The Song of Songs

Ariel Bloch + Chana Bloch

translated from the Hebrew
University of California Press 1995
A book review by Danny Yee © 2001
This is the most compelling translation of the Song of Songs I have read — concise, punchy, and erotic. It is also elegantly laid out, with the Hebrew and English on facing pages and plenty of white space. That only stretches the poem out to seventy pages, however, and the remainder of this edition is taken up by a forty page introduction, twelve pages of afterword (by Robert Alter), almost a hundred pages of commentary, a bibliography, and an index. It would make a nice gift for a lover interested in Biblical studies; a hardcover gift edition is available.

The introduction explains the form and structure of the Song of Songs and places it in its historical context. The style and content suggest a Hellenistic date — and the attribution to Solomon is certainly an invention — but the genre is older, with some parallels in much earlier ancient Egyptian love poetry.

"Similes and metaphors from nature alternate with images from art and architecture in the four formal set-pieces where the lovers single out for praise the parts of each other's bodies; these poems belong to a genre often referred to by the Arabic term wasf. The images are not literally descriptive; what they convey is the delight of the lover in contemplating the beloved, finding in the body a reflected image of the world in its freshness and splendor."
There are obvious comparisons with other parts of the Old Testament, but the Song of Songs stands out from those in many ways. It is "the only example of secular love poetry from ancient Israel that has survived", "an unabashed celebration of erotic love"; its theme is "the wonder of a woman with a man — an unmarried woman, with no concern about perpetuating the family line and no motive but pleasure". The Blochs also touch on how the Song came to be part of the canon and its subsequent history, the subject of allegorical and mystical interpretations of all kinds. Alter's afterword is a brief critical essay on the Song of Songs itself.

The commentary is rather technical, really for those interested in the linguistics of ancient Hebrew, the nuances of translation, or Biblical exegesis, though there are a few comments on style and some general background information. A knowledge of Hebrew will definitely help, but it is not essential (and transliterations of all texts are provided).

March 2001

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%T The Song of Songs
%A Bloch, Ariel
%A Bloch, Chana
%M Hebrew
%I University of California Press
%D 1995
%O paperback, dual text, introduction, notes, bibliography, index
%G ISBN 0520213300
%P 253pp