David and Jonathan

Frederic_Leighton_Jonathan’s_Token_to_David

Frederic Leighton, Jonathan’s Token to David, c. 1868

I am in two (or three) minds about the story of David and Jonathan in the book of Samuel. On one hand the description of their friendship is unique in the Hebrew Bible and displays an uncharacteristic intensity. I can understand why many writers have concluded that it was a homosexual relationship. Their relationship has been explored and commented on in scores of commentaries and articles, and it is well beyond the scope of this post to examine the history of scholarship on the matter, or to summarise all the arguments. When I say I am in two (or three) minds about the story it is because I see merit in three interpretations of the account of their friendship. They are not necessarily contradictory, and all three may be right, or at least contain elements which are harmonious. I will briefly summarise these three positions and am happy to provide references or further details in the comments section.

1. There are several elements in the D&J story which suggest an intensity beyond any other friendship between two men in the Bible. It begins with what seems to be their first meeting, at least as far as the record in 1 Samuel portrays it. Having just killed Goliath, and with Goliath’s severed head still in his hands, David was summoned to meet King Saul. He had barely introduced himself (“I am the son of your servant Jesse the Bethlehemite” 1 Sam. 17:58) when Jonathan appears to have been immediately smitten.

“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. Saul took him that day and would not let him return to his father’s house. Then Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul“ (18:1-3).

Twice in three verses we are told that Jonathan loved him, but not why. We don’t even get any hint from the record that they had even spoken to each other at this point, and the repetition of “Jonathan loved him as his own soul” seems intentionally designed to emphasise that just seeing David and hear him speak was enough for Jonathan to fall head-over-heals in love with him. In addition to telling us that Jonathan loved David, the writer uses a variety of terms to describe the attraction: “Jonathan took great delight in David” (19:1), and David “found favour in his [Jonathan’s] eyes” (20:3). After Jonathan’s death David lamented that “your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women” (2 Sam. 1:26). These words, perhaps more than any others, have convinced many readers that theirs was a homosexual relationship.

Some commentators read 1 Samuel 18:4 as homoerotic  – “Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that he was wearing, and gave it to David, and his armor, and even his sword and his bow and his belt” – while others see it as an act of allegiance, Jonathan seeing himself as a subordinate treaty partner. The use of the terms “servant,” “brother,” and even “love” would be appropriate in the context of a treaty, especially as 20:7-8 later describes a covenant between them. Joab’s speech to David (2 Samuel 19:6 [v.7 in Hebrew]) refers to David’s army as those who love him, so it is argued that Jonathan’s love for David was of the same type, that is, one of loyal devotion to a charismatic leader.

2. This leads to the second interpretation of the D&J relationship which I think has considerable merit. Lieut. Cmdr. Nathan Solomon, a military chaplain with the US Navy, wrote about the special bonds that often develop between soldiers in combat situations in “David and Jonathan in Iraq: Combat Trauma and the Forging of Friendship” [1] and argues that “no existing study of the relationship between David and Jonathan takes seriously their combat experience as a key to the friendship.” He writes:

It is in the chaos of combat and loss that friendships are forged that are unwieldy and intrusive in civilian life.  The language used to describe friendships in the civilian world simply cannot carry the freight these relationships ask them to bear.  Lacking the ability to verbalize the intensity with integrity, cultures default to language and categories with which they are familiar. The result is that the vocabulary of romance and kinship is often appropriated to describe what arises between comrades on the battlefield because no other suitable language or category exists.

Based on his work as a military chaplain working with men who have experienced the trauma of combat and the close bonds that are forged on the battlefield, he suggests that the friendship of David and Jonathan was not a homosexual relationship, but rather it “might be fruitfully analyzed as an intense friendship of the type forged in trauma, for it is the trauma that seems, in large part, to create and cement the friendship.” I personally think that Nathan Solomon’s perspective has a lot of merit.

3. We also need to consider the D&J story from a literary perspective and consider the role that it plays in the overall context of Samuel. What is the writer’s reason for writing the book, and what role does this friendship play for the writer in making his point, whatever that “point” is? There are a couple of things we need to note here about the D&J story within its overall context. First, we should note that the writer of Samuel reports a number of times that Jonathan loved David (adding in 20:17 that “he loved him as he loved his own life”), but never that David loved Jonathan. Was it a one-sided infatuation?  Interestingly, Patricia Tull notes that the Bible doesn’t actually describe David and Jonathan’s relationship in terms of “friendship.” [2] Even in David’s lament on the death of Jonathan, he says that it was Jonathan who loved him, not that he loved Jonathan – “your love to me was wonderful”. The closest he comes to mirroring Jonathan’s love was to say נָעַמְתָּ לִּי מְאֹד “You were very nice to me” which hardly seems to be the kind of thing you’d say to your lover! Elsewhere in 1 Samuel we are given details of Jonathan acting rashly (for example, he is introduced to the reader when he attacked the Philistine garrison at Michmash prematurely without waiting for his father, in 13:2-3). It is part of a narrative which depicts Saul’s rejection as king, and Jonathan’s unsuitability to succeed him. The purpose of the story about Jonathan falling in love with David after the briefest of encounters may have been to further highlight his unsuitability as a future king, because he was impetuous and driven by emotions, while also serving the dual purpose of showing why David was so suitable for the job – even the heir to the throne loved him!

We learn another interesting thing about David from this relationship. Later in the story, long after Jonathan’s death, David enquired “Is there still anyone left of the house of Saul to whom I may show kindness for Jonathan’s sake?” (2 Sam. 9:1). The story goes on to provide details of a surviving son of Jonathan, Mephibosheth (aka, Meribaal). What strikes me as particularly odd about this is that if David and Jonathan were lovers how likely would it be that he knew nothing about Jonathan’s son, and did not even enquire about him until what seems to be a considerable time later? This could further support the theory that Jonathan was infatuated with David, but that it wasn’t reciprocal. It could also imply that if D&J were indeed close friends, or even lovers, that David was a narcissist and didn’t care much for Jonathan beyond the fact that he enjoyed having him as an admirer. That would make sense of many of the other details of the story in which David seems totally incapable of forging “normal” or enduring relationships. His family is disfunctional, close friends eventually abandon him, and he dies alone and lonely; classic signs of narcissistic personality disorder. That, however, would open another can of worms. Perhaps another time.

___________________

[1] “David and Jonathan in Iraq: Combat Trauma and the Forging of Friendship,” in Probing the Frontiers of Biblical Studies (ed. J. Harold Ellens and John T. Greene; Princeton Theological Monograph Series 111; Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2009), 21–32. See also Solomon, Nathan. ““Only God Can Judge Me”: Faith, Trauma, and Combat.” Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology 69, no. 1 (2015): 63-75.

[2] Tull, Patricia K. “Jonathan’s Gift of Friendship.” Interpretation: a Journal of Bible and Theology 58, no. 2 (2004): 130-143. 

 

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