In the Hebrew Bible, love is complex

Song-Mi Suzie Park shows that ahav is dense, powerful, political, and divine.

What is love? It’s a simple question that writers and artists have asked repeatedly through the centuries, from Bernard of Clairvaux and Mildred Bangs Wynkoop to Tina Turner and Haddaway. It’s also the question that biblical scholar Song-Mi Suzie Park explores in her excellent new book.

Often, we approach love, whether secularly or theologically, through the Greek concepts of philia, eros, storge, and agape. Some ministers anachronistically use those words to describe love in the Hebrew Bible; others mistakenly believe that hesed is the only Hebrew word for love in scripture. As a corrective, Park focuses on the verb ahav and its corresponding noun, ahahav, which appear nearly 250 times in the Hebrew Bible.

The etymology of ahav is unclear. The term is often used metaphorically, connecting individuals’ specific backgrounds, emotions, and experiences with something that cannot be measured or diagrammed. Park writes: “Love, ahav, is depicted as a dense term and concept that has a web of associations, meanings, and connections—and it is this dense consortium of meanings that is evoked when ahav is used and appears in a particular narrative.” Noting that ahav is associated with men far more than with women, Park describes it as a “divine, powerful, painful, mysterious, and ultimately feminine force that might be on par with God.” In each chapter of the book, Park utilizes a different biblical narrative to define and shape our understanding of ahav.