In the English language, the word love encompasses everything from delight in a favorite food (“I love ice cream”), to enjoyment of a preferred pastime (“I love to read”), to affection for family members (“I love my son”), to passion for a sexual lover (“I love my sweetheart”). The original languages in which the Bible was written often had distinct words to express these different nuances. The Bible uses three different Hebrew words which are sometimes translated in English as “love” in the Old Testament and three different Greek words for “love” in the New Testament.
In Hebrew, the word ahab is a general word for love that means “to have or show affection.” This affection can be platonic between friends or family members (“Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love” in Genesis 22:2), for objects (“prepare for me delicious food, such as I love” in Genesis 27:4), or it may be passionate sexual love between a married couple (“So Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her” in Genesis 29:20). So ahab is similar to the English word “love” in that it includes a wide range of emotion.
The Hebrew word dod is more specifically the erotic love between a man and a woman. Song of Solomon 1:2 uses this word: “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth! For your love is better than wine.” The Lord uses this word when He compares Himself to a husband with Israel as His bride: “When I passed by you again and saw you, behold, you were at the age for love, and I spread the corner of my garment over you and covered your nakedness” (Ezekiel 16:8). So sexual love was sometimes conveyed using this distinct Hebrew word in the Bible.
Perhaps one of the most difficult Hebrew words to translate into English is chesed. Chesed in Hebrew is a type of constant, steadfast love that contains an element of loyalty, mercy, pity, and favor. Ezra used this word to express this type of loyalty, mercy, and favor when he said, “For we are slaves. Yet our God has not forsaken us in our slavery, but has extended to us his steadfast love before the kings of Persia, to grant us some reviving to set up the house of our God, to repair its ruins, and to give us protection in Judea and Jerusalem” (Ezra 9:9). In many translations chesed is rendered “lovingkindness,” “unfailing love,” or “steadfast love.” It is the love God has for His people and the love He expects in return. Nehemiah declared about God, “You are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and did not forsake them” (Nehemiah 9:17). God told His people, “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hosea 6:6). It is the type of love when two people are in covenant with one another (like Jonathan and David in 1 Samuel 20:15), continually committed to the other’s benefit and well-being no matter the circumstances. Chesed is an unconditional, everlasting love as expressed in the last line of every verse in Psalm 136: “Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever” (Psalm 136:1).
In the New Testament, the Greek word phileo is used to express the idea of affection in a platonic way for a friend or family member, or even enjoyment of an object or action. The word is used of Jesus’ feeling for His friend Lazarus, when the sisters reported, “he whom you love is ill” (John 11:3). Phileo is used to describe the love between family members when Jesus said, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37). It is also used to describe the scribes’ and Pharisees’ preference for social honor when Jesus said, “they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues” (Matthew 23:6).
The Greek word storge is specifically the love of family members, particularly the love between parents and children. It is used only in Romans 12:10 when Paul says, “Love one another with brotherly affection.” While phileo and storge are Greek words translated as “love” in the New Testament, the most often used Greek word for “love” is agape.
Agape can have a wide range of meaning, but generally refers to committed benevolence toward another. It is used for God’s love for Jesus (“The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand” in John 3:35), God’s love for His people (“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” in John 3:16), as well as people’s love for one another (“You shall love your neighbor as yourself” in Matthew 22:39). Used in hundreds of verses in the New Testament, agape, is the most likely Greek word a reader of the Bible will see translated as “love” in English.
One other Greek word for love is eros, which is a passionate sexual love, but this Greek word is not used in the Bible. However, knowing that the Greek language had this word for sexual love, and that the authors clearly chose to use a different word, helps English-speakers better understand what the authors could and could not have possibly been referring to in different passages.
The best way to understand what type of love the Bible is referencing is to read each verse in its entire context. Reading verses within the context of that particular story or passage, while keeping in mind the entire narrative of the whole Bible, helps readers discern a word’s specific meaning. Online tools (like Blue Letter Bible) where readers can research the original language can also shed light and deepen a reader’s understanding. Ultimately, the Holy Spirit reveals the truth of God’s Word. Jesus said, “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (John 14:26; cf. 1 Corinthians 2:10–16). So when a reader of the Bible asks for the Holy Spirit to teach him/her and then reads verses in context while checking trusted study tools, it will not be difficult to understand what type of love (or any other concept) the Bible references. “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him” (James 1:5).