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.