Does Song of Songs 8:6 contain a reference to YHWH?
Yes ... and no. "Yes", there is a use of the short form of the divine name, found suffixed to the word of Song 8:6, שַׁלְהֶבֶתְיָה šalhebetyāh, combining the rare word for "flame", שַׁלְהֶבֶת šalhebet (on this analysis, found only here and in Job 15:30 and Ezekiel 21:3) with the final -yah representing the name of the Deity -- but used as a superlative, so that's the "no".1
There are, however, three leading lines of interpretation on this form, and each continues to enjoy some measure of scholarly support:
- -yah is simply an intensifying suffix, and not a reference to the divine name;
- -yah is a short form of the divine name, but here serves as an intensifying suffix;
- -yah is a short form of the divine name, and represents the divine name.
1. Just a suffix
In 1894, Morris Jastrow argued for the existence of an "emphatic afformative ya", and included Song 8:6 as one of the clear examples. For him, it contributed a heightening effect, but not as an element of the divine name.2 This interpretation continues to find support amongst more recent commentators, A. & C. Bloch (The Song of Songs: A New Translation with an Introduction and Commentary (University of California Press, 1995), p. 213) being one good example. Edmeé Kingsmill, in her remarkable study of the book, finds their brief argument "compelling though not conclusive". In her own discussion, she draws a connection between Ezekiel 21:3-4 (= English 20:47) and Song 8:6, suggesting that the latter may be a deliberate "reversal" of the former -- and thus, it seems to me, implying some quasi-divine-name status for -yah.3
2. A special divine-name superlative
However, in a succession of articles in Vetus Testamentum, this verdict has been countered. Here is the chain of articles:4
- D. Winton Thomas, "A Consideration of Some Unusual Ways of Expressing the Superlative in Hebrew", Vetus Testamentum 3 (1953): 209-224;
- P. P. Saydon, "Some Unusual Ways of Expressing the Superlative in Hebrew and Maltese", Vetus Testamentum 4 (1954): 432-433;
- D. Winton Thomas, "Some Further Remarks on Unusual Ways of Expressing the Superlative in Hebrew", Vetus Testamentum 18 (1968): 120-124;
- P. A. H. de Boer, "יהוה as Epithet Expressing the Superlative", Vetus Testamentum 24 (1974): 233-235;
- Gershon Brin, "The Superlative in the Hebrew Bible: Additional Cases", Vetus Testamentum 42 (1992): 115-118.
I pick up only the first of these, by Winton Thomas. (He published articles in other journals on this theme as well, as it happens.) Thomas catalogues a large number of examples in the Hebrew Bible in which ʾel, ʾelohim, as well as yh and yhwh but also mawet are all used in this way. He notes examples of this interpretation among the medieval Jewish commentators which are not reflected in the ancient versions. He refers specifically to
Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Kimchi, Levi ben Gershon, and Obadiah ben Jacob Sfornon--they cover between them a period of some five hundred years...
citing texts and sources (p. 211). These deal with אל and אלהים, but he goes on to forms of the Tetragram as well. Here, Song 8:6 appears in a list of examples found including Jer. 2:31; 32:19; Ps. 77:12; 89:9; and 118:5 (p. 114).
This form in Song 8:6 is also explained as a special kind of "intensifier" in the grammar of Joüon-Muraoka at §141n (p. 767). My impression is that this position is the dominant one among "scholarly readings" of the issue.
3. The divine name short-form is the divine name
Whether there remains some tinge of religious significance in these cases (as the articles sometimes suggest) is difficult to say. One advocate of such a position is Gianni Barbiero, Song of Songs: A Close Reading (Brill, 2011), pp. 464-466. Negatively, he argues that to reject the "divine name" here would render the term tautologous -- it would just be saying the same thing twice, and that strikes him as unlikely. Positively, he sees here an assertion precisely of YHWH's love as the "antithesis" of the "bursting fires" of Sheol.5
Summary: The evidence needs weighing, and obviously is weighed differently by competent readers of the Hebrew text, as this discussion briefly demonstrates -- much more would be needed to come to some "definitive" account of the problem. My own impression is that the evidence converges on point suggests that while we have an appearance of the "divine name" in Song 8:6, it is not directly a reference to the Deity, but serves as a kind of extraordinary superlative.
- On this form of the divine name, see the Q&A on "The name of God in ancient manuscripts". It should be noted that the form in Song 8:6 does not have the mappiq in the he (the little dot, retaining the consonantal value for this letter). Even this has been discussed, and -- if this be taken as a short form of the Tetragram -- it could imply Aramaic influence with consequent implications for a late dating for the Song.
- M. Jastrow, "Hebrew Proper Names Compounded with יה and יהו", Journal of Biblical Literature 3 (1894), 101-127 (discussion on p. 111).
- Edmeé Kingsmill SLG, The Song of Songs and the Eros of God: A Study in Biblical Intertextuality (Oxford University Press, 2009), pp. 152-153.
- Oddly, Brin (1992) covers much the same ground as de Boer (1974), but there's no reference to de Boer, and it appears this work was done independently.
- A fascinating intertextual connection is drawn by Patrick Hunt, Poetry in the Song of Songs: A Literary Analysis (Peter Lang, 2008), p. 241. Hunt connects Song 8:6-7, with its "unquenchable fire" which cannot be extinguished by "many waters", with the episode of Elijah on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18, see especially v. 38) -- he does not, however, refer at all to šalhebetyāh in v. 6. In spite of the rough ride this monograph has had from reviewers (including its occasionally "far-fetched" suggestions), I find the connection intringuing.