Interpretative Issues in the Debate
Jonathan and David Series, Supplement
By Bruce L. Gerig

Markus Zehnder, in his article “Observations on the Relationship between David and Jonathan and the Debate on Homosexuality” (2007), begins by noting four general scholarly views that have been offered relating to their relationship, namely that: (1) this was a homosexual (sexual) or at least a homoerotic relationship; (2) although the narrative does not speak openly of a homosexual encounter, the text does contain elements that would allow for such an interpretation; (3) this relationship was neither homosexual nor homoerotic but only portrays an extraordinarily loyal friendship; and (4) a “queer reading” of the text takes the interpreter’s self-identification as a gay person as the starting point for reading the story, usually viewing this as a homosexual relationship.1    Relating to the last group, Zehnder notes that while some GLBT interpreters are more interested in advancing a gay liberation agenda than in trying to better understand what the original writer(s) intended to convey, others in this category follow a more traditional approach, such as Gary Comstock in Gay Theology without Apology (1993).    Zehnder also offers the valuable reminder that every interpreter is “driven by some agenda” (a life view and initial assumptions), although still one’s primary goal should be to try “to understand any ancient text as much as possible within its own historical and cultural setting . . . .”2  

Jean-Fabrice Nardelli also commends Comstock, and adds that he is “substantially right” in describing the camouflaging nature of Jonathan and David’s first covenant.3    Still, Nardelli faults Comstock for not viewing Jonathan as a more problematic (complex) figure, even though he rightly notes that Jonathan “stands by his man for love, not gain.”4    At the same time Nardelli contends that writers like Comstock, by promoting Jonathan as an exemplary model for gay people today and by using a “preaching” method, do scholarship a disservice when sentimentality replaces a more detached, socio-historical approach.    Still, rather than to say that the Jonathan and David story should not be related to the historical suffering of homosexuals (so Walter Dietrich),5 Nardelli advises that it is better to search for those same-sex acts and attachments which might have been condoned in the ancient Near East and in Israel, e.g., as in the bonding between warriors and their boy-companions (so Theodore Jennings).6    Too bad, Nardelli notes, Jennings’ evidence presented for warrior-chiefs selecting beautiful boy-companions “amounts to so little . . . .”    Still, one wonders whether royals with homosexual tendencies might not have preferred beautiful youths as attendants in general, e.g., as appears to have been the case with the Royal Boys pictured in Greek royal Macedonian tombs.7    Nardelli mentions David Greenberg’s section in his book on “The Love of Warriors,”8 where he explains how the hero in heroic poetry needed a companion with whom he could unburden his heart and share his ambitions, dangers and glory.9    One cannot help but recall, in this regard, how Jonathan’s early armor-bearer (1 Sam 14:1-14), whether he was particularly handsome or only had the general bloom of youth, seemed to fulfill this role, showing that he was “much more than a caddy” (Klein).10    At least, the handsome good looks of Joseph the slave of Potiphar (Gen 39:6b), of David the lyre-player of Saul (1 Sam 16:12), and of Daniel and the other Hebrew youths selected for service in Nebuchadnezzar’s court (Dan 1:4) are specifically noted in Scripture, although attention is rarely drawn to male beauty in the Bible.  

However, the main focus in this supplement will be to evaluate the interpretative methodology of Markus Zehnder in his 48-page article, which falters in six main areas: (1) in his approach to taboo subjects and definition of homosexual terms; (2) in his (non) utilization of comparative sources, especially the Gilgamesh epic; (3) in his definition of words and interpretation of Biblical passages in general; (4) in his understanding of the nature of Biblical sexual language and taboo expression; (5) in his view toward Jonathan and David’s relationship within the larger Samuel narrative; and (6) in his connection of their relationship to the Levitical ban (Lev 18:22).       

Approaching taboo subjects and defining homosexual terms. Despite Zehnder’s apparent interest in neutral, text-based research, one cannot help but wonder at the implications of his uneasiness in approaching taboo topics in the Bible and in related scholarship, as shown when he turns to discuss ‘avoiding the mixture of excrement and semen’ as one explanation for the Levitical ban (“You shall not lie with a male as with a woman,” Lev 18:22), the possible allusion to Jonathan’s phallus and sexual gifts in the suggestive title “[The Archer’s] Bow” which David gave to his funeral ballad sung especially to honor the deceased Jonathan (2 Sam 1:18ff), and that David ejaculating may be what is implied in the ambiguous, damaged and strange Hebrew which most literally translates as: “David exceeded” (1 Sam 20:41 KJV) or came to ‘a great finale’ (Septuagint) in their emotion-filled parting scene.    For even though Zehnder’s highly technical article here was written for scholars (it includes many untranslated or untransliterated Hebrew terms), he feels compelled to reduce the type size for these sections in the main text to 8 point (footnote size), so that readers might skip over these sections, for prudery’s sake.11    In this regard, one recalls Erich Bethe’s observation a century ago (1907) about how the intrusion of moral evaluation, the “deadly enemy of science,” had corrupted the study of Greek homosexuality.    Then Kenneth Dover went on to note in the Preface to his Greek Homosexuality (1978) how homophobia still persisted into the twentieth century, with many scholars continuing to ignore the evidence and true sexual implications of the original Greek texts.    He noted, “I know of no topic in classical studies on which a scholar’s normal ability to perceive differences and draw inferences is so easily impaired [as with homosexuality],” but then he confided, relating to his book, “I am fortunate in not experiencing moral shock or disgust at any genital act . . . .”12    Yet homophobia, heterosexism and sexual ignorance still hold sway in a large swath of modern Biblical research, while one searches for those interpreters who are able to bring a detached outlook and non-homophobic mindset to rigorous Biblical scholarship and who are willing to let interpretation, even when it deals with taboo subjects, go wherever the textual evidence seems most plausibly to lead.

Zehnder rightly notes that homosexuality is difficult to identify in historical research, since a “kiss” in one culture might generally be viewed only as a sign of friendship, while in another culture it might carry a quite acceptable quasi-sexual meaning.13    Yet it should also be noted that a kiss between two males might mean very different things in the same culture, depending upon the individuals involved.    A kiss might very well be an erotic one in a highly-homophobic culture, or only a simple sign of friendship in a sexually-liberated one.    The individuals involved in each instance must be carefully studied.    Zehnder rightfully observes that sexual passion is a basic human drive and that one cannot claim that strong same-sex desires, passions and acts did not exist in the past.14    He also rightfully cautions that “the actual [sexual] situation ‘on the ground’” in ancient times could have been “much more complicated” than scholars sometimes recognize.15    James Davidson in The Greeks and Greek Love (2007) has described how same-gender love and sex was displayed in an amazingly diverse range of forms in the ancient Greek world, beyond the ideal espoused in Athens;16 and he also believes that casual, informal and “ordinary” kinds of homosexual lust and acts must always have existed “off the radar,” beyond the data that have survived in the historical records.17 

Zehnder defines a “homosexual” relationship in his paper as one “between two persons of the same sex who engage in actions that in some way or another, consciously and willingly, include genital stimulation” (italics added).18    However, Alfred Kinsey (1948), who focused on “the number and sources of male orgasms” in his study of American male sexuality in the 1930s and 1940s, noted that “an individual who is erotically aroused by a homosexual stimulus without ever having overt relations, has [also] certainly had a homosexual experience.”19    Indeed, Károly Mária Kertbeny, the German-Hungarian writer and political activist (and not a physician or scientist, it might be noted) who invented the term Homosexualität (“homosexuality”) in 1868,20 applied it to men who were sexually attracted to other men rather than to women,21 not limiting it only to men who had touched another man’s genitals.    Even David Halperin, a leading American proponent of Michel Foucault’s view that the term “homosexuality” comes laden with modern psychiatric, psychoanalytic and sociological meanings and therefore should not be applied to pre-nineteenth-century historical contexts, still acknowledged that the word “homosexuality” began as a purely simple descriptive term—referring to “a sexual drive toward persons of the same sex”―which, in fact, was the “secret of its success” and usefulness.22    Yet not only a “sexual drive,” this phenomenon often has been framed in terms of homosexual love, as can be seen with the many pre-nineteenth-century authors of gay love poems which are included in The Columbia Anthology of Gay Literature (1998).23    Would one define a “heterosexual” relationship only as one in which genital contact had occurred, dismissing all of those aspects of falling-in-love, longing, daydreaming, courting, sacrifice for love, and so on, that can occur between a lad and a lass before consummation?    Zehnder’s definition requiring “genital stimulation” presents a too-rigorous measuring rule.    He would thus dismiss Jonathan’s intense attraction felt toward the handsome David when they first met (1 Sam 18:1) as well as Jonathan’s later daydreaming about the young hero (19:1).    Zehnder no doubt wants to raise the bar so high that at the end he can claim that there was ‘nothing homosexual’ between Jonathan and David—and so, even though the Samuel text contains subtle but solid sexual clues, it is not surprising to find that Zehnder in the end concludes that the pair ‘did not have a sexual relationship,’ matter closed.24 

Also, Nardelli reminds us that ancient peoples indulged in same-gender sexual practices without viewing themselves as being “homosexual,” for they were concerned primarily with the proper active or passive role for each gender rather than with whether a person might be primarily or wholly attracted sexually to members of his or her own sex.25    Yet at the same time, this does not mean that some individuals in ancient times were not aware of their basic gay or lesbian orientation, even if there was no label for this—just as “manic-depressive” (cf. Saul, 1 Sam 18:8-12), sinistromanual (“left-handedness,” cf. Judg 3:15, 20:16), “transgender” (one “who holds a spindle,” cf. 2 Sam 3:29 NRSV), and ophthalmia (inflammation of the eye, possibly inflicting Paul, Gal 4:13-15, 6:11) were known in Biblical times, without the modern terminology.    In this regard, Aristophanes’ mythological explanation in Plato’s Symposium is interesting, of how double-humans in the world were originally heterosexual, lesbian, or gay, so that when Zeus cut these rebellious creatures in half, there were left individuals who sought to find completion and fulfillment, some in heterosexual, some in lesbian, and some in gay-male sexual relationships.    Therefore, when a male falls in love with another male and the two feel that they have found in each other their “other half,” they want to spend the rest of their lives together, enjoying sexual pleasure and each other’s company (Plato, Symposium, sect. 189-193, esp. 191-192).26    Although this does not fully explain the diversity of sexual desire and behavior (Halpern),27 still it does mark those extreme poles between which human sexual behavior appears, as Kinsey discovered and articulated in his studies.28    Returning to Jonathan and David’s relationship, it would be more insightful and realistic to ask whether the two showed any evidence for feeling a strong sexual attraction for one another, which deepened over a period of time and to which they were strongly committed, whether or not it can be proved when and how they had sex—although genital activity along the line would not be surprising.      

Utilizing comparative sources, especially the Gilgamesh epic.    Zehnder notes that although many Greek philosophers had no difficulty connecting deep spiritual love with homosexual relations, he claims that “the situation was different in Mesopotamia and Egypt”29―even though the Egyptian royal manicurists Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep, who were buried together at death in early Egypt (their tomb dated ca. 2400 BC)—and whom Zehnder even mentions, but without comment—offer a clear example of the most devoted form of love a gay couple could have, even extending into eternity.    As Nardelli notes, the tomb of these two court servants provides evidence that homosexual behavior could exist between males of roughly equal status and age and also that a certain freedom toward this must have existed during the Fifth Dynasty of the Old Kingdom period.    Nardelli finds no objections to a gay reading of the relationship of the two male occupants of this tomb, as proposed by Greg Reeder (2000), since other interpretations fail to adequately explain the evidence.30    Their holding hands and embracing, while unique between two men pictured in ancient Egyptian tombs, was common between a husband and wife.31    In fact, a reference in the manicurists’ tomb to ‘fathers and mothers’ of the pair (Nigel Strudwick) makes it impossible to hold that they were simply blood-brothers.32    Moreover, with regard to the Egyptian account of Neferkare and Sisene (the pharaoh and his general-favorite), Nardelli points out that although this story was meant to disclose political corruption and moral depravity, it was also intended to be read as describing a homosexual relationship.33    Also, while most versions of the Seth and Horus tale present Seth as the initiator who tries to penetrate the backside of Horus, in other versions the younger Horus becomes the initiator, showing that ancient Egyptians could conceive of their gods trading sexual roles in bed.34    In fact, Nardelli notes, the time is ripe for a new, all-encompassing reexamination of homosexuality in ancient Egypt.35 

One of the largest holes in Zehnder’s interpretative balloon is his refusal to recognize the relevance and importance of the Gilgamesh epic as a guide in helping to interpret homosexual language in the Samuel text on the Rise of David (1 Sam 16:1–2 Sam 5:10).    Zehnder mentions the epic with only two lines, then quickly moves on.36    In contrast, Thomas Römer and Loyse Bonjour describe, in L’homosexualité dans le Proche-Orient ancien et la Bible (2005), how ‘totally possible’ it is that the editor of Samuel knew of the Gilgamesh epic, which was widely disseminated during the Neo-Assyrian Empire (ca. 934–ca. 626 BC) when the material in Samuel was being assembled; and fragments of the Epic have been found at Meggido (where there seems to have been a settlement during David’s reign37).    Moreover, on the methodological question as to whether it is valid to make comparisons between two texts which come from different epochs and cultures, one must remember that from the 3rd millennium on Mesopotamian culture greatly influenced all peoples living in the ancient Near East.    Israel did not develop in a vacuum.38    Therefore, it is interesting to note that both the Gilgamesh epic and David’s rise focus on two pairs of heroes:    A skilled warrior of a lower class appears in front of a king or crown prince, who is strongly attracted to him; and then both pairs go to live at the royal court, which would only have been possible if there was a great intimacy between them.39    Near the beginning of the epic, the prostitute Shamhat tells the newly-created Enkidu, “You will love him [King Gilgamesh] like your own self,”40 and then when Jonathan meets David, we are told that the prince “loved him as his own soul [nephesh]” (1 Sam 18:1 NRSV) or “as himself” (NEB).    Then the male partners in each case develop a profound attachment, with an exclusiveness which no one else can break—neither the goddess Ishtar in Gilgamesh’s case nor the princess Michal in David’s case.41    In both stories, one member in the male pair is described fondly as “my brother,”42 indicating something continuing and enduring; and also one member is spoken of in feminine terms:    Gilgamesh is told that he will love and ‘caress’ his companion-to-come “like a woman,” and David later speaks of how Jonathan’s love for him was wonderful, “surpassing the love of women.”43    There is less intimacy revealed in the David story, although probably the term “desired” (kaphets) or “delighted much in” (KJV) in 1 Sam 19:1 conveys an erotic, even sexual, dimension.44    Finally, the moving eulogies of both Gilgamesh and David, expressed after the death of each one’s companion, clearly indicates that the deceased was much more than just a confidant or ally.    In fact, it is at this point that the grieving partner indisputably expresses the loss of a love which he felt for no one else and which he will never forget.45    What is clear is that the ancient Near East had no difficulty accepting an intimate and erotic relationship between two males—and could not this have been true in Israel, as well?    Römer and Bonjour note that one need not get hung up here on such texts as Gen 19 or Lev 18 and 20.46 

Nardelli notes that although the Standardized Version (SV) is the one most often consulted for the Gilgamesh epic, A. R. George (2003) has provided evidence showing that Enkidu moved from being Gilgamesh’s buddy servant or slave to becoming his closest friend and lover even in some of the oldest Sumerian forms of this myth.47    Andrew George points out that the “most poignant expression” of Gilgamesh’s love for Enkidu in the earlier Sumerian poems is found where the great king Bilgames (Akkadian: Gilgamesh) lies on his death bed, and the father-god Enlil appears to him in a dream, telling him that at last it is time for him to make his journey to the land of the dead.    There his loved ones wait for him, Enlil explains, including “your precious friend, your little brother, / your friend Enkidu, the young man your companion. / . . .  [Y]our own one will come to you, your precious one will come to you.” (Death of Bilgames M 110-111 George).48    George notes that since there is no doubt that the “precious one” here refers to Enkidu, the love that they shared was not an invention of even the Old Babylonian version, but goes back to the original Sumerian poems.49    Also, George’s translation of Tablet XII of the Standard Babylonian epic (SV) reads differently in certain respects from other versions:    Here, when Enkidu is unable to return from the Netherworld where he has gone to try to retrieve Gilgamesh’s hockey ball which has fallen there, Gilgamesh cries out to the gods; and finally Father Ea instructs the hero Shamash to open a chink (crack) in the Netherworld, so that the shade (spirit) of Enkidu might emerge (XII, lines 55-83).50    Then as Gilgmeash hugs and kisses the ghost of Enkidu, Enkidu calls for both of them to sit down and weep, for he explains: “‘[My friend, the] penis that you touched so that your heart rejoiced, / grubs <maggots> devour [(it) . . . like an] old garment. / [My friend, the crotch that you] touched so your heart rejoiced, / it is filled with dust . . . /’   ‘[Woe!]’ said [Gilgameš,] and <he> threw himself prostrate [in the dust]” (XII, lines 87-101).51    An earlier Sumerian version refers to Enkidu as “‘The one who handled (your) penis (so) you were glad at heart . . . ’” (Bilgames and the Netherworld, lines 247-250).52    Nardelli notes, no wonder Enkidu becomes Gilgamesh’s “bride” in his eulogy (VIII, line 59).53    In fact, Nardelli holds that Gilgamesh covering his friend’s face “like a bride” along with his earlier rejection of Ishtar’s marriage proposal in favor of Enkidu’s love carry the most weight in portraying the pair in a homosexual relationship.54    In most cases, however, the needs of the ancient narrator in the Gilgamesh epic were best served by ambiguity and by avoiding explicit homosexual references.55

Related to Greek sources, Zehnder acknowledges that “homoeroticism of some sort or another played a relatively important role in ancient Greek society, especially in the form of paiderastia [love of boys],” and that many Greeks were able to connect homoeroticism with deep spiritual love.56    Yet, Zehnder seems unaware of Nardelli’s Le motif de la paire d’amis héroïque à prolongements homophiles: Perspectives Odysséennes et Proche-Orientales (2004), which inspects closely a homosexual relationship in the Odyssey, between Telemachus and Peisistratus.    Homer’s Odyssey relates how Odysseus (Latin: Ulysses), the gentle king of Ithaca (an island off the W coast of Greece), is not eager to join the Greek expedition to (and ten-year siege of) Troy, but he finally does so after his son Telemachus is born.    However, after Troy falls for Odysseus’s wooden horse trick and is defeated, various misadventures befall some of the Greeks trying to return home.    Although Nestor, king of Pylos (a city on the SW coast of Greece), arrives home safely, Odysseus wanders for ten years around the Mediterranean Sea.    When Telemachus visits Nestor, seeking news about his father, the old king tells him that while some Greeks have returned home safely, he has heard nothing about Odysseus.    Then accompanied by Peisistratus, Nestor’s son, Telemachus travels to Lacedaemon (Sparta, in S Greece), where King Menelaus tells him that, yes, his father is still alive.57 

In the Penguin Classics English translation (2003) of the Odyssey, one reads more specifically that after Telemachus was received by Nestor, who had fought with Odysseus at Troy (3.98-101, p. 30), the king “arranged for . . . Telemachus to sleep at the palace itself, on a wooden bedstead in the echoing portico [colonnaded porch], with the spearman Peisistratus, that leader of men, next to him,” who was Nestor’s unmarried son still living at home.    Then the king and queen retired to the back of the house (3.396-403, p. 37).    The next morning the beautiful Polycaste, Nestor’s daughter, “bathed Telemachus . . . and rubbed him with olive oil, [and] she gave him a tunic and arranged a fine cloak around his shoulders, so that he stepped from the bath looking like an immortal god” (3.465-469, p. 39).    Later, Nestor lends Telemachus a chariot with swift horses to go visit Menelaus; and Peisistratus “got in beside him, took the reins in his hands” and urged the horses forward (3.474-483, p. 39).    When the pair reached Lacedaemon (4.1, p. 41), Menelaus and his queen are delighted to see Odysseus’s son (4.134-154, pp. 44-45).    When night falls, Telemachus suggests to Menelaus, “But come, let us retire for the night to find pleasure in sweet sleep’” and again the young men “spent the night in the forecourt of the palace, while Menelaus slept in his room at the back of the high buildings and the lady Helen of long robes lay by his side” (4.294-305, p. 48).    Now after Telemachus had stayed with Menelaus for quite a while, one night the goddess Athene came and “found Telemachus and Prince Peisistratus lying in the great Menelaus’ portico.”    Peisistratus was asleep, although Telemachus was awake and the goddess warned him that he must not linger but hurry home, for his mother was being pressured to remarry and he might lose his inheritance (15.1-20, p. 195).    So “Telemachus roused Nestor’s son from his sweet sleep with a kick and said, ‘Wake up, Peisistratus . . . let’s be on our way . . .’” (15.43-45, p. 196).    However, Peisistratus persuaded Telemachus to wait until morning, and then Menelaus delayed him further with gifts and a meal.    Later, as their chariot drew near to Pylos, Telemachus said to Peisistratus, “‘We may well claim that our fathers’ friendship makes a lasting bond between us.    Besides which, we are of the same age and this journey will have served to bring us even closer together.    So I beg you . . . not to take me past my ship, but put me down there and so save me from being kept at the palace against my will by your old father’s passion for hospitality.    I must get home quicker than that’” (15.196-201, p. 200).    So Telemachus left Peisistratus to explain to his father what would be perceived as a serious breach in etiquette.         

Jean-Fabrice Nardelli’s commentary on this story is illuminating:    The princess bathing the nude Telemachus shows that the Greek youth is not at all embarrassed by being seen in the nude and suggests also that he probably slept in the nude with Peisistratus.    This intimacy is reinforced by the way in which Telemachus awakens Peisistratus in the middle of the night after Athene’s appearance―with a kick of his foot (15.44).    Nardelli notes that such an intimate gesture ‘makes it clear that they have done more than just sleep side by side’ on Menelaus’s vestibule porch.58    Their “pleasure in sweet sleep,” twice noted (4.295, 15.43), suggests more than simple, ordinary sleep—rather ‘a supremely sweet and almost divine event, like sleep after physical love,’ which they had shared before Athene later finds them ‘stretched out side by side.’59    Earlier King Nestor had viewed Peisistratus as a suitable bed companion for Telemachus, to honor him as well as his father, since Peisistratus was still unmarried and the lads were equal in age, social standing, and family status.60    In fact, Nardelli writes that the Homeric nudity in bed, the act of giving Telemachus a bed companion, and parallels between the two boys going to bed and the host and hostess going to bed (both in the palaces of Nestor and of Menelaus) make it difficult to read Telemachus and Peisistratus’s relationship as anything other than ‘romantic and sexual.’61    Another aspect worth noting is the fact that this could hardly be called a pederastic relationship, between an erastēs (older lover) and eromenōs (younger beloved), since Peisistratus was not a pais (teenager) but rather old enough to be characterized as a good lancer and leader of warriors (3.399-400; Rieu: “spearmen [and] leader of men”); and later he has to take over for Telemachus’s lapse in etiquette in not returning to properly say goodbye to King Nestor and thank him for his hospitality.62    So, this was a homosexual pairing of two young heroes of the same age and status for a short period of time, with no disapproval expressed (in fact, with full approval given) by the family adults at hand.    Overall, one should also notice in this account how intimate homosexual relations are only referred to with oblique, indirect and vague clues, to which the reader must be alert and sensitive, or their presence and significance will be missed.   

Defining words and interpreting Biblical passages in general.    Zehnder’s typically strained approach to defining words and interpreting passages can be seen in his discussion of the Hebrew verb “to love” (aheb, H157).    First, Zehnder notes that out of 141 uses of this term in the Hebrew Bible, 27 are between man and God and 54 are between human beings, with only 30 instances where “a sexual component . . . [is] included or at least possible,” and with no (indisputable) applications made to homosexual love.63    He argues that the statement “all Israel and Judah loved David” (1 Sam 18:16 NRSV) cannot be interpreted “in a way that includes the erotic dimension”64—although earlier Hans Hertzerg (1960) suggested that David “takes hearts by storm, and everyone falls for him . . . captivated by David’s irresistible appearance.”65    Also, Herbert Lockyer (1991) asks, what young woman would not be attracted to a virile, athletic, youthful, handsome hero?66    And men also are not immune to the good looks of handsome heroes, even if they do not consciously acknowledge it.    Schroer and Staubli (2000) noted similar wording between Jonathan and David and the pair of lovers in the Song of Songs:67    In 1 Samuel 18:1 (NKJV) one reads that “Jonathan loved him [David] as his own soul [nephesh; GNB2: ‘as himself’],” and in Song of Songs 1:7 the maiden speaks of her beloved as “you whom my soul [nephesh] loves [GNB2: ‘you whom I love’]” and later she searches for “him whom my soul loves” (3:1,2,3,4 NRSV; GNB2: “the one I love,” “my lover”), revealing her sexual passion.   Yet, Zehnder noted that the syntax (grammatical relationship) of nephesh (“my soul” or “whom I love”) and aheb [“loved” or “loves”] in these Samuel and Song passages differs; and instead he holds that 1 Sam 18:1 is more like Yahweh’s command in Lev 19:18: “[Y]ou shall love [aheb, H157] your neighbor as yourself [kamov, H3644] (Lev 19:18 NKJV).68    However, nephesh does not appear in this last verse;69 and more importantly Zehnder fails to recognize that the intent and context of 1 Sam 18:1 and Lev 19:18 could not be more different.    Rabbi Hillel (early 1st century AD) summed up the meaning of the entire Torah, or Law, as “Whatever is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow,” and Rabbi Akiba (mainly 2nd century AD) declared Lev 19:18 to be “the great principle of the Torah.”70    In contrast, 1 Sam 18:1 is not concerned with a fundamental or comprehensive principle, but rather with simply noting the surprisingly intense emotions that overcame Prince Jonathan when he first cast his eyes upon the beautiful David, an encounter that is most simply explained as Jonathan ‘falling in love’ with David, as if lightning had hit him “like a bolt out of the blue” (Schorer and Staubli).71 

Moreover, Zehnder argues that the frequency with which the Hebrew noun for “love” (ahab, H158) is applied to non-sexual affection between Yahweh and his people “leads to the question” as to whether Jonathan’s “love” for David should not also be interpreted in the same way, “which would mean that Jonathan’s love not only has a human dimension but also a theological one”—and therefore a homosexual or homoerotic connotation “is even less probable.”72    However, with regards to God intervening in human history (here in providing Jonathan to help and protect the very vulnerable David), it would be well to remember theologically that Yahweh in the Bible does not always think and act as humans expect, even as he explains to Isaiah: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD (Isa 55:8 NRSV); and only a few verses later Yahweh invites God-fearing eunuchs to come pray with others in “my house” (Isa 56:4-5,7), in clear contradiction of Deut 23:1.    In Genesis one is surprised (even shocked) to see Yahweh, who earlier seemed to call one man and one woman to come together to bear children to fill the earth (Gen 1:27-28, 2:22-23), choose Jacob and his two wives and their two female slaves—who traipse alternatingly in and out of Jacob’s bed—to produce God’s chosen people, the twelve tribes of Israel (Gen 29:21–30:24).    Later, when Samson falls in love with Timnah, a Philistine woman whom he wants to marry but his parents protest because she is a foreigner, the narrator explains that “His father and mother did not know that this was from the LORD; for he was seeking a pretext to act against the Philistines” (Judg 14:1-4b NRSV).    Then there is the prophet Hosea, whom the Lord instructs to marry a “whore” (Hos 1:1-3 NRSV) or “prostitute” (LB), to get Israel’s attention and to speak to them.    In the Gospel of Matthew, the reader is amazed to find included in Matthew’s genealogy for the Messiah (through Joseph his adoptive father’s line, Matt 1:1-17) such tainted characters as Tamar, who dressed up like a prostitute to become impregnated by her father-in-law Judah, and so then gave birth to the twins Perez and Zerah (Gen 38), and also Rahab, a Canaanite prostitute who lived in Jericho (Josh 2).    Also included are Ruth, who would become the great grandmother of David (Ruth 4:18-22), although she was of Moabite lineage which sprang from incest (Gen 19:30-35) and the Moabites were later specifically banned from joining the assembly of Israel (Deut 23:3-6), and also Bathsheba, Uriah’s wife, whom David took in adultery and then did away with her husband, although she would later give him Solomon as a son (2 Sam 11).73    One might also remember that Jesus’ mother got pregnant before she was wed.    It is both dishonest and disserving to try to remove everything from the Bible which doesn’t look ‘quite right’ and which, here in the case of Jonathan and David, reduces the humanity of its characters, who lived like the rest of us in a very messy and complicated world.    As Walter Dietrich (2007) notes, even though the Bible treats David with “respect and sympathy,” it also reveals him “as fallible and tempted” and “in his weakness and suffering, as a true human being.”74 

Also, it should be noted that Zehnder can be very selective in his presentation of evidence, omitting significant details that would weaken his case.    For example, he does note numerous terms that are found both in 1 Sam 18:1-3 (which describes Jonathan’s love for David) and Gen 44:20,30 (which describes Judah’s deep but non-sexual love for Benjamin, the youngest son of his favorite wife), including aheb (“to love”), nephesh (“soul, life, heart”), and qashar (“to tie or be bound to”).75    Yet at the same time, Zehnder ignores Schroer and Staubli’s comparison of Jonathan’s love for David (1 Sam 18:1-3) to Shechem’s very-sexual love for Dinah (Gen 34:3,8),76 where also we find the same words used (aheb, nephesh), although kashaq (H2836, “bound [to]”) is used in Gen 34:8 in place of qashar (H7194, “tied/bound [to]”) in 1 Sam 18:1.    However, another parallel word here is kaphets (H2654, “delights [in]”), found both in Gen 34:19 and in 1 Sam 19:1.   When turning to David’s comparison of Jonathan’s love to the “love of women” in his eulogy (2 Sam 1:26), Zehnder struggles to find ways to avoid the obvious, straightforward meaning here―that both references refer to sexual love―first by calling this reference “poetic hyperbole or ornamentation” and then by suggesting that the latter part may simply refer to a mother’s (chaste) love for her children, an idea that got tacked onto the Latin Vulgate translation of 2 Sam 1:26 ca. 400 AD.    Or, Zehnder continues, if this passage includes a reference to wifely sexual love (which in a footnote he finally acknowledges “seems the most likely”), then he holds that the reference to Jonathan’s love must just simply be different (only friendship love),77 although nothing in the text supports such a divided (non-sexual, then sexual) reading for “your love for me was wonderful, surpassing the love of women” (2 Sam 1:26c REB).    

Understanding the nature of Biblical sexual language and taboo expression.    Another major flaw in Zehnder’s article is his apparent ignorance of how sexual terminology (especially the sexual euphemism) is used in the Hebrew Bible.    Sexual euphemisms are general words which on occasion are given special sexual meanings; and by their very nature, they appear only rarely in the Bible (so throw out Zehnder’s statistical counts to find probable word meanings).    This matter is made worse by the fact that most English translations simply transfer over the vague general meaning, or sometimes substitute one euphemism for another euphemism (e.g., note “hand” and “manhood” below), so that the real, literal meaning of a euphemistic Hebrew word still remains obscured and many colorful examples of frank language go unnoticed.    In fact, some sexual euphemisms only appear once in the Hebrew Bible, as with: (1) “hand” (yad, H3027), used to refer to the “penis” in Isa 57:8 (cf. NRSV, footnote) or to Israel’s lovers’ “manhood” (UNASB);78 (2) “feet” (regel, pl. raglehem, H7272), used once to refer to the vagina in Deut 28:57 (KJV and ESV: a baby born from ‘between her feet’) and once to signify a marriage proposal in Ruth 3:7 (where Ruth at night uncovers Boaz’s ‘feet’ = genitals);79 and (3) “touch” (naga, H5060), used once to refer to ‘molesting’ men in Gen 26:11 (NIV).    However, the verb “to laugh, play” (tsakaq, H6711) is employed a number of times as a sexual euphemism, but in each case calling for a different shade of meaning, including: (a) “caressing” in Gen 26:8 (NIV, UNASB; or NJB: Isaac ‘fondling’ his wife); (b) to “indulge in revelry” in Exod 32:6 (NIV, referring to the Israelites in the Golden Calf incident) or “an orgy of drinking and sex” (GNB2);80 and (c) possibly molestation or masturbation in Gen 21:9 (Ishmael touching the genitals of the infant Isaac, or his own private parts). 81    Frank but limited references to other taboo subjects are also found in the Bible, referring to: (1) masturbation and other ‘emissions of semen’ outside the womb, in Lev 15:16,32; 22:4 (NIV, NRSV), (2) night emissions specifically mentioned in Deut 23:10 (NIV and NRSV: “nocturnal emission”), and (3) interrupted coitus in Gen 38:9 (NRSV: in the process of having sex with Tamar, Onan got up and “spilled his semen on the ground”).    In 1 Kings 12:10 Rehoboam arrogantly boasts that his little finger is larger than his father King Solomon’s phallus (mottnayim, NRSV: “loins”);82 and Ezekiel 23:20 speaks of lovers of old whom Israel had in Egypt, “whose members [lit. ‘flesh’ = penises] were like those of donkeys, and whose emission [lit. ‘issue’ of semen] was like that of stallions” (NRSV).    In Ezek 16:25 the prophet also mentions women in Israel who “hast opened thy feet [vagina]” to every passerby (KJV); and then later he speaks in symbolic language of Samaria and Jerusalem (i.e., the northern and southern kingdoms of Israel) who had sought lovers among the handsome Assyrian soldiers, dressed in blue uniforms and mounted on horses, who ‘fondled her virgin bosom’ (Ezek 23:1-8, esp. v. 8 NRSV; i.e., breasts) and ‘bruised her teats’ (v. 3, KJV).    Teresa Hornsby (2007) takes Ezekiel’s reference in 16:17 to Israel as a woman “who made for yourself male images, and with them played the whore” (NRSV) as referring to a woman who made phallic images and then used them to masturbate herself.83    Ezekiel’s language preached to the exiled Jews in Babylon must have sounded downright obscene and vulgar.   

Nor are Biblical authors shy about mentioning other intimate and taboo subjects. 84    Numerous references are made to the apparently common practice of Israelite males to urinate against a building or city wall, i.e., who “pisseth against the wall,” as David derogatorily refers to those men in Judah who refuse to help support him and his men on the run and whom he plans to kill (1 Sam 25:22,34 KJV).    Later this phrase even appears in Divine prophecies given to Ahijah against Jeroboam I (1 Kings 14:1-10, esp. v. 10), to Jehu against Baasha (1 Kings 16:1-13, esp. v. 11), and to Elijah against Ahab (1 Kings 21:20-22, esp. v. 21)—declaring that not one male descendent of the houses of these despicably evil kings, in the northern kingdom of Israel, would survive the Lord’s judgment.    However, these references must be read in the King James Version, since other English translations clean up the vulgarity in the Hebrew, simply reading, e.g., “I will cut off . . . every male” (1 Kings NRSV, cf. NIV) or “I will destroy all of your sons” and “not let a single one of your male descendents survive!” (LB).    Yet note what the Hebrew really says, in the KJV: “I will cut off from Jeroboam him that pisseth against the wall . . . and will take away the remnant [of his house] as a man taketh away dung, till it all be gone” (1 Kings 14:10 KJV).    David on the run comes upon King Saul alone in a cave ‘uncovering his feet,’ probably defecating (1 Sam 24:3 KJV); and earlier (Judg 3:24) Eglon king of Moab is described as “covering his feet” (KJV), locked in his private chamber, which probably means that either he was “relieving himself” (NRSV, NIV) or masturbating (Hornsby).85    When officers from Shalmaneser, king of Assyria, come to Jerusalem, they threaten the inhabitants there that if they do not surrender, they will end up later, in a siege, to starve and “eat their own dung and drink their own urine” (Isa 36:1-12, esp. v. 12 NRSV; and cf. 2 Kings 18:27), when the Assyrian army finally attacks Jerusalem.    In fact, this happened earlier when Ben-hadad, king of Syria, laid siege to Samaria, capital of the northern kingdom; and starvation within the city led to the eating of dove’s dung and even to cannibalism, as some women planned among themselves when to boil their young sons for food (2 Kings 6:24-29).    The Hebrew Scriptures contain repeated warnings against having sex with animals (bestiality), even mentioning the women (Ex 22:19; Lev 18:23, 20:15-16; Deut 27:21), while at the same time there was no ban in the Law of Moses against Israelite men visiting common prostitutes (Hornsby),86 who always appear to have been readily available (Gen 38:15-16; Judg 11:1, 16:1; Prov 6:26, 7:10-12, 29:3; 1 Kings 3:16-28, 22:38; Jer 5:7) and who perhaps were considered necessary in order to protect the virginity of brides in Israel (Wink).87    Also, Hornsby holds that Joshua’s scouts, who visited Rahab’s house of prostitution in Jericho on a spy mission “and spent the night there” (Josh 2:1-2 NRSV), most likely slept with her before she learned of their mission and helped them escape.88    Israelites readily sacrificed their children on pagan altars to the god Molech (Lev 18:21; 20:1-5; Ezek 16:20-21, 20:31, 23:37; Ps 106:38; 2 Kings 17:17, 21:6; 2 Chron 28:3).    Also one finds David, Israel’s greatest king and one of the most spiritual persons in the Bible (witness his many psalms), blithely holding up and counting 200 Philistine foreskins before King Saul and his court, without the slightest bit of embarrassment (1 Sam 18:27 NIV); and later he leads the procession bringing the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem dressed only in a high priest’s ephod, so short that everyone could see his royal genitals swinging as he danced (2 Sam 6:14-15,20)—and both of these acts are unabashedly and uncondemningly put into the official record.    All of these examples are given merely to show that the Bible is a very earthy, as well as spiritual, collection of writings.    The Israelites frequently spoke quite frankly about things that offend modern ears; and yet these details are part of their holy Scriptures.    Certainly, two Israelite men falling in love, hugging and kissing each other passionately, and having sex out in the field is not out of place in such a context, nor should we be surprised that the Biblical editor of 1-2 Samuel seems unperturbed about mentioning a homosexual relationship that developed at court between two admired national heroes.      

Jonathan and David’s relationship in the larger Samuel narrative.    Zehnder rightfully points out that Jonathan and David’s love is only “one among several elements that are of importance for David’s ascension to the throne,” and he adds, their relationship must be viewed in terms of its telos (ultimate goal) and “must not be detached from this general movement of the plot.”    Then he mentions a sequence of “covenants” that are “cut” in 1-2 Samuel, including pacts made between Jonathan and David (1 Sam 18:3, 20:16, 23:18); between Abner, earlier Saul’s general, and David (2 Sam 3:12-13); and between the elders of the whole of Israel and David (2 Sam 5:3).    Zehnder also mentions a sequence of those who are said to “love” David, including: Saul (1 Sam 16:21), Jonathan (18:1,3), Michal (18:20,28), Saul’s servants (18:22), and all the people of Israel (18:16).89    Although Zehnder apparently intends to demonstrate here that all of these covenants and expressions of love were ‘political’ and meant to help get David to the throne, it must be noted that Michal’s love was clearly sexual and that Jonathan’s pact with David was clearly of an “intensely personal kind” (Thompson)90—and indeed berit (“covenant,” H1285) can refer to a marriage commitment (Prov 2:16-17, Mal 2:14) just as well as to a political treaty (Gen 21:27, 1 Kings 5:12).    Moreover, Jonathan’s covenants with David would be most unusual if they were political loyalty treaties, since such treaties never have the stronger party giving themselves as a “free gift” to the weaker party, a person or people of lower status (Nardelli).91    Nardelli agrees with Ackerman that the strong erotic language in David’s elegy points to the pair being “vastly more than mere bosom friends,” even though this might have been primarily concerned with ‘exalting David’s personal qualities’ as he ascends to the throne (Vermeylen).92    In the end, Zehnder’s references to covenants and expressions of love in no way prove that Jonathan and David’s initial love pact did not spring from the prince’s strong sexual feelings for David.       

As Walter Dietrich notes, we are dealing here not simply with a political pamphlet (just to support the legitimacy of David’s rule and dynasty) but with great narrative art, which calls for us to bring to it a “careful, thoughtful, and critical reading of the text.”    What we find here is a dialectic (interplay) between divine election and rejection, between human and divine will, and between good and evil.93    Dietrich also notes “the absence of theological argumentation and reflection” in the Rise of David narrative, except for the relatively frequent injection of Divine aid given to David.    The writer allows for David to be introduced in different ways.    He “did not intend to compose a smooth, one-dimensional portrait of David and his rise; rather he emphasized its many facets and the depth of meaning behind them.”94    The Lord’s use of Jonathan’s passionate feelings for David must have seemed far less unusual to David (because so many people were attracted to him) than, e.g., the Lord’s sending him off on the run for a decade or so, sometimes only a few steps ahead of Saul and his troops.    Zehnder goes too far when he presents “YHWH as the Ultimate Cause of the Events” in David’s early life,95 without allowing for human elements.    For example, did Yahweh cause David to marry Michal, which accomplished nothing (1 Sam 18:20–19:17)?    Did the Lord cause David to visit and lie to the high priest Ahimelech, asking him for food and a sword, which led to the deaths of so many priests and other innocent people (21:1-6, 22:11-19)?    Did the Lord put the idea in David’s heart to fight with the Philistines against his own people (29:1-3, 6-8)?    No.    Instead the Bible presents us with a complex and sometimes “bewildering” mix of human action and divine action, and room must be made for both (Madvig).96    As Römer and Bonjour note, Jonathan’s feelings for David are not a minor part of the narrative, even though in the end the prince cannot abandon his father, which in antiquity would have been an unprecedented act.97    As Fokkelman notes, we see how important Jonathan is by the space given to him and the extended stories; and he is always there at strategic points in David’s early life, confirming his rise to the throne, in word and gesture.98    Yet, God does his overarching work in the messy arena of human drama, to bring about his own ends; and why couldn’t a homosexual love affair also be part of this mix?    In fact, as Saul Olyan notes, David is often presented as a “nonconformist,” seen in his aside addressed to Jonathan in his eulogy as well as when Absalom dies and King David becomes consumed with grief over the loss of his strikingly handsome son, rather than congratulating and thanking his brave soldiers who have just put down Absalom’s fierce rebellion (2 Sam 18:31–19:8).99 

Saul Olyan notes that “it is not at all clear” that a tenth century writer “would have been particularly bothered by a homoerotic meaning of the love comparison of 2 Sam 1:26,” since what was important was to show that David was not responsible for the death of Saul and his family, in his attempt to unite the nation.100    Yet, in David’s eulogy his comparison of Jonathan to women (and so feminizing the prince) serves to bolster’s David’s masculine image, since as Römer and Bonjour note, in the ancient Middle East a sexual relationship was always thought of in terms of active and passive roles,101 the latter only viewed as appropriate for women, eunuchs, and male prostitutes (and the like).102    Perhaps the editor thought that 1 Sam 1:26 could serve the purpose for those who were familiar with Jonathan and David’s intimate court relationship of assuring them that David was still ‘a real “man’ and thus fully qualified to become king of Israel.    As Römer and Bonjour note, the story of David’s Rise is more than a love story; and in the light of the editor’s overarching goal (to support David’s legitimate rise to the throne), he may have felt it served his purpose best to obscure certain erotic elements of their relationship in the text.    The overall purpose here was not to present two gay icons (symbols), a modern idea, although the Bible still describes these two men in a sexual relationship.103    To leave a record of how David actually rose to become Israel’s greatest king was very important; and Jonathan’s love for David partly explains how God provided for this.    How lucky we are not to be left simply with the terse account of the Chronicler on Saul’s reign which, after a genealogical list, only notes that the Philistines fought against Israel and then Saul died because “he did not keep the command of the LORD; moreover, he had consulted a medium, seeking guidance, and did not seek guidance from the LORD.    Therefore the LORD put him to death and turned the kingdom over to David son of Jesse” (1 Chron 9:39–10:14, esp. 10:13-14 NRSV).    

Jonathan and David’s relationship and the Levitical ban.    Zehnder reads the Levitical ban as applying to any man who ‘makes another man the object of male sexual desires,’104 which would condemn then, under penalty of death, any male who simply confessed to having erotic feelings toward another male.    Yet as Nardelli points out, the wording in Lev 18:22 is “very narrow and very precise,” addressing only an Israelite man having anal intercourse with another male;105 and this close textual reading is widely shared by other Levitical interpreters, including: Erhard Gerstenberger (1996), Saul Olyan (1997), Martti Nissinen (1998), Jacob Milgrom (2000), Silvia Schroer and Thomas Staubli (2000), and L. William Countryman (2007).106    This ban does not include “other forms of homosexual activity” (Carmichael),107 such as kissing, caressing, cuddling, or even masturbation, since in the Law any seminal flow outside of the womb required only bathing and laundering (Lev 15:16-17) and even mutual masturbation did not plant semen inside another body.    Nor is lesbianism mentioned here (although women are included in the bestial ban which follows, 18:23), perhaps because Israelite men could hardly conceive of sex without a male being present.108    In short, any reading of the Levitical ban as “a blanket prohibition on all sexual interaction between males or even between females goes far beyond what it [the Biblical text] actually says” (Countryman).109 

The ban in Lev 18:22 and its punishment in 20:13 stipulate that, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination [to‘eba] (18:22); and if an Israelite man does this, then both parties “shall be put to death; their blood is upon them” (20:13 NRSV).    Now Robert Gagnon views to‘eba (H8441, “abomination”) here as pointing to something that is “particularly revolting.”110    However, the Egyptians applied this term to shepherding as a trade (Gen 46:34) and to eating with the Israelites (Gen 43:32), perhaps because the latter did not shave their body hair (Radmacher),111 and in other OT passages it is applied to such things as remarrying a wife whom one had earlier divorced or using dishonest scales in business dealings (Deut 24:4, 25:13-16), or having an arrogant look, telling lies, or creating family discord (Prov 6:16-17,19)―therefore this word in itself cannot be viewed as conveying any more intense emotion than one might feel toward someone who bears an arrogant look.    In fact, to‘eba is best understood as simply referring to something considered ‘offensive’ to another (Waltke).112    Nor does the death penalty here (Lev 20:13) mark this as the most “severe” kind of transgression (so De Young),113 since elsewhere in Leviticus this penalty is also applied to adultery (20:10), cursing one’s parents (20:9), and blaspheming God (24:16)—actions hardly viewed today in the West as capital crimes.    In fact, Teresa Hornsby (2006) suggests that the death penalty was meant only to serve as a deterrent, and probably it was never implemented.114    Indeed, we have no record of a death sentence for ‘a man laying with a male’ ever having been carried out by Israelite or Jewish authorities (Bamberger).115    Zehnder contends that Lev 18:22 is a “moral” issue rather than a “cultic” (ritual) issue,116 although Silvia Schroer and Thomas Staubli (2000) view the Levitical ban as not concerned about homosexuality between two consenting partners but rather with upholding a heterosexual ‘norm’ (issues of “pure” and “impure”), under which violent homosexual acts, such as are described in Gen 19 and Judg 19 (gang rape), would be condemned.117    William Countryman (2007) views this also as a purity (unclean) issue.118 

Zehnder holds that when Saul imagines that David did not appear for the New Moon festivities at court because he was “unclean” (1 Sam 20:26), this probably relates to the Levitical ban119—although David could just as well have become unclean by touching a dead animal found lying in the field (Lev 11:24-25), eating from the corpse of a ‘clean’ animal, which alive was permitted for food (Lev 11:39-40), or experiencing a night emission or masturbation (Lev 15:16).    In fact, in Saul’s subsequent outburst over Jonathan and David sleeping together (1 Sam 20:30) the king never recalls or mentions the Levitical ban, which would have greatly buttressed his condemnation.    In the end, however, the question is beside the point, since David really stayed away from Saul’s court because he feared that Saul might kill him (1 Sam 20:1,6-7).120    In fact, Jonathan and David also show no awareness or memory of the Levitical ban as they repeatedly make their love covenants “before the LORD,” seeking his full blessing and continued help in their commitment and lives envisioned together (1 Sam 20:8,13-17; 23:18).    Furthermore, the editor of David’s elegy (2 Sam 1:19-26, esp. v. 26) is “not significantly bothered by an [David’s] homosexual admission” (Nardelli),121 although no doubt in order to bolster his own masculine image David portrays Jonathan here in the feminine role, as a ‘woman,’ as a wife.122 

Zehnder mentions various rationales that interpreters have frequently suggested as laying behind the Levitical ban, including: cultic concerns (preventing the visiting of male cult prostitutes?), “the waste of ‘seed’ [semen]” which “endangers procreation,” avoiding the mixture of two defiling substances (semen and excrement), preventing the transgression of gender roles which could cause a male to lose his “manly honor,” and preventing disturbances of “the internal peace of the community” (a concern which Zehnder calls “paramount”).123    Yet, he also notes difficulties with various of these rationales, e.g., not being sure (or at least explaining) what “cultic context” means here, noting that numerous sex acts which ‘wasted male seed’ were not banned in the Law (such as sex with a pregnant or barren wife, or masturbation), and pointing out further that heterosexual anal intercourse was not banned.124    Yet Zehnder’s belief that the main purpose here was to prevent internal community strife is greatly weakened by the fact that the Law of Moses never banned polygamy in Israel, even though the Genesis record shows that this often created family strife (Gen 21:8-14, Gen 29:30–30:24).    Also, the Law never prohibited men from visiting secular prostitutes (Countryman)125 and, in fact, allowed both female and male non-cultic prostitutes to exist in Israel (Deut 23:18, Hornsby).126    Then Zehnder’s connection of the Levitical ban to the Gen 1:27 command to “Be fruitful and multiple, and fill the earth” vs. a human ‘failure to procreate’ must be rejected, because there is no interest in Israel (or the Levitical law) in its enemies growing more populous; instead the focus here rests only on God’s promise that he would make Abraham and his seed “exceedingly fruitful” (Gen 17:6, Lev 26:9).    Moreover, Zehnder’s argument that the Levitical ban was given to prevent “a confusion of the created order,”127 i.e., that male and female were created anatomically for each other (the ‘pole in a hole’ argument)128 misreads Gen 1-3, which was intended only to provide etiological stories to explain why things are the way they are (e.g., where nature and life came from, why childbirth is painful, why life is hard, why men rule over women, etc.), and variations from the dominate pattern are not addressed (Bird).129    Gen 1-3 was not even read by the Israelites as limiting marriage to one man and one woman.    Also, the idea promoted by some conservative commentators that one cannot reflect the divine image (Gen 1:27) until one marries (so De Young)130 sure makes it hard on John the Baptist, Jesus the Messiah, and Paul the Apostle!  

Zehnder argues that even if Jonathan and David shared a homosexual or homoerotic relationship, one cannot use this to ethically evaluate (or support) “homosexual behavior” or even “homosexual inclination” in our cultural setting.131    Yet at the same time, Zehnder is ready and anxious to apply the ancient Levitical ban to all gay people today,132 even though Lev 18:22 and 20:13 are clearly rooted in a time and place very different from our own.    Moreover, Zehnder shows his ignorance of biological sexual-orientation research, which has shown that sexual desire-choice comes not from the groin, but from the brain.    As Jo Durden-Smith and Diane deSimone (1983) noted many years ago in their book Sex and the Brain (1983): “In humans, monkeys, rats, guinea pigs, birds—practically everywhere we look in nature—the quantities of sex hormones available to the fetus during critical periods of early development stamp into the developing brain a variety of masculine and feminine sexual and social behaviors—usually, but not always, in accordance with the genetic sex.”    Therefore some people are born with a homosexual orientation, while others feel like they have been given a body of the wrong gender (transsexuals).133 Stanford University biologist Joan Roughgarden (2004) and London psychologist Glenn Wilson and psychobiologist Qazi Rahman (2005) fully agree, noting further that genetic factors (e.g., that may cause sexual receptors not to function as usual) can also influence a person’s sexual development.134    In fact, Roughgarden believes that by several months after birth an individual’s gender identity (whether aligned with his or her genital form or not) is organized; and some individuals’ sexual orientation is immutably (unchangeably) set, while others’ sexual desire may shift later on.135 It is sad when theologians speak with such dogmatism, while also out of such ignorance. 

In summary, Markus Zehnder is an example of a scholar whose homophobia, blind-sightedness, and ignorance of biological research on sex prevent him from joining the increasing number of interpreters who now recognize that the Jonathan and David narrative presents a story involving homoerotic love, commitment and intimacy.    Still many heterosexual Bible scholars bring a prejudiced, naïve and simplistic view of homosexuality (as well as of sex) to their studies, not recognizing, e.g., that individuals with a dominant sexual attraction toward members of their own sex can be found in every time and place.    GLBT interpreters are able to provide a certain corrective insight here, although some may be more interested in ‘reading into’ rather than digging out a deeper understanding of what the ancient Biblical texts actually say.    Although fitting into the latter class, Zehnder falls prey to sloppy interpretative methodology by not recognizing the primary importance of context in determining a word’s meaning, if uncertain.    His statistical counts turn ridiculous when one realizes that sexual references always appear infrequently in Bible and often in elusive and oblique ways, the meanings of which must be ‘teased’ out of the Hebrew text—a process made more difficult by translations which often replace explicit language in the Hebrew with ‘non-offensive’ English terminology, probably thought to be more suitable for public reading and private devotion.    Another major flaw is Zehnder’s failure to recognize the importance of other texts in showing how homosexual motifs were handled in ancient Near Eastern literature (e.g., with coded language, elusive references, and hidden meanings) and not to bring this understanding to bear on interpreting the Jonathan and David text, where numerous similarities in word and style exist.    In the Bible one finds not infrequent references to intimate, taboo subjects (body parts and intimate acts), reminding the reader that the Bible is not only an inspiring, spiritual book, but also a very frank, earthy record of a people who often said, did and recorded things that can appear quite coarse and improper to modern readers.    Indeed, the Bible is as realistic as life itself (one of its endearing features)—and there is no reason why a homosexual relationship between two males, especially in the ancient tradition of heroic male lovers who lived together at court, could not find a place in the official record.    Inexplicably the Biblical story mixes human action and divine action in a way so that the Divine plan is accomplished and yet not by obliterating human free will in its rich variety of expression.


FOOTNOTES:    1. Zehnder, pp. 128-130.    2. Ibid., p. 130, and n. 7.   3. Nardelli, Appendix IV, added text for p. 62, line 9; pp. 97-98.    4. Comstock, p. 86.    5. Dietrich, p. 337.    6. Jennings, pp. 3-12, 25.    7. Cf. Davidson, pp. 368-369.    8. Greenberg, D., pp. 110-116, esp. 110.    9. Nardelli, Appendix IV, added text for p. 62, line 9; p. 98.    10. Klein, R., p. 135.    11. Cf. Zehnder, pp. 136-137, 154-155.    12. Dover 1978, pp. vii-viii.    13. Zehnder, p. 131.    14. Ibid., p. 132.    15. Ibid., p. 132, n. 13.    16. Davidson, pp. 467, 379, passim.    17. Ibid., p. 490.    18. Zehnder, p. 133.    19. Kinsey 1948, p. 623.    20. Ackerman, p. 5.    21. Herzer, p. 660.    22. Halperin, D., 2000, p. 452.    23. Fone, pp. 37-45, 64-70, 84-88, 103-111, 136-148, 158-193.    24. Zehnder, pp. 173-174.    25. Nardelli, Homosexuality, p. 5.    26. In Hubbard, pp. 188-192.    27. Cf. Halpern, D., 1990, pp. 18-24.    28. Kinsey 1948, pp. 638, 650-651; Kinsey 1953, pp. 470, 487-489.    29. Zehnder, p. 172.    30. Nardelli, Homosexuality, p. 87.    31. Ibid., p. 36, n. 48.    32. Ibid., p. 88.    33. Ibid., p. 83, n. 5.    34. Ibid., pp. 81-82.    35. Ibid., p. 93.    36. Zehnder, p. 171.    37. Ussishkin, p. 23.    38. Römer and Bonjour, pp. 93-94.    39. Ibid., p. 95.    40. Anon., Epic of Gilgamesh, trans. Foster, II line 15, p. 13.    41. Römer and Bonjour, p. 98.    42. Anon., Epic of Gilgamesh, in Foster, Hittite version, trans. Beckman, III, sect. 3, p. 163; and 2 Sam 1:26.    43. Anon., Epic of Gilgamesh, trans. Foster, I line 292, p. 11; and 2 Sam 1:26 NEB.    44. Römer and Bonjour, p. 99.    45. Ibid., p. 100.    46. Ibid., p. 102.    47. Nardelli, Homosexuality, p. 6, n. 6.    48. George, 2003, 1, pp. 141-142.    49. The Sumerian period falls in the 3rd millennium BC, and the Old Babylonian period extends from ca. 2150 (Sulgi and Ur III) to 1124 (Nebuchadnezzar), cf. Wiseman, p. 385.    Note also that after Sumerian, the Akkadian language became prominent in Mesopotamia between ca. 3500–ca. 1500 BC, first in the Assyrian dialect and then in the Babylonian dialect, cf. New Oxford American Dictionary, “Akkadian.”    50. George 2003, 1, pp. 731-733.    51. Ibid., 1, p. 733.    52. Ibid., 2, pp. 774 and cf. 771.    53. Ibid., 1, p. 655; and Nardelli, Homosexuality, p. 6.    54. Nardelli, Homosexuality, p. 8.    55. Ibid., p. 22, n. 32.    56. Zehnder, p. 171.    57. Cf. Homer, Odyssey, trans. Rieu, pp. xii-xv.    58. Nardelli, Le motif, p. 50.    59. Ibid., pp. 56, 21.   60. Ibid., p. 31.    61. Ibid., p. 44.    62. Ibid., p. 44.    63. Zehnder, p. 144.    64. Ibid., p. 144.    65. Hertzberg, pp. 154, 161.    66. Lockyer, “Michal: The Woman Who Tricked Her Father,” p. 229.    67. Schroer and Staubli, p. 28.    68. Zehnder, pp. 145, 170.    69. Green, J., Lev 19:18.    70. Quoted in Bamberger 1981, p. 892.    71. Schorer and Stabuli, p. 28.    72. Zehnder, p. 140.    73. Cf. Carson, p. 66.    74. Dietrich, pp. 19-20.    75. Zehnder, p. 140.    76. Schroer and Staubli, p. 28.    77. Zehnder, pp. 140-141, and n. 47.    78. Cf. Bandstra and Verhey, p. 433.    79. Ibid., pp. 432-433.    80. Cf. Kaiser, p. 478.    81. Trible, p. 33, n. 44; and Hamilton, V., 1995, pp. 78-79, 466.    82. Bandstra and Verhey, p. 432.    83. Hornsby, pp. 90-91.    84. Ibid., p. 88.    85. Ibid., pp. 88-89.    86. Ibid., p. 124.    87. Wink, p. 40.    88. Hornsby, pp. 120-121.    89. Zehnder, p. 161.    90. Thompson, “Covenant: OT,” p. 791.    91. Nardelli, Homosexuality, p. 35, n. 47.    92. Loi Vermeylen, 2000; in Nardelli, Homosexuality, p. 56, n. 71.    93. Dietrich, pp. 249, 314.    94. Ibid., pp. 289-290, 247.    95. Cf. Zehnder, p. 166.    96. Cf. Madvig, p. 259.    97. Römer and Bonjour, p. 97.    98. Fokkelman 1986, p. 686.    99. Olyan 2006, p. 14.    100. Ibid., p. 15.    101. Römer and Bonjour, p. 99, and n. 47.    102. Nissinen, p. 129.    103. Römer and Bonjour, p. 101.    104. Zehnder, p. 137; quoting from Gagnon, p. 136.    105. Nardelli Homosexuality, pp. 46-47.    106. Gerstenberger, p. 296; Olyan 1997, p. 400; Nissinen, p. 44; Milgrom 2000, p. 1565; Schroer and Staubli, p. 25; and Countryman, p. 24.    107. Carmichael 1997, pp. 54-55.    108. Cf. Fewell and Gunn, p. 107.    109. Countryman, p. 24.    110. Gagnon, p. 113.    111. Radmacher, p. 76.    112. Waltke, p. 13.    113. De Young, p. 56.    114. Hornsby, p. 64.    115. Bamberger 1981, p. 881.    116. Zehnder, p. 135.    117. Schroer and Stabuli, p. 25.    118. Countryman, pp. 24-25.    119. Zehnder, p. 168.   120. Carmichael 2006, p. 28.    121. Nardelli, Appendix IV, added text for p. 29, line 13; p. 87.   122. Fewell and Gunn, p. 151.    123. Zehnder, pp. 135-136.    124. Ibid., pp. 135-137; and cf. Gagnon, pp. 133-134.    125. Countryman, p. 32.    126. Hornsby, pp. 118, 124.    127. Zehnder, p. 137; taken from Gagnon, p. 136.    128. Cf. Gagnon, p. 348.    129. Bird 2000, p. 167.    130. De Young, pp. 14-15.    131. Zehnder, pp. 130-131.    132. Ibid., p. 137.    133. Durden-Smith and deSimone, pp. 92-93.    134. Roughgarden, chaps. 11-16; and Wilson and Rahman, chaps. 5-10.    135. Roughgarden, pp. 243-244, 257.   



Ackerman, Susan, When Heroes Love, 2005.  

Anonymous, The Epic of Gilgamesh: A New Translation, Analogues, Criticism, trans. and ed. Benjamin R. Foster; with “The Sumerian Gilgamesh Poems,” trans. Douglas Frayne, and “The Hititte Gilgamesh,” trans. Gary Beckman, 2001. 

Bamberger, Bernard J., “Leviticus,” in The Torah: A Modern Commentary, 1981, pp. 731-976.

Bandstra, Barry L., and Allen D. Verhey, “Sex; Sexuality,” in Geoffrey W. Bromiley, ed., The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 4, 1988, pp. 429-439.

Bird, Phyllis A., “The Bible in Christian Ethical Deliberation concerning Homosexuality: Old Testament Contributions,” in David L. Balch, ed., Homosexuality, Science and the “Plain Sense” of Scripture, 2000, pp. 142-176.  

Carmichael, Calum M., Illuminating Leviticus, 2006.

--------, Law, Legend, and Incest in the Bible: Leviticus 18-20, 1997.

Carson, D. A., “Matthew,” in Frank E. Gaeberlein, ed., The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 8, 1984, pp. 1-599.  

Comstock, Gary David, Gay Theology without Apology, 1993.  

Countryman, L. William, Dirt, Greed, & Sex, (1988) 2007.   

Davidson, James, The Greeks and Greek Love, 2007.  

De Young, James B., Homosexuality: Contemporary Claims Examined in Light of the Bible and Other Ancient Literature and Law, 2000.

Dietrich, Walter, The Early Monarchy in Israel: The Tenth Century B.C.E., (German 1997) 2007.  

Dover, K. J., Greek Homosexuality, 1978.

Durden-Smith, Jo, and Diane deSimone, Sex and the Brain, 1983.  

Fewell, Danna Nolan, and David M. Gunn, Gender, Power, and Promise, 1993.

Fokkelman, J. P., Narrative Art and Poetry in the Books of Samuel, Volume II: The Crossing Fates (I Sam. 13-31 & II Sam 1), 1986. 

Fone, Byrne R. S., ed., The Columbia Anthology of Gay Literature: Readings from Western Antiquity to the Present Day, 1998. 

Gagnon, Robert A. J., The Bible and Homosexual Practice, 2001. 

George, Andrew R., trans., The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic, 2 vols., 2003. 

Gerstenberger, Erhard S., Leviticus: A Commentary, (German 1993) 1996.

Green, Jay P., Sr., ed. and trans., The Interlinear Bible: Hebrew-Greek-English, (1976) 1986.

Greenberg, David F., The Construction of Homosexuality, 1988.

Halpern, David M., “Homosexuality,” in George E. Haggerty, ed., Gay Histories and Cultures: An Encyclopedia, 2 [Gay Males], 2000, pp. 450-455.

--------, One Hundred Years of Homosexuality, 1990.     

Hamilton, Victor P., The Book of Genesis: Chapters 18-50, 1995.

Hertzberg, Hans Wilhelm, I & II Samuel: A Commentary, (German 2nd ed. 1960) 1964.

Herzer, Manfred, “Kertbeny, Károly Mária (Karl Maria Benkert),” in Wayne R. Dynes, ed., Encyclopedia of Homosexuality, 1, 1990, pp. 659-660.

Homer, The Odyssey, trans. E. V. Rieu, and rev. D. C. H. Rieu, (1946, 1991) 2003. 

Hornsby, Teresa J., Sex Texts from the Bible: Selections Annotated & Explained, 2007.  

Hubbard, Thomas K., ed., Homosexuality in Greece and Rome: A Sourcebook of Basic Documents, 2003.

Jennings, Theodore W., Jr., Jacob’s Wound: Homoerotic Narrative in the Literature of Ancient Israel, 2005. 

Kaiser, Walter C., Jr., “Exodus,” in Frank E. Gaebelein, ed., The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 2, 1990, pp. 285-497.

Kinsey, Alfred C., Wardell B. Pomeroy, and Clyde E. Martin, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, 1948.

Kinsey, Alfred C., Wardell B. Pomeroy, Clyde E. Martin, and Paul H. Gebhard, Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, 1953.

Klein, Ralph W., 1 Samuel, 1983. 

Lockyer, Herbert H., “Michal: The Woman Who Tricked Her Father,” in David J. A. Clines and Tamara C. Eskanazi, eds., Telling Queen Muchal’s Story: An Experiment in Comparative Interpretation, 1991, pp. 229-233. 

Madvig, Donald H., “Joshua,” in Frank E. Gaeberlein, ed., The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 3, 1992, pp. 237-371. 

Milgrom, Jacob, Leviticus 17-22, 2000.   

Nardelli, Jean-Fabrice, “Appendix IV: Additional Notes,” draft prepared to be added to Homosexuality and Liminality in the Gilgameš and Samuel; pre-publication copy received by this writer on September 23, 2008.   

--------, Homosexuality and Liminality in the Gilgameš and Samuel, 2007.   

--------, Le motif de la paire d’amis héroïque à prolongements homophiles: Perspectives Odysséennes et Proche-Orientales, 2004. 

New Oxford American Dictionary, (2001) 2005. 

Nissinen, Martti, Homoeroticism in the Biblical World: A Historical Perspective, 1998.    

Olyan, Saul M., “‘And with a Male You Shall Not Lie the Lying Down of a Woman’: On the Meaning and Significance of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13,” in Gary D. Comstock, ed., Que(e)rying Religion: A Critical Anthology, 1997, pp. 398-414.   

--------, “‘Surpassing the Love of Women’: Another Look at 2 Samuel 1:26 and the Relationship of David and Jonathan,” in Mark D. Jordan, ed., Authorizing Marriage? Canon, Tradition, and Critique in the Blessing of Same-Sex Unions, 2006, pp. 7-16.    

Radmacher, Earl D., ed., Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Commentary, 1999. 

Römer, Thomas, and Loyse Bonjour, L’homosexualité dans le Proche-Orient ancien et la Bible, 2005.  

Roughgarden, Joan, Evolution’s Rainbow: Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People, 2004. 

Schroer, Silvia, and Thomas Staubli, “Saul, David and Jonathan―The Story of a Triangle?  A Contribution to the Issue of Homosexuality in the First Testament,” in Athalya Brenner, ed., Samuel and Kings, A Feminist Companion to the Bible, Second Series, 7, 2000, pp. 22-36.  

Strong, James.   The Strongest Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, rev. and corrected John R. Kohlenberger III and James A. Swanson. With “Hebrew–Aramaic Dictionary–Index to the Old Testament,” and “Greek Dictionary–Index to the New Testament,” 2001.  

Thompson, J. Arthur, “Covenant (OT),” in Geoffrey W. Bromiley, ed., The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 1, 1979, pp. 790-793.

Trible, Phyllis, Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives, 1984.

Ussishkin, David, “Meggido,” in Katherine Doob Sakenfeld, ed., The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, 4, 2009, pp. 17-27.

Van der Pool, Charles, trans., Apostolic Bible: Polyglot. With Greek text and English translation, (1996) 2006. 

Waltke, Bruce K., “Abomination,” in Geoffrey W. Bromiley, ed., The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 1, 1979, pp. 13-14.

Wilson, Glenn, and Qazi Rahman, Born Gay: The Psychobiology of Sex Orientation, 2005.

Wink, Walter, “Homosexuality and the Bible,” in Walter Wink, ed., Homosexuality and Christian Faith, 1999, pp. 33-49.   

Wiseman, Donald J., “Babylonia,” in Geoffrey W. Bromiley, ed., The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 1, 1979, pp. 391-402.   

Zehnder, Markus, “Observations on the Relationship between David and Jonathan and the Debate on Homosexuality,” in Westminster Theological Journal, 69 (Spring 2007), pp. 127-174.


BIBLE TRANSLATIONS:    English Standard Version, 2001.   Good News Bible, 2nd ed. 1983.   King James Version, 1611.   Living Bible, 1976.   New English Bible, with Apocrypha, 1970.   New International Version, 1978.   New Jerusalem Bible, 1985.   New King James Version, 1982.   New Revised English Bible, 1989.   Revised Standard Version, 1989.   Updated New American Standard Bible, 1999.    


© 2010 Bruce L. Gerig

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