The Love of God: Divine Gift, Human Gratitude, and Mutual Faithfulness in Judaism Jon D. Levenson (Princeton University Press, 2016).

The Love of God: Divine Gift, Human Gratitude, and Mutual Faithfulness in Judaism (Library of Jewish Ideas) (Hardcover)
by Jon D. Levenson

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Jon Levenson, Albert A. List Professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard University, has produced another cogently argued and very readable work, of particular importance, in my opinion, to all who preach from Scripture. Written from a Jewish vantage point, Levenson’s work provides a needed balance to understanding the “love of God.”

In case you were wondering, “love of God” is both/and: both subjective and objective genitive, though it is the latter that gets prominent billing here. In short, the “love of God” is the cause of divine benefaction (the subjective aspect), it is the prompt for human gratitude and the actions resulting therefrom (the objective aspect), and it is the manifestation of the commitment of both parties, one to another (both subjective and objective), as in any relationship between personal beings. In other words, “The Love of God” is “Divine Gift, Human Gratitude, and Mutual Faithfulness.”

Contemporary scholars, Levenson observes, have given “surprisingly little attention” to this topic, a lacuna he successfully fills (xiii). Challenging the widespread misunderstanding, even among Christian writers, speakers, and teachers, that the love of God is a private and sentimental matter, Levenson develops his thesis that the love of God “is a matter of both action and affect, with each influencing the other” (xiv).

Chapter 1 traces the origin of the idea of “covenantal love” in ancient Near Eastern literature: love is the rather unsentimental stance of the lesser party toward the greater, a stance that is imposed, but also freely accepted. On the part of God, the greater party, it involves his loving beneficence towards his people, the lesser party. On the part of mankind, it is their reciprocal loving service to him.

Deuteronomy 7:9 depicts a God who keeps his covenant and lovingkindness to “those who love Him and keep His commandments.” The parallelism here—and in Deut 10:12; 11:1, 13, 22; 19:9; 30:16, 20, where love for God and obedience to God occur in parallel—is obvious: to love is to obey. (One might add ample, and explicit, NT attestation to this notion: John 14:15, 21, 23; 15:10; 1 John 2:3, 5; 3:24; 4:12; 5:2–3; 2 John 6; etc.) “If we put all this together, we come up with an identification of the love of God with the performance of his commandments. Love, so understood, is not an emotion, not a feeling, but a cover term for acts of obedient service,” a posture of loyal and committed obedience of vassal towards suzerain (4). “Covenantally conceived, love is defined, first and foremost, by a set of deeds. The deeds are not dependent on emotion: whether or not individuals feel a sentiment that they name as ‘love,’ they are always obligated to serve their lord” (60). This is why love can be commanded (Deut 6:5) and why the exhortation in the Shema to love God was considered one of the 613 commands of the Torah.

In the fourteenth century B.C.E., Rib-Hadda, the king of beleaguered Byblos, pled with his lord, the Pharaoh of Egypt, to send reinforcements, asking, “Who will love [you] if I die?” The same Canaanite king, in another missive to the Pharaoh, described his own subjects as “those who love me.” “The love in question, though it may possibly reflect the subjects’ actual attitude, is a matter not of sentiment but of loyalty and readiness to serve” (7–8). Such a conception of covenantal love is visible even later in the seventh century B.C.E., when the Assyrian emperor Esarhaddon seeks to ensure that his vassals will remain loyal to his successor, his son Assurbanipal: “You will love Assurbanipal as yourselves” (9).

The conscription of love to emotions is, apparently, a modern phenomenon. Levenson refutes the exclusivity of love-as-romantic by pointing to the relationship between parents and children—also labeled “love.” “In this case, it seems to me, we are more likely to speak of actions than affects,” parental care for their children, and filial undertaking of household responsibilities (19). Not surprisingly, the parent-child relationship frequently describes that between God and his people (Deut 6:5; 8:5–6; 11:13; 14:1; 32:6; etc.). “Would it not be more reasonable to assume that (like the covenantal norms) the LORD’s discipline [Deut 8:5–6] is itself an expression of love—not romantic but parental love? … Like covenantal love, it is a love that entails service” (21). The misinterpretation of love as simply romantic or erotic “has left [us] with scant resources with which to understand the love of vassals for their lords” (22).

Nonetheless, it is, Levenson confesses, untenable to assert that the language of love is exhausted by actions. In 1 Sam 20:12–16, when David and Jonathan struck a covenant, we are told they loved one another as brothers (1 Sam 18:1; 20:17; 2 Sam 1:26; and see 1 Sam 24:16) (22–23). Covenantal obedience is never devoid of affect, and the romantic references in Hosea and Song of Songs prove this point (discussed at length by Levenson, later in Chapter 3). Thus, there is an intertwining of obedience with devotion, submission with intimacy, fear of God with love for God. And, as was on display in the ʼ, it is the fear of God (Gen 22:12 with 20:11) + love of God (22:2 with 22:12, 16) that generates faithful obedience on the part of Abraham. Such an overlap is not illegitimate: Deut 6:2 and 13 commanded fear, while the Shema called for love (6:5); Deut 10:12 and 13:3–4—each has both elements; also see Deut 10:20 with 11:1; and Ps 31:19, 23; and 145:19–20. “The love owed by the covenantal vassal to his lord (or by the subject to his king) is both active and affective. … By contrast, where love is understood as primarily a sentiment, the dimension of deeds and of the service that the deeds bespeak is lost or radically transformed. And when that happens to any form of love, love is eviscerated and lightened beyond recognition, and its days become numbered” (91). Indeed!

The aforementioned Rib-Hadda, the besieged king, also reminded the Pharaoh that if the latter “loved his servant,” he would come to his aid. Yet another vassal king, acclaiming the Pharaoh as “father” and “lord,” concluded his letter with a lament: “But if the king, my lord, does not love me and rejects me, what then am I to say?” (37) So the suzerain was expected to “love” the vassal, too! The mutual relationship is, of course, asymmetric, and the reciprocities are not equivalent when there is a power disparity between the two parties. Nevertheless, the relationship is marked by “love” from both sides. Likewise, God does “love” his people, too: expressed in his abiding by his covenantal obligations to them, and in his emotional feelings for them, as the OT affirms, time and again (Deut 7:8; 23:6; Isa 63:9; Jer 31:3; Hos 3:1; 14:4; Mal 1:2) (37). Noting that Deut 7:7 uses chashaq for “love” (a word that has an erotic sense: Gen 34:8; Deut 21:10–14), and that 7:8 employs the traditional ’ahab, Levenson concludes this is “an affair of the heart, as it were” between God and his people (41–42, 45). Christians would readily label this gratuitous and unmerited “love” on the part of God as “grace.” To which, mankind responds in gratitude, with reciprocal “love”—again, both action and affect (the response of obedience to God’s “love” in Deut 7:7–8 is found in 7:11). Levenson is right: “If love is to be a relationship and not just an ephemeral and episodic sentiment, it must impose norms of its own (even if violating them does not terminate the relationship)” (54). This is a particularly important notion for those of us who preach: Scripture is a call to the people of God to align themselves to the covenant of their Sovereign, each pericope addressing a particular and specific facet of life-alignment, so that the children of God may be conformed to the image of Son of God, in the power of the Spirit of God, fulfilling the will of God.

In Chapter 2, Levenson explores Talmudic literature for the notion of loving God with all one’s heart, soul, and might, as the Shema exhorts. Levenson points out that rabbinic understanding of the middle term, “soul” (nephesh) and its qualifier “all,” entailed an absolute commitment to God even at the cost of one’s life. “Like all deep loves, the love of God harbors within it a dimension of self-sacrifice” (xv). The Midrash on Deut 6:5 (Siphre 32) agrees: “With all your soul: love Him until the last drop of life is wrung out of you.” In other words, “one’s love of God must be total and absolute” (cited in 86). Of course, this self-sacrificial dimension is also not a one-way street, a human-towards-divine loyal love. As the New Testament demonstrates (and the Old Testament adumbrates), “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son.”

Thus, “in this framework, the love of God is both legal and relational: legal, because it requires and describes specific mandatory behaviors, and relational, because those behaviors flow not from some abstract, universal moral code, philosophical proposition, or process of nature but from a particular—and very personal—relationship” (59–60). Levenson observes that the legal dimension precludes the misconception that love is mere sentiment, soppy and maudlin; the relational dimension corrects the error that love in the Torah is mere legalism, dry and calloused.

Chapter 3 attends to the romantic aspect of divine love, dealing with Hosea, Song of Songs, and Ezekiel—worth one’s time in careful perusal. The final two chapters, Chapters 4 and 5, addressing medieval (ibn Paquda, Maimonides, Crescas, and Albo) and modern Jewish scholars (Buber and Rosenzweig), are perhaps less relevant to Christian readers, though not at all uninteresting.

Ibn Paquda is interested in the motivations that cause one to love God, motivations akin to those that move a servant to love his master. “Whatever inducements God’s kindness and forgiveness may offer, and whatever fearful consequences may be entailed in the refusal to love him, the highest love of God is that of those who seek no reward and fear no punishment. Rather, they love God solely for who he alone is” (150). I wondered, then, if even gratitude—commonly considered the appropriate motive for obeying a God who first loved his people—is a less-than-pure motive. Perhaps the ultimate motive, à la ibn Paquda, is to love/serve/fear/obey God simply for who he is (without denying the existence of an emotional relationship between the parties). In ibn Paquda’s work, the vassal’s fealty to the suzerain “is rooted, at least in the first instance, in the philosophical perception of his unique being and the awe and wonder that this act of recognition evokes” (150–51). Likewise, Maimonides: “When a person contemplates His deeds and His great and wondrous creations and infers from them that His wisdom is beyond value and has no end, he immediately loves, praises, and glorifies Him” (cited in 166).

It is true, of course, that no one’s motives are absolutely pure. “We still have to reckon with the possibility that we have acted out of motivations that are less than the highest. … We may think our motivation has been noble and pure, only to realize in retrospect that it was other factors, unknown to us at the time, that moved us. … And so the love of God remains an ideal, an aspiration, a goal—but whether anyone truly attains it in its highest manifestations, God only knows” (158–59). But try we can, by the power of God’s Spirit; and try we will!

Bibliotheca sacra 174 (2017): 504–507

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