The Love of David and Jonathan
December 15, 2006
I’ve been working on a paper in my Bible class for several weeks on the Old Testament story of King David and Jonathan.
It was an easy choice for me, since scholars have long debated whether or not David and Jonathan were involved in a gay relationship or not.
The passages in this text are lovely. For example, when the couple meets, the text says, “the soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul” (1 Sam 18:1). There are many other examples.
If you aren’t familiar with the story, you can read all of the relevant passages here. Some of it may not make sense, because the story covers the last half of 1 Samuel and the first part of 2 Samuel and I have only included the passages relating to Jonathan, but I think you can get the basic storyline. It is also repeated in a synopsis below.
I am copying the text of my paper below as well. It is a seminary paper– not a sermon– so it may not be completely readable to a lay audience. Maybe someday I will have the time to rewrite it. I thought since I have done the work that it wouldn’t hurt anything to throw it up here, so feel free to ask any questions that it raises for you or make any comments. It references and presupposes that you have read several other scholarly works on our couple, so just follow along as best you can…
Oh yes, one last thing… I retain all copyright privileges on the content (as I do with everything on the blog). Thanks!
David and Jonathan: Interpretations of a Cryptic Relationship
We know that the Bible rarely presents a clear and precise picture of life in antiquity when we look at it with an historical hermeneutic. The nuances, the innuendo, the possible intentions and motivations of the authors and the sociological and anthropological context of the times seem to morph the words right in front of our eyes. Add to that historical hermeneutic a current experience of living life as a gay person in modernity or post-modernity, and the picture becomes even more complicated– particularly when examining a story like that of David and Jonathan. When we look at what the deuteronomistic historian has given us in this story, we find that we have a broad lens through which we can view David and Jonathan, because applying a gay and historical hermeneutic simultaneously yields a rich, wide, and ultimately inconclusive picture of this couple.
Beginning with the text itself, we find David and Jonathan to be loyal and trusted friends because the author clearly values loyalty and covenant. The first mention of the relationship is in 1 Sam 18, when David returns from battle with Goliath to meet Jonathan, and after reporting the events to King Saul, “the soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul” (1 Sam 18:1). Saul does not approve of the relationship, and expels David from his house. Jonathan continues to deepen the relationship by entering a covenant with him—a covenant that will be renewed several times over the course of the story. He also gives David his royal accoutrements: his royal robe, clothes, and weapons; an unprecedented act for a royal heir, and a tremendous sign of loyalty to David. David continues to become a mighty warrior, and when we next hear of Jonathan, he is commiserating with David—giving David news about his father’s intentions to kill him. Jonathan, because he takes “great delight” (1 Sam 19:1) in David, even intercedes with Saul on David’s behalf after asking David to hide, working to calm Saul’s anger and jealousy at David so that Saul will stop trying to kill him. Jonathan reunites the two, but the peace does not last long.
The next interlude between Jonathan and David receives a whole chapter of attention from the author (1 Sam 20). David is once again fleeing from Saul, and comes to Jonathan in distress to find out why he is being pursued. We once again see the value of loyalty: David asks Jonathan what his crimes are, which should be translated, according to Cohen-Tagar, more properly as what his ‘treason against the king’ is (Cohen-Tagar, p. 253). David reminds Jonathan of his loyalty, “You have taken your servant into a covenant of the Lord with you. And if I am guilty, kill me yourself” (1 Sam 20:8, as quoted by Cohen-Tagar, p.253).
Jonathan comes up with an elaborate plan to discover his father’s intentions, and devises a scheme to communicate with David the outcome of his plan to try and calm his father down again. The meeting with Saul goes poorly, as Saul sees Jonathan’s question as a breach of loyalty on Jonathan’s part (Cohen-Tagar, p. 254). DtrH reminds us in some detail of the covenant between the two of the men again as Jonathan asks David to ensure that if he dies his descendants will never be severed from the house of David. Clearly covenant is important, by the attention it is given in the text (this is the third mention of covenant in this story) and by the narrative importance of covenant, as we will see with the reference to this covenant with Jonathan’s son, later. He then “made David swear again by his love for him; for he loved him as he loved his own life” (1 Sam 20:17). Loyalty to one another is a key component of Jonathan’s willingness to perform this plan; Jonathan believes that David will be king—he wants David’s loyalty to his ancestors since he knows that under normal circumstances David must kill all other suitors to the throne. Jonathan’s plan with Saul is not successful, and after Jonathan informs David as such the men kiss each other, weep with each other, and go their separate ways.
David and Jonathan only meet once more in the text. In the wilderness of Ziph at Horesh, Jonathan comes to see David. The sentimentality of previous meetings is missing in this passage; the two important events are the renewal of their covenant and Jonathan telling David that he will be king (1 Sam 23:16-18).
The final two passages relating to Jonathan in the Davidic texts are after Jonathan is dead. David gives an emotional response to the death of Saul and Jonathan, followed by a touching lament. Of Jonathan, he says, “your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women” (2 Sam 1:26). It may be interesting to note that this is the only place where the text mentions David’s love of Jonathan; all other references have been of Jonathan’s love for David.
The last relevant text shows us how David honors his covenant with Jonathan. In 2 Sam 9, Jonathan’s son Merib-baal is called to court to talk to David. David allows him to retain Saul’s property, honoring the covenant with Jonathan, and ending Jonathan’s part as such in the story.
On the surface, it is true that the text does not explicitly say “David and Jonathan had a physical relationship.” Of course Biblical text does not always use explicit language to tell us what is happening, sometimes especially with sexual relations. In this case we see that the men kiss, they love each other very much—more than the love of women, and Jonathan is willing to forgo his father and his father’s wrath in order to participate in the relationship. But Taggar-Cohen and other experts believe that “love” in the sense of the word used in the original language is meant to be more of a legal term of loyalty between two parties in a covenant, and to imply more than that would be a translation error (Taggar-Cohen, p. 258). Clearly that is an over-application of Taggar-Cohen’s work in Hittite and other near and middle Eastern literature, as it is difficult to imagine the word “love” as a legalistic term when David uses it in his lament in 2 Sam 1:26: “your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.” Women did not have legal rights as such, so to use the term in Taggar-Cohen’s sense is anachronistic and clearly sheds light on the fact that love actually means what we imagine it to be: love. The two men shared a close relationship and David mourns it.
Moving behind the text, we can see a different picture of David’s relationship with Jonathan emerge because David can be seen as calculating and manipulative. We can look either at the story as an apology (McCarter), or as a more subtle and textured picture of David (Bosworth), with elements of both apology and piety. Either way, it is clear that David is not the wonderful and innocent ruler that the later historians remember him to be (all later kings are compared to him as the model ruler). In order to come to the throne, David has weaved his way through a complex political situation, and has (conveniently) risen to power as the result of the timely deaths of many important and influential figures. Perhaps he is lucky, blessed; or perhaps he is calculating and manipulative. It is important to note that one does not have to buy into the complete apologetic view of McCarter in order to see David as opportunistic and manipulative.
If David is manipulative, then we may be able to make further deductions about his relationship with Jonathan. The text of 1 Samuel gives no indication of David’s feelings towards Jonathan. Jonathan professes his feelings towards David many times, but David does not return the sentiment unless Jonathan prompts him to do so. A gay historical hermeneutic makes one continually aware of this fact; this is not the story of a mutual beneficial, equal, relationship. David appears to be getting far more out of it than Jonathan does. There are two possible explanations: 1) Jonathan expects David to be king, and is vying for power after the transition; or 2) Jonathan loves David (in a romantic sense), and David is capitalizing on Jonathan’s affection in order to move his own agenda forward.
The text makes some reference to Jonathan’s expectation that David will be king about halfway through the story (1 Sam 23:17), as well as the initial transition of the monarchial symbols to David early on. It is not, however, until after Jonathan has professed his affection, friendship, and love for David repeatedly and after Jonathan has put his own relationship with his father, Saul, on the line for David that he comes to this explicit understanding. Is Jonathan reading the writing on the wall and trying to save his own skin by throwing himself at David (is David “coming on” to Jonathan, and Jonathan hoping to capitalize on that opportunity to save himself from potential annihilation by the potential future king)? Or, has Jonathan fallen for David and allowed David to take advantage of him?
Steussy makes explicit reference to David’s manipulation of Jonathan’s affection: when David asks Jonathan (in what I imagine to be a seemingly innocent and very manipulative voice) what he has done to cause such offense to give rise to Saul’s vociferous response. Steussy says: “David has accepted the heir apparent’s robe and sword, married into the royal family, developed popular support (including particularly the army), and publicly flaunted his relationship with the kingmaker Samuel, who declared Saul’s downfall” (p. 71). David may only be hinting at his intentions, but his actions are speaking loudly towards the throne (p. 71). It is no stretch to imagine that Jonathan was only one more stepping stone on his rise to the monarchy.
The nature of the relationship as what we would consider a “gay” relationship seems obvious. While we have dedicated a lot of time talking about the importance of loyalty in pre-exilic
Israel, Jonathan has demonstrated a breach of loyalty to his family (Saul), indeed to his tribe. Saul even throws a spear at Jonathan when he finds out of his disloyalty (1 Sam 20:33). What motivation does Jonathan have for breaking the allegiance of his father, the Lord’s anointed, the sovereign of the land, and the tribe of Benjamin? He is in love. He desires David.
In Jonathan Loved David, Tom Horner normalizes homosexuality in Biblical times into three categories: male temple prostitution, heroic male love, and sexual gratification between otherwise “straight” males (p. 21-23). He also believes that our understanding of homosexuality in Biblical times is challenged by “fifteen-hundred years of homophobia in western culture… to say the least” (p.36). If Horner is correct, then, it is not unreasonable to believe that Jonathan may have believed that he was pursuing love of the “heroic” kind while David was simply submitting to sexual gratification to pursue his own ends. Horner, however, finds David’s elegy of Jonathan and Saul in 2 Samuel to be a justification of David’s affection for Jonathan. I believe, however, that it is instead a proper ending for the story, where David may truly lament the end of the relationship—a relationship he did not begin nor sustain with the same zeal as Jonathan, but one which he may have nonetheless truly lamented once it was over. After all, David need not have been a heartless character, even if he was capable of manipulation. Of course, if he was as scheming as this picture leads us to believe we cannot know whether he kept his word to Jonathan by bring Meribaal to court to fulfill his covenant to Jonathan or if he wanted to keep his word to Jonathan by honoring Jonathan’s son to the best of his abilities. At any rate, we certainly see in this picture that applying a gay and historical hermeneutic yields a very deep picture, and one very different than a surface reading of the text.
Moving in front of the text, we can see a loving, tender relationship in David and Jonathan because we have the freedom to let it speak to us as the Spirit allows. Certainly the text does not yield anything to contraindicate a physical, loving, and compassionate relationship between the two men. At the least it is ambiguous; at most it is a passionate love story. The language is distinctive for Biblical texts in this manner, as we are not accustomed to seeing this kind of language used between men at all. It can safely, then, be used to mean something romantic; something special. Critics have tried to justify the linguistic use of the word “love” as something clinical and less than romantic; another word for “covenant;” we have already seen how that is not applicable. The modern homophobia that keeps some people from seeing David and Jonathan as a love story is the same reason we must see it as such: ultimately gays and lesbians need this story to be a love story because we need role models in the text. David’s display at Jonathan’s death- the use of “your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women” (2 Sam 1:26) is a great role model for a gay relationship when a gay man cannot relate to relationships with women; when it feels unnatural to be with a woman as it must feel for a straight man to be with a man.
The use of such imagery is important not only for gay men and lesbians so that they can learn to understand that the Bible contains stories useful for their pursuit of their spiritual journey (since the Bible has nearly exclusively been used for condemnation of our lives as creations of God), but also for teaching of the inclusiveness of God’s creation to all people so that minds can be opened and all peoples’ journey’s can be furthered. If David could be part of a gay partnership where love ran so deep and God loved David so much that David became the standard by which all other kings would be judged, then surely modern audiences can learn to accept gays and lesbians in today’s society—in fact all marginalized can come to understand the full and inclusive nature of God’s love, as many other Biblical stories teach us. Perhaps the hardest audience to sell this story to is gays and lesbians themselves—growing up gay or lesbian in a hetero-normative world requires us to fully accept God’s love in order to fully embrace who God created us to be; in that process of walking with integrity it is helpful to have a strong character who can proudly proclaim his love for the other in this day when voices would try and stamp out our identity. David and Jonathan’s story certainly offers that voice, and contains such a deep message that we can learn much more along the way as we go.
Bosworth, David A. “Evaluating King David: Old Problems and Recent Scholarship.” Catholic Biblical Quarterly. 68 (2006), p. 191-210 (Class Reader, p. 307-318).
Horner, Tom. Jonathan Loved David: Homosexuality in Biblical Times. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1978.
McCarter, P. Kyle. “The Apology of David.” Journal of Biblical Literature. Vol. 99, No. 4 (Dec., 1980), p. 489-504 (Class Reader, p. 291-306).
Steussy, Marti J. David: Biblical Portraits of Power. Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1999.
Taggar-Cohen, Ada. “Political loyalty in the biblical account of 1 Samuel XX-XXII in light of Hittite texts.” Vetus testamentum. 55 no 2 2005, p. 251 – 268.