Paul the apostle tells his readers in Romans that love is the fulfillment of the law. Just before that he gives a few examples from the book of Exodus: don’t steal, don’t murder, and “whatever other command there may be.” Jesus said something similar when he was asked what the greatest commandment was: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matt 40:37–40 NIV).

Love, then, is not about an emotional disposition; it is about acting in a certain way toward others—a way that is consistent with the commandments laid out in the Law. Share on X

The question we have to answer if we want to understand and apply what Paul and Jesus are saying is, “What does it mean to love?” Paul gives a hint when he supplies examples of love: love is not doing harmful things to another person. Love in this context has nothing to do with an emotional response toward another person, such as being love or simply really liking someone. Instead,  love is acting or not acting a certain way toward another person. Both Jesus and Paul are drawing on a common Old Testament way of understanding the concept of love that is rooted in the idea of covenants.

In the modern West we are accustomed to contracts, not covenants. We sign a contract to buy a house, to play for a baseball team, or to pay a cell phone bill. Contracts, though, are different from covenants, because covenants create bonds of relationship between people that are treated the same as kinship bonds, or blood times. There are two primary ways of being in a covenant with another person: through adoption and through marriage. In both cases people who are not related to each other by blood become related to each other by law, and it is as if the people in the covenant together are related by blood. (Scholars call this fictive kinship.) For example, when my foster son becomes my adopted son, he will have the exact same inheritance rights as his brothers, and I will be fully responsible for him in the exact same way as I am responsible for my biological sons. We don’t look alike and we share no DNA, but he will be forever my son and I his father. That is, we will be in covenant with each other.

In the Old Testament book of Exodus, God established a covenant relationship with Israel. This covenant God established is modeled on a type of covenant in that time and culture called the suzerain-vassal covenant. In such a covenant, or treaty, a greater party (God, in this case) created a relationship with a lesser party (the people of Israel) that made them related to each other as if by blood, even though they had no relationship to each other before then. These covenants include things like a statement of who the suzerain was, the responsibilities of the vassal (i.e., commandments), and blessings and curses for obedience or disobedience.[1]

How does all of this talk of suzerains and adoptions and covenants help us understand what Paul and Jesus mean when they talk about love fulfilling the law (whether love for God or love for others)?  In a word, hesed. That’s the key term that described the relationship between the suzerain and the vassal. It is translated variously as “lovingkindness,” “mercy,” and “covenant faithfulness.” If the vassal obeyed the commands outlined in the covenant, then that vassal was showing hesed, or loving, the suzerain. Likewise, if the suzerain fulfilled his responsibilities outlined in the covenant, then he was showing hesed, or loving, the vassal.

Love, then, is not about an emotional disposition; it is about acting in a certain way toward others—a way that is consistent with the commandments laid out in the Law. And these commandments are simply examples of what it looks like, in day-to-day life and in various circumstances, to love God and love each other. Love, then, fulfills the covenant obligations that God has given his children, or as Paul and Jesus said it, “the Law.”

[1] For a really good discussion of this, see Sandra Richter, The Epic of Eden (Downers Grove, IL: 2008). I review the book here.

Russ Meek

Associate Professor of Old Testament at William Tennent School of Theology