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Love

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The Oxford Companion to the Bible What is This? Provides authoritative interpretive entries on Biblical people, places, beliefs, events, and secular influences.

    Love

    (Hebr. ʾăhābâ; ḥesed). Human loves in all their rich variety fill the passages of biblical narrative: love at first sight (Gen. 29.18–20: Jacob and Rachel); sexual obsession (2 Sam. 13: Amnon and Tamar); family affection across generations (Gen. 22.2; 37.3; Ruth 4.15: between mother and daughter‐in‐law); long marital intimacy (1 Sam. 1: Elkanah and Hannah); servile devotion (Exod. 21.5); intense same‐sex friendship (1 Sam. 18.1, 3; 20.17: David and Jonathan); enthusiastic loyalty toward a leader (1 Sam. 18.16, 28: Israel and Judah's love of David). But the religious significance of the Bible's view of love lies preeminently with its ways of speaking about God and most particularly about God's relationship with Israel. Israel's election, their redemption from Egypt (and, eventually, Babylon), the giving of the Torah, the promise of the land—all are ascribed in biblical narrative and later rabbinic commentary to the fundamental and mysterious fact of God's love for Israel and the people's reciprocal love of God.

    Human love serves as the readiest analogy when speaking of this relationship. God loves Israel as a husband loves his wife (Hos. 3.1; Jer. 2.2; Isa. 54.5–8), a father his firstborn son (Hos. 11.1–3; Jer. 31.9), a mother the child of her womb (Isa. 49.15). God manifests his love in and through his saving acts, most especially in his bringing Israel up from Egypt (Exod. 15.13; Deut. 4.37; 33.3; Neh. 9.17; Ps. 106.7; Hos. 11.4). Narratively and theologically, this liberation culminates in the Sinai covenant, when God gives Israel his tôrâ (literally, “teaching”), instructing Israel on their social and religious obligations in light of their election. Chosen by God's love (Deut. 7.7–8; 10.15), Israel is to respond in kind: loving the God who redeemed them and revealed his will to them, teaching his ways to all future generations (Deut. 6.4–7).

    The covenant binding God and Israel likewise binds together society. The individual is charged to “love your neighbor as yourself,” kindred and foreigner both (Lev. 19.18, 34). The Bible specifies the concrete actions through which this love is to be expressed: support for the poor (Lev. 19.9–10); honesty in measurements and in social interactions (v. 11); prompt payment to laborers; just law courts, favoring neither rich nor poor; respect for the elderly (vv. 13, 15, 32). A system of tithes underlay the welfare both of the poor, the fatherless (see Orphan), and the widowed, and of priests and Levites who, unendowed with land, are “the Lord's portion” (Num. 18.20; Deut. 18.1–2). Right behavior, group affection, and communal social responsibility are thus the concrete measure of Israel's commitment to the covenant. And God, in turn, “keeps” or “guards” his steadfast love for Israel (Exod. 34.7; 1 Kings 3.6; Isa. 54.10; 55.3). Ultimately, Israel's confidence in redemption rests in her conviction that God's love is unwavering, his covenant eternal, his promises sure (Ps. 119.41; 130.7; Zeph. 3.17).

    Much of this tradition, both social and theological, comes into the earliest strata of New Testament writings. Paul urges his gentiles in Galatia to be “servants of one another through love [Grk. agapē], for the whole law is fulfilled in one word, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’ ” (Gal. 5.13–14, quoting Lev. 19.18). In powerfully poetic language, he exhorts the Corinthians to be knit together as a community through love (1 Cor. 13–14; cf. Rom. 14.15). Mark's Jesus sums up the Torah with the first line of the Shema (love of God) and Leviticus 19.18 (love of neighbor; Mark 12.28–31). The Q material of the later synoptic Gospels extends this last: followers of Jesus are to love not just their neighbor but also and even their enemies (Matt. 5.43–48 par.). Perhaps, by the criterion of multiple attestation, this ethic of passive—indeed, even active (Matt. 5.39–41)—nonresistance may go back to the historical Jesus himself. Paul teaches similarly: persecutors should be blessed; vengeance eschewed; injustice tolerated (Rom. 12.9–13.14; cf. 1 Cor. 6.7; so too other first‐century Jewish texts, such as Joseph and Asenath 29.3–4 [cf. Prov. 20.22]; Josephus, Ag. Ap. 2.30.212 [cf. Deut. 20.19–20; 21.10–14]).

    Love became the theological lodestone of nascent Christianity. Christ's sacrifice on the cross was understood as the ultimate sign of God's love for humanity (John 3.16; cf. Rom. 8.39). The eucharist (a community meal celebrating this sacrifice) was referred to as the agapē, or “love‐feast”. Christians exhorted themselves to love one another (see esp. 1–3 John), calling each other brothers and sisters. Such designations and community enthusiasms, misheard at a hostile distance, fueled dislike of the new groups, who were often accused of expressing love carnally at their convocations (Tertullian, Apology; Minucius Felix, Octavius). Yet in their care for both their own poor and the poor of the late Roman city, Christians, like their Jewish contemporaries, distinguished themselves by acts of public philanthropy—a fact noted with some irritation by the non‐Christian emperor Julian (the Apostate, ca. 360; Epistle 22). This philanthropy was the social expression of the scriptural injunction to love the neighbor.

    The Christian concept of love, in both its social and its theological applications, underwent elaborate and idiosyncratic development in the work of Augustine. In the unprecedented ecclesiastical situation after Constantine (d. 337), with the church increasingly merging with late Roman imperial culture, Augustine argued that the state coercion of heretics (by which he meant most especially his schismatic rivals, the Donatists) at the behest of the church is an act of Christian love, since it is done for their ultimate spiritual welfare. Theologically, he explored the concept of the Trinity as a dynamic of divine (and, ultimately, of human) loves: the Trinity should be understood on the analogy of the relations between and process of human self‐knowledge and self‐love (De Trinitate). Finally, and most influentially, Augustine came to analyze all humanity (and thus, given his theological anthropocentrism, all reality) according to loves: those enabled by God's love to love God belong to the “heavenly city”; those whom God leaves to their own fallen state love carnal things and thus belong to the “earthly city.”

    The City of God, Augustine's great masterwork, may thus be seen as a lengthy survey of the history of love, from angels through pagan culture to Israel and finally to the ultimate revelation of God's love through Christ. Fifteen centuries of Western religious thinkers, such as Bernard, Francis, Dante, and Simone Weil, attest to the power of this essentially Augustinian notion of caritas and amor Dei as the Christian virtues par excellence.

    Paula Fredriksen

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