Abarim Publications' online Biblical Hebrew Dictionary
The two verbs אהב ('aheb) and יהב (yahab) are probably not etymologically related, but their forms are similar and their meanings could be construed as to converge upon a general meaning of drawing near.
The verb אהב ('aheb) means to love in much the same way as the English verb does, but compared to the English verb, the Hebrew verb appears to be less concerned with emotions and more with the mere mechanism and consequences of being attracted or focused on someone or something. Its obvious antithesis is the verb שנא (sane'), meaning to hate. Quite tellingly, until the Middle Ages, when the Masoretes added vocalization symbols to the Hebrew text, this latter verb was spelled the same as the noun שנא (shena'), meaning sleep. This seems to suggest that to the Hebrews to love may have been similar to being wide awake, that is: vigilant and attentive.
Love may exist between a man and his woman (Judges 14:16, 1 Samuel 1:5), but twice "love" impels a man to rape the woman he "loves" (which obviously marks a major divergence between the English and Hebrew verbs; Genesis 34:3, 2 Samuel 13:1).
Love exists from a parent towards a child (Genesis 22:2, 25:28, 37:3) but never from a child towards a parent — Ruth "loved" her mother-in-law Naomi, which doesn't so much describe Ruth's feelings but her staying with her; Ruth 4:15. When a slave "loves" his master, he stays with him forever (Exodus 21:8).
More generally: we are commanded to show love to aliens (Deuteronomy 10:19), to love YHWH with all our hearts, souls and might (Deuteronomy 6:5) and our neighbor as ourselves (Leviticus 19:18). God in return loves His people (Deuteronomy 4:37, Isaiah 43:4, Malachi 1:2), the gates of Zion (Psalm 87:2), righteousness and judgment (Psalm 33:5), and the temple (Malachi 2:11).
Our verb may also describe a drawing towards inanimate items or concepts: certain foods (Genesis 27:4), costly goods (Proverbs 21:17, Ecclesiastes 5:9) gifts (Isaiah 1:23), the Lord's commandments (Psalm 119:47) and Torah (Psalm 119:97), evil (Psalm 52:3), death (Proverbs 8:36), vanity (Psalm 4:2), cursing (Psalm 109:17), good (Amos 5:15), truth and peace (Zechariah 8:19), salvation (Psalm 40:16) and wisdom (Proverbs 29:3).
The participle can sometimes be translated as friend (Abraham was God's "friend"; 2 Chronicles 20:7, and king Hiram of Tyre was David's "friend"; 1 Kings 5:1) but often carries the connotation of professional love or prostitution (Lamentations 1:19, Ezekiel 16:33, Hosea 2:7). In Hebrew we can deploy the same word for these seemingly opposite contexts simply because the Hebrew word describes someone who draws near or concentrates on, rather than someone who feels something.
This verb comes with three similar derivatives:
- The masculine noun אהב ('ahab), meaning love (Proverbs 5:18, Hosea 8:9 only).
- The masculine noun אהב ('ohab), also meaning love (Proverbs 7:18, Hosea 9:10 only).
- The feminine noun אהבה ('ahaba), also meaning love (Ecclesiastes 9:1, Song of Solomon 2:7, Hosea 11:4). This noun is the most common one of the three, and is the one used in the magnificent statement, "I have loved you with an everlasting love" (Jeremiah 31:3).
The verb יהב (yahab) describes a motion towards someone or something, and can usually be translated with to bring, give or come. Our verb occurs only in imperative constructions and takes on forms like הב (Proverbs 30:15), הבה (Genesis 11:3, 29:21), הבו (Genesis 47:16, Job 6:22) or הבי (Ruth 3:15). Its derivatives are:
- The masculine noun יהב (yehab), meaning lot or the thing given (Psalm 55:22 only, commonly translated with "burden" or "cares").
- The masculine noun הבהב (habhab), which appears to be a reduplicate form that usually indicates a diminutive. This word occurs only in the troublesome verse of Hosea 8:13 and is commonly translated with gifts or offerings. Some scholars insist that this word doesn't derive from יהב (yahab) but rather from אהב ('aheb), and thus that Hosea 8:13 speaks of "beloved" sacrifices.