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Were Jonathan and David in a gay relationship?

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)

David_and_Jonathan

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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8 Responses to Were Jonathan and David in a gay relationship?

  1. Gill October 16, 2013 at 4:04 pm #

    This desire (which indeed it is) to read a modern sexual preference into the ancient text seems to be developing in liberal church circles. We walked out of a church near Oxford a few months ago, when the woman priest announced that the centurion had a gay relationship with his ‘lad’.
    Thanks for this scholarly refutation.

    • zack February 26, 2016 at 1:39 am #

      No. I don’t think this is any “desire”, actually the opposite. In the original Hebrew it says that their eyes shone for each other. Eyes shining for each references romantic non-platonic love, ask anyone from the Middle East. Most likely the Medieval monks who cherry picked what was to be included in the bible did not understand this reference. Gay relations among otherwise heterosexual men is par for the course in the Middle East and the reference by many there would be clearly understood as such. You are interpreting from your European perspective.

      • Gill February 26, 2016 at 1:31 pm #

        I’m interested that you’re replying more than two years after this original discussion. There are a number of concerns about what you say. Firstly, you move smoothly from people in the Middle East, assuming that Jewish society, because it’s in the middle east, will follow the same practices as some of the non-Jewish ME societies and cultures around them. This isn’t the case. Also, Medieval monks were using Scriptures already accepted a thousand years previously by the church fathers, who were Greek or Middle Eastern.

  2. Philip Seddon October 16, 2013 at 5:32 pm #

    Whether or not William Countryman originally proposed this idea, it is a classic case of anachronistic eisegesis. By contrast, the first task of biblical interpretation is to distinguish as carefully as possible between exegesis and eisegesis.

    A second point concerns the nature of male friendship and love in the Bible. The possibility of David and Jonathan being in a ‘gay relationship’ is excluded both by the OT laws, and by a false fantasy similar to that which holds that Jesus did not condemn homosexuality because he said nothing about it. In fact, this is a (non-) argument from silence. In fact, Jesus said nothing because he did not need to add to what the OT had already said, and was not about to contradict it.

    A third, cultural, aspect is that many people seem unable to consider the depth, strength and commitment that two men might have towards one another, just like two women (where we seem to think that deep conversation and relationship is more possible…), without any ‘sexual attraction’ (that’s the much more complicated topic!) or genital relationship. It is significant that the suggestion that David and Jonathan were ‘gay’ arises in a Western context, which is often unable to understand or experience the depth of relationship between two men that one otherwise finds in many countries, not least in the Middle-East. This is a much more illuminating background for the friendships between Jesus and Lazarus, Jesus and John, etc., and highlights a cultural inability to read the text as it stands, without importing misleading anthropological and sexual agenda. Perhaps, if we could encourage deep man-man relationships (as, paradoxically, some Victorians did), we could make better sense of the 1 & 2 Samuel passages.

    Fourthly and finally, Adam Nicholson’s The Power and the Glory (on the production of the King James Bible) documents the deep emotional relationships that were possible, publishable and acceptable between men and men at the beginning of the 17th century (!). Thus there is also a *historical* cultural element at work, too: men were then, in a different century of this country’s history, free to express their feelings much more openly to one another. Perhaps, in going overboard in areas of heterosexual love in the last century and since, we have dismissed the key range of close male friendships with other men.

  3. Simon Butler January 3, 2014 at 2:24 pm #

    While I am entirely in agreement with the biblical conclusions that Jonathan Rowe comes to, I think it is important to take seriously what Countryman’s and others’ interests were in positing a gay relationship between David & Jonathan. Liberal Christians, not to mention gay Christians (not all of whom are liberal), were (and are) looking for biblical perspectives on their relationships. That there is little in Scripture to offer guidance about that question (the focus being primarily on the condemnation of same sex sexual acts): hence a desire to explore possible same-sex relationships in Scripture. Those who criticise ‘liberal’ perspectives in this way need to acknowledge a continued thirst for gay Christians to find biblical models for relationship.
    I would want to say that there is much for gay Christians to model their lives on in scripture: chiefly the example of Jesus, whose own same-sex relationships seem both mature, grounded and healthily honest. What is more, I think we can safely begin to let go of the need to find our role-models in Scripture, gay or straight: that is not what scripture wants to do for us, except to point us to the fact that in Christ we all find our true identity and modern concepts of hetero- or homo- sexuality, and indeed more ancient and inadequate views of marriage, need to be seen in the light of Christ’s love. A lot of Evangelical sermons on marriage are, by this rule, to be seen as biblically ill-informed and unhelpful.

  4. Derek Winterburn January 3, 2014 at 5:53 pm #

    An interesting illustration of the misapprehension around male friendships is the most recent Sherlock Holmes episode. Mrs Hudson (Una Stubbs) assumes that Holmes and Watson are lovers. Even when Watson protests strongly she brushes off his denial. Only the emergence of a (female) fiancée is sufficient to satisfy her.

    This is a remarkable observation since the Russell T Davies/ Steven Moffat incarnations of Dr Who clearly advance the suggestion that the Doctor has had same sex relationships in the past. Yet Moffat’s Holmes might well have been / be gay – but Watson has to establish that he is not.

  5. James Blandford-Baker January 4, 2014 at 6:23 pm #

    Hi Simon
    When you say, “What is more, I think we can safely begin to let go of the need to find our role-models in Scripture, gay or straight: that is not what scripture wants to do for us, except to point us to the fact that in Christ we all find our true identity and modern concepts of hetero- or homo- sexuality, and indeed more ancient and inadequate views of marriage, need to be seen in the light of Christ’s love.” I am not sure I follow your reasoning here? How do you ‘know’ that Scripture doesn’t want us to find role-models? What is your epistemology for saying that? Surely Scripture encourages the imitation of Christ…and therefore the imitation of Christlike qualities found in the characters of Scripture? Interested in your thoughts.

  6. John Leach January 4, 2014 at 6:25 pm #

    Really helpful stuff here, and I agree wholeheartedly with the conclusions, but I do have one tiny quibble: is it enough simply to invoke the Leviticus clause as though that proved it for all time, with no questioning of dating, authorship etc. Great care is taken to set the D and J narrative within its historical context and culture, but then the ‘homosexual acts were considered shameful—as evidenced by Leviticus’ card is played with no further exegetical work on this text. This lack of investigation of the bits we like seems to me to be the failing of the blessed Michael Vasey’s Strangers and Friends. It is this sort of thing which those with an axe to grind will rightly take us to task for.

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