Love and lust: Seerveld and the Song of Songs

Posted: 16th May 2008 by ElShaddai Edwards in Uncategorized

The Greatest Song, in Critique of Solomon
Translated and arranged for oratorio performance by Calvin Seerveld
Published by Toronto Tuppence Press (1988, paperback)
ISBN 0919071023

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I have mentioned Calvin Seerveld‘s translation and study of The Song of Songs several times on this blog, as well as in the comments on many others. I was introduced to Seerveld’s work five years ago in the midst of a two-year Bible study and found it utterly fascinating. His approach blows the cobwebs off the doors of traditional allegorical interpretation, restoring the positive and negative characteristics of physical love and relationship in a completely Biblical context.

In the sections to follow, I will attempt to summarize the key approaches that Seerveld takes. I am not a Hebrew scholar, so I will steer clear of his extensive discussion of the structure of the underlying Masoretic text and leave it to others to discuss his application from a textual viewpoint.

Synopsis. The subtitle of Seerveld’s book is “In Critique of Solomon” and the title character fares poorly in this translation. Rather than Solomon the Lover as most interpretations have it, Seerveld casts Solomon as a lascivious old lecher, more enamored with the lusts of physical flesh than the beauty of love.

“A beautiful virgin in love with a shepherd is brought away from home to the king’s court against her will in order to become another one of Solomon’s wives. Despite Solomon’s declarations of affection, his royal promises, and even the harem women’s exhortations to join herself to the blood line of David, the Shulammite maiden remains true to her betrothed lover [who] searches for her far away. The mighty potentate finally leaves the scene rebuffed, and the lover and Shu come back home to renew their vows near the sweet-smelling mountains.” (p.19)

Obviously the greatest difference between Seerveld and mainstream translations is the recasting of the relationship between the Shulammite and Solomon from lover/beloved to faithful maiden/lecher. The separation of the traditional male voice into the virtuous shepherd lover and the lustful old king is dramatic and utterly natural the more one becomes acquainted with the translation.

Translation. Seerveld states that his approach to the text is literal, perhaps even hyper-literal. He writes that:

The translation presented here is so literal, in fact, that when the Hebrew verb is feminine a woman says it, and when the verb has a masculine ending it is spoken by a man; when the verb is a plural form, several voices say it. [….]

Literal translation is more than substituting brute American English letters for untouched Semitic vowels and consonants. Literal translation means getting across exactly, in one’s native tongue, what is literally there in the strange, original text. This translation tries to do that, as no official one does, by tenaciously showing the constant shift in speakers’ gender and number, and by pointing up in passing the rich variety of song, poetry, dream, dialogue and action embedded so effortlessly in this artistically composed biblical text. (p.10)

In essence, Seerveld has cleverly adopted “literal translation” as a byword for dynamic translation, using the idioms of the receiver langauge to show what was meant in the original text. However, Seerveld goes beyond just a textual translation, however, and employs a variety of literary-dramatic devices to present the text, including song, verse and stage cues. Seerveld’s translation is noted as an arrangement for “oratorio performance”, placing more import on the work as a song than as literature.

Excerpt. Any discussion of Seerveld’s work would be meaningless without presenting the translation itself. In many ways, this is almost impossible, since as a drama, it forms a cohesive whole not easily broken apart to be studied verse by verse. That said, I will take Seerveld’s dramatic organization and present here the fifth movement, or rhapsody, which corresponds to Song of Songs 6:4-8:4. I will leave it as an exercise to the reader to compare these verses with the traditional translation of their choice.

Obviously I am not able to reproduce the actual musical settings presented in the book; you will have to be satisfied with my annotations of what is sung vs. spoken.

[solomon comes stately in to get the new bride; the harem women watch with fascination, then withdraw a little way]
SOLOMON My! You have been dressed well, my lovely one;
You are as pleasantly clad as Tirzah, as beautiful as Jerusalem – frighteningly impressive!

[What is it?!] Do not look at me so! Your eyes disturb me….

Your hair [floats as gently] as a herd of goats wending its way down Mt. Gilead.
Your teeth are like a flock of mother sheep coming up out of their watering place – all soon to be bearing twins, not a one barren.
Your temples are like a piece of pomegranate [hidden] behind your veil.

[suddenly a ringing young voice penetrates clearly into the room from out beyond the window; the shulammite stands transfixed] HER LOVER King Solomon has sixty queens, eighty concubines, and a hoard of young girls!
This one only is mine, this innocent dove – my beautiful one!
This is the only daughter of her mother, her favorite child!
Women have seen her and always marveled; even the queens and concubines have praised her —
CHORUS OF HAREM WOMEN Who is that just visible out there?!
[Who is that shining] down so red as the morning sky?
handsome as the moon, brilliant as the sun, majestic as the glowing planet in the sky?!
[solomon, irate, dispatches some guards to go get the trespasser; the harem women begin to rush out of the room too but wait at the door as the shulammite speaks – to solomon]
SHULAMMITE [she turns her back on solomon, forlorn but determined] [The other day] when I went down to the grove of walnut trees to see the budding flowers by the brook,
to see whether the vines had burst into blossom and the pomegranates were abloom,
before I knew it, you [O King,] had had me set fast in the royal traveling couch. [I will away!!-]
CHORUS OF HAREM WOMEN [from the doorway, amused, tauntingly] Turn around, turn around, oh Shulammite!
Turn around, turn around, so we can see you!
SHULAMMITE What do you want to see in “the Shulammite”!
The sword dance of the bride from Mahanaim?
[at this outburst the women withdraw; the shulammite breaks into crying; solomon watches, but still determined to win her, begins again his advances]
SOLOMON [pause; no response] How elegant is your walk in those [new] shoes, “Royal Daughter”!
SOLOMON The curve of your thighs is a womanly ornament fashioned by the hand of a master artist.
Your navel is like a little round cup and needs to be filled full with spicy wine.
Your belly is like a [shimmering] mound of wheat encircled by lilies.
Your breasts are like two little fawns, twins of a gazelle.
Your [lovely] neck is a tower of ivory.
Your eyes are [as deep as] the pools near Heshbon, at the gates of that great city.
Your nose is like the tower of Lebanon which looks out toward Damascus.
Your whole head is as stately as Mt. Carmel.
Your [tantalizing] hanging locks of hair glisten dark
– a king! is caught in those tresses.
How well formed, how pleasantly formed you are – beloved! –
compared to the most delightfully enchanting things.
Your flowing figure reminds me of a palm tree, your breasts are like clusters of dates –
I said to myself, I will go climb the palm tree! I will go grab hold of its date clusters!
Your breasts will roll over me like clusters of grapes;
The breath of your nose will fill me like the smell of [ripe] apples;
Your kisses will flow like sweet wine —
[as he goes to raise her veil, the shulammite, shamed at such language, righteously angry, breaks away, cuts him off witheringly]
SHULAMMITE — wine flowing straight to the mouth of only my lover!
not touching at all such well worn lips!
I belong to my lover! And only his passionate desire is for me!
[at this moment the guards enter with her lover; and the harem women crowd in behind] SHULAMMITE [running to him] My lover!!
Come! Let us go away, back to the open plain country!
Let us go spend the nights among the henna blossoms.
Let us go visit the gardens early, early in the morning, to see
whether the vines have burst into blossom,
whether the budding flowers have opened up,
whether the pomegranates have come to a bloom.There I will give you my caresses:
the apples of love bear a misting fragrance, and at our openings are the sweetest fruits —
The old as well as new fruits I have kept safe, saved up for you, my lover!
O! if you were only a brother that sucked the breasts of my mother, I would cover you with kisses here in public now that I have found you, and no one could think me immodest!
O! if I could only lead you [immediately] to the home of my mother who brought me up [then] I would give you a tingling wine to drink, the freshly pressed-out wine of my pomegranates!
SHULAMMITE {Seerveld sets the following line to music:}O, if his left hand were only under my head and his right arm holding me tight – Ah!
SHULAMMITE {spoken}Daughters of Jerusalem! I charge you — !
Why did you try to arouse and excite a beloved before the love came naturally?
[as if in answer to the charge, solomon turns and slowly leaves the room with his guards; then the lights turn out and the rest of the performers leave in the darkness; end of fifth and main rhapsody]

Implications. Either as a hymn of praise and love for God’s people Israel, a history of God’s redemptive dealings with Israel, or the mutual love of God and Church, “Song of Songs” has been largely interpreted as allegory by both Christian and Jewish interpreters. According to Seerveld, modern scholarship mainly sees Song of Songs as a collection of ancient Near Eastern erotic and profane love lyrics, which casts doubts on the suitability of the book’s inclusion in the divine canon, which leads back to the need for allegorical explanations.

Instead, Seerveld boils down the Song of Songs to this wisdom statement: “you cannot buy love”.

It must come naturally, like buds blossoming on an apple tree, or it had better not come at all. Love can be waked, but not manufactured. Love can be tantalizingly enjoyed, but not professionally practiced. Love is not a prize to be somehow won, but is a gift possibly to be received. Built into love is an unstudied, unable to be compelled spontaneity. (p.71)

Song of Songs becomes God’s revelation of the beauty of fidelity in the face of compulsion. It is breathlessly about physical love, not an antiseptic allegorical theological tale. It is divinely profane without apology for our modern sensibilities. It is painstakingly honest in its presentation of passion and perversity.

God is love and the image of our Creator is found in the beauty of love, not the perversion of lust. Song of Songs is God’s song of love to us, a song of the natural beauty of physical love between His created lovers.

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Final thoughts. Lest you think that Seerveld is some crackpot without depth behind his dramatic work, I want to assure you that I’ve only scratched the surface of his book. The translation and notes that I’ve referenced make up only half of the book. I will perhaps return with another post on the supporting material, including Seerveld’s notes on unity and structure of the Hebrew, oratorios, dating and authorship, difficult phrases and textural variants. Even better would be someone with knowledge of Hebrew to examine this same material.

P.S. For those interested in more from Seerveld, I am waiting for his recent volume on Psalms to arrive. It contains translations of three dozen psalms and several passages from elsewhere in the Bible, including this take on the Beatitudes (audio link).

  1. Nathan Stitt says:

    Wow, that is quite an interesting take on things. I’m going to see if I can re-read SoS with that idea in mind.

  2. When I get home tonight, I will try to provide a full roadmap to Song of Songs with the alternative voicings. I have it written out in my NASB wide margin so it’s side-by-side with the traditional arrangement.

  3. Nathan Stitt says:

    Your flowing figure reminds me of a palm tree, your breasts are like clusters of dates –
    I said to myself, I will go climb the palm tree! I will go grab hold of its date clusters!
    Your breasts will roll over me like clusters of grapes;
    The breath of your nose will fill me like the smell of [ripe] apples;
    Your kisses will flow like sweet wine –


    Shame the book is so expensive, I can’t say that I’ll buy it, though I am interested in reading it.

  4. TCR says:

    I’m one of those guys who loves to sing but can’t carry a tune in a bucket, if my life depended on it…

  5. Okay, here’s the basic script. If I have time, I’ll come back and edit with some of the stage directions and add any more clarification that’s needed to identify who’s talking to who.

    Note that the verse number is when the speaker begins their line – assume they continue until the next speaker comes in.

    PART 1

    1:2a Harem woman 1
    1:2b Harem woman 2
    1:3a Harem woman 3
    1:3b Harem woman 4
    1:4a Shulammite (to lover)
    1:4b Harem women
    1:5 Shulammite (to women)
    1:8 Harem women (to Shu)
    1:9 Solomon
    1:12 Shulammite
    1:15 Solomon
    1:16 Shulammite
    1:17 Solomon
    2:1 Shulammite
    2:2 Solomon
    2:3 Shulammite

    PART 2

    2:8 Shulammite
    2:10b Shepherd Lover (song)
    2:15 Shulammite (response song)
    2:16 Shulammite (spoken)
    3:1 Shulammite (to women)

    PART 3

    3:6 Harem women
    4:1 Solomon
    4:6a Shulammite (rejecting Solomon)
    4:6b Solomon

    PART 4

    4:8 Shepherd Lover (song)
    4:9 Shepherd Lover (spoken)
    4:12 Shepherd Lover (song)
    4:13 Shepherd Lover (spoken)
    4:15 Shepherd Lover (song)
    4:16 Shulammite (song)
    5:1 Shepherd Lover (song)
    5:2 Shulammite (to women)
    5:9 Harem women
    5:10 Shulammite
    6:1 Harem women
    6:2 Shulammite
    6:3 Shulammite (song)

    PART 5

    6:4 Solomon
    6:8 Shepherd Lover (to Solomon)
    6:10 Harem voices
    6:11 Shulammite (to Solomon)
    6:13a Harem voices
    6:13b Shulammite
    7:1 Solomon
    7:9b Shulammite (to Solomon)
    7:11 Shulammite (to Lover)

    PART 6

    8:5a Shulammite’s brothers
    8:5b Shepherd Lover (to Shu)
    8:6a Shepherd Lover (to Shu)
    8:6b Shulammite (to Lover)
    8:6c Shepherd Lover (to Shu)
    8:6d Shulammite (to Lover)
    8:6e Shepherd Lover (to Shu)
    8:6f Shulammite (to Lover)
    8:7a Shepherd Lover (to Shu)
    8:7b Shulammite (to Lover)
    8:7c Shepherd Lover (to Shu)
    8:7d Shulammite (to Lover)
    8:8 Shulammite (recalling words of brothers)
    8:10 Shulammite (to brothers)
    8:11 Shepherd Lover
    8:13 Shepherd Lover (to Shu)
    8:14 Shulammite

  6. Shame the book is so expensive, I can’t say that I’ll buy it, though I am interested in reading it.

    There is also a hardback edition available with used copies between $12-15 from Amazon sellers, though it’s a 1967 edition, so I don’t know if the supporting material is the same.

    I was fortunate in that I think my Bible class teacher knew either Seerveld or the publisher and could order multiple copies for us at a reduced discount.

  7. @Nathan – a note on the passage just after what you excerpted. The idiom in 7:9b, “not touching at all such well worn lips!“, is translated literally as “through the lips of those who fall asleep” in the NASB.

    The meaning is supposedly that Solomon is so old that he may as well be dead (asleep) and her kisses will not be wasted on him. But most translations don’t see Solomon as the bad guy, so they go with something like “gliding over my lips and teeth” (REB), spoken by the male lover.

  8. As for Seerveld’s division of the entire song into six rhapsodies, so far only the Jerusalem Bible and NJB break the work into similar sections, though there are some differences. The chapter breaks we have in most translations are seemingly meaningless in this book.

  9. Nathan Stitt says:

    Wow that is a lot of extra info, thanks! I’ve printed off the script and will go through it again using it. This is really worthy of a follow up post I think, or at least that’s what I would do. I’ll get back to you with how easy (or not) the script is to read into my other translations.

  10. Thanks for the continued interaction, Nathan. I’ve found it hard to follow Seerveld’s script with a conventional translation, but mainly because all of the chapter divisions and traditional voice indications are so distracting. I’ll look forward to your comments.

  11. I’ve returned to this post from another thought and wonder if a text-only Bible like the The Books of the Bible (TNIV) would be ideal for comparing the traditional script with Seerveld’s.

    Anyone have one that could comment on how much the TBOTB has annotated the speaking roles?