Book Review: Flashes of Fire: A Literary Analysis of the Song of Songs, by Elie Assis

Flashes of Fire: A Literary Analysis of the Song of Songs, by Elie Assis. T & T Clark International, 2009. 292 pages.  $130.00.  Reviewed by Mark McGinniss

In his book, Flashes of Fire: A Literary Analysis of the Song of Songs, Elie Assis has offered a new hypothesis as to the cohesiveness of the structure and the meaning of the Song of Songs. Recognizing the difficulties scholars have faced concerning the arrangement of the Song, he proposes a re-examination to see if he can detect “any underlying pattern in the structure of the book and whether the order of the poems in the book has significance” (16).  For Assis the identification and placement of individual poems within the Song, is crucial for understanding the significance of the entire composition.

The outline of Assis’ book follows his suggested structure for understanding the Song as a unified lyrical poem.  After a brief conversation concerning the present state of the study of the structure of the Song and introduction to his Form Critical approach, Assis divides the Song into five distinct units and within those units are various number of poems.  Unit 1 1:2-8 contains three poems; Unit II 1:9-2:17 four poems; Unit III 3:1-5:1 five poems, Unit IV 5:2-6:3 three parts of one poem and Unit V eight poems.  Thus, there are twenty-one poems in this one Song. All of the units “end with an attempt to establish a rendezvous” (32). A summary, bibliography, index of references and authors closes out this book.

After identifying the structure Assis sets out to conduct a detailed literary analysis of each of the poems within the context of each larger unit. In each chapter he discusses the boundaries and structure of each poem, its genre and offers a literary analysis of the poem. At the end of each unit he offers an overview of the unit and discusses the connection between the individual poems in each unit.

While Assis believes the book is not a narrative, he suggests that the book’s five units moves from Initial Courtship, Second Courtship, Climax, Ebbing of Love and Resolution.  This flow shows the development of the “emotions shared by the lovers” (16).  Assis believes that the structure helps the interpreter to identify meaning.  The key theme that appears through the entire work and which binds the work as a complete song is, for Assis, rendezvous.  He recognizes that rendezvous is the desire of the two lovers throughout and their absence from one another is only resolve (and needs to be resolved) by a rendezvous.  For him, “the main theme of the Song of Songs is the longing for contact” (22).  This contact is achieved by their rendezvous.

Assis does not spend much time discussing the authorship.  He states, “the issue of authorship does not contribute to an understanding of the composition” (29). However, he does recognize the literary importance of Solomon in the work itself. Although the Song is not about Solomon, nor does he speak in the poem, he is presented satirically in chapter eight (31).

While Assis’ Form Critical structure proposal may not win over many Song scholars, he does recognize the structural theme of the interplay between absence and rendezvous. Some may quibble over his genre choice of “rendezvous,” but this couple yearns to be in contact with each other throughout the book no matter the term that is used to describe their longing. While I would disagree with Assis’ dissection of the major units into individual poems, I did appreciate his desire to understand how each section of each individual unit fit together.

Although Assis states that he does not hold to a narrative plot line for the Song, his description of the major units sounds awfully like a plot (although he does understand that the book really has no ending).  While I do understand his need to label his major units and demonstrate how this book moves from 1:2 to 8:14, his suggestion (Courtship to Resolution) is not new and is unconvincing.

Though the reader may not agree with all of Assis’ conclusions or interpretations, he is well read and current on the scholarship of the Song. For those interested in the Song this book is a profitable (if not costly) resource.







Book Review: Unprotected Texts: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions About Sex and Desire

Jennifer Wright Knust, Unprotected Texts: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions About Sex and Desire (Harper One, 2011) $25.99 ISBN 9780061725586. Reviewed by Mark McGinniss

When a book about the Bible gets reviewed by USA Today (4/12/2011) and Newsweek (2/6/2011), and that book is about sex in the Bible, it naturally drew my attention.  Unfortunately it does not live up to its title.  Based on Knust’s hermeneutic, her book does not turn out to be much of a surprise.  Since Knust rejects authorial intent and single meaning of a biblical text, she is able to read “against the grain” and create supposed contradictions.  But the “contradictions” are of her own making and are not a product of the biblical text.  While she desires to move past the “harmful messages of Biblezines…toward a larger understanding of what the Bible does have to say about bodies, sex and gender” (21), her lack of single meaning leaves the reader to wonder what part of the Bible should one follow as it concerns bodies, sex and gender!

Jennifer Wright Knust is “a Bible scholar, an ordained American Baptist pastor and professor of Religion at Boston University” (10).   Her motivation for this book is her “tiredness of watching those who are supposed to care about the Bible reduce it to stories and its teachings to slogans” (ibid).  While I understand her fatigue, her revealing of so many so-called biblical “contradictions” makes me wonder why any one would take the Bible seriously or even take time to read it.  Knust’s premise is that “the Bible fails to offer girls—or anyone—a consistent message regarding sexual morals and God’s priorities” (5).

While this volume is easy to read and she herself is well-read, Knust rejects almost every sexual biblical norm that would provide a consistent theological message concerning sex for a modern audience.  Her reason for such a rejection is due to the fact that in our past history the church misread the Bible concerning slavery (11-13) and it stands to reason that the church has misread the rest of the Bible on sexual standards and practices as well. Knust admits that the Bible will not “determine our sexual ethics” but rather we ourselves must decide (21).

To that end Knust sides with Jezebel (16-17), holds that the Song of Songs celebrates sex outside of marriage (23, 32), suggests that Ruth and Boaz had sex on the threshing floor (36, 39), believes that David had a homosexual relationship with Jonathan (42), notes that the “Bible offers no viable solution to our marriage dilemmas” i.e. same sex marriage (48, 56), proposes that the Israelites spies of Joshua’s time, were derelict in their duties and instead of spying out the land; spied out a house of ill-repute and slept with Rahab (134-36), and states that the sin of Sodom was not that the men of the city wanted to rape the men who visited Lot, but the sin was actually that the men of Sodom wanted to rape angels (162). Concerning this same pericope, she writes, “the notion that the story of Sodom involves a moral judgment against homosexuality is not the least bit obvious” (164). She further believes that “ancient Israelites had no hope of eternal life” (188) and “the descendants of Abraham believed that they would live on though their progeny alone” (189).

Knust concludes that “the Bible is often divided against itself” and “it is up to the readers to decide what a biblically informed and faithful sexual morality might look like” (245).

If the reader is left to determine for him or herself what is a  “faithful sexual morality,” and the Bible cannot be trust to be an objective standard for sexual ethics, it would seem that we are on our own and everyone is left to determine “what is right in their own eyes.”   One wonders if Knust would see the parallel between her conclusion and the last chapters of the book of Judges; or would she simply write off Judges 21:25 as another contradiction.