David Loves Jonathan

This is the third installment of a series of posts inspired by the legislators of Indiana who apparently believe that the Bible condemns love between people of the same gender.  Among critical biblical scholars, this matter was largely settled more than a decade ago.  In this series, which originally appeared in The Fourth R, I share with you the results of that scholarship.  SP


David Loves Jonathan

The Old Testament is no place for wussies.  It is filled with men like Joshua, who razed the walls of Jericho and slaughtered its inhabitants, “both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys” (Joshua 6:21).  Sampson slaughtered an army of 1000 Philistines wielding only the jawbone of an ass (Judges 15:15).  Even the Israelite women were tough.  Remember Jael, who lured the Canaanite general, Sisera, into her tent, got him drunk, laid him, and then, as he slept it off, drove a tent peg through his head (Judges 4:21).  That’s harsh.

But the toughest, cleverest, most illustrious warrior of them all was David.  Remember him?  His exploits are related in the biblical books of 1 and 2 Samuel.  In Bible School I learned that as a mere boy, David took on Goliath, a real live giant, and without sword or shield, brought him down with just a sling and a stone.  Then, as the giant lay unconscious upon the ground, David drew Goliath’s own sword and cut off his head with it.  The Bible says that when the Philistines saw this, they fled.  When I saw the color illustration of this in my Bible, I thought it was cool.  Another legend relates how David won his way into the royal family by presenting King Saul with the foreskins of 200 Philistines.  This was not illustrated in my Bible.  Eventually, David himself would become king, subdue the Philistines, and establish a kingdom that would be the symbol of Israel’s golden age for centuries to come.

But here’s something Bible School did not teach me about David, the toughest, meanest warrior-king in Israelite history.  David loved Jonathan.   Jonathan was King Saul’s son.  The Bible describes their first meeting, when David appears before Saul still carrying the head of Goliath in his hand: “When David had finished speaking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul” (1 Samuel 18:1). 

The story of David and Jonathan’s love is one of the great stories of the Bible.  It is a classic tale of star-crossed lovers.  King Saul soon becomes jealous of David, because his prowess as a warrior exceeds even his own.  But Jonathan conspires with David to keep him safe from Saul’s wrath.  When Saul discovers their relationship, he explodes into an angry rage: “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?” (1 Samuel 20:30).  Later, as David and Jonathan prepare to part company, the Bible describes a most tender scene: “they kissed each other, and wept with each other, and David wept the more” (1 Samuel 20:41).  The saga ends when after many months David learns that both Saul and Jonathan have fallen in battle.  His lament includes these touching lines: “I am distressed for you, my brother, Jonathan; greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful; surpassing the love of women” (2 Samuel 1:26).

For many years readers of the Bible have passed over the love angle in this story assuming that the language of intimacy and affection was simply a peculiar way of describing a very close buddy-buddy relationship.  But recent studies by scholars of the Hebrew Bible like Martti Nissinen, Saul Olyan, and Susan Akerman have placed this story in its ancient context and shown that it is indeed a love story.  Akerman, in her book, When Heroes Love, compares it to the similarly charged story of Gilgamesh and Enkidu.  Like David and Jonathan, the saga of Gilgamesh and Enkidu is a story of ancient male intimacy.  Gilgamesh is a bad king driven by rapacious sexual energy, which “leaves not the son to his father… nor the maid to her mother.”  Then, one day, mighty Gilgamesh dreams of a companion, a friend, to whom he is drawn “as though to a woman.”  And so it is when Gilgamesh meets Enkidu, the crumbled tablet upon which this fragmentary story remains spares us all the details save this: “they kissed each other and formed a friendship.”  Enkidu tames Gilgamesh and together they share many adventures—the part of the story that we all read in all the literature anthologies.

What these scholars have learned is that in antiquity there are no heterosexuals and homosexuals.  Men are generally omnisexual and can have sex with anyone, male or female.  Men were thought of in this way also in ancient Greece, where most young aristocratic men engaged in intimate relations with adolescent boys before moving on to heterosexual marriages.  Gilgamesh rapes both boys and girls.  Enkidu prepares to meet Gilgamesh by sleeping with a female prostitute.  To us this all seems odd.   Are they homosexual or heterosexual?  But not so for ancients.  Sexuality is one of the most culturally conditioned realities in the human experience.   In ancient Greece, male with male love was considered the highest form of love.  In Athens, the love of Achilles and Patroclus was celebrated as ‘an affair to remember.’   In our story, it is often wondered how David could love Jonathan, and yet still marry Jonathan’s sister, Michal (1 Samuel 18:27).  In antiquity, when heroes fall in love, it does not mean they only date men.

Ancient authors don’t generally supply lurid sexual details in their love stories, so don’t go to any of these ancient texts expecting to find explicit sexual accounts.  And any implicit sex might not be what you would imagine.   For example, ancients generally believed that a man should not be penetrated by another man—that would be to make him a woman.  Aristotle spells out for Greeks just what men can and cannot do in a legitimate love-relationship.  David and Jonathan cry together and kiss—whatever else ancient audiences might have imagined them doing is anyone’s guess.  Mine is that it would not have been a pitcher-catcher sort of thing, but something more mutual or equal.  Still, one should not think that because the story does not include an account of anal intercourse, they are not two men in love.  David loves Jonathan and Jonathan loves him back.  This is the gist of their story.  And it is one of the most celebrated stories in the Bible.

Note: Most of what I know about any of this comes from Martti Nissinen’s excellent book, Homoeroticism in the Biblical World (Fortress, 1998).  I know of nothing better on the subject.  This post originally appeared in The Fourth R.  To subscribe to this informative publication, visit the Westar Institute on-line.