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Jonathan’s Love and David’s Lament: Part 2

The privileging of a political or theological-political reading of Jonathan’s love over and against a personal and potentially erotic and/or sexual reading arguably has less to do with the text itself and more to do with the imposition of heteronormative values upon the text.

Picture credit
Lluís Ribes Mateu, David and Jonathan, 1642. Oil on panel. 73 x 61,5 cm. The State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg. 713.

Jonathan’s Love and David’s Lament: Text, Method, and the Use/s of Ancient Traditions in Contemporary Debates about Modern Concepts. Part Two: Literary-Critical Analysis.

1 Samuel 18:1-4: Jonathan’s Love

The first task for the literary critic is to delineate the boundaries of the narrative. The “David-Jonathan Narrative” is of course not an independent source but rather part of the larger Samuel tradition, which offers a narrative account of Israel’s political transition from a confederation of tribes to a monarchy. Within this larger framework, the David-Jonathan material is part of the story of the downfall of Saul and the ascension of David.

David is introduced in 1 Sam. 16 where, though he is the youngest son of Jesse of Bethlehem, he is anointed by Samuel at the direction of Yhwh.[1] We are then presented with apparently alternative versions of his entrance into Saul’s service. One tradition portrays David becoming Saul’s weapons-bearer after being brought to court as a musician;[2] another seems to have David first enter Saul’s service after his defeat of the Philistine warrior, Goliath.[3] 1 Sam. 18:1-4 is part of this latter tradition. David is brought before Saul, still holding the decapitated head of Goliath in his hand. Saul asks him whose son he is, and he responds: “I am the son of your servant Jesse the Bethlehemite.”[4] Late-medieval chapter divisions aside, 1 Sam. 18:1 follows immediately on:

“When David had finished speaking to Saul, the soul o​f Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul. And Saul took him that day and would not let him return to his father’s house. Then Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul​. Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that he was wearing, and gave it to David, and his armor, and even his sword and his bow and his belt.”[5]

In this text, as in many others, the Hebrew word ​nefeš i​s often translated “soul” or “spirit,” but this translation gives a more ethereal impression than is appropriate. The word ​nefeš i​s used throughout the Hebrew Bible to refer to persons, life in an abstract sense, or to one’s livelihood.[6] It is used of both literal and metaphorical appetites,[7] to convey emotions,[8] and variously linked or used in association with the heart, the throat, physical breath, and the human corpse.[9] In its most basic sense, ​nefeš s​eems to denote “a creature that breathes.” The ​nefeš, then, ​is that in us which observably ceases with the cessation of breath. Thus, ​nefeš is generally understood to refer to the innermost being, the life-force or -essence, the self, which is clearly conceived of as bound to the physical life of the person and so not to be confused with Greek/modern notions of an immaterial “soul.”

The Hebrew word for “to love” ( ̔āhēb), like its modern English equivalent, has a range of meanings and is largely context-dependent. In his influential 1963 essay, Moran argued that the “love” terminology used in reference to the covenant relationship between Yhwh and Israel in the book of Deuteronomy is distinct from modern understandings of love as deep psychological and emotional attachment. Moran demonstrated that in extra-biblical sources ranging from the early second millennium down to seventh century B.C.E., the translational equivalent of ̔āhēb (and especially the idiom “to love someone else as oneself”), appears in political and treaty contexts with the meaning “to recognize, to show loyalty to.”[10] The majority of scholars have found Moran’s arguments about covenantal “love” in the ANE convincing, and many have thus argued that Jonathan’s “love” for David, paired as it is with the cutting of a covenant of some kind, ought to be understood primarily as a manifestation of political loyalty.

However, Saul Olyan points out that while “love” rhetoric is used in treaty settings, the “binding of selves/lives” is not; there is no reason to read in this any political nuance.[11] This idiom occurs only one other time in the Hebrew Bible, when the ​nefeš of Jacob is said to be “bound” to that of his youngest son Benjamin, so that if Benjamin were to die, Jacob would die of grief.[12] Olyan writes:

“[In Genesis] the binding of selves/lives conveys the love of a father for a favourite son, a love so intense that the death of the son would put the father in his grave. A comparably intense emotional resonance is therefore possible for the idiom when it occurs in 1 Sam 18:1; at minimum, the idiom suggests that an emotional bond has been established between Jonathan and David.”[13]

Erin Fleming further notes that the extra-biblical examples of the political nuances of love come from diplomatic correspondence and treaties, not narratives, and “these categories had different functions and purposes as well as a different process of composition.”[14] Thus, there does not seem to be any textual reason to stress the possible political dimension of Jonathan’s love over – and certainly not to the exclusion of – the personal. We might consider the possibility that the text presents the personal dimension as primary in that it has Jonathan’s love and subsequent action flow from the initial emotional bond (i.e., the binding of selves/lives); if Jonathan’s love is to be read as a manifestation of political loyalty, this political loyalty is born out of, and cannot be separated from, an intense emotional attachment. I suggest that, through its repetition of ​nefeš (four times in four short verses), the text marries an idiom suggestive of intense emotional attachment with an idiom suggestive of political loyalty. These two idioms and the relational dimensions they represent are themselves essentially “bound” one to the other by the text’s repetition of ​nefeš​. Thus, we find the overlaying of personal attachment with political nuance. Put a pin in that.

No reason is given for this love. Commentators have speculated that the two seem to have shared certain qualities that may have drawn one to the other.[15] Others have suggested that Jonathan was likely “smitten by David’s personal charm.”[16] It is noted that David is first introduced to the narrative as “ruddy, with fine eyes and goodly to look on,”[17] Saul’s servants describe him as “skilled in playing, a valiant fellow, a warrior, prudent in speech, a good-looking man,”[18] and Goliath sees that David is “a youth, ruddy and beautiful.”[19]  It is also noted that David is repeatedly the object of the verb ̔āhēb throughout 1 Samuel: Saul, all Israel and Judah, Michal, Saul’s servants, and, of course, Jonathan, are all said to love David. Indeed, the name David means “beloved.”

S​ome add to the political construal of Jonathan’s love for David a theological dimension, suggesting that: “It was as if Jonathan from the beginning recognized that the Spirit of the Lord was with David and responded to this.”[20] Such readings appeal to proponents of theological-political interpretations for whom the relationship serves primarily as a vehicle of dynastic replacement inspired by the divine will. By reading Jonathan’s “love” as a cipher for “political loyalty,” and this political loyalty as inspired by the divine will, commentators dismiss any hint of sexual entanglement. However, there does not seem to be any suggestion in this text that Jonathan’s attachment to, love for, or behaviour towards David is inspired by the divine will or by his recognition thereof. Such a reading does not inhere within the text and is no more valid than other possibilities to which the text remains open. The privileging of a political or theological-political reading of Jonathan’s love over and against a personal and potentially erotic and/or sexual reading arguably has less to do with the text itself and more to do with the imposition of heteronormative values upon the text.

Fewell and Gunn draw attention to a clear example of the imposition of heteronormative values upon the text in 1 Sam. 18:20, where a number of standard commentaries recount that Saul’s daughter Michal was “in love with” David, while Jonathan simply “loved” David.[21] They write:

“This is the Jonathan whose “life” (or “soul” or “being”…), we are told, “was bound to the life of David” (18:1). This is the Jonathan who “took great delight in David” (19:1), the Jonathan whose love for David, reiterated several times, was like “loving his own life” (18:1, 3; 20:17), the Jonathan whose love towards him, says David, was “more than the love of women” (2 Sam. 1:26). Michal “fell in love with” David. Jonathan “loved” him. The difference in translation of the same verb is transparently a transcription of conventional heterosexual interpretation.”[22]

Such translations are clearly ideological in that a compulsory heterosexuality takes precedence over an accurate rendering of the Hebrew. Fewell and Gunn continue:

“[Commentators] usually (and quickly) conclude that reading a homosexual relationship is “reading in” what is not there… Yet no few modern interpreters are willing to devote discussion and extend credibility to reading “love” here as a cipher for political commitment – borrowing from ancient treaty language. What counts as stretching the bounds turn out to be a highly prejudicial decision.”[23]

The distinction between Jonathan “loving” and Michal “falling in love with” David reflects a modern understanding of a homo/hetero-sexual binary distinction, which is then treated as a constant across millennia and imposed upon the ancient text. (The same must be said of the suggestion that David and Jonathan could not have had an erotic and/or sexual relationship because the text recounts that both had sexual relations with women.)


Jonathan takes a series of actions. The Hebrew ​b​e​rît ​covers the ground of pledge, covenant, agreement, alliance, contract, and treaty. The nature and terms of their covenant are not made clear, nor is the agency by which the covenant is made. The text indicates that they enter into some kind of binding agreement with each other, the initiative for which seems to be Jonathan’s, and the inspiration for which is Jonathan’s love for David. Jonathan strips himself of his clothes and weapons and gives these to David. Commentators regularly note that Jonathan’s gesture invites comparison with the earlier episode of Saul’s torn robe and Samuel’s declaration that the kingdom would be torn from him and given to another,[24] and some interpret this action as a recognition of David’s eventual kingship and a willing abdication on the part of Jonathan. The emphasis in the description: “and his armour,even to his sword andeven to his bow andeven to his belt” is thought to express the radical nature of the gesture.

The reading of Jonathan’s love as political loyalty and of his gesture as a willing abdication stands in some tension with the subsequent narrative progression, given that he remains Saul’s heir apparent throughout the narrative, and his recognition of David’s eventual kingship is not explicitly stated until much later.[25] Are we to understand Jonathan’s actions at a purely symbolic level? Are David and Jonathan henceforth friends, or political allies, or lovers, or some combination of these? And can any of these relational categories explain or account for a willing abdication on the part of Jonathan? Indeed, the interpretation makes little historical sense: second only to Saul, Jonathan (as Saul’s son and likely successor) is the character who stands to lose the most from David, and yet he immediately “loves” him as himself and apparently abdicates in favour of him entirely unprompted and upon their first meeting? Where the historical critic steps forward and finds a mess to be untangled, the literary critic steps back and beholds a mosaic to be understood. Instead of asking, “What is Jonathan doing?” we might ask, “What is the text doing?”


It is often suggested that the David-Jonathan material is part of a larger group of narratives that seek to demonstrate the legitimacy of David’s claim to the throne. The portrayal of a wilful alliance between Jonathan and David – whereby Jonathan symbolically and rhetorically abdicates in favour of David – may constitute an innovative argument for the legitimacy of davidic kingship. David Jobling suggests that this first Jonathan passage concisely says everything that needs to be said to identify and replace Jonathan with David. Jonathan establishes ​identification ​with David (he loved him as his own self), Saul confirms the identification of Jonathan with David by rhetorically ​adopting ​David (he would not let him return to his father’s house), Jonathan makes David his ​replacement ​by handing over to him his own princely clothes and weapons, and Saul confirms the replacement of Jonathan by David, making David his general as Jonathan previously was.[26]

Jonathan was previously a heroic figure in Israel, but after this first encounter with David we never hear of Jonathan involved in any battle again (until his death). It is David who is now set over the men of war, and whose military exploits take centre stage. The text replaces Jonathan with David, and makes Jonathan complicit in – indeed, the willing agent of – his replacement. Orly Keren suggests that ​nefeš functions as a​ Leitwort i​n 1Sam.18:1-4, pointing to the central theme of the passage: “the intensity of Jonathan’s love for David.”[27] I suggest that the central theme emphasised by the narrator’s repetition of ​nefeš is perhaps better identified as: Jonathan’s whole self​. Notice the striking language of Matthew Henry’s early commentary:

“[Jonathan] takes care to put him [David] speedily into the habit of a courtier (for he gave him a robe) and of a soldier, for he gave him, instead of his staff and sling, a sword and bow, and, instead of his shepherd’s scrip, a girdle… he stripped himself of them to dress David in them… David is seen in Jonathan’s clothes, that all may take notice ​he is a Jonathan’s second self.”[28]

Commentators regularly observe that Jonathan remains unique in the Samuel tradition in that he shows no trace of a dark side; readers are offered no specific pointers to a suspicious reading of his character. Indeed, the Samuel tradition portrays Jonathan as entirely fit to lead. The introduction of Jonathan in chapter 14 proceeds immediately from Samuel’s rejection of Saul, thus the reader seems invited to see in Jonathan the “man after Yhwh’s own heart” who would replace Saul.[29] Jobling writes:

“It is hopeless to try to explain Jonathan through standard categories of narrative character. He represents the extreme case of character being emptied into plot… It is not a matter of someone demonstrating a human virtue to an extreme degree but of someone acting without reason against his own interests. Nor can it simply be that Jonathan “saw which way the wind was blowing” and acted in his own long-term interests, for on more than one occasion he could have allowed David to be killed simply by doing nothing.”[30]

Jobling suggests that, throughout the narrative, Jonathan comes increasingly to embody and articulate the position of orthodox deuteronomism, thus he serves as a cipher for the reader: his attitude towards David models and mirrors the attitude readers are intended to adopt. The rhetorical power of having Saul’s own son and heir – himself, entirely fit to rule – abdicate in favour of David, can hardly be overstated. In all his appearances, Jonathan moves the story towards its goal of transferring power to David, and when his job is done, he abruptly disappears.

Such considerations are compelling, but are they comprehensive? Can the David-Jonathan material be reduced to pro-davidic propaganda, are its interests primarily political? I suggest that, just as Jonathan’s love cannot be reduced to the political nuance it may carry, so the David-Jonathan material cannot be reduced to the political agenda it may serve. Put a pin in that.


2 Samuel 1:26: David’s Lament

David mourns the deaths of Saul and Jonathan in a song of lamentation.[31] The word “Bow” is likely the title of the elegy, referring either to Jonathan’s preferred weapon or to Jonathan himself,[32] for whom personal grief is reserved in the lament’s climax:

“I grieve for you, Jonathan my brother;
you were very dear to me.
Your love for me was wonderful,
more wonderful than that of women.”[33]

The comparison of Jonathan’s love with the love of women has stimulated much discussion about the possible homoerotic and/or homosexual dimension of the relationship.[34] Which women is David referring to, and what kind of love? Can a primarily political reading of Jonathan’s love for David be maintained in light of this love comparison (“Your ​political loyalty to me was wonderful, surpassing the ​political loyalty of women”)? Olyan notes that the comparison to the love of women can hardly have a political valence, given that women are not evidenced as partners in treaties.[35]

Others have suggested that David compares the political loyalty of Jonathan towards him with some other kind of loyalty associated with women, such as that of wives towards their husbands and children (e.g., “You were truly loyal to me, more faithful than a wife to her husband” [CEV]).[36] This interpretation is fairly standard in early commentaries where it is sometimes explained on the basis of the dubious claim that women’s affections towards their families are “usually more ardent than mens.”[37] It should be noted that such a translation has departed quite significantly from the Hebrew text, and one wonders whether such a significant departure in favour of a homoerotic and/or homosexual reading would be taken as seriously.   

While the phrase “love of women” does not occur elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, the verb “love” generally includes a sexual component when describing relations between men and women. Olyan suggests that the “love of women” is best understood as “a type of sexual-emotional love” and concludes that this text “might plausibly be construed to suggest a homoerotic relationship between the men.”[38] Others, agreeing that the “love of women” likely refers to sexual love but wanting to deny a sexual dimension to Jonathan’s love, have suggested that the ​nonsexual ​love of Jonathan is compared with the sexual love of women; essentially, David elevates platonic-love between men above sexual love between men and women (“Your ​nonsexual l​ove for me was wonderful, surpassing the​ sexual l​ove of women,” or, “Your love for me was wonderful, better than sex”). Proponents of such readings often note that marriage and sexual activity in ancient Israel (and particularly in the Samuel tradition) frequently have less to do with emotional intimacy and affection, than with “power, property, and procreation.”[39] Alter writes that the bond between men in this warrior culture “could easily be stronger than the bond between men and women.”[40] I simply wonder whether diminishing the “love of women” in order to lessen the homoerotic potential of David’s love comparison effectively renders his praise redundant; in comparing Jonathan’s love to the love of women, David clearly wants to emphasise the “extraordinary” quality of Jonathan’s love for him.

Attempts to distance and distinguish the love of Jonathan from the love of women seem to be another example of the imposition of heteronormative values upon the text, for the text offers no qualifiers, the text does not differentiate; the text places the love of Jonathan and the love of women in the same register, suggesting comparability. As Theodore W. Jennings writes: “The love of women is the sphere of the erotic, and the love of Jonathan is placed here in this sphere in order to be compared not as apples to oranges but as apples to apples.”[41] Thus I tend to agree with Jonathan Kirsch in his assessment that “much effort has been expended in explaining away David’s declaration… [which] suggests an undeniable homoerotic subtext.”[42]

Further, while the suggestion that David may simply value male friendship more than sexual relations with women might appeal to readers wanting to deny any erotic or sexual dimension to the relationship between David and Jonathan, it may, as James E. Harding points out, simultaneously challenge the idea of opposite-sex monogamous marriage as a biblical ideal, in that it “elevates the love – of some sort – between two men over the ‘marriages’ David had with several women.”[43] Thus, regardless of how one understands David’s love comparison, it persists in unsettling heteronormative assumptions about the biblical text.


Commentators have long noted the profound ambivalence the Samuel tradition evinces towards David. On the one hand, it wants to present him as an ideal king, but on the other, it does not shy away from presenting his ruthless ambition and self-regard. The denial of direct insight into the inner lives of characters is a hallmark of biblical narratives, which tend to show rather than tell. Readers are made to negotiate and renegotiate the thoughts, feelings, and possible motivations of characters based on their actions. Alter writes that “nowhere is the Bible’s astringent narrative economy, its ability to define characters and etch revelatory dialogue in a few telling strokes, more brilliantly deployed [than in the David story].”[44]

While it is possible to read David as sincere though flawed, it is equally possible to read him as far more politically motivated than honest. For example, Alter invites us to recall David’s debut in 1 Sam. 17, and to notice that David’s first recorded words in the narrative are: “What will be done for the man…[45] David’s first words express his wanting to know what will be gained by the man who defeats Goliath. The inquiry about personal profit is then balanced (or covered up) by the patriotic pronouncement: “Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living god?”[46] Alter further notes that David speaks as though he expects to prevail through a miracle of divine intervention, when in fact his victory depends upon his resourcefulness in exploiting an unconventional weapon, cleverly concealed until the crucial moment.[47] By the time David composes his lament over Saul and Jonathan, he has in fact joined the Philistine army.[48] We might wonder at his earlier public performance of pious bravado in light of his later willingness to himself “defy the armies of the living god,” and of his apparent disappointment at (or, at least, objection to) being barred from the battle that claims the lives of Saul and Jonathan.[49]

It is often observed that the story of David is told in such a way as to underscore the fact that many of his Israelite enemies are killed without David having to become directly involved in their deaths. Indeed, the narrator goes to considerable lengths to insist that David is far away pursuing the Amalekites at the time of the deaths of Saul and Jonathan. The recurrence of such deaths throughout 2 Samuel has contributed to the idea that the entire Samuel tradition is largely apologetic, attempting to counter the perception of David as a ruthless king who gained and maintained the throne by murdering his rivals.[50]

It is perhaps noteworthy that, while David is frequently the object of love (particularly in 1 Samuel), not everyone in Israel loves David. The narrator includes several moments that serve to subvert the image of David as the beloved champion of all Israel and Judah. In 1 Sam. 17, David’s oldest brother Eliab overhears his bravado and remarks: “I know how conceited you are and how wicked your heart is.”[51] The possibility stands that the personal content of his accusation may speak to his intimate knowledge of his younger brother’s true nature, and this may serve as an early warning to the reader. We encounter the possibility that one’s love for David deteriorates in proportion to their proximity to him again in 2 Sam. 6, when his wife Michal comes to “despise him in her heart.”[52]  Saul is another obvious example. He rightly senses that David is a threat to the throne, and is basically gaslighted from multiple directions (not least by Jonathan) until he ends up starved and sobbing at the feet of Samuel’s ghost.[53] We might also consider David’s son, Absalom, whose rebellion against his father seems to stem – so far as the narrative is concerned – from David’s failure to prevent or punish Amnon’s rape of Tamar.[54] Finally, in 2 Sam. 16, David approaches Bahurim in his flight from Absalom, and a Benjamite man named Shimei comes out, cursing, pelting stones and throwing dirt at David and his armed entourage, crying:

“Get out! Get out! You criminal, you villain! Yhwh is paying you back for all your crimes against the family of Saul, whose throne you seized… you are in trouble because you are a criminal!”[55]

Notice that this constitutes an ​alternative theological interpretation of events included in the text. The entire Samuel tradition can hardly be reduced to an apology for davidic kingship; rather, it evinces a profound ambivalence towards David. Whether one attributes this ambivalence to a late combination of once-independent pro-Davidic and anti-Davidic sources or considers it intrinsic to the earliest portraits of David, it is part of the narrative as we now have it.


When it comes to David’s lament, William Holladay writes that critics have affirmed “with one voice” both its literary quality and its “direct and seemingly spontaneous” emotion.[56] James Kugel insists that David’s feelings of grief are “altogether unambiguous,” his words “direct and guileless,” and concludes that “it is doubtless to show David’s nobility of spirit on this occasion that the biblical narrative has preserved this moving elegy.”[57]

Others have questioned this wholesale acceptance of David’s sincerity, and the notion that the elegy ought to reflect wholly positively upon his character. While Walter Brueggemann describes the poem as a “deeply moving, pathos-filled personal statement” and lauds its “directness, passion, and innocence,” he also notes that it exists and functions as a “public reality.”[58] Similarly, Alter calls it “a grandly resonant lament,” but acknowledges that it is “another public utterance of David’s that beautifully serves his political purposes.”[59] Todd Linafelt writes:

“As David’s “private words” to Jonathan, as poetry that is “utterly unconscious of a listener,” …[it] may be taken as a genuine expression of loss and grief and an acknowledgment of their particularly intimate relationship. But as rhetoric, as words “supposing an audience,” David is careful to cast his relationship with Jonathan in such a way as to preserve his own dominance.”[60]

Taking seriously the relationship of the poem to its surrounding narrative context, Linafelt suggests that David’s lament over Saul and Jonathan evinces a “consistent double edge,” celebrating their former military prowess and unity of purpose while denigrating Saul’s kingship and disqualifying Jonathan as a potential successor to his father’s throne. A second, ironic level of meaning emerges particularly around the “bow of Jonathan” and the “sword of Saul.” The reference to Jonathan’s bow puts lie to the claim of their unity of purpose (for the reader last encountered Jonathan’s bow as a tool of coded communication between David and Jonathan),[61] and Saul’s sword serves as an emblem not of his success but of his ultimate failure. Finally, in its climax, the lament calls attention to Jonathan’s loyalty to David over and against Saul.[62] Fewell and Gunn call David’s move here “characteristically astute”:

“Having enjoyed every advantage of Jonathan’s attachment, he now… capitalizes on it. He publicly acknowledges what was no doubt rumored, if not commonly known, but he seizes the opportunity to define the relationship in a way that is highly favorable to himself. He proclaims himself an object of affection. Moreover, Jonathan’s loveliness and love do indeed become political endorsements.”[63]

Fewell and Gunn note that, in the verse immediately following his lament, David prepares to go to Judah for his anointing as king.[64]


It is often observed that while several characters in the story are said to love David, David is never said to love anyone. Particularly in the relationship between David and Jonathan, there is a remarkable asymmetry in the use of affective terms generally. David makes reference to Jonathan’s feelings for him: “Your father knows well that I have found favour with you,”[65] but nowhere unambiguously confirms mutuality. Fewell and Gunn suggest that what emerges from this imbalance is a reading that has David “playing out a lover’s role only so far as it suits him to keep Jonathan’s affections strongly alive.”[66] Keren similarly writes that Jonathan’s actions emphasize David’s passivity, and that this is suggestive of the extent to which we are dealing with a one-sided love.[67] Linafelt suggests that we are indeed to see a second level of erotic allusion in David’s love comparison, and that this homoerotic dimension functions to feminize Jonathan in relation to David: “Jonathan is presented as unfit for the throne not because he failed or was rejected, as Saul did and was, but because he steps aside in favor of David, becoming the woman to David’s man.”[68] He concludes:

“As much as we might like to, I do not think we can claim this as a coded celebration of homosexual love but must instead read it as one more way in which the poem denigrates the house of Saul in favor of David.”[69]

Ackerman has similarly argued that eroticized language and images were strategically included by the redactors of the Samuel tradition in order to feminise Jonathan, disqualifying him from kingship and thus justifying David’s ascension to the throne.[70] This association between sexual passivity and feminization derives from the specific socio-sexual mores of the ancient Mediterranean world whereby sexual penetration was thought to subordinate and thus feminize the man.[71] The consistent double entendre of the text may be read to craft a remarkable apology for davidic kingship, whereby the text capitalises on the socio-sexual mores of the ancient Mediterranean world to communicate a political message: Jonathan’s willing abdication in favour of David is compared to (or even presented as) a willingness for sexual passivity that disqualifies him from kingly succession. Ironically, Jonathan’s willingness for sexual passivity is not criticised because it functions to affirm David’s right to the throne. As noted, the text seems to go to some lengths to ennoble Jonathan in order to maximise his endorsement of David. By this logic we might conclude that ​whatever the text portrays about Jonathan ought to be understood positively. ​For this reason, I tend to think we ought to read this not as a deliberate denigration on the part of David, but rather, as Ackerman suggests, as a secondary ironic allusion on part of the narrator. Once again, I suggest that the question is not “What is David doing?” but rather, “What is the text doing?”


It is possible to read David as self-interested and politically motivated, but it is also possible to read his grief as sincere. It is possible that the transformation of Jonathan’s love into a political endorsement is the work of the narrator, while David, for his part, grieves the loss of Jonathan. The narrator has not only emphasised Jonathan’s love for David over any potential love David may have for Jonathan, but has in fact completely silenced David in this regard. Indeed, David’s silence resounds to the extent that Jobling writes: “There seems to be an embargo in the narrative on suggesting that David cares for Jonathan.”[72]

This silence, especially when contrasted with the text’s emphasis on Jonathan’s love, has often been taken to indicate that David did not reciprocate. Maybe so, but not necessarily. The silence may prompt the reader to wonder, to ask the question. Interestingly, the same may be said of David’s political ambitions: David never articulates any aspiration to the kingship, yet in his actions we see movement towards the throne. Baden writes that David becomes king because of the help and actions of others; he is presented as “utterly innocent of his own success.” Baden calls this “both manifestly apologetic and entirely unlikely,” since, “one does not become king against one’s will.” Baden writes that the authors’ repeated and emphatic insistence that (a) David never actively sought the throne, and (b) David was a semi-legitimate king, strongly suggests that (a) David actively sought the throne, and (b) David was in no way an even remotely legitimate king.[73] Thus the absence of any indication whatsoever that David sought the kingship is taken to suggest that David in fact actively sought the kingship. By the same logic, we might conclude that the absence of any indication whatsoever that David reciprocated Jonathan’s love for him suggests that David did, indeed, love Jonathan. The text never ​tells us that David loves Jonathan, but perhaps we might consider what it ​shows​ us.

In 1 Sam. 20, David and Jonathan plan to ascertain Saul’s intentions with regard to David. Commentators puzzle over this episode, noting that the plan seems both unnecessary (since David is already convinced of Saul’s intentions toward him), and to involve an unduly complicated system of signals (especially given that David does not flee immediately when he gets the prearranged “flee” signal).[74] Polzin has suggested that David’s intention is “to provoke Saul to an angry outburst that would remove Jonathan’s misconceptions.”[75] I​t seems David is not interested in ascertaining Saul’s intentions, but rather in testing Jonathan’s loyalty. He knows that Saul wants to kill him, what he wants to know is whether Jonathan will tell him the truth about this. Saul does indeed fly into a rage at Jonathan:

“You son of a perverse, rebellious woman! Do I not know that you have chosen the son of Jesse to your own shame, and to the shame of your mother’s nakedness? For as long as the son of Jesse lives upon the earth, neither you nor your kingdom shall be established. Now send and bring him to me, for he shall surely die.” Then Jonathan answered his father Saul, “Why should he be put to death? What has he done?” But Saul threw his spear at him to strike him; so Jonathan knew that it was the decision of his father to put David to death.”[76]

Throughout the Hebrew Bible, the expression “uncovering the nakedness of” is an idiom for various forms of taboo sexual intercourse.[77] Alter writes that “the shame of your mother’s nakedness​”​is “quite violent,” having virtually the force of “‘your mother’s cunt.’”[78] The expression carries an undeniable sexual connotation, the possible implication being that Jonathan is bringing sexual shame upon his family. Linafelt writes that while the typically reticent narrator neither confirms nor denies the suspicions of Saul that the relationship between David and Jonathan included a sexual dimension, he does load the preceding story “with enough sexual language to raise these suspicions in the first place.”[79]

If we understand this episode to be a test of Jonathan’s loyalty, we might wonder why David seeks this assurance. It should be noted that, from here on out, David makes his way to the throne without any political assistance from Jonathan. David flees, and Jonathan remains until he dies fighting alongside his father on Mount Gilboa. According to the narrative, David does not go on to make political use of Jonathan’s loyalty, so why is it important for him to be assured of it? The text continues: “They kissed each other and wept together – but David wept the most” (NIV) (or, “especially David” [NLT]; or, “David weeping the most” [ESV]; or, “until David exceeded” [KJV, JPS]). This is immediately followed by the incident of David and the holy bread,[80] which will later be cited by Jesus in relation to religious taboos.[81]

In 2 Samuel 9, having secured the throne, David inquires as to whether there is “anyone who is still left from the house of Saul” to whom he might “show kindness” (or with whom he might “keep faith”) “for the sake of Jonathan.”[82] David learns of Jonathan’s crippled son Mephibosheth and brings him, together with his household, to Jerusalem, where he is to “eat at the king’s table, like one of the king’s sons.”[83] Like many of David’s actions, this is open to multiple construals. While it may be in David’s interests to keep potential pretenders to the throne close at hand, ​Goldingay writes: “we can believe that there is a response here to the way that Jonathan reached inside David and a yearning for something and a longing to keep a memory alive.”[84]

Jennings suggests that “at this point, it must be clear that the love and loyalty that bind David and Jonathan are by no means a mere ‘alliance’ to gain political advantage,” rather, “the love and loyalty that bind David and Jonathan appear to be entirely personal in nature.”[85] Later, in 2 Sam. 16, David asks Jonathan’s former servant, Ziba: “​Where is your master’s son?”[86]Alter notes that, even at this late date, “David still thinks of the long-dead Jonathan as Ziba’s real master.”[87] Indeed, he speaks as though Jonathan is not gone. Does David always refer to Mephibosheth thus, resisting to acknowledge the death of the beloved; or is this a momentary lapse, betraying an old heartache unhealed by the passage of time.

Returning to David’s lament, one final observation: David’s description of himself as “bound” or “oppressed” (sārar) in grief or distress at Jonathan’s death[88] recalls the binding (qāshar) of the ​nefeš ​of Jonathan to David. The text has the relationship bookended by the binding of one to the other, in love upon their first meeting, and in grief at their final parting. Perhaps this potential verbal link may provide a clue as to the reciprocal nature of the love between the two.


Our literary-critical analysis serves our queer hermeneutic primarily in demonstrating the ultimate undecidability of the text. It is possible to read Jonathan’s love as one-sided and David’s lament as politically motivated, but it equally possible to read this love as mutual and David’s lament as sincere. We can neither confirm nor deny the possibility of an erotic and/or sexual dimension to the relationship on the basis of historical- or literary-critical analysis, thus the insights of these analyses offer themselves to the reading community whose interests become determinative of interpretation. This will be explored in Part Three.

Nika Hiraeth
cooperative fellow and PhD student at the Australian College of Theology

[1] 2 Sam. 16:1-13.

[2] 1 Sam. 16:14-23.

[3] 1 Sam. 17.

[4] ​1 Sam. 17:58.

[5] 1 Sam. 18:1-4, NRSV.

[6] Individual persons (Lev. 1:2; 2:1; Gen. 17:14), groups (Gen. 12:5), other-than-human animals (Gen. 1:20); life in an abstract sense (Exod. 4:19; 21:23; 30:12; Gen. 19:17; 1 Kgs. 19:3; Judg. 5:18; 12:3); livelihood (Deut. 24:6).

[7] Hunger and thirst (Deut. 12:15; 23:24; Isa. 29:8; Prov. 12:10; Ps. 42:2), general desire (Deut. 21:14), sexual desire (Jer. 2:24). One can ‘lift up’ their ​nefeš ‘​ to go somewhere’ (Jer. 44:14), ‘to God’ (Ps. 25:1), or ‘to vanity’ (Ps. 24:4). Fasting is described as ‘afflicting the ​nefeš’​ (Ps. 35:13).

[8] Impatience or discouragement (Num. 21:4; Judg. 16:16; Job 21:4), bitterness (2 Kgs. 4:27; Gen. 26:35), sadness or depression (Jonah 2:7; Ps. 142:3), pride (Prov. 16:18), humility (Isa. 57:15), anger (Eccl. 7:9), self-control in anger (Prov. 16:32).

[9] Heart (Deut. 6:4-5), throat (Ps. 69:1), physical breath (Gen. 35:18), corpse (Lev. 19:28).

[10] Moran, ​The Ancient Near Eastern Background​, 81-82.

[11] Olyan, ​Friendship in the Hebrew Bible, ​69.

[12] Cf. Gen. 44:30-31.

[13] Olyan, ​Friendship in the Hebrew Bible​, 71.

[14] Erin E. Fleming, “The Politics of Sexuality in the Story of King David” (Unpublished Ph.D. diss., Johns Hopkins University, 2013), 142.

[15] Such speculations are usually based upon their initial battle stories, wherein each, “armed with little more than valiance and faith, trounces a stronger enemy.” Shimon Bakon, “Jonathan,” ​JBQ​ 23 (1995), 146. Cf. 1 Sam. 14 and 17.See, e.g., Ellicott, ​Ellicott’s Commentary​: “[Jonathan] recognised in David a kindred spirit… [because the two shared] the same spirit of sublime faith in the Invisible King.’ p.370; Francesca Aran Murphy, ​1 Samuel (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible) ​(Grand Rapids, Michigan: Brazos Press, 2010): “David and Jonathan were both fighting Yahwists who shared a common love of biffing Philistines.” p.186; Bergen, ​1, 2 Samuel​: “David and Jonathan had much in common; they were both courageous and capable young warriors who possessed profound faith in the Lord.” p.200; Goldingay, ​Men Behaving Badly:​ “There is something of the same flamboyant adventurer about both these young men.” p.136; O’Connor and Freedman, ​Backgrounds for the Bible:​ “[Jonathan] was more than happy to welcome David as a kindred spirit, equally impulsive, equally brave, and equally confident that God was behind Israel.” p.224.

[16] Alter, ​The David Story, 1​ 12. Alternatively, Orly Keren, “David and Jonathan: A Case of Unconditional Love?” in JSOT ​37 (2012): 3-23, suggests that the roots of Jonathan’s acquaintance with David may lie in the earlier episode of 1 Samuel 16:15: “Even though Jonathan is not mentioned in this episode, we may assume that David’s service at court gave Jonathan an opportunity to get to know him, to observe his military prowess… and to fall in love with him. It is plausible that this was not a spontaneous emotional reaction but a long and protracted process, in which Jonathan’s devotion to David matured until Jonathan’s soul was linked to David’s.” p.5.

[17] 1 Sam. 16:12.

[18] 1 Sam. 16:18.

[19] 1 Sam. 17:42.

[20] O’Connor and Freedman, ​Background for the Bible, 2​ 23-24.

[21] See, e.g., NIV, MSG, NLT. See also McCarter, ​1 Samuel,​ 300-23.

[22] Fewell and Gunn, ​Gender, Power and Promise,​ 149.

[23] Fewell and Gunn, ​Gender, Power and Promise,​ 149.

[24] 1 Sam. 15:28.

[25] Cf. 1 Sam. 23:17. Some have raised the obvious question of whether the narrative assumes hereditary succession in Israel, since the monarchy was in its infancy. Gordon, ​1 & 2 Samuel​: “the hereditary principle was such a well-established feature of near eastern monarchies that Jonathan must originally have held some expectation of succeeding his father on the throne.” p.159; Fleming, ​Sexual Politics​: “It seems that kings’ sons were expected to succeed their fathers but still had to prove adequate leadership to remain in power… [the Samuel tradition seems to reflect this situation, since Saul seems to plan for Jonathan to succeed him but understands that this is not guaranteed.]” p.144.

[26] Jobling,​ 1 Samuel,​ 96.

[27] Orly Keren, “David and Jonathan: A Case of Unconditional Love?” in JSOT ​37 (2012): 6.

[28] Matthew Henry, ​Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Volume II-I – Joshua to Second Samuel

(Ontario, Canada: Devoted Publishing, 2017) (originally published 1706-1721), 353. Emphasis mine.

105 Goldingay, ​Men Behaving Badly, ​132.

[29] 1 Sam. 13:14.

[30] Jobling, ​1 Samuel,​ 98-99. Cf. Keren, ​David and Jonathan:​ “Jonathan’s conduct and emphatic pursuit of David’s friendship and wellbeing are indeed most astounding… Perhaps Jonathan is guided by the knowledge of which way the wind is blowing, and his own interests guide him.” p.13.

[31] The lament seems to have existed first outside the Samuel tradition in the Book of Jashar, a no longer extant work known and referred to by the authors of 2 Samuel (1:18) and Joshua (10:13), and thought to have catalogued the heroic exploits of the Israelites (Bergen,​ 2 Samuel,​ 291), or to have been an anthology of archaic Hebrew poems (Alter, David, 198).

[32] Cf. 1 Sam. 18:4; 20:20; 2 Sam. 1:22.

[33] 2 Samuel 1:26, NIV.

[34] It is not entirely clear whether “your love” is Jonathan’s love for David, David’s love for Jonathan, or both. Most commentators agree that it is the love ​of Jonathan for David​ that David praises. There are, however, some exceptions, e.g., in the Vulgate, the Clementine text translates: “I grieve over you, my brother Jonathan, exceedingly beautiful, and lovely above the love of women. As a mother loves her only son, so did I love you”, making “your love” the love of David for Jonathan.

[35] Saul M. Olyan, “Surpassing the Love of Women” in​ Authorizing Marriage? Canon, Tradition, and Critique in the Blessing of Same-Sex Unions, ​eds. Mark D. Jordan, Meghan T. Sweeney, and David M. Mellott (Princeton, NJ.: Princeton University Press, 2006), 7-10.

[36] See also the 1560 Geneva Bible: “passing ye loue of women” accompanied by a marginal note that reads “Ether towarde their housebandes, or their children.” It is also suggested that, since the Hebrew does not distinguish between ‘women’ and ‘wives’’, David may be comparing the love of Jonathan to the love of his own wives. Targum Pseudo-Jonathan has David praise Jonathan’s love as ‘more than the love of ​two ​women’ (cf. Josephus, ​Ant.​7.1.2; Eveline van Staalduine-Sulman, ​The Targum of Samuel, ​Studies in the Aramaic Interpretation of Scripture I [Leiden: Brill, 2002], 48-88), possibly a reference to Abigail and Ahinoam (cf. 1 Samuel 27:3; 30:5, 18; 2 Samuel 2:2).

[37] John Wesley, ​Wesley’s Notes on the Bible – The Old Testament: First Samuel – Psalms ​(Ontario, Canada: Devoted Publishing, 2017), 37. See also Ellicott, ​Ellicott’s Commentary​, 446.

[38] Olyan,​ Surpassing the Love of Women,​ 7-10. Cf. Exod. 19:14-15; 1 Sam. 18:20, 28; 21:4; Hos. 3:1; and Prov. 5:19.

[39] Stone, ​1 and 2 Samuel,​ 205-08.

[40] Alter, ​The David Story, 2​ 00-01. See also, Goldingay, ​Men Behaving Badly​: “[most of the sexual activity in the Hebrew Bible is] sex for the sake of power.” p.229; Heacock, ​Wrongly Framed:​ “A woman’s role had more to do with bearing sons than with sharing close, egalitarian friendship.” p.22.10.

[41] Theodore W. Jennings, ​ Jacob’s Wound: Homoerotic Narrative in the Literature of Ancient Israel ​(New York and London: T&T Clark, 2005), 30.

[42] Jonathan Kirsch, ​King David: The Real Life of the Man who Ruled Israel ​(New York: Ballantine Books, 2000), 129.

[43] James E. Harding, “Opposite Sex Marriage a Biblical Ideal?” in ​Pieces of Ease and Grace: Biblical Essays on Sexuality and Welcome, ​ed. Alan Cadwallader (Adelaide: ATF, 2013), 36.

[44] Alter, ​The David Story,​ ix.

[45] 1 Sam. 17:26.

[46] Alter, ​The David Story,​ 105.

[47] Alter, ​The David Story,​ 108.

[48] 1 Sam. 27.

[49] 1 Sam. 29:6-11.

[50] See, e.g., Saul (1 Sam. 29:11-30:1), Abner (2 Sam. 3:22-39), Ishbaal (2 Sam. 4), Absalom (2 Sam. 18), Amasa and Sheba (2 Sam. 20). Stone notes that while David’s motives for handing over the sons and grandsons of Saul to the Gibeonites (cf. 2 Sam. 21) seem acceptable within the framework of biblical views on bloodguilt, we might notice that once again David’s potential rivals to the throne are being eliminated. Stone, ​1 and 2 Samuel, 2​ 20. The obvious exception is the death of Uriah in 2 Sam. 12, for which David is clearly made responsible; yet, even here, David does not do the killing himself.

[51] 1 Sam. 17:28.

[52] 2 Sam. 6:16.

[53] 1 Sam. 28.

[54] Cf. 2 Sam. 13:20-22.

[55] 2 Sam. 16:5-8.

[56] William L. Holladay, “Form and Word-Play in David’s Lament over Saul and Jonathan,” in ​Vetus Testamentum 20 (1970): 154.

[57] James L. Kugel, ​The Great Poems of the Bible ​(New York: Free Press, 1999), 103.

[58] Walter Brueggemann, ​First and Second Samuel (Interpretation: A Bible COmmentary for Teaching and Preaching) ​(Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990),​ 2​ 13-17.

[59] Alter, ​The David Story,​ 198.

[60] Linafelt, ​Private Poetry,​ 505.

[61] 1 Sam. 20:18-23.

[62] Ibid., 517-18.

[63] Gunn and Fewell, ​Gender, Power and Promise, 1​ 51.

[64] Tull, ​Jonathan’s Gift,​ 139-40.

[65] 1 Sam. 20:3.

[66] Fewell and Gunn, ​Gender, Power and Promise,​ 150.

[67] Keren, ​David and Jonathan,​ 10-11.

[68] Linafelt, ​Private Poetry,​ 524.

[69] Ibid., 523.

[70] Ackerman, ​When Heroes Love, ​165-67. For a similar, queer reading wherein the text is thought to present Jonathan as David’s wife, see Yaron Peleg, “Love at First Sight? David, Jonathan, and the Biblical Politics of Gender,” ​JSOT 30 ​(2005): 171-89. For a critical response to Peleg, see Jonathan Rowe, “Is Jonathan Really David’s ‘Wife’? A Response to Yaron Peleg,” in ​JSOT ​34 (2009): 183-93.

[71] Cf. J. Cheryl Exum, ​Fragmented Women: Feminist (Sub)versions of Biblical Narratives ​(Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993)​,​ who argues that to ascribe feminine characteristics to Jonathan is to risk reinforcing gender stereotypes, p.52.

[72] Jobling, ​1 Samuel,​ 163.

[73] Baden, “Understanding David and Jonathan”, accessed 6 December 2018. See also Exum, ​Tragedy and Biblical Narrative,​ who notes the many people close to David who become his stepping-stones in the acquisition of power, p. 71.

[74] The text contains other ambiguities, e.g., Jonathan says, ‘you will go all the way down’, or, literally, ‘you will go down very much’, ‘and come to the place where you hid on the day of the deed’ (v.19). It is unclear to what Jonathan is referring.

[75] Alter,​ The David Story,​ 124.

[76] 1 Sam. 20:30-33, NRSV.

[77] See Schroer and Staubli, ​Saul, David and Jonathan​, 29-30.

[78] Alter,​ The David Story,​ 128.

[79] Linafelt, ​Private Poetry,​ 522.

[80] 1 Sam. 21:3-6.

[81] Mark 2:25-26.

[82] 2 Sam. 9:1.

[83] 2 Sam. 9:13.

[84] Goldingay, ​Men Behaving Badly,​ 148-49.

[85] Jennings, ​Jacob’s Wound,​ 29.

[86] 2 Sam. 16:3.

[87] Alter,​ The David Story,​ 291.

[88] 2 Sam. 1:26.

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