Another snapshot of Simon May’s exceptionally good book Love: A History
The Hebrew Bible develops three innovations of immense significance for how we think about love today.
The Shema of Deuteronomy 6:4-5 states
Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 5 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.
1. The goal of love is divine
God is the one true God, the creator and source of all that exists. To love God with all that we are is to make the goal of love divine. There can be no higher purpose or calling.
2. Loving God means that we are to walk in his ways
He argues that the second innovation is that we are to love what God loves – and that includes our neighbour.
May could unpack this more. He doesn’t quote this but Deuteronomy 10:12-13 states
And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to observe the Lord’s commands and decrees that I am giving you today for your own good?
The text goes on to define the sort of imitation that Israel is to demonstrate:
He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.
As God loves the alien, providing for their needs, so Israel is to imitate Yahweh, in a sense ‘doing to others as God has already done to them’.
3. Love is a moral duty
The love of the alien, widow and the orphan above is not a sentimental feeling-based emotion – it is a moral duty to do good to those in need. Israel is commanded to love God and love others.
May comments that other pre-Christian systems of thought – Confucianism, Buddhism and Platonism made love a central value “but in none was it conceived as so overwhelming a command issued by the one God”.
May concludes with this – and it needs to be said again and again given the caricatures and confusions out there regarding the Old Testament and its main character ..
“The widespread belief that the Hebrew Bible is all about vengeance and ‘an eye for an eye’, while the Gospels supposedly invent love as an unconditional and universal value, must therefore count as one of the most extraordinary misunderstandings in all of Western history.” (19-20)