The Wise King’s Fans
Guest column by Timothy Mills at Friendly Humanist
I have the good fortune to cover two of the most humanist books of the Bible: Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs, both traditionally attributed to wise King Solomon. Ecclesiastes is a philosophical reflection communicating an old man’s existential angst; Song of Songs is an erotic exchange between two lovers.
My wife, Deena, put it this way: “Solomon wrote Ecclesiastes before he went on Prozac and Song of Songs after he went on Viagra.”
Let’s look a little deeper.
Identifying King Solomon as the author of Ecclesiastes “is no more than a conventional literary device; the author commends his thoughts to the public under the name of the greatest sage in Israel.”1 I’ll follow David Plotz and the folks at Humanistic Texts in simply calling the author Koheleth (“teacher, leader of the assembly”), the original Hebrew word
which translates to Greek as
The main theme of the book is Koheleth saying of many things “This is vanity”2, and his repeated declarations that “All is vanity”3. That’s 12 near-identical phrases, plus the odd use of the word “vanity” elsewhere in Ecclesiastes. The slightly punchier NIV translation uses the word “meaningless” here. The New King James version offers “Absurdity, Frustration, Futility, Nonsense” as further alternatives in a footnote. When we look at the original Hebrew, we find that “The roots of the word hebel
indicate vapor, fog, steam, breeze or breath…. they all describe something that is transitory, ephemeral, impermanent.”
Aha! “Vanity”, “meaningless”, and the others are editorial extrapolations by early translators. Now we see the original sense more clearly: Everything is ephemeral; Everything is transitory. This is a difficult fact of life faced by humanists and others who do not believe in an eternal afterlife.
No discussion of Ecclesiastes would be complete without mentioning the first eight verses of chapter 3. You’ve probably already heard them – here’s the start:
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
And so on. Some of the lines are questionable (“a time to kill”, “a time to hate”, “a time for war”), but the overall sentiment is reassuring – even to a humanist. Farmers must accept the seasons as they come; living creatures must accept the cycles of life. Naturally, these lines are popular for funeral readings.
The lines that follow, however, say that God ordains the time to do each thing. Is it possible to read the first eight verses without the taint of divine predestiny?
Here’s another recurring theme in this philosophical retrospective on a wise man’s life: we are told six times that the really good things in life are eating, drinking, and enjoying your work and its fruits4. Rather than simply calling this shallow hedonism, we could reasonably interpret it – especially the “enjoying your work” bit – as promoting human flourishing. Humanist philosophers and religious skeptics such as Socrates and Paul Kurtz express similar sentiments, coining words like eudaimonia and eupraxsophy to express the idea. Combine this with what we learn from his repeated use of the word “ephemeral”, and it’s easy to think of Koheleth as an early existential humanist. Cool.5
Unfortunately, a later editor felt that such religion-free morality was not appropriate for the Jewish scriptures, and added these two verses: “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone. For God will bring every deed into judgement, including every secret thing, whether good or evil.” (Ec 12:13-14)
Twelve chapters of telling us that there is no ultimate good, nothing lasts forever, and the greatest worldly good is human well-being, and then we get the old obedience mantra that we first met in the Garden of Eden, as if it is the natural conclusion to draw from what went before. This complete U-turn suggests to non-believers and believers alike that the God-fearing stuff was tacked on some time after Koheleth composed the main body of the book.
My recommendation: do as they do at Humanistic Texts. Lop off the unnecessary addendum, and take this as a good work of humanist philosophy, poetically-presented.
Song of Songs
Now, let’s see what we can make of Solomon’s other masterpiece, Song of Songs. Reading through from Ecclesiastes into the Song, you have to agree that either these two books were written by different people, or Deena was right that there was a severe shift in the author’s pharmaceutical habits between books.
In fact, the Song is probably no more Solomon’s work than Ecclesiastes was. As its Wikipedia page notes, “It was common practice in ancient times for an anonymous writer seeking recognition for his work to write eponymously in the name of someone more famous.”
What about the content? The Song is packed with a wide variety of romantic and erotic images. It is clearly an exchange between two lovers, with some comments thrown in by others. It is not always obvious who is speaking where, though the NIV and NJB translations try to suggest divisions, with headings like “Lover” for the man, “Beloved” for the woman, and “Friends” for other speakers.6
The man compares his lover to a mare; her eyes are doves; her lips taste like honey.7 She says his eyes, too, are like doves; he is like a gazelle or young stag. His skin is golden, his hair is dark and wavy, his legs are like marble.8 So far so good – modern poems and songs contain similar (sometimes identical) imagery.
But not all of the metaphors are so familiar, nor so complimentary to modern eyes.
Hair like a flock of goats”? From a distance, perhaps a big flock of goats flowing down a slope could evoke cascading hair. Teeth like a flock of shorn ewes”? From the context (“all of which bear twins, and not one among them is bereaved”), we must presume he’s telling us she has all her teeth, and maybe that they’re white. Fair enough if you’re living with bronze-age dentistry, but don’t try it in a Valentine’s Day card these days!9
I’m afraid I don’t know exotic fruit well enough to speculate about cheeks like pomegranates, and I’m completely lost when it comes to a neck like the tower of David with a thousand warriors’ shields hanging on it. Breasts like twin fawns may sound cosy and pleasant, though my knowledge of infant ungulates suggests they’re rather scrawny and leggy rather than round and bosom-like.10
With all that, you can’t blame the translators for trying in small ways to translate the imagery to contemporary romantic themes. The rose mentioned in 2:1
is a crocus in the original Hebrew.
There’s other imagery – gardens, locked gates, myrrh – but you get the idea. I’ve left the sexiest metaphors for you to find and enjoy on your own (or, preferably, with a companion).
We now have some idea what images the ancient Jews considered sensual or erotic. We can also infer that the author of this book found sex to be fun.
Which it is! Sex is a delight, physiologically and socially. Humans are adapted to wanting and enjoying sex. It is wired into us as a way of reinforcing pair bonding and maximizing our reproductive chances.
It is also at the root of what we value most: human life. The ancestors of every human on the planet (every animal of any kind, and most plants, for that matter) have been reproducing sexually for about 2.5 billion years. No sex would mean no life as we know it.
The author of the Song didn’t know just how long the history of sex is, but he almost certainly knew that sex leads to children. Even that, however, is not mentioned in the Song – and rightly so. When desire is upon us, it is not the consequences of sex that consume our minds, nor the historical precedents, nor its role in abstract moral philosophy.
It is the act itself. The raw, physical union of two people. This is what caresses the minds of lovers, what tempts and lures and pleases.
And this is what the Song is all about. It is about the fire that awakens in adolescence and, properly honoured and nurtured, doesn’t die until we do.
In Ecclesiastes we have a work of non-theistic moral philosophy, and in Song of Songs we have an erotic cavort through the poetic metaphors of a pastoral culture. The authors of both were big enough fans of Solomon, the wise king, that they credited their books to him. Both made it into the central canons of the Jewish and later the Christian scriptures. And both books, for the most part, convey secular humanist sentiments. What a pleasant reprieve to find, in a collection of bad science, repressive laws, and unlikely miracles, the odd book of humanist-friendly wisdom and joie de vivre.
2Ec 2:15, Ec 2:19, Ec 2:21, Ec 2:23, Ec 2:26, Ec 4:4, Ec 4:8, Ec 5:10, Ec 7:6
3Ec 1:2, Ec 3:19, Ec 11:8
4Ec 2:24, Ec 3:12-13, Ec 3:22, Ec 5:18, Ec 8:15, Ec 11:8
5This is leaving aside, of course, Koheleth’s brief lapses into nihilism (Ec 7:1-4) and misogyny (Ec 7:28).
6The feminist in me would love to rant about the linguistic sexism implicit in these translations that give the male the active label “Lover” and the woman the passive label “Beloved”, but I have too little space to make it more than a footnote.
7So 1:9; So 1:15, 4:1; So 4:11
8So 5:12; So 2:9, 2:17, 8:14; So 5:11, 14, 15; So 5:11; So 5:15
9So 4:1; So 4:2
10So 4:3; 4:4; 4:5