East Bay professors restore erotic tone of Biblical love poem

Citing centuries of "pious bias" that has sanitized translations of the Song of Songs, East Bay scholars Ariel Bloch and Chana Bloch have sought to restore the intensity and eroticism of the Bible's sexiest book.

A series of stanzas in which two presumably unmarried lovers express their passion, the Song of Songs has been the subject of countless commentaries and interpretations. Grappling to account for its place in the Bible, theologians have argued that the poem describes God's love for the people of Israel or Jesus' love for the church.

To justify these interpretations, translators have played down the poem's sensuality. That's the "pious bias," say the Blochs.

Past translations of the ancient love poem, for example, have translated the Hebrew word tsamah as "veil."

In their new translation, however, the Blochs opt for the word "hair."

The translation of a single word, the scholars contend, makes a tremendous difference in how the entire work is perceived.

With a head adorned by hair rather than a veil, the female protagonist "appears not as a chaste, bashful young maiden," says Ariel Bloch, professor emeritus of Near Eastern studies at U.C. Berkeley, "but as a young woman who is truly aware of her sexuality and of her powers to tempt.

"It is clear why generations have been very happy about the veil, although it is a wrong translation," Ariel says. "It befits a chaste maiden of Israel to be veiled."

In their recently published work, The Song of Songs: A New Translation, the Blochs steer clear of bias, attempting instead to remain as faithful as possible to the original text and tone of the Hebrew. The result is richly sensual verse.

"The song of songs is very voluptuous, but very delicate at the same time," says Chana Bloch, a professor of English and director of the creative writing program at Mills College in Oakland. "We felt very strongly that none of the available translations into English is close enough to the Hebrew and none of them really captures the spirit."

The Blochs spent the last five years attempting to do just that. Along the way, they discovered nuances that shed new light on the identity and interactions of the Bible-era lovers.

For one thing, the Blochs, who were formerly married, theorize that the grace and speed of the Hebrew text implies youth. "When [the woman] says, `Take me by the hand, let us run together,' that gives us a clue that these are young people," Chana says. "Not one of the translations that we read suggests they are young lovers."

Moreover, other translations lead readers to believe the lovers' passion is unconsummated. The Blochs believe otherwise.

One verse, for example, has consistently been translated as "I come into my garden. However, the correct translation, the Blochs say, is "I have come into my garden." If the garden is seen as a metaphor for sexual intercourse, the grammar suggests the act is a completed one.

"It's perfectly clear to us," Chana says, "that at least in this one place, these lovers are not just yearning for fulfillment. They have consummated their love. In fact, in the very beginning when she says `your sweet loving is better than wine,' she knows what his sweet loving is like."

As the scholars sought to accurately translate the ancient Hebrew verse, their work often proved tedious. Some of the words found in the song, for example, appear in the Bible rarely, if at all.

Though the word "tsamah" means "braid" or "long hair" in modern Hebrew, the Blochs did not simply open a dictionary to arrive on a translation. Rather, they discovered passages in the Book of Isaiah that support the translation of the word as "hair."

An extensive commentary included in their book devotes more than two pages to the word "tsamah." The commentary is unique to translations of the Song of Songs, explaining the poem's long-disputed language, passage by passage.

The book also includes a history of the poem — which has been widely attributed to Solomon, but whose author remains unknown — as well as its original Hebrew text.

The Hebrew verse, like its translation, is laid out on green-tinted pages that suggest the verdant fields where the lovers' interludes took place.

Though penned thousands of years ago, the Song of Songs has a modern message, the Blochs believe. In addition to its timeless celebration of love and sensuality, the biblical book presents unexpected models of both men and women.

While ancient Jewish texts are largely presented from the male point of view, it is the woman's voice that dominates the Song of Songs. What's more, Ariel points out, the male voice in the poem departs from the tone of those traditionally heard in the Bible.

Sometimes, "it's an angry male," Ariel says. "God commands, `Thou shalt not do this or this or else.' The Song of Songs presents a totally different face, a loving face, a joyful face. That is what affected us."

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.