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Jon D. Levenson





The Shema and the Commandment to Love God in Its Ancient Contexts





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Jon D. Levenson





The Shema and the Commandment to Love God in Its Ancient Contexts








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The Shema and the Commandment to Love God in Its Ancient Contexts

Reading Deuteronomy in light of ancient Near Eastern treaties, we learn that the commandment to love God entails both action and affection. We further learn about the nature of God’s love for Israel, described also in the prophets and in the rabbinic reading of Song of Songs.


The Shema and the Commandment to Love God in Its Ancient Contexts

This rare ketubbah celebrates the symbolic union between God, the bridegroom, and the People of Israel, the bride. This spiritual wedding takes place on the holiday of Shavuot, and the witnesses are the Heavens and the Earth. Italy, 17th-18th century. thejewishmuseum.org

“You Shall Love the LORD Your God”

Deuteronomy 6 contains the first paragraph of the Shema (Deut 6:4–9),[1] a text whose three paragraphs the rabbis would later require to be recited every morning and every evening.[2] Immediately following the acclamation of the oneness of the God of Israel in the Shema (v. 4)—whatever precisely ’eḥad in that much discussed verse means—we find this famous injunction:

דברים ו:ה וְאָהַבְתָּ אֵת יְ־הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בְּכָל לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל נַפְשְׁךָ וּבְכָל מְאֹדֶךָ.
Deut 6:5 You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.[3]

Understood as a formal commandment in both Judaism and Christianity, the injunction has spawned a vast literature over the centuries. It has often been seen as the pinnacle of the spiritual life, the goal to which all practitioners should aspire.

Today, however, the question is often posed as to how love can possibly be commanded.[4]Isn’t love an emotion, something, that is, that happens to us involuntarily? If so, then how can we organize our lives around something so unpredictable and episodic?

The Covenantal Context

To understand how love can be legislated, we must first turn to ancient Near Eastern treaties recovered over the last two centuries, particularly to those that formalize a relationship of mutual benefit between a greater and a lesser king. In these documents, the language of “love” is prominent, and, as William L. Moran (who first explored the love of God in Deuteronomy in this context) observes, “Above all, it is a love which must be expressed in loyalty, in service, and in unqualified obedience to the demands of the Law.”[5] The lesser king (or vassal) “loves” his lord by showing him exclusive loyalty and observing the norms of the treaty. Thus, the neo-Assyrian emperor Esarhaddon (early seventh century BCE), seeking to ensure that after his death his vassals remain loyal to his son and successor, Assurbanipal, phrases the key stipulation thus: “You will love Assurbanipal as yourselves.”[6] Such love is not emotional, or only emotional; it reflects obedience and action.

In the Hebrew Bible, the most common term for a treaty is berit, more often translated as “covenant.” In the case of the covenant between the LORD and the people Israel, the parallels with ancient Near Eastern treaties are many and highly suggestive—especially in the book of Deuteronomy, which views the relationship between Israel and its God consistently within the framework of berit.[7] But there are also noteworthy differences. One is that, in the Bible, a nation has replaced an individual as the vassal (though covenants with certain individuals, most prominently Abraham and David, are also well attested). Even more momentous, perhaps, is the replacement of the human king with God as Israel’s suzerain, or lord in covenant, and this bears directly on the question of “monotheism.”

Within the specific context of covenant, the only meaning “monotheism” can have is in reference to this rigorous exclusivity of relationship. The key issue in the covenantal theology is not the number of gods; texts can easily be found in the Hebrew Bible that mention other deities without implying their non-existence. The issue is, as it were, relational rather than philosophical; it has to do with loyalty and service, not with the nature of ultimate being. The people Israel must live out their faithfulness and devotion to their God through an unqualified commitment to service to God alone, concretized in their practice of his commandments. That is how they love the LORD their God with all their heart, all their soul, and all their might.

Non-Covenantal Monotheism

As Judaism develops over the millennia, the oneness of God comes to be articulated, of course, in more contexts than just the covenantal;[8] it is expressed in a different idiom in Jewish (as well as Christian and Muslim) philosophy. But however ramified the Jewish understanding of the oneness of God has become, the tradition has proven remarkably stubborn in its insistence that the people Israel honors the uniqueness of God not through emotional love (or that alone), but through the willing and wholehearted performance of the divine commandments.

Covenantal Stipulations in Israel versus the ANE

In the ancient Near Eastern treaties, the stipulations tend to be few. They concentrate on preventing the vassal from consorting with rival suzerains. In the Torah, by contrast, whole collections of law (also well paralleled in antiquity), governing all manner of things, have been embedded in a framework of covenant. This change, too, is momentous. Now the observance even of humdrum matters of law has become an expression of personal faithfulness and loyalty in covenant.

Even when the commanding voice of the covenantal suzerain, namely God, is not explicit in their grammatical structure, laws have become commandments, and the Israelites’ opportunities to demonstrate their love for the LORD have become correspondingly more numerous, effectively encompassing the whole of life. Good deeds become acts of personal fidelity to God: they are not simply the right things to do within some rational code of ethics (though they may be that as well). Conversely, bad deeds become acts of betrayal. They are not simply morally wrong in the abstract: they wrong the divine covenant partner who forbad them.

Observance out of Gratitude

In this covenantal theology, the basis for the Israelites’ devotion to their God lies not in his sheer power and authority but rather in the gratitude that they should properly feel for the gifts he has generously bestowed on them. As various thinkers have theorized, “gratitude is a moral affect . . . [and] by experiencing gratitude, a person is motivated to carry out prosocial behavior, energized to sustain moral behaviors, and is inhibited from committing destructive interpersonal behaviors.”[9]

That is why, immediately following the command to love God, God sternly warns Israel of the danger of forgetting him when he has brought them into the promised land and they benefit from cities, houses, cisterns, and vineyards that they did not produce (Deut 6:10–15). Complacency and a sense of entitlement, by counteracting gratitude, undermine the profound supra-legal motivation for observance. By mistaking gifts for possessions, those who harbor these destructive attitudes deny the moral claims of the divine giver and miss the behavioral implications of the great national narrative in which the laws have come to be embedded.

Action and Affection: A Suzerain Loving His Vassal

So far, I have spoken only of the love of God as Israel’s love for God—what grammarians would call an objective genitive. But many biblical texts (and even more rabbinic ones) speak also of the subjective genitive—God’s love for Israel. Here, too, one can find antecedents in ancient Near Eastern treaty language, specifically in the expectation that the suzerain will love his vassal. In both instances, though, one can wonder whether “love” is only a technical term for obedience/protection or whether it also carries with it anything like the emotional charge it has for modern people.

I believe the latter interpretation is the likelier.[10] Remember the rhetorical situation: Deuteronomy claims to be confronting a stiff-necked and inveterately rebellious people with the need to reenter and renew covenant (9:7, 24, 13; 31:27). Obedience to the covenantal norms is not the current reality. To restore that long lost circumstance, the authors must elicit in their hearers the motivation to make a profound change. Without the stress on the subjective dimension and the importance of self-reflection, the rhetorical goals of the Deuteronomic addresses cannot be met.[11] Emphasizing God’s love for Israel and Israel’s correlative (but sadly neglected) obligation to love God makes perfect sense in this context.

God Set His Heart (חשק) on Israel

Some details of language also suggest that the terminology carries an emotional charge. In Deut 7:7, for example (to cite one last verse from Parashat Va’etḥannan), the verb ḥašaq (חשק) is used to describe God’s choosing and loving the people Israel. Elsewhere in Deuteronomy, the same verb appears in reference to an Israelite warrior’s laying eyes on a beautiful foreign woman whom he wishes to wed (21:11). In Genesis 34:8, it describes the attitude of the Hivite prince Shechem towards Jacob’s daughter, Dinah, with whom he has had illicit sex and whom he now desires to marry. If the verb has the same meaning in Deut 7:7 as in these other instances, one can see that, along with the obligations of a covenantal suzerain, God’s love for Israel has a passionate character analogous to human sexual eros.

Is God’s Choosing a People Unjust?

The chosenness of Israel appears in a different light when it is viewed as the result of such passion on God’s part. Usually, the issue is put into a framework of justice, with defenders insisting (as early as Second Temple times) that the national ancestors found in the Bible had proven worthy of the unparalleled status they would be given and detractors arguing that the choice was and is unfair, an act of injustice toward the unchosen. But love does not map so easily onto justice.

The fact that you love your husband or wife in a very special sense does not imply an injustice towards other men and women. Nor does it imply that, by objective criteria, those other individuals do not surpass your beloved in various respects. It implies, rather, that the two of you have a unique personal bond that resists universalization and rationalization, “chemistry” in the vernacular.

The Unending Romance of God and Israel

Even if the suggestion of an erotic dimension to God’s love for Israel in Deuteronomy is not valid, in the prophets the metaphor of the LORD and Israel as husband and wife is abundantly and powerfully attested. Here again, the relationship of love defines not the current situation but only the idealized past and its gracious restoration in the future.

Hosea, a prophet active in the northern kingdom (Israel rather than Judah) in the eighth century BCE, dramatizes the relationship by marrying, at God’s command, a prostitute and (in an apparent variant) an adulteress. The woman’s infidelity brings the marriage to an end, the wife is punished, the children are disowned, and yet—amazingly—in the end God renews the marriage and restores the family.

Like biblical punishments in general, the punishments that God inflicts on his wayward wife are harsh by modern standards; if a human husband were to inflict them upon his unfaithful wife today, in most of the world he would be rightly judged guilty of domestic abuse.

It is essential to remember, however, that the wayward wife in Hosea symbolizes the Israelite nation as a whole and its (male) leadership in particular. Therefore, it is very much to be doubted that men hearing Hosea’s oracles (or the analogous ones of other prophets) would have identified with the punishing God rather than with the Israelite nation that was being indicted and to which they belonged. The whole point of the metaphor is that their situation is that of the wayward wife, not that of her wronged husband, who is, in fact, a unique and unparalleled divinity, not easily equated with any human agent. A feminist scholar, Phyllis Bird, gets it exactly right: “It is easy for patriarchal society to see the guilt of the ‘fallen woman’; Hosea says, ‘You (male Israel) are that woman!’”[12]

Whatever ethical problems the oracles of Hosea might, given certain interpretations, pose, in the underlying theology of the biblical book, they are in the service of love renewed—a love that never really died but, it turns out, has survived even the worst kind of meretriciousness and unfaithfulness (Hosea 1–3).

Tefillin as a Divine Wedding Ritual

Today, many who lay tefillin (that is, put on the phylacteries for weekday morning worship) recite two verses from the text of God’s remarriage as they do so:

הושע ב:כא וְאֵרַשְׂתִּיךְ לִי לְעוֹלָם
וְאֵרַשְׂתִּיךְ לִי בְּצֶדֶק וּבְמִשְׁפָּט
וּבְחֶסֶד וּבְרַחֲמִים.
ב:כב וְאֵרַשְׂתִּיךְ לִי בֶּאֱמוּנָה
וְיָדַעַתְּ אֶת יְ־הוָה.
Hos 2:21 And I will betroth you forever:
I will betroth you with righteousness and justice;
And with goodness and mercy,
2:22 And I will betroth you with faithfulness;
Then you shall know the LORD.[13]

By reciting these moving verses from Hosea, the worshipers, in effect, accept God’s offer of re-marriage, pledging themselves individually to faithfulness within the larger relationship of God to Israel. The tefillin strap around the finger has become, as it were, a wedding ring. Every weekday morning, the ancient marriage is renewed.

Finding the Love of God and God’s Love in the Song of Songs

The richest source for the notion of God and Israel as lovers in the erotic sense is the midrashim on the Song of Songs.[14] In modern times, a broad consensus has developed that this interpretation cannot reflect the plain sense of the biblical book. The highly learned biblical scholar, Marvin Pope, even went so far as to characterize it as “an allegorical charade.”[15] But the midrashim are not allegorical in the sense of decoding the human voices in the Song as abstract philosophical entities, such as virtues, or the like. Rather, they seek to correlate its speeches with moments in the larger biblical narrative. Daniel Boyarin puts the issue well. “When the Rabbis read the Song of Songs,” he writes, “they do not translate its ‘carnal’ meaning into one or more ‘spiritual’ senses; rather, they establish a concrete, historical moment in which to contextualize it.”[16]

Underlying the aversion of many today to the “allegorical” reading is a sense that to accept the midrashic interpretation is to drain the earthy vitality out of the Song of Songs, spiritualizing it into a bland description of the relationship of God and Israel (or, in the predominant Christian version, Christ and his Church). A lusty set of poems about real-life erotic passion evaporates into a bloodless theological lesson about the platonic love of an incorporeal God and his idealized people.

Infusing the Passion of the Song of Songs into the Torah

But at best this tells only half the story. The process actually moves in both directions. When, for example, the rabbis interpret the first spoken words of the Song of Songs—“Let him give me of the kisses of his mouth!” (Song 1:2)[17]—as applying to Israel at the time they went up to Mount Sinai in Exodus 19, they are not only reading the Song of Songs in light of Exodus: they are also reading Exodus in light of the Song of Songs, finding passionate love in a text that makes no explicit reference to love of any sort.[18]

The effect of this interpretive move is profound: events in the Torah that are not described as motivated by love, certainly not by anything analogous to sexual love, are now depicted in the strikingly earthy, sexual language of a masterpiece of ancient erotic literature. If it is true that the midrashic interpretation drains some of the heat and blood out of the Song, it is also the case, then, that the same interpretation perfuses that heat and blood throughout the Scriptures. The Torah—in fact, the entire Bible—becomes an account of the love affair (a sometimes stormy and tragic one, to be sure) of God and the Jewish people.[19]

Reading Song of Songs in a Canonical Context and on Its Own

The difference between the plain sense of the Song (as moderns perceive it, of course) and its rabbinic interpretation turns in large measure on the issue of context. Is the book read as a stand-alone composition, or is it interpreted within the larger set of books in which it is now found and within the tradition that has handed them down to us?

As I see the issue, it is not necessary to choose. We ought to be intellectually and spiritually mature enough to recognize the meanings the book has when interpreted according to plain-sense interpretation and the likely intentions of its historical author, on the one hand, and the meanings it has when placed, on the other hand, in the theologically richer context of the biblical canon and the ongoing Jewish tradition.

It is not that the one reading is sophisticated and defensible and the other primitive and unjustified. The difference, rather, goes to the goals of biblical study and the multiple communities of interpretation in which it takes place. In both the Jewish and Christian traditions, the notion that biblical texts have multiple, non-interchangeable meanings was once well established. In the case of the Song of Songs, neither the plain nor the midrashic sense can be said to tell us what the book “really” means. The identity of the highest reality to which biblical interpretation is accountable is anything but self-evident and unproblematic.

Understanding Torah in Both Its Literal and Expansive Senses

Efforts to do justice to both the literal sense of the Song of Songs, established by the rigorous philology of the time, and the more expansive sense that underlies the classical midrashim are hardly a modern innovation.[20] Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra (1092–1167), to give one example, openly explored these different senses without seeking to invalidate either. He upheld them both, despite their evident difference.[21]

The danger comes when the differences between the various modes of biblical study become confused. Interpretations that are quite appropriate for certain communities and certain goals utterly fail when they are presented as the meaning of the text—a concept that is vastly more problematic than the advocates of single-sense interpretation usually recognize.

In modern times, the distinctive challenge turns upon the emergence of historical criticism, a mode of interpretation that is, or at least aspires to be, independent of all religious traditions and their structures of authority. The notion that historical criticism could simply replace the more traditional modes of study within religious communities is naïve in the extreme. So is the notion that the discoveries of modern research can be credibly disregarded or neutralized.

For the religiously committed Jewish scholar—that is, one for whom the Bible is part of a living Torah and not just another ancient text from a vanished culture—the worthiest course, in my judgment, is one that combines the modern and the traditional modes of study in an intellectually honest and theologically sophisticated way.

In the case of the verse from the Shema with which we began (Deut 6:5), such an approach ought to recognize the ancient Near Eastern background of the love of God in Deuteronomy fully and ungrudgingly, but also to bring the verse into dialogue with the rich literature on the love of God in the ongoing Jewish tradition and with the underlying conviction in the latter that to love God must be a living practice and not a dead letter.


August 14, 2016


Last Updated

February 1, 2023


View Footnotes

Prof. Jon D. Levenson is the Albert A. List Professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard University, where he earned a master’s and doctoral degrees in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. He is the author of Inheriting Abraham: The Legacy of the Patriarch in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (Princeton University Press) and Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel: The Ultimate Triumph of the God of Life (Yale University Press).