A Closer Look at David’s Lament, Part 1
By Bruce L. Gerig

The overall poem – David’s lament in 2 Sam 1:19-27 is prefaced by a short introduction (1:17-18), which begins (NJB), “David sang [qin] the following lament [qina] over Saul and his son Jonathan…” Because of the common root [qn] here, the King James Version simply rendered this as, “And David lamented with this lamentation…” The Hebrew qin (Strong, #6969) means “to chant or wail” (with the underlying idea of striking a musical note) as at a funeral. Likewise, qina (#7015) refers to a “dirge or lamentation” which might involve beating on one’s breasts or on instruments.1 Eileen DeWard (1972) defined the qina as “a formal utterance which expresses grief or distress”2 – and it could express great “directness, passion and innocence,” as is seen here in David’s lament, who had lived with Saul and had “loved Jonathan so deeply.”3 Sometimes laments began with the word “How…” (cf. Jer 9:19, 48:14; Lam 1:1, 2:2, 4:1; Ezek 26:17), at first bemoaning the present despair, then moving on to contrast that with the glory of the past4 – although the word “how” appears in the second line of the first verse in David’s eulogy (2 Sam 1:19b). The qina utilized a particular rhythm, in which the first line predominated, followed by a pause; and then the second statement was chanted with a tapering-off effect, echoing the first and giving the whole a plaintive lilt.5 Interestingly, then, the most revealing part of David’s statement to Jonathan (1:26b-c) would probably have been sung on the backswing; and so it might even have been missed by some of its first hearers. However, it was not unusual in mourning to address the departed directly (cf. 2 Sam 3:34, 18:33, 19:4), as seen here in David’s words directed to Jonathan (1:26).6 Also, as S.R. Driver pointed out, “no religious thought of any kind appears in the poem: the feeling expressed by it is purely human.”7 Perhaps when one has lost someone so dear, there is always some resentment felt toward God for his not having prevented the tragedy; or perhaps David is simply consumed with his sense of loss. In any case, he must get through the official duties of mourning the passing of Israel’s first monarch, while at the same dealing with his own pain over Jonathan’s death.

This lament is “a masterpiece of early Hebrew poetry,” noted Stanley Gevirtz (1963).8 Robert Gehrke (1968) wrote that it “has rightly been considered one of the finest pieces of literature of all time.”9 Walter Brueggemann (1990) described it as “powerful, passionate poetry…”10 Yet, J.P. Fokkelman (1986) wrote that the lament “is a rich and complex work of art, the interpretation of which demands patience, artistic insight, and subtlety.”11 Figures of speech in it include the: apostrophe (turning aside to address someone as if he or she is there), as in David’s command given to the imaginary Philistine messengers (1:20) and in his words addressed to Jonathan (1:26); personification (representing some thing or idea as a person), as in David’s speaking to the Gilboan mountain range as if it has ears (1:2); merismus (mentioning the extremes of something to express a totality), as in “no dew or rain” (1:21), meaning that all moisture was banned from Mount Gilboa, site of the royal deaths; metaphor (an implied comparison using the verb “is,” and not “like” or “as”), as in David’s saying that Saul and Jonathan “were swifter than eagles [and] stronger than lions” (1:23); and synecdoche (pronounced si-NECK-de-key, where a part stands for the whole of something), as in the references to Saul’s “shield” (1:21) and the “weapons of war” (1:27), which stand, respectively, for the fallen king and for the royal pair (and perhaps, in a wider sense, for all those who had sacrificed their lives).12 Sometimes the language contains poetic hyperbole (exaggeration for effect), as in David’s praising the unity of King Saul and Prince Jonathan (1:23); although this hyperbole is not dishonest,13 it surely relies on selective memory. However, one cannot diminish David’s words expressing the love between himself and Jonathan by simply calling this a “hyperbole.” Since such exaggeration would only serve to put David in a vulnerable position, his words here can only be viewed as an honest expression that escaped from the depths of his heart. Hebrew poetry is not marked by rhyme or rhythm, but primarily by parallelism, a literary form which uses couplets or triads of thought and in which the follow-up line (or lines) defines, expands, intensifies, or contrasts with what was expressed in the first line.14 In “synonymous parallelism,” the most common form, the following line restates the first line but in different words, as can be seen in: “Your glory, O Israel, lies slain upon your high places! / How the mighty have fallen!” (1:19. NRSV) Such a repetition strengthens, heightens and empowers both parts.15 However, in “synthetic parallelism,” the thought of the first line advances to a new thought, as in: “I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; / greatly beloved were you to me; / your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women” (1:26, NRSV).16 Here David moves from an expression of his grief, to explain what he has lost (Jonathan and his love…) and then the immensity of that loss (…which surpassed all heterosexual love).

Frank Cross and David Freedman divided the poem into six main strophes, or stanzas (v. 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 26), excluding the beginning and twice-repeated refrain (v. 19, 25, 27).17 Yet J.P. Fokkelman notes that the poem’s structure is so varied that practically every interpreter divides it differently.18 We follow the lead of Cross and Freedman, except that we count the refrains with the stanzas, totaling nine stanzas, which appear verse by verse in 2 Sam 1:19-27 in the English translations. In stanza 1 (v. 19), David begins with the poetic, if ambiguous, “Your glory [hassebi], O Israel, lies slain upon your high places! / How the mighty have fallen!” (NRSV). Other translations have rendered hassebi as “beauty” (KJV), “splendour” (NJB), and “Gazelles” (Peterson). Since hassebi may be read as a singular or collective noun, this also adds to its ambiguity.19 However, the first clue as to its reference comes from the poem’s introduction (v. 17-18), which informs us that David sang this lament “over [the loss of] Saul and his son Jonathan.” In fact, Saul and Jonathan are both mentioned four times by name in the lament. Although this might seem to exclude the other brave Israelite soldiers who sacrificed their lives for their country in Saul’s final battle, the vague wording here artfully leaves the door open for hearers to mourn the loss of any close, beloved relatives and friends, who were also lost in the fighting.20

In stanza 2 (v. 20), David expresses the deep resentment that all Israelites felt toward the Philistines.21 Gath is located on the eastern edge of Philistia, near Judah, and Ashkelon lies to the west, on the Mediterranean coast; so these two cities stood for the whole of Philistia.22 The rejoicing Philistine women illustrate the ancient custom of the womenfolk coming out to celebrate military victories;23 and one can recall how the Israelite women, after David killed Goliath and Saul’s army routed the Philistines, also ran out of “the towns of Israel, singing and dancing, to meet King Saul, with tambourines, with songs of joy, and with musical instruments” (1 Sam 18:6-7). In stanza 3 (v. 21), David now curses the ill-fated place of slaughter, that it might be condemned to everlasting barrenness.24 The mountain is now held accountable for the deaths there, and it has become defiled.25 The Gilboan slopes, generally quite steep, descend gradually on the western side as fertile terrain, where barley, wheat, figs and olives were grown; and surely it is this area that David had in mind in this curse.26 Saul’s shield, known to be particularly large, now lies useless on the ground, without its customary care (oiling).27

In stanza 4 (v. 22), the mention of “blood” and “fat” along with “bow” and “sword” carry us vividly into the clash of battle, where we see the sword spilling blood and the arrow spitting into fat (flesh); yet the king and his son did not draw back in the face of brutal conflict.28 Although Saul and Jonathan finally lost their lives, they faced their enemies and inflicted heavy casualties.29 Elsewhere “blood” and “fat” are spoken of in the OT in connection with sacrifices made in the tabernacle (cf. Lev 4:2-10; Isa 1:11); so perhaps there is an allusion here to the heroes laying down their lives as a sacrifice to the Lord.30 In stanza 5 (v. 23), the poet backs off from the sounds of battle to envision Saul and Jonathan in better days, before Saul’s paranoia, when the king and his son were treasured in Israel, attractive in appearance and united in battle against Israel’s enemies. Together they could outfly eagles and outmuscle lions!31 Of course, the speed of eagles and the strength of lions were legendary.32 David laments the loss of Saul and Jonathan “with a proud sadness” as befits mighty warriors,33 even though their relationship at times was a highly strained one.34

In stanza 6 (v. 24), David calls for the “daughters [women] of Israel” to come out and grieve; yet more specifically this is directed to the rich, affluent, and well-off ladies in Israel, who thought themselves immune from trouble but who now are to exchange their luxurious robes for mourning garments.35 They are to join the crowds in the streets in national weeping – especially since Saul had lavished on them fine clothes, expensive jewelry, and other spoils of war.36 Still, as Barbara Green notes, this calling on the women to praise Saul for economic reasons has a very odd ring to it, like a “damning with faint praise.” Indeed, upon closer inspection, David’s ‘praise’ of Saul seems “provocatively shallow and implicitly critical.”37 In stanza 7 (v. 25), we come to a fake or false coda (ending), where David seems ready to close his lament – but then he continues on, to mourn the loss of Jonathan. Might it even be that he expressed intimate feelings here that perhaps beforehand he was not sure whether or not he would include in his eulogy – although in the end he did and they became the climax of his lament? “How the mighty are fallen!” taken from 1:19 now “punctuates the lament with a repeated cry of grief…”38 Also, 1:25 marks the division of the poem into its two main, if unequal, parts, as David now turns his full attention to Jonathan.

In stanza 8 (v. 26), David reveals his deep anguish over the loss of his companion, then expresses his gratitude for the experience of Jonathan’s love.39 There is a “burst of grief at the recollection of what Jonathan’s friendship had been.”40 His words speak of “utter loss”41 and he is “utterly naked in his grief” and does not hesitate to express it or to embrace all of his loss and hurt. (We could all learn from David, indeed, how to deal with grief.)42 The root pala (“be wonderful”) is “particularly beautiful here,” as it is applied to Jonathan’s love for David.43 Then, finally, in stanza 9 (v. 27), the lament closes with a repeat of the “how” refrain one last time. Here “weapons of war” could refer to actual weapons,44 although more likely they recall the fallen Saul and Jonathan.45

David’s tender words to Jonathan – In 2 Sam 1:26, David sings to Jonathan, almost as if they were in private (NRSV): “I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; / greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.” The Good News Bible (1983) reads, “I grieve for you, my brother Jonathan; / how dear you were to me! / How wonderful was your love for me, / better even than the love of women.” Ronald Knox (1948) rendered this verse from the Latin Vulgate as, “Shall I not mourn for thee, Jonathan my brother, so beautiful, so well beloved, beyond all love of women?” Then he adds: “Never woman loved her only son, as I thee.” – which he notes in a footnote is not in the ancient Hebrew or Greek but comes from an addition tacked onto the verse in the Latin Vulgate translation (c. 400 A.D.). The Jerusalem Bible (1966), tying v. 26 to v. 25 reads, “O Jonathan in your death I am stricken, / I am desolate for you, Jonathan my brother. / Very dear to me you were, / your love to me more wonderful / than the love of a woman.” Because of the difficult Hebrew grammar here, Michael O’Connor (1980) prefers dividing the text up into short sentences: “It is hard for me because of you, my Brother Jonathan. My Brother Jonathan, you were very good for me. You were a wonder. Your love was mine. What is the love of women?”46 The New American Bible (1995) reads, “I grieve for you, Jonathan my brother! / most dear have you been to me; / More precious have I held love for you / than love for women.” Now, each of the three main lines in this verse deserves closer attention:

“I am distressed for you, my brother” (1:26a) – The first clause usually has been translated as: “I am distressed [sarar] for you, my brother [ak] Jonathan” (cf. KJV 1611; Lamsa 1933; RSV 1946; NASB 1960; RSV2 1972; cf. J. Green 1986; NKJV 1982; cf. Shea 1986, p. 19; NRSV 1989; B. Green 2003, p. 443). Other renderings of the first part include: “I grieve for you…” (NEB 1970; cf. Ackroyd 1977, p. 24; NIV 1978; Freedman 1980, p. 265; GNB 1983; McCarter 1984, p. 67; Elman 1994, p. 286; NAB 1995), “How I weep for you…” (LB 1976), “I am heartbroken over you…” (Anderson 1989, p. 12), “I am desolate for you…” (NJB 1998), “I am in pain because of you…” (Schroer & Staubli 2000, p. 30), and “…I’m crushed by your death” (Peterson 2002). A poor translation of this verse is, “Jonathan, I miss you the most!” / I loved you like a brother” in the CEV (1995), which weakens the force of sarar (“I am distressed”), as well as of “my brother” by rendering it as “like a brother.”

In “I am distressed,” the verb sarar (#6887) conveys ideas of “being bound or tied up, cramped, in straits, or distressed.”47 In the book of Lamentations, the prophet weeps for Jerusalem, his city laid waste, with many inhabitants led away into captivity; and he cries out, “See, O Lord, how distressed I am [#6887]; my stomach churns, my heart is wrung within me…” (Lam 1:20a, NRSV). The word is given a sexual meaning in the story of Amnon, David’s son, who fell so madly in love with his stepsister Tamar that he was “distressed” (KJV: “vexed,” NRSV: “tormented”) that he could not sleep with her – until his friend Jonadab came up with a diabolic plan (2 Sam 13:1-2ff). Actually the recording of words of deep loss and inner emotion over a departed loved one is rather rare in the OT record, although another wrenching lament is found in David’s cry over the death of his beloved and beautiful, if rebellious, son Absalom: “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!” (2 Sam 18:33b, NRSV; in some translations in 19:1b, cf. NJB). As Samuel Terrien (1985) notes relating to 1:26, one sees here the “all-shattering quality” of David’s pain, which stems from the “all-embracing character” and the “depth” of his love for Jonathan.48 Peter Abelard, a 12th century French theologian, better known for his heterosexual interests, also wrote perceptively about love between men, including these words about David’s love for Jonathan: “More than a brother to me, Jonathan, / One in soul with me … / How gladly would I die / And be buried with you! … / And since to live after you / is to die forever: / Half a soul / Is not enough for life. … / I can still my lute, / but not my sobs and tears…”49

In “my brother Jonathan,” the word ak (“brother,” #251) is applied in the OT to a wide range of both blood relationships (such as with a brother, nephew, or member of the same tribe or people) and non-blood relationships (such as with a close friend, ally, or another of equal rank).50 John Boswell (1994) believed it was significant that here in 1:26 David refers to Jonathan not as “like a brother” or “more than a brother” but as “my brother,” 51 the last implying a closer union. Othmar Keel (1986) noted that in Egyptian love lyrics (as well as in Israel) lovers often referred to one another as “brother” and “sister,” expressing a relatedness and belonging.52 In fact, eroticized uses of the terms “brother” and “sister” occur repeatedly in the Song of Songs (4:9,10,12; 5:1,2; 8:1), as well as in the Apocrypha (Tobit 5:21, 7:11,15; 8:4; Additions to Esther D:9), and in the Dead Sea Scrolls (1QapGen, col. ii).53 For example, in the Song of Songs one reads: “You have ravished my heart, my sister, my bride, you have ravished my heart with a glance of your eyes” (4:9). Then these words are spoken to the male sweetheart: “O that you were like a brother to me, who nursed at my mothers’ breast! If I met you outside, I would kiss you…” (8:1, both NRSV). When Raguel gives Sarah to Tobit as his wife, he declares, “[F]rom now on you are her brother and she is your sister” (Tobit 7:11). Susan Ackerman notes that from such references as these, even though they are heterosexual, the ancient Hebrew audience might possibly have perceived erotic overtones in David’s use of the term “brother” in referring to Jonathan in this lament. King Hiram of Tyre also calls David “my brother” (1 Kings 9:13), as his ally; but this involves an entirely different context and carries an entirely different meaning, especially since Jonathan’s love in 1:26 is compared to that of a woman.54

“[G]reatly beloved were you to me” (1:26b) – The second clause in this stanza has been variously translated as: “[Y]ou were very [me‘od] dear [na‘im] to me” (Lamsa 1933; cf. JB 1966; NIV 1978; cf. McCarter 1984, p. 67; cf. REB 1989; cf. NAB 1995; cf. NJB 1998), “very pleasant have you been to me” (cf. KJV 1611; RSV 1946; cf. NASB 1960; RSV2 1972; cf. J. Green 1986; cf. NKJV 1982), “greatly beloved were you to me” (NRSV 1989; B. Green 2003, p. 443), “dear and delightful you were to me” (NEB 1970; Ackroyd 1977, p. 24), “How much I loved you!” (LB 1976), “You delighted me greatly” (Freedman 1980, p. 265), “you were beautiful to me, exceedingly so” (Shea 1986, p. 19), “you pleased me greatly” (Elman 1994, p. 286), and “you were a great delight to me” (Schroer & Staubli 2000, p. 30). Some examples of bad translation include, “Jonathan, you have been exceedingly gracious to me” by A.A. Anderson (1989, p. 12), which waters down the Hebrew. “I loved you / like a brother” in the CEV (1995) also weakens the original. “Your friendship was a miracle-worker” in Peterson (2002) is misleading, since “friendship” whitewashes the Hebrew and the inclusion of “miracle-worker” also has no linguistic basis. Rather, the intensive me‘od (#3966) in the verse, meaning “wholly, exceedingly, very much so” adds greater intensity to David’s feelings.

The Hebrew verb na‘im (#5276) means “to be agreeable, surpassing in beauty, delightful, pleasant, sweet,” according to Strong’s lexicon.55 James Dennison notes that overall this word refers to “an affection of the ‘inmost heart’ … in which one finds pleasure, i.e. the object of one’s love.”56 Brown’s lexicon notes that it can refer to physical beauty, and so erotic delight.57 For example, in the Song of Songs, the king says to his beloved, “How pretty you are, how beautiful [#5276], how complete the delights of your love. You are as graceful as a palm tree and your breasts are clusters of dates. I will climb the palm tree and pick its fruit.” (Song 7:6-8, GNB). His beloved also says, “How handsome you are, my dearest, how you delight [na‘iym, #5273] me. The grass will be our bed…” (Song 1:16, GNB). Na‘iym (#5273) is derived from and is similar to na‘im (#5276) in meaning.58 In both of these references, na‘im/na‘yim refer to physical beauty and erotic attraction. Marvin Pope notes that n‘m is used in Ugaritic to refer to male beauty and charm, as well as female, e.g. King Keret is called n‘mn glm il (“handsome lad of El”) and the goddess Anat addressed the young hero Aqhat as n‘mn ‘mq nsm (“handsome, strongest of men”).59

Earlier in the lament David called both Saul and Jonathan “beloved [#157] and lovely [#5273]” (1:23). Rulers in the ancient Near East were often characterized as being very handsome;60 yet Saul’s good looks are especially noted elsewhere before he was chosen to be king (1 Sam 9:2), and one might assume that Jonathan inherited this trait. Still, the words take on more powerful and deeper meaning in 1:26, where Jonathan’s attractiveness and love for David become the focus. Although no words of love for Jonathan were earlier recorded from David’s mouth, their parting (1 Sam 20:41) does stress the depth of David’s love for Jonathan.61 Danna Fewell and David Gunn note of David in 1:26, however, that now, “Very precisely he speaks of how extremely lovely Jonathan was to him… So David perceived Jonathan as lovely?” As beautiful?! “[I]t is David who has been the object of everyone’s gaze up to this point.”62 Now, however, in his grieving, David openly expresses his intense feelings for Jonathan.

“[Y]our love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women” (1:26c) – The third and last clause in this stanza has frequently been translated as “your love [ahaba, #160] to me was wonderful [pala], passing the love [ahaba] of women” (cf. KJV 1611; Lamsa 1933; RSV 1946; RSV2 1972; NRSV 1989; B. Green 2003, p. 443) – with some translations substituting “surpassing” for “passing” (NEB 1970; cf. Ackroyd 1977, p. 24; NKJV 1982; Anderson 1989, p. 12; REB 1989). Another common translation is, “Your love to me was more wonderful / Than the love of women” (NASB 1960; JB 1966; cf. J. Green 1986; cf. NIV 1978; cf. McCarter 1984, p. 67; cf. Shea 1986, p. 19; Elman 1994, p. 286; cf. NJB 1998; cf. Schroer & Straubi 2000, p. 30). Other renderings include: “And your love for me was deeper / Than the love of women!” (LB 1976), and “More precious have I held love for you / than love for women” (NAB 1995). Some examples of bad translation include, “You were truly loyal to me, / more faithful than a wife to her husband” in the CEV (1995), which removes the two words for love in the Hebrew here – translated as “beloved” and “your love” in the NRSV – and substitutes instead “loyal” and “faithful,” which not only strip the verse of any romantic and erotic love but give it a false and biased cast. Also, “[L]ove far exceeding anything I’ve known – or ever hope to know” in Peterson (2002) muddies the verse, by taking out the comparison of the love between two men to the love between a man and woman, distorting the Hebrew. In contrast, one ancient Septuagint manuscript (LXXL) translates this part as “Your love fell upon me like the love of women”63 – which has a little different, beautiful sound to it. Clearly there is more said here than ultraconservative interpreters would like to acknowledge.

The Hebrew verb pala (#6381), coming from a root meaning “distinguished,” refers to someone or something that is “great, wonderful, or marvelous (Strong’s lexicon).”64 Brown’s lexicon notes that it means “to be surpassing or extraordinary” – and the root pl is sometimes used to describe miracles,65 e.g. David declares in Ps 9:1 (NRSV), “I will tell of all your [God’s] wonderful deeds [nipla’oth].”66 One has to wonder whether David did not often feel that Jonathan’s love, passion and care for him was exactly that, a miracle sent by God. Relating to 2 Sam 1:26, David Freedman (1980) reads the unusual Hebrew here, npl’th (NRSV: “[your love] was wonderful”), as nipla’ ‘attah, translating it as, “You were extraordinary. / Loving you, for me, was better than loving women [italics added].”67

Varying interpretations on 2 Sam 1:26 – An historical survey of interpretation on this key verse over the past century and a half reveals five important strands of thought: (1) No doubt uneasy with this verse and what it might imply, some interpreters have stressed purity in the friendship, or that it was simply a (nonsexual) friendship or brotherhood. H.P. Smith (1899) noted on David’s part “a burst of grief at the recollection of what Jonathan’s friendship had been [italics added].”68 S.R. Driver (1913) spoke of David’s “deep and pure affection for Jonathan [italics added].”69 C.F. Keil and F. Delitzsch (1950) wrote of David’s song as “full of lofty sentiment and springing from deep and sanctified emotion” and of his words to Jonathan, that, “Comparison to the love of woman is expressive of the deepest earnestness of devoted love [italics added, in both cases].”70 William McKane (1963) notes a “a special tenderness” here, “for David had been joined to him [the prince] in a brotherhood closer than that of blood and had been saved by him at a time when there was but a step between him and death.”71 Gnana Robinson (1993) wrote in summary, “The friendship-love between Jonathan and David has become an example for all time of all true friendship relationships.”72

(2) Following William Moran’s influential article (1963),73 many began interpreting “love” in the Jonathan and David story as specially inferring political significance. Although this interpretation was usually applied to earlier passages, such as 1 Sam 18:1-4, the idea was carried over to David’s lament by Peter Ackroyd (1977), who sought to impose a political significance here by suggesting that although any reference to David as Jonathan’s true successor is lacking, the poem does provide “a preface to the establishment of David’s kingship in 2 Sam 2:1-4a.”74 Kyle McCarter (1984) wrote that Jonathan’s love for David overall is charged with “political overtones,” although “as the present passage [1:26] illustrates well, there was also warm personal intimacy in the relationship between the two men.” 75 Ronald Youngblood (1992) writes that David’s words in 1:26 should not “perversely” be understood in a homosexual sense, but rather they refer only to “covenantal/political loyalty.” He then goes on to say, however, in a somewhat contradictory way, that “loved [NRSV: ‘beloved’]” here speaks of “physical attraction, a trait that [Jonathan] shared with David himself…”76

(3) Others stress the intensity of the love here, but without going into what this might imply. A.F. Kirkpatrick (1930) wrote simply that “The climax of the elegy is reached in vv. 25b, 26, where David’s love for Jonathan finds its most touching expression…”77 J.P. Fokkelman (1986) notes how David’s tone in 1:26 becomes direct and warm, with words like “loved” and “dear.” These emotionally charged words express a dynamic I-you relationship which will contest even death itself. “There is no doubt about David’s love for Jonathan,” but David will only speak here of the “radiance, warmth and love he received.” Jonathan’s “ardour” (passion) was even greater than the love of women, that standard which so many (heterosexual) men consider the highest form of beauty and ecstasy in their lives.78 Walter Brueggemann (1990) says, “The words cannot say all that needs to be said” for Jonathan’s love “has been deeper and more precious than that of a wife.” David speaks of Jonathan’s physical attractiveness (KJV: “pleasant”) and of the elemental devotion they shared (KJV: “lovely”) – and together these words articulate “a peculiar and precious bonding with David.” David is uninhibited about his friendship, which is “not simply political usefulness.”79

(4) Some interpreters argue that 2 Sam 1:26 does not say for sure that David loved Jonathan. Cheryl Exum (1993) states that “Nowhere is it unambiguously stated that David loved Jonathan, whereas it is frequently mentioned that Jonathan loved David. In David’s lament over Jonathan, it is not entirely clear who loved whom.” However, she notes that Frank Cross and David Freedman (1975) would disagree, translating the third part of 1:26 as “To love thee was for me [David] / better than the love of women.”80 Danna Fewell and David Gunn (1993) also make the statement that “nowhere unambiguously is David ever said to love anyone” of his partners; still, they hold that “a homosexual reading … finds many anchor points in the [larger] text.”81 David Jobling (1998) also says “there are no words (or at least unambiguous ones) of David’s love for Jonathan.” Still, he concludes that, “Nothing in the [larger] text rules out, and much encourages the view that David and Jonathan had a consummated gay relationship.” He reads their “covenant” as analogous (similar) to a “marriage agreement,” based on Jonathan’s wife-like relationship to David, Saul’s outburst, and other clues in the text.82

(5) An increasing number of interpreters, however, mention a homoerotic element here of some kind. The debate over whether 1 Sam 1:26 revealed homoerotic content began in 1955, when D.S. Bailey wrote that here “there is at least the tacit [unspoken] approval of homosexual love between men.” Any “affectionate regard entertained by a man for another man” might be considered “homosexual” in a certain sense. Yet, he saw no textual evidence that showed that Jonathan and David were “inverts” (with a “genuine homosexual condition”) or that they expressed their love for each other “in coital acts” (anal intercourse).83 Still, Raphael Patai (1960) felt that David’s words (including “very pleasant hast thou been unto me. Wonderful was thy love to me, passing the love of women!”) could be a reference to homosexual love. “The high praise accorded in this Davidic lament to love between men, as against heterosexual love, reminds us, of course, of the spirit that pervades Plato’s Symposium84 – where Phaedrus and Pausanias both praise this same kind of love. Tom Horner (1978) declared right out that “Israel’s greatest king and hero did have such an affair [a manly homosexual relationship with another hero-warrior] and he made no secret about it. On the contrary, he boasted about it in his famous lament … [in] majestic language and depth of feeling…” It was “only natural that the two heroes should have gravitated toward each other” – and many clues throughout the story give us “every reason to believe that a homosexual relationship existed” between them.85 A.A. Anderson (1989) noted that Horner and others have suggested that this was a homosexual relationship and he concedes that “the language of the poem may, perhaps, permit such an interpretation…” Still, he concludes that “the general attitude of the OT [esp. Lev 18:22, 20:13] … seems to contradict this exegesis…”86

Danna Fewell and David Gunn (1993) point out that a “heterosexist interpretation” has often been brought to verses like 1:26, with scholars simply discounting as “perverse” the possibility of any homosexual reading. They note that it is quite possible that Jonathan could have been bisexual – although they believe that his passion went unrequited or was at least unconsummated.87 The German scholar Jens Weizer (1995) claims that “the friendship of David and Jonathan attested to in the Bible was no gay relationship (in the historical sense)” and yet he adds, “in a certain sense it was perhaps on the way to being just that.”88 Erhard Gerstenberger (1996) notes that the declaration that Jonathan’s love was more valuable to David than that of women – along with the emphasis on the keyword “love” throughout the Jonathan and David story – is “noteworthy, even given the fact that the wordfield of this Hebrew expression transcends the sexual component…” For David’s words to his friend “explicitly compare male love and female love,” and he describes their same-sex love with “fairly unequivocal attitudes such as ‘great joy’ and ‘bliss’ [v. 26].” Gerstenberger notes, “Opportunities for homosexual acts do after all emerge among stationed or combat troops. It thus may be that in addition to David’s intensive relationships with eight primary women, he also cultivated a relationship with another man during his life. Tradition acknowledged this, and it left its ineradicable traces in the narratives.”89 Jonathan Kirsch (2000) notes that “now, in one of the most provocative moments in the Bible, David openly declares the passion he felt toward Jonathan.” To many pious readers, these words have been interpreted as referring only to “the wholesome affection of a man toward his friend and comrade in arms,” while for others, “the same words raise a tantalizing question,” i.e. Was David gay? Kirsch sees here “an undeniable homoerotic subtext.”90 Silvia Schroer and Thomas Staubli (2000) note that one can never understand what was going on here by simply applying Biblical law (e.g., Lev 18:22, 20:13); rather, one has to consider Israel’s larger cultural context and influences, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh which clearly contains homoerotic motifs.91 Barbara Green (2003) holds that “love” here (1:26) implies covenant as well as personal commitment; yet she also notes, as Fewell and Gunn have demonstrated (1993), “the sexual element is strong as well.” Jonathan “is oddly praised” here, since what is omitted is what one would expect, namely, some reference to the prince’s unceasing efforts to help David. In short, what David does say about Jonathan in 1:26, to put it succinctly, is “that he loved Jonathan [italics added].”92 Susan Ackerman (2005) notes that sometimes too little attention has been paid to David’s description of Jonathan’s love as being “wonderful” – that is, “something David seems to have cherished and, by implication, a love to which he responded.” So, she agrees that homoerotic love is expressed here.93 She notes that even Saul Olyan, who earlier interpreted 1:26 as referring not to sexual but to covenant love, later has acknowledged that comparing Jonathan’s love favorably to the love of women is “extremely peculiar in a covenant context” and also that “the love of women” is usually “understood by scholars to be a reference to sexual or sexual-emotional love.”94 How David missed Jonathan now. They'd been apart for a while; but still he looked forward to, even longed for, the time when they would be reunited after the old king's death - as partners, companions, warriors, and yes even sharing the same bed. Now his heart sank, his eyes sobbed, and his whole body shook.

A Closer Look at David’s Lament (Part 2)

FOOTNOTES: 1. Strong, #6969, #7015; Brown, p. 884.     2. DeWard, Eileen, quoted in Zapf, p. 116.     3. Brueggemann, p. 213.     4. Robinson, p. 157.     5. McKane, p. 176.     6. Anderson, p. 13.     7. Driver 1913, p. 239.     8. Gevirtz, p. 73.     9. Gehrke, p. 233.     10. Brueggemann, p. 213.     11. Fokkleman 1986, p. 649.     12. For a good discussion of these figures of speech, cf. Klein, W., p. 239-49.     13. Brueggemann, p. 214.     14. Klein, W., p. 225; cf. Alter, p. 3-26.     15. Herder, J.G., in Alter, p. 10-11.     16. Cartledge, p. 356.     17. Cross & Freedman, 1975, p. 22-24; 1997, p. 15-17.     18. Fokkelman 1986, p. 658.     19. Cf. Driver, 1913, p. 234-35.    20. Cf. Green, B., p. 441.     21. Cartledge, p. 356.   22. Zapf, p. 113.     23. Kiel & Delitzsch, p. 290.     24. Hertzberg, p. 239.     25. Brueggemann, p. 215.     26. Shea, 1976, quoted in Zapf, p. 119.     27. Hertzberg, p. 239.     28. Brueggemann, p. 215-16.     29. McCarter 1984, p. 78.     30. Gevirtz, p. 88.     31. Brueggemann, p. 216.     32. Cartledge, p. 358.     33. Hertzberg, p. 239.     34. McCarter 1984, p. 76.     35. Brueggemann, p. 216.     36. Youngblood, p. 815.     37. Green, B., p. 443.     38. Cartledge, p. 355.     39. Fokkelman 1986, p. 671.     40. Smith, H., p. 264.     41. Brueggemann, p. 217.     42. Ibid., p. 217-19.     43. Hertzberg, p. 240.     44. Cartledge, p. 359.     45. Anderson, p. 15.     46. O’Connor, p. 233.     47. Brown, p. 864.     48. Terrien, p. 169.     49. Abelard, Peter, quoted in Boswell 1980, p. 238-39.     50. Brown, p. 26; Pratt, D.M. & E.F. Harrison, “Brother,” ISBE I(1979), p. 550.     51. Boswell, 1994, p. 137.     52. Keel, Othmar, 1986, noted in Schroer & Staubli, p. 30.     53. Ackerman, p. 191.   54. Ibid., p. 191.     55. Strong, #5276.     56. Dennison, J.T., Jr., “Delight; Delight in,” ISBE I(1979), p. 914.     57. Brown, p. 653.     58. Strong, #5273, #5276; Brown, p. 653.     59. Pope 1977, p. 631-32.     60. Anderson, p. 16.     61. Cartledge, p. 358.     62. Fewell & Gunn, p. 151.     63. McCarter 1984, p. 73.     64. Strong, #6381.     65. Brown, p. 811.     66. Cf. Dillman, C.N., & N.J. Opperwall-Galluch, “Wonder; Wonderful; Wondrous[ly],” ISBE IV(1988), p. 1100.     67. Freedman, p. 265.     68. Smith, H., p. 265.   69. Driver 1913, p. 239.     70. Keil & Delitzsch, p. 288,292.     71. McKane, p. 180.     72. Robinson, p. 158.     73. Moran, passim.     74. Ackroyd 1977, p. 27-28.     75. McCarter 1984, p. 77.     76. Youngblood, p. 816.     77. Kirkpatrick, p. 246.     78. Fokkelman 1986, p. 672.     79. Brueggemann, p. 216-17.     80. Exum 1993, p. 53; Cross & Freedman 1975, p. 17.     81. Fewell & Gunn, p. 149.     82. Jobling, p. 161,163-65.     83. Bailey, p. 56,xi.     84. Patai, p. 154.     85. Horner, p. 38,26-28.     86. Anderson, p. 19.     87. Fewell & Gunn, p. 149-50.     88. Weizer, Jens, trans. in Schroer & Staubli, p. 26.     89. Gerstenerger, p. 297-98.     90. Kirsch, p. 128-29.     91. Schroer & Staubli, p. 31-35.     92. Green, B., p. 443.     93. Ackerman, p. 192.     94. Olyan, Saul, “‘Surpassing the Love of Women’: 2 Sam 1:26 and the Relationship of David and Jonathan,” unpublished article; quoted in Ackerman, p. 191.

Ackerman, Susan, When Heroes Love, 2005.
Ackroyd, Peter, The Second Book of Samuel, 1977.
Alter, Robert, The Art of Biblical Poetry, 1985.
Anderson, A.A., 2nd Samuel (Word Biblical Commentary), 1989.
Bailey, D.S., Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition, 1955.
Boswell, John, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, 1980.
Boswell, John, Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe, 1994.
Brown, Francis, et al., The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon, 2000 ed.
Brueggemann, Walter, First and Second Samuel (Interpretation: A Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preaching), 1990.
Cartledge, Tony, 1 & 2 Samuel (Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary), 2001.
Cross, Frank, and David Freedman, Studies in Ancient Yahwistic Poetry, 1975, reprinted 1997.
Driver, S.R., Notes on the Hebrew Text and the Topography of the Books of Samuel…”, 2nd ed., 1913.
Elman, Yaakov, The Living Nach: Early Prophets. A New Translation Based on Traditional Jewish Sources, 1994.
Exum, Cheryl, Fragmented Women: Feminist (Sub)versions of Biblical Narratives, 1993.
Fewell, Danna, and David Gunn, Gender, Power, and Promise, 1993.
Fokkelman, J.P., Narrative Art and Poetry in the Books of Samuel. Vol. II: The Crossing Fates (I Sam. 13-31 & II Sam. 1), 1986.
Freedman, David, “The Refrain in David’s Lament over Saul and Jonathan,” Pottery, Poetry, and Prophecy, 1980.
Gehrke, Ralph, 1 and 2 Samuel (Concordia Commentary), 1968.
Gerstenberger, Erhard, Leviticus: A Commentary, German 1993, English 1996.
Gevirtz, Stanley, Patterns in the Early Poetry of Israel, 1963.
Green, Barbara, How Are the Mighty Fallen? A Dialogical Study of King Saul in 1 Samuel, 2003.
Green, Jay, Sr., gen. ed. & trans., The Interlinear Bible: Hebrew-Greek-English, 2nd ed., 1986.
Hertzberg, Hans, I & II Samuel: A Commentary, 1964.
Horner, Tom, Jonathan Loved David, 1978.
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vols. I-IV, 1979-88.
Jobling, David, 1 Samuel (Berit Olam: Studies in Hebrew Narrative & Poetry), 1998.
Keil, C.F., and F. Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on the Books of Samuel, 1950.
Kirkpatrick, A.F., The First and Second Books of Samuel, 1930.
Kirsch, Jonathan, King David: The Real Life of the Man Who Ruled Israel, 2000.
Klein, William, et al., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 1993.
Knox, Ronald, trans., The Old Testament: Newly Translated from the Vulgate Latin… Vol. I: Genesis to Esther, 1948.
McCarter, P. Kyle, Jr., II Samuel (Anchor Bible), 1984.
McKane, William, I & II Samuel: Introduction and Commentary (Torch Bible Commentaries), 1963.
Moran, William, “The Ancient Near Eastern Background of the Love of God in Deuteronomy,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 25, 1963, p. 77-87.
O’Connor, Michael, Hebrew Verse Structure, 1980.
Patai, Raphael, Family, Love and the Bible, 1960.
Pope, Marvin, Song of Songs (Anchor Bible), 1977.
Robinson, Gnana, Let Us Be Like the Nations: A Commentary on the Books of 1 and 2 Samuel (International Theological Commentary), 1993.
Schroer, Silvia, and Thomas Staubli, “Saul, David and Jonathan,” Samuel and Kings: A Feminist Companion to the Bible, Second Series, no. 7, ed. Athalya Brenner, 2000.
Shea, William, “Chiasmus and the Structure of David’s Lament,” Journal of Biblical Literature, 105(1), 1986, p. 13-25.
Smith, Henry Preserved, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Books of Samuel, 1899.
Strong, James, “Hebrew and Chaldee Dictionary,” in Strong’s Abingdon’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible…, 1890.
Terrien, Samuel, Till the Heart Sings: A Biblical Theology of Manhood & Womanhood, 1985.
Youngblood, Ronald, “1, 2 Samuel,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. III, 1992, p. 551-1104.
Zapf, David, “How Are the Mighty Fallen! A Study of 2 Samuel 1:17-27,” Grace Theological Journal, 5(1), 1984, p. 95-126.

TRANSLATIONS: Contemporary English Version, 1995.     Good News Bible, 1983.     Jerusalem Bible, 1966.     King James Version, 1611.     Lamsa, George: Holy Bible … from the Aramaic of the Peshitta, 1933.     Living Bible, 1976.     New American Bible, 1995.     New American Standard Bible, 1960.     New English Bible, 1970.     New International Version, 1978.     New Jerusalem Bible, 1998.     New King James Version, 1982.     New Revised Standard Version, 1989.     Peterson, Eugene: The Message, 2002. Revised English Bible, 1989.     Revised Standard Version, 1946.     Revised Standard Version, 2nd ed. 1972.


© 2006 Bruce L. Gerig

Back to
& the Bible

A Closer Look at David’s Lament (Part 2)