One of the featured quotations on the Israel Bible Center website reads: “All that is not eternal is eternally out of date.” Recently I read the book from which this quotation comes, The Four Loves by the famous Christian writer C.S. Lewis. This classic meditation takes its name and structure from four traditional concepts or forms of “love” expressed in the Greco-Roman and Western traditions: Affection, Friendship, Eros, and Charity.

Lewis writes: “We must notice that Friendship is very rarely the image under which Scripture represents the love between God and Man… far more often, seeking a symbol for the highest love of all, Scripture ignores this [in favor of a father’s affection or a lover’s eros].” He speculates that the reason may be because “only a lunatic” would understand God as literally (physically) our “father” or romantic “lover,” but using “friendship” as a metaphor could lead much more easily to such misunderstandings.

This got me thinking about the “rare” Biblical passages that seem to speak of “friendship” between God and humans. In many English translations of the Hebrew Bible, Exodus 33:11 says that God conversed with Moses “face-to-face, as a man speaks with his friend.” Here the Hebrew word translated as “friend” is רע (re‘a), which means something like “fellow, companion.” The same word is often translated as “neighbor,” including in the expression “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). It can sometimes imply “friendship” or another close relationship – but doesn’t always. This particular verse may simply be saying that God spoke to Moses like a person would speak to a “fellow” person.

Then we have Isaiah 41:8 and 2 Chronicles 20:7, where in English we read that Abraham was “my [=God’s] friend” and “your [=God’s] friend.” In this case a different Hebrew word is used (in both places): אהב (ohev) “one who loves, lover.” In other words, these verses are saying that Abraham loved God. But “loving” is not exactly the same thing as “being friends.”

So how did we get to “friendship”? In Exodus 33:11 the Jewish-Greek Septuagint translation (LXX) renders רע (re‘a) “fellow” as φίλος (philos) “beloved, dear, friend.” In Isaiah 41:8 and 2 Chronicles 20:7 אהב (ohev) “lover” is translated by forms of the verb ἀγαπάω (agapaô) – which was not the normal Greek word for “love,” but rather meant “greet with affection, entreat, caress, be fond of.” And then later, in the first century CE/AD, the letter of Jacob/James (2:23) rephrased those passages, again using the common Greek word philos: “Abraham… was called God’s friend (philos).”

These examples remind us how much language and translation history affect interpretation of any text. Perhaps Abraham and Moses really were God’s “friends”! However, as a translation this English word misrepresents the Hebrew texts. And it derives from a misunderstanding of ancient Jewish-Greek translations. In truth, if Lewis had started from the Biblical Hebrew concepts of “love” and “friendship,” he would have had to write a substantially different book!

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41 COMMENTS

  1. In the B'rit Hadasha we find a great example of these types of friendships.

    Y'Shua asked Peter three times "Do you Love Me"?

    In the English translation it seems redundant that Y'Shua would ask the same question three times.

    Two types of friendships here:

    1. Phileo where we get the name for the city Philadelphia or "City of Brotherly Love".

    2. Agape where a friend is willing to give his/her life for that person.

    Peters answer was believed to have been initially Phileo and ultimately, Agape when he was crucified upside down.

    Blessings
    • Thank you for the comment, Roberto! That passage is a great example of the importance of investigating the nature of specifically Jewish Greek language. Of course, the type of dichotomy you outline has formed the basis for many commentaries and is related to CSL's identification of “four loves.” However, the text claims to report a conversation that almost certainly did not take place in Greek: this must be kept in mind. The dichotomy doesn’t exist in Hebrew...

      + More answers (4)
    • ...Moreover, even in “normal” koine Greek words related to φιλέω (phileô) described all sorts of loves and likes (not just brotherly relations). Words related to ἀγαπάω (agapaô) were not normally used for “love” at all, but rather things like “affection” and “desire.” And in Jewish-Greek texts like the (misnamed) "NT" – contrary to what is often claimed – the concept does not imply divine or sacrificial love. For instance, in 2 Peter 2:15 Balaam ἠγάπησεν (êgapêsen) “loved” or “had agapê for” the wages of injustice. So there are many misconceptions that we must sift through!
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  2. Shalom. The Scriptures translations are: Isiah 41:8 ".....the descendants of Abraham who loved Me." 2 Chronicles 20:7 '.....the seed of Abraham who love You forever." James 2:23 ".....And He called him, 'he who loves Elohim.' " It seems to be more about loving God. Friendship in modern day language seems to be more like equals. Thank you for this lesson.
  3. Perhaps "friend" is not the word to describe the relationship between God and Abraham (and later between God and Isaac and between God and Jacob, and perhaps between God and Joseph). I think a more appropriate word would be "partner." God was seeking a human "partner" to take His teaching to humans. A partner does not have to be your friend, only a reliable entity to further the overall project - such as building the world which God began in Genesis 1. The covenant could be viewed as being a partnership agreement between God and His "partner," the nation of Israel. In each case, God "tested" the human to make sure the human would be a reliable partner.
  4. In the are 80s I had a dream I was in the desert looking for a oasis or caravan for comfort and water ,food ,and as I was walking I came across a man lying on the sand hungry thirsty ,I went to his aid and assisted him on our journey to find food water shelter ,and in the distance I saw a camp where we came to ,I put the man in the tent and went to fetch him water and food ,I fed him as he was weak ,after eating he said to me ,do you know who I am I was startled and said no, I don't know he said I am G-d I was startled but I felt a bond a very strong bond and with that I awoke Shanah tovah to all a sweet year with only peace and good health for all ,and shabbat shalom for tomorrow am Yisrael chai
  5. Thank you for the insight it causes my heart wanting to go deeper in my fellowship, relationship and friendship
    God through his word. I pray that my spiritual eyes be open to know more about God.
    Regards

    Roland
  6. Dr. Yeshaya, in answering your question if Abraham and our God were friends? The answer is yes.

    I always had a misconception that Abraham was only a Servant. However, in this week's Parasha reading, B'rit Hadasha portion (John 15:1 - 11). Well in verse 15 Y'Shua says He will no longer call us servants because a servant knows not what his Lord does.

    Please read verse 13 as well regarding Phileo and Agape love amongst friends.

    Shabbat Shalom
    • Thank you, Roberto! To paraphrase what I wrote in the post: the English word “friends” might or might not be a good description of the relationship between God and Abraham (depending on your interpretation and perspective), but as a translation of the Hebrew text it can be misleading in those particular passages. Regarding φιλέω (phileô) and ἀγαπάω (agapaô) and their related forms, the passage you cite is very apropos and interesting for a number of reasons, not least because it combines the two concepts together (e.g., in v. 13). This combination emphasizes once again how important it is to investigate the meanings of such words within the specific context of first-century Jewish-Greek language, instead of relying on traditional characterizations of pagan or Christian Greek culture. (Please also see my responses above in answer to your previous comment.)
  7. I have enjoyed reading all the comments on love. This only demonstrate to me again that our Lord God is so immense he can not be defined or explained with one, two or how many word. All that I read could be used in one application another. HOW GREAT THOU ART!
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