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The Song of Songs Afresh: Perspectives on a Biblical Love Poem, edited by Stefan Fischer and Gavin Fernandes (eds.)

In: Vetus Testamentum
Author: Amber Shadle1
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  • 1 University of Aberdeen
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Stefan Fischer and Gavin Fernandes (eds.), The Song of Songs Afresh: Perspectives on a Biblical Love Poem (Hebrew Bible Monographs, 82; Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2019), xx + 309 pp.

In the introduction to The Song of Songs Afresh, the editors, Stefan Fischer (Department of Old Testament and Biblical Archaeology, Protestant Faculty of Theology, University of Vienna; Department of Old and New Testament at the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein, South Africa) and Gavin Fernandes (University of Nottingham), begin by recognising that the Song of Songs “has a long reception history in Judaism and

Stefan Fischer and Gavin Fernandes (eds.), The Song of Songs Afresh: Perspectives on a Biblical Love Poem (Hebrew Bible Monographs, 82; Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2019), xx + 309 pp.

In the introduction to The Song of Songs Afresh, the editors, Stefan Fischer (Department of Old Testament and Biblical Archaeology, Protestant Faculty of Theology, University of Vienna; Department of Old and New Testament at the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein, South Africa) and Gavin Fernandes (University of Nottingham), begin by recognising that the Song of Songs “has a long reception history in Judaism and Christianity but not only in religious and academic circles” (p. xvii). The reach of the Song of Songs goes further, Fischer and Fernandes argue, inspiring those outside of the academic and religious settings, including writers of love songs in medieval Germany and even now “stimulat(ing) artists, poets and writers alike” (p. xvii). This volume aims to provide fresh perspectives on the Song of Songs, and the editors set up the reader’s expectations for the work by asserting that “The papers in this volume provide information often not taken note of in Old Testament scholarship” (p. xviii). The chapters included often do exactly that, looking at topics ranging from race and racism, modern poetic responses to the Song, love and death, deconstructive poetics, masculinity, and responsible interpretation of the text.

The volume contains a selection of papers read during a series of conferences held in Berlin and Prague. These conferences followed on an earlier series, connected to a five-year project on the Song of Songs, led by Christo Lombaard (University of South Africa, Pretoria) and Stefan Fischer, which, the editors note, “was the first time that black African scholars especially were engaged in the Song of Songs” (p. xvii). The papers are organised into four broad categories: Classical Exegetical Studies, Post-modern Exegetical Studies, Jewish Studies, and Hermeneutics. Part I of the book, Classical Exegetical Studies, is the most heavily weighted, with six chapters, while the final three parts combined have seven chapters. While the majority of the papers in the book work firmly within the context of what could be called traditional academic analysis of the text, there are a few examples of authors either analysing or even participating in the creation of new artistic responses to the Song.

In Part I: Classical Exegetical Studies, the collection begins with two chapters exploring the difficulty of interpreting the self-descriptor of the woman in Song of Songs 1.5–6: is she saying she is “dark and lovely” or “dark but lovely”, and how should this line be understood? These two chapters (pp. 3–14 and 15–43), by Hans Ausloos (Université catholique de Louvain; F.R.S.-FNRS) and David Biernot (Hussite Theological Faculty, Charles University, Prague) respectively, set the tone for the volume through their careful analysis and consideration of the context (both literary and cultural) and challenge to interpretations of this passage which would seek to avoid the difficulties posed by accurate and careful translation. The grouping of these chapters together is particularly effective, since this helps to highlight the different approaches taken to the same passage from the Song, and leaves readers to draw their own conclusions about the arguments presented.

The first section continues with chapters on how we should understand Song of Songs 5.2–6.3 (Gavin Fernandes), whom the daughters of Jerusalem represent (Stefan Fischer), and the power of love as described in Song of Songs 8.6–7 (Hans-Peter Mathys, University of Basel). One chapter in this section to highlight is Christo Lombaard’s “Textual Interplay: The Shulammite of Song of Songs and Sulamiet by Lina Spies.” Lombaard discusses reader-response theory as one of the post-modern methods of understanding and interacting with the Song of Songs, how such a theory can be used to understand creative responses to the Song, and how these responses differ from traditional exegesis of the text. The focus of this chapter is the Shulammite, an enigmatic figure in the Song of Songs, who “rouses curiosity and recurrent interest” (p. 105). After discussing how the figure of the Shulammite could be understood, Lombaard turns his attention to a volume of Afrikaans poetry by Lina Spies entitled Sulamiet. The rest of the chapter is a reflection on how Spies reinterprets and reinvents the Shulammite, using the biblical text as her starting point. Spies’ volume of poetry, as a retelling of and challenge to the received narrative, is juxtaposed with the traditional religious interpretations of the text, and held up as its own sort of exegesis. Lombaard’s examination of this modern poetic response to the Song provides a counterweight to the often exclusively academic (or religious) analyses that make up the majority of the rest of the volume. It would have been good to see more of this sort of material included, exploring the interpretation of the text by those who are not within the immediate academic context that usually directs most of the conversation on the Song.

Parts II, III, and IV together make up the second half of the book, exploring the themes of love and death in Songs 8.6–7 (Pieter van der Zwan, University of Pretoria), the metaphor of man as conqueror and the Song’s presentation of masculinity (Danilo Verde, Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies, KU Leuven), Targumic exegesis (Marek I. Baraniak, Faculty of Oriental Studies, University of Warsaw), the Song’s role in Passover Piyyutim (Pavla Damohorská, Hussite Theological Faculty, Charles University, Prague), Heidegger’s hermeneutical circle and responsible interpretation of the text (Marlene Oosthuizen, University of the Free State, Bloemfontein, South Africa), and selected allegorical interpretations of the Song (Eben Scheffler, University of Pretoria, South Africa). Perhaps the most unique contribution to the latter half of the book is Frances Landy (Department of History and Classics, University of Alberta) and Maria Metzler’s (Department of History of Art and Architecture, Harvard University) chapter “Deconstructing Horses, in Love and in War”. As Landy explains, he and Metzler wrote this chapter “as a kind of renga, the Japanese poetic practice whereby one person begins a poem…, another completes it, a third picks up the thread and starts another one, and so forth” (p. 151). The subject that this chapter focuses on is the imagery of the warhorses in Song of Songs and the book of Job. Landy and Metzler engage in a back-and-forth reflection on the warhorse and mare, acting out an answer to the question (p. 157): “What forms can language create, and what can it erase?” This chapter is not a traditional academic analysis of the rhythms and language of the Song; rather, it involves a responsive, poetic exchange between the two authors, which highlights how the Song utilises the imagery of the horses to communicate characteristics of the Shulammite and her beloved.

Overall, this volume meets the editors’ goal of providing new insights into areas often overlooked in Old Testament scholarship. There is quite a large range of topics covered, even taking into account the aforementioned preference for classical exegetical studies (which is not limited to Part I). This book is written in such a way that both specialists and non-specialists in Song of Songs will find the text accessible and informative. A familiarity with the Hebrew text would be beneficial for the reader, however, it is not essential. The reader might prefer a more focused collection of texts, looking at the same general aspect of the Song of Songs, but that is not what the editors set out to do with this volume, and the wide net cast is understandable given that this is a collection of conference papers whose only common feature is that they are all dealing with the same biblical text. The papers are generally well-argued and clearly presented, with helpful bibliographies included after each chapter. It would have been good to see more space given to texts which take the Song of Songs out of its academic context and explore the consequences this has on art and the expression of modern retellings of ancient themes. However, such a focus could lead to a volume of its own, but that does not detract from the overall strength of this book.

Amber Shadle

University of Aberdeen

amber.shadle@abdn.ac.uk

DOI:10.1163/15685330-12341462-02

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