& David: Their
HOMOSEXUALITY AND THE BIBLE,
Key Passages: 1 Samuel 18-19
By Bruce L. Gerig
“After killing the giant, when the young David is brought to Saul’s court, something very dramatic happens: In 1 Sam 18:1 we read, “ When David had finished speaking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul.” (NRSV) Unfortunately, this sentence is not easy to understand because of ambiguous words (“loved” and “soul”) and strange expressions (“bound to the soul of David” and “loved [David] as his own soul”). Further, verses 3-4 mention Jonathan making a secret pact with and giving special gifts to David “because of his love,” which are not further explained. Because of this, the latter shall be discussed later in the context of the three “covenants” that Jonathan and David made during the 3-4 year period they were in contact.
Rise of David” (1 Sam 16:1 – 2 Sam 5:10) follows the movements
of a humble shepherd boy on his way to becoming the great shepherd (king)
over Israel. The central subject is the conflict that breaks out between Saul
and David, ending only when the king is killed in battle in 1 Sam 31; meanwhile,
the story line follows the advance of David and the decline of Saul.1
The key theological theme is “[A]nd the spirit of the Lord came mightily
upon David from that day [when Samuel anointed him] forward” (16:13b,
NRSV); and at the same time “the spirit of the Lord departed from Saul…”
(v. 14). David’s path was not easy. Chapters 18-20 describe David’s
brief stay in Saul’s court (or its environs), probably a year or less,2
during which the valiant hero struggles to survive as Saul plots to eliminate
him as a rival, since David has established himself as a charismatic warrior
with more leadership potential than the king himself.3
Now, however, we want to focus on the emotions expressed in 18:1 and their
setting in chs. 18-19. Chapter 18 may be titled “David Joins
the House of Saul, with Mixed Results,” and its key verbs are “love”
(aheb, #157, in 18:1,6,20,22,28, plus ahaba
in 18:3, a variant of aheb) and “fear” (yareh,
#3372, in 18:12,29). Cartledge notes that gur in
18:15 (#1481, NRSV: “stood in awe”) may also be translated as
“lived in fear” (NIV: “was afraid” of him).4
In this chapter: Jonathan loves David and makes a secret pact with him (18:1-4);
Saul uses David, but grows increasingly afraid of him (18:5-19); and David
forces Saul’s hand to give him Michal as his wife (18:20-30). Chapter
19 may be titled “Saul Becomes Devoted to Trying to Kill David,”
and its key verbs are “kill” (muth,
#4191, in 19:1,2,5,11,15) and “escapes” (malat,
#4422, in 19:10,11,12,17,18).5 In this chapter: Jonathan
brokers a peace for David with Saul, but it is short-lived (19:1-10); Michal
concocts a plan that saves David’s life (19:11-17); and God’s
spirit protects David as Saul follows his tracks to Samuel (19:18-24). Take
a few minutes to read and enjoy these two dramatic chapters.
Allegiances and alarm in Saul’s court – When David, in his late teens,6 now appears in court, we are told that Jonathan loved David (18:1,3), Michal his younger sister loved David (18:20,28), the king’s servants (high-ranking members at court7) loved David (18:22), and in fact “all Israel and Judah” loved David (18:16). Gnana Robinson labels 18:1-16 “David, the Darling of Jonathan and the People.”8 As Hans Hertzberg notes, David “takes hearts by storm, and everyone falls for him. … [A]ll, one after the other, are captivated by David’s irresistible appearance” – the father, the son, the daughter, the court, and the army.9 Yet, in a dark counterpoint, Saul grows increasingly uneasy with David. It starts out as “anger” and “displeasure” at the women who praise the youthful hero as a victor as much as10 or more than11 the king himself (18:8),12 which causes him to “eye” (become envious of13) David from that day on (v. 9). He is “afraid” of David because he sees that the Lord is with him (18:12); and even when the king sends David out of his sight to the battlefront,14 he survives (v. 13-14). When Saul decides to offer him Michal’s hand in marriage as a “snare” (to spy on him, 18:20-21), he only ends up being “still more afraid” when he realizes how much she truly loves David (v. 29) and has given her loyalty to him.
After twice throwing his spear at David (18:11), at the beginning of ch. 19 Saul then “goes public” with his desire to kill him (19:1).15 Saul openly becomes the hunter and David his prey.16 Ironically, he tells his murderous plans to Jonathan, whom we are told “found great delight” in David.17 “Love” and “delight” often occur together in sexual passages in the OT.18 In the reconciliation scene (19:1-7), Jonathan leads his father out to an open space (“a field”) so that David can assess the king’s attitude for himself from a distance; then the prince fills his friend in on the details afterward.19 Jonathan appears to calm his father’s fears, reminding him of David’s service and usefulness (v. 4-5); so David is able to return to court. No doubt Jonathan also wants David nearby.20 David once again resumes his duties as court musician and army commander (19:8-10).21 However, it is not long before Saul again goes berserk and tries “to pierce David and the wall” with the thrust of his spear (19:10), which he always carries with him.22 David escapes only because he can jump quick as lightning.23 Then David runs home (19:11-17) to his new bride, Michal (see below); but she warns him that his life is still in danger; and indeed Saul sends soldiers to guard their door, with instructions to kill David in the morning. Some interpreters think that this may have been their wedding night.24 If so, Saul seems ready to allow them one consummated encounter before the execution;25 but Michal forgoes sex in her haste to get David moving. She lowers him out of a window into the darkness, apparently landing him outside the city wall, so he can escape unobserved.26 Then she makes a replica of David, placing a lifesize household idol (teraphim) on the bed, covering it up, and placing a wig or piece of goat’s hair on its head.27 In the morning, she bemoans to Saul’s soldiers that David is sick; and as they run back to Saul for further directions, David gains a little more time to escape. In the final scene in this chapter (19:18-24), David goes to Samuel at Ramah, a rustic village 2-1/2 miles N of Gibeah, Saul’s capital;28 then heads with him to hide out in “Naioth” (Heb. ne’ot), probably “pasture lands,” a camp where Samuel presides over an assembly of prophets.29 But Saul’s henchmen are right on their heels. David escapes because the Lord’s spirit lifts Saul’s three bands of dispatched assassins into a state of uncontrollable ecstasy, and they begin speaking gibberish.30 When Saul shows up, he is “seized” in the same way, begins to dance ecstatically, throws off all his clothes, and then finally sinks into unconsciousness (19:23-24).31 No one can thwart the will of God, who is David’s real deliverer.32
Jonathan’s love for David – Returning to the opening verse (18:1), what about Jonathan, who became “bound” to David and who “loved him as his own soul”? Since the 1960s, interpreters have argued whether this love was primarily political affiliation, general affection, or homoerotic attraction (or some combination, mostly of the first two) – with the majority emphasizing a political significance.33 However, with the publication of Tom Horner’s Jonathan Loved David (1978), which viewed this relationship as primarily homosexual, this last view found increasing scholarly interest and support. Horner wrote, “Jonathan was obviously smitten” with David, and “whatever he saw he liked.”34 It was “love at first sight” (18:1), says David Damrosch (1987) – and a love that was familial (as close as between brothers), political (offering loyalty to David), and erotic (romantic and homosexual) in nature.35 Robert Polzin (1989) reminds us, remembering the physical description of David in 16:12, that “We stand before the Deuteronomist’s David much as we would before Michelangelo’s statue [of David] and are struck by the figure’s grace and beauty.”36 Jonathan Kirsch (2000) sees here “a man wholly governed by his appetites and passions. … Jonathan is “smitten with love for David on the very day that David smote Goliath.”37 Susan Ackerman (2005) notes that “love” is used in many places in the Bible to describe heterosexual erotic and sexual attraction; and there is no reason why it cannot, and should not, refer here to a “homoeroticized relationship” between Jonathan and David.38
Yet, what does it mean that Jonathan’s soul [nephesh, Strong #5315] “was bound [qashar, #7194] to the soul [nephesh] of David” in love (18:1)? We can get some idea from another passage,39 where this same phraseology is applied to the patriarch Jacob, who greatly “loves” [aheb] his youngest son, Benjamin (Gen 44:20). In fact, Judah tells the Egyptian minister of state (Joseph, but unrecognized) that his father’s “life [nephesh] is bound up [qashar] in the boy’s life [nephesh]” and if Benjamin does not return with his brothers, “he [Jacob] will die.” (Gen 44:30-31, NRSV) Notice the same Hebrew words used here. Various translations say that “[Jacob’s] heart is bound up with him” (JB 1966, NJB 1998), his “life is wrapped up” with the boy (GNB 1983), and “He loves him so much that he will die if Benjamin does not come back with me [Judah]” (CEV 1995). Although this is not a homosexual context, it still describes a love for a beloved one so deep, an attachment so strong, and a need to have someone near so pervasive that one feels like he or she will die if deprived of it. Heterosexuals can easily understand how intense sometimes love can be for them, romantic and otherwise; and gay people, as well, know this same kind of experience, on both levels. What does the phrase “loved him as his own soul/life [nephesh]” really mean? As Samuel Terrien notes, nephesh is far from a reference to the pure and immortal psyche (“soul”) in Hellenstic philosophy;40 it is not a spiritual entity opposed to an impure “flesh.” No such dualism existed in Hebrew thinking. Instead, nephesh referred to “the fullness of self,” including the body and eros. That “Jonathan loved David as his ‘whole being’” points, Terrien believes, to an erotic aspect in this friendship.41 It is interesting to note that many translations render nephesh as “life” in Gen 44:30, but as “soul” in 1 Sam 18:1,3 (KJV 1611, RSV 1946, NASB 1960, NKJV 1982, NRSV 1989). Other better translations of 18:1 read, “Jonathan found himself bound up with David” (McCarter 1980, p. 300), “Jonathan was deeply attracted to David” (GNB 1983), and he “had given his heart to David” (REB 1989). The Hebrew language here is too strong to support such tepid renderings as Jonathan became “one in spirit” with David (NIV 1978) or “best friends” (CEV 1995) or “fond” of David (NAB 1986).
Michal’s love for David – An intriguing side of this story, that has only recently been investigated (during the past two decades), is the relationship between Michal and David, and between Michal and Jonathan and David. Michal appears on the scene in 18:20, after Saul has offered David his eldest daughter, Merab, as wife (18:17-19), but then married her off to Adriel the Meholathite (v. 19), probably for political advantage.42 Perhaps Saul’s offer to David had to do with the reward promised anyone who could kill Goliath, rumored earlier among the soldiers (17:25),43 although what we read in 18:17 is Saul’s request that David, in return for Merab, “fight the Lord’s battles” for him in the future (18:17).44 Marriage to any of Saul’s daughters would place David in a potential position to succeed Saul to the throne;45 but still David may be thinking, “from son-in-law … to dead”!46 Then Michal lets it be known that she “loved David” (18:20, NRSV) – the only place in the OT where it is says explicitly that a woman loved a man.47 Of course, it is assumed that most wives loved their husbands; but apparently it takes an aggressive, unorthodox, “unfeminine” woman to get her love noted in the record!48 Anyway, what young woman (or gay-inclined man, for that matter) would not be attracted to a strong, athletic, young, beautiful hero; and Michal makes no attempt to conceal her feelings.49 The same basic verb for “love” (aheb) is used for her feelings (18:20,28) as for Jonathan’s feelings (18:1,3). In this heterosexual context (18:20), aheb has been translated as “had fallen in love” with David (McCarter 1980, p. 315), “fell in love” with David (JB 1966, NEB 1970, GNB 1983, REB 1989, NJB 1998), and “was in love” with David (NIV 1978, CEV 1995, Peterson 2002). However, when it comes to describing Jonathan’s feelings for David (18:1), nervous translators soften the language to read he “loved” David (McCarter 1980, p. 300-01; NIV, NJB), “had grown to love” him (NEB, REB), or even – removing the word “love” – “thought as much” of David as he did himself (CEV) or “was deeply impressed” with David (Peterson). One sees how strong homophobic bias can affect translation.50 Verse 18:1 could just as well be translated, “Now Jonathan fell in love with David, and could not stop thinking about him.” In both cases, when Michal is introduced and Jonathan reintroduced, the narrator first draws attention to their passion for David51 – and then, lest we missed it, mentions that love a second time, in both cases (18:1,3; 18:20,28).52
When Saul learns of Michal’s desire for David, he decides to use this as a trap (18:21) to lead him to certain death, requesting first of David a bride price of one hundred Philistine foreskins.53 David’s evasive answer to the king’s offer shows how much he is on his guard.54 Is his reply (“I am a poor man and of no repute,” 18:23) an expression of genuine humility or just polite court language?55 Does it express a real interest in Michal56 or is it a subtle mocking of the undependable Saul?57 Whatever the case, no Philistine soldier is going to give up his foreskin without a fight to the death, not to mention the fact that touching uncircumcised phalluses would make David and his men contaminated and “unclean.”58 Those who think that David would have recoiled from touching Jonathan’s private parts, or the other way around, need to see David and his men here running through the Philistine ranks, slaughtering men, lifting up their short tunics, taking hold of their genitals, then cutting off their foreskins. In the end, in an act of “bold over-trumping” of the king,59 David and his men collect two hundred specimens; and then he stands before Saul and his court, holding up and counting each and every prepuce so that no one can doubt that he has fulfilled the king’s bride price and no way can the king now renege on his promise to make David a part of the royal family.60 Later, after David becomes king, in an act of free abandonment he will dance alongside the Ark being brought into Jerusalem, dressed only in a linen ephod (2 Sam 6:12-14), a short, sleeveless vest,61 that left his genitals fully exposed for all to see (v. 20). As Jonathan Kirsch notes, the Talmudic sages and Church Fathers would try to make David over into a plaster saint by concealing, denying, or explaining away many things which the Bible really discloses to us about David,62 this very human but also divinely-called individual.
Michal shows her intense love for David by helping him escape (19:11-17), at no small danger to herself. David will never again spend a night in Saul’s court.63 What is more amazing, however, is that there appear to be no last-minute hugs, kisses or tears as David parts from Michal, bolts out the window, and is gone. Moreover, when he returns from Samuel (20:1ff), it is not to see Michal or seek her help, but to find Jonathan and his love, closeness, comfort and advice (20:1-23). As Susan Ackerman (2005) notes, “[B]racketing the story of David’s and Michal’s marriage (1 Sam 18:20-29a) between the two stories that introduce David’s and Jonathan’s marriagelike relationship (1 Sam 18:1-4 and 19:1-7) … suggests … that Jonathan is not only the structural equivalent of a wife to David, but a wife who supplants one of his sisters.” In effect, Michal is “squeezed out” and her relationship becomes “parenthetical” (a minor insert) in the primary account of Jonathan’s and David’s love.64
FOOTNOTES: 1. Brueggemann, ABD, V, p. 970. 2. See Supplement 12A in this series. 3. Cartledge, p. 227. 4. Ibid., p. 231. 5. Cf. Hertzberg, p. 166; Polzin, p. 182. 6. See Supplement 12A in this series. 7. McCarter, p. 317. 8. Robinson, p. 103. 9. Hertzberg, p. 154,161. 10. McCarter, p. 311-12. 11. Robinson, p. 103. 12. The reference to “thousands” and “ten thousands” in the women’s chant in 18:7 is simply a poetic way of saying that their heroes have killed “a great many,” with no real distinction made between Saul and David (McCarter, p. 311-12). Still, Saul probably heard “but” instead of “and” (Fokkelman II, p. 214). 13. McCarter, p. 312. 14. Hertzberg, p. 158. 15. Gordon, p. 162. 16. Fokkelman, II(1986), p. 248. 17. Klein, p. 195,192. 18. Ackerman, p. 176-77. 19. Gordon, p. 163. 20. Jobling, p. 163. 21. Cartledge, p. 235. 22. Kiel & Delitzsch, p. 190. 23. Fokkelman, II(1986), p. 223. 24. Ackroyd, p. 157; McCarter, p. 325; Klein, p. 194. 25. Fokkelman thinks, however, that Michal and David had perhaps “a few weeks” together, before David had to flee (Fokkelman II, p. 272). 26. Remember Rahab’s home that was located adjacent to the city wall (Josh 2:15), so that Joshua’s spies were able to make a similar nighttime escape from Jericho (cf. Hertzberg, p. 166). 27. McCarter, p. 326. 28. Cartledge, p. 137. 29. McCarter, p. 328-29; Cartledge, p. 239. 30. Kirsch, p. 72. 31. Fokkelman II(1986), p. 284-85. 32. Hertzberg, p. 166. 33. Ackerman, p. 170-74. 34. Horner, p. 27. 35. Damrosch, p. 203. 36. Polzin, p. 155. 37. Kirsch, p. 59. 38. Ackerman, p. 225. 39. Damrosch, p. 203. 40. Greek thinking after the death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C. 41. Terrien, p. 149,169. 42. Cf. Cartledge, p. 232; ISBE, III(1986), p. 311. 43. K. Budde, in Hertzberg, p. 160; McCarter, p. 306. 44. Klein, p. 186; McKenzie, p. 80. 45. Cartledge, p. 232. 46. Green, p. 308. 47. Robert Alter, in an article in Clines, p. 68. 48. Adele Berlin, in an article in Clines, p. 91. 49. Herbert Lockyer, in an article in Clines, p. 229. 50. Fewell & Gunn, p. 148-49. 51. Jobling, p. 162. 52. Ackerman, p. 180-81. 53. Clines, in an article in Clines, p. 30-31. 54. Fokkelman II(1986), p. 239. 55. Robert Alter, quoted in an article by Clines, in Clines, p. 38. 56. We are never told anywhere explicitly that David loved Michal. 57. Green, p. 308. 58. Fokkelman II(1986), p. 245. 59. K. Budde, in Hertzberg, p. 162. 60. Cartledge, p. 233. 61. Harrison, R.K., “Ephod,” ISBE, II(1982), p. 117. 62. Kirsch, p. 4. 63. Cartledge, p. 237. 64. Ackerman, p. 181.
Ackerman, Susan, When Heroes Love, 2005.
Ackroyd, Peter, The First Book of Samuel, 1971.
Anchor Bible Dictionary, vols. I-VI, 1992.
Cartledge, Tony, 1 & 2 Samuel (Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary), 2001.
Clines, David, and Tamara Eskenazi, eds., Telling Queen Michal’s Story, 1991.
Damrosch, David, The Narrative Covenant, 1987.
Fewell, Danna, and David Gunn, Gender, Power, and Promise, 1993.
Fokkelman, J.P., Narrative Art and Poetry in the Books of Samuel. Vol. II: The Crossing Fates (I Sam. 13-31 & II Sam. 1), 1986.
Gordon, Robert, 1 & 2 Samuel: A Commentary, 1986.
Green, Barbara, How Are the Mighty Fallen? A Dialogical Study of King Saul in 1 Samuel, 2003.
Hertzberg, Hans, I & II Samuel: A Commentary, 1964.
Horner, Tom, Jonathan Loved David, 1978.
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vols. I-IV, 1979-88.
Jobling, David, 1 Samuel (Berit Olam: Studies in Hebrew Narrative & Poetry), 1998.
Keil, C.F., and F. Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on the Books of Samuel, 1950.
Kirsch, Jonathan, King David: The Real Life of the Man Who Ruled Israel, 2000.
Klein, Ralph, 1 Samuel (Word Biblical Commentary), 1983.
McCarter, P. Kyle, Jr., I Samuel (Anchor Bible), 1980.
McKenzie, Steven, King David: A Biography, 2000.
Polzin, Robert, Samuel and the Deuteronomist. Part II: 1 Samuel, 1989.
Robinson, Gnana, Let Us Be Like the Nations: A Commentary on the Books of 1 and 2 Samuel (International Theological Commentary), 1993.
Strong, James, “Hebrew and Chaldee Dictionary,” in Strong’s Abingdon’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible…, 1890.
Terrien, Samuel, Till the Heart Sings: A Biblical Theology of Manhood and Womanhood, 1985.
TRANSLATIONS: Contemporary English Version, 1995. Good News Bible, 1983. Jerusalem Bible, 1966. King James Version, 1611. New American Bible, 1995. New American Standard Bible, 1960. New English Bible, 1970. New International Version, 1978. New Jerusalem Bible, 1998. New King James Version, 1982. New Revised Standard Version, 1989. Peterson, Eugene: The Message, 2002. Revised English Bible, 1989. Revised Standard Version, 1946.
© 2005 Bruce L. Gerig
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