Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center, American University
February 15, 2015
Genesis 29:15-30; Song of Solomon 1:1-3, 2:8-3:5

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Genesis 29:15–30 • Laban said to Jacob, “You shouldn’t have to work for free just because you are my relative. Tell me what you would like to be paid.”   Now Laban had two daughters: the older was named Leah and the younger Rachel. Leah had delicate eyes, but Rachel had a beautiful figure and was good-looking. Jacob loved Rachel and said, “I will work for you for seven years for Rachel, your younger daughter.”
Laban said, “I’d rather give her to you than to another man. Stay with me.”
Jacob worked for Rachel for seven years, but it seemed like a few days because he loved her. Jacob said to Laban, “The time has come. Give me my wife so that I may sleep with her.” So Laban invited all the people of that place and prepared a banquet. However, in the evening, he took his daughter Leah and brought her to Jacob, and he slept with her. Laban had given his servant Zilpah to his daughter Leah as her servant. In the morning, there she was—Leah! Jacob said to Laban, “What have you done to me? Didn’t I work for you to have Rachel? Why did you betray me?”
Laban said, “Where we live, we don’t give the younger woman before the oldest. Complete the celebratory week with this woman. Then I will give you this other woman too for your work, if you work for me seven more years.” So that is what Jacob did. He completed the celebratory week with this woman, and then Laban gave him his daughter Rachel as his wife. Laban had given his servant Bilhah to his daughter Rachel as her servant. Jacob slept with Rachel, and he loved Rachel more than Leah. He worked for Laban seven more years.

Song 1:1–3; 2:8–3:5 • The Song of Songs, which is for Solomon.
If only he would give me some of his kisses … Oh, your loving is sweeter than wine!
Your fragrance is sweet; your very name is perfume. That’s why the young women love you.
Listen! It’s my lover: here he comes now, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills.
My lover is like a gazelle or a young stag. Here he stands now, outside our wall, peering through the windows, peeking through the lattices.
My lover spoke and said to me, “Rise up, my dearest, my fairest, and go.
Here, the winter is past; the rains have come and gone.
Blossoms have appeared in the land; the season of singing has arrived, and the sound of the turtledove is heard in our land.
The green fruit is on the fig tree, and the grapevines in bloom are fragrant. Rise up, my dearest, my fairest, and go.
My dove—in the rock crevices, hidden in the cliff face— let me catch sight of you; let me hear your voice! The sound of your voice is sweet, and the sight of you is lovely.”
Catch foxes for us— those little foxes that spoil vineyards, now that our vineyards are in bloom!
I belong to my lover and he belongs to me— the one grazing among the lilies.
Before the day breeze blows and the shadows flee, turn about, my love; be like a gazelle or a young stag upon the jagged mountains.
[Woman] Upon my bed, night after night, I looked for the one whom I love with all my heart. I looked for him but couldn’t find him.
“I will rise now and go all around the city, through the streets and the squares. I will look for the one whom I love with all my heart.” I looked for him but couldn’t find him.
The guards found me, those who make their rounds in the city. “The one whom I love with all my heart— have you seen him?”
No sooner did I depart from them than I found the one whom I love with all my heart. I held on to him and now I won’t let him go, until I’ve brought him to my mother’s house, to the chamber of the one who conceived me.
I place you under oath, daughters of Jerusalem, by the gazelles or the wild deer: don’t rouse, don’t arouse love until it desires.”


So, we have come through another holiday, a holiday that celebrates the same values that all our holidays celebrate: crass commercialism, emotional exploitation, and mass consumption. And in the name of a martyred Christian saint, no less.

So, I hope you got your fill of chocolate hearts and flowers and cupcakes. This crowd is probably a little young for the diamond aspect of Valentine’s Day, but that one is coming for you.

That is, after all, how we understand love in this culture: buying things. They even tell us as much: “Show her you love her with a diamond this Valentine’s Day…” And as everyone knows, “If you like it, you shoulda put a ring on it.”

And florists have absolutely convinced us that unless flowers are involved, you don’t really love a person. So, even if you can’t afford a diamond, get her some flowers, you cheapskate.


In our media, love is all about the passion, the drive that compels us forward to make grand gestures of romantic commitment. All of which are kind of ridiculous, but we admire them because of their poetic power.

We even know that they’re ridiculous, even as these images are burned into our minds as iconic demonstrations of love.[1] I am, of course, speaking of John Cusack standing outside holding a boom box over his head playing Peter Gabriel’s In Your Eyes. Or Ted Mosby making unreciprocated romantic gestured designed to convince the object of his affections that contrary to her feelings, she actually does love him. Or the hero interrupting the wedding of his desired one, trying to convince her to break her commitment to someone else and commit to him.

Or perhaps, agreeing to work for fourteen years without pay in order to win the hand of the woman you’re attracted to.

That’s what Jacob does in Genesis. He has gone to live with his uncle Laban in Mesopotamia where he meets his two cousins, Leah and Rachel. He falls hard for Rachel and when Laban asks him what he wants for payment for working for him, Jacob says the hand of Rachel in marriage. Laban agrees to give Rachel to Jacob after Jacob has worked for seven years. The seven years go by quickly, such is Jacob’s love for Rachel. But on the morning after his wedding, he wakes up to discover that it is Leah in bed with him not Rachel. Laban says that it’s just not right to marry off the younger daughter before the older daughter. Jacob is not deterred; he really wants to marry Rachel, and so he agrees to work another seven years for Rachel. (Fortunately, he is allowed to marry her at the beginning of the seven year period.)

But it’s precisely those kind of grand gestures of romantic zeal that we think of when we talk about love. And when love is marketed to us.

But does any of that have anything to do with Christian love?


The word “love” and its variants show up 891 times in the scriptures. It seems to be a relatively significant topic. It shows up much more than peace, justice, hope, law, righteousness, and a great deal more frequently than anger, vengeance, and judgment.

And yet, one does not have to sit in church for long to have heard a sermon or a bible study tell us that there are actually three Greek words for love philia, eros, and agape. And each of them has a different meaning.

A.   Philia

The first of these, philia, is commonly understood as ‘friendship love.’ The kind of love shared with friends. In one verse in scripture, it’s even translated as “friendship.”[2]

This philia is at the heart of those words that end in –phile in English like audiophile, a devotee of sound (usually stereos), bibliophile, a lover of books, and anglophile, someone who watches Downton Abbey. And is behind words names like Phillip (lover of horses) and Philadelphia (love of brother). But as is apparent from the fact that this word lies at the root of more notorious words like necrophilia and pedophilia, it is clear that the love being referred to isn’t always admirable. In fact, the philia kind of love is generally translated as “affection” or “fondness” before it is translated as “love.” And seems to have become associated with words that suggest attachment or perhaps even unhealthy devotion to something.[3]

B.    Eros

The next word is eros, which as you might suspect lies behind the English word erotic and is generally understood to refer to romantic love. It does not appear at all in the New Testament and appears only once in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, in Proverbs 7:18, where it is translated as “lovemaking.”[4] That in and of itself speaks volumes. Because if there’s a kind of love that the Church is uncomfortable it’s the romantic, sexual kind.

The Biblical book of Song of Songs or Song of Solomon, is frequently downright erotic in its imagery and in its descriptions of the sexual love between to young people (who may or may not be married—the text is silent and they do not seem to live together). There was a lot of debate by the early rabbis and then by the church as to whether this text should even be included in the scriptures. The rabbis concluded, as did the church after them, that the descriptions in it were meant to be understood as an allegory of the love between God and Israel, or in the Christian tradition, between Christ and the Church.

Well, let’s take a look:

How graceful are your sandaled feet, willing woman! The smooth curves of your thighs— like fine jewelry, the work of an artist’s hands!   Your navel, cupped like the full moon— may it never lack spiced wine! Your belly is a mound of winnowed wheat edged with lilies.   Your two breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle doe; your neck, like a tower of ivory; your eyes, pools in Heshbon, by the gate of that lordly city. Your profile is like the tower of Lebanon, looking out toward Damascus.

Your head crowns you like Mount Carmel, and your hair, braided in royal purple— a king is bound by the tresses!
You are so beautiful, so lovely— my love, delightful one! Your stately form resembles a date palm, and your breasts are like clustered fruit.
I say, “I will climb the palm tree; I will hold its fruit!” May your breasts be now like grape clusters, and the scent of your breath like apples! (Song 7:1–8)

An allegory for the love of God for the people, you say. Really?

I was not aware that God was in the habit of complimenting the church’s breasts.

There’s a reason the church tried to allegorize this book into a theological treatise, it’s because the church was uncomfortable with what it really was—erotic Biblical love poetry. And eros is not the kind of love that the church likes to talk about.

C.   Agape

The love that the church likes to talk about is the third kind of love: agape love. This word is the more frequent term for love in the New Testament. It is generally understood as meaning a “self-sacrificial love”, a generosity, a “kindly concern.”[5] In short, it’s the charitable, giving, generous love that Jesus’ exemplifies in his living and example. The love frequently understood as “to love with the selfless, unconditional love of God.”[6]

That kind of love, the church is more than prepared to talk about and it is clear, and frequently suggested, that there is a hierarchy of loves in Christianity with agape at the top and eros at the bottom, with philia somewhere in between.


Well, with all due respect to all the church commentators who’ve ever made that point: it’s a crock. You may have noticed that in all the discussion about love, the points were around the meaning of the Greek terms that are employed to describe these concepts. Which is nice for the Greeks and all but there’s just one problem: Jesus and his disciples didn’t speak Greek in their everyday life; they spoke Aramaic, a cousin to Hebrew. Hebrew, the language of the Old Testament, in which “love” shows up 459 out of the 891 times the term is used in the Bible.

And Hebrew has only one word for love: ahavah.[7]

Which means something really important for us. It means that the love that Jacob felt for Rachel, a love that compelled him to work fourteen years as an indentured servant for her hand; the love that Jonathan, son of Saul, had for David; the love that the Beloved and the Lover of the Song of Solomon have for each other; and the love that God calls us to have for God and for one another, is all the same love.

For we love all these loves with one heart, they are all part of the same phenomenon. The church has long been uncomfortable with romantic love and part of that is the result not of just Greek words but a Greek mindset that saw the physical, material world as inferior to the spiritual world, and sex is nothing if not physical. And once Augustine linked sex to human sinfulness in the Garden of Eden, it was all over. And so, Christians have long come to see these kinds of love as separate from one another, ranked in a hierarchy where the spiritual, “divine” love outranks all the others.

But the love of friend, the love of neighbor, the love of one’s beloved, and the love of God are all loved with one heart, and that means that the love we have in each instance is linked.

For rather than look at friendship or romantic love as less than, we can look at it as yet another expression of the same love that we have for God. See, here’s the problem: when we view friendship or romantic love as somehow less than real love, we can easily trick ourselves into thinking that those kinds of relationships don’t require the same kind of attention and care that our relationship with God requires. And that’s the mistake.

Because all of our relationships should contain in them the self-sacrificial, giving love that is at the heart of the love of God for us and the love we have for one another. Our friendships should be no less driven by self-sacrifice and a willingness to embrace the other unconditionally. In the same way, our romantic relationships—even filled with passion and the excitement that causes our hearts to pump a little faster and our adrenaline to course—ought to be models of self-sacrifice and giving. In fact, when our sexuality is used in ways that are not framed by this ethic, it becomes disastrous. Romantic love that is not modeled in this way is selfish, exploitative, and uses the other for one’s pleasure. But love is about vulnerability, openness, and a willingness to bear the sufferings of the other. That’s a pattern that works across all the aspects of love that we are likely to encounter.


We talk a lot about love, but we’re fond of compartmentalizing it. Sectioning it off. Defining different kinds of love for different occasions, different levels of expectation for love depending on what “kind” of love we’re talking about and whom we’re loving.

But the prophet was right when he wrote:

One Love! One Heart!
Let’s get together and feel all right.
Hear the children cryin’ (One Love!);
Hear the children cryin’ (One Heart!),
Sayin’: give thanks and praise to the Lord and I will feel all right;
Sayin’: let’s get together and feel all right.

There is only one love and only one heart with which we love that love. Of course marketing that kind of love won’t sell as many chocolate hearts or diamond engagement rings. But, that kind of love—the love of God and one another, the love of friend, the love of the beloved—that kind of love can do something else: it can change the world.



[1] See, e.g.,

[2] “You unfaithful people! Don’t you know that friendship (philia) with the world makes you an enemy of God?” (James 4:4 CEB)

[3] This, in spite of the fact that Luke addresses his Gospel and the Book of Acts to someone named “Theophilus,” which is generally translated as “lover of God.”

[4] “Come, let’s drink deep of love (philia) until morning; let’s savor our lovemaking (eros).” (Proverbs 7:18 CEB)

[5] William D. Mounce, The Analytical Lexicon to the Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Pub. House, 1993).


[7] In the Syriac Aramaic translations of the New Testament, two terms are used rahmata and hubba, which correspond to philia and agape respectively. However, as the Syriac version is a translation from the Greek, it bears the imprint of the Greek mindset (for example, it uses evangelion for ‘Gospel’ rather than the Aramaic/Hebrew term b’sorah) and cannot be thought of as a native Aramaic text.

[8] Bob Marley, One Love (Let’s Get Together).

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