From general canonical standpoint the Song of Songs is a shocking book, however from a literary standpoint within the book the phrase “love is as strong as death” כִּי־עַזָּ֤ה כַמָּ֙וֶת֙ אַהֲבָ֔ה (Sol 8:6 WTT) is shocking in and of itself. There are several reasons for this shock. First, the word “love” (bha) occurs 11x in the song and this is the first and only time it is ever compared to “death” (twm). In fact, this is the only time in the Hebrew Bible where love compared to death! However, is this the full extent of the shocking dimension about this phrase? Some scholars have suggested that this phrase carries with it a veiled reference to the Ugaritic myth about Anat and Baal. Is this true?
This study will suggest that “death” is not to be understood with reference to the ANE background, rather it should be understood in terms of its larger canonical expression. Specifically, “death” be understood as a consequence of living apart from the covenant. Death in this sense is understood as something akin to “the way to death” (tw#m*-yk@r=d^) as we see in parallel literary forms within the Canon. This means that the “strength of death” (SOS 8:6c) is the power of an alternative way of life outside of covenant life. Death in this sense is separation from one's true covenant partner, a vulnerability to the power of evil, as well as exile from the land. Reasons for this interpretation will become clear in the course of this paper.
The purpose of the following paper is to explore the meaning of the phrase “love is as strong as death” in relation to its possible Ancient near East background. In order to test this accurately, we must first examine the proposed ANE background in terms of its historical placement, genre function, and content. This will enable us to establish commonalities as well as “points of opposition.” Then we must conduct a word study on the Hebrew noun “death.”
The word study will keep in mind the following criteria. First, what can this word possibly mean within the HB. Second, how can this word be used to express X? In other words, how is this word used in relation to metaphorical expression? How can this word be collated with other terms? Is it possible to use this term as personification? With regard to personification, we must ask whether the personification is simply the literary embodiment of an abstract idea or whether it's a possible reference to ANE mythological background. In addition, we must look for the contextual indications that alert the reader to the fact that personification is indeed at work within the text. This will enable us to develop clear criteria for when personification does occur in every clear instance, and then we will be able to more precisely evaluate the text in question.
ANAT AND MOT: AN ANAYLYIS OF THE ANE BACKROUND ANAT AND MOT
The proposed ANE background for SOS 8:6c occurs in the Ugaritic text Baal and Mot. There is some disagreement about the mythological function of the text. Some scholars maintain that the narrative is an attempt to explain the seasonal patterns of summer and spring. Meaning, the story depicts Mot, the god of death, as somebody who temporarily defeats Baal, the god of fertility. During this time of temporary defeat, Mot puts the sun god under orders to beat down on the earth. In this way, the myth could be talking about the seasonal disruption of summer. However, other scholars maintain that this is a story about a special instance of prolonged seasonal disruption (i.e. possibly a seven-year drought), which could be a historical reference to the drought that Moses describes in Gen 46:25.
The purpose of our study, the focus has been drawn to the smaller conflict within the story between Anat and Mot, specifically CTA 6. In the broad context of this narrative Baal has been summoned to “come down throat of divine Mot.” Baal avoids submitting himself to this summons by producing a male heir in his likeness and offering him as a substitute in his place. The text states, “he [Baal] love a heifer in the pastures… he did lie with her seven and 70 times, she allowed him to mount her 8 and 80 times; and she conceived and gave birth to a boy.” It is with this heir that Baal convinces Mot that he is indeed dead. This plan is so successful that he has also deceived the rest of the gods of this fact.
Our specific context begins with Ahat, Baal’s sister mourning over this apparent fact. As she is moyrning she poses this question, “What will become of the people of Dagon’s son? What of his multitudes?” In other words, now that Baal is dead there is a vacancy of power, a disruption of fertility upon the earth. After this problem is brought to the attention of El, there is some debate and deliberation about who will take his place. After Anat very quickly realizes that this divine deliberation is going nowhere quick, she decides to take up search for Baal. She soon realizes that she is unable to find him. So she decides to confront Mot himself. Anat demands, “do you, Mot, give up my brother?” Eventually, Anat gets so angry with Mot she seizes “divine Mot, with a sword she split him” We learn eventually that Baal is indeed still alive. in the last portion of the story we see Baal and Mot locked in combat together. The text states, “Mot was strong. Baal was strong. They fought like greyhounds; Mot fell down, Baal fell down on top of him.” At this point, Shaphesh, the sun god, intercedes in order to bring an end to the unending struggle. He says, “Hear, I beseech you, O divine Mot. How can you fight with mightiest Baal?” The text ends with Mot affirming the place and supremacy of Baal within the scope of the pantheon.
Before we make an assessment about the relevance of this story for understanding SOS 8:6c, we must do a careful word study. This will enable us to make a comparison and contrast between these two distinctive bodies of literature.
DEATH (twm): A WORD STUDY OF THE HEBREW NOUN
The noun “death” (twm) occurs 160x in the HB. In terms of distribution, Jon has the greatest concentration of occurrences (3x) whereas Prov as the second greatest concentration (19x). The Psalms has the largest number of occurrences in terms of sheer quantity (22x). Exodus contains the least amount in terms of distribution (1x), even though the books of Est, Songs, Lam, and Hab also only contain a single occurrence.
The word has five different definitions. First, it can mean simply, “death, dying.” This simply has to do with the termination of life. Second, it can mean. “Epidemic, especially the plague.” This has to do with deadly conditions within a specific environment. Third, it can be “personified as the god of death.” Fourth, it can mean, “the realm of the dead.” This has to do with the underworld or the grave. Fifth, death can be a place for a destination. This has to do with the consequences of breaking the covenant.
Death as the Termination of Life
The most basic definition of “death” (twm) is “death, dying.” This signifies the termination of life. An example of this use can be heard in the mouth of Hagar who says after wandering in the wilderness, “let me not look on the death of the child,” (Gen 21:16). Later on, we see the expression “the death of Abraham” (Gen 25:11, 26:18) signaling the termination of the life of Abraham. Still later on, we see the same use in the mouth of the Isaac who says, “Bring venison and make morsels for me so that I may eat it and bless you before the Lord and before my death,” (Gen 27:10, translation my own). This same word can be used of animals that have also ceased to live. Moses states, whoever touches them [animals] when they are dead shall be unclean until evening, (Ex 10:17). There are also a number of other examples of this use.
Death as epidemic
Death can be used to designate a plague of that is affecting a particular people group or geographic plane. Pharaoh states, “now therefore forgive my sin, please, only this once, and plead with the Lord your God only to remove this death from me,” (Ex 10:17, ESV).
Death as ceremonial uncleanliness
If someone is to come in contact with a corpse, then this will render them into a state of ceremonial uncleanliness. This is true of both certain types of animals as well as humans. Moses states, “These are unclean to you among all that swarm. Whoever touches them when they are dead shall be unclean until evening,” (Lev 11:31, ESV).
Death as Penalty of Law
Death can be the consequence of a crime committed under the law. Moses states, “And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he's put to death,” (Dt 21:22, ESV). Jeremiah mentions a similar idea to this, which he calls it “the sentence of death, (26:11, 16).
Death as a Vacancy in Leadership
The death of a person can be a sign of a vacancy in leadership. The text will say something like, “After the death of x,” which simply means there is a need for a new leader. Moses himself understands the importance of a present living leader. He says to
Death as Covenant Punishment
Death is a covenant punishment. This means it is the consequences for breaking the covenant. Moses states, “see, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil,” (Dt 30:15, ESV). Again he states, “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I said before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life that you and your offspring may live,” (Dt 30:19, ESV). This way of speaking about death becomes a prominent theme in the wisdom literature.
Death as the Place of the Dead
Death is the place where the dead reside. This can be in terms of the physical location of inhumation or perhaps the metaphysical round of deceased persons. Concerning the former David states, “for in death there is no remembrance of you; and sheol who will give you praise?” (Ps 6:5, ESV concerning the latter Job states, “have the gates of death and revealed to you, or have you seen the gates of the darkness?” (Jb 38:17).
Death as the Language of Expression
Death can be used to express a wide variety of conditions. These conditions can be expressed in the form of oath, metaphor, simile, collocation, or personification.
Metaphors for Death
There are several metaphors for death. Most of these metaphors for expressions occur within the wisdom literature and the poetic sections of the Bible. There is “The snares of death,” which basically means a threatening for menacing obstacle. There is a reference to “The dust of death,” in Ps 22:15, which is a reference to the grave. There is, of course, “The gates of death,” which is a reference to the entrance of the underworld as in the metaphysical abode for the death. Of course, there is a single reference to “Chambers of death,” (Pr 7:27), which is the place or destination of apostasy or living outside of the covenant. This is also referred to as “The way to death.” There is also a single reference to “Sleep of death,” (Ps 13:30) which signifies the event of death itself. There is also several ways to refer to the impending threat of death: “The Chords of death,” (Ps 18:4), “The bitterness of death,” (1 Sam 15:32), “The waves of death,” 2 Sam 22:5. Finally, one can also speak of a “Deathly panic,” (1 Sam 5:11).
Similes for Death
There are a few occasions where death is likened to someplace or quality
Collocations with Death
There are also collocations or words that occur in relation to the word death. In addition to all the word pairs that have hardly been pointed out in the discussion concerning metaphor and simile, there are several collocations worth pointing out. There is “strangling and death,” (Jb 7:15). There is also a fairly common “life and death.” There is also reference to “Arrows and death,” (Pr 26:18). Finally, there is a single collocation of love and death (SOS 8:6).
The Personification of Death
Death can be personified as the god of death. Job says, “Abaddon and death say. ‘We have heard a rumor of it with our ears,’” (28:22, ESV). It is important to note here that death is pictured as someone who can say something. The prophet Isaiah states that God will “Swallow death forever,” (25:8). Here that his personified as an enemy which can be conquered by God himself. He also accuses the people of making “a covenant with death” (28:15, 18). Here that his personified as a covenant partner. Later on, he states that “death does not praise you [Yahweh],” (38: this 18). Here it is personified as somebody who refuses to praise God. Jeremiah states, “death has come into our windows; it has entered our palaces,” (9:21). Notice here death is the subject of the verbal action. Later on, he states that “men meet death by pestilence,” (18:21). Here then are able to encounter death as if it were a personal being. Finally, the prophet Hosea cries out, “shall I ransom them from the power of Sheol? Shall I redeem them from Death? Oh Death, where are your plagues? Oh Sheol, where is your sting?” (13:14, ESV). Here death is directly addressed as if he were a real person.
Now that we have conducted a word study on death, we are able to make note of several important factors. First, the word death has the wide range of meaning. It can mean the termination of life. It can mean epidemic. It can also signify a vacancy in leadership. Death has the power to render somebody ceremonially unclean. Death can be a punishment for crime. Death can be the result of breaking a covenant. We also saw that death can be used express many different facets of human emotion by means of metaphor, simile, collocation, and personification. With regard to collocation, we saw that it was usually paired with paired with the word for life and only once with the word for love. With regard to personification, we saw that there was usually a specific contextual indicator that alerted the reader to the fact that personification was being used. The main mechanism for personification was the fact that death was the subject of the firm of action for perhaps the recipient of personal action. So we can conclude on the basis of our word study that it is possible that death may be personified in SOS 8:6c, but we will need further contextual evidence to verify this interpretation. We now turn to the immediate context of SOS 8:6c.
HOW STRONG IS LOVE: A LITERARY-SYNTACTICAL ANALYSIS OF 8:6c
There are several questions that need to be addressed: 1) what genre is at work here; 2) what is the specific literary type or form; 3) how does SOS 8:6c function within the literary form and within 8:6 in particular; 4) how doesn't contribute to a biblical understanding of love?
First, it must be noted that 8:6c is placed within the broad context of 8:4-- 14. The vote in its entirety is found within the body of the writings, which is wisdom literature or life within the land. The immediate context is 8:4 – 14. This can be classified as Didactic poetic lecture. In this regard, the form is similar to what can be found in Proverbs 1 -- 9, which is a series of poetic lectures exhorting “my son” to learn and think as one who possesses the skill of “leadership” תַּחְבֻּל֥וֹת (Pro 1:5 WTT). The book of Proverbs terminated with a poetic depiction of who a potential leader in
Second, it must be noted that 8:6c occurs within the immediate context of an imperative. The peasant princess exhorts her beloved to “place me” שִׂימֵ֙נִי (Sol 8:6 WTT) as if she were “a seal” כחוֹתָ֜ם (Sol 8:6 WTT).
But now how does 8:6c relate to this imperative? In other words, how does yk! function within this context? It can function 10 ways: 1) causal; 2) temporal; 3) conditional; 4) adversative; 5) concessive; 6) assertive; 7) result; 8) nominalizing; 9) within a question; 10) recitative. We can rule out numbers 2, 3, 4, 7, 8, 9, and 10 on the basis of specific syntactic features that are not at work here. However, that still leaves 2, 5, and 6 for our consideration. If we were to translate it as causal, then we could render the verse as “because love is as strong as death.” If we would translate it as assertive, then “indeed love is as strong as death.” If we were to translate it as concessive, then we would translate it “as in spite of love [being] as strong as death.” Although all three of these possibilities seem plausible, I tend to prefer the causal understanding of the conjunction because the peasant princess is trying to teach us something about love through a persuasive argument. Yes, although it is true that in some sense she is trying “to assert the certainty of what follows,” I believe it makes more sense to say that she is giving the ground of reasoning for her imperative.
So what does it mean to say “love is as strong as death”? First, it must be noted that the word “love” occurs 11x SOS. First, it occurs with reference to her beloved as proclaiming his love as a “banner” (lgd). Second, the peasant princess talks about being “sick with love” כִּי־חוֹלַ֥ת אַהֲבָ֖ה (Sol 2:5 WTT). This is a reference to wanting to be in covenant of union with her beloved. Third, several times throughout this Song and peasant princess exhorts the daughters of
So what does love me and our present context? I don't think it makes any sense to say that love where death is a reference to the ANE mythological context because there are none of the contextual indicators that we clearly saw in other portions of the HB. Love or death are not acting as subjects which can perform verbal actions nor are they being addressed as they were personal being used to be encountered. However, what does this statement specifically mean within our context? Is love being talked about in an abstract sense or in a personal concrete sense? I prefer to say that love is being talked about in abstract with immediate and present application. To exclude one from the other is to tear away at the unity of the coherency and universal application of truth in general. In addition, I would suggest that what is meant by this comparison is that she is saying that love is a choice between life and death. You see, the wisdom teacher in Proverbs lays out a choice for his students. They can either choose “fear of the Lord” (1:7, 29) or “dread of evil” (1:33). These two decisions are embodied as two different women: Lady wisdom (1:20) and the strange woman (2:16). If the students choose the former, then the results will be dwelling in safety (1:33) and life within the land (2:22). Now in this song the woman is forced with a choice between Solomon and her true love. Solomon is offering her safety and security supposedly whereas for true love offers her true safety and true security. It is interesting to note that while she is within harem, she continues to suffer from being “sick with love,” which is an indication that harem life for the most part it's not going to satisfy her deepest longing to live in genuine covenant union with her true love. Ultimately, living in a harem will result in a lack of genuine safety and exile from the promised land. It is on this basis that I would suggest that “death” should be understood here in terms of “the way to death” or “the chamber of death” (7:27) as we saw in the book of Proverbs.
We begin study with the question: what is so shocking about love and death? The main purpose of this study was to investigate the so-called possibility of the ANE background for SOS 8:6c. A careful comparative analysis of the Ugaritic mythological parallel in relation to the possible range of meaning of the word “death” showed us that, although it was possible to establish parallels even within the HB, this certainly was not the case in SOS 8:6c. Rather, it should be read in light of its literary formal function as a didactic poetic lecture, which is exhorting the reader to understand the nature of love as a choice between death and life. This is significant in light of precedent research that has tended to evaluate this phrase almost exclusively in relation to its so-called ANE background. This basically plays out as either an affirmation for denial of the relevance. What most scholars failed to do is fail to draw out its significance. If I am incorrect in my assessment regarding the ANE, then what would be significance of this reference? How can a story that concerns itself with the problem of fertility in the land have any meaningful significance on song about covenant love? Could we say that the Bible is challenging the ANE understanding about seasonal pattern? What would be the effect upon Hebrew audience? However, if my assessment is correct, then we are in a position to talk about love without regard to so-called Cannanite background material. We can free up the text to speech in its own distinctive terms. In addition, is my hope that I have provided in the rough outline a clear criterion to evaluate the presence or absence of genuine mythological reference.
 Othmar Keel, The Song of Songs: A Continental Commentary, trans. Frederick J. Gaiser, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994), 274; Tremper Longman III, Song of Songs, (Grand Rapids: William B. Erdmans Publishing Company, 2001), 210; Duane Garrett, Song of Songs, WBC, (Nashville ); note that not all scholars agree that they should be read as a reference to ANE mythology see Richard S. Hess, Song of Songs, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 239; note that Robert Gordis in his commentary, The Song of Songs and Lamentations, (New York: KTAV Publishing House, Inc., 1974), 99, does not even acknowledge interleaved difficulty here.
 The concept of exile should be understood in contrast with life in the land, which involves not only geographic location but public involvement with commerce and legal decisions; see Proverbs 1: 20 -- 21.
 Arvid S. Kapelrud, The Ras Shamra Discoveries and the Old Testament, trans., G. W.
 Gen 27:2; 50:16; Lev 11:32; 16:1; Num 16:29; 23:10; 35:25, 28, 32; Deut 31:27, 29; Jud 13:7; Ruth 1:17; 2:11; 1 Sam 20:3, 31; 2 Sam 6:23; 1 Chr 22:5; Est 2:7; Ps 33:19; 49:17; 53:13 68:20; 73:4; 70:50; 89:48; 116:15; Pro 11:7; Eccl 3:19; 7:1; Jer 18:21, 23; 52:11, 34; Ez 18:23, 32; 31:14; 33:11;
 For a comprehensive study on the relationship between death and uncleanliness see Emanuel Feldman, Biblical and Post- Biblical Defilement and Mourning: Law as Theology, (New York: KTAV Publishing House, Inc., 1977).
 Jb 3:21; Ps 33:19; Pr 2:18; 5:5; 7:27; 8:36; 10:2; 11:4, 19; 12:28; 13:14; 14:12, 27; 16:25; 18:21; 21:6; 24:11; Jer 21:8.
 Ronald J. Williams, Williams Hebrew Syntax: Third Edition, rev. By John C. Beckman, (