A biblical homophobic slur?



David and Saul, Julius Kronberg, 1885. From this picture one would think that it was Saul, not Jonathan, who was in love with David!

A few posts back I wrote about the laws in Leviticus which are often quoted as evidence that the Bible condemned homosexuality, and discussed the term “uncover the nakedness of … [one’s father, mother, sister, etc].” I said there that this is generally regarded as a euphemism for having sex with that person, specifically taboo sex (i.e. incest). The phrase occurs rarely in the Bible outside these laws in Leviticus, although there are a couple notable exceptions. The first is in Genesis 9:22-23 in a story about Noah planting a vineyard after the flood, becoming drunk on wine which he produced, and then

“Ham [Noah’s son], the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside. Then Shem and Japheth [Ham’s brothers] took a garment, laid it on both their shoulders, and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father; their faces were turned away, and they did not see their father’s nakedness.”

The phrasing is not quite identical because in the Genesis story Ham “saw” his father’s nakedness, while the Leviticus laws are about uncovering nakedness. The first appears to be inadvertent, while the latter is deliberate. However, the fact that when Noah sobered up “and knew what his youngest son had done to him” (Gen. 9:24) and then cursed Ham’s son (Canaan), suggests to many scholars that what Ham did was more than to simply see his father naked. Some have argued that Ham exposed his father’s nakedness while others think he had sex with his father while he was drunk. This text probably deserves more attention, perhaps in a later post, but it is enough for now to say that seeing or uncovering nakedness probably both contain sexual innuendos.

I also wrote earlier about a possible homosexual relationship between David and Jonathan. If you’ve read my subsequent posts about David you will realise that I’m inclined to think that Jonathan had a homosexual attraction to David and was infatuated with him, but David was either oblivious to Jonathan’s feelings or he chose to use them to his own advantage. If David was a narcissist, as I suspect, then the latter could be expected. While taking another look at the D&J story I recalled that the story contains the only other reference to “your mother’s nakedness” outside of Leviticus (1 Samuel 20:30). In its context it seems to be an odd phrase:

Then Saul’s anger was kindled against Jonathan. He said to him, “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?

The background to Saul’s outburst against his son was Jonathan’s loyalty to David in covering for David’s absence from the royal court because David was in fear of Saul. Interestingly, leading up to this incident, David and Jonathan spoke about Saul’s hostility to David, and David noted that Saul was well aware of their friendship: “Your father knows well that you like me” (literally, I have found favour in your eyes 1 Samuel 20:3). And then a little later the narrator reminds us that “Jonathan made David swear again by his love for him; for he loved him as he loved his own life.” (v. 17, as if we needed reminding because he has already told us this twice!) I noted in my previous post that Virginia Miller has pointed out that when something is said three times in 1 Samuel it tends to be a case of overstatement for emphasis. So here I think the narrator is emphasising Jonathan’s attraction to David. And then comes this outburst about Jonathan choosing David “to your own shame, and to the shame of your mother’s nakedness.” Robert Alter has pointed out that this is quite violent and is a reference to the idiom for taboo sexual intercourse. [1] It is certainly odd why he would speak of “your mother’s nakedness” unless we understand it as an insulting idiom. He was not referring to any actual sexual intercourse between Jonathan and his mother, but it seems that for centuries the worse insults are those which make reference to having sex with one’s mother, giving rise to the idiomatic English expression “motherfucker”. I suspect that is what is happening here, but the very mention of shame (twice) coupled with a sexual innuendo suggests to me that Saul was making a slur of a sexual nature. Was he alluding to Jonathan’s attraction to David? Was this the first homophobic slur on record? Was this an ancient Hebrew idiomatic equivalent of faggot?

Because this phrase which we’ve encountered elsewhere is used here as part of an insult, and in the context where an emphasis is placed on Jonathan’s attraction to David, I would paraphrase it this way: “Shame on you! You’ve chosen to chase after your pretty boyfriend rather than being loyal to your family”, followed by some sort of derogatory slur of a sexual nature. Saul is hardly being commended for the slur. On the contrary, the narrator is describing Saul’s descent into insanity and the slur is therefore condemned rather than commended. Read this way it reinforces an interpretation of 1 Samuel which understands the friendship between David and Jonathan to have a homosexual element, even if the attraction was one-sided.

I should add a postscript that I don’t think the word “homophobic” is strictly correct in this context as there is no evidence that the ancient world had any concept of homosexuality, or heterosexuality for that matter. There is no evidence that they had a concept of sexuality at all. They were certainly familiar with homosexual acts, but probably had no need to categorise people based on their sexual preferences. So, if they didn’t have a word for homosexuality then homophobia would be equally out of place. But I use the word here because that is how we might understand it.


[1] Alter, Robert, The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2019, vol. 2, 263.


Did David really care for Mephibosheth?

00000mephiboshethI tentatively suggested in my two prior posts that David may have had Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). As I understand it, narcissism is a spectrum and NPD is at one end. In the middle, or at the other end depending on how you devise the spectrum, is where the majority of people sit, with a healthy level of self-esteem and self-confidence. (Most of the information I have on narcissism and NPD comes from the excellent book by Dr Craig Malkin, Rethinking Narcissism [1]). David, I think, was further along the spectrum than most people, heading towards the end where it becomes a personality disorder, or he was right there. It’s not uncommon for leaders, such as Presidents, Prime Ministers and monarchs, to have NPD. It’s their overblown ego which helps to get them there.

I suggested earlier that David’s ignorance of Mephibosheth’s existence – particularly surprising because his father Jonathan was supposedly one of David’s best friends – is a sign of David’s narcissism. However, a friend asked if that could be right seeing David seemed to genuinely care for Mephibosheth, who was disabled, “crippled in both feet” (2 Samuel 9:13). My initial reaction was that narcissists can be kind and caring, and it depends where they sit on the spectrum as to how much this will motivated by self-interest. My narcissistic friend, for example, was a really nice person most of the time and was a good friend to me at a time when I needed one. But as time progressed I learned that this is the typical modus operandii of a narcissist, and that they will often use kindness as a means of making you indebted to them so that you “owe” them your loyalty. I’m not sure that they do this consciously – it may very well be a learned subconscious mechanism. My friend, for example, would sometimes say “Remember I did such-and-such for you? Well, now I need you to do something for me.” They are good at keeping track of favours they’ve done, and will call it in when they need something in return.

Interestingly,  since I started exploring this angle, Dr Virginia Miller has sent me something she has written in her forthcoming book about David [2]. Dr Miller writes: “It is more likely that David only offered חסד [ḥesed usually translated mercy, but see below] to Mephibosheth because it was in David’s own interests to do so and not because he was doing goodwill to Mephibosheth.” She makes the excellent observation that ḥesed is mentioned three times within a short space in 2 Samuel 9, referring to the covenant that David made with Jonathan, and the repetition has the effect of overstating it. This word, often translated as “mercy” has a variety of meanings in the Hebrew Bible and Miller argues that from its context here it has the sense of covenant loyalty. She argues that the over emphasis on David’s pledge of loyalty suggests that David only offered to help Mephibosheth because it was in David’s own interests to do so, making a display of honouring a covenant he made with Jonathan some twenty years earlier. The political situation at the time warranted a display of loyalty on David’s part but, as Miller suggests, he honours the covenant with Jonathan in word but not in spirit.

David’s “kindness” to Mephibosheth – giving him a place at David’s royal court – was effectively a means of keeping the grandson of the previous king under house arrest and under control, incapable of being a threat to David’s succession. David’s lack of genuine concern is revealed later in the story when, on the say-so of a servant who profited by telling lies about Mephibosheth, David handed all Mephibosheth’s property to the servant without questioning Mephibosheth or giving him an opportunity to defend himself (2 Samuel 16:1-4). When confronted about this later (2 Samuel 19:24-30) he still couldn’t admit to making a mistake (narcissists never do!) and in a face-saving gesture offered to return only half the confiscated property, allowing the lying servant to keep the rest.

Such duplicity is not uncharacteristic of David. One of the most famous incidents from his life was his adulterous affair with Bathsheba who was married to Uriah, an officer in David’s army. David ordered for Uriah to be sent to the front lines in a battle, ensuring his death, and therefore demonstrating that even arranging the death of an innocent man was just a means to his narcissistic ends. As I see it, making a show of being kind to a potential threat to his throne, while also keeping him tightly under his control, is also characteristic of narcissism. Narcissists will use people in any way that suits their purposes. They are resources, means to an end. David’s treatment of both Uriah and Mephibosheth indicates this pattern of behaviour.

But narcissists are not necessarily thoroughly bad people, although they are generally deeply troubled. As many experts argue, their personality disorder most likely developed in response to childhood circumstances which produced in them a fear of abandoment and a lack of self-esteem. Their narcissism is a cover for feelings of inadequacy. There are some hints in the Bible that David’s childhood may have been troubled. In the story where the prophet Samuel went to the hometown of Jesse to find and anoint the future king of Israel (1 Samuel 16), Samuel invited Jesse and his sons to a communal event. After all Jesse’s sons were introduced to the prophet, Samuel asked “Are all your sons here?” to be told, “There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.” (16:11). We never learn why David wasn’t invited along with his brothers to the event. Surely a worker could be found to look after the sheep! It makes me wonder if there was a reason why David wasn’t considered to be quite equal with his brothers. Then, in Psalm 51:5 [v.7 in the Hebrew], written (according to its title) by David after his adultery with Bathsheba had been exposed, he says “In sin I was born and in sin my mother conceived me.” Is there a hint here that David was conceived out of wedlock? Was he sent to keep the sheep when his brothers were invited to a party because as an illegitimate son he wasn’t regarded as fully one of them? If David was rejected as a child by his own family this could explain why he needed to prove himself and why he developed a personality disorder in order to convince himself that he was worthwhile, or even better than everyone else.


[1] Malkin, Craig. Rethinking Narcissism: The Secret to Recognizing and Coping with Narcissists. Harper, 2016.

[2] Miller, Virginia, A King and a Fool? The Succession Narrative as a Satire. Biblical Interpretation Series 179, general editors Paul Anderson and Jennifer L. Koosed.  Leiden, Boston: Brill, 2019, 44-47 (forthcoming, due for publication in October).