Ahavah: The All-Encompassing Love of God
The Essence of Deity Manifest in Every Aspect of Human Existence
Christians have long considered love to be virtually exclusive to the church. As a matter of fact, through the centuries, the concept of love as the distinguishing mark of biblical faith has been so strongly emphasized in Christianity that its former prominence in Judaism has been depreciated to the point that many Jews have virtually lost sight of love’s inherent Jewishness. Divine love—God’s love for humanity and humanity’s love for God—is, however, deeply rooted in Hebraic thought and experience. In fact, love is the quality of the Divine that is manifest in human beings solely because they are created in the image and likeness of God. Because humankind is designed to mirror the image of God, all humans have been characterized by love and have established a significant part of their own self-identity in the love that they give and receive. Love has long been considered the noblest of human feelings or emotions because love is the core value that defines the essence of God, as well as the essence of the human experience of life.
The lofty Hebraic perspective on divine love and the expression of love in human life, however, contrasted sharply with views of humanity in the rest of the ancient world where human life was assigned a very low value by many pagan religions. Humans were usually wary of their gods, for they were capricious, vindictive, and generally malevolent. In Judaism, as well as in Christianity, however, humanity was held in high esteem by God. Human beings were assigned a high purpose and value, that of being God’s plenipotentiary over rest of the creation (Genesis 1:26). The God whom Jews and Christians have worshiped has always been a being of love and blessing. Unfailing love and tender mercies have always defined the God of Scripture and have given his Chosen People every reason to expect to have his beneficence lavished upon them. In return, the peoples of the Bible have reciprocated the love of God in their worship of him.
Love: The Essence of God
In reality, love is the very essence of divine being, the source from which all of God’s attributes emerge. Indeed, God has been defined and even defines himself in terms of love. Love is not, however, merely an attribute of God. It is the very essence of divine being (1 John 4:8). The apostle John made the clearest and most accurate definition of the godhood of God that has ever been given when he said quite simply, “God is love” (1 John 4:16). Understanding God begins with recognizing the love that exists within the core of divine being, wherein the three persons of God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—dwell together in one being of substance in the supreme manifestation of infinite love. God is actually a three-in-one community in which each person (three contemporaneous modes of divine existence that perichoretically encircle and interpenetrate each other) gives and receives love from the others. Love, then, existed in God before all creation was spoken into existence; therefore, love that is manifest in personhood, relationality, and community—not power, independence and control—is essential to the understanding the divine nature. Because God is love, he delights in relating with endearment toward those whom he loves as his children.
This is why the account creation in the Hebrew Scriptures is focused, not on cosmogony or cosmology, but of the relationship between God and his children. This truth becomes clear when one considers that of the 79,976 words in the Torah, less than 1,000 words deal with the subject of creation. It is safe to say, then, that God has focused much more attention on revealing himself as the God who maintains loving relationship with his people than on being viewed as the God who is the Creator of the universe. God is understood in biblical terms more as the “covenant God” than as the “creator God,” more as the “all-loving God” than as the “all-powerful God.” Everything about his being, therefore, is associated with and manifest in his eternal love. The qualities of his infinitude—omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence—serve only to multiply the extent and impact of his love to infinity.
The Active Nature of Divine Love
In the Hebrew Scriptures, the idea of God as love is conveyed by applying to him various adjectives such as חַנּוּן—channun (“gracious”), רַחוּם—rachum (“compassionate”), and אָרֵךְ—’arek (“patient”) and by describing him in terms of nouns such as חֶסֶד—chesed (“tender mercy” or “lovingkindness”) and חֵן—(“grace”). Additionally, a time-honored rabbinic teaching has always maintained that Yhwh (“the Lord”), the personal name that God chose for himself, expresses the divine attribute of love. All of these terms bespeak the active nature of divine love. God’s love is not platonic, static love: it is Hebraic, active love. Indeed, in Scripture, God is not so much “love” (a substantive) as he is “loving” (a gerund or progressive verbal expression). His love is not a form; it is a function of his deity. He is eternal love constantly in action, love ever being demonstrated. In reality, when Scripture describes God as love, it speaks not so much of his nature as it does of his actions manifest through countless accounts of the things that his Chosen People experienced during their walk with him.
In Hebrew thought, God’s continuing blessing of the children of Israel was said to be the direct result of his love for his people: “The Lord your God . . . turned the curse into a blessing for you because the Lord your God loves you” (Deuteronomy 23:5). God even said to Israel, “I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have drawn you with chesed” (Jeremiah 31:3). Indeed, God affirmed that he chose Israel solely “because he loved [their] fathers” (Deuteronomy 23:7). He also promised Israel, “With everlasting love I will have compassion on you.” (Isaiah 54:8, ESV). Accordingly, God’s overriding thought and action focuses on love and mercy.
Hebraic thinking, therefore, speaks of God not from philosophical categories but from the perspective of loving relationship—his relationship with people and their relationship with him. The God of Scripture, the God who is wholly other, did not limit himself to Greek categories of transcendence and impassibility. Instead, in his own ontological freedom he chose to be both transcendent and immanent at the same time, so he created other beings to experience his fellowship. He chose to create creatures with whom to share his ahavah (love). In his total sovereignty, God limited his sovereignty so that he could remain transcendent in immanence while being relational in transcendence. In fact, the very transcendence of God is revealed in the divine self-disclosure of his immanence fully revealed in his incarnation as his Son Jesus. In reality, God created the universe solely for the purpose of revealing his transcendent triune love and inviting the creatures created in his image to share that love.” The God of Scripture simply is the God of relationship.
Love: The Essence of Humanity
Humanity exists as a testimony to the love of the Creator. All human beings on Planet Earth, without distinction as to race, ethnicity, or gender, continue to bear God’s imprint—his divine image and likeness. God’s human creation was by intricate, delicate, and supra-intelligent design so that every individual and every aspect of human existence contribute to the overall integrity and welfare of the human race and to the reflection of the divine image in creation. Humanity, therefore, was sui generis, unique among all of creation. Quite simply, the first humans and all their progeny came from God, from the divine heart of pure, irrepressible love and grace. In order for God to demonstrate his very nature and essence, he created theomorphic human beings in his own image so that his divine essence could also be mirrored in human love, the highest expression of humanity.
The designer and creator of humanity is the one and only God, the God of Scripture, the Designer par excellence. This is the God who carefully and skillfully crafted human beings so that they would reflect the image of his eternal loving nature in their own interpersonal relationships. This is why when God first spoke about his intention to create humanity, for the first time in the creation narratives, he spoke of himself in the first person plural, thereby investing his own personal identity in humanity.
In order to be truly theomorphic, to mirror the image of their Creator, human beings were designed for love. From the moment that the first breath of life entered the first human being, all humans have been endowed with the capacity to love God and to love one another with the same pure love that first existed within the very being of God himself—in the interrelationship of Father, Son, and Spirit—and then was extended to his human creation, and finally was manifest in human love, albeit in almost infinitesimal degrees when compared with the infinitude of divine love.
Loving fellowship is foundational to being itself. It is essential to the being of God who before all creation was a communion of Father, Son, and Spirit. As beings-in-relation, humans have the capacity for fully manifesting the divine image and likeness and demonstrating the one divine Being who interrelates personally in the divine love of perfect mutuality between Father, Son, and Spirit. While each human being individually reflects the image of God, the divine image in humanity reaches its zenith, its fullest expression, in human interpersonal relationships wherein the love that was imparted to humanity from God is lavishly expressed toward one another in the various dimensions of human relationship.
Human beings are not designed, nor were they ever intended, to “be alone.” As a matter of fact, God said, “It is not good for humanity to be alone” (Genesis 2:18). Like their Creator, they function around a core of love that is the essence of their being. Just as God, within himself, is pure relationship, the perfect oneness of mutuality, the encircling and interpenetration of the three persons in the one divine Being, so human beings were designed by their Creator to reflect that same divine nature by participating in the fellowship of interactive interdependence and loving mutual submission that images the one who himself is Infinite Love.
The Unity and Oneness of Love
Love, as God himself experienced it and implanted it into humanity, is an all-encompassing expression of the divine essence that pervades every dimension of human life. Like the God of Scripture who is one Lord, the love of God is one love, a divine love that is manifest in love for God, love for humanity, love for one’s family, and love for one’s spouse. Love for God is a reciprocation of the infinite love that God bestows upon humans. Love for humanity is a reflection of the love that God has for all his creatures. Love for one’s family is a demonstration of the love that God has for his family. Love for one’s mate is a manifestation of the intimacy that characterizes God’s love.
For the Hebrews, this sweeping manifestation of the one love of God was seen in the language of the text of Holy Scripture. While there are many words that bespeak aspects and manifestations of love, among them חֶסֶד—chesed (lovingkindness, steadfast love), רָעָה—raya (friendship), and דֹּד—dod (comfort, pleasure, lovemaking), there is only one word for love itself. The Hebrew word for love is אַהֲבָה;—ahavah, from the verbal root, אַהֵב—ahab, meaning “to love.” In Hebrew, therefore, one word, ahavah, expresses all forms of love: the love of a humans for God, the love of one human for another, and the love between male and female humans.
In contrast with the Hebrews, the Greeks divided love into four separate categories: ἀγάπη—agape (spiritual or divine love), φιλία—philia (love of humankind), στοργή—storge (affection), and ἔρως—eros (love of the body or sexual love). This division of love was based on the Greek dualistic worldview which maintained that the spiritual was good while the material was evil. Plato, the high priest of Greek philosophy, believed that human beings existed only because sparks of the divine (fragments of the stars and planets) had somehow become entrapped in evil matter in the form of physical bodies. For him, the human body was a soma sema, a “tomb of the soul,” so that even in life, human beings were dead with their souls entombed in a material and, therefore, evil body. The Gnostics took these fundamental dualistic ideas even further with their claim that both the universe and its creator were inherently evil.
Because of dualistic philosophy, it was possible for the Greeks to divide love into segments, elevating agape (spiritual divine love) to the highest plane and diminishing eros (physical human love) to the lowest plane. When the church became increasingly Gentile in its leadership and demographics, these Greek dualistic concepts produced an even greater dichotomy, connecting agape with holiness and thereby producinga much stronger aversion toward eros. Eventually, from the time of Augustine in the early fifth century, Western Christianity came to view physical love as the “original sin” in Eden and the means by which sin was propagated from generation to generation. The clear Greek linguistic dichotomy between agape and eros further exacerbated the tendency to see even marital love as ipso facto evil, something to be avoided by the truly spiritual and holy ones.
The Purity and Blessing of Marital Love
The Hebrews, on the other hand, had a holistic view of love. There was only one love, God’s love, and it was expressed in all aspects of life from worship of the Divine to interacting with fellow human beings to loving one’s spouse. The holistic Hebrew worldview made it possible to keep every earthly manifestation of love on the high plane of the divine. Hence, the love that married couples had for each other, including their expressions of physical intimacy, could be seen as a godly love.
There is much evidence that sexual love within the context of marriage was honored and celebrated in the prose and poetry of the Bible so that the human couple, guided by Holy Scripture, could always express the holiness of their “set-apart” relationship through intimate love. This is the why Maimonides, basing his thought on Talmud Tractate Sotah 71a, maintained that when a man unites with his wife in holiness—the Shechinah [divine presence] dwells among them. Such balanced Jewish teaching elevated God-designed physical love to the level of sanctity for which God intended it. As a matter of fact, mystical Judaism understands the act of physical love between husband and wife is of such sanctity that the Holy Presence of God himself joins the couple when they attain that oneness of body and soul which is the essence of marriage. Sanctified (set apart) love is “holy love,” one of the highest expressions of the pure love of God.
Human love and sexuality expressed thoroughly and uninhibitedly in the context of marriage is not an evil flame that somehow escaped from the pits of hell to devour the unsuspecting in a conflagration of illegitimate lust. Song of Solomon 8:6 describes marital lovemaking as “the flame of Yahweh,” a fire from God that brings both warmth and light to those who rightly, carefully, and respectfully use it. This is not animal attraction or biological passion: It is a holy love from God himself. God’s love, therefore, is the source of rightly expressed exclusive and holy love in marriage.
When one, therefore, makes a comprehensive study of the love that God designed for human beings to express within the sanctity of marriage, it becomes clear that this love is a human reflection of the love of God. This is a love that empowers husband and wife to mirror the image of passionate, committed, covenantal love that God has always manifest within the context of his own being and that he has always expressed toward his people. This is the love that creates the one-flesh bond of marriage and continually renews and strengthens the supreme human interrelationship that God himself designed and instituted in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:24; Matthew 19:5). Love is the cement of the oneness (אֶחָד—echad) of marriage in the same way that it reinforces the oneness (אֶחָד—echad) of God—Father, Son, and Spirit. In fact, the pure and holy love that married partners rightly have for each other even mirrors the self-sacrificing love that Christ had for the church when he “gave himself for it” (Ephesians 5:25).
The Supreme Manifestation of Divine Love
The greatest manifestation of the divine essence was the gift of God’s Son to humanity in order to redeem the fallen creation from their sins and give them the gift of eternal life. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). John explained God’s unfathomable love this way: “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:10). When humanity did not have the capacity to love God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength (Deuteronomy 6:5), God took the initiative to infuse them with his love so that they could be drawn by his Spirit to repentance and faith. It was the most powerful love, the kind that Jesus himself demanded of others when he said, “Love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44). Jesus could exhort his disciples to this kind of love, for he was in the process of demonstrating it himself.
Indeed, when the mind of the flesh hated God (Romans 8:7), God still loved humanity so much that he freely gave what was most precious to him, his only begotten Son. Here is how Paul described the dreadful state of humanity and God’s remedy for that human condition: “We also once were foolish ourselves, disobedient, deceived, enslaved to various lusts and pleasures, spending our life in malice and envy, hateful, hating one another. But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and the renewal of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:3–5, NASB, NIV). No wonder John first exclaimed, “See how great a love the Father has bestowed on us, that we would be called the children of God” (1 John 3:1), and then continued to explain, “Hereby perceive we the love of God, because he laid down his life for us” (1 John 3:16, KJV). Indeed, “God demonstrates his own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
The Capacity to Love One Another
The love of God that has been manifest for humanity to bring about redemption from sin and to impart the gift of eternal life also empowers those who believe in God to love one another. John exhorted the disciples, “If God loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4:11). The apostle also made this startling statement: “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God, for God is love” (1 John 4:7–8).
Love for God can be proven only by the love that humans show for one another. Again, John states the truth: “If someone says, I love God, and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:20). This is why Jesus interconnected the two greatest commandments: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. The second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37–39). The Master was even more graphic in his declaration of the importance of these two interconnected commandments when he said, “On these two commandments depend the whole law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:40).
This is why the apostle Paul was able to sum up the entire corpus of God’s law this way: “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Galatians 5:14). In reality, Paul could well have said, “All the law is fulfilled in one word: love,” for the Shema, which Jesus called the first commandment, says, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord. And you shall love . . .” (Deuteronomy 6:4–5). All commandments in Holy Scripture would be fulfilled if every person simply obeyed the very first word in the Shema that follows the confession of monotheism: וְאָ֣הַבְתָּ֔—v’ahavtah (“And you shall love”). Love for God and love for humanity are the core values of all biblical faith. Both in this statement and in the Golden Rule (Matthew 7:12), Jesus simplified the complexity of the entire corpus of the Torah by focusing on one word: love. The complete legal responsibility of believers that is outlined in the perfect law of freedom (James 1:25) is fulfilled in one word: “Love.” As Hillel the Great said a generation before Jesus’ day, “Everything else is commentary!” (Babylon Talmud, Shabbat 31a).
Finally, Jesus took the commandment of love to a higher plane when he said that both love for God and love for humanity must be unconditional. In direct contradiction to those in the Qumran community who had said that it was proper to love one’s neighbor while hating one’s enemy (Manual of Discipline [1QS] 10:17), Jesus even went so far as to command his disciples to love their enemies (Matthew 5:43–48). In order to manifest the love of God fully, one must love his enemies even as Jesus did when he laid down his life for those who hated, persecuted, and finally killed him. Jesus took love, the core element of the Torah, and elevated it to the level to which it had been intended in the first place. In so doing, the yoke of the law, which some had found burdensome (Acts 15:10), became the easy yoke of discipleship in Messiah (Matthew 11:18–19).
Love: The Essence of Biblical Faith
The experience of divine love is the essence of biblical faith. John said, “We have come to know and have believed the love which God has for us” (1 John 4:16). God has always revealed himself as having loved his creation, especially humanity. In so doing, he has manifest the profound truth God chose to restrain sin and maintain the covenant order of life as the law all people (Romans 2:14). The God of Scripture is a lover, not a judge! Indeed, God created the universe and humanity specifically for the manifestation of his divine love. This is why the prophets Jeremiah and Hosea portrayed God not as an legalistic judge, but as a loving husband (Jeremiah 3:14; Hosea 3:1). Herein is the mystery of infinite divine love, “the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge” (Ephesians 3:19).
The love of biblical faith is that of God himself. He is the God of whom Zephaniah said, “The Lord your God is in your midst, a victorious warrior. He will exult over you with joy, he will be quiet in his love, he will rejoice over you with shouts of joy” (Zephaniah 3:17). The divine love is the unfathomable love that God has always had for his creation. This divine love is the source of all human love: “The love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Romans 5:5). In reality, the love that one has for God is not self-generated: it is from God. Likewise, the love that human beings have for one another is the evidence of human relationship with the Divine: “If we love one another, God abides in us, and his love is perfected in us” (1 John 4:12).
Christianity is a religion of love, but it is founded on the ideal of love that was well established in the Hebrew Scriptures in the love that God had for Israel, that Israel had for God, and that the Israelites had for one another. Love for God and love for humanity has one source, God. It is not a divided love of descending value from the sublime love of the divine to the mundane love of the human. It is one love, the ahavah of God, the one love that both God and humans manifest in interpersonal relationships. Love, then, is a Jewish idea that was shared with the entire world by the Jew Jesus, his disciples, and countless Christian believers around the world. Reclaiming this holistic view of love in all of its myriad manifestation establishes the divine truth on the rock-solid foundation of biblically Hebraic insight that liberates and brings fulfillment to the lives of all believers.