Homosexuality and Friendship: Jonathan and David

In reading of the relationship between Jonathan and David, one is struck by their depth of affection and commitment to one another:

As soon as he had finished speaking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul…Then Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul. – 1 Sam 18:1, 3 (cf. 1 Sam 20:17)

Fearful that Jonathan’s father (Saul) will kill David if he remains, Jonathan and David say goodbye to one another with a moving display of emotion:

David rose from beside the stone heap and fell on his face to the ground and bowed three times. And they kissed one another and wept with one another, David weeping the most. – 1 Sam 20:41

Later, after David hears that Saul and Jonathan have died, David composes a song in honor of them both, at one point claiming:

“Jonathan lies slain on your high places.
I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan;
very pleasant have you been to me;
your love to me was extraordinary,
surpassing the love of women.

– 2 Sam 1:25b-26

This has led some people to speculate that there was an erotic relationship between David and Jonathan. Some point to the angry outburst of Saul at Jonathan in 1 Sam 20:30-31 as evidence that he suspects a homosexual liaison occurring between the two of them.

Particularly in our post-Freudian world, where sexual urges (conscious or unconscious) are seen to be the most fundamental aspect of our constitution/identity, it can be tempting to assume that there is some form of homosexuality between these two men. This warrants two responses: one about David and Jonathan, and one about us.

Were David and Jonathan Homosexuals?

Let me provide a number of arguments from Scripture and history that settle the matter:

  1. Both David and Jonathan would have been well versed in the Torah’s prohibition on homosexual acts, for instance, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination,” (Lev 18:22) and “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them,” (Lev 20:13; cf. Gen 19; Judges 19). There would be no ambiguity in their mind whatsoever to the inherent wickedness of sexual acts performed between two men and the severity of punishment it required (death), nor would they have assumed that these commands were outdated or restricted to only cult-prostitution.

    In the most comprehensive and definitive academic treatment on homosexuality in the Bible and its ancient Near Eastern context (The Bible and Homosexual Practice:Texts and Hermeneutics), Robert A.J. Gagnon argues that these two prohibitions from Leviticus represent “a level of revulsion toward same-sex intercourse without parallel in the ancient Near East.” (p. 156).

    It is, of course, still possible that David and Jonathan were aware of this, yet decided to transgress the command, but it would not have been something they would have done lightly. They would know they were doing so in direct violation of the Law.

  2. Despite the narrator of 1-2 Samuel liberally detailing David’s sexual sin elsewhere (2 Sam 11), nowhere in the story are we told that David and Jonathan participate in any homosexual acts. We are, however, told that both men are married with children. Some may respond that this is because the narrator has suppressed the more erotic details of the story in an attempt to airbrush away the true homosexual nature of the relationship. But this is mere speculation. C.S. Lewis responds to this charge:

    “The fact that no positive evidence of homosexuality can be discovered in the behavior of two Friends does not disconcert the wiseacres at all: ‘That,’ they say gravely, ‘is just what we should expect.’ The very lack of evidence is thus treated as evidence; the absence of smoke proves that the fire is very carefully hidden. Yes–if it exists at all. But we must first prove its existence. Otherwise we are arguing like a man who would say ‘If there were an invisible cat in that chair, the chair would look empty; but the chair does look empty; therefore there is an invisible cat in it.’ A belief in invisible cats cannot perhaps be logically disproved, but it tells us a good deal about those who hold it.” (The Four Loves).

  3. The language of affection between the two men may strike us as unusual, but it is common in the Bible in clearly non-erotic relationships. For instance, the claim that Jonathan’s soul was bound to David’s (1 Sam 18:1), is similar to the wording of Genesis 44:30-31, where we are told that a son’s and father’s souls are bound together. Or, while we are told that Jonathan “delighted very much” in David (1 Sam 19:1), back in 18:22 David was told that Saul “delighted” in David, therefore he should marry Saul’s daughter, Michal. Obviously “delight” doesn’t carry any sexual connotation here. Further, Robert Gagnon explains, “The language of love is typical of covenant-treaties between an overlord and vassals or between two political rulers of roughly equal power. For example, future vassals of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal were instructed, ‘You must love [him] as yourselves.'” (The Bible and Homosexual Practice, p. 148).

  4. Saul’s angry outburst at Jonathan is not accusing or suspecting his son of homosexuality, but of disloyalty. Saul’s “anger is kindled” and he says, “You son of a perverse, rebellious woman, do I not know that you have chosen the son of Jesse to your own shame, and to the shame of your mother’s nakedness? For as long as the son of Jesse lives on the earth, neither you nor your kingdom shall be established. Therefore send and bring him to me, for he shall surely die,” (1 Sam 20:30-31). Saul, blinded by rage, unconsciously insults his wife, claiming that Jonathan is a “bastard of a wayward woman” (HALOT) or a “stupid son of a bitch!” (NET). The word for “nakedness” in the phrase “the shame of your mother’s nakedness” is a euphemism for genitals. Meaning, Jonathan is an embarrassment to the birth canal he came from, “Saul treated Jonathan as if he had been a mistake from the start!” (WBC: 1 Samuel). Saul’s coarse and irrational speech reveals a crazed mind–which will be confirmed by his soon attempted murder of Jonathan a few verses later! Thus, even if we were to detect hints of an accusation of a homosexual relationship between David and Jonathan here, we ought to be deeply suspicious of drawing any credible conclusion about the nature of David and Jonathan’s relationship from Saul’s raving.

    But, vs. 31 does not refer to Jonathan and David being homosexually involved as the cause of Jonathan’s dynasty not being established. Saul’s fear comes from the prophetic judgment pronounced on him earlier by Samuel that the dynasty of Saul will end (1 Sam 13:14; 15:28). So, Saul is outraged that Jonathan has “chosen” David, the usurper whose political rise means that Jonathan shall never be king, that Saul’s dynasty will come to a shameful end.

  5. Jonathan and David kissing one another when it came to depart was a sign of sorrow and friendly affection, not erotic or romantic desire. Gagnon notes, “There is nothing inherently homosexual about two men kissing in ancient Near Eastern society,” (p. 152). Of the 27 occurrences of the Hebrew verb “to kiss”, 24 contain no erotic component. Of the 24, 15 refer to kisses between relatives, usually between fathers and sons or between brothers. For weeping in association with kissing, see Genesis 45:15, “And he (Joseph) kissed all his brothers and wept upon them,” as well as 50:1, “Then Joseph fell on his father’s face and wept over him and kissed him.” One need only consider the five different places where Paul and Peter exhort Christians to “Greet one another with a holy kiss,” (Rom 16:16; 1 Cor 16:20; 2 Cor 13:12; 1 Thess 5:26; 1 Pet 5:14) or Judas’ kiss of betrayal to realize that kissing need not always translate to the erotic.

  6. David’s comment that the extraordinary love of Jonathan surpassed the love of women (2 Sam 1:26) can be explained simply: David had never experienced the loyalty and selflessness from the erotic/romantic relationships he had with women that he received from Jonathan. We cannot read into David’s comment “the love of women” our post-Freudian categories of “sexual orientation.” The comment is a description of the quality of Jonathan’s non-sexual love and kindness towards him, which was never displayed to him by any woman. This is even demonstrated in the story of 1 Samuel itself. In 1 Samuel 19, when David’s wife, Michal, helps David escape from the hand of Saul, she lies to her father and claims that David threatened to kill her if she would not let him go, adding further fuel to the fire of Saul’s anger (1 Sam 19:11-17). She never defends David to her father, like Jonathan does, or risk her life for David like Jonathan does.

    We expect commitment and loyalty and affection from our children and spouses. There are vows and blood and conjugal unions that bind us together. But when someone who is not obligated to us in that way still demonstrates loyalty and affection and sacrifice? That is an extraordinary thing.

  7. Finally, and most significantly, Gagnon comments that the author and any further editors of 1-2 Samuel obviously didn’t find any details about the relationship between Jonathan and David to be liable to a homosexual misunderstanding, “Indeed, far from censoring, the narrators did their best to play up the relationship between Jonathan and David. The more covenants and the greater emotional bond between these two, the merrier. Why were the narrators unconcerned about a hint of homosexual scandal? The answer is obvious: nothing in the stories raised any suspicion that David and Jonathan were homosexually involved with one another. Only in our day, removed as we are from the ancient Near Eastern conventions, are these kinds of specious connections made by people desperate to find the slightest shred of support for homosexual practice in the Bible,” (p. 153-54).

Relationally Deprived

In C.S. Lewis’ chapter on friendship, he reflects on why we, in contrast with pre-modern people, value friendship so little. “How has this come about?” he asks, “The first and most obvious answer is that few value it because few experience it.” He then goes on to makes this incisive critique: “Those who cannot conceive of Friendship as a substantive love but only as a disguise or elaboration of Eros betray the fact that they have never had a friend,” (The Four Loves).

Perhaps one of the reasons that the relationship of Jonathan and David appears homosexual to readers today reveals more about us than it does about them. Maybe we have been put on such a starvation diet of friendship that any kind of affection and loyalty displayed is assumed to have a sexual basis behind it.

I recently read of a movie that attempted to interact with the loneliness epidemic taking place, particularly with young men. The movie follows two young boys who are best friends, who spend time together, who openly display affection to each other. But, as they grow up they begin to be made fun of for being gay, so they stop spending as much time together. The director explains, “We are conditioned to look at that closeness as something sexual…We’re so unused to seeing that intimacy in a platonic way that we immediately sexualize it.” But then, the article goes on to argue, the real culprit to blame here is homophobia: “Loving friendship between boys is usually allowed up until a certain age in our culture, but homophobia takes hold and creates a deep stigma around boys who love each other.”

This seems to be a glaring case of confusing a symptom with the actual illness, of mistaking smoke for fire. The problem is much further upstream than fear of homosexuality–the issue is the pervasive assumption that any close, intimate relationship has a latent sexual drive lurking behind it. If we assume that Eros is the only cement strong enough to bind two non-family members together, then we will suspect it to be holding up any and all friendships. And so, all our non-sexual and non-familial relationships will remain thin, attenuated, and disposable.

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