Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 12 (2012) - Review

Assis, Elie, Flashes of Fire: A Literary Analysis of the Song of Songs (LHBOTS, 503; London: T&T Clark, 2009). Pp 304. Hardcover. US$130.00. ISBN: 978-0-567-02764-1.

This work represents a careful literary reading of the Song of Songs as a unified composition of love poetry. Assis is deeply conversant with the text and analyzes each verse of poetry as serving the larger purpose of the poem. Recognizing that lyric poetry does not need to conform to narrative plot development, he also rejects an approach to structure based on the refrains (2:6–7; 3:5; 6:3; 8:3–4) as end markers for subdivisions. Assis divides the work into two dozen poems that can be characterized into four categories: Poems of Adoration, Poems of Yearning, Descriptive Poems, and Invitations to a Rendezvous. The last type plays an important part in the structure because the main theme of the poem is a longing for contact. These invitations form the climax of the love poems that precede them.

The superscription connects the book with Solomon, according to Assis, but in a manner that is not clear. The king appears in a positive fashion at the beginning but becomes an object of satire by the end. Assis might have developed this to suggest that Solomon is an ideal figure connected with the woman's vision of the man as her “Solomon,” and vice-versa, in terms of the naming of the woman as “the Shulammite.” Thus the woman's satire of the final verses becomes a rejection of Solomon's image in favor of the love of the man.

The first unit ends with the eighth verse of the poem. In it, Assis sees the woman dreaming about the man and yet not involved with him. The man, on the other hand, pushes the woman away with his answer that she can find him by going out “in the tracks of the flock” (1:8). It is difficult to see how the man's adulation of the woman as “most beautiful of women” (1:7) fits into this scenario. Does this not suggest a desire for a personal relationship? Is he indeed sending her away or is he inviting her to meet with him?

In what Assis identifies as the second unit (1:9–2:17), both the man and the woman express yearning for one another. However, there is a shyness and hesitancy on the part of the man. Assis is correct in seeing the sense of smell as a key in the degree of intimacy at various points in the poem. Here, however, it does not appear and so the time for their love is not yet ripe.

Assis's third unit (3:1–5:1) begins with the woman's dream of seeking her lover nightly. This imagining leads to her finding her lover and bringing him to her home for intimacy. The man dreams of his lover coming up from the wilderness. As before, the man becomes hesitant and retreats from intimacy by changing the subject. So 3:7 begins a poem of Solomon's bed, one begun by the man but finished (vv. 10–11) by the woman. The man, fearful of emotional intimacy, tends to focus on the strength of Solomon, according to Assis. However, the woman redirects the focus of the poem to the bed, the wedding, and the joy it brings. While somewhat speculative, Assis is correct that his reading does fit the context of the larger poem. Oddly, he omits the second verb in 3:11 in his translation.

In the previous section (1:9–2:17), the man had acted in a shy manner, by averting his eyes and description of the woman away from her breasts. Here they become the climax of his description of her (4:1–7). It ends at that point, as the man turns to identify his desire for the woman. The final part of this section (4:8–5:1) turns to the man's aroused interest in the woman, whose unpreparedness is symbolized in the metaphors of the locked garden and sealed fountain. The woman is aroused to invite her lover to her garden (4:16), whither he comes (5:1).

This act of love is one that Assis regards as quite real, not a fantasy or dream. It is also in this section that the man repeatedly identifies his lover as “my sister, my bride.” While these terms do indeed describe “a deep sense of closeness and affinity” (p. 134), and while “sister” can be used for a close but not biological relationship, it is difficult to understand how “my bride” can be construed as other than a term referring to the semantic field of marriage. Its use in this climax of the poem deserves discussion regarding the relationship of the lovers.

Assis's fourth unit of the poem includes the drama of the failed entrance of the man, and the woman's failed search for him that occupies much of ch. 5. He makes a good case for a dream sequence here, where the attempt to do something that one is not able to do forms a common motif in many dreams. The same is true of the irrationality of the guards' behavior and the sudden transition to address the daughters of Jerusalem. Assis sees in the punishment of the guards a psychological self-punishment by the woman for not opening the door to her lover. He attributes the nightmare to physical and emotional fatigue following the woman's chase after the man and their love making. The woman's description of her man (5:10–16) corresponds to the man's description of her in 4:1–7. Here, however, the absence of the man and the distress this creates occupy the poem. Assis thus interprets the response of the daughters of Jerusalem as one of teasing.

The fifth and final unit begins with the man's praise of the woman (6:4–10). Assis finds this a description of how special and impressive the woman is in her beauty. However, he suggests that it is not intimate. Rather, there is a distance when the language is compared to 4:1–7. He renders the difficult text of 6:12b as, “I was in a chariot with a nobleman.” This is understood as recalling their previous lovemaking. It leads the man to a more intimate expression of desire in the following chapter. While Assis is correct in observing how the focus of the descriptive poem in ch. 7 arouses the man, it surely emphasizes the head and breasts of the woman. It does so if one allows the poem to extend to v. 10a (English 9a) rather than cutting it off at v. 6 (English 5). It thus concludes with an emphasis on the man's desire for the woman's breasts and mouth, a climax to the poem and to his expression of desire.

The desire is expressed by the woman as we move into ch. 8 of the Song. Assis sees this as also unrealized. Thus, the adjuration to the daughters of Jerusalem not to awaken love is due to the woman's concern that the couple's love is not yet mature. Yet this seems odd in light of Assis's argument that the love was mature enough to be consummated in ch. 4 (unit 3).

With others, Assis recognizes 8:6–7 to be the high point of the poem. He sees it as a unique eulogy to love, unlike the remainder of the Song that consists of addresses to one another. He follows Exum in seeing the –yāh ending on the last word of v. 6 as a superlative, “an almighty flame,” rather than as a (shortened) form of the divine name.[1]

Verses 8–10 demonstrate the brothers' concern to control the woman; to which she responds that she has no need of their hurtful attempts. Thus shalom at the end of v. 10 implies the perfection that the woman finds in herself in contrast to the criticisms of the preceding section. The woman's contrast of her own vineyard with that of Solomon's thousand also contrasts her emotions of true love over against Solomon's concern with financial relationships. For Assis, the Song concludes with the woman sending the man away for a while. Thus the love story does not end, but the poem ends with an emphasis on the desire for one another rather than on the consummation.

The author has provided a well-written synthesis of the Song of Songs. Demonstrating its unity and distinguishing the up-and-down movement of both the desire and the physical relationship between the man and the woman, he has given us one of the finest studies of this wonderful expression of the poetry of love.

Richard S. Hess, Denver Seminary

[1] J. C. Exum, Song of Songs: A Commentary (OTL; Louisville: John Knox, 2005), 343, 254. reference