Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Song of Songs: The Bible's Gay Love Poem?

In light of a recent comment left in response to this previous Wild Reed post, I’d like to share the following review by Jim Kepner of Dr. Paul R. Johnson’s (regrettably out-of-print) book, The Song of Songs, A Gay Love Poem (Fidelity Press, 1995).

8/26/14 Update: Debunking Paul Johnson's Gay Reading of Song of Songs.

According to Johnson, the highly charged love poem that we now call the Song of Songs was originally addressed by Asher, one of Solomon’s sons, to Caleh, a shepherd-soldier.

I hear my love, see how he comes
leaping on the mountains,
bounding over the hills.
My love is like a gazelle,
like a young stag.

– Song of Songs

Of course, much has been written about the close friendship between Solomon’s father, David, and Jonathan. (Regular Wild Reed visitors would be aware, I’m sure, of Tom Horner’s book, Jonathan Loved David: Homosexuality in Biblical Times.) Accordingly, various artistic representations of David and Jonathan accompany this posting of Kepner’s review of Johnson’s book - a review that first appeared in the International Gay and Lesbian Review in 1995.


[The Song of Songs, a Gay Love Poem] gives an amazing new turn to the highly erotic Old Testament love poem in the Bible, inaccurately called “The Song of Solomon,” which has been a mystery and often a scandal to Jews and Christians alike. Homophobic religious writers have, among other things, wiggled about trying to explain a supposed woman with male parts and male roles. First, the poem, seeming out of place in the Bible, has no religious content, though theologians have argued unconvincingly that its love passages, some explicitly sexual, don’t really describe human lovers at all, but symbolize the love of Jahveh for Jewish men, or the love of Christ for his bride, the church. Extremely confusing is the fact that the speaker seems constantly to change, and the beloved is sometimes male, sometimes female, and often of uncertain gender.

Dr. Paul R. Johnson, an evangelical minister who has written extensively about fundamentalists and gays, and who has long been involved in the Southern California gay movement, has labored for twenty years with the original Hebrew, finally producing a translation aided by fragmentary pre-Masoretic texts which clear up the mystery. His 144 page book discusses how the text, originally written about 920 B.C.E., evolved from a frankly homophilic love poem sung in homes and taverns at a time when the Hebrews were not yet publicly homophobic (such poems were found in many ancient Near Eastern cultures), to the editing millenia later by Masorete scribes, who produced the presently confused text. By hiding the name of the true author and changing the gender of the lover or the beloved in many passages, they made The Canticle (its more proper name) appear to be a heterosexual love poem, with an uncertain number of speakers.

A more accurate version appeared in several earlier scraps of the song found among the Dead Sea Scrolls in Qumram cave #4. The cover-up began in the first line, when the name Asher, one of Solomon’s many sons, apparently black, was read as a preposition instead of a proper name. In the second verse, the Revised Standard Version of the Bible notes that the pronouns for the beloved, given as neuter in the text, are really masculine. Most Hebrew scholars admit parenthetically, that the speaker-lover in 85% of the poem is clearly male, as is the beloved. Yet all modern versions except that by Rev. Dr. Johnson make it appear as a heterosexual love drama. Direct quotes show otherwise: 4:10,11:

How delightful you are Caleh,
My lover-man, my other half.
Your pleasing masculine love is better than wine.
The smell of your body is better than perfume.
Your moustache is waxed with honeycomb.
Honey and milk are under your tongue.
The scent of your clothing is like the smell of Lebanon.

As Johnson points out in this revolutionary booklet, this highly charged love poem was addressed by Asher to Caleh, a shepherd-soldier. It gets to the heart of the question of whether the Hebrews and early Christians were fundamentally homophobic, or whether, as John Boswell has maintained, homophobia was a later addition. Johnson has consulted with many Hebrew scholars, who reluctantly concede the validity of his revolutionary word-for-word translation. The Masoretes did not, happily, produce a homophobic text. They merely made a gay love poem appear to be hetero. And that was done to many ancient poems and stories. As this writer, as well as Dr. Johnson and others have noted, there are many wife-purchase stories in the Bible, but the only true love stories are same-gender.

The Song of Songs now stands as the most explicit homoerotic love poem in the Bible, with clear naming of this thing going into that thing. Johnson’s small book is a must for all Jewish or Christian gays, though many might be too timid to abandon conventional hetero mistranslations. This book is also very useful for gays who wish to answer religious homophobes.

8/26/14 Update: Debunking Paul Johnson's Gay Reading of Song of Songs.

Above: “David and Jonathan” (2004) by Adi Nes.

Writes Susan Chevlowe of Nes’ evocative photograph: “The renewed importance of biblical mythology in Israeli culture in the wake of the 1967 War was instrumental in nurturing Nes’s identity and in shaping his work. . . . Israel’s triumph over its enemies has often been read through the victory of David over Goliath, understood in accord with the Zionist adaptation of biblical narratives to validate contemporary national and political ones. Yet in this photograph, rather than the heroism of David in his defeat of Goliath, Nes chooses to represent David with Jonathan – the beautiful youth whose relationship has figured in art and literature as a homoerotic trope. In Nes’s oeuvre, homoeroticism plays a role as a mechanism that exposes the ambivalence in a national narrative grounded in a mythos of heroic masculinity. The moment that Nes represents does not have an exact parallel in the Bible, but it suggests both their parting at which they ‘kissed one another, and they wept with one another, until David [wept] greatly’ (1 Sam. 20:41) and their rendezvous in the Wilderness at Ziph (1 Sam. 23:16-18), when they made a covenant with God and it was understood that Jonathan had put aside his ambitions for David’s sake. The young man playing the red-haired David looks directly yet cautiously into the camera, while sheltering the younger boy, Jonathan, who leans into him for support. The pose alludes to the way in which David held his harp, so that he appears to be plucking or playing Jonathan, releasing a silent yet soothing music.”

Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth,
for your love-making is sweeter than wine.
In his delightful shade I sit,
and his fruit is sweet to my taste.
My love is mine and I am his.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
The Bible and Homosexuality
On Civil Unions and Christian Tradition
The Non-Negotiables of Human Sex
Just Love
The Many Manifestations of God’s Loving Embrace
Alexander’s Great Love
Hypocrisy, Ignorance, Promiscuity, and the Love that is “the Center of Catholic Christianity”
Joan Timmerman on the “Wisdom of the Body”
The Archangel Michael as Gay Icon
St. Francis of Assisi and Human Sexuality
The Sexuality of Jesus

Recommended Off-site Links:
The Song of Songs Through Gay Eyes – Tom Yeshua.
David and Jonathan: Biblical Homosexual Relationship? The Arab Observer, January 25, 2007.


kevin57 said...

Thank you for this informative post. Of course, biblical translation is tough, never an exact science, but the effort to get at the root source and expression of a passage or entire book of the bible is a necessary and good one.

I'm sure another book is waiting to be a mystic, and almost certainly gay, saint, John of the Cross, resonated so well with the Song of Songs. This is the stuff of a psychospiritual masterpiece!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the link to the book. Your posts are very insightful, and I'm glad I found your blog.

Anonymous said...

An "evangelical biblical scholar" translates this poem as between male beloveds? I certainly have no quarrel with reading it that way, because the poem portrays lovers aspiring to an ideal -- an ideal of love, charged with erotic energy, joyous sensuality, egalitarian intensity, reciprocity, in which lovers look at and through each other to see a world of their very own. Androphile romantic love is just as vibrant as heterophile.

But the Song belongs to a tradition known throughout the ancient Near East, as a sacred marriage song, "which speak of love by young people who express their longings, yous, desires, and pains, as well as fascinations with the experience of love." As far as its "theological" inclusion in the Bible, scholars insist it is a religious allegory recounting God's love for Israel (Christians substitute the Church for Israel).

Frankly, it is a pagan text, expropriated from Mesopotamian sacred marriage songs, and its vitality speaks to a mature sexual communion between beloveds. Whether that is male-male, female-female, or female-male is really besides the point, as romantic love knows no sex, gender, ethnicity, etc. Like much of the Tanakh, the texts were "taken" from other sources for its use of creating an exclusive community of tribal cohesion. Knowing that fact makes the poetry a bit difficult to regard as "inclusive."

Anonymous said...

I can't help asking: where on earth did you get the picture?

Anonymous said...

I mean the handsome gents in their jungle tableau....

Todd Rimes said...

The image is by Pierre et Gilles:

Michael J. Bayly said...

Thanks, Todd.

The image can also be viewed here.



Rob T. said...

What a BEAUTIFUL post & commentary. Thank you Michael for reminding us the Bible isn't what the anti-gay "Christians" claim it is.

George said...

Interesting post... I can see that you put a lot of hard work on your blog. I'm sure I'd visit here more often. George from love poem.ovele

Kittredge Cherry said...

Thank you! This is most enlightening. I am going to suggest to my publisher that they bring "Song of Songs: The Bible's Gay Love Poem" back into print.

Michael J. Bayly said...

That would be great, Kittredge! I hope you manage to persuade your publisher to bring this particular book back into print.



Anonymous said...

I'm more than positive that the men mentioned here were lovers. However in the ancient world there was a set ideal view of male/male love; and it does not mirror what we think or how we view male/male relationships of today.

Today many gay men try to emulate the male/female dynamic, and that cannot be done. On the intimate side we have men using terms like "tops and bottoms", "passive or aggressive" to describe sexual roles.

In ancient times the ideal male was "one without holes"; so he was not to be penetrated- therefore another sexual practice was done, which we today call "frottage" "rubbing of the genitals".

MOST men who identify as gay, do not follow the ideal model exampled by David and Jonathan or the other two. Interestingly the men of today who do follow their example, are ridiculed harshly by the ones who do not. It doesn't mean it never happened, though it wasn't seen as ideal, and was frowned upon, even illegal in some areas.

When we see pornography of the ancient world, we see men penetrating men, and even more so boys. When the ideal image is shown in art or literature- it does not look pornographic, but more noble, romantic, equal, loving, and loyal.

When the bible says "man shall not lie with man, as he would a woman".

This does not mean a man cannot be in love with a man, because the word "lie" is ancient talk for sex- and is where we get terms like "you need to get laid" or "she was a good lay"

How does a man have sex with a woman? He penetrates her with his manhood- and so looking at the ideal view of what male/male relationships were in the ancient world, men were not to penetrate men, and or treat them like women... Unfortunately many gay men of today do exactly that.

Anonymous said...

I understand the idea that in ancient times relationships between men were viewed differently than they are today. It was common for men to be very close with one another, to sleep with each other and to be intimate. This was not considered gay--it was normal male behavior. Women were unfortunately considered property with the purpose of acquiring, penetrating and producing young and caring for the young. Its hard as a modern human to wrap my head around this concept. Early bible writers and editors have carefully neutered gay references and have turned the bible into a homophobic text. What a shame to disrespect the God blessed love between David and his lover. The idea that today's gay men don't get it as we penetrate each other and practice anal sex is offensive. Nearly 80 percent of gay men produce offspring. That says something about gay men. We produce young as we have the same urge to procreate and produce young as any other so-called straight male. The idea that something is wrong or sick with Gay men is a modern perversion.

Anonymous said...

I'm now re-reading chunks of the bible and, while I love that people are opening up to the non-gay-hating influence, I'm not too impressed that this is replaced with the rather typical "men/men are great; women are for purchase". And, yes, you do put it that blatantly halfway through. Thanks for reminding me that women, to the Bible, are chattel.

On a different note though, this the majority of this is a lovely piece of writing. Thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

Does any library in the U.S. have this book? No copy to be found at the San Francisco Public Library or at the UC Berkeley Library. If anyone out there in Cyberspace has a personal copy, I'd like to get a little more info about it for my LGBT history research project.

michael said...

I'm admittedly six years late to this particular party, but I stumbled upon someone using a horrific mistranslation of the Song of Songs to counter an online homophobe, and traced it back to this post. While countering homophobia is an admirable goal, and I find Christian abuse of Hebrew literature to serve hateful ends more painful than almost anybody, this specious "research" and flagrant mistranslation is also an abuse, and does nobody fighting the good fight any favors. I am loath to engage in Internet feuds, but it pains me that people are out there patting themselves on the back for finding a bad, agenda-ed translation of my personal favorite poem.

I speak Hebrew and have degrees in both the Hebrew language and Jewish studies, which includes a whole lot of textual history as well as linguistics, and translate Hebrew poetry and literature for a living. I have not read the book in question, but based on your description, it is certainly a fraud.

No fragments of the Song of Songs found among the Dead Sea Scrolls (there are only four minute fragments: 4Q106, 4Q107, 4Q108 and 6Q6) differ from the Masoretic text, nor do they disprove any of the informed theories regarding its provenance (although since public and scholarly understandings of the Scrolls are wildly divergent, it's easy to fabricate research as long as you're not writing for an expert audience). While opinions vary, as they do in everything related to Biblical scholarship, almost no scholar would date the song to the tenth century BCE. Its language, which includes Persian loanwords, indicates a likely composition in the period of Persian rule over Judea (the sixth to fourth centuries BCE). The presence of Aramaisms in the Hebrew, considered in conjunction with the Persian words, also indicate a late date as far as Biblical texts. Trust me, if you speak Hebrew, the language of the Song is highly distinct from Biblical texts written earlier.

If you'd like to read a serious, agenda-free, peer-reviewed study of the Song's likely literary antecedents (Egyptian and other Near Eastern love poetry, generally heterosexual) by an actual scholar of the Hebrew Bible, check out Michael V. Fox's The Song of Songs and the Ancient Egyptian Love Songs. Also try Marvin Pope's Song of Songs.

As far as other claims you've listed:

"Asher" is a relative pronoun, not a preposition (it is also a name, but the context in which it appears precludes that possibility). The line is שיר השירים אשר לשלמה - shir ha-shirim 'asher li-shlomoh, which is slightly ambiguous because of the preposition ל. It could mean either "The Song of Songs which is Solomon's" or "The Song of Songs which is for Solomon." Likely this is the author attributing it to a prominent historical figure to add a certain cachet to the text, which was a very common practice both among ancient Jews and in the wider Hellenistic world. (Confusing a relative pronoun, a preposition and a proper name should be your first clue that Johnson has no real knowledge of Hebrew.)

There is no neuter in Hebrew. It is a strictly gendered language (note that, as anybody who's taken Intro to Linguistics should be able to tell you, grammatical gender and biological gender have nothing to do with one another, it's just a term used in linguistics to describe a certain system of grammatical inflection, one of many). The language of the Song indicates a dialogue between, largely, a male and a female speaker, with occasional interjections from a different speaker, perhaps serving as something like a Greek chorus. It is extremely easy for anyone with a basic knowledge of Hebrew to distinguish the gender of a speaker and the gender (and number) of the object of a sentence, as all that information is reflected in pronouns and inflections of verbs and adjectives. No Hebrew scholar would "admit," parenthetically or otherwise, that both speakers of the Song are male, because it's simply not in the text.


michael said...

(part 2)

"Yet all modern versions except that by Rev. Dr. Johnson make it appear as a heterosexual love drama." This should tell you something. If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and all but one scholar forcefully assert that it is a duck, it's probably not a mongoose.

This is the text of the passage you quote, which, despite what Johnson says, is unequivocally the oldest version anyone has of the Song of Songs:

מה יפו דדיך אחתי כלה מה טבו דדיך מיין וריח שמניך מכל בשמים. נפת תטפנה שפתותיך כלה דבש וחלב תחת לשונך וריח שלמתיך כריח לבנון

(Mah yafu dodhayikh, aḥothi kallah, mah tovu dodhayikh mi-yayin we-reiaḥ shemanayikh mi-kol besamim. Nofeth titofnah sifthothayikh kallah, devash we-ḥalav taḥath leshoneikh we-reiaḥ salmothayikh ke-reiaḥ levanon.)

I don't even know where to truly begin with the translation you've posted, other than to say the text quoted is very unambiguous. "How pleasant is your lovemaking, my sister, bride, how much better than wine, and the scent of your oils [is better] than all perfumes. Your lips drip honey, bride, honey and milk are under your tongue, and the scent of your garments is like the scent of Lebanon."

Caleh is not an attested Hebrew name (unless it were a masculine name meaning "impermanent," which it isn't). The word is kallah, and it means "bride." Or occasionally "daughter-in-law."

One cannot simply invent "Dead Sea fragments" in order to come up with a translation that would make any Hebrew speaker or Biblical scholar groan and shake his or her head (and I promise, Johnson has not consulted with a single genuine Hebrew scholar, and if he did, they laughed, not "reluctantly concede[d] the validity of his revolutionary word-for-word translation"). The Masoretes did not produce a homophobic text. They also did not produce a homophilic text. They reproduced a lovely poem about youthful, heterosexual erotic love.

(Also, there is no "clear naming of this thing" - any thing - "going into that thing." The Song is erotic, but it is also circumspect.)

If you want a poetic but also informed translation of the Song by Hebrew-literate Jewish scholars, try Chana and Ariel Bloch's wonderful version. If you'd like to read some brilliant Hebrew poetry that genuinely flouts heteronormativity, try the Jewish poets of al-Andalus, who wrote in love poems to men and boys in the Arabic mold.

What you've got here is not translation. It's fanfiction. Make cases for just causes based on their justice, not mistranslation of ancient poetry. Doing otherwise is a disservice to both justice and literature.

And kids, always check your sources.

Kittredge Cherry said...

On the other hand, scholar Angela Yarber finds evidence that the Song of Songs was a lesbian love poem between two women!
More info:

Kuudere-Kun said...

I really see little way to ignore the fact that Shulamith is a woman.

Now the idea that both protagonists are women is something I'm open too if that argument has been made.

Michael J. Bayly said...

Thanks for your comment, Jared, and for the link.



Vinod krishna said...

Is this lines from song of songs?
Please revert. Very powerful article.

Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth,
for your love-making is sweeter than wine.
In his delightful shade I sit,
and his fruit is sweet to my taste.
My love is mine and I am his.