Place me like a seal over your heart,
like a seal on your arm;
for love is as strong as death,
its jealousy unyielding as the grave.
It burns like blazing fire,
like a mighty flame.
This is one of the most famous verses of the Song of Songs (8:6). Love is as strong as death, it tells us. It is seductive to read the passage slightly differently, as love being stronger than death. Many people have it like this in their memory. It is an old, persistent misreading. Let me quote one such from Early Modernity.
Amsterdam, 1720. A certain Gerrit Bouman published an absolute novelty: a ‘Print Bible’, a booklet full of rebuses containing verses from the Holy Scripture. It was meant for children: amusing themselves with these rebuses, they in the meantime could pick up the Biblical messages. One of the pages performs the verse of Song of Songs 8:6, at least the first part. The rebus is correct. It says that love (caritas, whose iconography is traditionally a mother with children) is as strong as (sterck als] death. But at the bottom of the page, in the written version, we read: “love is stronger than death or any other pain” (Set mij Heer als een zegel op uw arm en herte, / De liefde is sterker dan de doodt of ander smerte).
If modernity is – as Michel de Certeau and others say – the age of faith in man’s limitless possibilities, this misreading is typically modern. Man’s passionate will is supposed to challenge and by times conquer his finite human condition. Although mortal, his passion and his love tries hard to be stronger than life’s lethal forces.
‘Stronger than’: this reading is even more typically for Christianty as well. For Christians believe that Christ did overcome mortality. His Love broke the seal of death and turned its realm into Eternal Life. Christians and moderns are inclined to read the verse as telling that Love conquers all, including death’s power.
But the original text speaks of something different. For the Hebrews of the first millennium BC, there was no such thing as Eternal Life. All the deceased went to Sheol, a kind of underworld, analogous to the Greek Hades. Faith in God was entirely a matter of earthly life. Obeying the Torah was supposed to be rewarded in concrete prosperity, in a lot of children or other things in favor of the development of Israel as a great nation.
In this sense, nothing is stronger than death, death being the ultimate power, the power no one can surpass. We have to conquer life before death’s dominion begins to reign. Once attacking, death cannot be stopped or overcome. And this is how strong Love is. Once attacked by Love, one cannot overcome, manipulate or manage it. One has to listen to its authority, both obediently and passionately. It is the ultimate contract that binds one to another, a contract sealed by death, sealed with death. When betrayed, that love kills you.
This is the Love of the first monotheistic God, the one of what is called the Old Testament. It is Love listening to the paradigm of sovereignty, of power defined (with Agamben) as the possibility to decide about one’s life and death. The Love of that God is as strong as death.
Christianity introduced a different paradigm, the one of biopolitics, later taken over by modernity. Here, power is defined as its capacity to behold and manage life. It is in that perspective that God’s love is stronger than death.