One of the featured quotations on the Israel Bible Center website reads: “All that is not eternal is eternally out of date.”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!