Sunday, December 15, 2013


Love Story?

Jonathan and David

Anachronistic readings of ancient texts is one of the most annoying facets of reading such documents, for the fact is we lack the information required to make a determination about whether or not we are reading into the text what was not there to begin with.

An excellent example of this is the story of David and Jonathan from the First Book of Samuel. It has been read anachronistically for decades if not centuries. In this case was there a “love affair” between David and Jonathan? Or are we moderns reading more into the text than is warranted by the documents?


I frankly am a bit bemused by this whole controversy in that it seems to generally down play and ignore the following which can be gleaned from the documents.

First I and II Samuel are not history but an Epic about the life of a “Hero King” in this case David who became King of Judah and then King of Israel. As such it has many of the motifs of the heroic king. Daring exploits, feats of arms, adversity and final triumph and then tragedy and sorrow. It is an exciting tale. Probably little more than the bare bones of the narrative have any truth to it. It is in other words an epic much like the Iliad and The Epic of Gilgamesh.1

Israelite society was not static, customs and mores did change overtime. So that what was acceptable at one time and place would not be acceptable at another.

What was considered “proper” “masculine” behaviour at the time may not be an early 21st century idea of “proper” “masculine” behaviour.

It is because modern versions of ancient tales / epics insist upon modernizing behaviour and attitudes, based on the theory that portraying attitudes and behaviours accurately may alienate modern audiences so the result is that many movies taking place in the distant past seem to feel false.

With the above in mind let me quote the sources of the “love story” of David and Jonathan. After each quote I will give my comments on the quote.2

[1] And it came to pass, when he had made an end of speaking unto Saul, that the soul of Jonathan was knit with the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul.
[2] And Saul took him that day, and would let him go no more home to his father's house.
[3] Then Jonathan and David made a covenant, because he loved him as his own soul.
[4] And Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that was upon him, and gave it to David, and his garments, even to his sword, and to his bow, and to his girdle. (I Samuel ch. 18, all Bible quotes are from the King James Bible.)

The line that Jonathan “knit with the soul of David”, would certainly seem to indicate a pretty close relation and at least an intense friendship. Then there is the line that “Jonathan loved him as his own soul”. Then the passage mentions that Jonathan and David made a covenant, i.e., agreement and that has way of sealing the agreement Jonathan gave David, his own robe, sword and sundry other personal possessions.

It is of interest to note that the relationship described would seem to be one sided with Jonathan being the protagonist so to speak and David the recipient of Jonathan’s “love”. The garment and sword giving by Jonathan to David is in many ways similar to something like a betrothal. However nothing like a marriage is likely intended. Instead this seems to be one of those personal relationships between men by which they agree that they are “brothers” and to look after each other’s interests and such is sealed by a legal contract or “covenant”.

Like many pre-modern societies the personal relationships between men were often vastly more important both socially and emotionally than those between a husband and wife. In fact the gulf between men’s and women’s roles in such societies often precluded such ties between a husband and wife. Thus we get societies, like that of Ancient Greece in which frequently the most important emotional relationships a man would have in his life would be with other men. None of this means that the relationship between David and Jonathan was intended to be anything like a modern “Gay” relationship. Even the comments about Jonathan loving David as his own soul, however erotically tinged and extreme they are to us would not likely have had the same connotations to them. However there is more to consider in the various texts in the Bible about this relationship.3

[1] And Saul spake to Jonathan his son, and to all his servants, that they should kill David.
[2] But Jonathan Saul's son delighted much in David: and Jonathan told David, saying, Saul my father seeketh to kill thee: now therefore, I pray thee, take heed to thyself until the morning, and abide in a secret place, and hide thyself:
[3] And I will go out and stand beside my father in the field where thou art, and I will commune with my father of thee; and what I see, that I will tell thee.
[4] And Jonathan spake good of David unto Saul his father, and said unto him, Let not the king sin against his servant, against David; because he hath not sinned against thee, and because his works have been to theeward very good:
[5] For he did put his life in his hand, and slew the Philistine, and the LORD wrought a great salvation for all Israel: thou sawest it, and didst rejoice: wherefore then wilt thou sin against innocent blood, to slay David without a cause?
[6] And Saul hearkened unto the voice of Jonathan: and Saul swore, As the LORD liveth, he shall not be slain.
[7] And Jonathan called David, and Jonathan shewed him all those things. And Jonathan brought David to Saul, and he was in his presence, as in times past.(1 Samuel ch. 19)

In the story Saul became jealous of David and sought to kill him. In the story Jonathan pursuant to his “covenant” with David tried to protect David from his father’s rage and anger. This illustrates that part of the “covenant” was that Jonathan would protect David and advance his interests. Eventually this culminated in David marrying a daughter of King Saul. Probably this was an attempt to preserve / create a link between David and Saul. It didn’t work according to the story.

In such relationships, (Blood Brotherhood?) such as David had with Jonathan it was customary for the elder to advance the interests of the younger, socially and politically.4

[1] And David fled from Naioth in Ramah, and came and said before Jonathan, What have I done? what is mine iniquity? and what is my sin before thy father, that he seeketh my life?
[2] And he said unto him, God forbid; thou shalt not die: behold, my father will do nothing either great or small, but that he will shew it me: and why should my father hide this thing from me? it is not so.
[3] And David swore moreover, and said, Thy father certainly knoweth that I have found grace in thine eyes; and he saith, Let not Jonathan know this, lest he be grieved: but truly as the LORD liveth, and as thy soul liveth, there is but a step between me and death.
[4] Then said Jonathan unto David, Whatsoever thy soul desireth, I will even do it for thee.
[5] And David said unto Jonathan, Behold, tomorrow is the new moon, and I should not fail to sit with the king at meat: but let me go, that I may hide myself in the field unto the third day at even.
[6] If thy father at all miss me, then say, David earnestly asked leave of me that he might run to Bethlehem his city: for there is a yearly sacrifice there for all the family.
[7] If he say thus, It is well; thy servant shall have peace: but if he be very wroth, then be sure that evil is determined by him.
[8] Therefore thou shalt deal kindly with thy servant; for thou hast brought thy servant into a covenant of the LORD with thee: notwithstanding, if there be in me iniquity, slay me thyself; for why shouldest thou bring me to thy father?
[9] And Jonathan said, Far be it from thee: for if I knew certainly that evil were determined by my father to come upon thee, then would not I tell it thee?
[10] Then said David to Jonathan, Who shall tell me? or what if thy father answer thee roughly?
[11] And Jonathan said unto David, Come, and let us go out into the field. And they went out both of them into the field.
[12] And Jonathan said unto David, O LORD God of Israel, when I have sounded my father about tomorrow any time, or the third day, and, behold, if there be good toward David, and I then send not unto thee, and shew it thee;
[13] The LORD do so and much more to Jonathan: but if it please my father to do thee evil, then I will shew it thee, and send thee away, that thou mayest go in peace: and the LORD be with thee, as he hath been with my father.
[14] And thou shalt not only while yet I live shew me the kindness of the LORD, that I die not:
[15] But also thou shalt not cut off thy kindness from my house for ever: no, not when the LORD hath cut off the enemies of David everyone from the face of the earth.
[16] So Jonathan made a covenant with the house of David, saying, Let the LORD even require it at the hand of David's enemies.
[17] And Jonathan caused David to swear again, because he loved him: for he loved him as he loved his own soul.
[18] Then Jonathan said to David, Tomorrow is the new moon: and thou shalt be missed, because thy seat will be empty.
[19] And when thou hast stayed three days, then thou shalt go down quickly, and come to the place where thou didst hide thyself when the business was in hand, and shalt remain by the stone Ezel.
[20] And I will shoot three arrows on the side thereof, as though I shot at a mark.
[21] And, behold, I will send a lad, saying, Go, find out the arrows. If I expressly say unto the lad, Behold, the arrows are on this side of thee, take them; then come thou: for there is peace to thee, and no hurt; as the LORD liveth.
[22] But if I say thus unto the young man, Behold, the arrows are beyond thee; go thy way: for the LORD hath sent thee away.
[23] And as touching the matter which thou and I have spoken of, behold, the LORD be between thee and me forever.
[24] So David hid himself in the field: and when the new moon was come, the king sat him down to eat meat.
[25] And the king sat upon his seat, as at other times, even upon a seat by the wall: and Jonathan arose, and Abner sat by Saul's side, and David's place was empty.
[26] Nevertheless Saul spake not anything that day: for he thought, Something hath befallen him, he is not clean; surely he is not clean.
[27] And it came to pass on the morrow, which was the second day of the month, that David's place was empty: and Saul said unto Jonathan his son, Wherefore cometh not the son of Jesse to meat, neither yesterday, nor to day?
[28] And Jonathan answered Saul, David earnestly asked leave of me to go to Bethlehem:
[29] And he said, Let me go, I pray thee; for our family hath a sacrifice in the city; and my brother, he hath commanded me to be there: and now, if I have found favour in thine eyes, let me get away, I pray thee, and see my brethren. Therefore he cometh not unto the king's table.
[30] Then Saul's anger was kindled against Jonathan, and he said unto him, Thou son of the perverse rebellious woman, do not I know that thou hast chosen the son of Jesse to thine own confusion, and unto the confusion of thy mother's nakedness?
[31] For as long as the son of Jesse liveth upon the ground, thou shalt not be established, nor thy kingdom. Wherefore now send and fetch him unto me, for he shall surely die.
[32] And Jonathan answered Saul his father, and said unto him, Wherefore shall he be slain? what hath he done?
[33] And Saul cast a javelin at him to smite him: whereby Jonathan knew that it was determined of his father to slay David.
[34] So Jonathan arose from the table in fierce anger, and did eat no meat the second day of the month: for he was grieved for David, because his father had done him shame.
[35] And it came to pass in the morning, that Jonathan went out into the field at the time appointed with David, and a little lad with him.
[36] And he said unto his lad, Run, find out now the arrows which I shoot. And as the lad ran, he shot an arrow beyond him.
[37] And when the lad was come to the place of the arrow which Jonathan had shot, Jonathan cried after the lad, and said, Is not the arrow beyond thee?
[38] And Jonathan cried after the lad, Make speed, haste, stay not. And Jonathan's lad gathered up the arrows, and came to his master.
[39] But the lad knew not anything: only Jonathan and David knew the matter.
[40] And Jonathan gave his artillery unto his lad, and said unto him, Go, carry them to the city.
[41] And as soon as the lad was gone, David arose out of a place toward the south, and fell on his face to the ground, and bowed himself three times: and they kissed one another, and wept one with another, until David exceeded.
[42] And Jonathan said to David, Go in peace, forasmuch as we have sworn both of us in the name of the LORD, saying, The LORD be between me and thee, and between my seed and thy seed for ever. And he arose and departed: and Jonathan went into the city.(1 Samuel ch. 20)

Aside from repeating the story of the “covenant” between David and Jonathan. The story goes on about the lengths to which Jonathan went in order to hide David from Saul’s wrath. In fact Jonathan’s sense of responsibility towards David is such that Saul insults his son and throws a spear at him. In effect declaring him an enemy.

Saul thinks of David has a mortal enemy of him and has marked him for death. Jonathan by protecting David is protecting an enemy. That is why Saul refers to Jonathan as the son of “perverse woman”, for rather than fulfil a son’s filial duties of obedience and support against his father’s enemies he is, from Saul’s point of view, supporting an enemy. In other words to Saul Jonathan is not acting like a true son.

Jonathan is acting according to the “covenant” between him and David and as such will risk his father’s wrath.

However what gives this portion of the story a possible sign of an erotic edge is this line from Saul:

…do not I know that thou hast chosen the son of Jesse to thine own confusion, and unto the confusion of thy mother's nakedness?

The line after stating that Jonathan has “chosen” David to the detriment of his family mentions also the “confusion” or shame of his mother’s “nakedness”. By bringing in a sexual element into this, i.e., the reference to his, (Jonathan’s), mothers sexuality, her “nakedness”, it suggests the possibility that Saul at least thinks it is possible that the relationship between David and Jonathan is sexual along with being an intense friendship.

Of course this is not decisive in the slightest but the association of “confusion” or shame with nakedness which in the Bible has sexual overtones would indicate that such an interpretation is not outside the realm of the permissible or possible.5

Certainly the relationship between Jonathan and David fits into the pattern of warrior companions like Gilgamesh and Enkidu in the ancient Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh, and the relationship of Achilles and Patrocles as portrayed in the Iliad. In those two cases the relationship portrayed is so intense that some, quite reasonably, have thought the relationship was sexual as well as being affective. Certainly in the case of Achilles and Patrocles the idea that the relationship was in fact sexual became conventional wisdom by c. 500 B.C.E. at the latest among the Greeks.6

Why isn’t the sexual element in the relationship between Jonathan and David clearer in the text? Well it could be that there isn’t one and never was one and we are anachronistically reading it back into the text. It is possible that given later Israelite attitudes towards homosexual behaviour that anything more explicit was suppressed. After all the two passages in Leviticus, (ch. 18, v. 22, ch. 21, v. 13) that state that those who engage in homosexual behaviour shall be put to death would have impacted the telling of the David Jonathan story if it had had a sexual element at one time.7

Thus what we get is a garbled account that may or may not have a sexual element to it, that was perhaps inadvertently shown  in one slip of the pen so to speak.

As it is the friendship described certainly fits the stereotype of a rather intense “Bromance” between two men if the relationship was non-sexual.

[14] And David abode in the wilderness in strong holds, and remained in a mountain in the wilderness of Ziph. And Saul sought him every day, but God delivered him not into his hand.
[15] And David saw that Saul was come out to seek his life: and David was in the wilderness of Ziph in a wood.
[16] And Jonathan Saul's son arose, and went to David into the wood, and strengthened his hand in God.
[17] And he said unto him, Fear not: for the hand of Saul my father shall not find thee; and thou shalt be king over Israel, and I shall be next unto thee; and that also Saul my father knoweth.
[18] And they two made a covenant before the LORD: and David abode in the wood, and Jonathan went to his house. (1 Samuel ch. 23)

Again Jonathan protects David at considerable risk to his own life. Interestingly once again Jonathan and David are reported to have made a “covenant” to each other. Considering how often this is used I suspect that there were multiple versions of when and where Jonathan’s “covenant” was made with David and what we have here in I Samuel is different versions of how the “covenant” came to pass.

[17] And David lamented with this lamentation over Saul and over Jonathan his son:
[18] (Also he bade them teach the children of Judah the use of the bow: behold, it is written in the book of Jasher.)
[19] The beauty of Israel is slain upon thy high places: how are the mighty fallen!
[20] Tell it not in Gath, publish it not in the streets of Askelon; lest the daughters of the Philistines rejoice, lest the daughters of the uncircumcised triumph.
[21] Ye mountains of Gilboa, let there be no dew, neither let there be rain, upon you, nor fields of offerings: for there the shield of the mighty is vilely cast away, the shield of Saul, as though he had not been anointed with oil.
[22] From the blood of the slain, from the fat of the mighty, the bow of Jonathan turned not back, and the sword of Saul returned not empty.
[23] Saul and Jonathan were lovely and pleasant in their lives, and in their death they were not divided: they were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions.
[24] Ye daughters of Israel, weep over Saul, who clothed you in scarlet, with other delights, who put on ornaments of gold upon your apparel.
[25] How are the mighty fallen in the midst of the battle! O Jonathan, thou was slain in thine high places.
[26] I am distressed for thee, my brother Jonathan: very pleasant hast thou been unto me: thy love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.
[27] How are the mighty fallen, and the weapons of war perished! (II Samuel ch. 1)

David mourns the deaths of Saul and Jonathan in battle. A mighty warrior has died in Jonathan according to David. David pairs Jonathan with Saul at the beginning of his speech of mourning. David mentions how Saul a great warrior should be mourned by Israel. Then David passes on to Jonathan.

David refers to Jonathan as explicitly has “brother”. This is not mere hyperbole it is in direct reference to Jonathan and his “covenant” with him (David), which made him and Jonathan “brothers” if not literally than for all other practical purposes. Thus David honours his “Brotherly” relationship with Jonathan.

David then refers to Jonathan’s love for him and compares it to the love of a woman. In fact David says it was greater than the love of a woman. A couple of things are of interest about this comment.

First it should be noted that it is Jonathan’s love for David. This goes with the trend of the story which seems to be rather one sided in that it talks about Jonathan loving David generally not the other way around.

Secondly The sexual element is again introduced in that the love of a women has sexual overtones and since Jonathan’s love is compared to that of a women these sexual overtones would seem to be introduced into Jonathan’s love of David.8

Of course it could all be nothing more than the text engaging in hyperbole, an extravagant, over the top declaration of how great was the friendship between David and Jonathan and there was never any intention of introducing even obliquely a sexual element.

Be that has it may the bottom line is that David’s eulogy is an extravagant celebration of male friendship even if no sexual element is indicated in the relationship. It would almost certainly be taken as “Gay” today.

[1] And David said, Is there yet any that is left of the house of Saul, that I may shew him kindness for Jonathan's sake?
[2] And there was of the house of Saul a servant whose name was Ziba. And when they had called him unto David, the king said unto him, Art thou Ziba? And he said, Thy servant is he.
[3] And the king said, Is there not yet any of the house of Saul, that I may shew the kindness of God unto him? And Ziba said unto the king, Jonathan hath yet a son, which is lame on his feet.
[4] And the king said unto him, Where is he? And Ziba said unto the king, Behold, he is in the house of Machir, the son of Ammiel, in Lo-debar.
[5] Then king David sent, and fetched him out of the house of Machir, the son of Ammiel, from Lo-debar.
[6] Now when Mephibosheth, the son of Jonathan, the son of Saul, was come unto David, he fell on his face, and did reverence. And David said, Mephibosheth. And he answered, Behold thy servant!
[7] And David said unto him, Fear not: for I will surely shew thee kindness for Jonathan thy father's sake, and will restore thee all the land of Saul thy father; and thou shalt eat bread at my table continually.
[8] And he bowed himself, and said, What is thy servant, that thou shouldest look upon such a dead dog as I am?
[9] Then the king called to Ziba, Saul's servant, and said unto him, I have given unto thy master's son all that pertained to Saul and to all his house.
[10] Thou therefore, and thy sons, and thy servants, shall till the land for him, and thou shalt bring in the fruits, that thy master's son may have food to eat: but Mephibosheth thy master's son shall eat bread always at my table. Now Ziba had fifteen sons and twenty servants.
[11] Then said Ziba unto the king, According to all that my lord the king hath commanded his servant, so shall thy servant do. As for Mephibosheth, said the king, he shall eat at my table, as one of the king's sons.
[12] And Mephibosheth had a young son, whose name was Micha. And all that dwelt in the house of Ziba were servants unto Mephibosheth.
[13] So Mephibosheth dwelt in Jerusalem: for he did eat continually at the king's table; and was lame on both his feet.(II Samuel ch. 9)

This passage merely indicates that David honoured his “covenant” with Jonathan even after Jonathan’s death by protecting Jonathan’s lame son Mephibosheth. There will of course be those who will cite this to indicate that the relationship between David and Jonathan was non sexual on the basis that this indicates heterosexuality. All I can say is such people are hopelessly na├»ve. Exclusive homosexuality has been relatively rare historically speaking, because of the pressure to marry and have children, but bisexuality much more common. And in the societies of the Middle East at the time exclusive homosexuality was rare indeed.9

[7] But the king spared Mephibosheth, the son of Jonathan the son of Saul, because of the LORD's oath that was between them, between David and Jonathan the son of Saul.(II Samuel ch. 21)

Again an indication of David’s devotion to the memory of his friendship with Jonathan.

[12] And David went and took the bones of Saul and the bones of Jonathan his son from the men of Jabesh-gilead, which had stolen them from the street of Beth-shan, where the Philistines had hanged them, when the Philistines had slain Saul in Gilboa:
[13] And he brought up from thence the bones of Saul and the bones of Jonathan his son; and they gathered the bones of them that were hanged.
[14] And the bones of Saul and Jonathan his son buried they in the country of Benjamin in Zelah, in the sepulchre of Kish his father: and they performed all that the king commanded. And after that God was intreated for the land.(II Samuel ch. 21)

David performs last rites for King Saul and his great friend Jonathan by giving them both a proper burial. Thus did David fulfil the “covenant” he had with Jonathan.

At the beginning of this posting I warned that we should not read into the text anachronistic beliefs and attitudes. Frankly what we have is a text that has been redacted, copied out and modified for many hundreds of years before it was written down in its final form. The text shows signs of being pieced together from disparate sources. It appears for example that there were different versions of the David Jonathan story that the account we have was, not very perfectly, created from. We can see the joints of were the disparate elements were put together.

Further the text almost certainly is not all that close to the original versions of the David Jonathan tale. Almost certainly later attitudes and beliefs affected what was recorded and what was modified, and / or suppressed. If any of the original tales had had any overt homosexuality in them, they were almost certainly suppressed in a milieu in which homosexual behaviour was condemned as an abomination. There is no way of recreating this “original” story assuming it ever existed in that form.

It likely that reading homosexuality into the text is both anachronistic and wrong. That the tale never had such connotations even to begin with before the story was redacted and modified. That we are reading “modern” ideas into the text is a real possibility.

However, it is also certain that the intensity of the relationship between David and Jonathan has revealed by the text goes well beyond what we would consider “normal” male friendship. In a patriarchal society intense emotional bonds between men and women are weakened by the dictates of gender role expectations that necessitate treating women has inferior and thus sets up significant barriers to such intense relationships. It speaks of a world in which a man’s most intense emotional relationships are with other men, not with wives or girlfriends. It speaks of the world of warrior buddies who look out for each other and create bonds based on “Blood Brotherhood” and the warrior’s code. It speaks in modern parlance of the “Bromance”, a non-sexual form of love between two men. Even in that form it breaks modern taboos. Although it most definitely did not break ancient taboos.10

Finally there is the possibility that in its original form perhaps a version of the David and Jonathan tale did in fact have a sexual component. Despite the efforts to suppress this from the story in two passages words are used that could be obliquely suggesting a sexual component to the relationship. However the texts are brief and not remotely conclusive, merely suggestive. In both cases they seem to link Jonathan’s love of David to sexuality and female sexuality at that and thus suggest that Jonathan’s love of David was sexual. All of that is merely a possibility and is likely wrong. We simply do not and cannot ever know the truth.

As it is the relationship between Jonathan and David regardless of whether or not it was sexual in nature is still the story of an intense relationship between two men.

1. Homer, The Iliad, Bantam Books, New York, 1961, Anonymous, The Epic of Gilgamesh, Penguin Books, London, 2000.

2. For an overview of the Jonathan and David story see Horner, Tom, Jonathan Loved David, The Westminster Press, Philadelphia PA, 1978, pp. 26-39.

3. Greenberg, David F., The Construction of Homosexuality, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago ILL, 1988, Sergent, Bernard, Homosexuality in Greek Myth, Beacon Press, Boston MA, 1986, pp. 250-28.

4. Sergent, pp. 10-15.

5. Horner, pp. 31-33.

6. Sergent, pp.250-251, Greenberg, pp. 110-116, see also Halpern, David M., Heroes and their Pals, in One Hundred Years of Homosexuality, Routledge, New York, 1990, pp. 75-87.

7. Greenberg, p. 114.

8. Horner, pp. 34-36. For an argument that there was to begin with no sexual components to the David / Jonathan and other similar stories see Halpern.

9. See Cantarella, Eva, Bisexuality in the Ancient World, Second Edition, Yale University Press, New Haven CONN, 2002, Bullough, Vern L., Sexual Variance, in Society and History, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago ILL, 1976.

10. Sergent, pp. 250-269, Halpern.

Pierre Cloutier

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