September 8: Song of Songs 8:6-7 (continued)

Song 8:6-7, continued

This note continues the study of the ‘hymn to love’ in 8:6-7 (cf. the previous note), examining the final two couplets in verse 7:

“many waters are not able to quench th(is) love,
and (all the) streams cannot engulf her;
if a man should give all (the) wealth of his house for th(is) love,
there would be rejection, utter rejection of it”

The first couplet here (fourth of the hymn) relates to the earlier motifs of death and fire—both being connected, in different ways, with the motif of water. The expression <yB!r^ <y]m^ is translated above quite literally as “many waters”; however, this does not in any way capture the cosmic aspect of the expression—cf. Psalm 18:16 par; 29:3; 93:4; 144:7; Isa 17:12-13; Jer 51:55; Ezek 1:24; 43:2; Rev 1:15; 14:2; 19:6. The strength of the waters is emphasized as much as its expanse; thus many commentators prefer to translate the expression as “mighty waters”, which is accurate enough in its own way.

This couplet indeed builds upon the imagery in the previous two, emphasizing again how love is more powerful than death. Its fire—the fire of sexual love and desire (with its fiery emotions, etc)—cannot be extinguished or quenched (vb hb*K*) even by the greatest mass of water. These “many waters” are clearly related to the idea of death, as one can readily see from numerous examples in Old Testament poetry (e.g., Psalm 18:4-5, 16 par; Jonah 2:3-6). The waters are depicted in terms of the great expanse of the deep, rising up like a tidal wave, but also (in the second line) as powerful rushing streams (torh*n+). Even the mightiest such waters can neither extinguish the fire of love, not engulf it (vb [f^v*) so as to make it drown.

The imagery here can perhaps be better understood in light of ancient Near Eastern cosmology. Before the ordered universe came into being, the world existed as a great and dark mass of water (Gen 1:2, etc). Even after the establishment of the ordered universe, the world continued to be surrounded entirely by the waters—both above the upper hemisphere (of the heavens) and deep below the surface of the earth. The dark and chaotic primeval waters thus marked the boundary of the life-sustaining universe, as well as the threshold between existence and non-existence. The connection between the primeval watery expanse and death is thus natural and obvious. Moreover, the watery depths below the earth’s surface were generally proximate to the ‘underworld’, the realm of death and the dead. The references cited above clearly illustrate the cosmic aspect of this imagery. For more on this topic, along with the specific idea of the primeval waters being defeated or subdued by the Creator-Deity (during the process of the creation/establishment of the ordered universe), cf. my earlier article in the Ancient Parallels series.

Note that I have translated the pronouns in vv. 6-7a quite literally as “she/her”; I have done this since the word hb*h&a^ (“love”) is grammatically feminine, but also because it is presumably the girl who is speaking here, and in light of the traditional Near Eastern association of the twin aspects of sexual love and war/death with a female goddess figure (cf. the discussion in the previous note).

The theme of the strength of love is given a different emphasis in the final couplet—in the sense that it far surpasses the wealth and power possessed by any person. The noun used is /oh, a bit difficult to translate, but which generally means “wealth, goods”, perhaps according to the basic denotation of the root /wh, as that which is sufficient (enough) for a person to live and prosper, and to make life easy and enjoyable. Even if the richest man offered all the wealth of his house (and property, etc) in exchange for love, it would be mocked and rejected as far too little (double usage of the verb zWB, cf. the earlier usage in verse 1).

Jewish and Early Christian Interpretation (vv. 6-7)

Generally the Targum and Midrash give a religious-historical interpretation to these lines, focusing on Israel’s status as beloved of God over all the other nations. The Targum curiously explained the “jealousy” as belonging, not to YHWH, but to the nations, who were jealous of Israel (and her relationship to God). Their jealousy and enmity is compared to the “fire” of Gehinnom, created by God to burn up all those who worship other deities. The Midrash Rabbah typically focused on Israel’s receipt and acceptance of the Torah at Sinai, referring the seal on the heart and arm, naturally enough, to the covenant and Israel’s observance of the Torah—especially through the application of the phylacteries (tefillin) to the forehead and arm.

The Targum’s explanation of the “many waters” as referring to the nations (and their rage/hostility to Israel) was fitting in light of the use of the expression in Isa 17:12-13; Jer 51:55; Rev 17:1, etc. The comparison of a man giving all his wealth for the love of God (and wisdom) comes quite close in sense to Jesus’ famous parable of the ‘pearl of great price’ (Matt 13:45-46). The Midrash Rabbah generally follows the same line of interpretation: the unquenchable love is YHWH’s love for Israel, the flood-waters are the other nations, and the treasure for which one would give all his wealth is the Torah (= Wisdom, and a sign of God’s covenant-love for Israel). Cf. Pope, pp. 671, 676-7.

Bede brings out the same connection, between v. 7b and Matt 13:45-46, and also makes insightful mention of Paul’s words in 1 Cor 13:3, noting a number of motifs shared here with vv. 6-7: “If I give away all that I have…and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing”. Of course, early Christians such as Bede understood this, not in terms of sexual love, but in the higher sense of love for God (and Christ) and the truth.

Augustine, in his commentary on the Psalms (48:12-13 [47:13-14]), mentions verse 6 (“Love is strong as death”) in passing, referring to Christian love in terms of the example of the martyrs, who were “on fire with this love” and so were willing to endure the fire and suffering of persecution. The raging waters are thus understood as the rage and hostility of the nations (cf. above), but also the temptations and opposition that comes generally from all worldly forces in this present Age:

“Love is the virtue that none can overcome. No deluge of this age, no torrents of temptation (will ever) extinguish the fire of love.”
Cf. Norris, pp. 286-8.

References marked “Pope” above (and throughout these notes) are to Marvin H. Pope, The Song of Songs, Anchor Bible [AB], vol. 7C (1977).
Those marked “Norris” are to Richard A. Norris, Jr., translator and editor, The Song of Songs: Interpreted by Early Christian and Medieval Commentators, The Church’s Bible, Robert Louis Wilken, general editor (Eerdmans: 2003).

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