So much of scripture emphasizes the importance of “loving” God. In many people’s views, the chief end of religion—or at least one of its goals—is simply showing your “love” for God. To our modern viewpoint, “loving” God is generally thought of as doing good, attending church services, praying, and considering and reading scripture (among other things). But when the Bible says “love,” is our common definition of “love” really what it means? If not, what does it really signify?
In order to accurately read Biblical passages, scholars look at the original language—they do not rely on translations—and determine what the word meant. In Deuteronomy’s case, the original language is Hebrew (to note, the New Testament was written in Greek, not Hebrew). Although the English translation may render a certain word “love,” the original Hebrew word may have had a markedly different meaning. Such are the perils of reading in translation.
As the scholar James Kugel describes in his book “How to Read the Bible,” the issue over how Deuteronomy uses the word “love” was first raised by William L. Moran, an American Jesuit. In 1963, Moran published an article examining the usage of “love” and made some significant connections.
First, however, some background. Upon its discovery, the Vassal Treaty of Esarhaddon (a suzerainty treaty of the kind we have discussed before), scholars had noticed, greatly resembled Deuteronomy—in fact, it used many similar phrases and words.* That treaty instructed the ruled country’s subjects to “love Assurbanipal as yourselves” (Assurbanipal was the successor to Esarhaddon for the Assyrian throne). For Moran, this connection triggered an interesting idea: the idea of “love” as used in Deuteronomy seemed less the type of “love” of enamor, romance, and heart-centered devotion, and more like “loyalty”—specifically political loyalty.
So Moran looked through the ways the Hebrew word for love, ‘ahab, was used in Deuteronomy. In short, he discovered that the word was often used nearly at the same time, or juxtaposed, with serving God or keeping his laws. In fact, even in the places where one would think the scripture would use the word “love” in the sense of comparing the love of a father to a son (Deut. 8:5, 14:1) ‘ahab was not used at all.
What can we draw from Moran’s analysis? We have previously noted that the Ten Commandments resembled these types of treaties, so these aspects of Deuteronomy should not be unbelievable: God primarily as a political leader is one of the most common depictions of YHWH in the Pentateuch. Perhaps we can conclude, at least in part, that political loyalty—the Israelites were of course a homogenous group and nation—was paramount to the writers of Deuteronomy; and that “love,” at least in the sense that we think it, was not even in the picture. This would naturally lead to us concluding, at least in part, that when these sections of Deuteronomy—and in fact much of the Old Testament—instruct us to “love” God, the message, at least originally, might not have been the one we think it was. Instead, it’s more likely a command for devotion and loyalty. Perhaps putting God on your car’s bumper—right next to which presidential candidate you support—is a more appropriate sign of devotion than it otherwise seems.
*Kugel details this in his book. For reasons of length, I omit that here. See generally, though, pp. 348-350 of “How to Read the Bible.”