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I hope we can tolerate a translation question into another language besides English, especially since some people here know Hebrew. It is even the 1st language for some here.

אַהֲבָה is the most common word for love in Hebrew, but it also means like. That is the word Delitzsch and the Bible Society in Israel use to translate ἀγάπη in 1 Cor. 13. Many see ἀγάπη in 1 Cor. 13 as expressing God's love or at least the God kind of love. חֶ֛סֶד seems more appropriate.

כִּ֣י אִם־בְּזֹ֞את יִתְהַלֵּ֣ל הַמִּתְהַלֵּ֗ל הַשְׂכֵּל֮ וְיָדֹ֣עַ אֹותִי֒ כִּ֚י אֲנִ֣י יְהוָ֔ה עֹ֥שֶׂה חֶ֛סֶד מִשְׁפָּ֥ט‬ וּצְדָקָ֖ה בָּאָ֑רֶץ כִּֽי־בְאֵ֥לֶּה חָפַ֖צְתִּי נְאֻם־יְהוָֽה׃ (Jer. 9:23, BHS2003)

כִּ֛י חֶ֥סֶד חָפַ֖צְתִּי וְלֹא־זָ֑בַח וְדַ֥עַת אֱלֹהִ֖ים מֵעֹלֹֽות׃ (Hosea 6:6, BHS2003)

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  • Are you asking about modern Hebrew or ancient Biblical Hebrew? (I agree with your proposal for the old Hebrew.)
    – Dottard
    Apr 23, 2023 at 20:04
  • Delitzsch predates modern Hebrew. The Bible Society is modern Hebrew. Most here can only answer based on Biblical Hebrew. However, I also welcome responses from Modern Hebrew, which is based on Biblical Hebrew with an additional almost 80 years of use.
    – Perry Webb
    Apr 24, 2023 at 0:03
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    I'm in no position to comment on the translation, but I do speak modern Hebrew and can clarify that אהבה (ahava) as the noun, is only used to mean love, and not liking/fondness which would be חיבה (khiba). As a verb אוהב (ohev), in modern Hebrew at least, can convey both liking/fondness or love, depending on the context.
    – Bets
    Apr 24, 2023 at 16:03
  • @Bets -- OK, so I'm confusing the meaning of the verb with the noun.
    – Perry Webb
    Apr 24, 2023 at 21:41

3 Answers 3

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They possibly accounted for the Septuagint, since ἀγάπη consistently translates אַהֲבָה (ahávah)* in the 14 times it appears in canonical books (2 Kingdoms/2 Samuel, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Jeremiah).

In Hosea 6:6 חֶ֛סֶד (khéset) is translated in the Septuagint as ἔλεος - mercy, as is also the case in Jeremiah 9:23.


* אַהֲבָה is the noun form. The verb form is אָהַב (aháv), which is translated ἀγαπάω (agapao) in the Septuagint; e.g. Deuteronomy 6:5 - וְאָ֣הַבְתָּ֔ אֵ֖ת יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֑יךָ בְּכָל־לְבָבְךָ֥ וּבְכָל־נַפְשְׁךָ֖ וּבְכָל־מְאֹדֶֽךָ׃ - καὶ ἀγαπήσεις κύριον τὸν θεόν σου ἐξ ὅλης τῆς καρδίας σου καὶ ἐξ ὅλης τῆς ψυχῆς σου καὶ ἐξ ὅλης τῆς ἰσχύος σου

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Both words are good candidates for translating ἀγάπη. I will confine my comments to Biblical Hebrew. It is possible that modern Hebrew has shifted these meaning slightly. I will also assume that I do not need to expound the detailed meaning of a word like ἀγάπη to this audience, except to note that it never denotes, in NT Koine Greek, the kind of erotic love between a man and woman, even when such legitimate.

אָהַב (ahav)

The meaning of this word is extremely broad covering such situations as:

  • the (legitimate) erotic love between a man and a woman, Gen 29:18, 20, 30, 32, etc
  • the illicit love between a man and a woman, including in an adulterous relationship, eg, Gen 34:3, Hos 2:7, 9, 14, 15, Eze 23:5, 9, Jer 22;20, 22, etc
  • love of bribes, Isa 1:23
  • love of wisdom, Prov 4:6
  • love of wine, Prov 21:17, Hos 3:1
  • love of people platonically, Ruth 4:15
  • love of tasty food, Gen 27:4, 9, 14
  • love for God, Ex 20:6, Deut 5:10, 6:5, 7:9, Josh 22:5, etc
  • Love of God for humans, Deut 4:37, 2 Sam 12:24, Prov 3:12, 15:9, etc

חֵסֵד (Hessed)

The meaning of this word is much more confined as it always means an elevated principled love, kindness, goodness, never an illicit nor selfish love. It is used of:

  • kindness by showing favor and giving benefits between humans, 1 Sam 20:15, 2 Sam 16:17, etc
  • kindness and mercy shown to the needy and miserable, Prov 11:17, 20:28, Job 6:14, 1 Kings 20:312, Hos 4:1, Isa 16:5, etc
  • God's kindness and compassion to the needs of creation, Jonah 2:9, Ps 144:2, etc - this is its most common use

In choosing between these two I observe that חֵסֵד is a noun and while אָהַב is a verb which may influence the choice. However, חֵסֵד is, closer in meaning to ἀγάπη because it contains much more other-centeredness and is never used of an illicit kind of love.

I also note that these two words are used in synonymous parallelism in Jer 31:3 (with both the noun and verb cognates of אָהַב and אַהֲבָה) -

The LORD appeared to him long ago, saying, “I have loved you with an everlasting love; Therefore I have drawn you out with loving-kindness.

In the LXX, this is translated as:

Κύριος πόρρωθεν ὤφθη αὐτῷ· ἀγάπησιν αἰώνιον ἠγάπησά σε, διὰ τοῦτο εἵλκυσά σε εἰς οἰκτείρημα.

Note that the final phrase, εἵλκυσά σε εἰς οἰκτείρημα = pull you into His possession does not correspond to the Hebrew.

We see these two words again in parallel in Ps 119:159 -

Consider how I love Your precepts, O LORD; give me life according to Your loving-kindness.

The LXX translates this as:

ἴδε ὅτι τὰς ἐντολάς σου ἠγάπησα, Κύριε· ἐν τῷ ἐλέει σου ζῆσόν με.

Note that LXX uses ἀγάπη [love] and ἔλεος [mercy]. This is most often the case. I assume that this was one of the main motivators for the Hebrew translation of the NT as the OP has noted.

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As is often the case with modern Hebrew based on Biblical Hebrew, especially with common words independent of modern technology, it gives insight to Biblical Hebrew. As Bets pointed out like is a meaning of the verb אהב but not the noun אהבה. This is key to my issue with using אהבה to translate ἀγάπη in 1 Cor. 13. Checking the lexicon's Biblical Hebrew is the same as modern Hebrew here.

אַהֲבָה: f. ... —1. loving ... —2. love -- Koehler, L., Baumgartner, W., Richardson, M. E. J., & Stamm, J. J. (1994–2000). In The Hebrew and Aramaic lexicon of the Old Testament (electronic ed., p. 18). E.J. Brill.

אהב ... to like, to love -- Ibid.

Though not so much so, modern Greek, though grammatically quite different than Biblical Greek, can be insightful especially with common words. A good example is καλός versus ἀγαθός.

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  • Give Bets credit for his comment.
    – Perry Webb
    Apr 25, 2023 at 10:30

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