Jonathan & David: An Introduction
Key Passages:
1 Samuel 13 - 2 Samuel 1
By Bruce L. Gerig

Everyone’s heard of the “friendship” of Jonathan and David, that developed between the older prince and the young hero and that dominates the story of David’s stay in court described in 1 Sam 18-20. Prior to this, Jonathan, King Saul’s eldest son, had gained his father a brave victory over the dreaded Philistines, but then was suddenly sidelined by Saul because of his popularity (chs. 13-14) In fact, Saul’s egotistical behavior and disobedience toward God finally leads the Lord to reject his reign and send Samuel the prophet to secretly anoint David, a boy in Bethlehem, to be the next king of Israel (chs. 15-16). Soon, however, David becomes a national hero after he surprising steps forward with his slingshot to face and kill Goliath, the menacing Philistine giant (ch. 17). When he brings the great head to the king’s house, Prince Jonathan sees David for the first time and is so drawn to the handsome boy that he immediately makes a “covenant” with him, expressing his love (18:1-4). As David’s popularity grows, however, so does Saul’s jealousy; and although Jonathan nurtures and shields David from his hostile father, finally they must part (18:5–20:42) so that David can go into hiding and on the run. Later, Jonathan does manages a rendezvous with David (23:15-18), which turns out to be their last meeting since Saul and Jonathan are thereafter killed in battle (ch. 31). When David hears of this, he so grief-stricken that he writes a public elegy, which expresses openly his love for Jonathan and his sense of loss (2 Sam 1). The full story of Jonathan and David extends from 1 Sam 13 through 2 Sam 1.

Traditional interpreters of this story have been careful to view the relationship of Jonathan and David as anything but romantic. For example, David Payne (1970) wrote, “It is interesting that David’s stay at Saul’s court is told almost entirely in terms of his relationship with Jonathan” – yet Jonathan’s feelings are (simply) an “admiration and respect for David.”1 Rabbi Israel Weisfeld (1983) called it the “classic description of genuine unselfish love,” Robert Pfeiffer (1948) “intense and sincere, but nonetheless virile [i.e. manly, and not homosexual],” and J.A. Thompson (1974) “the kind of attachment people had to a king who could fight their battles for them.”2 Stan Rummel (1976) argued that Jonathan’s giving of his robe and weapons to David in the covenant was simply a political symbol for handing the throne over to him.3 Jerry Landay (1998) wrote, “The friendship of Jonathan and David was the embodiment of the sheer love of man for man, an intimacy based on shared experiences and dangers, … a kind of intuitive trust that transcends the taint of ambition, jealousy or the claim of sex.”4 Many of the nonsexual observations made here are true, of course, but was that the whole of it? That is the $64,000 question.

What can be said confidently at the beginning of our study on this topic is that there has been a long-standing suspicion and recently a growing minority view that there is a homoerotic subtext in this story. Chrysostom (4th cent. bishop of Constantinople) interpreted Saul’s outburst in 1 Sam 20:30-31 as condemning Jonathan as “enervated [weak] and effeminate and having nothing of a man” – which has the ring of a gay slur about it.5 On the other hand, Peter Abelard (French theologian, c. 1100) would extend David’s lament (2 Sam 1:25-26) into 110 lines, writing, ‘to outlive you [Jonathan] / Is to die at every moment: Half a soul is not / Enough for life…”6 John Boswell (1994) wrote that early gay Christian saints surely found a “hallowed tradition” for same-sex love in the story of Jonathan and David, and notes that the term “brother” (that David applies to Jonathan, 2 Sam 1:26) has long been applied in the past with special meaning in same-sex relationships.7 One early chronicler of the homosexual love of Edward II (king of England, 1307-27) wrote, “Upon looking upon him [Piers Gaveston], the son of the king immediately felt such love for him that he entered into a covenant of constancy, and bound himself with him before all other mortals with a bond of indissoluble love, firmly drawn up and fastened with a knot.” In his Life of Edward II (c. 1326?), the Monk of Malmesbury further compared Edward’s love for Piers to that of Jonathan for David and of Achilles for Patroclus, only the king’s love was “incapable of moderate favor.”8

After the publication of Alfred Kinsey’s Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948), some writers began to take a fresh look at the friendship of Jonathan and David. For example, the theologian David Mace (1953) called this friendship a good example of “the comparatively harmless homosexual attachments of adolescence” that sometimes occur,9 while psychiatrist George Henry (1955) wrote that Jonathan and David definitely had a sexual relationship, in which the prince Jonathan was the aggressor and the ambitious David the willing seductee, “unreservedly responsive,” although this was a passing phase.10 Raphael Patai (1960), a Middle East anthropologist, wrote: “The love story between Jonathan the son of King Saul, and David the beautiful young hero, must have been duplicated many times in royal courts in all parts of the Middle East and in all periods” – one example being Amin (in 8th cent. Baghdad), son of Caliph Harun al-Rashid, who fell in love with a page boy named Kautar.11

The first scholar to present a full-blown case for the Biblical text suggesting a homoerotic relationship was Tom Horner (Ph.D., Columbia) in Jonathan Loved David (1978). He recalls the “world’s first great love story,” between Gilgamesh, king of Uruk, and Enkidu, his inseparable companion, an epic poem that was widely disseminated in the ancient Near East. “No mourner in the history of the world – except perhaps Alexander at the passing of his friend Hephaestion… – has ever been more broken up over the loss of his (or her) beloved friend” as was King Gilgamesh over Enkidu’s untimely demise; and David in his expression of love and loss over Jonathan’s death follows in this tradition.12 A crack in mainstream commentary occurred in J.P. Fokkelman’s three-volume Narrative Art and Poetry in the Books of Samuel, where he wrote (vol. 2, 1986): “The love of Jonathan does not have to be nailed to the mast of a late capitalist liberation front whose members, after centuries of sinister suppression of homosexuals, wish to designate homosexual love the highest form of humanity. It would be even less sound to assure us in suspiciously strong tones that Jonathan and David were most definitely not gay.”13

However, it was only in the 1990s that a full stream of new research began to appear, analyzing the text and story of Jonathan and David in greater depth and wider scope. Walter Brueggemann, professor of OT at Columbia Theological Seminary (Decatur, GA), in First and Second Samuel (1990), wrote that the attention given to David’s unusual beauty (1 Sam 16:12) may be noted here “in anticipation of the enormous attraction David is to have in the coming narratives for both men and women. Or perhaps his appearance is noted because those who valued the story most wanted to hear of his loveliness.”14 Gary Comstock, in Gay Theology without Apology (1993), draws from Joseph Cady’s insights in an essay on Walt Whitman where he states that “gay writers writing in a time that is hostile to gay people had to invent protective strategies that allow them to express themselves while sufficiently guarding themselves against social exposure and punishment.” Comstock notes that in the time of Jonathan and David, such expressions of friendship and comradeship as we read in the story may have been “appropriate terms” that were “conventional to covenant making” in that period; yet at the same time they served as a vehicle for the expression of same-sex love. Also, the “sharing of attention between Saul and Jonathan [in David’s elegy] provides a good cover” for David’s special feelings for Jonathan.15

Danna Fewell (Perkins School of Theology, Dallas) and David Gunn (Texas Christian University, Fort Worth), in their book In Gender, Power and Promise (1993), note that, until recently, most writing on the Jonathan and David story has come “out of a strongly homophobic tradition” and they suggest, “On the contrary, far from stretching probability, a homosexual reading … finds many anchor points in the text.” Passages that especially call for a new analysis include Jonathan’s covenant of love made with David (1 Sam 18:1-4), Saul’s sexual insult hurled at Jonathan (20:30-31), and David’s lament for his lost beloved (2 Sam 1:26).16 Francisco Garcia-Treto (1993), in an article on poetic inclusions in 1-2 Samuel, notes that in the elegy “David … opens his heart to expose to the reader a stunning, sudden glimpse into the intimate feelings of his soul. It is fascinating, and oddly embarrassing at the same time, to hear him cast all reserve or restrain aside and wail for the loss of Jonathan.”17 David Halpern (professor of literature at MIT) noted (1990), “As in the Gilgamesh epic, so in the Books of Samuel the relationship between friends is constructed as both fraternal [like between brothers] and conjugal [like between husband and wife].”18

David Jobling in 1 Samuel (1998) notes that there is more mention of the love these two men had for each other and of them spending time in each other’s company than is ever noted between David and either Michal or Abigail, his first two wives who are also described in 1 Samuel. “If these features, along with sex, constitute ‘the love of women’ as David has experienced it, then Jonathan’s love does indeed ‘pass the love of women.’ … Nothing in the text rules out, and much encourages the view that David and Jonathan had a consummated gay relationship. The text does not force this conclusion on us; there are obvious cultural reasons why it would not. But it is at least as valid as any other.”19 Jonathan Kirsch writes in King David: The Real Life of the Man Who Ruled Israel (2000): “David, whose very name means ‘beloved,’ attracts both men and women, inspiring sometimes a pristine love and more often a frankly carnal one.” He adds, “The nature of the love between David and Jonathan is one of the most tantalizing mysteries of the biblical life story of David.” What does “the soul of Jonathan was knit with the soul of David” mean? A more worldly reading suggests that the covenant was not a love pact but a “political arrangement.” But “something more heartfelt and more carnal may have characterized the love of David and Jonathan, even if the Bible dares not speak its name. … Much effort has been expended in explaining away David’s declaration of love for Jonathan, a declaration that suggests an undeniable homoerotic subtext.”20

This coming review, therefore, will seek to survey the growing body of research that sees a probable homoerotic undercurrent in the Jonathan and David story and to investigate carefully those textual clues and cultural factors that have been used to support such a conclusion. To begin with, however, we must take a look at how homosexuality was viewed more broadly throughout the ancient Near East, beginning with Egypt.

Homosexuality in Ancient Egypt


FOOTNOTES: 1. Payne, in NBCR, p. 197.      2. In Kirsch, p. 129.       3. Rummel, p. 6-7.      4. Landay, p. 36.      5. In Houser, W. & W. Johansson, “David and Jonathan,” EH, I, p. 298.       6. Trans. by Thomas Stehling, in Frontain, p. 90.       7. Boswell, p. 159; 21-22,182.       8. In Crompton, p. 372-73.      9. Mace, p. 224.      10. Henry, p. 498; in Horner, p. 28.       11. Patai, p. 152-54,159.       12. Horner, p. 16-18.      13. Fokkelman, p. 197.      14. Brueggemann, p. 123.       15. Comstock, p. 87-88.      16. Fewell & Gunn, p. 148-51.      17. Garcia-Treto, 1993, p. 63 (cf. Noll, p. 101).      18. Halpern, p. 38 (cf. Boswell, p. 137.      19. Jobling, p. 162,161.      20. Kirsch, p. 2,60,334-35.

Boswell, John, Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe, 1994.
Brueggemann, Walter, First and Second Samuel, 1990.
Comstock, Gary, Gay Theology without Apology, 1993.
Crompton, Louis, Homosexuality and Civilization, 2003.
Encyclopedia of Homosexuality (EH), ed. by Wayne Dynes, et al., 2 vols., 1990.
Fewell, Danna, and David Gunn, Gender, Power, and Promise, 1993.
Fokkelman, J.P., Narrative Art and Poetry in the Books of Samuel. Vol. 2: The Crossing of Fates (1 Sam 13 – 2 Sam 1), 1986.
Frontain, Raymond-Jean, “Bible, The,” The Gay and Lesbian Literary Heritage, ed. by Claude Summers, 2nd ed., 2002, p. 87-94.
Garcia-Treto, Francisco, “A Mother’s Paean, A Warrior’s Dirge: Reflections on the Use of Poetic Inclusions in the Books of Samuel,” Shofar, 11, 1993, p. 51-64.
Halpern, David, One Hundred Years of Homosexuality: And Other Essays on Greek Love, 1990.
Horner, Tom, Jonathan Loved David, 1978.
Jobling, David, 1 Samuel, 1998.
Kirsch, Jonathan, King David: The Real Life of the Man Who Ruled Israel, 2000.
Landay, Jerry, David: Power, Lust and Betrayal in Biblical Times, 1998.
Mace, David, Hebrew Marriage, 1953.
New Bible Commentary Revised (NBCR), ed. by Donald Guthrie, et al., 1970.
Noll, K.L., The Faces of David, 1997.
Patai, Raphael, Family, Love and the Bible, 1960.
Rummel, Stan, “Clothes Make the Man – An Insight from Ancient Ugarit,” Biblical Archaeologist, 2(2), June 1976, p. 6-8.


© 2005 Bruce L. Gerig

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