Monday, August 17, 2009

David & Jonathan: Best Friends Forever or Something More

The newly released Sex and the Jews, a series of essays collected by Nathan Abrams, re-circulates the idea that David and Jonathan were homosexual lovers and that the lack of censure from the narrator suggests that the Bible at least in some places has a more enlightened and tolerant view of sexual behavior than its later (and more repressed) interpreters. It is understandable how reading the story of David and Jonathan with modern eyes might lead to such a conclusion. The text states that Jonathan “loved” David and that his soul “was joined” to David’s (1 Sam 18:1), appearing to echo the intimacy reflected in the “one flesh” relationship between the husband and the wife in Genesis 2:24. In one of their final times together, the two men kissed one another in a highly emotional scene (1 Sam 20:43), and David later eulogized his dead friend by declaring that Jonathan’s love was more special to him than the love of women (2 Sam 1:26).

Robert A. J. Gagnon’s The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics is one of the best exegetical and historical defenses of the traditional view that the Bible is unanimous in its witness that same-sex intercourse is sinful. Through a careful analysis of the David-Jonathan narratives and their ancient Near Eastern setting, Gagnon (pp. 146-57) offers seven convincing reasons as to why we should not view David and Jonathan as having a homosexual relationship.

1. The term “love” (אהב) (’ahav) has a broad range of meaning, and the large majority of the uses of this root in the Hebrew Bible do not refer to sexual or romantic love. In this context alone, the term refers to Israel’s “love” for David as a military hero because of his victory over Goliath (1 Sam 18:1), to Jonathan’s love for David (1 Sam 18:1, 3; 20:17; 2 Sam 1:26—though note that there is never a clear reciprocal statement that David “loved” Jonathan), to Michal’s romantic love/attraction to David (1 Sam 18:20, 28), to the esteem of Saul’s servants for David (1 Sam 18:22) and to the love and esteem enjoyed by Saul and Jonathan because of their heroic lives (2 Sam 1:23).

2. The term “love” is common terminology for loyalty between covenant partners in ancient Near Eastern treaties, and this nuance of the term relates to the promises and oaths that David and Jonathan made to one another (note their oaths to each other and the use of the term חסד (hesed) in 1 Sam 20:8, 14, 15). Kings expressing love for one another in ancient treaties were obviously not wanting to hold hands or go steady but were merely affirming their commitment to the covenant stipulations:

--King Hiram of Tyre is David’s “lover” (or “friend”) in 1 Kgs 5:1

--Note the use of the terms “love/hate” for those who are loyal/disloyal to David in 2 Sam 19:6-7

--Future vassals of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal were instructed: “You must love [him] as yourself.”

--Tursatta, the king of Mitanni says to the Egyptian Pharaoh: “My lord, just as I love the king my lord, so (do) the king of Nuhasse, the king of Ni’i….”

The covenantal commitment between David and Jonathan is the key component in the biblical portrayal of their friendship. Jonathan extended total loyalty to David and was willing to give up his position as royal heir to the throne on David’s behalf. In their first encounter, Jonathan makes a covenant with David and hands over to David his robe, sword, armor, bow, and belt as a symbol of royal investiture (cf. 1 Sam 17: 51, 54; 2 Kgs 11:10; and the significance of the “robe” as a symbol of political power in 1 Sam 15:27-28). Jonathan lives up to the covenant agreement by twice warning David of Saul’s plots to put David to death (1 Sam 19:1; 20:35-42), the second time in connection with the renewal of covenant loyalties between David and Jonathan (1 Sam 20:8, 13-17, 42). In turn, David makes a covenant promise to Jonathan that he would show hesed to Jonathan and his descendants for all time (1 Sam 20:14-17), a promise David later kept by providing for Mephebisheth, Jonathan’s crippled son (2 Sam 9). In their final meeting together, David and Jonathan once again affirm their covenant commitments before the Lord, and Jonathan acknowledges that David will become the ruler over Israel (1 Sam 23:16-18).

Politics in ancient Israel was a bloody and violent affair. Abimelech killed 70 of his brothers in an attempt to become Israel’s king (Judg 9:5), and Jonathan’s father wanted David dead because of the threat that David posed to the family’s dynasty. When David died, there was a bloody dispute over the right to succession in his own family (1 Kgs 2). During the time of the divided monarchy, 8 of the 19 kings of the Northern Kingdom were either murdered, assassinated, or committed suicide as a result of various forms of political intrigue. Jonathan’s act of surrendering the right of succession to a friend outside of his family was an incredible act of selfless devotion, and this unheard of magnanimity is what leads David to proclaim that Jonathan’s love for him surpassed that of women. Gagnon (pp. 152-53) comments: “Jonathan’s repeated display of (non-sexual) kindness to David at a time when Jonathan was in a position of power, selflessly risking his own life and certainly his own kingdom surpassed anything David had ever known from a committed erotic relationship with a woman.”

3. The expression that Jonathan’s “soul (נפש) (nephesh) was “united” (קשר) (qashar) to David (1 Sam 18:2) also describes the deep love of Jacob for his son Benjamin in Genesis 44:30-31, where it is clear that nothing sexual is intended by this expression.

4. The verb חפץ (haphets) used to describe Jonathan’s feelings toward David in 1 Samuel 19:1 is used by Saul himself to express his own pretended affections for David in 1 Sam 18:22.

5. The kissing of David and Jonathan in 1 Samuel 20:41 is not erotic in nature but rather an expression of deep emotion by two friends who recognize that they may never see each other again. In the OT, the verb “to kiss” (נשק) (nashaq) carries no sexual connotation in 24 of its 27 uses. The term refers to kisses between relatives 15 times, and there is nothing erotic in the kisses between unrelated males in the four other contexts where they occur (cf. 1 Sam 10:1; 2 Sam 15:5; 19:40; 20:8). This farewell scene where David and Jonathan are overcome with emotion recalls the episodes in Genesis where Joseph weeps and kisses when he reveals himself to his brothers in 45:5 and where he weeps and kisses his dead father in 50:1. Even in Middle Eastern cultures today, it is not uncommon for men to kiss, hold hands, or have physical contact in a non-sexual way that is strange or uncomfortable for Western males.

6. David’s heterosexual vigor (cf. 1 Sam 18:17-29; 25:39-43; 2 Sam 3:2-5, 13-16; 5:13-16; 11) and Jonathan’s marriage (1 Sam 20:42; 2 Sam 9) do not preclude the possibility of a homosexual relationship between the two, but would seem to raise further doubts concerning the likelihood of such a relationship. David’s strong attraction to women is a major source of his problems.

7. The narrator never states that David and Jonathan had sexual relations, and the terms “to lie with” (שכב) (shakav) or “to know” (ידע) (yada) do not appear in the text. Of course, one could argue that the narrator has tried to suppress the true nature of the relationship between David and Saul, but Gagnon rightly questions why a narrator trying to suppress the relationship would focus so much on the closeness of their relationship. He writes that there is no “indication that the narrators were in the slightest bit concerned about a possible homosexual misunderstanding. Indeed, far from censoring, the narrators did their best to play up the relationship between Jonathan and David. The more covenants and the greater the emotional bond between these two, the merrier. Why were the narrators unconcerned about a hint of homosexual scandal? The answer is obvious: nothing in the stories raised any suspicion that David and Jonathan were homosexually involved with one another. ” (pp. 154-155)

The point here is not that David having a homosexual relationship with Jonathan would have precluded God from using David as a great leader or that such behavior would have been a worse form of sin than the actions surrounding his adultery with Bathsheba that brought great ruin to his kingdom and heartache to his family. God extends his grace to both heterosexual and homosexual sinners and delights in using individuals despite their character flaws and moral failings. The point is simply that the biblical text does not portray David and Jonathan as lovers. To suggest otherwise is poor exegesis and a desperate attempt to use the Bible to validate homosexual behavior. For seminary students and those preparing for a ministry of preaching and teaching the Scriptures, this issue is another reminder of the importance of knowing biblical languages and remaining committed to grammatical-historical exegesis in an age of reader-centered hermeneutics. The message of the text, and not our personal agendas or what we want the text to say, must remain our primary concern.


  1. Very well researched and reasoned. Thanks for your careful conservative non-polemic study.

  2. It is additionally very important to keep in mind cultural differences here as well. Even today, one can observe two men holding hands in many countries in the Middle East.

    To quote from
    "When doing business in the Middle East, handshakes are always used and can last a long time. ...Do not be surprised if your hand is held while you are led somewhere. Holding hands among men is common and does not carry the same connotations as it does in the West."

    I would assume that these differing views of male friendships were in play here as well and would have flavored the way this close friendship is expressed.

    I remember coming to this country first in 1977, and no man would have hugged another at that time. Now culture has shifted, and these expressions are common among the younger generation of men.

  3. I'm just glad someone speaks truth on a level that I can't, we all have our calling to speak truth, Gary just speaks it from a different plane than most of us. Thanks Dr Yates!