Love—as described in the Old Testament.

When we Christians talk love, most of the time we refer to ἀγάπη/aghápi, the type of love Paul and Sosthenes defined in 1 Corinthians 13. It’s the love which God is. 1Jn 4.16

Now aghápi is a Greek word, ’cause the New Testament was written in ancient Greek; duh. But way more of the bible consists of Old Testament, which is mostly written in ancient Hebrew. Hence when we Christians preach on love, we take our ideas and teachings from the NT… and for the most part skip anything the OT has to say on the subject.

Which is problematic. See, there’s this persistent myth that God is love in the NT, but isn’t love in the OT; he was more wrath and anger and vengeance and flaring nostrils. 2Sa 22.9 The way too many Christians depict it, Jesus’s self-sacrifice sated his bloodlust, and now the Father loves us instead of wanting to crush us like cockroaches.

Some preachers try to preach love from the OT, but not always well. Usually it’s with a bad word study: They crack open their Nave’s Topical Bible and look up every verse which contains the word “love.” Then they try to read the 1 Corinthians definition into it. Which doesn’t always work. Y’see, rapists felt “love”: Shechem claimed he loved Dinah, Ge 34.3 and Amnon used to love Tamar till he had his way with her. 2Sa 13.15 Sorta impossible to claim this is the patient, kind, not-demanding-its-own-way sort of aghápi/“love” the apostles had in mind.

See, not every word for “love” in the bible means aghápi. Often it means one of the other eight meanings our culture has attached to the word “love.”

But it brings up an interesting question: Where’d the apostles’ definition of love come from? Yes of course it came from the Holy Spirit. But shouldn’t the Spirit have revealed what love is long before Paul and Sosthenes had to spell it out for Corinth? Shouldn’t he have embedded the idea somewhere in the Old Testament, somewhere in the ancient Hebrew culture?

And I would argue he did, which is why Jesus, John, and Paul could independently talk about aghápi and all mean the very same thing by it, And not mean what the ancient Greeks meant by aghápi. It’s in there because God’s in there, and God is love. Always has been. Even in the OT.

God acts patiently, kindly, not enviously, nor boastful, proud, rude, self-seeking, irritable, grudge-holding, faithless, hopeless, and unjust. (No matter how certain Calvinists might describe him.) That’s how God is actually described all over the Hebrew scriptures. That’s the God the apostles knew, the God whom Jesus reveals to us.

Now, how ’bout the OT words we’ve translated “love”? How close are the to aghápi?

Aháv.

The word most commonly translated “love” in the OT is the verb אָהַב/aháv and its noun-forms אַהַב/aháv, אֹהַב/oháv, and אַהֲבָה/ahavá. (Yeah, they’re all next to one another in the average Hebrew lexicon.) In the Septuagint, these words all tend to be translated aghápi. So they mean the same thing, right?

Wrong. Aháv sometimes means aghápi, same as our English word “love” sometimes means that. But more often aháv is closer to φίλος/fílos, the love between family and friends who share common interests. And sometimes it means στοργή/storgí, “affection,” like that between parents and children. And it can definitely mean ἔρος/éros, “romance”—it definitely does in the Song of Songs.

Like our English word, aháv means lots of things. Not just aghápi, regardless of how regularly the Septuagint’s translators utilized that word. Still, aháv is found in certain commands of the LORD

Leviticus 19.18 KWL
“Don’t avenge. Don’t cling to anger against your people’s children.
Love your fellow Hebrew like yourself. I’m the LORD.”
Deuteronomy 6.4-5 KWL
4 “Listen, Israel: Our god is the LORD. The LORD is One.
5 Love your LORD God with all your mind, all your life, and all your power.”

—which, when Jesus quoted ’em in his lessons, the writers of the gospels rendered them in Greek as aghápi.

Mark 12.30 KWL
“You must love your Lord God with all your heart, life, purpose, and might.’ Dt 6.4-5
Second is, ‘Love your neighbor like yourself.’” Lv 19.18

So in these instances, aháv does in fact mean the godly love Jesus and the apostles regularly referred to. But like I said, not every instance of aháv in the OT means this type of love. Sometimes it’s just friendship, and sometimes it’s carnal, lustful, and rapey. We gotta figure out, from its context, what the OT authors meant by aháv. Mix up the meanings and you’ll go horribly wrong.

Even in God’s commandments, we can’t just assume every instance of aháv means aghápi either:

Deuteronomy 21.15-17 KWL
15 “When a man has two women—one he loves, one he ‘hates’—and the loved and the ‘hated’ birth sons for him,
and the son with the birthright is born to the ‘hated’:
16 On the day the man grants inheritances to his sons which were born to him,
he’s not allowed to grant the birthright to the son of the loved,
over the head of the son of the ‘hated’ with the birthright,
17 for the birthright is for the son of the ‘hated.’
The man should be willing to give him two portions of all he’s acquired,
for he’s the most valuable thing he created. He deserves the birthright.

In this command, “loved” and “hated” are idioms for “more loved” and “less loved.” And it’s not really aghápi. It’s not the sort of unconditional, impartial love we Christians need to express towards everyone. Context, folks.

Kheçéd.

In contrast, חָסַד/khacád and its noun-form חֶסֶד/kheçéd is seldom translated “love” in most bibles. Tends to be translated “kindness” or “lovingkindness” or “goodness” or “mercy.” But every so often translators will actually, accurately call it love: “Steadfast love” or “unfailing love” or “faithful love.”

You might be most familiar with it in Psalm 136, and other passages where the author really wanted to hammer away at the idea God is all about the kheçéd.

Psalm 136.1-5 KWL
1 Throw your hands up to the LORD, for he’s good: His love lasts forever.
2 Throw your hands up to the God of the gods: His love lasts forever.
3 Throw your hands up to the Master of masters: His love lasts forever.
4 To the one who alone does wonderful, great deeds: His love lasts forever.
5 To the one who intelligently made the heavens: His love lasts forever.

And so on. You get the idea.

Kheçéd isn’t translated “love” too often, and you gotta wonder why. Because it’s probably the closest idea to aghápi we find in the OT. ’Cause look at the words translators so often use for it:

  • “Kindness”—and both God and love are indeed kind.
  • “Faithful love”—and both God and love are indeed faithful.
  • “Goodness” and “rightness”—and both God and love are good and right.
  • “Mercy”—which is a byproduct of love, for love forgives, as does God. And it’s God’s response to those who turn to him. Ex 20.6 For a thousand generations—it’s a generous love too.

So why don’t bibles translate it “love”? Well, y’notice sometimes they do. But quite often, people prefer to call kheçéd “covenant love.” They figure it’s a particular species of love God has for people who follow his Law. A reciprocal sort of love, which kings would exhibit towards vassals who fulfilled their contractual obligations. Presumably that’s the sort of love the LORD had for his vassals: When they loved him, he’d love ’em back.

But to interpret it this way, is to totally misunderstand what covenants are about.

A covenant is a relationship. Not a contract. It might look contractual, but that’s only because a covenant isn’t a loosey-goosey relationship; it’s formal, and the parties spell out how our relationship works. The bible’s covenants explain what God brings to the table, and what we do. It looks like a contract, ’cause that’s how we do contracts. But in the Law, y’notice it’s far from reciprocal. God provides the Hebrews with everything: Land, flocks, crops, life, wellness, blessings, prosperity, abundance. In return, all the Hebrews gotta do is obey God’s commands. They brought nothing to the table. They had nothing to bring: They were Egyptian slaves, whom God selected not because they were mighty or worthy, but entirely because he loved them, and promised their ancestors he’d look out for them. Dt 7.6-8

In very much the same way, Jesus’s covenant with us is to die for our sins and grant us eternal life. Again, not because we bring anything to the table: He did this while we were yet sinners. Ro 5.8 In both covenants, God escalated mere aháv into kheçéd—and now he’s gonna love his people “for a thousand generations” Dt 7.9 which is a Hebrew idiom for “till you totally lose count.” In other words, forever.

Yeah, there are other Hebrew words translated “love.”

In case you worried I’m not being comprehensive, I figured I’d hit up all the other Hebrew words which bibles render “love.”

חָבַב/khovév: Only appears once in the bible, Dt 33.3 and means “to hide [in one’s heart].” Though the Septuagint translated it “spares,” as in “[God] spares his people.”
חָשַׁק/khašaq: Literally means “is strapped to,” and is a metaphor for love.
עָגַב/agáv: Literally means “breathes for,” and is a metaphor for lust. When Jeremiah referred to idolatrous Israel’s “lovers” Jr 4.30 he really meant their lusters.
רָחַם/rakhám: Means “bowels” (and often “womb”) and therefore is a metaphor for compassion, mercy, or pity. Which are forms of love.

Still, my vote for where the apostles got their concept of love would be kheçéd. Its definition in 1 Corinthians 13 becomes more and more obvious whenever the writers of the Old Testament used the word.

Isaiah 54.10 KWL
“For the mountains might fall down and the hills shake,
but my love won’t fall away from you, and my covenantal peace won’t shake,”
says your compassionate LORD.

’Cause love doesn’t fall down. 1Co 13.8