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Love in the Song of Songs

Daringly, Song 8:6 reverses the habitual order of things, where the man states his rights over a chosen woman. Instead, the woman declares herself to be a seal on the man’s arm, claiming ownership over him.

Marc Chagall

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

    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).