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

Susan Ackerman (2005) points to six places in the Jonathan and David story where she believes “eroticized or sexual language and imagery” are potentially present and which should be given special consideration in determining the nature of their relationship, including: Jonathan and David’s first meeting (1 Sam 18:1–4); Jonathan’s mediation with Saul on David’s behalf (19:1–7); the events leading up to David’s permanent flight from Saul’s court (20:1–42); Saul’s expressed anger over Jonathan’s relationship with David (20:30–34); Jonathan and David’s last meeting and third covenant (23:15–18); and David’s lament over the deaths of Saul and Jonathan (2 Sam 1:19–27).1    Earlier Tom Horner (1978) emphasized these points: Jonathan’s “obviously being smitten” by David who was “magnificent in bodily form,” their making “a lifelong pact openly,” their meeting secretly and kissing each other at their parting, and especially Saul’s insult and David’s lament.2    Then Markus Zehnder (2007), drawing on points made earlier by Silvia Schroer and Thomas Staubli (2000),3 listed eight Biblical references in the Jonathan and David narrative as most important: “Jonathan loved him [David] as his own soul” (1 Sam 18:1); “Jonathan took great delight in David” (19:1); their going “out into the field” (20:11); “Jonathan made David swear again by his love for him” (20:17); “you [Jonathan] have chosen the son of Jesse to your own shame, and to the shame of your mother’s nakedness” (20:30); “they kissed each other” (20:41); and David in his aside to the deceased Jonathan calling him “my brother” and confessing that “your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women” (2 Sam 1:26, NRSV).4    However, for our review of narrative issues that have become the focus in current debate, these are grouped under the following headings: David’s beauty and Jonathan’s response (1 Sam 16:12, 18; 17:42; and 18:1; 19:1; 20:3, 17); Saul’s sexual insult hurled at Jonathan (20:30–31); Jonathan’s eclipsing Michal and also possibly Saul (18:1–20:42 and 16:18–23); Jonathan and David’s parting scene in the field (20:41–42); the progression of the three covenants (1 Sam 18:3–4, 20:16–17, 23:17–18); and David’s eulogy and aside directed to Jonathan (2 Sam 1:17–27, esp. v. 26).

David’s beauty and Jonathan’s response.    No sooner is David introduced into the narrative than attention is drawn to his “remarkable beauty” (Jennings),5 for we are told that “he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome” (1 Sam 16:12, NRSV).    He was a “bewilderingly beautiful boy” (M. Samuel),6 the kind who would only grow up to possess an even more “compelling physical beauty,” like a “fairy-tale prince” (Kirsch)7 and to eventually become “an icon of sensuous male attractiveness” (Houser).8    The New Oxford Annotated Bible is probably correct in interpreting “ruddy” (admoni, H132) to mean that David had both reddish hair color and skin complexion,9 since these two physical traits appear together.    However, then repeated emphasis is drawn to his striking appearance, when a servant informs King Saul that David as a prospective lyre-player is “good-looking” (16:18, NJB) and the narrator has Goliath also noticing that David has an “attractive appearance” (17:42, NJB).    Fred Dobbs-Allsopp (2006) notes that the Israelites were “well acquainted” with physical beauty, routinely described in the OT with words using the root yph and meaning “beauty,” “beautiful,” and “to be beautiful,” e.g., David is said (16:12) to have had especially “beautiful eyes” (yapheh ‘ayinim, H3303, H5869).    Also, he suggests that tob ro’i (H2896, H7210) in the same verse, meaning “pleasing appearance” (Strong) or “handsome” (NRSV), probably points to David having a “strong appearance”10—presumably a body that looked rugged, muscled, lean, firm, and in good shape physically.

However, Markus Zehnder holds that the separation by a whole chapter of the description of David’s beauty (1 Sam 16:12, 18) from the description of Jonathan’s love (18:1, 3) weakens the connection of these two ideas11―although he overlooks the narrator’s third reference to David’s beauty in 17:42, a mere sixteen verses before the giant-slayer and the crown-prince make their first pact.    Also, interpreters have often compared the bond between Jonathan and David as military heroes with that of other ancient warrior pairs, such as Gilgamesh and Enkidu, and Achilles and Patroclus,12 even though Jonathan’s great, final military victory (over the Philistines) is described in 1 Sam 14 and David’s surprising, initial military victory (over Goliath) does not appear until chapter 17.    In fact, as Jean-Fabrice Nardelli (2007) notes, it is no coincidence that both the Gilgamesh epic and the Samuel story emphasize the “physical attractiveness of their main hero,” and “the son of Jesse looks perfectly fit to catch the eye of [P]rince Jonathan . . . .”    In Greek mythology, in two out of three of the earliest appearances of Zeus and his cupbearer Ganymede an emphasis is placed on Ganymede’s kallos (“physical beauty,” L870), which linked male beauty to male desire and not unexpectedly elicited an erotic response from the supreme god.    Still, there is a noticeable “discretion” shown in the Ganymede stories toward mentioning same-sex love directly; and a similar reluctance explains why there are no words in the Jonathan and David narrative that would clear up any ambiguity about the precise nature of their relationship.    The epic poets of Archaic Greece, who felt no uneasiness about homosexuality, still preferred “not to be forward about it in their songs,” but were “content with innuendoes [allusions] about the extreme physical beauty of the beloved.”    In the same way, the narrator of 1–2 Samuel no doubt wished to avoid any description or display of physical intimacy between Jonathan and David, instead offering non-verbal gestures like Jonathan’s implied ‘striptease’ before David when the prince disrobes and hands all of his clothes and arms to David, in the making of their first covenant (1 Sam 18:4).13

Indeed, Jonathan’s initial falling-in-love with David is described in a very circumspect way: “When David had finished speaking to Saul, the soul [nephesh] of Jonathan was bound [qashar] to the soul [nephesh] of David, and Jonathan [ahab] loved him as his own soul” (1 Sam 18:1, NRSV)—which the Revised English Bible renders more clearly as “Jonathan had given his heart to David and had grown to love him as himself.”    Then “Jonathan made a covenant [berit] with David, because he loved him as his own soul” (18:3, NRSV), or “each loved the other as dearly as himself” (REV).    Joel Green (2006) notes that nephesh (H5315) refers to the “whole person as the seat of desire and emotion,” to the “entirety of one’s being,” and not to a divine, immortal soul (psychē, G5590), separate from the body, as later conceived by Plato (Phaedo 62b).14    John Goldingay (2006) explains further that a “covenant” (berit, H1285) was “a formal commitment made by one party to another party, or by two parties to one another,” and its seriousness was “normally undergirded by an oath” taken “before God and/or before other people.”15    The formal pact which Jonathan made with David here was clearly one made of love; and although the prince took the initiative, it was viewed by both him and David as being a “sacred covenant” made between them before the Lord (20:8).    Now Zehnder writes that while qashar (H7194, Strong: ‘to tie, to bind, or to conspire’) may point here to a strong emotional attachment, there is “simply no hint of a homosexual or homoerotic connotation,” but rather “what is underlined is the political connotation.”    Zehnder seeks support for this from 1 Sam 22:8 where, after David fled, Saul complained that all of his servants had “conspired” (qashar) not to tell him that Jonathan had “made a league” (karat, H3772, literally “cut [a covenant]”) with David (1 Sam 22:8, KJV; cf. J. Green).16    Yet, as Steven McKenzie (2000) notes, it is hard to believe that Jonathan would give up his kingdom to someone he had just met and also join with him in a conspiracy against his father.17    Zehnder also argues that Jonathan’s being “bound” to David in the first covenant (18:1) really meant on a deeper level that the prince was bound to God’s plan to transfer Israel’s ruling house from Saul to David18—although this does not explain the spontaneous intensity of Jonathan’s feelings for David, which appear like “a [lightning] bolt out of the blue” (Schroer and Staubli19), nor our being told repeatedly how Jonathan “loved” David (1 Sam 18:1, 3; 20:17) and ‘delighted’ in him (19:1), nor why Saul’s later outburst is so “extremely sexually charged” (Ackerman).20 

Yet, Zehnder contends that no mention made of David’s responding to Jonathan’s feelings of love “deemphasizes its emotional component”21—although he forgets the disgrace and shame that were widely attached in the ancient Near East to any male who became the subservient recipient of another male’s sexual acts (Nissinen),22 which in itself could completely explain David’s silence.    Then surprisingly, Zehnder suggests that Jonathan may have been attracted to David as a surrogate for his “cold father,” which may point to a “homoerotic or homosexual dimension” in his relationship with David.23    Whatever the case, Mark George (1997) views the first covenant as amorous, noting that “Jonathan’s emotional reaction to David at their first meeting . . . explicitly situates their relationship near the homosexual end of the spectrum,” although it also serves social ends.24    Graeme Auld (2004) writes that “the early mention of Jonathan’s immense love for David is a little out of place in 18:1; [yet] its main function here is probably to make it more understandable why Jonathan would make a covenant with David and give him his robe and weapons,” i.e., this was “a covenant based on love at first sight.”25    Teresa Hornsby (2007) observes, “It is difficult not to see homoeroticism just below the surface in this passage [1 Sam 18:1–4].    If the description of love [here] had been about a woman and a man, no one would think twice about romantic intent.”26    Jonathan’s feelings for David are mentioned again in 1 Sam 19:1, which notes that “Jonathan took great delight [kaphets, H2654] in David” (NRSV).    Now Zehnder points to numerous OT passages that speak of Yahweh’s taking “delight” in David (2 Sam 15:26, 22:20 = Ps 18:19) and in Solomon (1 Kings 10:9, 2 Chron 9:8) and argues that Jonathan’s delight in David should be connected to God’s delight in David (1 Sam 13:14), i.e., the prince simply wanted to do the Lord’s will.27    However, G. Johannes Botterweck (1986) writes in the Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament (1986) that kaphets in 19:1, used along with ahab (“to love”) in 18:1–4, “stands on the fringes of eroticism—although at the same time he maintains (arbitrarily) that between men this must refer only to “friendship,” while between a man and a woman it can point to ‘sexual desire’ (Gen 34:19; Est 2:14; Song 2:7, 3:5, 8:4).28    Yet Schroer and Staubli (2000) clearly see in this word and statement the “erotic character of Jonathan’s affection” for David.29    Ackerman (2005) reminds us also that “love” and “delight” frequently occur together in sexual passages in the Bible (see Botterweck references above).30    As Fred Dobbs-Allsopp (2006) points out, physical beauty was something in which the ancient Israelites could clearly “delight.”31 

Saul’s sexual insult hurled at Jonathan.    If Jonathan’s homosexual desire steams beneath the surface in 1 Sam 18:1–4 and in 19:1, then his passion is fully exposed in Saul’s explosive outburst described in 1 Sam 20:30, where he shouts at Jonathan: “You son of a perverse, rebellious woman!    Do I not know that you have chosen [bakar] the son of Jesse to your own shame [boshet], and to the shame [boshet] of your mother’s nakedess [‘erva]?” (1 Sam 20:30, NRSV).    Zehnder acknowledges here the sexual connotation of ‘erva (“nakedness” = genitals, H6172); yet he claims that there is only one place in the OT where boshet (“shame,” H1322) is associated with sex, in Hos 9:10.32    This verse recalls an incident at Shittim in the wilderness when Israelite men ran off to have sex with Moabite women, who then led them to bow down to worship their gods (Num 25:1–2ff).    However, when Hosea speaks of these earlier Israelites “consecrating themselves to a thing of shame” (Hos 9:10), this shame refers not to their sexual activity but to the local god himself (NJB footnote, UNASB footnote) or to his “shameful idol” (NIV, NLT).    Still, in the background was the ancient Israelites’ inappropriate sexual coupling; and Hosea earlier in his scroll (book) denounces Israel in his day for visiting prostitutes at harvest time, when Baal was worshipped (Hos 9:1).33    Returning to Saul’s outburst, Zehnder holds that it was Jonathan’s plotting with David as the king’s enemy that brought “shame” upon the prince and also upon the woman who had given him birth.    Zehnder even suggests that people hearing this outburst might have wondered if Jonathan was really Saul’s son or whether the queen had conceived him in an adulterous affair34—although King Saul would hardly have had any interest in bringing such a bastard son of the queen to the throne.    Zehnder also writes that nowhere else in the Hebrew Bible is bakar (“to choose,” H977) used in an erotic way; so for it to be used in this sense, or even in an emotional sense, in this verse is “rather unlikely.”    What Jonathan really had “chosen,” Zehnder advocates, was not David as a romantic partner but rather as Yahweh’s election (choice) to be the next king of Israel, since the largest number of appearances of the verb bakar in the OT refer to Yahweh selecting someone for a divine task (49 out of 162 uses, according to Zehnder).35 

Yet, Zehnder’s views on both boshet (“shame”) and bakar (“to choose”) are difficult to maintain.    First, relating to boshet (H1322), it should be noted that in the Bible nakedness was generally viewed as “an exposure of the most shameful kind” (Gorman).36    Moreover, apart from Hos 9:10, other OT passages connect “nakedness” and “shame,” although they use various Hebrew synonyms for “nakedness” (‘erva, H6172; ‘erya, H6181; and ‘erom, H5903) and for “shame” (boshet, H1322) and “to be shamed or ashamed” (bosh, H954; kalam, H3637).    For example, Micah 1:11 describes the future state of the inhabitants of Shaphir (a town in Judah, although its exact location is unknown37) when Yahweh’s judgment falls upon them.    Then, although the name “Shaphir” means “beautiful,” captives will be led from this town “in nakedness [‘erya] and shame [boshet]” (Micah 1:11, NRSV).    Also, nakedness and shame are linked with Adam and Eve in the Garden, who before the Fall were “not ashamed” (bosh) of being “naked” (‘erva, Gen 2:25), but who after the Fall felt “naked” (‘erom) and so ashamed that they covered their genitals with fig leaves (Gen 3:7, 10–11).    Also, in a Deut 25:11 ban on any woman reaching out to help her husband in a fight by “seizing his [opponent’s] genitals [mebushim]” (NRSV), the word mebushim (H4016) is plural for bosh, and thus the phrase here may be translated literally as “seizing his shames” (Patai).38    Then later, during King David’s reign, Hanun (a new king of the Ammonites) scornfully mistreated David’s envoys, who had been sent to him with an offer of peace, by cutting off the rear of their robes so that their buttocks were exposed, before sending them away “feeling greatly ashamed [kalam]” (2 Sam 10:1–5).    Raphael Patai also points out that ‘uncovering the nakedness’ of various family members in incestuous relationships condemned in Lev 18:6–16 (KJV) certainly pointed to this as a shameful uncovering,39 even though no word for “shame” appears explicitly in the text.    Nardelli notes that although Zehnder tries to remove the sexual overtones from boshet (“shame”) here in Saul’s outburst with his “usual statistical trick” (counting the numbers of different translated meanings given various Hebrew words in the OT), the Israelites would have viewed any sight of the genitals as “disgraceful.”40    Being naked was all about exposing the genitals (Hornsby)41 or the buttocks (2 Sam 10:1–5).

Relating to bakar (Jonathan’s “choosing” David), the sexual innuendoes in Saul’s outburst must not be overlooked.    Also, although the classic Hebrew Masoretic text here uses the verb bakar (Strong: ‘to choose,’ H977), the much older Greek Septuagint text uses the noun metochos (meaning ‘partner or companion,’ G3353).    Therefore Samuel Driver (1913) and other scholars have held that the original word here was kbr (kaber, ‘companion, associate, partner, or friend,’ H2270) instead of bkr42—the original written Hebrew lacking signs for vowel sounds—although Tom Horner (1978) believed that bkr may originally have been vocalized as bakur (‘young man, chosen one, bridegroom,’ H970).43    However, Nissinen notes that kaber does not necessarily point to an intimate sexual partner;44 and in fact all of the words suggested here are broad enough to point either to a sexual or nonsexual partner.    In the end, it is the general sexual context of Saul’s insult (1 Sam 20:30) that must determine the precise meaning here, whichever word is chosen to go along with the Hebrew words for “nakedness [genitals]” and “shame.”    Jonathan’s ‘irregular’ sexual connotation here may be sensed in the Douay-Rheims translation (Challoner revision, 1749–1752), which reads, “Thou son of a woman that is a ravisher of a man [who has seized him sexually], do I not know that thou lovest the son of Isai [Jesse] to thy own confusion . . . ?”45 and in George Lamsa’s Aramaic translation (from the Peshitta, 1933), which reads, “O you rebellious son, do I not know that you are delighted in the son of Jesse to your own shame . . . ?” (1 Sam 20:30)—because of the references here to sex and shame.

Moreover, the curious beginning and ending parts of Saul’s insult (1 Sam 20:30) refer to Jonathan’s mother, Queen Ahinoam (14:50), who gave King Saul most of his children (although a concubine, Rizpah, also bore him two sons, 2 Sam 21:8).    In fact, the opening phrase, “You son of a perverse, rebellious woman!” (NRSV) or ‘O son of a deserting woman’ (Septuagint, Van der Pool), in the Hebrew is generally understood by scholars to be “quite vulgar” (Youngblood)46 or “foul-mouthed” (Hertzberg);47 and so it has been rendered in modern colloquial slang as “You bastard!” (TEV) or “You son of a bitch!” (Jobling, Hornsby).48    Nardelli (2007) explains that Saul begins his insult with “(you) son of a deviant (or: undisciplined) slave (girl),” before he hits Jonathan with his rhetorical, emphatic question (“do I not know. . .”), revealing that he does indeed know that Jonathan has “chosen” the son of Jesse in a sexual way.    It’s like Saul is saying, “You’re a mamma’s son [or: momma’s boy], in love with this David . . . .”49    As Rick Brentlinger (2007) points out, Saul is not really characterizing the queen here, but is directing his “vicious slur” to Jonathan, the one really guilty of sexual offenses.50    Daniel Helminack (2000) agrees, that “shame” and “nakedness” in Saul’s outburst point to a sexual liaison between Jonathan and David, which Saul and the whole court knew about; and he views the first part here as essentially labeling his son “a faggot.”51    Yet, to the ideas of nakedness = genitals and sexual shame in Saul’s outburst here is added illicit sex. 

Returning to the main (and central) part of Saul’s insult, Rabbi Steven Greenberg (2004) explains that Saul belittles Jonathan because the prince seems disinterested in his own welfare, he refuses to compete with David for honors, and he also has an “unmanly love” for the man who just might take away his throne from him.    In short, Jonathan is “in love with David.”    The language of Saul’s insult “clinches the argument that Jonathan’s love for David cannot exclude the sexual. . . .  Saul is not offended by a platonic friendship, but by his [son’s] . . . naked love of David.”    In fact, Saul’s strange throwing of his spear at his son may be read as a way of saying, “If you want to be penetrated by a man, then I will penetrate you!”52    Christopher Hubble (2003) agrees, that Saul here is informing Jonathan that he knew about his sexual relationship with David, which he considered shameful.53    Even Walter Dietrich (2007) writes that, besides the conspiracy plot which the king suspects Jonathan and David have made (and suffering from a severe persecution complex), “Saul almost explicitly accuses Jonathan of sexual dependence on David (20:30),” which could be a ‘homosexual friendship.’54    In fact, Theodore Jennings (2004) notes that it has never been explained clearly how Jonathan’s friendship with David would actually bring David closer to the throne or deprive Jonathan of his succession unless “Jonathan is so smitten with David that he could refuse him nothing, even preeminence in the kingdom.”55    Even Martti Nissinen, who is skeptical that Jonathan and David were lovers, asks, “What could Saul have seen as so shameful in an ordinary friendship of his son and the young man under his care?”56    Yet, Steven Greenberg writes, “The story would make most sense if Jonathan were [was] gay, but David was not.”57 

Jonathan’s eclipsing Michal and also possibly Saul.    Nardelli commends Susan Ackerman (2005) for admirably showing how Michal’s marital dealings with David echo her brother Jonathan’s covenant dealings with David; and then the princess is completely eclipsed by the prince, showing that Jonathan consistently meant more to David than his new wife.58    As Ackerman notes, twice in 1 Sam 18 we are told that Jonathan “loves” David (18:1, 3) and the same with Michal (18:20, 28); and both enter into a covenant relationship with him (18:3–4 and 18:27).   Yet, while Michal loves David and gets him as a husband (18:27), still we find that Jonathan “greatly delighted” in David (19:1, UNASB) and the latter two share secret meetings out “in the field” (19:2–3; 20:11, 35).    When David returns to the capital city (Gibeah) desperately seeking help, it is not Michal whom he seeks out, but Jonathan (20:1); and it is Jonathan and David, not Michal and David, who share a passionate parting scene, with prolonged kissing and weeping, before David flees for good (20:41–42).    Ackerman concludes, “Jonathan is not only the structural equivalent of a wife to David, but a wife who supplants one of his sisters,” squeezing Michal entirely out of the picture.   Therefore, she views the two men’s relationship as “analogous to a marital relationship.” 59    Other interpreters have described them as “joined in a marriage covenant” (Hubble, 2003), a kind of “husband” and “wife” (Jennings, 2005), and “a gay couple” (Nardelli, 2007).60    Yet, Zehnder argues that to suggest that Jonathan replaces Michal as David’s “marriage partner” because Michal disappears from text after David flees from their apartment to escape arrest (19:18) is to “read too much into the text.”    He does acknowledges that there “really are points” of “close parallelism” in the narrative between Michal and Jonathan, who are both said to “love” David (1 Sam 18:1, 3; 18:20, 28) and to help him escape Saul’s murderous intentions (19:1–6, 19:11–17).    Yet Zehnder maintains that while Michal’s feelings were erotic, Jonathan’s were only of friendship.61    And even if Michal was replaced by Jonathan, “which is in fact possible,” he admits, this does not mean that Jonathan and David had a sexual relationship.62    Furthermore, Zehnder states that in the Hebrew Scriptures “it is always the male dominant partner who is said to love [ahab or a related word] somebody”―although he forgets how 1 Sam 18:20 records that Michel “loved” (NRSV) or “fell in love” (NJB) with David, and how Song of Songs speaks of the Shulammite woman ‘loving’ (1:7; 2:5, 7; 3:1, 2, 3, 4) or having ‘love’ (5:8, 7:12, NIV) for the king, her sexual partner.   

Römer and Bonjour (2005) also note how the love of Jonathan for David is so strong that not even Princess Michal’s love for David can separate him from Jonathan; and Van Seters (2009) notes that nowhere are we told that David loved Michal, in stark comparison to Paltiel who is broken-hearted and beside himself with grief when later she is taken from him (2 Sam 3:12–16),63 to be returned to David, to bolster himself as Saul’s successor.    Nardelli remarks that Zehnder often “leaves caution aside for dogmatic assertions in the very places where the former was most needed,” e.g., when he asserts that in the imbalance of parts played by Jonathan vs. Michal during David’s stay at court the narrator simply means for us to focus on the unexpected (David’s friendship with Jonathan) rather than on the normal (a husband having sex with his wife).    In other words, Zehnder argues that no mention is made of David sleeping with Michal in 1 Sam 18–19 simply because everybody knows that he was―even though nowhere in the text is there any indication that David had any interest in marrying Michal beyond moving closer to the throne.64    As Rick Brentlinger points out, Jonathan and David were clearly “closer in spirit, more intimately in love, and more committed to each other than were Michal and David.”    David and Michal’s barren marriage certainly looks more like a political alliance than a love match.    His marriage to Michal is mentioned (1 Sam 18:20–28) and then is ignored, the focus resting instead on Jonathan and David’s great love for each other.65 

However, Theodore Jennings suggests that Saul’s words in his outburst (1 Sam 20:30) could be interpreted as a reproach on Jonathan who had slept with David, who earlier had slept with Saul, who then in turn had slept with Jonathan’s mother, the queen.66    This view that David earlier had been King Saul’s bed companion might be anticipated when Saul first summoned David to become his lyre-player, and we read: “And David came to Saul, and entered his service.    Saul loved him greatly, and he [David also] became his armor-bearer” (1 Sam 16:21, NRSV, italics added).    In fact, Saul was so enamored of his new servant that he sent word “to Jesse, saying, ‘Let David remain in my service, for he has found favor [ken, H2580] in my sight’” (16:22, NRSV).    Now although ken (‘favor, delight,’ H2580) is usually used in the OT without any romantic or erotic connotation, sexual interest may have existed where it is applied to Boaz and Ruth (Ruth 2:13) and certainly relating to King Ahasuerus and Queen Esther (Est 5:8, 7:3, 8:5, KJV).    One also suspects that when David tells Jonathan that Saul knows that he (David) has found “favor” (ken, 20:3, RSV) with the Prince—which has been translated also as Saul knows “that you like me” (NRSV) or “how much you like me” (GNB2, CEV)—this could well refer to their romantic connection.    Returning to when Saul first meets David, the armor-bearer (nose keli, H5375, H3627) in the ancient Near East was a personal attendant of a king or a warrior who performed (supportive) functions related to warfare; and Jonathan’s earlier relationship with his armor-bearer shows that this could be a very “devoted, personal relationship” (1 Sam 14:6–14, cf. Kelle).67    As Saul’s armor-bearer David would accompany the king to the battlefield, and as his lyre-player he most likely remained with him during night, to ease the king’s troubled mood whenever “the evil spirit” came upon him (1 Sam 16:24, NRSV).    It does not take too much imagination, then, to see this handsome youth eventually joining Saul in bed, as Wallace Hamilton pictures it in his novel David at Olivet (1979).68 

Jennings thinks that this view helps explain Saul’s outburst (1 Sam 20:30) more than being just a reference to Jonathan and David’s sexual involvement; and “it goes far in helping to explain the extravagance of Saul’s jealousy,” which causes him to “lash out at his heir” and even try to kill Jonathan by throwing a spear at him.69—although Saul’s uncontrollable outbursts must be related, at least in part, to his mental illness.    Yet, Jennings believes that Saul’s jealousy had ‘a strong sexual undertow.’70    Jennings is not the first interpreter to wonder whether Saul had a sexual relationship with David before he and Jonathan became a pair.    Earlier David Greenberg (1988) speculated whether Saul, when he learned that Jonathan and David had become intimates, could not have become jealous of his son; and his “explosive outbursts” reveal not only a fear of David’s growing popularity, but also a “sexual jealousy runs through the narration like a red thread.”71    Silvia Schroer and Thomas Staubli even titled a 2000 article “Saul, David and Jonathan―the Story of a Triangle?” and in it they proposed that “since nowhere in the narrative is Saul’s relationship to David recited without emotion, it is worthy of consideration whether the relationship of these men with each other does not have a lot to do with love, passion and jealousy.”72    Then Jennings carries this view further, envisioning that when David stepped out to fight Goliath, the Philistine giant saw only a “pretty boy,” the chief’s “boy-toy.”    If Saul had taken David as his “boy-companion,” then Jonathan would have appeared later as a (despised) rival for David’s affections, after David killed Goliath (1 Sam 18:1–4).    Yet, little did Saul realize that his jealousy and madness would only serve to drive David even more so into Jonathan’s protective arms.73 

Later, after David has gone on the run and is being chased by Saul and his troops, he is given an unusual opportunity to kill Saul, when the king goes to ‘relieve himself’ alone in a cave where David and his men happen to be hiding.    However, David does not harm the king, as his men urge (1 Sam 24, esp. vv. 3–7); and Jennings believes that this is because David still has ‘feelings’ for Saul, even though this represents a “picture of a love relationship gone sour.”    Although David cuts off a corner of Saul’s robe in the dark cave to later show the king that he could have killed him but did not, he “was stricken to the heart” (24:5, NRSV)—a “rather extreme reaction,” Jennings writes, which may point to David’s inability to kill his former lover.    Jennings also sees an “emotional charge” in David calling Saul “my father” (24:11) and Saul, in return, calling David “my son” (24:16).74    However, as one of the Lord’s anointed himself (by Samuel), David surely would have viewed it as important to set an example by not killing Saul, another of the Lord’s anointed (by Samuel).    Also, the term “father” could simply be a label of honor ascribed to a ruler (e.g., as with “the father of Tekoa” and “the father of Ziph,” titles applied to the rulers of these Judean towns, cf. 1 Chron 2:24, 42) or the name may simply recall that David was still Saul’s son-in-law (Youngblood)75―although we cannot be sure at what point Saul remarried Michal off to Palti (Paltiel) son of Laish (1 Sam 25:44).    Also, at least on one occasion in the Bible “son” was used to express a subject’s subservience to his ruler, when Ahaz (Jehoahaz), king of Judah, seeks help against a foreign attack, from Tiglath-pileser III, calling himself the Assyrian king’s “servant” and “son” (2 Kings 16:7).    Jennings also goes too far in seeing a sexual element in the second occasion where David has opportunity to kill Saul but does not (1 Sam 26), related to the statement: “Saul lay, with Abner” in the camp (1 Sam 26:5, NRSV).76    The real meaning here is made clear in the Living Bible translation, which reads, “King Saul and General Abner were sleeping inside a ring formed by the slumbering soldiers” (26:5), i.e., Abner was sleeping next to Saul to personally take charge of guarding the king’s life, which had earlier been put at risk (1 Sam 24).    Jennings also suggests that just as Saul had earlier taken David as his armor-bearer, so Jonathan does the same77―although nothing in the text following 18:1–4 supports this, and this seems much too lowly a position for the new national hero of Israel, who soon is appointed by Saul as commander-in-chief over his army (1 Sam 18:5). 

Still, the fact that Saul loved David “greatly” (me’od, H3966, 1 Sam 16:21) should be not be overlooked, since this is the only place in the Hebrew Scriptures where “loved [him] greatly [me’od] appears—and what does this signify?    We read that Isaac “loved” Rebekah (Gen 24:67), Jacob “was in love with [the beautiful] Rachel” (Gen 29:18, NIV), Shechem “loved Dinah” and laid with her (Gen 34:2–3), Samson “fell in love with” Delilah (Judg 16:4, NRSV), Elkanah “loved” Hannah (1 Sam 1:5), Michel “was in love with David” (1 Sam 18:20, NIV), Amnon son of David “fell in love with” Tamar (2 Sam 13:1, NRSV), Solomon “loved” many foreign women (1 Kings 11:1), and King Ahasuerus (Xerxes I) “loved Esther more than all the other women” (Est 2:17, NRSV)—and in each of these cases “loved,” “fell in love with,” or “was in love with” translates the verb ahab (H157).    So, certainly both amplified statements Jonathan “loved him [David] as himself (1 Sam 18:1, 3, UNASB) and Saul “loved him [David] greatly (1 Sam 16:21, NRSV, italics added in both cases) could point to ‘falling in love with’—as the Greek poet Theognis (ca. 500 BC) reminds us, even Zeus, “king of the immortals, once longed for Ganymede, / snatched him, brought him to Olympus and made him / a god with the lovely bloom of boyhood” (“Second Book,” lines 1346–1348). 78   As David’s virile beauty mesmerized Jonathan, so also perhaps it had hypnotized Saul.    Just as Jonathan’s ‘love’ for David was immediate and intense (giving him all the clothes off his back and his precious weapons), so also was Saul’s ‘love’ for David (who immediately appoints him not only as his lyre-player but his armor-bearer, and then sends word to his father that he wants to keep David by his side).    As Steven Greenberg (2004) notes, “both father and son seem smitten with David.”    Yet, the evidence for Saul and David being bed companions early on is not as solid and sure as that for Jonathan and David, where the prince’s falling in love with the young hero is followed by Saul’s sexually-charged outburst, David’s romantic eulogy confession, and other clues which seem to point to the two sharing a (homo)sexual relationship.    Still, historical records do provide examples of numerous ancient Near Eastern monarchs who took male bed companions, including: Gilgamesh, king of Urek; Neferkare, pharaoh of Egypt; Zimri-lin, king of Mari; Hammurabi, king of Babylon; Polycrates, king of Samos; Meno III, king of Thessaly; Darius III, king of Persia; and Alexander the Great (D. Greenberg, Davidson); and surely there were many other cases which are simply not known to us.    So if Saul wished to demonstrate his royal power by fulfilling every whim, even along this line, this would not be surprising. 79 

Jonathan and David’s parting scene in the field.    Schroer and Staubli draw attention to the “field” (sadeh, H7704, or “open country”), where Jonathan and David meet repeatedly, as a place of hiding and refuge and also as a place where sometimes lovers go to be alone.80    Three times the Bible tells us that Jonathan and David met together secretly “in the field”: after Jonathan brokered a peace with Saul on David’s behalf (1 Sam 19:2–7a, esp. v. 3), when Jonathan and David disappear to make their second covenant (20:1–23, esp. v. 11), and for their intensely emotional parting scene prior to David’s flight (20:35–42, esp. v. 35).    Zehnder acknowledges that when Jonathan says to David, “Come, let us go out into the field” (1 Sam 20:11, NRSV), this may recall a passage in Song of Songs where the Shulammite woman says to her male partner, “Come, my beloved, let us go forth into the fields . . .” (Song 7:11, NRSV), no doubt both for secrecy and love-making.    Yet he also notes that “to go out into the field” was everyday language that could mean many different things.    So he holds that all that Jonathan and David really sought was a secret place to meet for “political and security reasons,” where they could talk about things which would be considered treasonous (i.e., Jonathan’s support for David as Israel’s next king), if overheard and reported back to Saul.81    Jonathan and David’s kissing in the parting scene (1 Sam 20:41) “does not have erotic connotations,” Zehnder maintains, but was simply a social convention, a sign of parting between two brothers-in-law.82    Susan Ackerman also is unable to accept Schroer and Staubli’s idea that Jonathan invites David to go out into the field for lovemaking, along with conversation,83 although it is alone in the field at their parting where we find them kissing, embracing, and weeping (20:41).    As Nardelli writes, it is “not impossible” to view the field as providing a good place for an “amorous escapade.”    Going outside to make love is well-attested in other cultures, e.g., Nardelli recalls a humorous episode involving Sophocles, the Athenian playwright, who took a boy outside the city walls to have his way with him, but then found afterward that he had been robbed of his himation (outer garment, L829).    So when Jonathan invites David to go out into the field with him to make their second covenant (1 Sam 20:11), the reader who is alert to the sexual nature of their relationship may well remember that “this is the kind of place where lovers are free to have their way.”    Later, David’s statement in his eulogy about how “pleasant [na‘im, H5276]” Jonathan had been to him (2 Sam 1:26) suggests that there were times when they were alone and they shared their physical passions.84    Furthermore, since Horus and Seth in various versions of the ancient Egyptian story could alternate sexual roles, we need not label David or Jonathan as exclusively “the top” or “the bottom” (Nardelli).85 

But what specifically happened at their parting?    We read: “In the morning [the next day after Saul’s outburst] Jonathan went out into the field to the appointment with David” (1 Sam 20:35, NRSV); and after shooting a ‘far’ arrow as a sign to David that it was not safe for him to return to court (20:22) and sending his young aide back to the castle (20:40), then “David rose from beside the stone heap [J. Green, literally: ‘from beside the south’ (of something)] and [came to Jonathan and] 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 [footnote: ‘Meaning of Heb uncertain’ at the end] (1 Sam 20:41, NRSV).    As Teresa Hornsby (2007) notes, “Two men holding each other, kissing and weeping, is not an image we expect to find in the Bible,” and yet here it is.86    Still, the Hebrew ending ‘ad david higdil (H5704, H7132, H1431) is even more puzzling, which the KJV translates as “until David exceeded” (20:41).    Actually the older Septuagint Greek text here uses the verb ‘uperballō (‘to overshoot, to surpass, to outdo, or to exceed,’ L1860) instead of gadal (‘to grow, to become great, or to grow long,’ H1431), which at first might seem to support the ‘exceed’ translation.    Yet, the Greek text at the end of this verse translates in full as: ‘And each kissed his dear one, and wept over his dear one, unto [or ‘until,’ heōs, L2193] of a great David exceeded’ (1 Sam 20:41, Van der Pool).    The incomplete “a great . . .” points to a climax of some kind that happened at the end between these two men who were so “dear” to each other, although the ending, as it now stands, is “incomprehensible” (Hertzberg) and “something is missing” (Ackroyd), which may have been editorially “deleted” (Greenberg) because of its sexual nature.   Hertzberg believed that the Hebrew originally read ‘ad david taklit gedola, meaning “until David grew large [to] completion [H8503].”87 

Now Zehnder argues that higdil here, in the hiphil (causative) form of gadal, appears only twenty-two times in the Bible (besides 1 Sam 20:41) and nowhere else does it have a sexual connotation.    Also, if this pointed to David having an ejaculation, then why doesn’t the text suggest the same for Jonathan?    Zehnder believes that David’s ‘exceeding’ being separated from the pair ‘kissing’ by their ‘weeping’ weakens the case for reading the ending in a sexual way—although one surely should envision these emotions not as occurring in a strict sequence but rather as building up simultaneously.    Also Zehnder asks why the author did not use a more sexually-explicit term here, like raglehim (H7272, “feet” = genitals, cf. Ruth 3:7) or a verb like yada (H3045, “to know [sexually],” cf. Gen 19:5, Judg 19:22) or shakab (H7901, “to lie down with [sexually],” cf. Lev 18:22, 20:13)?88    Zehnder seems unaware of how reticent ancient Near Eastern and Mediterranean writers were to speak openly about sexual acts between men (cf. the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Iliad).    Although some commentators interpret the Hebrew ending here in a temporal way, (e.g., Fokkelman: “They wept together, David the longer”),89 Nardelli asks, “Should not [rather] the ‘great climax’ indicated in the Greek [Septuagint] allude to something sexual between the two men?”    Why not read this as “until David has enlarged” or had an “erection”?    Earlier Saul wondered whether David was “unclean” (1 Sam 20:26), which could refer to a bodily discharge like a seminal emission.90   Nardelli also notes that only rarely do ancient Greek texts speak of homosexual intercourse without either being cryptic (obscure) or dealing with abusive situations.91   Thomas Römer and Loyse Bonjour deny that Jonathan and David are a homosexual couple, yet still they believe that there is too much homosexual evidence in the Samuel text for the pair not to have been lovers at some point.92    In their parting scene, words are simply inadequate to express their grief.    They do not know how to articulate the connection between them, which has passed beyond the bounds of camaraderie into the realm of being lovers.93 

Rembert Truluck (2000) reads gadal here as meaning that David “was satisfied,” relating to his “great and overwhelming emotions” and his “[p]hysical love and affection,” although sex between them is “neither required or ruled out by this use of gadal.94    Walter Dietrich (2007) notes that David who so far has never said or shown that he loved anyone—is he modest, self-centered or cold-hearted?—finally in the parting scene shows emotion,95 and what intense emotion it is.    (Yet, one might also suggest that David, in his subservient, perilous situation, had simply kept his intimate thoughts and feelings to himself, especially related to being in a sexual relationship with another man.)    Dietrich notes another time when David is described as losing control of his emotions, after his son Absalom is killed and he breaks down weeping and wailing loudly (2 Sam 18:29–19:4),96 this time over the loss of his long-haired, attractive son (14:25–26) to whom he was closely attached.    Rick Brentlinger (2007) notes how initially in the parting scene the “farmboy David” bows down to Jonathan, his social superior.97    Of course, this was standard protocol for any citizen coming into the presence of royalty (cf. 1 Sam 24:8, 2 Sam 9:6), although one might view David’s bowing three times here as probably more an expression of his love for the prince and of his grief, than simply paying homage.    Brentlinger holds that gadal here may refer either to “overwhelming emotions or to becoming sexually aroused, or to both.”    It could refer to a sexual encounter, although this cannot be based on this verse alone.    Yet, when one considers the trajectory of the storythe loving relationship which these two men had, revealed in their repeated love pacts, along with the sexual content of Saul’s outburstthe larger picture points to something “far more than just a close, nonsexual friendship.”98    Would it be out of character for these two guys, who are sexually in love with each other and who now kiss and weep, locked in each other’s arms, to want to share each other’s intimacy one more time?    Was their kiss simply a “lightly brushing [of] both cheeks” in a traditional Middle Eastern fashion?    Hardly.    Instead we should think of the Shulammite’s cry for her lover: “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth!    For your love is better than wine . . .” (Song 1:2, NRSV).99    As David Greenberg (1988) notes, the Hebrew Bible underwent extensive editing before reaching its final form—and explicit homosexual references could easily have been deleted or changed by its editors.    Nevertheless, “homophilic innuendoes [gay-positive hints] permeate the story.”100 

Progression of the three covenants.    After David had brought Goliath’s head to King Saul and had spoken with him for a short while (in his tent at the campsite?), then Jonathan (led David to his own tent and) “made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul [cf. REB: ‘had given his heart to David’].    Jonathan stripped himself of the robe [me‘il, REB: ‘cloak’] that he was wearing, and gave it to David, and his armor [maddim, REB: ‘tunic’], and even his sword and his bow and his belt” (1 Sam 18:3–4, NRSV).    Perhaps Jonathan had watched his father tenderly dress the young man in his armor (maddim) and helmet (17:38) and give him his sword (17:39), but now he wanted to show David a greater love.   The word maddim (H4055) always appears in the plural in Hebrew, although it often carries a singular meaning; and basically it refers to a piece of ‘clothing or garments’ of various kinds, sometimes armor (Strong).    Now Zehnder follows the old line of reasoning, derived from William Moran (1963),101 which interprets Jonathan and David’s first covenant as a kind of ancient Near Eastern loyalty treaty, made sometimes between two equal partners and sometimes between an overlord and his vassal servants, and also calling upon a deity to witnesses the pledges made.102    However, Graeme Auld (2004) notes that we really do not know what Jonathan and David agreed upon in this first covenant, except that it was “based on love at first sight.”103    Stanley Grenz (1998) resists calling Jonathan and David’s covenant a “marriage” because it was not a public ceremony but only “a private declaration of loyal, committed friendship.”104    Yet, while this was a private pact (made in Jonathan’s tent), still it marked the beginning of a life-long commitment made by two people (till death do us part), with pledges of love made before the Almighty, which set these two men apart in a special category (“greatly beloved,” 2 Sam 1:26), even if only in their own eyes. 

Nardelli (2007) notes that although Jonathan acts like a suzerain (sovereign or lord) in his devotion to preserving David’s life, this was not a loyalty treaty where the weaker party swears an oath to serve the stronger party.    Although Jonathan the prince is much higher in social rank than David the lyre-player, even with the latter’s triumph over Goliath, the wording in 1 Sam 18:14 is “too intensely personal and sentimental” to be viewed as a political loyalty treaty.    Also, such a treaty came from an adjuration (a command), whereas Jonathan and David’s covenant was freely made on both sides.    Then, a loyalty treaty never had the stronger party offering himself as a free gift to the weaker party.105    Therefore, Nardelli concludes that it is more reasonable to view Jonathan and David’s first pact as a “marriage covenant,” although this was not for exterior eyes to see and even the two participants themselves probably viewed it originally as a kind of ‘brotherly alliance,’ which then evolved over time.106    Marriage in the Bible was considered a form of covenant, ratified by an oath (Mal 2:14).107    Nardelli also notes that this first covenant gave Jonathan and David a certain “stamp of social respectability,” which “could otherwise not have been conceived by the archaic Israelite mind.”    Of course, their love was “a radical departure from acceptable norms,” and yet it was “more important in their own eyes than peripheral heterosexuality.”    Here we have a successful “cover-up” placed on Jonathan’s “crush” on David, which later would be taken over and used in Davidic propaganda to advance nation-wide support for David’s ascent to the throne of Israel.108 

Zehnder interprets Jonathan’s gifts not only as “a sign of friendship” but as a ‘symbolic investiture,’ recognizing that David would one day become king; and he compares 1 Sam 18:1–4 to 2 Kings 11:10.109    Zehnder even claims that Jonathan’s gifts were a sign that “the donor is ready to give his life for him [David]”110—even though Jonathan is not well-equipped to protect David minus his weapons, and he never leaves his father to support David.    As to the 2 Kings 11:1–12 passage, the event related here happened some 180 years later in Judah (the southern kingdom of Israel) and had to do with some “spears and shields that had been King David’s” (v. 10), which the priest Jehoiada found in the Temple and then gave to some guards loyal to Joash, the young heir-apparent, to protect him until he could be officially installed as king.    While 1 Sam 18:3–4 clearly says that Jonathan’s gifts were given to David because he loved him, nothing in 2 Kings 11 suggests that these later weapons were given as a gift or sign of love; they were simply used to protect the prince for a short while until he could be crowned king.    Furthermore, the “covenant” given to Joash (v. 12) was not a loyalty treaty, but a copy of the Law (Radmacher).111    In other words, the content of these two passages is very different, and no significant comparison can be made between them.

Mark George (1996) viewed Jonathan’s stripping scene in the making of the first love pact as a ‘stepping out of his body’ to give David his ‘social bodies’ (family-wise as son of the king and political-wise as the heir-apparent)112although Nardelli judges that George invests Jonathan’s gifts with “too much symbolism” here and of the wrong kind.113    Prince Jonathan surpasses his father by giving David all of his clothes and weapons at hand, including his robe and maddim (armor or tunic) and belt, and his sword and bow.    Yet, he does not give David a helmet; and one must question whether he gave David any chest armor, as well, since if Jonathan was tall like his father (who stood “head and shoulders taller” than anyone else, 1 Sam 10:23), his armor would not have fit the younger, smaller David (“just a boy,” 17:33) any better than his father’s armor had (17:38–39).    Moreover, since Saul seems to have removed Jonathan from active military duty, one cannot be sure that Jonathan even had brought armor along with him, although he still kept his sword and bow nearby.    Therefore, maddim here (18:4) most likely refers not to armor but to Jonathan’s “tunic,” a knee-length, short- or long-sleeved garment (Matthews) that was worn next to the skin.    (Jonathan would have had to take off his belt or sash [kagor, H2290] in order to take off his tunic.)    So Jonathan’s gifts probably left the prince naked (Römer and Bonjour); and in this exceptional, spontaneous gesture, it can be held that Jonathan is ‘showing himself off’ (Nardelli).114    Why otherwise was it necessary for him to completely undress in front of David, which seems to be the case?115    In fact, because clothing served as “social markers” in ancient times, defining a person’s social role and status (Matthews), in ancient Near Eastern tradition a man of high rank would never have stripped off his clothes and given them to another man—unless perhaps he was stricken by love.    Therefore, Jonathan’s gifts must reveal (along with a certain political significance) both personal affection and an erotic interest in David (Römer and Bonjour).116    Rabbi Steven Greenberg (2004) also notes how “Jonathan takes off his vestments and weapons” here and then explains how his “act of dressing the young David in his own princely attire when they first meet expresses both Jonathan’s instantaneous love and his wish, conscious or not, to divest himself of his royal identity.    Saul is right.    Jonathan is unconsciously in league with David.”    He is “in love with David.”    And the erotic nature of his dressing David in his own clothes is hard to explain away.117    Teresa Hornsby (2007) adds: “It is difficult not see homoeroticism just below the surface” in 1 Sam 18:1–4, and Jonathan’s gifts seem “excessively abundant.”    He gives David his most prized and necessary possessions: his robe (his royal coat-of-arms) and his weapons (his favorites), which on occasion must certainly have stood between him and death.118 

In the second love-pact we read that “Jonathan made a covenant with David, saying, ‘May the LORD seek out the enemies of David.’    And Jonathan made David swear again by his love for him; for he loved him as he loved his own life” (1 Sam 20:16–17, NRSV).    Nardelli holds that it is more likely that “by his love” here refers again to Jonathan’s love (rather than to David’s), which was so evident in the first covenant (1 Sam 18:1–4).119    Yet Zehnder holds that this second covenant reveals no love affair, but simply expresses Jonathan’s concern for the protection of David from Saul’s persecution120—although this does not account for Jonathan’s instantaneous falling-in-love described in 1 Sam 18:1, the fact that Jonathan thereafter took “great delight in David” (19:1), the repeated expression of “love” recorded in 20:17, nor the sexual heat of Saul’s outburst (20:30).    Nardelli questions whether the second pact may be considered a political loyalty treaty either, since Jonathan binds himself to David as the inferior party, even though he continues his role as his protector.121    In the third pact, then, Jonathan and David “made a covenant before the LORD,” agreeing that when David became king, Jonathan would serve as his “second” [mishneh, H4932] at his side (1 Sam 23:17–18, NRSV).    Zehnder contends, “In this chapter, the personal–emotional aspect of this relationship is totally absent”122—although the content of the third pact surely portrays a deep, profound, and special closeness between these two companions.    It should be expected, of course, with Jonathan visiting David at his camp, where he is surrounded by all of his rebel outlaws (22:1–2), that the prince’s words and actions would be circumspect and restrained.    Still, the fact that Jonathan has made this perilous journey at all to seek out David, willing to face Saul’s murderous wrath if ever he found out about this visit and risking attack by David’s nervous guards (23:3), speaks volumes about Jonathan’s longing to see David again.    Nardelli notes that in this third covenant Jonathan not only fully recognizes that David will one day become the next king of Israel, but now he makes a new covenant with him for the future, in which he envisions David as the lord and himself as his loyal servant.    Yet the statement here is quite remarkable: “I shall be next to you” (cf. NLB, ESV) or “second to you” (cf. NJB), not as a co-regent but as your “double” or “alter-ego,” on a personal footing, as your “beloved” (Nardelli).    Egyptian equivalents of the Hebrew word mishneh include y-n-mrwt (“favorite, protégé”) and mrw-tj (“beloved, favorite”), which translators understand to refer to a “beloved.”123    As Christopher Hubble (2003) notes, David and Jonathan formed a “beautiful partnership” which they intended to last a lifetime.    It was “a loving and committed union,” with an “unrestrained and honest devotion the two young men share [even] in the face of intolerance and persecution.”124 

David’s eulogy and aside directed to Jonathan.    At the end of David’s eulogy (2 Sam 1:19–27), written and sung to honor the departed Saul and Jonathan, David’s heart cries out: “I grieve for you, Jonathan, my brother; / you were most dear to me; / your love for me was wonderful, / surpassing the love of women” (2 Sam 1:26, REB).    Zehnder does note that the most striking and powerful line of David’s aside here is “your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women” (NRSV).    Yet he argues that David’s “erotic” love for women must be distinguished from Jonathan’s only “deeply emotional” love for David;125 and “the categories ‘friendship’ and ‘intimate love’ can and must be distinguished” here126—showing that Zehnder has little awareness of how closely friendship and eroticism could blend together in ‘Greek love’ and also in ancient Near Eastern texts that speak of homosexual love.    Zehnder also writes that ancient Near Eastern marriages generally were not entered into from a preceding emotional attachment but rather for “other, far more practical and mundane reasons.”127    Yet, in another place in his text, Zehnder recalls Jacob who ardently sought and obtained Rachel as his wife, because he was so determined and was “in love” with her (Gen 29:18, NIV).128    Although marriage did customarily involve a young man’s father making a contract with the prospective bride’s father (which included the paying of a bride price), this does not mean that some men were unable to do this on their own and marry women to whom they were greatly attracted.    For example, Esau runs off and marries two Hittite women (Judith and Basemath, Gen 26:34–35), which displeased his parents, Isaac and Rebekah; and then later he married another Hittite woman and also a Hivite woman (Adah and Oholibamah, Gen 36:2), although Isaac did not want his sons to marry Canaanite women (28:1).    Judah also apparently ran off, fell in love with, and married a Canaanite woman (Shua or Beth-shua, Gen 38:2, 1 Chron 2:3).    On the other hand, Samson forced his devout parents to arrange a marriage with a Philistine woman in Timnah with whom he had fallen in love, although they did not approve of her (Judg 14:1–10).    What to do with ‘willful’ sons?    Also, any Israelite man (who could afford it) was free to take second and third wives, where presumably they had more freedom to select a bed partner for their attractiveness (as well as fruitfulness).    Note, for example: Gideon, who had many wives (Judg 8:30); Caleb, a descendent of Judah, and his second wife, Jerioth (1 Chron 2:18); Jerahmeel and his second wife, Atarah (1 Chron 2:26); Ashhur and his second wife, Naarah (1 Chron 4:5); Mered and his second wife (1 Chron 4:17–18); Shaharaim, who after he divorced his first two wives, then married Hodesh and Hushim (1 Chron 8:8–11); David and the beautiful Abigail (1 Sam 25:3, 39–42) and especially Bathsheba (2 Sam 11:2–5, 27).    Solomon must have been attracted to some of his seven hundred wives (1 Kings 11:3), as he was to the dark-skinned Shulammite woman (Song 1:1–2, 5, 12–17); and Rehoboam had eighteen wives (2 Chron 11:21).    On one occasion Benjaminite men were allowed to abduct Israelite women dancing before the Tabernacle at Shiloh (Judg 21:20–21), each one carrying off for a wife whomever caught his eye.    Also, Israelite men could take one or more concubine(s) to whom they were attracted, probably without parental assent, including: Nahor, Abraham’s brother, and Reumah (Gen 22:24); Abraham and Keturah (1 Chron 1:32); Eliphaz, Esau’s son, and Timna (Gen 36:12); Caleb and Maacah (1 Chron 2:48); Manasseh, Joseph’s son, and his Aramean concubine (1 Chron 7:14); Gideon and his concubine (Judg 8:31); the Levite priest of Ephraim and his concubine (Judg 19:1ff); Saul and Rizpah (2 Sam 3:7); David with numerous concubines (2 Sam 5:13); Solomon with three hundred concubines (1 Kings 11:3); and Rehoboam with sixty concubines (2 Chron 11:21).    Sexual hormones being the powerful motivators that they are, marriages resulting from physical attraction rather than cool parental choice may not have been as unheard of in ancient Israel as Zehnder suggests, not to mention the taking of concubines.    At least, Song of Songs sings the praises of falling in love, erotic passion, beautiful bodies, and sex in the fields.    Besides, Jonathan and David in their unusual love pact saw no need for following heterosexual protocols, including getting parental consent or paying a bride price.   

Looking closely at David’s aside to Jonathan (1 Sam 1:26), Ackerman notes that David “perceived Jonathan to have loved him in a way analogous to the sexual-emotional way in which a woman (or wife) would love a man, and it implies also that David returned that love, finding it to be something ‘wonderful,’ in fact more wonderful than the love he had received from the women with whom he had been sexually involved” (i.e., Abigail and Ahinoam).129    Saul Olyan (2006) notes how David’s use of the word ‘love’ in his aside, rather than squaring with the use of this word in ancient Near Eastern political treaties, actually “subverts” the loyalty treaty idea, with David’s “unexpected and even startling observation about Jonathan’s love” which was “sexual-emotional” in nature.130    “[T]here was more to their relationship than simply a covenant bond,” and viewing a sexual involvement here is “strengthened by the observation that David is often portrayed as a nonconformist and even a manipulator of ritual and social conventions,” which can be seen, e.g., when he abruptly stops weeping when he receives news that Bathsheba’s first, sickly child has died (2 Sam 12:18–20).131    Römer and Bonjour note that in the end both the Samuel story and the Gilgamesh epic speak of a profound relationship between two men, of a kind in antiquity that sometimes appeared between two male heroes, especially noted at a royal court.    David’s eulogy expresses the loss of a love which he feels for no one else and a sense that he will never forget his departed companion and their love.132    Moreover, the conjugal metaphor here (comparing their love to that between a husband and a wife) points not only to the complementary nature of their relationship but also to its sexual expression.133 

Related to David’s calling Jonathan “[my] brother [ak, H251],” Zehnder argues that this term is used only once in the Hebrew Bible with an erotic sense (Song 8:1), although he also notes that “sister” is used five times in Song of Songs to refer to the king’s beloved (4:9, 10, 12; 5:1, 2).134    Still, with the manner in which whispered rumors and juicy gossip usually circulate in court circles, surely the closeness and intimacy of Jonathan and David’s relationship did not remain a secret for long.    In fact, it may have been through such gossip or servant reports that Saul learned that Jonathan was showing ‘special’ attention to and probably having sex with David (1 Sam 20:30).    Zehnder may be correct in saying that David’s words to Jonathan in his eulogy could have been understood in a non-sexual way (by some hearers), including the term “brother,”135 but this does not mean that there were not some, especially with connections to the court, who did not know better and who would have recognized immediately the real sexual meaning of David’s words addressed to the departed prince.    Olyan believes that David’s application of the term “brother” to Jonathan (2 Sam 1:26) was part of treaty covenant language, although it also appears to have been used in “an intentionally subversive way.”136    Nardelli notes that interpreting “brother” in any text is very difficult, because this term was commonly used in ancient brotherhood ties without necessarily inferring a sexual connection.    Therefore, based on the appearance of this term alone, it is “highly tricky” to distinguish between ‘blood brothers’ and ‘intimate pals.’137    Still, Nardelli calls it “astonishing” to find David ranking the “love of a pal” (“my brother”) higher than female love.    Striking too is his statement that “you were very sweet [na‘im, H5276; NRSV: ‘beloved’] to me,” for na‘im used with the perfect (past) tense appears only here and in Song of Songs 7:6, where the king’s beautiful beloved is also called na‘im.138    Also, hassebi (H6643), appearing at the beginning of David’s eulogy (2 Sam 1:19), which has been translated as “Your glory [O Israel]” (NRSV) or “The beauty [of Israel]” (KJV), really is meant to refer to Jonathan (Fokkelman, Youngblood, Cartledge, Nardelli) and so identifies the prince as the primary focus of this poem.139    Then related to “The [Archer’s] Bow,” the title given by David to his eulogy song, Zehnder notes that the great majority of uses of qeshet (“bow,” H7198) in the Hebrew Bible clearly refer to the military weapon; and in only three cases may a sexual connotation be considered (Gen 49:24, Job 29:20, 1 Chron 8:40).140    The first and second verses here might refer poetically to the sexual vigor of Joseph and of Job, while the third passage speaks of “men who were mighty warriors, bowmen, having many sons and grandsons, one hundred and fifty” (RSV), which might describe the hyper-sexual activity of Ulam’s sons—although such a connection is somewhat speculative, as Zehnder notes.141    If the title (“The Bow”) of David’s eulogy was intended to be a sly reference to Jonathan’s phallus and sexual prowess, this is hard to prove definitely—although still some interpreters are intrigued by the Bow title, such as Rabbi Steven Greenberg (2004), who suggests that Jonathan’s arrow-shooting practice preceding the pair’s parting scene marks their encounter as being “strongly homoerotic, if not sexual.”142    At least, it cannot be denied that the bow and arrow appear repeatedly as masculine phallic symbols in ancient Near Eastern literary texts (Hillers).143    Whatever the case here, Steven Greenberg concludes, “[T]he narrative description of Jonathan and David’s relationship in the Books of Samuel is guardedly but surely erotic.”144        

Summary.    The ancient Greeks preferred not to write openly about sex between men but rather focus on the physical beauty of a male hero, which then anticipated male sexual desire and erotic response; and the same may be said of similar Mesopotamian references.    The lack of a recorded response on David’s part to Jonathan’s “love” before the prince’s death can most reasonably be explained by the shame that was universally attached in ancient times to any male who became the recipient of homosexual passion.    If the terminology in 1 Sam 18:1–4 would have been applied to a man and a woman, no one would have questioned for a moment that it expressed erotic attraction; and the love between David and Jonathan is so great that nothing, not even the love of Princess Michal, can separate them.    Ample OT evidence shows that shame was frequently associated with nakedness and the genitals; and the ambiguous “choosing [David]” or becoming his “companion” in Saul’s insult must be read as a homosexual reference, because of its clear sexual context.    The pair’s repeated secret meetings alone in the “field” (away from the castle) certainly suggest that they had found a secret place where Jonathan could become “greatly beloved” to David (2 Sam 1:26), in physical union.    Also, ‘ad David higdal, literally “until David exceeded” in the Hebrew (KJV) or ‘came to a great climax’ in the Septuagint Greek (van der Pool), points to something beyond prolonged kissing and weeping; and the damaged ending suggests that something was deleted from it or changed, arguably an original reference to David’s sexual arousal and relief in Jonathan’s arms (and then the latter’s response).    Finally interpreters are beginning to realize that the first covenant says nothing explicit about a political loyalty covenant, and it is highly unlikely that David revealed the dangerous and dark secret of his royal anointing to the Prince when they first met—although Jonathan sensed early on David’s remarkable gifts and God’s blessing upon his life; and perhaps he also envisioned in David a way to escape the constraining burdens of kingship.    In any case, Jonathan removes all of his clothes and places them tenderly on David (who first has to undress), so that both of them get a good look at the other.    By the second covenant, however, Jonathan senses that David will probably one day become king; and by the third covenant he has designed a way to remain by his side when he does come to throne, as his beloved companion.    Most clearly in David’s final words to Jonathan (2 Sam 1:26) his comparison of the prince’s love for him to that of women points to an undeniable, passionate sexual–emotional bond between them.                  

FOOTNOTES:    1. Ackerman, p. 166.    2. Horner, pp. 26–39.    3. Schroer and Staubli, pp. 27–31.    4. Zehnder, pp. 138–139.    5. Jennings, p. 8.    6. Samuel, M., 1955, p. 270.    7. Kirsch, p. 45.    8. Ward Houser, in Houser and Johansson, “David,” p. 297.    9. New Oxford Annotated Bible, footnote for 1 Sam 16:12.    10. Dobbs-Allsopp, pp. 415–416.    11. Zehnder, p. 157.    12. Cf. Horner, pp. 18–20, 37; Greenberg, D., pp. 112–114; Halpern, D., 1990, pp. 75–87; Johansson, “Achilles,” p. 8; Nissinen, p. 56; and Schroer and Staubli, pp. 34–35.    13. Nardelli, Homosexuality, pp. 49–50.    14. Green, Joel, pp. 358–359.    15. Goldingay, p. 767.    16. Zehnder, pp. 155–156.    17. McKenzie, pp. 80, 84–85.    18. Zehnder, p. 156.    19. Schroer and Staubli, p. 28.    20. Ackerman, p. 187.    21. Zehnder, p. 156.    22. Nissinen, pp. 27, 44, 48–49.    23. Zehnder, p. 160.    24. George, M., pp. 169–170.    25. Auld, p. 94; cf. Nardelli, Homosexuality, p. 51, n. 66.    26. Hornsby, p. 66; cf. also Brentlinger, p. 146.    27. Zehnder, p. 147.    28. Botterweck, pp. 95–96.    29. Schroer and Staubli, p. 28.    30. Ackerman, pp. 176–177.    31. Dobbs-Allsopp, p. 415.    32. Zehnder, p. 150.    33. Radmacher, p. 1034.    34. Zehnder, p. 150.    35. Zehnder, p. 153.    36. Gorman, p. 217.    37. Cathey, p. 214.    38. Patai, p. 142.    39. Ibid., pp. 141–142.    40. Nardelli, Appendix IV, text added to p. 27, n. 36, last line; p. 82.    41. Hornsby, p. 92.    42. Driver 1913, p. 171.    43. Horner, p. 31.    44. Nissinen, p. 158, n. 94.    45. Quoted in Brentlinger, p. 177.    46. Youngblood, p. 724.    47. Hertzberg, p. 175.    48. Jobling, p. 178; Hornsby, p. 68.    49. Nardelli, Homosexuality, p. 27, n. 36.    50. Brentlinger, p. 179.    51. Helminiak, pp. 123–124.     52. Greenberg, S., pp. 101–102.    53. Hubble, p. 46.    54. Dietrich, pp. 49, 282.    55. Jennings, p. 17.    56. Nissinen, p. 55.    57. Greenberg, S., p. 104.    58. Ackerman, pp. 177–181; Nardelli, Homosexuality, p. 29.    59. Ackerman, pp. 181, 177.    60. Hubble, p. 38; Jennings, p. 11; Nardelli, Homosexuality, pp. 39–40.    61. Zehnder, p. 158.    62. Ibid., p. 159.    63. Van Seters, p. 171; Römer and Bonjour, p. 96.   64. Zehnder, p. 158; Nardelli, Appendix IV, added text for p. 27, n. 37; p. 85.    65. Brentlinger, pp. 141, 149, 160.    66. Jennings, p. 17.    67. Kelle, p. 271.   68. Hamilton, W., pp. 86–101, 117–118.    69. Jennings, p. 18.   70. Ibid., p. 19.    71. Greenberg, D., p. 114.    72. Schroer and Staubli, p. 24.    73. Jennings, pp. 15–16.    74. Ibid., p. 22.    75. Youngblood, p. 747.    76. Jennings, p. 21.    77. Ibid., p. 25.    78. Theognis, quoted in Fone, p. 38.    79. Greenberg, S., p. 101; Greenberg, D., pp. 112, 123, 126, 129; and Davidson, pp. 362, 490.    80. Schroer and Staubli, p. 29.    81. Zehnder, p. 148.    82. Ibid., p. 149.    83. Ackerman, p. 177.    84. Nardelli, Homosexuality, pp. 55–56, n. 70.    85. Ibid., pp. 58–59.    86. Hornsby, p. 68.    87. Hertzberg, p. 171; Ackroyd, 1971, p. 168; and D. Greenberg, p. 114.    88. Zehnder, pp. 154, 156–157.    89. Fokkelman, 1986, p. 350.    90. Nardelli, Homosexuality, p. 26, n. 36.    91. Ibid., p. 37, n. 49.    92. Römer and Bonjour, pp. 61–79; and cf. Nardelli, Homosexuality, p. 27, n. 37.    93. Römer and Bonjour, p. 99.   94. Truluck, pp. 231–232.    95. Dietrich, pp. 61, 63.    96. Ibid., p. 80.    97. Brentlinger, p. 157.    98. Ibid., pp. 157–158.    99. Ibid., p. 158.    100. Greenberg, D., p. 114.    101. Moran, 1963, pp. 77–87.    102. Zehnder, p. 162.    103. Auld, p. 94.    104. Grenz, p. 138.    105. Nardelli, Homosexuality, p. 35, n. 47.    106. Ibid., pp. 57–58.    107. Ibid., p. 39, n. 51.   108. Ibid., pp. 39–40.    109. Zehnder, p. 162.    110. Ibid., p. 162.    111. Radmacher, p. 465.    112. George, M., pp. 170–171.    113. Nardelli, Homosexuality, p. 57, n. 72.    114. Matthews, 2006, p. 694; Römer and Bonjour, pp. 69–70; Nardelli, Homosexuality, p. 34.    115. Römer and Bonjour, pp. 99–100.    116. Matthews, 2006, p. 692; Römer and Bonjour, pp. 69–70.    117. Greenberg, S., pp. 101–102, 104.    118. Hornsby, p. 66.    119. Nardelli, Homosexuality, p. 32.    120. Zehnder, p. 163.    121. Nardelli, Homosexuality, p. 33.    122. Zehnder, p. 163.    123. Nardelli, Homosexuality, p. 32.    124. Hubble, p. 1.    125. Zehnder, p. 141.    126. Ibid., p. 142, n. 52.    127. Ibid., p. 143.    128. Ibid., p. 132.    129. Ackerman, p. 192; cf. Nardelli, Homosexuality, pp. 29–30.    130. Olyan, 2006, pp. 13–14.    131. Ibid., p. 14.    132. Römer and Bonjour, p. 100.    133. Ibid., p. 100.    134. Zehnder, p. 152.    135. Ibid., p. 152.    136. Olyan, 2006, pp. 8, 14.    137. Nardelli, Homosexuality, pp. 10–11.    138. Ibid., pp. 30–31.    139. Fokkelman, 1986, pp. 670–671; Youngblood, p. 812; Cartledge, pp. 355–356; Nardelli, Homosexuality, p. 63.    140. Zehnder, p. 154.    141. Ibid., p. 155.    142. Greenberg, S., p. 268, n. 3.    143. Hillers, pp. 71, 73.    144. Greenberg, S., p. 100.        


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Botterweck, G. Johannes, חפצ  kaphets, in G. Johannes Botterweck and Helmer Ringgren, eds., Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, 5, 1986, pp. 92–107.   

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Cathey, Joseph R., “Shaphir,” in Katharine Doob Sakenfeld, ed., New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, 5, p. 214, 2009.  

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Gorman, Frank H., “Nakedness,” in Katharine Doob Sakenfeld, ed., New Interpreter’s Dictionary  of the Bible, 4, p. 217, 2009.  

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Hertzberg, Hans Wilhelm, I & II Samuel: A Commentary, (German 1956, 1960) trans. 1964. 

Hillers, Delbert R., “The Bow of Aqhat: The Meaning of a Mythological Theme,” in Harry A. Hoffner, Jr., ed., Orient and Occident: Essays Presented to Cyrus H. Gordon on the Occasion of his Sixty-fifth Birthday, pp. 71–80, 1973. 

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New Oxford Annotated Bible, ed. Michael D. Coogan, (1973, 1977) 1991, repr. 2001. 

Nissinen, Martti, Homoeroticism in the Biblical World: A Historical Perspective, (Finnish 1994) trans. and rev. 1998. 

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

Patai, Raphael, Family, Love and the Bible, 1960.  

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

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

Samuel, Maurice, “Three Wives.”   In Maurice Samuel, Certain People of the Book, 1995, pp. 191–206; reprinted in David J. A. Clines and Tamara C. Eskenazi, eds., Telling Queen Michal’s Story: An Experiment in Comparative Interpretation, pp. 270–279, 1991.  

Schroer, Silvia, and Thomas Staubli, “Saul, David and Jonathan―The Story of a Triangle?  A Contribution to the Issue of Homosexuality in the First Testament,” trans. from German in Athalya Brenner, ed., Samuel and Kings, pp. 22–36, 2000. 

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

Truluck, Rembert S., Steps to Recovery from Bible Abuse, 2000.  

Van der Pool, Charles, trans., Apostolic Bible: Polyglot, with OT (Septuagint) and NT Greek texts, (1996) 2006. 

Van Seters, John, The Biblical Saga of King David, 2009.  

Youngblood, Ronald F., “1, 2 Samuel,” in Frank E. Gaebelein, ed., Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 3, pp. 551–1104, 1992.  

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


BIBLE TRANSLATIONS:   Contemporary English Version, 1995.   Douay-Rheims translation, Challoner revision, 1752.   English Standard Version, 2001.   Good News Bible, 2nd ed., 1983.   King James Version, 1611.   George Lamsa, Aramaic Peshitta translation, 1933.   Living Bible, 1976.   New American Bible, 1995.   New English Bible, with the Apocrypha, 1970.   New International Version, 1978.   New Jerusalem Bible, 1985.   New Living Translation, 1996.   New Revised Standard Version, 1989.   Revised English Bible, 1989.   Revised Standard Version, 1952.   Today’s English Version, 1976.   Updated New American Standard Bible, 1995.      

NUMBER REFERENCES TO LEXICONS:   G = Word numbers in Strongest Strong’s “Greek Dictionary–Index to the New Testament.”   H = Word numbers in Strongest Strong’s “Hebrew–Aramaic Dictionary–Index to the Old Testament.”   L = Page numbers for words in Liddell’s A GreekEnglish Lexicon.    V = Word numbers in Van der Pool’s Apostolic Bible: Polyglot, “Lexical Concordance.”     


©2011 Bruce L. Gerig

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