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Song of Songs: The book of longing

By Cynthia Greenlee-Donnell, The Herald-Sun
September 5, 2003   11:54 am

Some star-crossed lovers recite Shakespeare, but Carl Ernst tapped the Bible for words of wooing.

The UNC religious studies professor quoted part of the Song of Songs to his future wife, Judith.

"He intrigued me and the Song intrigued me," said Judith Ernst of Chapel Hill.

That was decades ago. But Judith Ernst, 51, rediscovered the Song of Songs (also called the Song of Solomon) about six years ago. She has adapted this book of the Bible and illustrated portions of it in her "Song of Songs" (Eerdmans, $21).

The biblical Song of Songs is a dialogue between two unnamed lovers. In an Old Testament dominated by patriarchs, it is distinguished by its strong, primarily female voice. Its feminine bent is fairly unusual, as is its descriptive discussion of sex.

"When I first read it, it was such a revelation. It was intoxicating. When I took it out of chapter and verse, it became this really seductive, poetic text," said Ernst. She saw connections with sensual South Asian religious writings, like the Gita Govinda, that she read when she lived in India and Pakistan during the 1970s and 1980s.

"Song of Songs" is her second religion-themed book. In 1995, she illustrated and published "The Golden Goose King," a children's book based on a Buddhist tale, with her own small company, Parvardigar Press.

Though she has never formally studied religion, Ernst is well-aware that the Song has been the subject of much scholarly and theological debate. One major camp interprets its carnal content as a metaphor for divine union with God; in the Jewish Talmud, it's seen as an allegory of God's relationship with Israel. Another popular school of thought, which originated about the time of the women's movement, argues the Song is purely sexual.

"Nobody knows how to interpret it," said Ernst. "I wanted to do it in a way that opened it up for people who haven't read it. For centuries, the Song of Songs was understood allegorically. Everything was turned into something else. Then the more recent school has tended to triumphantly say, 'It's really about sex.' In a sense, I'm trying to reclaim both. Longing is longing and where do you draw the line?"

Ellen F. Davis, associate professor of Bible and practical theology at Duke Divinity School, said, "I think she's right to read it on a 'both'-'and' level. Almost all contemporary scholarship reads it as erotic. On one hand, it's about human need. On the other, it's inviting us into mystical experience."

For "Song of Songs," Ernst took the King James Bible version and typed it into her computer as one long poem. She substituted modern words for some of its formal terms -- including "thee" and "thy" -- and consulted former UNC religion professor Jack Sasson about the ancient Hebrew vocabulary.

The language changes are often minute. For instance, a King James Bible published by the American Bible Society begins the Song: "Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth: for thy love is better than wine. Because of the savor of thy good ointments thy name is as ointment poured forth, therefore do the virgins love thee."

Ernst's version reads: "Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth -- for your love is better than wine. Because of the sweet fragrance of your ointment your name is as ointment poured forth. Therefore do maidens love you."

A former Stanford art student, Ernst then created luminous gouache paintings to match parts of the text. There are images of a woman searching the street for her lover or awaiting a tryst in a vineyard. The women's features look vaguely Middle Eastern, and their dress is deliberately timeless. The male lover is never pictured.

Looking briefly at Ernst's book, Ellen Davis commented: "We have very few artistic depictions of the Song. We have a bezillion Bathshebas and Judases. And we have almost no depictions of the woman in the Song of Songs."

Professor Davis, who wrote the book "Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs," added that the nonrealistic language and archaic descriptions -- for example, "thy teeth are like a flock of sheep that are even shorn, which came up from the washing" -- might make it difficult to depict the Song's characters.

Not only is the Song rarely portrayed in religious art, it is often not a regular part of contemporary religious worship. It was apparently well-read in the medieval years; Martin Luther reportedly called it the "noblest of songs."

But Frederick A. Davis, pastor of First Calvary Baptist Church, said that he rarely uses the Song, except in meditation, personal usage with his wife or sometimes in marriage counseling or seminars.

Ellen Davis noted that the Song's poetic form, as well as its sexual imagery, may also deter clergy from discussing this Scripture. The Song may be especially challenging to explain in religious settings that discourage premarital sex; the lovers are sexually involved but never clearly marry.

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