What Was Surprising About Ancient Hebrew Love?

Love has been an enduring Hebrew idea since Biblical times. What about romantic love? What do the Old and New Testaments tell us about it?

A Hebrew word for “love” is אהבה (ahavah, pronounced ah-ha-VAH), while a Biblical Hebrew word for “to love” is אהב (ahav, pronounced ah-HAV, with the final bet pronounced as a “v”). It should be noted that “ahavah” and “ahav” denote a broad range of love meanings. A book by Henry Finck (1887/2019), first published more than a century ago, shed some light on this question. Let’s look into it.

Why Did the Bible Not Mention Romantic Love? When you look at a Concordance of the Old and New Testaments, it is surprising to see that there is not a single mention of romantic love in the whole Bible. If ancient Hebrews felt this way, as their descendants do today, it’s clear that it couldn’t have been left out of the Book of Books, which talks so eloquently and poetically about everything else that’s important to people. Conjugal love, which seems to come before romantic love in every country, is often mentioned and encouraged, as are other family ties. However, the word “love” is always used in the rest of the passages to mean religious reverence or respect for a neighbor or an enemy.

The Ancient Hebrews Respected Women. Even more surprising is that there is no mention of romantic love when you consider that ancient Hebrews respected women more than any other ancient or modern Oriental nation. So, Cyclopedia of Biblical and Other Literature by M’Clintock and Strong told us that,

“the seclusion of the harem and the habits consequent upon it were utterly unknown in early times, and the condition of the Oriental woman, as pictured to us in the Bible, contrasts most favourably with that of her modern representative. There is abundant evidence that women, whether married or unmarried, went about with their faces unveiled. An unmarried woman might meet and converse with men, even strangers, in a public place; she might be found alone in the country without any reflection on her character; or she might appear in a court of justice.” The wife “entertained guests at her own desire in the absence of her husband, and sometimes even in defiance of his wishes.”

cited in Finck, 1887/2019, p. 70.

Since the Hebrew woman was not “the husband’s slave but his companion,” how do we explain the absence of love?

Ancient Hebrew Polygamy

The fact that polygamy was common, which is contrary to the growth of love, sheds some light on the situation. Even though not everyone did it, the Mosaic law did allow polygamy, except for priests.

“The secondary wife was regarded by the Hebrews as a wife, and her rights were secured by law.”

Abraham and Jacob both had more than one wife because their wives asked them to,

“under the idea that children born to a slave were in the eye of the law the children of the mistress.”

Finck, 1887/2019, p. 70.

So, if a woman asks her own husband to get another wife, there must be no jealousy or monopoly in such a relationship. These two parts of romantic love carry over into married love without weakening.

The Liberty of Ancient Hebrew Women

As I noted above, Hebrew women had a lot of freedom to move around alone in towns and in the countryside. However, this probably just means that they could care for sheep and get water at the well.

“From all education in general, as well as from social intercourse with men, woman was excluded; her destination being simply to increase the number of children, and take care of household matters. She lived a quiet life, merely for her husband, who, indeed, treated her with respect and consideration, but without feeling any special tenderness toward her.”

Finck, 1887/2019, p. 70.

Why Did Romantic Love Not Exist in Biblical Times?

This quotation above suggests the main reason for the non-existence of love in Biblical times. The young had no gatherings, no opportunities for courtship, an essential condition of love that requires time and space to develop. But even if they did, the young women and men could not benefit much from them. Both the daughter’s and the son’s choices were neutralized by parental command.

“Fathers from the beginning considered it both their duty and prerogative to find or select wives for their sons (Gen. xxiv. 3; xxxviii. 6). In the absence of the father, the selection devolved upon the mother (Gen. xxi. 21). Even in cases where the wishes of the son were consulted, the proposals were made by the father (Gen. xxxiv. 4, 8); and the violation of this parental prerogative on the part of the son was ‘a grief of mind’ to the father (Gen. xxvi. 35). The proposals were generally made by the parents of the young man, except when there was a difference of rank, in which case the negotiations proceeded from the father of the maiden (Exod. ii. 21), and when accepted by the parents on both sides, sometimes also consulting the opinion of the adult brothers of the maiden (Gen. xxiv. 51; xxxiv. 11), the matter was considered as settled, without requiring the consent of the bride

M‘Clintock and Strong, cited in Finck, 1887/2019, p. 70.