Jonathan’s Love and David’s Lament: Text, Method, and the Use/s of Ancient Traditions in Contemporary Debates about Modern Concepts. Part One: Historical-Critical Insights.
While the mainstream interpretation of David and Jonathan’s relationship within the Jewish and Christian traditions has been of platonic love and homosociality, the interpretation of their relationship as homoerotic and/or homosexual is traceable at least to the very early 19th century and has become a commonplace in western literature and popular culture.
For as long as readers have detected homoerotic overtones in the narrative, others have denied these on the basis of the Hebrew Bible’s ostensible condemnation of “homosexuality,” almost always derived from Leviticus and understood within a framework of biblical heteronormativity. Some commentators have rejected a homoerotic reading of the relationship on the above bases even as they have acknowledged that the text itself may permit such an interpretation.
Contemporary scholarly arguments tend to fall into three broad categories. First, there are those who favour political or theological-political interpretations wherein their relationship is understood to be a primarily political alliance. Such readings came to prominence with William L. Moran’s influential 1963 article in which he argued that, in the ancient Near East, “love” rhetoric belonged to the language of political discourse. Second, there are those who favour homoerotic and/or homosexual interpretations. Proponents of these readings often argue that it is the homophobia of the tradition that prevents it from accepting what the text presents. Third, there are those maintaining a kind of middle ground, situating David and Jonathan within the homosocial culture of the ancient Mediterranean world and arguing that the text allows but does not force a homoerotic and/or homosexual reading of the relationship.
Traditional author-oriented historical-critical modes of analysis focus on the text’s historical context in order to establish the objective meaning of the text understood in terms of authorial intent. Text-oriented literary-critical modes of analysis focus on the text’s literary context in order to uncover the meaning/s allowed by and embedded within the text in its final form through careful analysis of its rhetoric and aesthetics. Reader-oriented modes of analysis focus on particular readerly contexts in order to appreciate the ways in which reading communities make meaning.
This piece – split into three parts – is interested in the nature of the relationship between David and Jonathan in the Samuel tradition, and in some of the methodological approaches by which interpreters of the material might move meaningfully and constructively between the world of the author, the world of the text, and the world of the reader. To this end, it utilises certain tools of both historical- and literary-critical analysis in order to bring to bear a queer consciousness upon the David-Jonathan material. This queer consciousness consists not in arguing for an explicitly homoerotic and/or homosexual reading of the relationship, but rather in unsettling heteronormative assumptions and highlighting homoerotic possibilities within the text.
Part One offers a concise historical-critical discussion anchoring the David-Jonathan material in the socio-sexual mores of the ancient Mediterranean world. Part Two engages in literary-critical analysis of two key passages: 1 Samuel 18:1-4, wherein the soul of Jonathan is bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan cuts a covenant with David because he loves him as his own soul; and 2 Samuel 1:26, wherein David laments the death of Jonathan and retrospectively praises his love as “wonderful, surpassing the love of women.” Finally, Part Three attempts a kind of synthesis, considering the ways in which the insights of these analyses offer themselves to our consideration of the use/s of ancient traditions (i.e., Scripture) in contemporary debates about modern concepts (i.e., sexual identity).
Queer criticism, like other ideological criticisms, seeks to critique and undermine oppressive readings of biblical texts and to expose the biases behind them. Proponents of queer criticism argue that the Bible’s view of sexuality is far more nuanced and complex than conventional readings have often recognised. Biblical scholar Ken Stone writes that, while it is conventional for contemporary advocates of so-called traditional family values to insist or imply that such values are directly grounded in biblical texts, many biblical texts indicate that the writers of biblical literature held views about gender and sex that stand in considerable tension with modern heteronormative assumptions.
In his discussion of the construction of masculinity in the David narratives, David J. A Clines has similarly argued that the function of biblical commentary has often been to harmonize the Bible with modern notions of heteronormativity. Thus, the possibility of an erotic and/or sexual dimension to the relationship between David and Jonathan is summarily dismissed while instances of the less acceptable faces of heterosexuality (e.g., polygamy, incest, rape) often go unremarked. Stone argues that this “leaving unproblematized” of heterosexual relations contributes to the impression that these have “maintained stable forms and meanings from biblical times to the present,” and this assumption contributes to the perpetuation of religious heterosexism at least as much as the explicit condemnation of homosexual relations.
Another way of putting it might be to say that Christian commentators have long been engaging in no small amount of reader-response criticism by another name.
Historian of Hebrew religion Susan Ackerman expresses concern over the ways in which the Bible is used to discuss homosexuality within contemporary society:
“Our society’s notion of homosexuality, or, more precisely, of homosexual identity, is… a historically and culturally contingent product of our particular time and place. Homosexuality as we conceive of it is thus not something that should be, or even can be, discussed using data that come from the texts and traditions of… [those societies that] produced the corpus of writings we now know as the Bible.”
This is not to claim that erotic and sexual acts involving same-sex partners were not found in the ancient societies of the biblical world (far from it), but that such acts were not understood or organized according to notions of sexual preference or identity. While the modern world views sexual practices in terms of psychosexual object-choice, the ancient world stressed the individual’s socio-sexual subjectivity vis-à-vis social performance within a stratified sexual continuum, the fundamental bases of which are generally agreed to have been gender polarisation, social status, age hierarchies, and an active-passive dichotomy. Anthony Heacock explains:
“In much of the ancient world normal, healthy males enjoyed phallic domination over penetrable objects of sexual desire (i.e., inferior females and males [adolescent, slave, captive, and effeminate]) without such behaviour being deemed un-masculine. In the same way that anally penetrating a soldier of a conquered army signified heroic bravado, because to force another man to submit to this ignominy was considered the ultimate in hyper-masculinity, social opprobrium arose only when men abdicated their socio-sexual position of phallic power by choosing to be anally penetrated. In the ancient mind… [this] upset the hygienics of power and undermined the entire patriarchal fabric of the Society.”
Consider the Genesis 19 and Judges 19 narratives, which have often been read to condemn any and all forms of homoeroticism (usually conflated with homosexuality), though biblical scholars regularly observe that these stories are primarily concerned with failed hospitality (violent, interrogative rape being the major and immediate expression thereof). The fact that these narratives understand sex to be (or to so easily become) an instrument of degradation (of the penetrated), gives indirect evidence for an ancient construction of sexuality. Notice that both stories involve the offering of women for violent sexual use in place of male guests, since the rape of a woman was not considered cause for comparable horror as women were naturally inferior to men and thus proper objects of penetration. Ronald E. Long writes that the idea of sexual penetration as an act of “social topmanship” seems to derive from warrior culture:
“Where war is a matter of penetrating enemy bodies and enemy lines, it is but a short step to viewing the erect phallus as a weapon… indeed, the rape of an enemy’s womenfolk or, more dramatically, of the enemy himself, an act which effectively unmans him… has long been the capstone which seals a victory in war… It is the ideology perpetrated in the vulgarisms of our day. ‘Fuck’, ‘screw’ and… ‘shag’ are all, in the main, transitive verbs, implying that the sexual act is one in which someone does something to another. In the light of the identification of phallus and weapon, one can make full sense of the Hebraic horror of male-male intercourse.”
The Hebrew Bible contains only two explicit references to homoeroticism. Both are legal dictum within the Levitical Holiness Code: “with a male you shall not lie the lying down of a woman; it is tô ̔ēbâ,” and, “as for the man who lies with a man the lying down of a woman, they – the two of them – have committed a tô ̔ēbâ. They shall certainly be put to death. Their blood is upon them.” Most commentators agree that what is forbidden here is the anal penetration of one man by another; it is the “use” of a male as a female that is tô ̔ēbâ. The word tô ̔ēbâ means something like “transgression of borders,” and is used regularly throughout the Holiness Code in relation to a number of both sexual and nonsexual offenses.
The Holiness Code is concerned with cultic and ritual purity, its stipulations are motivated by logic having to do with a concern for systems of classification. The interbreeding of two kinds of cattle, the sowing of two kinds of seed in the same field, and the wearing of clothing made of two kinds of material are all forbidden. Stone writes that phenomena which are ambiguous or anomalous with respect to, and so threaten to confuse, cultural classifications are forbidden; these guidelines contribute to the creation and maintenance of the boundary that demarcates Israelite identity. There is particular concern around food and sex, possibly because eating and intercourse involve the transgression of the body’s boundaries and the incorporation by the body of foreign substances.
Rather than dismissing certain prohibitions as illogical or primitive (as many Christians do with many aspects of the Holiness Code), Stone suggests we might work out the logic that led to the proscription of certain things or behaviours that in some way troubled the classifications presupposed by the Israelites. The prohibition of “lying with a man the lying down of a woman” seems to be grounded in concern for the classes of “male” and “female.” This is reflected in Deuteronomy, where many of the same prohibitions are paired not with male-male penetration but with crossdressing: “A woman must not wear anything that pertains to a man, nor a man wear the garment of a woman, for all who do these are an abomination to Yhwh your god;” and in Philo’s subsequent commentary: “[Moses forbade the woman] to assume the dress of a man, with the further object of guarding against the mannish-woman as much as the womanish-man.”
Clear sexual distinctions are paramount to the maintenance of particular relationships of power and control within patriarchal societies; confusion threatens to undermine the organizing structure thereof. The active and passive male partners of homogenital acts in Leviticus are condemned because each man is guilty of transgressing boundaries of male subjectivity: penetrating another man treats him as a sexual object, the position natural only to women, while allowing oneself to be penetrated is tantamount to self-emasculation. Further, since the Holiness Code envisions the individual body as symbolic of the body politic, not only are the participants of male-male penetration complicit in the “unmanning” of the penetrated man, but in the effective “unmanning” of Israel.
In the ancient extrabiblical Jewish literature, issues of same-sex intercourse only feature significantly in writings composed in areas strongly influenced by Hellenism. Most focus on condemning pederasty and occasionally this condemnation extends to include consensual male-male sexual relations, but these also couch their prohibitions in broader cultural assumptions about gender. For example, Philo explains that men who are sexually penetrated let themselves fall prey to “the formidable curse of a female disease,” and have made their body feminine thus resulting in the degeneration of their soul. William Loader notes that Philo shows no sign of contemplating the possibility that some people might have a sexual orientation towards their own kind. Rather, same-sex intercourse was usually considered the result of uncontrolled sexual passion, and associated with men who were at the same time promiscuous with women.
It seems clear that, just as the Bible needs to be critically evaluated on the basis of its incorporation of obviously patriarchal notions about the sexual use of women, so, too, it needs to be critically evaluated on the basis of its incorporation of obviously patriarchal notions about appropriate sexual roles and behaviours as they pertain to same-sex sexual contact. Stone writes:
“The writers of both Testaments almost certainly interpreted same-sex eroticism in terms of a politics of penetration that understood intercourse to involve an active, penetrating social superior and a passive, penetrated social subordinate… Thus, there is little direct correlation between such passages and contemporary debates about homosexuality, which are informed by very different notions of sexual practice on all sides of the issue.”
Stone points out that any direct application of these texts to contemporary discussions about homosexuality necessarily involves either “a radical act of decontextualization” or “adoption of problematic positions on gender roles and sexual practice. Biblical scholar Mary Ann Tolbert similarly suggests that assumptions about the direct applicability of biblical texts to contemporary situations do often result in “the importation of ancient presuppositions into modern contexts,” and these have “many destructive effects on the church and on society.” Thus, Ackerman calls the “easy correlation” between the biblical world and ours “misguided,” and insists that “all erotic and sexual interactions in the biblical and ancient Near Eastern world need to be analysed on that world’s terms.”
It is necessary to deconstruct contemporary suppositions about sexual behaviour, and to explore sexual roles and relations and the cultural meanings attached within the ancient Mediterranean world, before one can meaningfully comment on the biblical texts’ portrayal of the relationship between David and Jonathan; and, more than that, what this might or could or should mean for contemporary reading communities.
It must be noted that the Hebrew Bible regularly assumes the legitimacy of sexual institutions and practices unlikely to be openly defended by modern adherents of Judaism and Christianity. Stone draws attention to 2 Samuel 16:22, where the reader is confronted with an instance of public rape, which, according to the logic of the story, is initiated by Yhwh. Stone writes that such a representation of God’s role vis-a-vis female characters in 2 Samuel makes any simplistic theological or ethical “application” of these texts to our contemporary context extremely problematic.
Further, discussions about biblical views on marriage and family often ignore the fact that there are no specific words in biblical Hebrew corresponding to our words “marriage,” “husband,” and “wife;” there are only “men” and “women,” translated variously according to context. Oftentimes the text uses the language of the giving and taking of daughters by groups of men in order to form alliances, thus Gayle Rubin’s concise construal of kinship in Israel as “the traffic in women.” As Jon L. Berquist argues, the lack of correspondence between biblical and contemporary vocabularies ought to be taken seriously as an indication that the social institution of marriage “is not the same in ancient Israel as it is in the modern Western world.”
Such reflections ought to unsettle the assumption that biblical views on sexual practice (which are, in any case, multiple and contradictory) are identical to views espoused by modern religious readers, and they ought to raise serious questions about any approach to biblical interpretation which would argue or imply that theological or ethical decisions should, or even can, be made on the basis of appeal to biblical precedent alone. Stone writes:
“Freed from the illusion that modern sexual ethics can ever be derived in a simplistic, literalistic fashion directly from the biblical text, we may be encouraged to take responsibility for our own ethical positions instead, developing those positions in dialogue with the Bible but never hiding our own ethical choices by pretending that such choices have been determined for us in the distant past by the Bible.”
Returning to Leviticus, I offer one further historical consideration. While discussion of the Levitical prohibitions is necessary for our consideration of David and Jonathan because of the tendency of modern readers to conflate biblical traditions, it should be acknowledged that the book of Leviticus will not answer our questions about David and Jonathan, for two main reasons. First, there is no assurance that all Israel shared the convictions of the author of the Holiness Code. The author of the Samuel tradition does not elsewhere assume the validity of all of the sexual regulations found in Leviticus. Second, almost all biblical scholars agree that the texts in Leviticus have their origin in the priestly source of the Pentateuch, dated during the exilic period some 500 years after the events involving David and Jonathan are imagined to have taken place. Thus, the David and Jonathan material is more appropriately interpreted within its ANE context, as Schroer and Staubli write:
“The horizon of these texts about David and Saul and Jonathan is the culture of Egypt and the Aegean of the early first millennium BCE… It is hardly necessary by now to show in detail that Mediterranean peoples of that time took homosexuality for granted… erotic friendship between young men and comrades-in-arms [blossomed]… this is precisely the ambience of the narratives about Saul’s court.”
Thus, Joel Baden suggests that “there is nothing historically objectionable about the idea that David and Jonathan were lovers,” and points out that “the Bible seems unbothered by its own hints in that direction.” We cannot speak with certainty about the prevailing attitude in Israel toward homoeroticism during the entire period of the Samuel traditions’ various stages of development, let alone about actual practice. What we can say with at least some degree of certainty is that the Levitical prohibitions need not predetermine our interpretation of the David-Jonathan material, and that modern categories of sexual identity are not appropriate for the ancient world where people likely engaged in homoerotic behaviours to various degrees without eliciting social opprobrium. Robert Alter writes:
“Lacking all but the scantiest extrahistorical evidence, we shall probably never know precisely what happened in Jerusalem and Judea and the high country of Benjamin around the turn of the first millennium B.C.E., when the Davidic dynasty was established. What matters is that the anonymous Hebrew writer… has created this most searching story… that still speaks to us, floundering in history and the dilemmas of political life, three thousand years later.”
Now, out of one context and into another.
cooperative fellow and PhD student at the Australian College of Theology
 A. A. Anderson expresses this view succinctly: “The language of the poem [2 Samuel 1:26] may, perhaps, permit… [a homoerotic] interpretation, but the general attitude of the OT as a whole (see especially Lev 18:22; 20:13) seems to contradict this exegesis… [One must bear in mind] the fact that David’s heterosexual relationships are well attested.” Anderson, Word Biblical Commentary: 2 Samuel (Dallas, Texas: Word, Incorporated, 1989), 19.
 See e.g., P. Kyle McCarter, Jr., II Samuel: A New Translation with Introduction, Notes and Commentary (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1984); Martin A. Cohen, “The Role of the Shilonite Priesthood in the United Monarchy of Ancient Israel,” HUCA 36 (1965): 83-84; Shimon Bar-Efrat, The Jewish Study Bible (ed. Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler; New York: Oxford University Press, 2004); Ernst Jenni, “ahev to love,” in Theological Lexicon of the Old Testament, eds. Ernst Jenni and Claus Westermann, trans. Mark E. Biddle (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1997); Gerhard Wallis, “ahev, ” in TDOT 1 (1977): 104-109; Katharine Doob Sakenfeld, “Loyalty and Love: The Language of Human Interconnections in the Hebrew Bible,” in Backgrounds for the Bible, e ds. M. P. O’Connor and D. N. Freedman (Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns, 1987); Jonathan Y. Rowe, Sons or Lovers: an Interpretation of David and Jonathan’s Friendship ( New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2012); Steven L. McKenzie, King David: A Biography (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000); Simon B. Parker, “The Hebrew Bible and Homosexuality,” Quarterly Review 11 (1991): 10-11.
 William L. Moran, “The Ancient Near Eastern Background of the Love of God in Deuteronomy,” CBQ 2 5 (1963): 77-87. See also J. A. Thompson, “The Significance of the verb Love i n the David-Jonathan Narratives in I Samuel,” VT 2 4 (1974): 334-38; and P. R. Ackroyd, “The Verb Love – aheb i n the David-Jonathan Narratives – A Footnote,” VT 2 5 (1975): 213.
 See e.g., David Gunn, The Fate of King Saul (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1980); Robert E. Goss, “Jonathan and David,” in Reader’s Guide to Lesbian and Gay Studies, e d. Timothy Murphy (Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2000); Theodore W. Jennings, Jr., “YHWH as Erastes,” in Queer Commentary; Jennings, Jacob’s Wound: Homoerotic Narrative in the Literature of Ancient Israel (New York and London: T&T Clark, 2005); Raphael Patai, Sex and Family in the Bible and the Middle East ( Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1959); Tom Horner, Jonathan Loved David: Homosexuality in Biblical Times (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1978); Jody Hirsh, “In Search of Role Models” in Twice Blessed: On Being Lesbian, Gay, and Jewish, ed. Christie Balka and Andy Rose (Boston: Beacon, 1989); Daniel A. Helminiak, What the Bible Really Says about Homosexuality ( San Francisco: Alamo Square, 1994); Nancy Wilson, Our Tribe: Queer Folks, God, Jesus, and the Bible (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995); David F. Greenberg, The Construction of Homosexuality ( Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988); Gary David Comstock, “Love, Power and Competition among Men in Hebrew Scripture: Jonathan as Unconventional Nurturer,” in Religion, Homosexuality, and Literature, eds. Michael L. Stemmeler and Jose Ignacio Cabezon (Las Colinas, Tex.: Monument, 1992).
 See e.g., Silvia Schroer and Thomas Staubli: “David and Jonathan shared a homoerotic and, more than likely, a homosexual relationship. The books of Samuel recount the love of the two men with utter frankness… The need to make more than a few statements in passing about the love between two men, in the early period of the Israelite Monarchy, has to do with the fact that homosexuality is still very much a taboo.” Schroer and Staubli, “Saul, David and Jonathan – The Story of a Triangle? A Contribution to the Issue of Homosexuality in the First Testament,” in A Feminist Companion to the Bible: Samuel and Kings, ed. Athalya Brenner, 22.; and Danna Nolan Fewell and David M. Gunn: “Though the suggestion has long been voiced, few commentators afford serious consideration to reading a homosexual dimension in the story of David and Jonathan. That is hardly surprising, given that until recently, most have been writing out of a strongly homophobic tradition… [but] far from stretching probability, a homosexual reading… finds many anchor points in the text.” Fewell and Gunn, Gender, Power and Promise: The Subject of the Bible’s First Story (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993), 148-49.
 See e.g., David M. Halperin, One Hundred Years of Homosexuality: And Other Essays on Greek Love ( New York and London: Routledge, 1990); Martti Nissinen, Homoeroticism in the Biblical World: A Historical Perspective (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1998); J. P. Fokkelman (1986); David Damrosch, The Narrative Covenant: Transformations of Genre in the Growth of Biblical Literature ( San Francisco: Harper & Row San Francisco, 1987); Renita J. Weems, “Missing Jonathan: In a World of Power, Violence, and Ambition, a Friendship that Lasts,” The Other Side 3 3 (1997): 50-55; Anthony Heacock, Jonathan Loved David: Manly Love in the Bible and the Hermeneutics of Sex.
 Ken Stone, “Queer Criticism and Queer Theory” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Biblical Interpretation e d. Steven L. McKenzie (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 164.
 David J. A. Clines, Interested Parties: The Ideology of Writers and Readers of the Hebrew Bible ( England: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2009), 243.
 Ken Stone, “Homosexuality and the Bible or Queer Reading? A Response to Martti Nissinen” T&S 14 (2001), 110-14.
 Susan Ackerman, When Heroes Love: The Ambiguity of Eros in the Stories of Gilgamesh and David (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), 3. See also Daniel Boyarin, “Are There Any Jews in ‘The History of Sexuality?’”, Journal of the History of Sexuality 5 (1995): “Neither the Bible nor the Talmud knows of ‘that entity called by us sexuality.” p.353; and Phyllis A. Bird, “The Bible in Christian Ethical Deliberation concerning Homosexuality: Old Testament Contributions,” in Homosexuality, Science, and the “Plain Sense” of Scripture, e d. David L. Balch (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000): “Sexuality as we understand it today is not addressed in the Bible. It is a modern concept.” 148.
 Anthony Heacock, “Wrongly Framed? The ‘David and Jonathan Narrative’ and the Writing of Biblical Homosexuality”, The Bible and Critical Theory 3 (2007): 22.3-22.4.
 Ronald E. Long, “Introduction” in The Queer Bible Commentary, e ds. Deryn Guest, Robert E. Goss, Mona West, Thomas Bohache (London: SCM Press, 2006), 4-7.
 Leviticus 18:22.
 Leviticus 20:13.
 Ken Stone, Practicing Safer Texts: Food, Sex and Bible in Queer Perspective (Queering Theology Series) (London and New York: T&T Clark International, 2005), 49.
 Ibid., 50.
 Ibid., 47.
 Walter T. Wilson, Philo of Alexandria, On Virtues: Introduction, Translation, and Commentary (Netherlands: Brill, 2011), 114.
 William Loader, Making Sense of Sex: Attitudes towards Sexuality in Early Jewish and Christian Literature (Grand Rapids, Michigan / Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2013), 132-140.
 Stone, Queer Criticism and Queer Theory, 164.
 Stone, Homosexuality and the Bible, 110-114.
 Mary Ann Tolbert, “A New Teaching with Authority: A Re-evaluation of the Authority of the Bible” in Teaching the Bible: The Discourses and Politics of Biblical Pedagogy eds. Fernando F. Segovia and Mary Ann Tolbert (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1998), 177.
 Ackerman, When Heroes Love, 30.
 Cf. 2 Sam. 12:11.
 Stone, 1 and 2 Samuel, 84.
 Gayle S. Rubin, Deviations: A Gayle Rubin Reader ( Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2011).
 Jon L. Berquist, Controlling Corporeality: The Body and the Household in Ancient Israel (Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2002), 60-61.
 Stone, 1 and 2 Samuel, 218-19.
 Ibid., 205-08. E.g., the story of Amnon and Tamar indicates that certain forms of incest forbidden in Leviticus are understood by the author of 2 Samuel to be acceptable in at least some circumstances. Cf. 2 Sam. 13:12-13.
 Schroer and Staubli, Saul, David and Jonathan, 31-34.
 Joel Baden, “Understanding David and Jonathan” http://www.bibleinterp.com/articles/2013/12/bad378027.shtml (accessed 6 December 2018).
 Robert Alter, The David Story: A Translation with Commentary of 1 and 2 Samuel (New York & London: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1999), xxiv.