Love in the Song of Songs by André LaCocque

Daringly, the text of Song 8:6 (“Set 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 flame”) reverses the habitual order of things, according to which the man states his rights over a chosen woman. Now, the woman (called the Shulammite; see Song 6:13) declares herself to be a seal on the man’s arm, claiming ownership over him. This is a constant motif in the poem (see, for example, Song 2:16, Song 6:3, Song 7:11 [reversing Gen 3:16]). The vocabulary may also recall Deut 6:6-8 and Deut 11:18, which prescribe the wearing of phylacteries (on the arm), thereby secularizing the sacred—or making sacred human love.

Love is the theme in the Song of Songs. In the sole allusion to Yahweh in the poem, love is called “the flame of Yah[weh]” (shalhevetyah, Song 8:6). The NRSV translation (cited above) reads “flashes of fire”; it is worth noting that the element -yah at the end of the word is a superlative form evoking Yahweh’s supreme nature, rather than being an actual reference to the deity. Clearly, we have reached the apex of the Song of Songs, where, as Marvin Pope writes, “the only force to pit against Death is Love.” Theological vocabulary alone is adequate to speak of love. It is a “flame of Yah”; its ardor is on a par with death itself. The association with death may evoke the sexual act, where both partners deal each other deathlike abandonment and vital achievement.

The poem’s author connects love’s insatiability with the implacability of jealousy (the NRSV chooses to translate “passion,” as in “passion fierce as the grave,” Song 8:6). In the Hebrew, the literal meaning is “hard as Sheol,” the abode of the dead according to biblical belief. Love cannot tolerate nonexclusiveness or any reserve in the partner’s response. Jealousy here is of a piece with God’s love—exclusive, consuming, and absolute, as glimpsed in Exod 20:5.

The Song of Songs sees death and sex as paths to the transcendent. Eros (carnal love as between wife and husband, the Shulammite and her lover) is glorified though not deified. Nothing comes closer to the infinite than love, but nothing else conjures up death so clearly. The Targum, or Aramaic translation, of the Song of Songs here says, “Strong as death is our love for You.” Early Christians saw in Jesus’ death the ultimate demonstration of love. They saw powerful death being overcome (Rom 8:35-39; 1Cor 15).

Love is a power over which the primeval waters of chaos cannot prevail. The “many waters” that “cannot quench love” (Song 8:7) are those of the netherworld. They are deadly (see Isa 43:2). The Song of Songs attributes the divine victory over chaos to human love itself.

Eros is miraculous—the term in the Septuagint is agape, to avoid any confusion with Eros, the Greek god of love; it covers the same wide range of use as the Hebrew verb it translates, inclusive of sexual love. It is the presence of eternity in time. Hence, nothing at all can be worth the value of love, not even all the wealth of the world. No dowry, for instance, can buy the maiden’s heart (contrast with Hos 3:2), but only love, which connects the human to the divine and connects people to each other.

The Song of Songs as a poem is so attractive because of its powerful advocacy for the greatest divine gift, beside life, namely love. Love is infinitely more than a sentiment; it is creative. The Shulammite and her lover are love incarnate. “I” meets “Thou” and, in the meeting, finds its true identity.


André LaCocque, "Love in the Song of Songs", n.p. [cited 28 Jun 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/passages/related-articles/love-in-the-song-of-songs

Contributors

André LaCocque

André LaCocque
Professor Emeritus, Chicago Theological Seminary

André LaCocque is professor emeritus of Hebrew Scriptures at Chicago Theological Seminary and Director-Founder of the Center of Jewish-Christian Studies. He is the author of numerous books and articles, including Thinking Biblically: Exegetical and Hermeneutical Studies, with Paul Ricoeur (University of Chicago Press, 1998) and The Feminine Unconventional: Four Subversive Figures in Israel’s Tradition (Wipf and Stock, 2006).

Absence of order. In the ancient Near East, chaos was believed to precede and surround the order of the known world.

Characteristic of a deity (a god or goddess).

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.

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

Relating to thought about the nature and behavior of God.

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 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 2:16

16My beloved is mine and I am his;
he pastures his flock among the lilies.

Song 6:3

3I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine;
he pastures his flock among the lilies.

Song 7:11

11Come, my beloved,
let us go forth into the fields,
and lodge in the villages;

Gen 3:16

16To the woman he said,
“I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing;
in pain you shall bring forth children,
yet your desire shall be for your husband,
... View more

Deut 6:6-8

6Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart.7Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, whe ... View more

Deut 11:18

18You shall put these words of mine in your heart and soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and fix them as an emblem on your forehead.

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

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

Exod 20:5

5You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the ... View more

Rom 8:35-39

35Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?36As it is written,
“For ... View more

1Cor 15

The Resurrection of Christ
1Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also y ... View more

Song 8:7

7Many waters cannot quench love,
neither can floods drown it.
If one offered for love
all the wealth of his house,
it would be utterly scorned.

Isa 43:2

2When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, ... View more

Hos 3:2

2So I bought her for fifteen shekels of silver and a homer of barley and a measure of wine.

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