September 7: Song of Songs 8:6-7

Song 8:6-7

“Set me as a seal upon your heart,
as a seal upon your arm,
for strong as Death (is) love,
hard as She°ôl (is) jealousy;
her shafts (are) shafts of fire,
(pointed with) flaming tip(s);
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.”

According to one possible line of interpretation for v. 5b (cf. the previous note), the girl has roused her beloved awake, interrupting his sleep because she has something important to tell him. This message is presented here in vv. 6-7. Presumably she is still the speaker, even though these lines stand on their own as an individual poem, a hymn in praise of love. They are surely the most famous and treasured lines of the entire Song, being especially appealing for readers looking at the Song from a religious vantage point. Verses 6-7 give us a portrait, a declaration, of virtuous love that is unencumbered by the moral ambiguities surrounding the sexual relationship between the lovers elsewhere in the Song.

At the same time, it is vital to preserve the immediate context of v. 5b (along with the wider setting of 7:8-8:5) which strongly indicates that the young couple has made love. Having thus spent the night together (cf. 7:12 and the wording here in v. 5b), the lovers now wish to express their love in a deeper and more permanent way. The young woman may technically be the speaker in vv. 6-7, but the declaration certainly applies to both lovers—it is a declaration of mutual belonging, akin to that expressed in 2:16 and 6:3 (echoed again in 7:11). A bond of love that is even ‘stronger than death’ surely anticipates a binding agreement of marriage between the two. As previously mentioned, in each of these three units in vv. 1-10, marking the climax/conclusion of the second movement of the Song, we find an anticipatory allusion to marriage.

The hymn to love in vv. 6-7 is comprised of five couplets, each of which expresses a different aspect of the power and value of love. Let us examine these briefly, in turn.

“Set me as a seal upon your heart,
as a seal upon your arm”

Ancient Near Eastern seals typically took the form of impressions, made by a carved signet, in clay or wax. The verb <t^j* denotes the sealing (affixing a seal), while the related noun <t*oj (used here) refers to the signet that makes the impression. The seal is a sign of ownership, and the signet (usually kept around the neck or on a finger-ring) was among a person’s most valuable possessions. The verb was used in 4:12, to indicate the young man’s ownership of the garden (i.e., the young woman’s sexuality) with its central spring/fountain; in other words, the girl’s sexuality belongs to her beloved, being reserved for him alone (and no other young man). Now here in v. 6, the girl is making much the same claim in reverse—i.e., that the boy belongs to her alone. Only, in this instance, the idea of mutual belonging (cf. 2:16; 6:3; 7:10) represented by the seal is expressed in more intimate terms. The girl herself is to be the young man’s signet, kept either over his heart (i.e., hanging down from his neck), or kept on his arm/hand (like a ring). The language used could also imply that the signet is to be stamped (forming the seal impression) on his heart and arm. In either case, it indicates that the young man belongs to his beloved.

“for strong as Death (is) love,
hard as She°ôl (is) jealousy”

The girl clearly expresses her wish that their bond of love would be affirmed in a deeper and more permanent way; this sense of permanence is indicated here by the association with death. One is naturally reminded of the traditional modern/Western marriage vows with the phrase “until death us do part” (or something equivalent), implying that only death can separate the two lovers (and their love). The same idea is certainly implied here, but also the added notion that love is just as powerful (and all-consuming) as death.

There is, in fact, a natural association between love and death, and this is expressed in a distinct way in ancient Near Eastern tradition—a tradition that likely informs (at least in part) these lines in the Song. The linchpin is the tendency toward violence—violent emotions, in particular—that is shared by both sexual love and warfare. Indeed, sexual love and warfare are key (dual) aspects of goddess figures in the Near East—most notably, Canaanite Anat and Mesopotamian Ishtar (Sumerian Inanna). Anat, in particular, was a personification/embodiment of battle, much like the Indian goddess Kali and the Scandinavian hilds. The juxtaposition of passionate love and violent warfare is famously expressed, in connection with the goddess Anat, in the Baal Epic (Tablet III [CAT 1.3] cols. 2-3, cf. especially III.3.14-15, part of a refrain than runs through the Epic).

The first line of the couplet declares how strong and mighty (zu^) sexual love is. Its power is exhibited by the force with which it attracts one person to another; it can overwhelm the senses and impair rational judgment; it can lead a person to risk almost anything—disgrace, danger, even death itself. The only other force in nature that can compare is death.

The flip side of this attractive force is the violent emotion of jealousy (ha*n]q!), a natural extension and byproduct of passionate love. The adjective used here is hv*q*, “hard” (i.e., harsh, severe), connoting a fiercer and sharper aspect of love’s strength. Such jealousy is also a natural byproduct of the idea that the lovers belong to each another, also expressed by the seal-motif marking ownership (cf. above); it is thus quite natural that one might become jealously possessive. If sexual love itself is compared to death, the violent and passionate emotions are compared to Sheol, the realm of the dead (underworld, the grave). The parallelism is obvious.

“her shafts (are) shafts of fire,
(pointed with) flaming tip(s)”

From the motif of Death/Sheol, we shift slightly in the third couplet to the image of love as a warrior (archer) with fiery arrows. On the fundamental connection between (sexual) love and warfare, cf. above. The derivation and meaning of the word [v#r# (reše¸) is uncertain. The fundamental denotation of [vr would seem to be something fiery, burning. In Deut 32:24 and Hab 3:5 the word refers to burning effects (fever, etc) of pestilence/disease; indeed, the name Rešep is used in the Semitic world for the personification of such disease (and its cause), as a deity. In Job 5:7 and Psalm 78:48, the word is used in a more concrete and colorful sense, for fiery shafts or arrows that occur in nature (lightning bolts, etc) but are sent by God. Most likely, the poetic use in Psalm 78:48 corresponds to the use of the word here—referring to fiery shafts (bolts, darts, arrows) shot out by love as a warrior/archer (comparable to the traditional image of Cupid shooting arrows of love).

The complex noun tb#h#l=v^ (from the root bhl) also would seem to denote something fiery/flaming; since the related word hb*h*l# can refer to the point/tip of a weapon, tb#h#l=v^ likely has a comparable meaning here (cp. Job 15:30; Ezek 21:3). Metrically, the second line of the couplet appears shortened, or truncated, and it is possible that something has dropped out of the text; if so, then the line may have originally contained a fuller and more precise expression.

The remainder of the hymn (v. 7) will be discussed in the next daily note.