Were David and Jonathan Gay? A Critical Analysis of a Popular Assumption

david-and-jonathan

While I was teaching through the Deuteronomistic History (Joshua-II Kings) with my Old Testament class, we had pause recently to consider the relationship between David and Jonathan famously depicted throughout the latter part of I Samuel. This particular relationship garners the occasional popular treatment as an example of a celebrated, biblical homosexual relationship. There are any number of problems with this idea, but I want to offer a critical perspective on the issue in order to demonstrate that such an idea is not one that can be legitimately advanced from the realm of critical scholarship. Consequently, I would hope also that people reading this, who may advocate for LGBT rights, would not read this as a homophobic crusade against LGBT rights. Rather, I wish to more accurately frame the discussion so that both sides may work with a clear understanding of the evidence. (As such anyone who objects in the comments to my tone or approach to the LGBT community will not be admitted. This is not a place for social diatribe or hatred.)

 

A Long Time Ago in a Culture Far Far Away…

Anyone who knows me in person knows that, aside from being a big fan of Doctor Who as I have spoken of here before, I am also a massive fan of Star Wars. With the release of the newest cinematic addition of the franchise, Episode VII The Force Awakens, we meet two of the film’s major heroes, the former stormtrooper Finn and the fighter pilot Poe Dameron, who share an affectionate and close relationship. Almost immediately after the film’s release, the internet lit up with speculation that Finn and Poe could be in the throws of a blossoming homosexual relationship, this in spite of the more obvious romantic tension between Finn and the film’s female lead, Rey.

The speculation troubled me, mainly because once again, a legitimate, affectionate male friendship could not avoid being labeled “gay.” In our culture, men are generally incapable of or unwilling to show outward signs of affection toward their male friends for fear of appearing to be “gay.” This rather homophobic response to male friendship has become hardwired in all types of men in our society, from conservative Christians to atheists. By contrast, many have written in the past about the virtues of friendship understood in the classical manner, and it is well known (or rather should be well known) that friendship in classical antiquity was understood as being a paragon virtue, highly sought after, and vitally important to the integral fabric of society.

Yet we no longer operate under these conditions, because the outward signs or markers of male affectionate friendship have been reinterpreted to be homoerotic, something that has not happened for female friends, who may show outward forms of affection without being thought to be lesbians. Because we have so drastically reoriented outward signs of friendly affection toward sexuality, we have lost the ability to read and understand those same signs when they occur in ancient literature, hence, for example, the common speculation that Achilles and Patroclus were in a homosexual relationship, or, as we will now examine, David and Jonathan.

 

Literary Analysis

After the death of Saul and his son Jonathan at the Battle of Aphek, David sings a lament for both, which is recorded in the opening chapter of II Samuel. Regarding Jonathan he states,

I am distressed over you, my brother Jonathan./
You were very pleasant (or lovely) to me.//

Wonderful was your love to me/
More than than the love of women.// (my translation)

Someone in our day could easily read this and conclude that there was indeed a homoerotic relationship between the two, for the language is rather erotically charged. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it is intentionally laden with an erotic tone, yet not because David and Jonathan had actually been carrying on a homoerotic relationship, but that by analogy, so great was their friendship. The literary type, in my opinion, rather strongly suggests this. We are dealing, after all, with poetry, specifically a lament, and in such a literary genre we would expect poetic devices and rhetorical figuration to be used extensively. To read the two poetic couplets above as referring to a literal homosexual relationship strips away the primary poetic figuration from the lament, which is the metonymic transfer of the heterosexual erotic relationship to the realm of male friendship as a way of emphatic overstatement. By this literary figuration, the friendship is stylistically framed as one of intense affection as can only be referenced by that affection between a man and a woman in love. By such a comparison, the poetry gains its effectiveness and its literary artistic value. Without it, it becomes rather hum-drum in style.

 

Political Analysis

Supporting the literary analysis above and perhaps even more important is the political element to David and Jonathan’s relationship. It must be recalled what exactly is going on in the rather turbulent narrative referred to in scholarship as The History of David’s Rise (HDR). In this narrative, which roughly spans from I Samuel 16 – II Samuel 8, David begins to gain prominence in the court of King Saul, who sees the ever popular David as a threat to his kingship. During this time, David and Jonathan form a covenant, which is another word for treaty. Essentially, David and Jonathan, due to their great friendship, establish conditions for complete loyalty to one another. More importantly, Jonathan swears loyalty to David over and against his own father, King Saul, and against his dynastic house. Jonathan was, in effect, giving away his own claim to the throne of Israel and setting himself in opposition to his entire family, all for the sake of David. This much is explicitly stated in I Samuel 19:16-17:

And Jonathan established a covenant (lit. “cut”) with the House of David saying, “May YHWH seek (vengeance if it is broken) by the hands of David’s enemies. And Jonathan continued to cause David to swear by the love by which he (David) had for him (Jonathan), for he (David) loved him (Jonathan) as his own soul.

The previous verses add even more context, where Jonathan requests that the covenant loyalty (ḥesed) of YHWH be extended to Jonathan and his “house” forever, i.e. Jonathan’s decedents. The term “house” indicates here that we are dealing with a political alliance between ruling families. In this political context, it is well established that the language of love and hate is used to describe the forming and dissolving of such treaty alliances. Most importantly, the covenant that YHWH establishes with Moses in Deuteronomy is based upon the concept of love expressed as a pledge of loyalty. Consider the very famous Deut. 6:5:

And you shall love YHWH your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.

The same word for love, ˀǝhāḇā, is used both in I Samuel 19:17 as well as Deut. 6:5. It is also known that this kind of “love language” was used for vassal treaties in Assyria, where the obligation of the people is to “love” their king. Simply put, the language of love in vassal treaties indicates the loyalty of one political entity to another. This is true even for the deeply affectionate love between David and Jonathan, which is about a political alliance between two affectionate friends who had likely spent a great deal of their childhood together in the court of Saul. If a literary analysis tends toward it, a political analysis demands that we view their relationship in this way and not as homoerotic.

 

What to Take Away

  • We must avoid reading our own cultural proclivities into the Bible or any ancient text for that matter. Our own cultural aversion to homosexuality, ironically produced by its own hypersexuality, has rendered affectionate male friendship inadmissible. We need to recover affectionate male friendship in order to fight both homophobia and hypersexuality. What does that mean? Stop thinking that any two men who share affection for each other are “gay.” Stop talking about “bromances” and using other such homoerotic terms where no real homoerotic relationship exists.
  • The language of love is used in the ancient Near East to refer to treaties between two political entities. David and Jonathan, two ostensibly rival political “houses,” formed a rather shocking political alliance whereby Jonathan swore allegiance to David’s “house” over and against his own family.
  • Loyalty is one of the primary components of love. To love is to be loyal to another person. Love without loyalty is abuse.
  • As my godfather often says, “Family is more than blood.” Friends can be closer than blood family, sometimes even closer than a husband and wife. Celebrate it, live it, and give thanks to God for such relationships.

8 comments:

  1. Excellent commentary, Eric. The hypersexualization of our culture distorts a great deal and, sadly, the Scriptures have not been an exception.

    David’s personality has always struck me as “extreme”. He danced madly when the ark entered Jerusalem, he had Bathsheba’s husband murdered in a pang of lust, and he tended to be extremely emotional in many of his reactions. I had always attributed his statement concerning Johnathan to his personality type, but you’ve made a strong point here that the story is rooted in its cultural type. I wonder if you might give some thoughts on his personality traits or is that a valid approach to take in studying him in Scripture?

    1. Well, we have to understand first of all that the narrative of David is being written long after his death, so whatever portrayals of his personality are there are largely “literary license” so-to-speak. His larger-than-life personality is probably due to his heroic personage, and in a lot of ancient literature, heroes are portrayed with larger-than-life personalities and are intrinsically flawed. This is in contrast to our own culture’s tendency to portray heroes more stoically.

  2. Unfortunately, female friendships have been overwritten as lesbian too. Women can have deep friendship groups (e.g. pardon the reference, “Sex in the City”) but 1-on-1 deep female friendships have become presumed lesbian too.

    1. Just discovered this site on AFR. Why no one has yet responded o Cynthia Long post above, 2-19-2016, concerning female friendships? It is a controversial topic indeed!

      Friendships between people whether women with women, or male with male in my understanding, does not implicitely mean that the relationship is “lesbian” or “gay” . So often this is misunderstood and/or looked down upon, even ridiculed! Being friends doens’t have the understanding of physical, sexual intercourse, does it? That is in my mind a “secular” and and “judgemental” point of view.

      If a mature person embraces ( hugs we often say ) a person in compassion and friendship doesn’t imply that this person is seeking out so-called “sexual relations” or is lesbian or gay. What has happed to “real” compassion in our relationships?

      This topic has so many implications, that I don’t pretend to have answers! But, I do know that when Jesus says in the Gospel, “Love one another as I have loved you” He does imply that we are called to care for one another on many levels, up to giving up one’s life for the other. “There is no greater love than to give one’s life!” What does this truly mean? The Beatitudes and the Works of Mercy in our following of Christ Jesus, it seems to me, are still of value in today’s so hectic and convoluted secularized, materialized, digitalized world. So often false, misleading, sensationalized, confusing,disturbing, . . .

      True friendship has nothing to do with “homosexuality” but with a deep sense and belief that God indwells the soul of a person at its very depths. And this calls for respect and reverence.

      So often an act of Charity is judged and misinterpreted by the on-looker! It has happened to me when I was consolling a a grieving person. Even Jesus was judged by so-called “righteous pharasies” who abided by the “letter of the Law” May the Lord God have Mercy upon us all! What did Jesus mean when He said, “I come to fulfill the Law and the Prophets . . .”

      Perhaps one needs to look at the “Monastic” life style and discover what it truly is in the sight of God! and also to look into our own hearts and souls at the dark, blind spots that need to be addressed in our daily lives, through prayer and repentence.

      Let us pray for one another for a better understanding of the word of God set in a Prayer atmosphere under the Light of the Holy Spirit.

  3. Thank you.

    Until, I moved to a Western country, I had not ever encountered this much urgency to sexualise everything and box people into specific categories.

    I grew up in a culture where close bonds and contacts with the opposition sex no matter how platonic was not condoned. Physical expression of friendship and love was normal, with holding hands, leaning on each other, close huddles/cuddles, hugs, between men or between women within their own sex was accepted as normal and nothing untoward or sexual attributed to it. Sadly, today, Western cultural influence is changing that.

    I first realised it was different in the West when I was asked if I was gay as I had no boy friend at my age and most of my closest friends were women.

    Then, the Sesame Street drama occurred with demand to declare Bet and Ernie as gay.

    I realised then that the issue was with the way the Western culture had developed. It had somehow created an environment where masculinity and femininity was two extremes with specific markers and encounters therfore had to be of sexualised nature, ergo if that encounter was between men or between women, ‘what else could it be’.

  4. Both this comment and the blog’s reference accurately identify a current problem: friendship as a route to sexuality. The Internet created the Xena-Gabrielle “gay” relationship according to 1990s interviews with the producers of the TV program; Xena and Gabrielle were friends in their minds, but the platonic relationship gave way to audience “demand” as the public speculated online about the women’s relationship. As B. Matthews points out, women not only are judged similarly as men are by being “too close”, but if at least one of the women in any similar situation is deemed “too strong”, then clearly, she’s a lesbian. Being of Russo-Ukrainian origin (which is now believed to be part of the area where there really were Amazons), it has always puzzled me that western views of women mean that female strength is equated with homosexuality. In terms of heterosexual relationships, the West also seems to believe that cross-gender friendships will (and should) always remain only that rather than understanding that the best marriages are those in which spouses are best friends; the flip side of the foregoing problem is that many view “normal” heterosexual relationships as requiring sexual lust and eschewing friendship.

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