Monday, February 12, 2007

I Heard There Was a Secret Chord…

We all know David, king David of the Old Testament. But what is less known are the theories surrounding his relationship with Jonathan, Saul’s son. Without debate, it was an intense, and passionate relationship, and from the start. But was it a gay relationship?

It’s a bit difficult to know which is the most favored back-story as there are a couple traditions, seemingly interweaved into the version we end up with in the Old Testament. But, trying to make the best of what’s we get (beginning in 1Sam 16):

Saul was plagued by "an evil spirit from God" and Saul’s advisors thought that a skilled harpist could relieve his torment. At that, David is first brought into Saul’s court by the recommendation of advisors. He comes highly recommended as “a man of valor, a man or war, prudent in speech and a man of good presence; and the Lord is with him.” (1Sam 16:18). At the sight of David, Saul is very impressed and makes David his personal armourbearer. And it works; David’s playing keeps the evil spirit away, and Saul “refreshed”.

In the next chapter of 1Sam (17) we’re on an Iliad-esk battlefield, with Goliath of Gath, the Philistine hero. Goliath is making the familiar challenge to end the battle with single combat, mano-a-mano. But no one in Saul’s camp is up to facing the near 10’ tall giant. At this point, David is described as more of a sheepherder than a man of war; he’s in fact chastised by his older brother for leaving his “few sheep” to come “see the battle.” David asks some soldiers about the prize Saul might offer for taking Goliath down; it’s his daughter, and with that comes royalty, a good motivation. Here, as we all know, Goliath is felled by a single stone, and David takes his head. The captain of Saul’s forces, Abner, finds out who David is for Saul, and brings David before the king, head-in-hand, as it were. Here’s where our story picks up, where Jonathan and David connect (1Sam 18 1-4):

And it came to pass, when he 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. And Saul took him that day, and would let him go no more home to his father's house. Then Jonathan and David made a covenant, because he loved him as his own soul. 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.

From this meeting, after the death of Goliath, Jonathan and David’s souls are knitted together, and clothes are given. But things go bad, to say the least (1Sam 18:10-11):

And it came to pass on the morrow, that the evil spirit from God came upon Saul, and he prophesied in the midst of the house: and David played with his hand, as at other times: and there was a javelin in Saul's hand. And Saul cast the javelin; for he said, I will smite David even to the wall with it. And David avoided out of his presence twice.

If it were a gay relationship, I’m sure many a father has felt similarly :-). Fortunately, David avoids being shish kebabed, and twice even. But he still sticks around. Saul offers David his daughter in marriage and hopes to get him killed by the Philistine’s hand in battle. But David was victorious again, if not eccentric in his choice of Philistine trophies (you can read the text for that :-)). Saul then plots outright to kill David, but Jonathan warns his friend, as he “delighted much in David” (1Sam 19-1-2).

In more twists than a day time drama, Saul then is convinced to not kill David. But David does well on the field of battle again and again, while playing his harp, God sends the evil spirit, and David is almost impaled by Saul’s javelin, supposedly a third time. That must have been the straw that broke the camel’s back; David finally fled with the help of Saul’s daughter, Michal.

Jonathan and David eventually get together and discuss the problem. Jonathan resolves “Whatsoever thy soul desireth, I will even do it for thee.” (1Sam 20:4), and they plan an elaborate scheme, to find out if Saul is angry with David. Put simply, if Saul is angry at thinking David went to Bethlehem to give a sacrifice, David will know Saul is upset at him, but if he’s fine with it, then David knows it’s all right to come back… Yes, it seems David can’t take a hint even while dodging javelins, but we have to remember many of these stories are likely the stitched together works of many authors, but, personally, their worth in not in dry biographical facts.

So, their plan was set in motion (1Sam 20:27-29):

And it came to pass on the morrow, which was the second day of the month, that David's place was empty: and Saul said unto Jonathan his son, Wherefore cometh not the son of Jesse to meat, neither yesterday, nor to day? And Jonathan answered Saul, David earnestly asked leave of me to go to Bethlehem: And he said, Let me go, I pray thee; for our family hath a sacrifice in the city; and my brother, he hath commanded me to be there: and now, if I have found favour in thine eyes, let me get away, I pray thee, and see my brethren. Therefore he cometh not unto the king's table.

Saul is strangely confused as to why his javelin target isn’t at the dinner table, but David’s answer is clear in Saul’s reaction to the news (1Sam 20:30-33):

“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 to thine own confusion, and unto the confusion of thy mother's nakedness? For as long as the son of Jesse liveth upon the ground, thou shalt not be established, nor thy kingdom. Wherefore now send and fetch him unto me, for he shall surely die. And Jonathan answered Saul his father, and said unto him, Wherefore shall he be slain? what hath he done? And Saul cast a javelin at him to smite him: whereby Jonathan knew that it was determined of his father to slay David.”

Saul, always with the javelins… Saul’s insult is thought to be particularly telling. Haven’t many gays been in the same situation, with a father, who they’re not fooling one bit in their having chosen someone, by their own “confusion” ;-)? Insulting a person’s mother as perverse may not be all too surprising, but coupling Jonathan’s “confusion” with “the confusion of thy mother's nakedness” (‘ervah, which indicates exposition of the genitals in particular) does not point to just any disgrace; it’s thought to point to a sexual disgraces in his relationship with David. Compare that to Saul’s treatment of Michal, when he finds she has deceived him for David’s sake.

Next is the warning to Jonathan, that he’ll not have his kingdom with David alive. I gather this could be seen as an indication that the matrilineal line of inheritance is still in play at this time, and thus David is as much an heir through marriage as Jonathan. Alternatively, one could see Saul as saying the relationship between the two men is the barrier to being “established”. Personally, I favor the former but couldn’t say, being such a layman here. I’d love to better understand if anyone else has a thought on it.

After finally realizing Saul is upset and means to kill David, Jonathan goes to their secret meeting place. There a confusing signal sent to David with arrows and a lad running after them. But the lad is sent away, leaving David and Jonathan alone to talk anyway (1Sam20:41-42):

[quote]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.[/quote]

Sure, the kissing and the weeping (and exceeding?) are kind of provocative, but making such an oath, in the name of the Jewish God, should make some skeptical of there being a gay relationship, with Leviticus in mind. Also, if we understand Saul’s insult to be regarding the sexual nature of their relationship, real or no, there’d at least be a social taboo against such, one that maybe only heroes could overstep but maybe not. Still, there is question as to whether or not the Leviticus laws were enforced, and to what extent, prior to the exile. You don’t really have the Bible while you’re living it ;-).

Finally, wrapping up this tale, we have the death of Saul and Jonathan. At the news of this David laments (2Sam 1:26):

“I am distressed for thee, my brother Jonathan: very pleasant hast thou been unto me: thy love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.

To sum up, some will look at the story of Jonathan and David and begin fuming at any suggestion there was romantic love between the two men. David is a very important religious figure who could never have such feelings for another man. He is said to be a respected ancestor of Jesus, and so on. They’ll say it was merely the sort of love we’re to give all our neighbors, brotherly love, and the affection was merely a sign of different cultures and times. The men were just abnormally good friends, with wives at home (David had more than one). To them the suggestion alone is perverted and there’d be no convincing otherwise without a different view on the topic of such love altogether.

The other side will say, yeah, “good friends”; we’ve heard that before. Good friends with souls knitted together, who share clothes, cry together, kiss each other, and feel a love for each other that surpasses the love typically associated with loving women in particular, not just any human. “Good friends” who others see as having chosen each other to their own confusion, to the confusion of their mother’s nakedness. “Good fiends” who’ll do “whatever” the other’s soul desires. Sure, they had wives and kids, as did other people, undoubtedly gay or bisexual in history. It was a means to survive or a duty to the culture and, with that satisfied, they had their true loves elsewhere. No, they were as gay as the uncle on Bewitched.

But no one will settle this debate either way, and I certainly can’t tell who’s right. If I had to guess, though… To me, the stories surrounding Jonathan and David are a lot like the other stories of the region. Some of them did include versions with gay relationships among otherwise straight heroes, such as Achilles and Patroclus. I’d bet the stories in 1Sam are created similarly, with some fact, some fiction, and discordant voices, each adding their two cents. I think the narrative as given does show this melding of various traditions as well, and I’d not be surprised if one of them did have a gay tint to it. But, as to the relationship between an actual Jonathan and an actual David, that, barring some improbable findings of earlier editions of their tale, is lost to time.

Still, I’m glad to not be one who’d think their relationship wrong, if it were meant to be romantic. If it were, it’s certainly a very passionate, though tragic tale.


-L- said...

I've known some pretty tightly bound straight guys... and considering the Bathsheeba incident... I'm not really sold.

Beck said...

I've always looked at David and Jonathan's story as a source of "inspiration" of the love I've known - not necessarily sexual, but knitting of souls none-the-less. To say it wasn't something more than typical "friendship" or "brotherly love" is simply missing the power, passion and point of the story. To say that the relationship was "wrong" is simply wrong!

Scot said...

You saw her bathing on the roof… :-)

...considering the Bathsheeba incident... I'm not really sold.

Nor should you be, IMNTBHO. But there’s reasonable debate to be had here, no?

I’m wondering now if I made my position clear.

IF it was a gay relationship, I’d certainly say the David of the Bible would have been far more bi than anything. Jonathan risks much more anyway, and is the one accused of some sort of sexual “confusion”. But, even if there was no such thing as bisexuals, I don’t think it’s makes sense, particularly in light of how the story exists today, to compare Jonathan against Bathsheba. From my perspective, you could have a tradition with a completely heterosexual David, along with a minor gay tradition weaved into the same narrative, as we seem to have with other similarly stories from such time. In reality David could have been 100% heterosexual and yet a homosexual tint could have been added in or vice versa. But this is an area where opinions may differ greatly ;-).


I agree; it’s not important to the story, save for maybe as an explanation of some actions. It’s a political and religious fight today, though, and I do find the debate interesting, and it is substantial (I left out some stuff for the length). Personally, I think fine arguments exist on both sides, and it won’t be resolved. But if it were somehow proven to be a gay relationship, I bet, sadly, some would find less power in the story than they did before.

Anonymous said...

unfortunately, i made the mistake once of watching the movie 'king david' with richard gere in the title role. ugh, i've never been able to get that mother of all miscasting out of my mind.

Paul said...


Your study of the Bible intrigues me. While others have surely pondered this question before, it's a new dicussion to me.

I'm WAY TOO literal in my thinking to understand any of this. Too much symbolism, too much interpretation required.

I only remembered that little David killed the giant. I only think of it as inspiration to face challenges.

Why couldn't God just give it to me in plain, contemporary English?

Scot said...

i made the mistake once of watching the movie 'king david' with richard gere in the title role

Gere, huh. I’ll put that down on the “Gay” side of the tally ;-).

Too much symbolism, too much interpretation required.

I think many people feel the same, and would rather have an authority speak here, or some just believe the need is not there, that their religious document is 100% literal truth (though they still will interpret the text, and call it something different to make it consistent). But some texts, I think, are absolutely meant to be unclear. The facts aren't important; the feeling is; it's in need of personal interpretation.

I know it was a rhetorical question :-), but as for as a religion in plain, contemporary English goes… Thinking on it there’s none I’ve known that didn’t really need interpretation by, language aside, at least the culture in which it developed. The Bible, in particular, can be difficult due to the way the various documents were stitched together by various cultures. But, for other texts, I’ve found it’s particularly helpful when only one or a couple authors are involved; typically they can keep better consistency.

Hmm… The closest I can think of to something that needs little interpretation through a strange culture, and is mainly the work of one man is Scientology, but that was set up around the 60’s… I may have less hope of correctly interpreting the 60’s than I have for BC middle east :-).

Paul said...

Scot, thanks for your additional thoughts.

I grew up in the United Methodist Church and remain there today (even though I don't particularly agree with their view of homosexuality, among other things -- officially they believe that all people are individuals of sacred worth and merit God's grace, yet consider the practice of homosexuality incompatible with Christian teaching).

As I'm sure you're aware, John Wesley was known as a logical thinker, and believed that study of the Bible always required contextual understanding based on Church Tradition, Reason, and Personal Experience.

Net, I believe that your Bible study is to be commended! Even if I don't "get it."

Anonymous said...

Of course another way to look at the Bathsheba incident is that it could have been David proving to himself that he was a "real" man. As if that title belongs to either straight or gay people.

David loved Jonathan. David even made love to Jonathan and the bible talks about their seed covenant. Indeed, Leviticus had a thing or two to say about it, but Leviticus had a thing or two to say about the incestuous relationship that Herod had in John's time, and a thing or two to say about the sorcerer that Saul (Jonathan's father) consulted. Indeed there were many prohibitions, and on every other page you can see where normal people fell short of those.

So what? David had a fling with another boy his age. Don't statistics say that somewhere over half of all men have at that age have had a homosexual relationship (it's more, I know, but for arguments sake)? I think it is a perfectly natural part of growing up. Boys make blood brothers, compare parts, play and even swear to die for one another, and then at some point, some of them grow out of that stage and into women. God help us.

If we weren't so #@^&$# homophobic we would see it in ourselves as the bible intended. It is a part of the human condition. Nothing dirty, nothing sordid, just a part of who we are.

I'd like to see someone explain the naked boy that was spending the night with the disciples before Jesus was arrested. Don't know about it? Go looking before you slam my post please.

Those quickest to criticize are those with the most to fear.

Peace in Christ who is My Lord Too.
Advocatus Humani

Scot said...

Hi there Anonymous.

I'm actually trying to put together a more comprehensive article on this one at, drawing on several more scholarly resources.

"David even made love to Jonathan and the bible talks about their seed covenant."

I don't remember that phrase, "seed covenant"; do you have a reference?

"Don't know about it? "

Ah, and the Secret Mark. I've got a bunch of material on this one too. Too bad, as you say, it's so inflammatory.