The author of 1 and 2 Samuel is thought to have been a member of King David’s court. He seems to know the intimate details of David’s life and pulls no punches when telling the story of David’s reign, and of his predecessor King Saul. As part of this story, the author tells about Saul’s son Jonathan and his unique relationship with David.
You may have heard Jonathan and David’s story, but if you’re like most people, you have probably never looked at it closely. If your pastor preached about it, the sermon probably talked about the “friendship” of Jonathan and David. Some Christians point to Jonathan and David as an example of idealized male bonding — a type of “brotherly love” not “stained” by the romantic entanglements of male-female relationships. The biblical text, however, is completely inconsistent with this strained interpretation. We will present the biblical evidence and let you be the jury. You decide: Were Jonathan and David merely good friends (experiencing brotherly love), or was there a deeper (romantic) level to their relationship?
The author of 1 Samuel tells of a man named Saul, who became king over Israel and fathered a son named Jonathan. David, who was a shepherd from the smallest of the tribes of Israel, came to the attention of Saul and Jonathan when he volunteered to fight a giant who was troubling their nation. The text tells us David was not afraid because he believed God was on the side of the Israelites. In a show of courage, David fought the giant with only a sling shot and a handful of pebbles. Miraculously, he was victorious. Saul was intrigued by this courageous young man, and so he called David to come talk to him, which brings us to Exhibit A. The text says:
“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. 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.” (1 Samuel 18:1-4)
Now, imagine if this story had been about Jonathan and a woman. Suppose the author had written that “Jonathan’s soul was bound to Mirriam, and Jonathan loved her as his own soul.” And suppose that upon meeting Mirriam for the first time, Jonathan immediately gave her all his most precious possessions. (The armor and weapons of a prince were important symbols of his power and status.) If 1 Samuel 18:1-4 were about Jonathan’s first encounter with a woman, theologians everywhere would be writing about this as one of the greatest love stories of all time. The story of Jonathan and his love would be the source of dozens of Hollywood films. But because the object of Jonathan’s affection is a man, our cultural prejudice kicks in and we insist (notwithstanding the biblical evidence) that this could not have been more than deep friendship.
This “culturally correct” reading will not withstand scrutiny. It asks us to put an interpretation on the story that is completely at odds with our own experience of human behavior. When was the last time you saw a heterosexual man, swept away by brotherly love, offer another man his most precious possessions in their first encounter? Suppose the pastor of your church (assuming he is a man), upon meeting another man for the first time, stripped himself of his suit and gave it to the other. Suppose in that same encounter he also offered his most precious possessions — perhaps a family Bible, a wristwatch with an inscription from his parents, and his beloved four-wheel drive pickup truck. Wouldn’t this strike you as more than just a little “queer”? Let’s face it, the author of 1 Samuel is describing a classic love-at-first-sight encounter that happens to involve two men.
But there is more to the story than this one meeting. The text goes on to tell us David became a mighty warrior, and his popularity with the people of Israel threatened Saul’s throne, so Saul planned to kill David. But Jonathan warned David, and he fled the palace before Saul could act. Eventually, Jonathan convinced his father to allow David back, but Saul soon planned again to kill David. This time he did not tell Jonathan (he’d learned his lesson the first time), but David was able to escape anyway.
Then Jonathan and David met in secret. Jonathan begged David to come back to the palace, but David was afraid for his life. So they made a plan: Jonathan would go home and try to find out what his father was thinking. If his father had cooled down, he would let David know it was safe.
One night, at the royal table, the subject of David came up, and Jonathan spoke on his behalf. Saul’s reaction is Exhibit B. Saul said to Jonathan:
“You son of a perverse, rebellious woman! Do I not know that you have chosen [David] 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 upon the earth, neither you nor your kingdom shall be established.” (1 Samuel 20:30)
Many gay men have experienced dinner conversations that sounded very similar to this one. They made the mistake of talking about their lover at the table, and their father became furious. More often than not, the blame goes first to the mother, who was “too soft,” or “too harsh,” or who “perverted” her son somehow. Then the father turns his anger toward the son: “Can’t you see how you’re shaming the whole family? Do you even care what this will do to your career? You’ll never amount to anything until you give up this foolishness!”
Note 1. Leviticus 18:6-18 begins, “You shall not approach anyone near of kin to uncover nakedness” and goes on to list every possible incestuous relationship (except that of father and daughter), stating before each one, “You shall not uncover the nakedness of . . .”
In the biblical text, the arguments are the same. And, even more significantly, Saul’s reference to shaming Jonathan’s mother’s nakedness carries a sexual connotation. Uncovering the nakedness of a family member was a euphemism for incest in the holiness codes of the Old Testament, and Saul would not have used this phrase lightly. (See note 1.) The implication is that Jonathan is bringing sexual shame on his family.
Jonathan immediately ran from the table. And, that night, he went to tell David the sad news. The narrative of their final meeting is full of tragedy and pathos, and constitutes Exhibit C.
“David rose from beside the stone heap and prostrated himself with his face to the ground. He bowed three times and they kissed each other and wept with each other; David wept the more. Then Jonathan said to David, ‘Go in peace, since both of us have sworn in the name of the Lord, saying, “The Lord shall be between me and you, and between my descendants and your descendants, forever.” ’ He got up and left; and Jonathan went into the city.” (1 Samuel 20:41-42)
Note 2. The story of David adopting Jonathan’s son Mephibosheth is found in 2 Samuel 9. For examples of how some other monarchs dealt with the potential heirs to the throne, see 2 Kings 10:1-11 and 11:1-3, 13-16.
This was the last time they would ever see each other. David went into hiding, and Jonathan was eventually killed in battle, alongside his father. Perhaps they had some idea this was the end. They certainly knew their love was doomed. And Jonathan reminded David of their covenant with each other. He reminded him that even if they could not be together, they had made a pledge and the bond between them would last through all generations. All their children and grandchildren would be like one family, bound by their love for each other. Later, after taking the throne, David would remember this covenant and adopt Jonathan’s only son as his own — something completely unheard of in a time when kings were expected to kill anyone with any connection to a previous, rival king. (See note 2.)
So, we ask, was this merely deep friendship or a romantic relationship? In Exhibit A, upon their first meeting, Jonathan is said to have loved David as his own soul and to have given him his most precious possessions. In Exhibit B, Jonathan’s father uses language of sex and shame when he decries Jonathan and David’s relationship in a fit of rage. In Exhibit C, we see Jonathan and David’s passionate, tearful goodbye, and Jonathan reminding David of the eternal covenant they have made to each other — a covenant David still honors years later, even though honoring it is politically incorrect. But if you are still not convinced this was a romantic relationship, there is one more piece of biblical evidence — the smoking gun, so to speak. The story has one more passionate chapter.
In the first chapter of 2 Samuel, the author tells us that after Saul and Jonathan were killed in battle, David tore his clothes and fasted, a sign of deep mourning. He wept and wrote a song, which he ordered all the people of Judah to sing. In that song, he included these words, which are Exhibit D:
“Saul and Jonathan, beloved and lovely!
In life and in death they were not divided;
they were swifter than eagles,
they were stronger than lions.
How the mighty have fallen in the midst of battle!
Jonathan lies slain upon your high places.
I am distressed for you my brother Jonathan;
Greatly beloved were you to me;
your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.”
(2 Samuel 1:23, 26-27, emphasis added)
Here it is in black and white. David states the love he shared with Jonathan was greater than what he had experienced with women. Have you ever heard a heterosexual man say he loved his male friend more than his wife? This goes well beyond deep friendship between two heterosexual men.
In this story, we have a direct biblical answer to our question: Can two people of the same sex live in a loving, committed relationship with God’s favor? The answer is “yes,” because Jonathan and David did, and the Bible celebrates their relationship.
Note 3. On pages 20-24 of Homoeroticism in the Biblical World, Martti Nissinen does a good job discussing the Epic of Gilgamesh, which he says is “sometimes considered the most important ancient Near Eastern depiction of homoeroticism.” (Page 20.) In this story, Gilgamesh is described as a half-man half-god, whose energy for sex and adventure are endless. He ravages the young men and women of Uruk so uncontrollably that the people of Uruk call to the creator goddess to create him a suitable partner, so he will leave them alone. The creator goddess makes a red-haired man named Enkidu, and the adventures of Gilgamesh and Enkidu make up the rest of the tale. David F. Greenberg also discusses the Epic of Gilgamesh, along with other examples of Near Eastern homosexual warrior love relationships on pages 110-116 of The Construction of Homosexuality. He states, “Parallels to the Gilgamesh-Enkidu relationship have often been seen in the biblical stories of David and Jonathan, and in the devotion of Achilles and Patrocles for one another in the Illiad.” (Page 113) For further discussion of the Epic of Gilgamesh and how it might have been used by the writers of the Bible, see also Reading the Old Testament (Wadsworth Publishing Company, Belmont, CA, 1999) by Barry L. Bandstra, pages 76-77.
The author feels no need to explain away the love between these two men, putting in a note saying “this may look like a love story, but no hanky-panky happened.” When King Saul assumes the relationship is much more than friendship, the author leaves Saul’s comments in, and lets the reader assume the same. The author also would have been aware of this story’s similarity to other ancient Near-eastern stories that contained homoerotic aspects. (See note 3.) He would have known his story would be interpreted by readers of his time with these other accounts in mind, yet he did not bother to differentiate Jonathan and David’s relationship.
Under inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the author of 1 and 2 Samuel wrote this beautiful love story and saw no conflict between it and the earlier Scriptures in Leviticus. How is this possible? Apparently the author of 1 and 2 Samuel understood the Leviticus passage the same way we do, seeing it as a condemnation of Canaanite temple sex which, therefore, had no application to a deep romantic relationship between two men who loved and served the God of Israel. (See Israel's Holiness Code for a complete discussion.) If someone had challenged the author of 1 and 2 Samuel, he might well have responded, “This is not what Leviticus was meant to condemn. You’ve got to understand the context in which Leviticus was written. This is a very different situation.”
Why can’t we use the same common sense today? Why are some Christians so determined to condemn what God has so clearly approved in Scripture?
Note 4. The Bible tells us both David and Jonathan married. (1 Samuel 25:39-42; 2 Samuel 3:14; 4:4; 9:3-7; 11:27) This is not inconsistent with a romantic relationship between them. Even today, many homosexual people marry and bear children to conform to social pressures. As a prince, Jonathan would have had no choice but to marry, so as to bear a son to become his heir. David would have faced similar pressures. Other Bible stories indicate David was capable of feeling lust for women. (2 Samuel 11:2-26) He appears to have been what we today would call a bisexual — someone capable of forming a deep romantic relationship with persons of either sex. By contrast, based on what we find in Scripture, David seems to have been Jonathan’s only sincere romantic interest. He appears to have been what we today would call a gay man.
Remember, David is not some minor hero in the Bible. He is called “a man after God’s own heart.” (1 Samuel 13:14) He is one of Israel’s best-loved kings. He is one of the most prolific writers of Scripture (writing many of the Psalms). He is in the lineage of Jesus Christ. And he loved Jonathan. (See note 4.)