Hardship and the Beauty of Work (Song of Songs 1:1-8)
The Song begins with the woman speaking of her love for her man and, in the course of this, she speaks of how her skin has been darkened because her brothers made her work the family vineyard (Song 1:6). Work arises only six verses into this song about love. In the ancient world, people tended to look down on dark skin not for racial reasons but for economic reasons: dark skin meant that you were in the peasant class and had to work in the sun. Fair skin meant that you were in the aristocracy, and therefore pale skin (not a tan!) was especially prized as a mark of beauty in women. But here, the woman’s hard work has not really diminished her beauty (Song 1:5; “Dark am I, yet lovely,” NIV). Furthermore, her job has prepared her for the future, when she will tend her own vineyard (Song 8:12). A woman who works with her hands may not be an aristocrat, but she is beautiful and worthy of praise.
The loveliness of work, and working people, is often obscured by competing notions of beauty. The Greek world, whose influence is still deeply present in contemporary culture, regarded work as the enemy of beauty. But the biblical perspective is that work has an intrinsic beauty. Solomon builds himself a palanquin (a seat carried on poles) and the Song extols the beauty of the workmanship. It is literally a labor of love (Song 3:10). He puts its beauty to use in the service of love — transporting his beloved to their wedding (Song 3:11) — yet the work was already beautiful in its own right. Work is not only a means to an end — transportation, harvest or paycheck — but a source of aesthetic creativity. And believers are encouraged to see and praise the beauty in others’ — including spouses’ — work.
Diligence (Song of Songs 1:7-8)
The woman seeks her beloved, whom she regards as the finest of men. Her friends tell her that the obvious place to find him is at his work, where he is tending the sheep. Yet his work is arranged in a way that makes interaction with his beloved possible. There is no notion that work time belongs to the employer, while time off belongs to the family. Perhaps the reality of modern work makes family interaction at work impossible in many cases. Truckers shouldn’t text their families while driving, and lawyers shouldn’t receive a visit from their spouses during closing arguments. But perhaps it is not entirely a bad thing that the separation of work and family that arose with the factory system in the 19th century is beginning to fade in many industries.
The NRSV translation, “I am black and beautiful,” may give the erroneous impression that her dark complexion is due to ethnicity rather than exposure to the sun.