A single word can mean attraction, desire, passion, affection, or devotion.
In English, that word is “love”. In Biblical Hebrew, it is ahavah (אַהֲבָה).
The noun ahavah and its related verb, ahav (אָהַב), appear eighteen times in The Song of Songs/Shir Hashirim, the short biblical book that Jews traditionally read during the week of Passover/Pesach. The first line in this series of interlocking poems sets the tone:
Let him kiss me with kisses of his mouth … (The Song of Songs 1:2)
Soon the female speaker cries:
Revive me with raisin cakes,
Refresh me with quinces,
Because I am faint with ahavah! (Song of Songs 2:5)
The book frequently expresses erotic attraction by using metaphors from nature. The woman’s breasts are compared to twin gazelle fawns, date clusters, grape clusters, and towers.1 In another example, the man says:
A locked well, a sealed spring.
Your limbs are an orchard of pomegranates
And choice fruit … (Song of Songs 4:12-13)
And the woman responds:
Let my beloved come into his garden,
And let him eat its choice fruit. (Songs of Songs 4:16)
What is a book like this doing in the bible? God is never mentioned in The Song of Songs. Yet subsequent commentators, including Rashi,2 have argued that the whole book is an allegory for the love between the Israelites and God.
There is a precedent for this analogy. In the 8th century BCE, Hosea portrayed the northern kingdom of Israel as the unfaithful wife of God.3 After him, several other biblical prophets portrayed the southern kingdom of Judah as God’s unfaithful wife, and the covenant between God and the people as a marriage contract.4 So the idea of using a human marriage as an analogy for the relationship between a people and God was well-known by the third or second century BCE, when The Song of Songs was written. But the poetry in this book focuses on sexual love, not on the covenant of marriage.
Nevertheless, Rabbi Akiva argued for the inclusion of The Song of Songs in the biblical canon, declaring, “All eternity is not as worthwhile as the day the Song of Songs was given to Israel, for all biblical books are holy, but the Song of Songs is the holy of holies.”5
Perhaps some human beings have loved God with an ahavah similar to the sensual yearning of the lovers in The Song of Songs. Maimonides wrote: “What is the proper form of the love of God? It is that one should love God with a great, overpowering, fierce love as if he were love-sick for a woman and dwells on this constantly … for the whole of Song [of Songs] is a parable on this theme.”6
But it is hard to imagine God loving human beings that way. Although the Torah presents us with an anthropomorphic God who feels rage, jealousy, and compassion, the God of Israel is different from other ancient Near Eastern gods in that God does not partner with a goddess, and never engages in sex.
Then how does God love humans? In the Hebrew Bible divine love is not individual, but collective. God loves the people of Israel, or Judah, or Jerusalem. God loves those who follow God’s rules. The reader is encouraged to be like God and love concepts such as justice and compassion.
The love of God sometimes seems like immature favoritism to a modern reader. Out of love, God destroys the rivals or enemies of the Israelites.7 When the Israelites are “unfaithful” and worship other gods, God lashes out in jealousy and destroys them, either by afflicting them with plagues or making their enemies victorious. Neither the people nor God seem mature enough for marriage.
In other biblical passages, God’s love is more like a good parent’s devotion.
For Israel was a boy and ohaveihu
And from Egypt I called to my son … (Hosea 11:1)
ohaveihu (אֺהֲבֵהוּ) = I loved him.
Similarly, the second book of Isaiah recalls a time when God was kind to the people of Judah, the southern kingdom of Israelites.
And [God] said: “Surely they are my people,
Children who do not betray.”
And [God] became their rescuer. (Isaiah 63:8)
… In ahavah and compassion, [God] redeemed them,
Plucked them up and carried them all the days of old.
But they, they rebelled
And pained [God’s] holy spirit.
And [God] turned against them as an enemy;
[God] made war against them. (Isaiah 63:9-10)
Then the people of Judah yearn to come home again to an affectionate “father” who is devoted to their welfare. They recall that:
“… You, God, are our father,
Our redeemer of old … (Isaiah 63:16)
Why do we read The Song of Songs during Passover? The Passover seder retells the story of God taking the Israelite slaves out of Egypt. We repeat God’s promise:
I will take you as my people, and I will be your God. (Exodus 6:7)
This could mean taking the Israelites as a metaphorical wife; the bible sometimes uses the word “take” (lakach, לָקַה) to mean have intercourse with or marry. But it could also mean God adopts the Israelite slaves and their fellow-travelers out of compassion, as if they are children who need special care. Then God treats them with affection and devotion, the ahavah of a parent—at least until they reject God and worship other gods.
Is there anything in The Song of Songs to connect human sensual desire with God’s ahavah? I found one hint. Three times in The Song of Songs, the erotic poetry is interrupted by this verse:
I make you swear, daughters of Jerusalem,
By deer or by gazelles of the field:
Do not rouse or lay bare ahavah until it pleases! (The Song of Songs 2:7, 3:5, and 8:4)
The female speaker is warning her friends not to rush into consummating a sexual attraction; wait until the ahavah is ripe. She does not say what a ripe love is. A more overpowering attraction? Or a fuller relationship with the beloved that includes tenderness, friendship, affection, and devotion, as well as carnal desire? For human beings, physical ahavah and spiritual ahavah are often inseparable.
May each of us find ahavah in our lives, whether it is passionate desire or affectionate devotion. And may each of us learn how to turn toward the world with an open heart and ahavah.
- The Song of Songs 4:5, 7:4, 7:8, 7:9, 8:10.
- 11th-century rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki.
- Hosea 2:18-22.
- See Jeremiah 2:2, Ezekiel 16:3-14, and Second Isaiah 54:4-10 and 62:5.
- Rabbi Akiva ben Yosef (50-135 CE), quoted in Mishnah Yadayim 3:5.
- Maimonides, a.k.a. Moses ben Maimon or Rambam (12th century CE), Mishnah Torah, I: The Book of Knowledge, 10:3, Laws Concerning Repentance.
- For example, see Malachi 1:2.