Love and Theology: A Review Article of Sarah Zhang’s I, You, and the Word “God”: Finding Meaning in the Song of Songs
A Denver Journal Review Article by Denver Seminary Professor Dr. Richard S. Hess
Love and Theology: A Review Article of Sarah Zhang’s I, You, and the Word “God”: Finding Meaning in the Song of Songs (Siphrut 20; Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2016). Xi + 180 pp. Hardback, $44.50. ISBN 9781575064758.
This review of Sarah Zhang’s volume will rehearse some of the salient features of each major section. In the process I will provide reflections, especially in relation to the interpretation of the Song of Songs. I thank Stephanie L. Cooper for her assistance.
Key to Zhang’s work is her study of the relationship of the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas to the reading of the Song of Song’s poetry. She names this approach “Levinasian lyric ethics.” The key component of this approach is not a style of poetic interpretation in the conventional sense of a technique of reading. Rather, she locates its method in Levinas’ emphasis on the Other. Citing Maurice Blanchot, Zhang summarizes (Sarah Zhang, I, You, and the Word “God” [Siphrut 20; Eisenbrauns, 2016], p. 3. She cites the edited translation of Maurice Blanchot, “Our Clandestine Companion,” in Face to Face with Levinas, ed. Richard A. Cohen (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1986), 42):
The life force of his writings originates outside reason yet “not beyond reason into the facility of the irrational or towards a mystical effusion, but rather towards another reason, towards the other as reason or demand.”
This view is coupled with an emphasis upon poetry as engaging the body and the body’s senses alongside the rational elements of communication. The lyrical experience “awakens the reader’s humanness” (Zhang, I, You, p. 7). In reflection on the title, Zhang chooses to examine three passages from the Song from three perspectives: self, the other, and God. Song 4:1-7 examines the awakening of self to sensibility. Song 5:2-8 examines the self as, already in its soul, for-the-other. Song 8:6 moves from erotic to non-erotic love and to the trace of God in the face of the other.
Before this, Zhang examines the theory of Levinas she wishes to apply to poetic reading. The Other, or alterity, is not knowable according to Levinas. Connection can be achieved, however, through concern for justice as well as language and desire. The matter of justice introduces ethics and what Zhang designates as non-indifference. She borrows the name and idea of lyrical ethics from the 1998 work of Charles Altieri (I, You, p. 13; Charles F. Altieri, “Lyrical Ethics and Literary Experience,” Style 32 : 272-97). She also cites the 1987 Nobel prize lecture of Charles Brodsky which affirmed, “Aesthetics is the mother of ethics.” This reviewer has always understood that art is the creation of value. It seems manifestly reasonable that artistic assertion is the formation of what is singularly human in each individual. The implications of this for written communication are well expressed by Zhang (I, You, p. 18):
Genuine intelligibility requires one to go back to the proximity of one to the other, of one facing the other in non-in-difference, not demanding “What’s it in (sic) for me?” but offering “Après vous, Monsieur.” Unless the reader first gives ear to the voice that commands “Listen!…” (Deut 6:4; Prov 1:8), the book exists in vain. Conversely, an intelligent reading of the book can only arise from one’s giving attention in the form of hinÄ•nî – from one’s responsibility to the other who has reached out through the words.
It is on the final page of the first chapter that the application of this approach seems most clearly stated in terms of an orientation “for the other.” However, this comes through the reading of the Song “where humanness is aroused” and the study joins both poetry and ethics.
The study of Song 4:1-7 begins with an analysis of the couplets and the overall structure. Burrowing into these, Zhang observes the repetitive sound patterns of vowels, such as a-Ä-Ä“ in several words that conclude with the second person singular feminine suffix, – Ä“k. Examining the waá¹£f in Classical Arabic poetry, she notes that it is designed to evoke emotions of joy or grief. The repeated k sound at the beginnings and endings of many words in this section connects the “you” possessing the body and its attractions with the similes whose comparisons expresses themselves through “like, as.” The k also signals “kÅl” or “all” that appears at the beginning and ending of the poem. The connection with the Other occurs when the reader gives breath to the author’s words. The desire of the poem is focused toward the one described while the words caress her body as the features are described. The reader participates in both aspects. Sensibility becomes vulnerability as the subject becomes open to the one Other than I. The words enable the writer and reader to approach the beautiful again and again, each time in a new way and yet to receive the initial joy with each new approach. Zhang dwells upon the “let me go!” in v. 6 as the sole verb in an independent clause in the passage. The lover approaches without fully arriving. The desire continues. So the invitation does not grasp and the lover goes on seeking. In this way the lover treats the other as of greater value than the lover himself.
Chapter three, “Restlessness and Responsibility for the Other,” examines Song 5:2-8 with a focus on the “You,” the second element in the book’s title. The first person singular pronoun Ê¾Äƒnî, occurs at the beginning and end of the unit, and a total of four times, or one third of all occurrences in the Song. Using the thought of Levinas, the emphasis on the Other becomes the concern of the poem that speaks of oneself.
The state of the female in this poem is addressed by Zhang. Is she in a dream or a fantasy? For Zhang, this is a type-scene, common in ancient Near Eastern love poetry (Zhang, I, You, p. 77). The man arrives at the door and waits to learn whether he will be admitted or turned away. My own understanding is that this may be a dream or somewhere between a dream and a waking state (Richard S. Hess, Song of Songs [Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005), 166-68). The clue lay in the first two words, “I slept.” In this and what follows the customary preterite, used in every narrative in the Hebrew Bible, is missing. The use of participles and perfects in its place, as well as the singular use of the first person in describing an event, suggest that no narrative is present. Zhang’s type-scene may be correct, although it needs to be broadened beyond the boy/girl relationship to include a text like Revelation 3:20. We also need other examples that are culturally proximate but these are not available. Nevertheless, the grammar and imagery suggest that more is going on than the telling of a story. I just don’t know what that is nor do clues provide the answer. However, Zhang’s identification of the ingressive qwm at the beginning of v. 5 can now be supported despite that fact that it does not take the expected preterite form. Given the “dedicated” absence of the preterite in these verses, it must be a perfect although it serves syntactically to emphasize the infinitive verb that follows and thus the expectation of opening (Zhang, I, You, p. 83).
In the middle of v. 6 and at the heart of this account occurs the dramatic Ê¿ÄbÄr “he departed.” Zhang terms this moment for the woman as one that “de-cores her enjoying of her own appetite” (Zhang, I, You, p. 87). There is a vulnerability that arises from the desire of the other who is gone. This is the surrendering of self-complacency that renders one capable of suffering as Zhang observes in v. 7. Without doubt, this central turning point in the experience is emphasized. In my study of single-word cola in the Song, I noted some examples where they served as vocatives (1:15, 16; 4:8, 11) while others served as climactic forms (6:12; 7:6; Richard S. Hess, “Single-Word Cola in the Song of Songs?” Journal of Asia Adventist Seminary 9.2 : 119-28). I identified Ê¿ÄbÄr here as a single-word colon which especially among the examples served to focus on the event as a turning point in the scene. If so, then the first 3 cola of this verse portray a gradual disintegration from 3 words with 6 syllables, to 2 words with 4 syllables, to the final single word with 2 syllables. “Absence contradicts expected presence” (Hess, “Single-Word Cola,” p. 127). This supports the interpretation of Zhang as a single word remains to bridge the male’s departure and the female’s subsequent experience of loss.
Zhang suggests that the woman was not ready to open to her lover the core of her being. Thus suffering touches the soul where happiness at this point would not (Zhang, I, You, pp. 89-90). The beating then becomes a dramatization of her traumatic experience of loss (Zhang, I, You, p. 95 n 94). Her statement to the daughters of Jerusalem in v. 8 and her own unique waá¹£f in vv. 10-16 draw strength from the daughters’ shared love for the man and from the virtue of patience that will wait rather than give in.
The third and final passage focuses on Song 8:6 and considers “The Human Form Divine.” The text here may contain a hapax legomenon with a shortened form of Yahweh, as various interpreters have suggested. Zhang seeks to demonstrate that this interpretation is not necessary because Israel’s God has left a “trace” in the reference to love as strong as death. That meaning is found in “death in love” when a voice outside of oneself awakens the person. The seal that renders love so strong places one forever in the captivity of that love toward the other. Thus the death of the other shakes one’s own identity. Zhang recalls Levinas’ treatment of Cain’s murder of Abel in which his response, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” exemplifies the totality of self-focus in which the humanity of the divine image that reaches to the other person is renounced (Zhang, I, You, p. 135).
In this case, “the otherness of the other” serves as a justification to de-face that one. Zhang rejects desiring as consumption and replaces it instead with presence. Thus “the human is not the one who masters the fear of one’s own death but the one who fears the death of the other” (Zhang, I, You, pp. 136-37). “Presence” is my word and understanding; similar but not identical to Zhang’s “proximity.” The point is that this relation is “non-in-difference” and “for the other.” I am not sure I can agree with the Kantian assertion that love cannot possess the will or volition (Zhang, I, You, p. 140). Indeed, such an assertion seems to me to evacuate the meaning of the lÄ“b or “heart.” It bifurcates the person into a place of emotion and another place of decision.
The controversial šalhebetyÄh is well presented by Zhang in terms of the evidence and the possibilities for different interpretations. I agree that this provides an(other) example of a single-word colon and that it can be translated, “a flame of Yah” (or my own “a flame of the LORD”; Zhang, I, You, 124, 141-52; Hess, Song of Songs, pp. 233, 237-40). I also suspect that there is a role for Yahweh in a kind of climax at this point that reaches beyond the allusions to the deities of death elsewhere in this verse: Mot, Sheol, and Reshef (Zhang, I, You, pp. 126, 148, references J. Cheryl Exum, Song of Songs: A Commentary [Old Testament Library; Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2005], 64; cf. Hess, Song of Songs, pp. 239-40). Where I would take a different point of emphasis or departure is the manner in which this love defines us. At the beginning of her discussion on this topic, Zhang includes me with the allegorists quoting a section of my commentary on this term that appears to have me separating eros from what occurs in Song 8:6 (Zhang, I, You, p. 109). The fact that I don’t do this is demonstrated by quoting the larger context of my remarks of which Zhang cites only the last two sentences (Hess, Song of Songs, p. 240):
Nevertheless, the characteristically shortened form of Yahweh as frequently found in the major book of biblical poetry, the Psalms, suggests that here is mention of Yahweh. If so, in the entire book this is the only direct reference to God, by any name. It may well be that here at the climactic point of the whole Song, the poet chooses to mention the name of God; a name otherwise hidden and reflective of his operation behind the scenes. God is not in the conscious concerns of the couple as they celebrate their sexual love, just as he is not himself ever portrayed in a sexual sense. This would prevent the erotic poetry from somehow being applied to God as though he were sexual. Still, a tendency – reflected both in the historical interpretation and in the many monarchical references in extrabiblical Hebrew inscriptions to Yahweh in possession of a consort (Asherah) – was to apply it in some way to Israel’s deity. Nevertheless, the absence of any direct reference to God, except at this point, suggests that here the erotic love of the Song reaches a level of love that transcends all and through which God is known. Thus God is love (1 John 4:8, 16), and those who would know and worship him must know that love.
The connection I make between the lovers and the divine in no way mitigates the lovers’ physical love for one another. The nature of this hapaxlegomenon, with hints of significance surrounding it in the verse and in the entire Song, affirm what Zhang describes as the ambivalence found here. I thus fully agree with Zhang’s assertion, “Truly, as Yah overtakes all figures of death, love is performed as stronger than death” (Zhang, I, You, p. 152). And I appreciate the concern of suffering and woundedness that she evokes from this section as well as the earlier piece in Song 5. It is entirely appropriate that near to the conclusion of the work Zhang should summarize her reflections with a quote from one of the greatest twentieth century theologians on aesthetics, Hans Urs von Balthasar, “Lovers are the ones who know the most about God; the theologian must listen to them” (Zhang, I, You, p. 159; citing Hans Urs von Balthasar, Love Alone Is Credible [San Francisco: Ignatius, 2004], 12; cf. Hess, Song of Songs, 158).
As I reflected on this work, I thought I had missed one of the great themes of the Song, that of complete commitment between the woman and the man. I am convinced that this theme is central to the understanding of love as the Song describes it. It is a repeated emphasis of my commentary as can be seen, for example, in the sentence that follows the paragraph quoted above: “The greatest physical pointer to such love is the committed sexual intimacy between a husband and wife” (Hess, Song of Songs, p. 240; cf. Idem, “Song of Songs: Not Just a Dirty Book,” Bible Review 21.5 [Winter 2005]: 30-40). However, I have come to the conclusion that the element of commitment is not altogether absent. In Levinasian ethics, it is not enumerated in any form that suggests obligation. Instead, it is found, if only in traces, in the attentiveness and proximity between the lovers that Zhang appropriately emphasizes. Such a reflection asserts all the more the value of this beautifully written work. Sarah Zhang has provided a door and light that add new perspectives and greater depths of understanding and appreciation for this Holy of Holies among biblical literature.
Richard S. Hess, PhD
Distinguished Professor of Old Testament