Love in the Bible
The two greatest love stories in the Bible are not of husband and wife.
Posted August 9, 2017
[Article revised on 25 April 2020.]
If you think about it, the concept of romantic love barely features among the 66 books of the Bible, despite a cast of over three thousand named characters (some one thousand more than in the books behind Game of Thrones).
Instead, all love in the Bible is directed at God, and the love for the spouse, and more generally for the other, is subsumed under the love of God.
In the Binding of Isaac, Abraham’s love for God trumps his love for Isaac his own son, whom he is willing to sacrifice for no reason other than that God commanded it.
Today, the most popular reading at weddings is Chapter 13 of St Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians.
Here it is in a form that I have abridged:
Love is patient; love is kind, love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way: it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, ensures all things … When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways … And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three, and the greatest of these is love.
The problem in this context is that Paul is not referring to bleary-eyed romantic love, but to Christian love for our fellow men and women.
The passage above is quoted from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible (NRSV), which renders the Greek agape as ‘love’, but the King James Version, among others, prefers to render it as ‘charity’: ‘And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.’
Faith, hope, and charity are called the three theological virtues—’theological’ because they are born out of the grace of God, and because they have God for their object. Charity in particular is the love of man for God, and through God, for his fellow men and women.
Even the Song of Songs (the Song of Solomon), which appears to celebrate sexual love, is read in the Jewish tradition as an allegory of the relationship between God and Israel, and in the Christian tradition as an allegory of the relationship between Christ and his ‘bride’, the Christian Church. ‘I am the rose of Sharon, and the lily of the valleys. As the lily among thorns, so is my love among the daughters. As the apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among the sons. I sat down under his shadow with great delight, and his fruit was sweet to my taste.’
David and Jonathan
So it is perhaps not entirely surprising that the two greatest love stories in the Bible are not of husband and wife, nor even of man and woman, but of man and man, and woman and woman.
David rivalled Jonathan, son of King Saul, for the throne of Israel.
After slaying Goliath, David appeared before Saul with Goliath’s head in his hand: ‘And it came to pass, when he had made an end of speaking unto Saul, that the soul of Jonathan was knit with the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul … And Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that was upon him, and gave it to David, and his garments, even to his sword, and to his bow, and to his girdle.’
One evening, Saul rebuked Jonathan for favouring David over his own father and family: ‘Thou son of the perverse rebellious woman, do not I know that thou hast chosen the son of Jesse to thine own confusion, and unto the confusion of thy mother’s nakedness?’
Upon learning of Jonathan’s death on Mount Gilboa, David lamented: ‘I am distressed for thee, my brother Jonathan: very pleasant hast thou been unto me: thy love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.’
David and Jonathan both had wives and children, and we are to believe that the love they clearly shared was homosocial rather than homosexual.
Ruth and Naomi
In the Book of Ruth, Naomi is married to Elimelech.
A famine leads them and their two sons to move from Bethlehem to Moab.
In time, Elimelech dies, as do their two sons, leaving Naomi and her two daughters-in-law destitute.
Naomi returns to Bethlehem, entreating her daughters-in-law, who are Moabites and thus from a different ethnic group, not to follow in her barren footsteps.
But Ruth insists upon accompanying her, telling her: ‘Intreat me not to leave thee, or return from the following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God: Where thou diest, I will die, and there will be buried…’
I don’t know about you, but that sounds more like a marriage vow than anything I might say to my mother-in-law.
When the pair arrive in Bethlehem, Naomi tells the Bethlehemites: ‘Do not call me Naomi, call me Mara (‘Bitter’), for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me.’
Ruth takes to gleaning in the barley fields of Boaz, who it transpires, is a kinsman of Elimelech, Naomi’s late husband. With Naomi’s encouragement, Ruth marries Boaz, who bears Ruth a son, Obed.
Curiously, it is as if Obed were the son of Naomi: ‘And the women said unto Naomi, Blessed be the Lord, which hath not left thee this day without a kinsman, that his name may be famous in Israel. And he shall be unto thee a restorer of thy life, and a nourisher of thine old age, for thy daughter in law, which loveth thee, which is better to thee than seven sons, hath born him. And Naomi took the child, and laid it in her bosom, and became nurse unto it. And the women her neighbours gave it a name, saying, There is a son born to Naomi…’
For the genealogy, Obed was the father of Jesse, and through Jesse, the grandfather of David.
Neel Burton is author of For Better For Worse and other books.
Bible, 1 Corinthians 13 (NRSV).
Bible, 1 Corinthians 13:13 (KJV).
Bible, Solomon 2:1-3 (KJV).
Bible, 1 Samuel 18 (KJV)
Bible, 1 Samuel 20:30 (KJV).
Bible, 2 Samuel 1:26 (KJV).
Bible, Ruth 1:16 (KJV).
Bible, Ruth 4:14-17 (KJV).