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David and Jonathan

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David and Jonathan were heroic figures of the Kingdom of Israel, whose intimate relationship was recorded favorably in the Old Testament books of Samuel. There is debate amongst religious scholars whether this relationship was platonic, romantic but chaste, or sexual.

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Story of David and Jonathan

"Saul Throws Spear at David" by George Tinworth

David, a handsome, ruddy-cheeked youth and the youngest son of Jesse, is brought before Saul, the king of Israel, for having slain the fierce Philistine warrior Goliath with only a stone and sling. David had previously been appointed armor-bearer by Saul, who loved him at first sight, and had played his lyre before Saul in order to exorcise an evil spirit that the Lord had sent to torment the king,(1 Sam. 16:14–21).

Jonathan, the eldest son of Saul and a general of the army, is immediately struck with David on their first meeting, "And it came to pass, when he [David] had made an end of speaking unto Saul, that the soul of Jonathan was knit with the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul." (1 Sam. 18:1). That same day, "Jonathan and David made a covenant, because he loved him as his own soul" (1 Sam. 1). Jonathan strips himself naked before David, offering him his rich garments, sharing with him all his worldly possessions, "And Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that was upon him, and gave it to David, and his garments, even to his sword, and to his bow, and to his girdle." (1 Sam. 18:4).

"Saul Tries to Kill David" by Julius Schnorr von Karolsfeld

The people of Israel openly accept David and sing of his praises, so much so that it draws the jealousy of Saul (1 Sam. 18:5–9). Saul tries repeatedly to kill David, but is several times unsuccessful, and David's reputation only grows with each attempt (1 Sam. 18:24–25). To get rid of David, Saul decides to offer him a daughter in marriage, requesting a hundred enemy foreskins in lieu of a dowry – hoping David will be killed trying. David however returns with a trophy of two hundred foreskins and the king is obligated to fulfill his end of the bargain.

Learning of one of Saul's murder attempts, Jonathan warns David to hide because he "delighted much in David" (1 Sam. 19:1–2). David is forced to flee more of Saul's attempts to kill him (1 Sam. 19:1–20:1). In a moment when they find themselves alone together, David says to Jonathan, "Thy father certainly knoweth that I have found grace in thine eyes." (1 Sam. 20:3).

"Then said Jonathan unto David, 'Whatsoever thy soul desireth, I will even do it for thee' ... [and] Jonathan made a covenant with the house of David, saying, 'Let the LORD even require it at the hand of David's enemies.' And Jonathan caused David to swear again, because he loved him: for he loved him as he loved his own soul” (1 Sam. 20:4,1 Sam. 20:16–17).

Jonathan embraces David from Caspar Luiken's "Historiae Celebriores Veteris Testamenti Iconibus Representatae" (1712)

David agrees to hide, until Jonathan can confront his father and ascertain whether it is safe for David to stay (1 Sam. 18–22). But Jonathan discovers Saul's still angry and jealous towards David; Saul impugns Jonathan for his closeness to David: "Then Saul's anger was kindled against Jonathan, and he said unto him, Thou son of the perverse rebellious woman, do not I know that thou hast chosen the son of Jesse [David] to thine own confusion, and unto the confusion of thy mother's nakedness" (1 Sam. 20:30).

Jonathan is so grieved that he doesn't eat for days (1 Sam. 20:34). He goes to David at his hiding place to tell him that it is unsafe for him and he must leave. "David arose out of a place toward the south, and fell on his face to the ground, and bowed himself three times: and they kissed one another, and wept one with another, until David exceeded. And Jonathan said to David, Go in peace, forasmuch as we have sworn both of us in the name of the LORD, saying, The LORD be between me and thee, and between my seed and thy seed for ever. And he arose and departed: and Jonathan went into the city." (1 Sam. 20:41–42).

Saul continues to pursue David (1 Sam. 20:43–23:14); David and Jonathan renew their covenant together (1 Sam. 23:15–18); and eventually Saul and David reconcile (1 Sam. 24–26). When Jonathan is slain on Mt. Gilboa by the Philistines (1 Sam. 31:2), David laments his death saying, "I am distressed for thee, my brother Jonathan: very pleasant hast thou been unto me: thy love to me was wonderful, surpassing the love of women." (2 Sam. 1:26).

Platonic Interpretation

Some scholars claim that the relationship between David and Jonathan, though strong and close, is ultimately a platonic friendship. This interpretation views the covenant made between the two men as a political, rather than affectionate, commitment. Jonathan and David agree to look out for one another and care for each other's family should one of them perish (a promise which David keeps).

The central themes of the Judeo-Christian Scriptures are reiterated throughout, not established in a few isolated passages. Relationships between mixed-sex couples are consistently portrayed. Yet, nowhere else in any of the Judeo-Christian Scriptures is same-sex romance depicted, thus it would be anomalous to interpret these passages as such.

The books of Samuel document physical intimacy (hugging and kissing) between Jonathan and David, but do not explicitly indicate a sexual component. Kissing is a common social custom between men in the Middle East for greetings or farewells, and does not necessarily indicate a physical relationship.

In addition, David was not only married, but, in fact, had multiple wives, one of them being Jonathan`s sister Michal. David's relationship with Bathsheba is explicitly more sexual than the one he has with Jonathan.

Just because David says his love for Jonathan "surpass[es] the love of women" doesn't mean that his feelings for Jonathan are sexual or romantic. David refers to Jonathan as "my brother" indicating their platonic sibling-like bond. Indeed, some regard this verse to mean that friendship is the greatest relationship two people can have, since it is not complicated by sexual motives.

Romantic Interpretation

"Jonathan Lovingly Taketh His Leave of David" by Julius Schnorr von Karolsfeld

Other scholars, however, interpret the love between David and Jonathan as more intimate than friendship. This interpretation views the bonds the men shared as romantic love, irregardless of whether or not the relationship was physically consumated. Jonathan and David cared deeply about each other in a way that was certainly more tender and intimate than a platonic friendship.

The relationship between the two men is addressed with the same words and emphasis as loving mixed-sex relationships in the Old Testament. When they are alone together, David confides that he has "found grace" in Jonathan's eyes. Throughout the passages, David and Jonathan consistently affirm and reaffirm their love and devotion to each other. Jonathan is willing to betray his father, family, wealth, and traditions for David.

The covenant made between the two men strengthens a romantic rather than political or platonic interpretation of their relationship. At their first meeting, Jonathan strips himself before the youth, handing him his clothing, remaining naked before him. When they first make their covenant, not long after their first meeting, the reason supplied is simply because Jonathan "loved [David] as his own soul." (1 Sam. 18:3). Each time they reaffirm the covenant, love is the only justification provided. Additionally, it should be observed that the covenants and affectionate expressions were made in private, rather than publicly as would a political bond.

The fact that David refers to Jonathan as "brother" does not necessarily signify a platonic relationship. "Brother" was often used as a term of romantic, even erotic, affection in ancient Mediterranean societies. For instance, "brother" is used to indicate long-term homosexual relationships in the Satyricon (eg. 9, 10, 11, 13, 24, 25, 79, 80, 91, 97, 101, 127, 130, 133), in the poetry of Catullus (Poem No. 100) and Martial (ie. 2.4, 7.24, 10.65), and in Apuleius' Metamorphoses (8.7). "From the middle of the second millenium B.C.E. ... it became usual for commoner husbands [in parts of the Mediterranean] to call their wives 'sister'" when they were in fact not siblings [1]. For exposition, see John Boswell's Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe (pgs. 67–71) and Craig Williams' Yale University Ph.D. Dissertation Homosexuality and the Roman Man: A Study in the Cultural Construction of Sexuality (pg. 319).

Although David was married, David himself articulates a distinction between his relationship with Jonathan and the bonds he shares with women. He explicitly states, on hearing of Jonathan's death, that his love for Jonathan is greater than any bond he's experienced with women. Furthermore, social customs in the ancient Mediterranean basin, did not preclude extramarital homoerotic relationships. The Epic of Gilgamesh, which predates the Books of Samuel, depicts a remarkably similiar homoerotic relationship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu.

[1] M. K. Hopkins. (1983) "Brother-Sister Marriage in Roman Egypt." Comparative Studies in Society and History. 22 (pg. 311)

Erotic Interpretation

David and Jonathan
The Biblical account of David and Jonathan has been read by some as the story of two lovers.
"La Somme le Roy", 1290 AD; French illuminated ms (detail); British Museum

Though sex is never explicitly depicted, much of the Bible's sexual terminology is shrouded in euphemism. Numerous passages elude to a physically intimate relationship between the two men: Jonathan's disrobing, his "delighting much" in David, and the kissing before their departure. Saul accuses Jonathan of "confusing the nakedness of his mother" with David; the nakedness of one's parents is a common Biblical sexual allusion (e.g. Lev. 18:6–19; Lev. 20:11,Lev. 20:17–21; Ezek. 16:36–37; Ezek 23:10; Hab. 2:15; etc.).

Some scholars (a strong minority) insinuate innuendo in David's "bowing three times" before Jonathan and David's subsequent "exceeding". It has been suggested this is a reference to oral sex and ejaculation. More socially conservative translations explain "exceeded" as "got control of himself" – others, such as the Living Bible fail to mention the kissing altogether, saying instead that they "shook hands". In fact, the Hebrew word, "gadal" for "exceeding" is translated elsewhere as a reference to "greatness". The strong minority suggest this means "until David became great" (ie. until David had an erection).

Allusions to Jonathan and David

The homoerotic interpretation can be found in literature. For example, the anonymous Life of Edward II, ca. 1326 AD, has: "Indeed I do remember to have heard that one man so loved another. Jonathan cherished David, Achilles loved Patroclus." The playwright Oscar Wilde invoked the example of David and Jonathan in his defense of pederastic friendships.

In Renaissance art, the figure of David took on a particular homoerotic charge, as can be seen in the colossal statue by Michelangelo, in Donatello's David. In many other works, such as the paintings of Caravaggio, David is portrayed as a beautiful youth conquering a Goliath whose head is often the self-portrait of the artist, a coded expression of the artist's homoerotic attraction.


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