A Closer Look at David’s Lament, Part 2
By Bruce L. Gerig

Jonathan, my hassebi – There is still more to be discovered in David’s lament. Returning to the first stanza in the song (2 Sam 1:19), we read: “The beauty of [hassebi] Israel is slain on thy high places: how are the mighty fallen!” (KJV). Other translations of the first part here include:Your glory, O Israel, lies slain on your high places.” (NRSV); “Does the splendour of Israel lie dead on your heights?” (NJB); and “Oh, oh, Gazelles of Israel, struck down on your hills…” (Peterson; italics added above indicate the translation of hassebi). Most translators render this word as “The beauty of” (KJV 1611; cf. NASB 1960; J. Green 1986; NKJV 1982; cf. REB 1989; cf. Elman 1994, p. 285) or “thy/your/the glory” (RSV 1946; Hertzberg 1964, p. 235; JB 1966; RSV2 1972; NIV 1978; NRSV 1989; NAB 1995). Others have rendered it as: “your pride and joy” (LB 1976), “O prince of [Israel]” (NEB 1970; Ackroyd 1977, p. 23; cf. McCarter 1984, p. 66), “your famous hero” (CEV 1995), “our leaders” (GNB 1983), and also “like a gazelle” (Lamsa 1933, referring to Israel) or “Gazelles of [Israel]” (Peterson 2002, referring to Israel’s slain warriors). It can be noted above that the word may be read either as singular or collective plural. That hassebi here might apply to Saul and Jonathan gains support from the first line in the introduction, which tells us that “David raised this lament over Saul and Jonathan his son…” (v. 17). However, “How are the warriors fallen!” (v. 19b, both translation REB) opens the door for applying this also to all of Israel’s fighting men who lost their lives in the battle.

But where does the idea of “gazelle(s)”come from? Strong’s lexicon notes that the basic word here, sebi (#6643), points to “prominence, splendor” or to a “gazelle (as something beautiful)”; and Brown’s lexicon holds that originally there may have been two different words (called homonyms) that were spelled the same, but one meaning “beauty, honor” and the other “gazelle.”1 With regards to the latter, in ancient Syria and Palestine gazelles stood about 2’ high at the shoulders and came in two species: one was tawny (yellow-brown) in color and the other grey, and both had creamy-white underbellies. Gazelles were a common sight on the interior plains and uplands of Canaan, roaming alone or in small herds. The animal was a marvel of lightness and grace; and when alarmed, it ran off with great speed, even over the roughest terrain.2 Stewart McCullough notes that although gazelles were a “clean” animal and could be eaten, they had to be hunted first and “were not easy to bag, for their speed of movement was proverbial…” Their simple beauty and elegant form explains why this animal imagery was applied to the two lovers in the Song of Songs (see below).3

A great deal of discussion has been given to how sebi here might best be translated and to whom it refers. Heinrich Ewald (1871) and Bernhard Stade (1879), along with many other 19th century interpreters, translated it as “gazelle” and suggested that this was probably a popular name by which Jonathan was known among his men.4 Ewald noted, for example, that Jonathan “appears throughout as the perfect type of warrior,” with courage and speed, “slender also, and of well-made figure. This personal beauty and swiftness of foot in attack or retreat [must have] gained for him among the troops the name of ‘the Gazelle’…”5 S.R. Driver (1913) acknowledged this possibility, although he preferred translating hassebi (1:19) as “The beauty of [Israel],” which he referred to both Saul and Jonathan.6 A.F. Kirkpatrick (1930) cautioned that there is no real evidence to prove that Jonathan’s beauty and swiftness had gained him the name of “the Gazelle” among his troops, as Ewald proposed; and Kirkpatrick preferred “glory” or “beauty,” referring to both Saul and Jonathan.7 Hans Hertzberg (1964) felt that this lament begins by referring to the “glory” or “flower” of Israel, pointing to all of the young men who had fallen in the battle – a note that would be bitterly familiar to all peoples and times.8 In contrast, Michael O’Connor (1980) translated sebi here as “The Gazelle” but without designating to whom he thought this was meant to refer.9 Following the lead of F.M. Cross (1973) and others, Kyle McCarter (1984) emended hsby ysr’l (the original Hebrew, without the vowels) to read ho sebi yisra’el, which he translated as “Alas, prince of Israel.” However, he also noted that “gazelle” was the literal meaning of sebi and that some interpreters related this title to Saul (e.g., P.D. Miller, 1971) and others to Jonathan (e.g., D.N. Freedman, 1972) – although he preferred Saul.10 A.A. Anderson (1989) translated hassebi as “your Splendor” in v. 19 and referred it to Saul.11

David Freedman (1980) summarized, then, that hassebi might refer either to Saul or Jonathan, or to both of them, and also that both the literal use (“gazelle”) and the figurative use (“beauty, glory”) of sebi are well attested (clearly found) in the OT. He pointed out, moreover, that sebi appears in the romantic poetry of the Song of Songs,12 e.g., the maiden-in-love says, “The voice of my beloved! Behold, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills. My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag.” (Song 2:8-9a, RSV2; cf. also v. 17). One can visualize the swiftness, agility and beauty of the male lover, as he runs like a buck frantically over the mountainous terrain to join his beloved one (Marvin Pope).13 Freedman notes that elsewhere in the OT “gazelle” is applied to warriors, e.g. to Asahel, son of Zeruiah, who is described in 2 Sam 2:18 as “swift of foot as a wild gazelle” (RSV2). Then 1 Chron 12:8 notes that while David was staying with his men at Ziklag, some “mighty and experienced warriors” joined him from the tribe of Gad, “who were swift as gazelles…” (RSV2). Freedman also points out that while hassebi in 1:19 might refer to both Saul and Jonathan, in v. 25 the repeating of the refrain (“How are the mighty fallen!”), which explicitly refers to Jonathan, suggests that in reality “gazelle” was a nickname for the prince rather than the king. Thus the meaning and application of “gazelle” in 1:19 is finally explicated (made clear).14 David Zapf (1984) writes that “the gazelle” would be a fitting term for a noted military leader and that while the sebi in 1:19 probably refers to both Saul and Jonathan, in 1:25 it is clearly linked to Jonathan, giving him “a certain preference” in the poem.15

J.P. Fokkelman (1986) felt that the poem probably started out ambiguously on purpose, with David drawing in his audience with the enigmatic hassebi and compelling them to think about the words in his song. Who is this “gazelle” or “ornament (jewel)”? The mention of Saul and Jonathan in 1:17 suggests, at least to the later reader, that the reference in v. 19 refers to both of them – although this may not originally have been the case.16 It is not until we get to v. 25 that it becomes clear who the real “gazelle, the jewel,” of Israel is, in the eyes of David. It is Jonathan! Fokkelman writes, “David has reserved … [the] title of honor for his bosom friend and only now [in v. 25] reveals the real object of his affection. … [T]he naked truth is out.” The riddle of the first word in the poem is solved, and Jonathan becomes the first and last subject of the lament.17 Ronald Youngblood (1992) agrees that “the gazelle” here is a nickname for Jonathan. David’s comparison of Saul and Jonathan to other animals, to “eagles” and “lions” in 1:23, should also be noted, as well as his later reference to “heights” in 2 Sam 22:34, where he praises the Lord who has “made my feet like the feet of a deer, and set me secure on the heights (NRSV, italics added; cf. with “the heights/high places” in 2 Sam 1:19a). That Jonathan should be compared to a gazelle is entirely appropriate.18 One can remember, for example, Jonathan’s surefootedness as he and his aide scampered up the steep cliff to rattle the Philistines at the Michmash Pass (1 Sam 14:4,13). It should not be surprising, Youngblood notes, that Jonathan is alluded to at the beginning of David’s poem, giving notice that he intends here to highlight his relationship to “the gazelle,” his dear and beloved friend.19 The growing trend, then, among interpreters has been to translate sebi here as “the gazelle” and to view this as a definite, even if at first disguised, reference to Jonathan.

Song of the Bow – The introduction to David’s lament (1:17-18), which we have not yet considered at length, contains several curious references: one to the “book of Jashar” and the other to a “bow.” Verse 18 reads literally (taken from J. Green): “And he [David] said to teach the sons of Judah the bow [qeshet]; see it is written in the book of Jasher [yashar].”20 Some other slightly different translations of this include: “and afterward [he] commanded that it be sung throughout Israel. It is quoted here from the book, Heroic Ballads (LB, 1976); “(He ordered that The Song of the Bow be taught to the people of Judah; it is written in the Book of Jashar.)” (NRSV, 1989); and “(it is for teaching archery to the children of Judah; it is written in the Book of the Just)” (NJB, 1998). First, what was the Book of Jashar? The Hebrew term yashar (#3477) means “straight, just, upright” (Strong); and this title has been explained as referring to Israel or to God’s actions on Israel’s behalf,21 or to remarkable events and heroic deeds that were remembered in this national poetry anthology.22 For example, Joshua’s poetic address to the sun and the moon (to stand still during the Israelites’ battle with the Amorites) is noted as having been recorded in the Book of Jashar (Josh 10:12-13). Solomon’s declaration, at the dedication of the great Temple, when the Ark of the Covenant was carried in and the Lord’s presence filled the temple like a cloud – about the Lord dwelling in thick darkness there (1 Kings 8:12-13) – may also have been inscribed in the Book of Jashar. Although there is no mention of this in the Hebrew text, the Septuagint Greek adds, “Is it not written in the book of songs?” – and many interpreters feel that perhaps an ancient scribe miscopied hysr (“Jashar”), in his original source, as hsyr (“songs”).23 Perhaps it is best to view the Book of Jashar as a scroll or scrolls which recorded moving poetry from memorable events in Israel’s sacred history.

The reference to “a bow”(qeshet, #7198) or “the bow” here (Stanley Gevirtz) is even more important for our study, and it is also more enigmatic. In fact, four major lines of interpretation have been followed: (1) Since the word “bow” does not appear in some Septuagint Greek manuscripts, it should be considered as text added later and so should be dropped from the Hebrew and not included in translations. – In the 19th century, G.A. Smith considered all or part of the introduction (v. 17-18) as a gloss, or later insertion – but then H.P. Smith (1899) asked, if so, how did the inserter ever get the idea that David not only sang this lament, but ordered that it should be taught? In the end, however, H.P. Smith sided with August Klostermann (1887), who (radically) proposed that the whole line about the book of Jashar be dropped as a later addition and that the line about the bow then be translated as “Receive, O Judah, cruel tidings” – vowelizing the original Hebrew qst not as qeshet (“bow”) but as qashot (“hard [things],” #7186). Still, Smith doubted “whether this is good Hebrew.”24 J.P. Fokkelman (1986) similarly read the Hebrew here as saying that the Judeans should be instructed concerning the “painful realities” of life (not the “bow”).25 Kyle McCarter (1984), followed a less radical path, proposing only that “bow” be deleted from the text as a gloss.26 Following suit, certain English translations thus removed the word “bow” from their text, including: “it should be taught to the people of Judah” (RSV 1946, cf. JB 1966, RSV2 1972, GNB 1983), “that it be sung throughout Israel” (LB 1976), and “that everyone in Judah learn it by heart” (Peterson 2002). Of course, “it” refers to David’s poem; and, in fact, a few translations substitute “this dirge” in place of “it” (NEB 1970, REB 1989). Yet, A.A. Anderson (1989) points out that while “bow” is lacking in some Septuagint manuscripts (including the Alexandrinus text [LXXA]), it appears in other major versions; and he believes that the omission, where it occurred, may have resulted from a failure on the part of some scribe to understand the significance of qst in this context, not because the word for “bow” was lacking in the earliest Hebrew text.27

(2) The “bow” means that the sons of Judah were to be taught archery, to prepare them for combat. – The 11th century rabbi Solomon ben Isaac (who is also known by the names Rashi and Isaaki) held that the “bow” indicated that the children of Judah should “learn war and [how to] draw the bow.” The 17th century Dutch theologian Hugo Grotius viewed this lament as a song that was to be sung during martial (war) exercises in the training of soldiers.28 Otto Eissfeldt (1955) also understood the wording “teach the sons of Judah (the) bow” as meaning to “make [them] fit for war.”29 Ralph Gehrke (1968) notes that some interpreters have viewed this statement as meaning that David’s lament was to be sung during military training, such as at archery practice.30 This interpretation has also been carried over into certain translations, including: “teach the children of Israel the use of the bow” (KJV 1611, cf. Lamsa 1933), “a lesson in archery” (Knox 1948, from the Vulgate), and “for teaching archery” (NJB 1998). However, as J.P. Fokkelman notes, “training” the Judeans in the bow has no real linguistic foundation here.31

(3) The “Bow” refers to the name of a tune. – C.F. Keil and F. Delitzsch (1950) noted that the “bow” might refer to a melody (although this was not their first choice).32 Gnana Robinson (1993) and Tony Cartledge (2001) also mention this as a possibility.33 Similar names are included in superscriptions (notes of various kinds) that precede certain psalms, which seem to indicate tune titles, e.g. “The Doe of the Morning” (Ps 22), “A Dove on Distant Oaks,” (Ps 56), “Lillies” (Ps 45, 69), and “Do Not Destroy” (Ps 57-59, 75; all as translated in the NIV).34 It should be noted that none of these words or phrases has any connection, in terms of meaning, to any text in the psalms to which they are attached. Also, in none of the superscriptions is there any request to “teach” a certain tune. However, “For teaching” does appear in the superscription of Ps 60 (NIV), which refers to the psalm itself.35 The latter does suggest then that a command might appear in introductory material preceding a psalm or song, instructing that it was to be taught.

(4) The “Bow” is a title for David’s lament. – C.F. Keil and F. Delitzsch (1950), content to accept the Hebrew as it is, noted that the most “natural” explanation is that “a bow” here was a title given to David’s lament – because a reference is made within it to Jonathan’s bow and also this was a “martial ode” (1:22). They also point out that “the bow was one of the principle weapons used by warriors of that age, and one in the use of which the Benjaminites, the tribe-mates of Saul, were particularly skilful [sic]” (cf. 1 Chron 8:40, 12:2; 2 Chron 14:8, 17:17).36 Hans Hertzberg (1964) holds also that the “bow,” whether added by David or later by a “Minister of Information,” was a title given to David’s lament; and it probably was taken from a “characteristic word” within the poem itself (v. 22). He notes that the second Sura of the Koran was called “Cow,” in a similar fashion,37 because this chapter mentions the sacrifice of a cow.38 A.F. Kirkpartrick (1930) points to the story of God’s appearance to Moses at the burning bush (Exod 3:1-4:17), which is referred to in the Gospels simply as “The Bush” (Luke 20:37). He notes that the Vaticanus manuscript of the Septuagint (LXXB), in the Vatican, omits the word “bow” and simply reads “teach [it] to the children of Judah” – but all relevant factors must be taken into account.39 James Orr and Roland Harrison (1982) hold that “ode of the bow” comes nearest to the sense of the Hebrew, noting that the taking of a word within a poem to use as its title is a familiar Arabic convention.40 David Zapf (1984) also follows the lead of Kiel and Delitzsch (1950) and Hertzberg (1964). In addition, he points out the prominence of the bow in the larger literary setting of this lament, since Saul was badly wounded by archers (1 Sam 31:3) and it is reasonable to assume that Jonathan and his brothers were, as well. He notes that while Saul’s preferred weapon of war seems to have been the sword, Jonathan’s was the bow (2 Sam 1:22) – and so the title here might give a subtle preference to Jonathan.41 Ronald Youngblood agrees, that Jonathan was probably a skilled bowman (cf. 1 Sam 20:18-22, 35-40) and this title may refer to Jonathan’s bow.42 Therefore, the most careful analysis supports what is also the simplest conclusion, namely, that “Bow” was a title given to David’s poem, surely by David himself, since the introduction says, “He [David] said to teach the sons of Judah the bow…” (1:18, J. Green). This line of interpretation can also be seen in some translations, including: “to teach the sons of Judah the song of the bow” (NASB 1960, cf. NKJV 1982), “The Song of the Bow…” (NRSV 1989, cf. CEV 1995), and “…this lament of the bow” (NIV 1978).

However, there may be even more significance here than at first meets the eye. Harry Hoffner, Jr. (1966) has described how the “bow” in ancient Mesopotamian literature could be interpreted as a masculine symbol; and he points as an example of this to the Epic of Aqhat,43 a Canaanite tale that was discovered at Ugarit (a city-state up the coast from Israel c. 180 miles) in texts dating from the mid-second millennium B.C.44 In this story, the goddess Anat covets a wonderful bow which the patriarch Danel has obtained from the god Kothar and given to his son, Aqhat. Delbert Hillers (1973) adds, “That the bow is a common, practically unequivocal symbol of masculinity in ancient Near Eastern texts is sufficiently established by passages quoted in Hoffner’s article” and elsewhere – and “the phallic symbolism of the arrow is rather obvious.”45 Even in the Bible there are references connecting the bow and arrow with sex. For example, Ps 127:4-5a (NRSV) reads, “Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the sons of one’s youth. Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them [arrows = seed = sons].” Here “arrows” refers basically to the semen of a man, which when shot (ejaculated) in intercourse can produce offspring to enlarge and aid the family; and the “quiver” here refers to a man’s genitals, which are hopefully fertile, and not impotent. In Ecclesiasticus 26:12, in the Apocyrpha, the sage Jesus ben Sirach warns a father, “Keep strict watch over a headstrong daughter, or else, when she finds liberty … [and as] a thirsty traveler [stops to take a drink,] she will sit in front of every tent peg and open her quiver [genitals] to the arrow [the man’s ejaculation].” (NRSV)46 The bow and quiver were also used in various Mesopotamian incantations as explicit sexual symbols, e.g. “May the [qu]iver not become e[mpt]y, may the bow not be slack!”47 The “quiver” here points to the male genitals, while the “bow” points to the penis. An 8th century B.C. treaty contained this curse: “As for the men, may the Mistress of Women take away their bow [penises]”; and an Old Babylonian prayer reads, “It is within your (power), Ishtar, to change men into women and women into men.” – which refers to castration and cross-dressing.48 One has to wonder, then, whether there might not be a deeper, hidden meaning here in 2 Sam 1:18, pointing not only to Jonathan’s bow as a weapon but alluding to his genitals as a “weapon,” as well. The “bow” then would refer to the prince’s phallic organ and to his ejaculation (his well-shot “arrows”).

Gender analysis of 2 Sam 1:26 – Earlier in this series (Part 13) note was made of Susan Ackerman’s analysis (2005) of David’s and Michal’s marriage (1 Sam 18:20-29a) as bracketed by the two stories of Jonathan’s “marriage-like” covenant made with David (1 Sam 18:1-4) and of his mediating for him with Saul because he “was very fond of David” (19:1-7, NIV) – which she says suggests that Jonathan was viewed as “the structural equivalent of a wife to David,” who supplanted even one of his sisters.49 In fact, these Jonathan-David incidents make parenthetical (irrelevant) the account of David’s marriage to Michal. Mirroring Michal’s efforts to help David escape from Saul’s wrath (1 Sam 19:11-17), Jonathan also helps David flee from Saul (ch. 20), but in an account that is “far more emotionally-charged” than David’s leave-taking from Michal (19:11-12, 20:41-42). The language of mutual commitment expressed in 1 Sam 20 and 23:16-18 also underscores the fact that their loving relationship came to supersede any relationship that David had with Michal. Further, “wonderful” (1:26) implies that David returned the prince’s love; and this love was more wonderful than the sexual love he had received from the women in his life.50

David Damrosch (1987) observed that “just as the marriage theme in the Gilgamesh Epic reaches its most direct expression at the close of the relationship, in Gilgamesh’s lament for Enkidu [his beloved companion], here [in the Jonathan and David story] it is developed most explicitly in David’s lament…” After a “somewhat formal lament for Saul, [David] then concludes with a moving apostrophe to Jonathan: ‘very pleasant have you been to me; / your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women’ (2 Sam. 1:26 [RSV2]).” This comparison crystallizes the metaphor [of friendship-as-marriage] and goes beyond it in the same breath.”51 David Jobling (1998) noted that Jonathan is “like the women who empty themselves for David.” In terms of inner motivation Jonathan is cast “in the image of the women who love and marry David, who serve David and assist his rise to power without expecting anything in return other than being married to him...” In the conceptual framework of the story then, it makes sense to conceive of “a gay relationship in which Jonathan takes a female role.” Still, Jonathan will have to die, for no wifely role can realistically be imagined for him in David’s household after he becomes king.52 Fewell and Gunn (1993) note that in saying in his lament how “lovely” (1:26 NRSV: “beloved”) the prince was to him – David places Jonathan “in the position of a woman, even if only to surpass her. … Jonathan is a woman, more woman than women are.” David now publicly acknowledges Jonathan’s attachment which was no doubt rumored, if it was not commonly known – but he now defines the relationship in a way that is highly favorable to himself, proclaiming himself as the object of affection. David’s words make him the “man” in their relationship; so while his words “praise Jonathan at the same time [they] subtly devalue him.”53

Also, William Holladay (1970) held that there was a relationship between 1:24 where the women of Israel mourn for Saul and v. 26 where David mourns for Jonathan.54 However, as Ackerman notes, he does not go on to draw the implications that he might have, e.g., that both the women and Jonathan may be perceived as feminine.55 Further, could this comparison suggest that just as the women received and benefited from Saul, so Jonathan also received and benefited from David in heretofore unspoken ways? Saul gave to the women bounties of war from his power base as king. David had no such power base as this; but he could give to Jonathan bounties of love from his beauty and body, for which he could see the prince clearly longed. At least, as Ackerman notes, the imagining of Jonathan as womanlike or wifelike “corresponds quite well to the ways in which male-male sexual interactions were conceived of in the ancient Mediterranean world, including the world of ancient Israel.” Here the emphasis in sexual relations was placed on distinguishing between the active and passive roles, that is, between the sexual penetrator (properly male), the active partner, and the sexual receiver (usually female), the passive partner. Anyone who was sexually penetrated, whether vaginally or anally and whether male or female, would be normally viewed as “feminine.”56

Yet, there are other elements here in the story that cast David in a feminine light. Jonathan as the prince had to assume the active (masculine) role in courting David in the beginning and in bringing him into a covenant of love with himself (18:1-4), and then he took the initiative in renewing this during David’s stay at court (20:16-17). If Jonathan’s covenants meant to hand over the future throne of Israel to David, he would have had to be male to do this. Also, it is a long time before the love between them is expressed with anything like mutuality.57 Jonathan repeatedly took on the guardian role to shield David from his father’s anger (19:1-7, 20:1-34); and although it might be argued that Michal also took on this same role (19:11-17), it must be acknowledged that protector in a patriarchal society was a primarily a masculine function. Also, Peter Levi (1991) sees David as perhaps usurping a feminine role in the fact that he is willing to involve himself in public lamenting, which was viewed in ancient times as women’s work. Further, he sings a very “intimate and lyrical” lament – although there are elements of masculine boasting here, as well.58 As Francisco García-Treto notes, “David dares to stand before the reader at once more naked and more human than ever … to give full expression to his grief for Saul and Jonathan in a feminine genre…” He adds, “It is fascinating, and oddly embarrassing at the same time, to hear him cast all reserve or restraint aside and wail for the loss of Jonathan…” This is no simple man.59

Yet, if in the end Jonathan is visualized in a feminine role in David’s lament, which clearly seems to be the case, what are we to make of the idea that the prince is placed in such a passive, “shameful” womanly position – especially since no shame or dishonor appear attached to him in this story? In fact, David viewed their love relationship as a “wonderful” thing (1:26). This frankly has led many commentators to conclude that their friendship simply could not have been sexual in nature, in spite of the eroticized language in such passages as 2 Sam 1:26.60 As Ackerman notes, with “such highly eroticized language and imagery” as is found in David’s lament and elsewhere in the story, it seems “impossible in many respects not to interpret the text’s depiction of their relationship as sexual in nature.” Yet, on the other hand, the positive way in which their relationship is portrayed fails to conform to the way male-male sexual relationships are condemned elsewhere in Biblical tradition.61 Yet, why must there be only one kind homoerotic relationship that existed in Israel? Of course, there were different kinds! We know that in the larger Mesopotamian world, for example, that there were male cultic prostitutes, love and sex shared between warriors, other private same-sex affairs, as well as aggressive forms that were sternly condemned, such as homosexual rape and incest. Moreover, the Levitical law (Lev 18:22, 20:13) that condemns same-sex male anal intercourse can, without difficulty, be read in a cultic setting. With 18:21, the main focus changes from sexual infractions to cultic infractions, with a group of three commands: do not offer your children to the god Molech (v. 21); do not lie with (cultic) male prostitutes (v. 22, cf. Deut 23:17); and do not participate in (cultic) bestial practices (v. 23, cf. Exod 22:18-20) – for all of these idolatrous things are “offensive” (an abomination) to the Lord (cf. Lev 19:4). In Exod 22:18-20, there is another triad of prohibitions which ties bestiality with other cultic practices. As Samuel Terrien notes, the story of Jonathan and David had nothing in common with cultic homosexuality (Israelite males running off to have sex with pagan Canaanite sacred male prostitutes);62 and Jonathan and David did not see their sexual relationship in any such terms. In fact, they made their covenant before and in the name of the Lord, in every case (1 Sam 20:8,16-17,42; 23:18), as covenants were normally made in Israel; and they viewed their love as a gift from God.

Ackerman points out that it should also be noted that in the old Gilgamesh Epic, Gilgamesh, king of Uruk, and Enkidu, his constant companion, are unremittingly portrayed as equals.63 Masculinity and femininity are not so easily separated or clearly defined as some interpreters would have it. In their own eyes, Jonathan’s and David’s relationship had nothing to do with femininity, as they perceived it – since they viewed each other both as hardened warriors and honored heroes, even though they were also two males in love with each other. As Tom Horner points out, Jonathan and David were warrior friends and lovers.64 It was only natural that the two heroes should gravitate toward each other,65 become buddies, and later share their bed together. David Damrosch notes that when David comes forward to fight Goliath, the troops speculate on whether the slayer will gain King Saul’s daughter (Merab) as his wife in return (1 Sam 17:25). That didn’t happen (20:17-19), but David did get the king’s son (18:1-4). In such a case of “friendship-as-marriage … either friend can at times take on echoes of husband or wife.” This is true in the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh, in the Greek Iliad, and also in the Biblical story of Jonathan and David.66 Further, most interpreters of this story fail to recognize the reality and presence of bisexuality in human life, as Kinsey so convincingly documented67 – as well as the often fluid nature of gender, in which both masculine and feminine elements can display themselves in the same individual in varying ways and degrees and at various times, even sometimes in spite of social laws and norms. David may have come into Saul’s house as a “bride” and “groom” to Jonathan; and who knows what mixed gender roles they may have shared in each other’s company or what sexual roles they preferred or perhaps exchanged in bed. As the older of the two, Jonathan certainly took the lead on many levels, while at the same time perhaps he relished submitting himself to David’s carnal longings, giving in to his own as well. In the end, however, it suits David’s purpose in his lament to present himself in the male role and to present Jonathan (who is now gone) in the female role, as he moves forward to become king over all of Israel.


FOOTNOTES: 1. Strong, #6643; Brown 2000 ed., p. 840; cf. Anderson, p. 17.    2. Day, A.E., & R.W. Vunderink, “Gazelle,” ISBE II(1982), p. 419.    3. McCullough, W.S., “Gazelle,” IDB 1962, II, p. 358.    4. Driver 1913, p. 234.    5. Ewald, p. 30.    6. Driver 1913, p. 235.    7. Kirkpatrick, p. 247.    8. Hertzberg, p. 235,239.    9. O’Connor, p. 230.    10. McCarter 1984, p. 66,74,77.    11. Anderson, p. 11,19.    12. Freedman, p. 267.    13. Pope, p. 390.    14. Freedman, p. 264,267-68.    15. Zapf, p. 107.    16. Fokkelman II(1986), p. 652-53.    17. Ibid., p. 670-71.    18. Youngblood, p. 812.    19. Cf. Ibid.    20. Green, J., 2 Sam 1:18.    21. Ackroyd 1977, p. 25.    22. Cf. Kirkpatrick, p. 247.    23. Youngblood, p. 811.    24. Smith, H.P., p. 259-60; cf. Fokkelman II(1986), p. 650-51.    25. Fokkelman II(1986), p. 651.    26. McCarter 1984, p. 67.    27. Anderson, p. 12.    28. Cf. Smith, H.P., p. 259-60.    29. Eissfeldt, p. 232-35; cf. Hertzberg, p. 238.    30. Gehrke, p. 233.    31. Fokkelman II(1986), p. 651.    32. Keil & Delitzsch, p. 289.    33. Robinson, p. 157; Cartledge, p. 355.    34. Cf. also VanGemeren, p. 36-37.    35. Cf. Fokkelman II(1968), p. 651.    36. Keil & Delitzsch, p. 288-89.    37. Hertzberg, p. 238-39.    38. Kirkpatrick, p. 246.    39. Ibid.    40. Orr, James & Roland Harrison, “Jashar, Book of,” ISBE II(1982), p. 969.    41. Zapf, p. 116-17.    42. Youngblood, p. 811.    43. Hoffner, p. 330.    44. Cf. Ackerman, p. 61.    45. Hillers, p. 71,73.    46. Cf. Ibid., p. 73.    47. Biggs, p. 37.    48. Cf. Hilliers, p. 73-74.    49. Ackerman, p. 181.    50. Ibid., p. 192-93.    51. Damrosch, p. 205.    52. Jobling, p. 164.    53. Fewell & Gunn, p. 151.    54. Holladay, p. 184.    55. Ackerman, p. 291-92, ftnt. 92.    56. Ibid., p. 193.    57. Jobling, p. 164.    58. Levy 1991, in García-Treto, p. 63.    59. Ibid., p. 63-64.    60. Ackerman, p. 196.    61. Ibid., p. 198.    62. Terrien, p. 169.    63. Ackerman, p. 198.    64. Horner, p. 38.    65. Ibid., p. 26.    66. Damrosch, p. 205-06.    67. Kinsey, 1948, p. 636-59.

Ackerman, Susan, When Heroes Love, 2005.
Ackroyd, Peter, The Second Book of Samuel, 1977.
Anderson, A.A., 2nd Samuel (Word Biblical Commentary), 1989.
Biggs, Robert, SA.ZI.GA: Ancient Mesopotamian Potency Incantations, 1967.
Brown, Francis, et al., The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon, 2000 ed.
Cartledge, Tony, 1 & 2 Samuel (Smyth & Helyws Bible Commentary), 2001.
Damrosch, David, The Narrative Covenant, 1987.
Driver, S.R., Notes on the Hebrew Text and the Topography of the Books of Samuel…”, 2nd ed., 1913.
Eissfeldt, Otto, “Zwei Verkannte Militär-Technische Termini im Alten Testament,” Vetus Testamentum, 5 (1955), p. 232-238.
Elman, Yaakov, The Living Nach: Early Prophets. A New Translation Based on Traditional Jewish Sources, 1994.
Ewald, Heinrich, The History of Israel. Vol. III: The Rise and Splendor of the Hebrew Monarchy, trans. from German by J.E. Carpenter, 1871.
Fewell, Danna, and David Gunn, Gender, Power, and Promise, 1993.
Fokkelman, J.P., Narrative Art and Poetry in the Books of Samuel. Vol. II: The Crossing Fates (I Sam. 13-31 & II Sam. 1), 1986.
Freedman, David, “The Refrain in David’s Lament over Saul and Jonathan,” in Pottery, Poetry, and Prophecy: Studies in Early Hebrew Poetry, by David Freedman, 1980, p. 263-274.
García-Treto, Francisco, “A Mother’s Paean, A Warrior’s Dirge: Reflections on the Use of Poetic Inclusions in the Books of Samuel,” Shofar 11(2), 1993, p. 51-64.
Gehrke, Ralph, 1 and 2 Samuel (Concordia Commentary), 1968.
Gevirtz, Stanley, “David’s Lament over Saul and Jonathan,” in Patterns in the Early Poetry of Israel, by Stanley Gevirtz; Studies in Ancient Oriental Civilization, 32 (1963), p. 72-96.
Green, Jay, Sr., gen. ed. & trans., The Interlinear Bible: Hebrew-Greek-English, 2nd ed., 1986.
Hertzberg, Hans, I & II Samuel: A Commentary, 1964.
Hillers, Delbert, “The Bow of Aqhat: The Meaning of a Mythological Theme,” in Orient and Occident: Essays Presented to Cyrus H. Gordon on the Occasion of his Sixty-fifth Birthday, ed. Harry Hoffner, Jr., 1973, p. 71-80.
Hoffner, Harry, Jr., “Symbols for Masculinity and Femininity: Their Use in Ancient Near Eastern Sympathetic Magic Rituals,” Journal of Biblical Literature, 85 (1966), p. 326-334.
Holladay, William, “Form and Word-Play in David’s Lament over Saul and Jonathan,” Vetus Testamentum, 20(2), 1970, p. 153-189.
Horner, Tom, Jonathan Loved David, 1978.
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vols. I-IV, 1979-88.
Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, vols. I-IV, 1962.
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.
Kinsey, Alfred, et al., Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, 1948.
Kirkpatrick, A.F., The First and Second Books of Samuel, 1930.
Knox, Ronald, The Old Testament: Newly Translated from the Vulgate Latin… Vol. I: Genesis to Esther, 1948.
McCarter, P. Kyle, Jr., II Samuel (Anchor Bible), 1984.
O’Connor, Michael, Hebrew Verse Structure, 1980.
Pope, Marvin, Song of Songs (Anchor Bible), 1977.
Robinson, Gnana, Let Us Be Like the Nations: A Commentary on the Books of 1 and 2 Samuel (International Theological Commentary), 1993.
Smith, Henry Preserved, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Books of Samuel, 1899.
Strong, James, “Hebrew and Chaldee Dictionary,” in Strong’s Abingdon’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible…, 1890.
Terrien, Samuel, Till the Heart Sings: A Biblical Theology of Manhood & Womanhood, 1985.
VanGemeren, Willem, “Psalms,” Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 5, 1991, p. 1-880.
Youngblood, Ronald, “1, 2 Samuel,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 3, 1992, p. 551-1104.
Zapf, David, “How Are the Mighty Fallen! A Study of 2 Samuel 1:17-27,” Grace Theological Journal, 5(1), 1984, p. 95-126.

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


© 2006 Bruce L. Gerig

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