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This topic is adapted from the Bible Project YouTube channel. This is part 3 in the Hebrew Word Studies series.

For thousands of years the Jewish people have prayed the “Shema” (pronounced sheh-mah) – a daily prayer of devotion to God.

Deuteronomy 6:4-5 (NASB) Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.

Even Jesus quotes from it in Matthew 22:37-39 when he is asked to list the greatest commandment from the Law of Moses (“torah”). The Shema is an important statement of faith for those who follow God. One important word in the Shema is “ahavah” (אהבה), Hebrew for “love.”

[Related: 7 Reasons Why Every Christian Should Read the Old Testament]

Video Highlights:

  • Ahavah in Hebrew typically refers to affection or care from one person to another, though it’s important to know that biblical Hebrew words have a very wide “semantic ranges” – the same word can mean many different things in many different contexts. Ahavah sometimes refers to physical affection or romantic love. Abraham, David and Jonathan, and the people of Israel all showed ahavah. It could also refer to political relationships. As a general rule, ahavah is about affection and care and is typically translated that way into English from Hebrew.
  • God’s ahavah toward Israel in the Old Testament (OT) is not because the Israelites had earned love or were especially worthy of it for some reason. Love originated with God and was directed at Israel. God is love, and so love is a defining component of his character and actions. (Jeremiah 31:3.) God’s love simply is.
  • God’s love is not a duty, but a genuine feeling and affection he experiences. This is why Isaiah and other prophets compare God’s feelings toward Israel in terms of marriage or in terms of parents and children.
  • God’s love is not merely a feeling, but an action (Deuteronomy 4:37). In Deuteronomy 4, Moses says that God’s ahavah led him to take action by leading Israel out of slavery in Egypt. God’s love is not just a sentiment. It is something God does.
  • The Shema prayer, then, is calling God’s people to show affection toward God, but it is also calling God’s people to put their love for God into action by serving and obeying him. Deuteronomy 10:12-13 shows this. If we say we love God but don’t follow him and obey him, we don’t actually love him – regardless of what we say or how we feel. Jesus says the same thing in John 14:15.
  • In the OT, people showed their love for God by how they treated the people around them. God defends the cause of the fatherless and widow, and showed ahavah to immigrants and aliens. God’s people were to imitate his love by showing it to others, which is the background of the famous words of Leviticus 19:18 and of Jesus in Matthew 22:37-39: “You shall love (ahavah) your neighbor as yourself.”

[Related: Biblical Themes: An Animated Explanation of the Covenants]

All of this is rooted in God’s eternal ahavah. We love because God first loved us (1 John 4:19). If we love God, we will not live in a way that is inconsistent with this love.

Written content for this topic by Daniel Martin.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Watch the video together or invite someone to summarize the topic.
  2. What is your initial reaction to this video? Do you disagree with any of it? What jumped out at you?
  3. Read Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and John 14:15. How should the Shema play into the Christian life? Should it play in at all? Explain.
  4. How do you define love? Explain.
  5. What is the interplay between feelings of love and actions of love toward other people?
  6. What is the interplay between feelings of love and actions of love toward God?
  7. Write a personal action step based on this conversation.

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