HOMOSEXUALITY AND THE BIBLE,
Key Passages: 1 Sam 13-31, 2 Sam, 1 Kings 1
By Bruce L. Gerig
THE BIBLICAL TEXT
The armor-bearer as favorite – Jonathan, Saul’s first-born son, is introduced in 1 Sam 13-14, where he is appointed a commander over one-third of the king’s newly-formed standing army (13:2) and he emerges as a courageous fighter and acclaimed hero (14:45). This sets the stage for him (along with his strong faith in Yahweh) to later form a close relationship with David after he kills Goliath in the Lord’s name and also becomes a national figure. More than a simple friendship, however, this will unfold as a same-sex romantic love story between two heroic warriors – in the mold of Gilgamesh and Enkidu (earlier) and Achilles and Patroclus (later) – the latter relationship perceived as erotic, at least, by Aeschylus, Plato and Lucian, although some modern scholars like to imagine the early heroic age of Greece free of the ‘decadence’ of later periods (Dynes & Johansson). It is significant to note in chs. 13-14 that the most intimate, detailed passage (14:1-15) zooms in on Jonathan’s close bond and rapport with the teenager (na‘ar) who serves as his armor-bearer and who tells the prince, after he asks him to join him in a very dangerous mission, “…I am here with you according to your heart [leb]” (14:7, cf. J. Green and KJV). The fact that the armor-bearer is mentioned nine times in verses 1-17 shows that he is more than a caddy; clearly the two fight as a team (Klein). Later we shall see a similarly close emotional relationship between Saul and his armor-bearer, for although this position was usually filled by a proven warrior of great valor, when David appears in court the first time (1 Sam 16:14-23), Saul immediately appoints the irresistible shepherd-boy to the post (Cartledge), smitten with love for the youth the moment he set eyes on him (Kirsch). The text tells us that Saul “loved him greatly” (v. 21) – a statement that some interpreters have viewed as being homoerotic (Schroer & Staubli), even to the point of envisioning Saul sleeping together with David in his tent (W. Hamilton). Such feelings, of course, would add quite a different slant to the growing animosity that Saul feels toward David, especially after the latter becomes tied to Jonathan. Whatever the case here, earlier, after Jonathan becomes a famous hero (14:45), the jealous Saul apparently removes him from his military post (he is nowhere seen in the Goliath episode, ch. 17), sending him home where he may have lived idly, missing his earlier life with the other soldiers and especially his young aide. More important, as Barbara Green notes, this masked (unnamed) armor-bearer “is a marker for the young David” who later will come to stand also in “one heart with Jonathan, and with God” in a sacred triangle. There is deeper subliminal meaning here, for those who have eyes to see it (B. Green). As the story of Jonathan unfolds, we will come to see him as “unconventional in love, in war, as a son, [and] as a man” (Comstock).
David’s head-turning beauty – In a transitional chapter (1 Sam 15) the disobedient Saul is told that his kingdom will be “torn” from him and given to someone “better than you” (v. 28), pointing to David. Then David appears in chs. 16-17, introduced with an unusual extended description of his physical beauty, which is noted of only a handful of males in the Bible. He may have been only around 15 years old at the time, but chasing sheep and killing wild animals that attacked them (17:34-35) had made him lean, strong and muscular. After he returns with his sheep, both Samuel and the narrator are dazzled by his looks (Breuggemann)! In fact, three references are made to David’s physical appearance in the Bible, as if the storyteller can’t help returning to it (B. Green). First, the prophet Samuel notices that David is “ruddy [admoni], and had beautiful eyes [yapheh ‘ayinim], and was handsome [tob ro’i]” (16:12, NRSV). Later, a servant in Saul’s court also describes David as “a handsome person” (16:18, NKJV). Then, in a third reference (17:42), the narrator takes wording over from 16:12 to describe Goliath’s sizing up David (McCarter). The Hebrew tob ro’i (KJV: “goodly to look at”) points to David having an “attractive appearance” (NJB) and being “very handsome” (Lamsa). The wording yapheh ‘ayinim (KJV: “of a beautiful countenance”) may be read either as saying that David had “beautiful eyes” or that he was “beautiful-of-eyes” (B. Green), i.e. “handsome to look at” (NAB). “Beautiful eyes” is probably the intended meaning here (Lamsa, Hertzberg, Klein, RSV2, B. Green), since the other reading would only repeat the meaning of tob ro’i that follows. However, admoni (KJV: “ruddy” or reddish) also has been read in two different ways, referring to David’s hair or skin. The term appears in the OT applied only to Esau when he was born (Gen 25:25) and to David here (1 Sam 16:12, 17:42); in the former case, Victor Hamilton holds that while admoni could refer either to the baby Jacob’s skin or to his hair, probably the latter is intended. Certainly this rare word points to something more than simply a “fresh complexion” (JB), “ruddy cheeks” (Ackroyd), or a “tawny [sun-tanned]” look (Hartley). In fact, since red-haired people normally display a lighter, reddish skin, this surely points to both (New Oxford Annotated Bible, notes). One interesting later verse describes Michal making a replica for the head of David (who had just fled to escape Saul’s assassins), to place in his bed, using “a tangle of goat’s hair” (1 Sam 19:13, McCarter’s trans.), which Steven McKenzie says suggests that David’s hair was “thick and wild, and probably curly,” along with being reddish-brown. It is surely fitting that the name dawid means “beloved, darling” (Klein). With his distinctive red hair (Keil & Delitzsch), gorgeous eyes and shapely build, David was not only a “charismatic figure” but a male with “compelling physical beauty” (Kirsch).
Jonathan’s falling in love – When David appears at court, he “takes hearts by storm, and everyone falls for him … captivated by David’s irresistible appearance” (Hertzberg) – including King Saul, his son Jonathan, his daughter Michal, and the court and the army (1 Sam 16:21; 18:1,3; 18:20; 18:22; 18:16). Yet no one falls so hard for David as Jonathan, as we read in 1 Sam 18:1 (NRSV): “When David had finished speaking to Saul [having presented him with Goliath’s head], the soul [nephesh] of Jonathan was bound [qashar] to the soul [nephesh] of David, and Jonathan loved [aheb] him as his own soul [nephesh].” First, it should be noted that the translation of nephesh as “soul” in 18:1,3 is misleading, since the Hebrews did not distinguish like the later Greeks between “body” (soma, impure flesh) and “soul” (psyche, a spiritual part), but rather between the “body” (basar, flesh, made of dust) and the animating “life force” (nephesh, complete with emotions, appetites, and will) and sense of “self” (Terrien, Bass, Robeck). Therefore, nephesh is better translated here as “self” (Alter, Fox, NJB), “himself” (Ackroyd, GNB, NIV), or even “heart” (Ackroyd, NEB, REB) since we’re talking about love. The idea of being “bound [to someone]” is well conveyed in the translations “Jonathan was deeply attracted to David” (18:1, GNB) or “…had given his heart to David” (REB). Jonathan’s love appears surprisingly, suddenly and shatteringly, “like a bolt [of lightning] out of the blue” (Schroer & Staubli). “Jonathan was obviously smitten” with the youth (Horner), now perhaps around 18; and it was “love at first sight” (Damrosch). This love cannot be read simply as “I enjoy talking to you” or “We have many things in common” or “Let me help you politically.” In fact, it is sheer insanity to imagine any young commoner turning to the crown prince and saying, “I’m sorry, but you know the Lord has chosen me to be the next king, instead of you!” Throughout their relationship in the capital city (Gibeah), David continues to assume a submissive position before Jonathan (note “your servant” and his repeated bowing, 20:8,41), even though the prince wanted a more mutual, equal relationship. At the same time, the prince comes to sense on his own that David, with his personal charm, leadership skills, military victories, and God’s blessing, may well be on track to become Israel’s next king (20:13b-15). At the same time, perhaps he was not so keen on assuming the heavy burden of kingship himself, a thought that princes sometimes entertain.
Just as three times our attention is directed to David’s beauty (16:12,18; 17:42), so also three times we are told that Jonathan “loved” David (18:1,3; 20:17). Interestingly, the same word aheb (“loved”), used in 18:1 referring to Jonathan, appears also in 18:20 referring to the princess Michal, where it has been rendered as “Michal had fallen in love with David” (McCarter) or “…fell in love with David” (JB, NEB, GNB, REB, NJB). Danna Fewell and David Gunn note that it is only homophobic bias that leads translators to use “fell in love” in a heterosexual passage but the more bland form “loved” in a same-sex passage, where the same kind and intensity of feeling are present. In fact, Jonathan experiences a love for David that is exactly like falling head-over-heals in love. Therefore, 18:1 might be rendered as, “After David had finished speaking to Saul, Jonathan was strongly attracted to David and he longed for him more than life itself.” Such a reading is bolstered by 19:1 which relates how Jonathan continued to take “great delight [kaphes] in David” (NRSV), since kephes often appears in OT passages concerned with sexual desire and erotic love (Ackerman). This interpretation is further bolstered by comparing the Jonathan and David relationship to that of Shechem and Dinah in Gen 34, where the Hevite prince falls madly in love with Jacob’s daughter (underexpressed in the Hebrew, as usual, with “was drawn to,” v. 3, NRSV). Here we have exactly the same language as appears in 1 Sam 18:1,3 and 19:1, used to describe erotic passion (Ackerman), which has led to sexual union – including “loved” (aheb), “heart” (nephesh) and “delighted [in]” (kephes) (34:3,8,19, NRSV), as well as the idea of “longs [for]” (kasaph, v. 8; J. Green: “bound [to]”), although 1 Sam 18:1 uses a different verb for this (qashar). Therefore, Silvia Schroer and Thomas Staubli hold that “David and Jonathan shared a homoerotic and, more than likely, a homosexual [sexual] relationship.”
love gifts – Very shortly after the pair met, “Jonathan
made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul
[loved him more than anything else]. Jonathan stripped himself of
the robe [me‘il] that he was wearing, and
gave it to David,” along with his armor (maddim),
sword (kereb) bow (qeshet),
and belt (kagora) (18:3-4, NRSV) – although
maddim has been translated elsewhere as “garments”
(KJV), “tunic” (NEB), and “all else he wore” (Knox).
Interpreters have differed on whether these gifts were meant to convey practical-personal,
political, or passionate meaning (or some combination of these). Hans Hertzberg
saw these gifts as Jonathan’s way of giving to David “his own
self [himself]” and William McKane suggested that clothes and weapons
were so much part of a man that through this gift “Jonathan and David
became one flesh.” However, many later interpreters (after 1963) were
influenced by the political hypothesis of William Moran, who argued that these
gifts represented only Jonathan’s pledge of “loyalty, service
and obedience” to David as Israel’s future king – even though
Gary Comstock would later argue that this idea doesn’t make much sense
at all. The two “do not conspire to gain power [for David] or to overthrow
Saul.” David does not take Saul’s life even when he has opportunity
(1 Sam 24, 26) and Jonathan remains by his father’s side to the end
(1 Sam 31). Jonathan’s bow would have been an excellent weapon (since
he was known as an expert archer, 2 Sam 1:22); and his sword would have been
even more valuable, since the Philistines (who controlled iron-making in the
region) allowed only Saul and Jonathan to possess swords in Israel (1 Sam
13:22). The belt was probably also special, made of leather or bronze and
strong enough to support the long, sheathed sword.
The “robe” here is difficult to picture, since me‘il is applied in the OT to different types of outer garments. Worn by royalty, high priests, prophets and other notables, it was clearly recognized as a special robe designating status. Studying pictures of garments worn by kings and the wealthy that have survived in Assyrian and Egyptian art suggests that this was probably a beautifully-decorated garment, which conveyed its special status through its intricate hemming, vibrant colors, vivid patterning, rich embroidery, and ample fringes. Whether David ever wore this princely robe in public may be doubted, however, since such an act would no doubt have been viewed as presumptuous, if not scandalous. Maddim is also a difficult word. Although usually rendered in 18:4 as “armor,” the Hebrew term’s primary meaning is “apparel” (Strong, mad[dim], #4055); and it could refer here just as well to Jonathan’s basic wear (minus his royal robe), i.e., his undergarment or “tunic” (so translated by Ackroyd, NEB, NIV, REB, Elman). Since Jonathan was older (perhaps by some 11 years) and probably bigger than David (remember that Saul, Jonathan’s father, was very tall, 1 Sam 9:2), one has to wonder whether the prince’s “armor” – perhaps an armored piece of bronze or leather worn around the abdomen, shaped like an inverted V and made with overlapping, protective plates – would have fit David any better than Saul’s armor had earlier, which David tried on but then quickly removed as useless in facing Goliath (17:38-39). Rather, Jonathan takes off all of his clothes here, to give his all to David. He “strips himself for David” (Fewell & Gunn) and is probably “flirting” with him (Kirsch) as well. Then David removed all of his clothes (how else could he put on Jonathan’s?), and both get a good look at each other’s beauty – before Jonathan reached over with his garments and “tenderly draped them on the handsome young man” (Kirsch).
Saul’s sexual insult – In 1 Sam 18, Jonathan and David stayed together in the capital city a number of months, perhaps up to a year, as David masters the arts of sword and bow (Jonathan at his side), gains real-life experience on the battlefield, and leads Israel’s army to many glorious victories (18:16,27,30; 9:8). However, in chs. 19-20 time rapidly speeds up. As Saul’s jealousy and rage toward David intensify, he hides his murderous attempts from Jonathan, while David’s life becomes one of terror, trying to keep one step ahead of Saul and his henchmen. Then, at a New Moon festival celebrated at court, Saul asked Jonathan why David was absent; and the prince explained that David had asked leave to join his family for an annual sacrifice in Bethlehem (20:6,27-29). “Then Saul’s anger was kindled against Jonathan. He said to him, ‘You son of a perverse, rebellious woman! Do I not know that you have chosen [bachar] the son of Jesse to your own shame [bosheth], and to the shame [bosheth] of your mother’s nakedness [‘erwa]? For as long as the son of Jesse lives upon the earth, neither you nor your kingdom shall be established. Now send and bring him to me, for he shall surely die.’” (1 Sam 20:30-31, NRSV). Then the enraged king hurled his spear straight at Jonathan, who jumped and fled in anger from the king’s table, realizing, at last, what a dangerous and deadly position David was in related to his father.
Although the first part of Saul’s insult is usually translated like “You son of a perverse, rebellious woman!” (18:30a, NRSV, cf. NIV, NRSV), the Hebrew is quite vulgar (Youngblood) and would be more accurately rendered as, “You son of a slut!” (Peterson) or “You son of a bitch!” (Jobling; Schroer & Staubli). Interestingly, Lucian’s version of the Greek Septuagint adds gunaikotraphe (“effeminate man”) here (Driver), an idea which Chrysostom reiterates (ca. 400); so maybe the original Hebrew conveyed something of this element as well. Then, the second part of this insult reads, “Do I not know that you have chosen [bachar] the son of Jesse to your own shame [bosheth]…” (18:30b, NRSV). Instead of the verb bachar (Strong, #977) in the Hebrew, meaning “to choose,” the more ancient Greek text uses the noun metochos (Strong, #3353), meaning “partner, companion” (Bauer, Hanse). Therefore, various interpreters have speculated that the original Hebrew (to which vowels were added later) also included a noun instead of a verb, either bachur (“selected youth, choice young man”; Strong, #970) or chaber (“associate, companion, two men ‘knit’ together” somehow; Strong, #2270). Martti Nissinen notes that even the verb bachar “indicates a permanent choice and firm relationship,” although he still thinks that this points only to “an intimate camaraderie of two young soldiers with no sexual involvement.” Unfortunately, he underestimates the importance of the third part of this insult, which reads “…and to the shame [bosheth] of your mother’s nakedness [‘erwa]?” (18:30c, NRSV). This final phrase is loaded, in fact, with sexual terminology, including ‘erwa (“nakedness”), most often used in the OT to refer to the genitals (Ackerman), and the repeated bosheth (“shame”), also often used in a sexual context (Horner). One really has to ask, what was Jonathan doing – nakedly, sexually and shamefully – to receive such an insult as this? In fact, the language throughout 20:30 is so “extremely sexually-charged” it is hard to believe that we are not meant to interpret it in sexual ways (Schroer & Staubli, Ackerman). Further, in the light of this, it makes most sense to read the “are choosing” (Elman) or “companion” (NAB) in the middle part as a real reference to David being Jonathan’s “darling” (Houser & Johansson), his “intimate companion” (Horner), and the guy he “is sleeping with” (Jobling).
The passionate goodbye – The next morning, after the New Moon incident, Jonathan went out into the field to a prearranged spot to give David the sad news: he must flee the capital for good (20:35-42). In their parting scene (v. 41-42) David “prostrated himself with his face to the ground. He bowed three times, and they kissed each other, and wept with each other; David wept the more.” (20:41, NRSV) – although a footnote says that the meaning of the Hebrew at the end is “uncertain”; and it translates literally as “until David exceeded” (J. Green). In this terse sentence, intense emotions are conveyed in five powerful, pregnant verbs, including: “prostrated,” “bowed,” “kissed [each other],” “wept [together],” and “[until David] exceeded.” The first two verbs show that even though Jonathan and David were very close, the latter continued to show due respect to his royal companion. Jonathan will only find the mutual relationship that he really wants with David at their final meeting (“the two of them made…,” 23:17-18). Of course, there are all kinds of kisses; yet one erotic kind can clearly lead to love-making, as seen in Prov 7:6-20 (NRSV). Susan Ackerman notes that the emotional intensity in Jonathan’s and David’s parting points, at least, to these being kisses of “affection” (not homage) and that the whole scene suggests that “David is as emotionally committed to Jonathan as Jonathan is to him” in “mutual affection and devotion.”
The Hebrew ‘ad dawid higdil at the end of 20:41 is usually translated like “but David wept the more” (Lamsa, NASB, cf. NKJV, NRSV), “…the most” (NIV), “…very loud” (Keil & Delitzsch) or “…the longer” (Alter), although it means literally, “until David exceeded” (KJV, J. Green, Houser & Johansson). Charles van der Poole translated the Septuagint here (the word order smoothed out a bit though) as, “And each kissed his dear one [plesion], and each wept over his dear one, unto of a great finale [sunteleia] David exceeded” – and sunteleia here in the Greek means to come to “an entire completion, a consummation” (Strong, #4139). Jerome’s Latin Vulgate ends with David autem amplius, meaning, “David, in addition, enlarged.” David Jobling has pointed out that any Hebrew basis for “wept the more” or “the longer” (or the other usual English translations) is flimsy; and Peter Ackroyd has noted that very likely something is missing here in the text as it now stands. Therefore Hans Hertzberg has reconstructed the original Hebrew (based on the Septuagint) to read ‘ad dawid taklit gedola, meaning “until David grew large [to] completion.” Ackroyd reads “…to a great climax,” and Houser and Johansson “…until the ejaculation.” The last reading is not unlikely, since the verb gadal (Strong, #1431) means basically “to become great, grow large, or lift up” and the adjective gadel (Strong, #1432) is used in the OT to refer to huge or erect penises – although this is usually disguised in English translations. For example, in Ezek 16:26 the NRSV refers to the Egyptians as Israel’s “lustful neighbors,” although the Hebrew reads literally “your neighbors of great flesh [= large/enlarged penises]” (J. Green). Only the NJB renders gadel accurately here, with “your big-membered neighbors.” As one might expect, the OT only rarely mentions ejaculation (e.g., Gen 38:9; Lev 15:16,32; 22:4; Deut 23:10), which was a taboo subject in Israel; and this may help explain (along with the same-sex context) the damaged text, with something deleted, in 1 Sam 20:41, where some editor no doubt wished to pull “a discrete veil” over what really happened between Jonathan and David at the end (Houser & Johansson). Likewise, in the drunken Noah story (Gen 9:20-27), where we read of Ham viewing the ‘erwa (“nakedness” = the genitals) of Noah and then of something that was “done” to Noah (v. 24), there is silence in the text where one would expect an explanation of what was done specifically to receive such a horrible curse. Many interpreters now hold that probably a genital act of some kind was done to Noah, which a later editor excised, as being too sensitive, from the text (Cassuto). With Jonathan and David in each other’s arms, kissing, weeping, touching, and holding each other as close as possible, the juices began to rise, until they acted out their own version of the Song of Songs, with “passion fierce [like] a raging fire” (Song 8:6, NRSV).
The three love covenants – Later, during David’s wandering in the eastern Judean wilderness, Jonathan makes a surprise visit to his camp (23:16-18). Saul continues to seek, so as to kill, David, but Yahweh keeps intervening (Brueggemann). Meanwhile, Jonathan has no difficulty in finding David (Payne)! Although such a secret trip alone might have cost him his life (either from David’s men, wild animals, or later from Saul), Jonathan comes anyway to check on David, to encourage him, and to plan their life together once David becomes king. He tells him, “Do not be afraid; for the hand of my father Saul shall not find you; you shall be king over Israel, and I shall be second [mishneh] to you; my father Saul also knows that this is so.” (1 Sam 23:17, NRSV). The term mishneh would later become a formal title referring to someone “second” in command (McCarter); however, as Peter Miscall reminds us, its first meaning was “double” or “copy” (cf. Strong, #4932). Perhaps it was not a high-powered office that Jonathan sought, but simply to stand beside his beloved, gifted, beautiful friend, to help him in whatever ways he could, with his love, encouragement and support.
A close inspection of the three covenant scenes (18:1,3-4; 20:16-17; 23:17-18) reveals that Jonathan and David made three related but still very different pacts. The first one was made soon after the pair met, when Jonathan fell in love with David. The fact that we are given no information concerning the content of this pact besides Jonathon’s expression of his passion felt toward David and his desire to bind him to himself in some way points to its purpose being solely this, with no political meaning attached to it. The second pact was made perhaps a year later, near the end of their stay together in Gibeah; and here Jonathan wants to assure the troubled, besieged David of his continuing and eternal love, devotion and support. However, by now Jonathan has sensed that it probably will be the charismatic, divinely-blessed David who will ascend to the throne of Israel; and so he requests that David, when that happens, show him and/or “his house [any descendents]” a love and compassion (hesed) equal to what he feels for David (20:13-15). Thus, it is here that a political dimension is introduced into their covenant-making for the first time. Then the third covenant looks even deeper into the future and “lays down the work distribution” for the two companions after David becomes king, continuing to envision their “relationship as the center of everything” (Fokkelman).
David’s lament over and love for Jonathan – As for David’s love for Jonathan, 1 Samuel is silent (except for their mutual kissing in 20:41), perhaps not unexpectedly since shame in ancient times was commonly associated with appearing as the passive partner in a same-sex relationship (Nissinen). At one point David does say openly to Jonathan, “Your father knows how much you like me” (1 Sam 20:3, GNB, CEV); however, it will only be after Jonathan’s death that David in his lament finally speaks openly and movingly of his feelings for Jonathan. In fact, the most important (and intimate) part of the lament records these tender words directed to Jonathan: “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.” (2 Sam 1:26, NRSV) or “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.” (GNB). In the first clause here, the verb “distressed [sarar]” points to David’s being “heartbroken” (Anderson) and “crushed” (Peterson) by Jonathan’s death. The label “my brother [eki]” conveys at least a very close union (Boswell), if not sexual desire, which the term can also imply (Ackerman). In the second clause, “beloved [na‘im]” means “surpassing in beauty, delightful” (Strong, #5276) and this can refer specifically to physical beauty and erotic delight (Brown’s lexicon). In fact, Walter Breuggemann interprets “greatly beloved [me‘od na‘im]” here as a reference to Jonathan’s physical attractiveness, pointing to the pair’s “peculiar and precious bonding.” So, David perceived Jonathan as “lovely” … as “beautiful” (Fewell & Gunn)?!! Finally, in the third and last clause, the Hebrew root for “wonderful [pala]” is often used in the OT to refer to the “miraculous,” (Brown’s lexicon); and this could suggest, given David’s spiritual outlook, that he looked upon Jonathan’s love and passion for him as a gift from Yahweh. In fact, this very line of thought appears in 2 Sam 12:8, where the Lord speaks to King David through the prophet Nathan, reminding him of how much he has given to him, including: “I [the Lord] gave you your master’s [Saul’s] house, and your master’s wives into your bosom, … and if that had been too little, I would have added as much more.” (2 Sam 12:8, NRSV). Now if the Lord gave to David Saul’s women (Ahinoam the queen and Rizpah Saul’s concubine) to add to his harem and to sleep with if he chose, why not also Jonathan as his intimate companion? That these two shared a sexual relationship is further supported by David’s statement in his lament that Jonathan’s love given to him was “better even than the love of women” (1:26c, GNB). This comparison to David’s current wives (Ahinoam and Abigail, 1 Sam 25:42-43) clearly suggests an erotic connotation, since a man’s “love for women” was first of all sexual and meant to include sleeping together. As Saul Olyan notes, “the love of women” is usually “understood by scholars to be a reference to sexual or sexual-emotional love.” Even though we are dealing with two men here, Erhard Gerstenberger reminds us that “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 … women, he also cultivated a relationship with another man during his life. Tradition acknowledged this, and it left its ineradicable traces in the narratives.”
after Jonathan’s death – After Jonathan’s passing and
David becomes king (first over Judah and then over the whole of Israel), three
topics emerge as important relating to this study. First is a curse which
David placed on General Joab, after the latter went behind the king’s
back and killed General Abner of the opposing camp, who had just visited David
and made peace with him (2 Sam 3:12-30). So David swore, “May
the guilt [of this killing] fall on the head of Joab, and
on all his father’s house; and may the house of Joab never be without
one who has a discharge [NJB: ‘haemorrhage’ or heavy
bleeding], or who is leprous [NJB: has a ‘virulent
(malignant) skin disease’], or who holds a spindle, or who falls
by the sword, or who lacks food!” (3:29, NRSV). A male “who
holds a spindle” (RSV, RSV2, NRSV) or “… a distaff”
(NASB, REB, NJB) – the latter being a stick around which fibers were
wound before being spun into thread, but both objects relating to woman’s
work (cf. Prov 31:19, NRSV) – pointed to “an effeminate creature
lacking manly qualities” (Mauchline), “a man fit only for women’s
work” (Anderson). “No bitter fate could befall Joab than that
his descendents should not be stalwart warriors but effeminate weaklings”
(Kirkpatrick). What this reveals about David is that whatever the sexual feelings
and intimacies that he and Jonathan shared, David did not connect this at
all with effeminacy. They were, after all, both seasoned and acclaimed warriors,
who had proven their masculinity and bravery beyond any doubt on the battlefield.
The second topic relates to David’s disparaging words spoken against
“the lame and the blind, those whom David hates” (2 Sam 5:8, NRSV),
which he hurled back at the Jebusites, from whom he was determined to take
Jerusalem but who were mocking him from atop the fortress walls, saying that
they needed only the lame and blind to defend them. Yet later, when Merribaal
(Mephiboseth), Jonathan’s only surviving heir, who was lame in both
feet and could barely walk, appears before David, the latter receives him
with open arms, welcoming the crippled man to court, transferring to him Saul’s
extensive property, giving him a permanent seat at his royal table, and later
sparing his life (2 Sam ch. 9; 21:7). Surely David fulfilled his pledge to
Jonathan to extend his deep and abiding love to any heir(s) of his house who
The third topic relates to all of David’s women, who included 10 wives and 1 concubine mentioned by name in the Bible (2 Sam 3:2-5,12-16; 5:13-16; 11:2-5,27; 12:8; 1 Kings 1:1-4), plus many “more [unnamed] concubines and wives” (5:13). It can be noted that he took some (many?) wives to forge political alliances, although to some wives he was also sexually attracted, like Abigail and Bathsheba, who are especially described in the text as “beautiful.” Still, the fact that he appears to lie with a new wife only until she bears him a son (cf. 3:2-5), except for Bathsheba, suggests that he tired quickly of each woman, and then moved on. Nowhere, in fact, does the Bible say that David loved any women; rather this word is reserved for his feelings for men: Jonathan was “greatly beloved” (2:26); David “loved” his eldest son, Amnon (13:21); and J. P. Fokkelman writes of “David’s (not too) secret admiration and delight in the fairest in the land [his beautiful son Absalom]” (2 Sam 14:25-26), whom he considered “his darling son.” All of this suggests that David was sensitive to male beauty, that he found bonding with men more satisfying than with women, and that deep in his heart he still missed Jonathan (9:1ff) and all that they had shared together. That David took multiple female partners does not preclude the fact that he also had a homosexual relationship earlier in his life, in a military context (Horner).
Conclusion – Many elements in the Jonathan and David story are suggestive of a homoerotic relationship, but might not be considered as entirely convincing or conclusive in themselves; yet, taken together, they form an overwhelmingly convincing pattern. Jonathan’s repeated declaration of his love for David in chs. 18-20, which follows the narrator’s repeated emphasis on David’s physical beauty in chs. 16-17, points right from the beginning to a sexual interpretation; and the suddenness and intensity with which Jonathan’s “love” appears (18:1) points also to passion, along with the observation that he “took great delight in David” (19:1). No political meaning is mentioned here in the making of their first pact, and to insert such is intrusive. Rather, Jonathan only wanted to bind himself to David and David to himself in a legal pact (sworn before the Almighty) and to express his love and longing for David by giving him his royal robe, priceless sword, treasured bow, and even all of his clothes – symbolic of giving all of his heart and body to him. Although some have explained away the sexual allusions in Saul’s insult as simply vulgar but vague expressions in an Oriental outburst, the sexual language used here is too excessive and pervasive for that; and in such a sexual context, “are choosing” or “companion” surely points to the two sleeping together sexually. Then, the emotional parting scene, filled with kissing, holding, hugging and weeping, might with little surprise be found to spiral out of control, leading to a sexual “climax.”
As Tom Horner wrote more than twenty-five years ago, “‘But cannot two men be [simply] good friends…?’ Yes, they can. But when the two men come from a society that for two hundred years had lived in the shadow of the Philistine culture, which accepted homosexuality; when they find themselves in a social context that was thoroughly military in the Eastern sense; when one of them – who is the social superior of the two – publicly makes a display of his love; when the two of them make a lifetime pact openly; when they meet secretly and kiss each other and shed copious tears at parting; when one of them proclaims that his love for the other surpassed his love for women – and all this is present in the David-Jonathan liaison – we have every reason to believe that a homosexual relationship existed. The only thing lacking was for someone who was close to both of them to make an issue of it openly, and this eventually happened too when Jonathan’s father rashly implied in an emotional outburst something that under ordinary circumstances he probably never would have; but these were no ordinary circumstances. King Saul feared for the chances of Jonathan’s succession if the liaison continued.” As Jonathan Kirsch writes, “David, whose name means ‘beloved,’ attracts both men and woman, inspiring sometimes a pristine love but more often a frankly carnal one.” Also, one of the overlooked aspects of the Bible is “its earthiness and ribaldry, and nowhere are these qualities more extravagantly on display than in the biography of David.” Later, the Book of Chronicles will ‘bowdlerize’ (clean up) the story. The final nails in constructing this interpretation, however, come from how the narrator has bracketed the story of David’s and Michal’s marriage (1 Sam 18:20-29a) between two stories that introduce David’s and Jonathan’s marriagelike relationship (1 Sam 18:1-4 and 19:1:7), suggesting that Jonathan was not only the equivalent of a wife to David, but a wife who supplanted one of his sisters, in effect squeezing her out of the picture and making her relationship with David completely irrelevant (Ackerman). Again, in David’s lament, we see how David envisions his relationship with Jonathan (but here with Jonathan presented as the passive partner) in clear marriagelike, husband-and-wife, and (therefore) sexual terms.
© 2007 Bruce L. Gerig
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