In The Love of God, Jon Levenson uses the Amarna Letters to talk about the love of God for us.
He has used the ancient suzerainty treaties as the source for the biblical notion of love. In those treaties the lesser or vassal king pledges to love the higher king. Applied to God, this meant that Israel and individual Israelites show their love of God by service. But what about the love that moves from higher to lower? What about the love of God for his people?
In the Amarna letters, clay-tablet letters that represent the relations between the pharaoh and his Canaanite vassals in about 1350 B.C.E., we find language that shows the pharaoh was expected to love his vassals. One king writes that if the king “loves his loyal servant” he will come to his aid. Another is cast into despair by the thought that the king might reject him and not love him. In appealing to the king of Egypt for help, the petty kings in Canaan appealed to the king’s love for them (p. 36).
Of course, this is not an equal love. The vassal loves the great king by serving him. The great king loves the vassal by protecting him and providing for him. So God is the superior party in the relation between Israel and God. Yet God’s love gets expressed in passion-like language.
For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. He has chosen you to be his people, prized above all others on the face of the earth.
It is not because you were more numerous than all the other peoples that the Lord favored and chose you – for in fact you were the least numerous of all peoples. Rather it is because of his love for you and his faithfulness to the promise he solemnly vowed to your ancestors that the Lord brought you out with great power, redeeming you from the place of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt (Deuteronomy7:6-8 NET Bible).
Now Levenson wants his readers to understand that the romantic, emotional idea of love does not fit with the biblical idea of covenant love, which derives from treaties that did not require emotion or sentiment.
That is not all there is to say, though, because there is what he calls an “affective” aspect to this kind of relationship. It comes in the language of gratitude, which is clearly a biblical idea. The people of God owe a debt of gratitude.
Gratitude creates a new dynamic in any relationship. Suppose someone you don’t know stops and helps you when you have car trouble. Further suppose that you later encounter the person who helped you in a situation where they need your help. Levenson imagines that they are in the same checkout line and are accidentally short a few dollars. Whereas you might feel no need to help a complete stranger in this situation, due to the new relationship that results from having received help, you now have both a felt obligation and a motive to come to this person’s aid.
This sheds some light on how the Jewish view of the love of God is not just a call for submission to duty. It is warmer than that.
So Levenson speaks of “covenental loyalty” and the need to be true to the gratuitous love we have received. This love involves mutual gift giving and a passionate desire that the other party keep the terms of the covenant.
He makes a very profound statement:
But graciousness does not mean normlessness, and if love is to be a relationship and not just an ephemeral and episodic sentiment, it must impose norms of its own (even if violating them does not terminate the relationship). Perhaps the norms are best seen as the expectations that the lover has of the beloved. For surely we all want those we love to be the best they can be and the relationship of love to be the highest relationship it can be (p. 54).
This is relevant to those who talk about law and grace or treat them as opposed to each other.