Love as Strong as Death (Song 8:6-7) by Fiona C. Black

The Song of Songs is a series of poems about human love written in the form of a dialogue between two lovers. The lovers are largely anonymous—a woman, the primary speaker who is referred to twice only as “the Shulammite” (Song 6:13), and a man who is understood to be Solomon (Song 1:1, Song 3:7) but never addressed as such. In this way their experience is specific but also archetypal. Throughout, the lovers speak to each other using vibrant imagery that richly evokes all the senses and powerfully conveys their love. They also have challenges, however, in the form of obstructions (Song 1:6, Song 2:15, Song 8:9), missed encounters (Song 3:1-2, Song 5:6-8, Song 6:1-2), and even violence (Song 5:7). Despite these, the overall tenor of the book is joyous and life-affirming.

The perception of the Songs of Songs as a story of human love is relatively recent. For much of its interpretive history, readers understood the book as an allegory for God’s relationship with Israel (Judaism) or Jesus’ relationship with the soul (Christianity). Interpreters were likely steered on these courses by the Song of Songs’ troubling erotic subject matter—that, and the fact that there is no explicit mention of God in the text, a factor shared with only one other biblical book (Esther).

What is love like, according to the Song of Songs?

For much of the Song of Songs, human love is an intimate affair, replete with personal references and endearments. The book does, however, culminate with a more abstract statement, which offers a universal lesson. The observation in Song 8:6-7 is a weighty one: love is as strong as death; passion is as fierce as the grave. (The repetition is intentional and typical of biblical poetry.) What does it mean for love and death to be compared in this way? Readers across the centuries have suggested that it is death’s gravity and finality that make it an optimal comparator; and yet, it is the tension between love and death that frequently tempts Western cultural imagination, as in the myths of Endymion and Selene and Orpheus and Eurydice, and more contemporary explorations, such as Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet or Paul Celan’s “Death Fugue.” As if unsatisfied with the perplexing comparison and shifting around for a more satisfying image, the poet provides another analogy, with yet another vivid and unexpected comparison: love is like fire—bright, intense, and even fierce.

In these striking poetic comparisons, which plumb the deep philosophical problem of how life-affirming love might resemble life-ending death, the poet reveals that he understands the futility of trying to reduce love to a simple definition. Whatever love is, the poet claims in the following verse, it is so potent that even a flood cannot consume it. So, the poet urges, in the form of a proverb, do not be tempted to trade it for anything, even great wealth. Of this, at least, the poet seems certain: something so intangible, so indefinable (in whatever form it takes—the Song of Songs does not commit, for example, only to married love), does not match the greatest things of the material world.

Does Song 8:6-7 refer to God?

Something else lurks in the comparison between love and fire. In the last part of Song 8:6, we encounter a strange term (Hebrew shalhebetyah), which may or may not contain a truncated version of the divine name Yah (hence, the suggestion would be something like “a flame of Yah[weh]”). Alternatively, this odd term might also simply mean an intensely burning flame. In either case, we are left with a puzzle. If the flame is burning brightly, why would a poet, in his grandest statement about love, stumble clumsily with “its flashes are flashes of fire, a brightly burning fire” (author’s translation), as if the thought were somehow unfinishable? Or, if this is the divine name, what are readers to make of the poet’s meaning here? What is a flame of Yahweh and how is it different from other flames? And how is it at all like love? Readers well intuit the gravity and complexity of these statements in Song 8:6-7, but in the end they are also left with the overwhelming mystery of love.

Fiona C. Black, "Love as Strong as Death (Song 8:6-7)", n.p. [cited 28 Jun 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/passages/main-articles/love-as-strong-as-death

Contributors

Fiona C. Black

Fiona C. Black
Associate Professor, Mount Allison University

Fiona C. Black is an associate professor at Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick, Canada. She researches in the areas of Hebrew Bible poetics and their intersection with literary, gender-critical, and postcolonial theory. She is the author of The Artifice of Love: Grotesque Bodies in the Song of Songs (Continuum, 2009) and numerous articles on the Song of Songs.

Song of Songs 8:6-7 perplexingly and powerfully compares love with death and fire, serving as a culmination of the book’s exploration of human love or, for some, as a clue to the presence of the divine.

Did you know…?

  • The Song of Songs is a series of intimate poems between two archetypal lovers.
  • The recognition of the human, erotic dimension of love in the Song of Songs is a relatively recent development for the book’s interpretive history.
  • The Song of Songs is one of only two biblical books that do not explicitly mention God.
  • The Song of Songs contains a grand, philosophical statement about the nature of love toward its end.
  • The Song of Songs compares love with death.
  • The Song of Songs’ description of love’s nature is thought-provoking and weighty but ultimately leaves readers with the mystery of love unsolved.

A mode of writing, reading, or interpreting that operates on a symbolic, rather than literal, level.

People who study a text from historical, literary, theological and other angles.

The religion and culture of Jews. It emerged as the descendant of ancient Israelite Religion, and is characterized by monotheism and an adherence to the laws present in the Written Torah (the Bible) and the Oral Torah (Talmudic/Rabbinic tradition).

Another term for the female protagonist of the Song of Songs; see Song 6:13 (Hebrew, 7:1).

Song 6:13

13 Return, return, O Shulammite!
Return, return, that we may look upon you.

Why should you look upon the Shulammite,
as upon a dance before two armies?

Song 1:1

1The Song of Songs, which is Solomon's.

Song 3:7

7Look, it is the litter of Solomon!
Around it are sixty mighty men
of the mighty men of Israel,

Song 1:6

6Do not gaze at me because I am dark,
because the sun has gazed on me.
My mother's sons were angry with me;
they made me keeper of the vineyards,
but my own vin ... View more

Song 2:15

15Catch us the foxes,
the little foxes,
that ruin the vineyards—
for our vineyards are in blossom.”

Song 8:9

9If she is a wall,
we will build upon her a battlement of silver;
but if she is a door,
we will enclose her with boards of cedar.

Song 3:1-2

Love's Dream
1Upon my bed at night
I sought him whom my soul loves;
I sought him, but found him not;
I called him, but he gave no answer.2“I will rise now and g ... View more

Song 5:6-8

6I opened to my beloved,
but my beloved had turned and was gone.
My soul failed me when he spoke.
I sought him, but did not find him;
I called him, but he gave ... View more

Song 6:1-2

1Where has your beloved gone,
O fairest among women?
Which way has your beloved turned,
that we may seek him with you?
2My beloved has gone down to his garden,
... View more

Song 5:7

7Making their rounds in the city
the sentinels found me;
they beat me, they wounded me,
they took away my mantle,
those sentinels of the walls.

Characteristic of a deity (a god or goddess).

In Greek mythology, a legendary poet and musician.

Song 8:6-7

6Set me as a seal upon your heart,
as a seal upon your arm;
for love is strong as death,
passion fierce as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
a raging ... View more

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

Song 8:6

6Set me as a seal upon your heart,
as a seal upon your arm;
for love is strong as death,
passion fierce as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
a raging ... View more

Song 8:6-7

6Set me as a seal upon your heart,
as a seal upon your arm;
for love is strong as death,
passion fierce as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
a raging ... View more

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