Deuteronomy 6:5 states, “You shall love (אהבת; ahavta) the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your life and with all your strength” (Deut 6:5). But what does it mean to “love” God according to ancient Israelite thought? For the biblical authors, love isn’t just an intense form of “liking” or some kind of “warm feeling” for another; rather, the most common Hebrew word for “love” (אהבה; ahavah) expresses loyalty.
To understand love as “loyalty” in Deut 6:5, we need to read the verse in the context of what comes right before it: the Shema. Most English translations of Deut 6:4 read, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one (אחד; echad).” While the Hebrew אחד can mean “one”—as in, “and there was evening, and there was morning: day one (אחד)” (Gen 1:5)—echad can also mean “alone.” Here’s a stronger translation of Deut 6:4: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone.” That is, the Lord is Israel’s God, and the people of Israel must “not go after other gods” (Deut 6:14); they must “love,” or be “loyal” to, the Lord alone.
The loyalty we have for the God of Israel—to the exclusion of all other gods—extends to our fellow human beings, particularly those who are less familiar to us. Leviticus uses the exact same word for our “loyalty” to God in the command to love the stranger: “You shall treat the stranger who dwells with you as the native among you, and you shall love (אהבת; ahavta) him as yourself” (Lev 19:34). When it comes to the heavenly realm, we are to be loyal to God alone, but here on earth, God commands us to pledge that same loyalty to those around us.