Dr. Anne Davis
Valentine’s Day celebrates the human capacity to love. But what is love? Is it an emotion? An attraction? A gift? A commitment? Stop for a moment and craft your own thoughts before comparing them with mine below.
Of course, you know I will go to the Holy Writings for my understanding, and I am not going to assume I already know what I will find. Furthermore, I will not start in the New Testament with Yeshua but in the Hebrew Scriptures, which Yeshua knew by heart and on which he based all his teachings. So, we note that the Hebrew word for “love” is אהב (ahav).
The Hebrew sages taught that the first appearance of a word is significant. because Scripture is inspired by God and He has placed a word first for a reason. I was astounded to discover the first usage of ahav, which is in the account of Abraham and the near sacrifice of his son Isaac (Gen 22:2).
Before we consider the biblical concept of love as a willingness to give, we will first contemplate Abraham’s love for Isaac before God asked him to sacrifice the life of his son. Why and how, then, did Abraham love Isaac?
Even before Isaac was born Abraham already had a son, Ishmael, who was his firstborn. Therefore, in the ancient world, this firstborn son would have been a special gift who would carry on the name of his father and become the next leader of his father’s people. However, Scripture says that Abraham loved his second son Isaac. Why? The answer, I suggest, is in the way he regarded the mother of Isaac, his wife Sarah.
When we are first introduced to Sarah, God tells us that she was “beautiful.” But there are two Hebrew words for which English uses the one translation, “beautiful.” One is טוב (tov) meaning “good,” and the other is יפה (yapheh), which implies extreme beauty. Which word do you think God used to describe Sarah?
If you said yapheh, you were right. And, in the passage where we first learn that Sarah was exceptionally beautiful, God repeats yapheh both for emphasis and for placing something important in the chiastic center of the passage. If the Egyptians knew that Sarah was Abraham’s wife, the chiastic center tells us that they would kill Abraham so the pharaoh could claim Sarah for himself (Gen 12:11-14). Wow! This is meat for thought.
So, we must reflect on God’s Word that is filled with what I call “two sides of a coin.” On one side is the world and the way the world perceives a matter. The flip side of the coin is the way God sees the same thing, and the two will invariably be opposites. So, there are two sides to the word ahav, which means there are two sides to the human capacity to love.
I suggest that worldly love can stimulate the ungodly emotions of jealousy, bitterness, grief, and anger, which will lead to pain and suffering. Worldly love, which is based on feelings and emotion, has the effect of killing something godly in us. And worldly love is the common understanding of “loving”.
So, what is godly love? Stop and consider that Abraham, when he was in Egypt, was willing to give up something he dearly loved in order to preserve life. Giving Sarah to the pharaoh was not a selfish desire to save his own life because this account represents the sanctity of true life with God that leads to a living joy, whereas the god of this world represents death that leads to a dying life of pain and suffering.
So, if we love in God’s way, we give ourself to another person and the result is a living joy. However, if we love in the way of the world, the consequence is a dying life of pain and suffering. So, what was Abraham’s sacrifice that preserved the sanctity of life? He gave up his beloved wife Sarah to the Egyptian pharaoh (although God later performed a miracle to return Sarah to Abraham).
Now it is time to return to the near sacrifice of Isaac. Abraham loved his son dearly because Isaac was born to Sarah, who was very beautiful in Abraham’s eyes. Furthermore, Sarah had grieved intensely at her inability to bear a child, that is until God performed a miracle that led to Isaac’s birth. So, imagine the intense joy that Abraham and Sarah would have experienced together at the birth of Isaac. Yet, there is more to this story, for God then declared to Abraham that “through Isaac all your descendants will be named” (Gen 21:2). That is, Sarah’s son Isaac would inherit the birthright to which Ishmael had been born, and Isaac would emerge as the true leader of Abraham’s people. Yet, Abraham was willing to give up his son Isaac to God in obedience to God’s command. That is true love.
Fortunately, of course, God substituted a lamb for the sacrifice of Isaac, which was prophetic of the coming Messiah. And later in the New Testament we learn the heart-breaking depth of God’s love when “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
Now I want to return to our word yapheh, which means extremely beautiful, because I think it will help you understand something about true love in your own life.
In Israel today you hear yofe (pronounced yoe-fee) spoken often with great emotion. Yofe, of course, is derived from yapheh, and yofe is the equivalent of the English expression “great” or “terrific.” But English simply does not capture yofe, which declares such intense inner joy that it must be bellowed to the world. Perhaps we can learn about godly love when our lives prompt us to publicly proclaim, yofe!
Dr. Anne Davis is a professor of Biblical Studies who enjoys working with graduate students to enhance their exegetical skills for exploring the depth of Scripture.
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