Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

Love Conquers All: Song of Songs 8:6b-7a as a Reflex of the Northwest Semitic Combat Myth

Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

Love Conquers All: Song of Songs 8:6b-7a as a Reflex of the Northwest Semitic Combat Myth

Article excerpt

(ProQuest: ... denotes non-US-ASCII text omitted.)


For love is as strong as Death, jealousy harsh as Sheol.

Its flashes are flashes of fire, the flame of Yah.

Many waters cannot quench love, neither can rivers drown it.1 (Song 8:6b-7a)

The Song of Songs does not explicitly refer to the God of Israel under the name YHWH or any other epithet. The noun ... in Song 8:6 may contain a shortened form of the Tetragrammaton, but scholars debate the interpretation of this difficult term.2 In this article, I go beyond ... to suggest that YHWH is present in the Song in the form of love. Drawing on Calvert Watkins's work on inherited formulae, I argue that Song 8:6b-7a utilizes language and imagery from the Northwest Semitic combat myth to identify love with YHWH as the victorious divine warrior. As part of this argument, I identify three inherited formulae in the Hebrew Bible, the Baal Cycle, and later Christian and Jewish literature: "Leviathan, the fleeing serpent, the twisting serpent," "rebuke Sea," and "strong as Death." Within the Song, the phrase "strong as Death" connects this passage with the Baal Cycle, while the references to ... and ... evoke scenes of mythic combat from the rest of the Hebrew Bible. By way of conclusion, I demonstrate the importance of this reading for interpreting the adjuration refrain in Song 2:7, 3:5, and 8:4 and the phrase "sick with love" in Song 2:5 and 5:8.


As many commentators have noted, Song 8:6b-7a employs a rich array of cosmic language to highlight the power of love (...). In these verses, love is set against death (...), Sheol (...), mighty waters (...), and rivers (...), and likened to fire (...) and flame (...). Most commentators, however, downplay the mythic significance of these verses, preferring to treat them as a theological or philosophical statement about the nature of love. Othmar Keel, for example, claims that "the statement about love being as strong as death cannot have a mythical sense in the context of the Song, but to a large degree it owes its strength and intensity to the several myths about the struggle between the powers of life or love and those of death." Meanwhile, J. Cheryl Exum calls these verses "a succinct credo on the subject of love."3 Yet all of these terms and concepts are part of a crosscultural tradition of combat myths, as will be shown now.

Many of the myths from the ancient Near East focus on divine combat. In the Enuma Elish, Marduk defeats Ti'amat (the Deep) and her serpentine allies; in the Baal Cycle, Baal challenges Yamm (Sea) and Môt (Death) for the kingship of the gods; and in several passages in the Hebrew Bible, YHWH battles a variety of aqueous foes, including Yam (Sea), Tehôm (the Deep), and Leviathan.4 Traditionally, scholars have explained the similarities between these myths in terms of narrative typology and cultural contact. The Enuma Elish, the Baal Cycle, and the passages from the Hebrew Bible are all versions of a single "combat myth" archetype.5 In the first act, the divine warrior-usually a storm god-confronts and defeats the turbulent powers of the Sea and/or its serpentine allies using a lightning bolt. His victory allows him to claim kingship over the gods in the second act and, as an encore, create the world using the body of the slain Sea. The cast of characters may change, but the plot remains the same. The dispersal of this motif is the result of cultural contact: the combat myth originated in either the Levant or Mesopotamia and spread to other societies through trade, conquest, and migration.6

This line of reasoning for the dispersal of the combat myth is difficult to apply to the Song of Songs because its historical context is poorly understood. True, Song 8:6b-7a shares typological similarities with many versions of the combat myth- water, fire, and death all make an appearance-but typological similarities alone prove insufficient for demonstrating concrete connections between two myths since divine combat is a common motif in the world's narratives. …

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