The next Grove Biblical booklet is an excellent study by Jonathan Rowe, arising from his academic research, of the relationship between Jonathan and David in 1 Sam 14.1–2 Sam 1.27. It is a very engaging study, well written, that offers a careful and insightful reading.
The first point Rowe makes is that, as with all OT narratives, we need to take the narrative form seriously in our reading.
We are not intended to extract an abstract principle from the story, consume the moral lesson and then dispose with the narrative wrapper. Instead, as we read the text, and are at times frustrated by a character’s actions and at other times impressed by them, we learn what it is both to follow and stray from God’s ways. (page 3)
In particular, in the story of David, Jonathan and Saul, a key concern is the way that the characters measure up against the pattern of the ‘ideal man’, who fathers children, shows concern as a husband, takes an interest in matters of worship and judgement in law, excels in intelligent speech and (most important of all) is a valiant warrior. (No pressure there, then!). And as the narrative unfolds, it turns out that (in this stage of the story at least) David and Jonathan match up to this ideal well, and Saul fails at key moments, most notably in the challenge of the Philistine Goliath.
Into this context comes the development of the love between David and Jonathan. Rowe points out that this language of love is the same language used of rulers who are in alliance with other rulers—there is a political dimension to this that we easily miss. But it also fits within the wider understanding of the OT of love as an action that you can decide to undertake. ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’ (Lev 19.18). In fact, as Rowe highlights, David and Jonathan have been portrayed in the narrative in very similar terms:
Significantly, David is described as ‘a man of valour, a warrior, prudent in speech, and a man of good presence; and the Lord is with him,’ a description that could apply equally to Jonathan. (p 10)
And their friendship springs from a recognition of themselves in the other:
The preceding narrative has revealed how David’s personal qualities are similarly those of Saul’s son, so it is unsurprising that Jonathan ‘loved him as his own soul,’ because David was ‘as his own soul,’ a literal translation that can also be rendered ‘as he himself.’ In the language of ancient friendship, David and Jonathan were ‘other selves,’ together because they were alike. (p 11)
The covenant that they make, like all OT covenants, is less like a contract and more like membership of a family group, with both obligations and privileges. In fact, this ‘rival’ family-like loyalty provides the climax to the story, as the kingdom of Israel transfers from Saul’s family (with the death of Jonathan) to David himself.
It is in this context that we read of the verses describing David and Jonathan’s relationship, most strikingly as David looks back after Jonathan’s death: ‘My brother Jonathan; greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women’ (2 Sam 1.26). Rowe gives a whole chapter to this question, looking at each of the verses in turn—but not before considering what it might mean to talk of their relationship as ‘gay’:
In order to consider the question for ourselves we need to be clear as to what we mean by ‘gay.’ There are various options. For example, do we mean a more or less transient attraction to people of the same sex? Or does ‘gay’ indicate a sufficiently established attraction that could be described as a homosexual orientation? Or is one ‘gay’ if one belongs to a gay community? Without clarity about what ‘gay’ signifies, answering the question, ‘Were Jonathan and David gay?’ will be impossible. (p 12)
Alongside this, Rowe notes the development of ‘gay’ readings of other classic texts, both in antiquity (in the fourth century BC it had become assumed that the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus in the Iliad was sexual in some way) and in modernity. But careful reading of these texts in Samuel, read in the context of the narrative and its historical context, do not support such an approach.
Jonathan and David are portrayed as ‘real men’ in order that their narrative voices are credible to original readers. Although 1 Samuel 20.30 does not refer to their sexual practices, homosexual acts were considered shameful—as evidenced by Leviticus—and it is virtually inconceivable that the portrayal of Jonathan and David as masculine heroes would have convinced should their liaison have been perceived as erotic. They were, indeed, ‘just good friends.’ (p 16)
All this demonstrates the complexities of bringing modern questions and sets of assumptions to the biblical text. In particular, if we want to look for support for any particular position in the text (as opposed to finding it within ourselves as readers) then we need to pay attention to the priorities and shape of the text itself. Too much of the current discussion relies on poor reading of the Bible on this and related subjects (‘The Bible supports slavery’, ‘The church changed its mind about women’, ‘You can make a text say anything you want it to.’). In the end, questions of authority cannot be separated from questions of meaning, and these will inevitably involve (responsible) interpretation.
Let’s leave the last word with Jonathan Rowe, and his conclusion on what we can, positively, take from this ‘most exciting story’ of the OT narrative.
By engaging us in the dramatic story of David, Jonathan and Saul, the author highlights how loyalty to the Lord’s anointed is paramount, even when this conflicts with what might be demanded by others. Early readers would have identified the implication that loyalty to David’s successors was required. For Christians this speaks of loyalty to Jesus the Messiah, the seed of David. And just like Jonathan’s love for David, a Christian’s love for Jesus often calls for choices that are culturally unexpected. But that is another story. (p 24)
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