The Shulammite, the woman Solomon loves, refers to herself as having dark skin: “Do not gaze at me because I am dark” (Song of Solomon 1:6, ESV). In the NASB, she is “swarthy”; in the KJV, she is “black.”
Some have suggested that the Shulammite woman was a dark-skinned woman, perhaps of African descent. However, a more likely answer is found in the very same verse. Immediately following the mention of the woman as “dark,” we read, “Because the sun has looked upon me” (ESV). In the NIV, it’s clearer what she means: “Because I am darkened by the sun.” And the rest of the verse explains why the Shulammite was in the sun: “My mother’s sons were angry with me / and made me take care of the vineyards; / my own vineyard I had to neglect” In other words, she was forced to work outside in the sun and had not taken care of her skin as she preferred.
In modern Western culture, many women go to great lengths to tan and darken their skin. However, the opposite was true of women in the ancient Near East. Dark or tanned skin was undesirable because it indicated a woman had spent significant time working in the sun, something that servants or poor women did. More affluent women would not labor in the sun; they would stay indoors more or have nicer clothing that covered their skin.
The Shulammite woman did not want to be stared at because of her tanned skin. In Song of Solomon 1:5 we read, “Dark am I, yet lovely, / daughters of Jerusalem, / dark like the tents of Kedar, / like the tent curtains of Solomon.” The tents of Kedar were made from the wool of black goats. The curtains of Solomon is a difficult phrase to render from the Hebrew text. Many believe the correct understanding is instead “the tents of Salma.” If so, the word picture is fitting. The Salma people lived in the same general region as Kedar and likely also constructed their tents with black wool. Otherwise, the curtains of Solomon were likely purple, the color of royalty, a color that would not fit the description in verse 6. Regardless, the Shulammite is telling the other women not to think poorly of her because of her tanned skin.
Some have also sought meaning in Song of Solomon 1:6 based on the identity of Shulammite. The term Shulammite has been interpreted in different ways. Two of the most likely interpretations are that Shulammite means “O perfect one” or that it refers to an area called Shunem (as the LXX chooses). If this latter interpretation is correct, the Shulammite was from Shunem, a village near Jezreel inhabited by the Jews during Solomon’s time. The woman would likely have had an olive complexion, though darker than some due to her working out of doors.
Though the woman in Song of Solomon had some concerns about her appearance, she was clearly loved by Solomon and desired by him. The Song of Solomon offers a great example of how, though imperfect, a man and woman accept and love one another unconditionally and pursue love and intimacy in the context of marriage.