the romance as secret, as necessarily out of the eye of the public, of the night watchman or Jerusalem's daughters. For the lovers may have to hide in the room at dark, or flee to the hinterlands, so as to be together safely.

Motifs of flora and fauna, vines and vineyard, garden as place and as metaphor, "eating and drinking as erotic metaphors," wealth and royal living, and sensuality and the senses comprise six main motifs. Botanical research infuses her verse, and cognates for plants and fruits over thousands of years align not always neatly with what we call them today. It can be awkward to move from romantic effusions that we associate with lovers to those martial metaphors, the imagery of feasting, and explicit imagery from the senses which fill many lines. Falk reminds us that the best way to come prepared for The Song of Solomon is "a readiness to respond to sensuality." (See also my review of the 2010 study by Michael Coogan, "Sex & God: What the Bible Really Says," as he concurs with Falk's reading of the Songs as an anthology of secular love poems.)

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About the reviewer
John L. Murphy ()
Ranked #48
Medievalist turned humanities professor; unrepentant but not unskeptical Fenian; overconfident accumulator of books & music; overcurious seeker of trivia, quadrivia, esoterica.      … more
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