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Jonathan’s Love and David’s Lament: Part 3

The ultimate example for the prioritizing of the personal over the political in the David-Jonathan material is Jonathan, who chooses love over power. The text goes on to suggest that such an ordering of priorities can save lives, bestow dignity, shame kings into right action and move gods to mercy. Beauty for ashes; the government of heaven.


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 Three: A Possible Synthesis.

Our historical- and literary-critical analysis has attempted to defamiliarize the biblical text with regard to the culturally-determined socio-sexual mores it assumes, and to demonstrate the ultimate undecidability of the text with regard to the nature of the relationship between David and Jonathan. I want now to attempt a kind of synthesis, weaving together these historical- and literary-critical insights to propose a way in which this ancient tradition might speak helpfully to modern debates about sexual identity.

Alter suggests that what we have in the Samuel tradition is “an imagining of history,” whereby the writer “brings to bear the resources of his literary art in order to imagine deeply, and critically, the concrete moral and emotional predicaments of living in history.”[1] He writes that one of the hallmarks of this “writerly relation to the historical material” is the “freighted imagining” of detail not strictly necessary to the historical account. He offers the following example: When David flees Saul’s court, his first wife Michal is married off to Paltiel son of Laish. Later, after the deaths of Saul and Jonathan, and at the insistence of Abner, David has Michal retrieved. The narrator includes these words: “And her husband went with her, weeping as he went after her, as far as Bahurim. And Abner said to him, “Go back!” And he went back.”[2]

Such a moment might seem superfluous to the sober historian. Alter notes that, while Paltiel never speaks in the story, his weeping speaks volumes; and suggests that “the tearful Paltiel walking after the wife who is being taken from him” is “a poignant image of the human price of political power.”[3]

Recall that, several chapters later, Shimei the Benjamite will curse David as he approaches ​Bahurim. The thoughts and feelings of the people whose lives are lived on the periphery of the central seat of power may rarely be front and centre in the narrative, but easily-overlooked moments and details like these suggest that the people observe the movements of the powerful, and they feel the effects thereof to the extent that they will sometimes be moved to risk their lives in order to speak truth to that power. Indeed, the Samuel tradition includes many such moments that seem superfluous to an historical recounting of events, but which seem to speak to this interplay between the personal and the political. These are fleeting moments, presented without ceremony, highlighting human pain in the midst of the political intrigues of the powerful.

Combining historical and literary-critical insights, I suggest that the Samuel tradition has something to say about postexilic attitudes toward Israel’s transition to monarchy; specifically, a whispering undercurrent weighs the human cost of political pursuits and power-plays. Let us consider how the David-Jonathan material might speak to this interplay between the political and the personal in the Samuel tradition, and how these insights might serve a queer hermeneutic.

I suggest that we are indeed to read a political nuance in the “love” of Jonathan for David, but that this is not a conscious political alliance on the part of Jonathan. From the narrative point of view, the reader knows that Jonathan is Saul’s heir and David is Yhwh’s anointed. Thus, the use of language that is “double,” carrying both political and personal nuance, alerts the reader to the obvious fact that Jonathan’s love for David ​will necessarily involve a political dimension. This love is: an emotional attachment that will have political consequences. Neither the personal nor the political dimension can be denied; rather, the personal is ​overlaid ​with the political. The impossibility of the situation is immediately clear to the reader as the narrator proleptically foreshadows inevitable conflict between personal attachment and political ambition.

This conflict is resolved somewhat in the death of Jonathan on Mount Gilboa; but here, where the reader is acutely aware of David’s political gain, David responds with an expression of personal grief. Thus, we find political success overlaid with personal loss, and the reader is left wondering what might have happened had Jonathan lived. After their emotional farewell in 1 Sam. 20, the text records one further encounter between David and Jonathan. In 1 Sam. 23, we read:

“And Jonathan, Saul’s son, rose and went to David at Horesh, and strengthened his hand in God​. And he said to him, ​“Do not fear, for the hand of Saul my father shall not find you. You shall be king over Israel, and I shall be next to you. Saul my father also knows this.” And the two of them made a covenant before the LORD. David remained at Horesh, and Jonathan went home.”[4]

Jonathan’s assertion is sometimes translated “I will be second to you.”183 The noun ​mishneh means “a double,” “a copy,” or “a second.” It is not entirely clear what kind of arrangement is being proposed here, whether Jonathan will be “a second-in-command,” or a kind of co-ruler with David. Recall Orly’s suggestion that nefeš functions as a​ Leitwort i​n 1 Sam.18:1-4, and my identification of the central theme emphasised as: Jonathan’s whole self​.  Given the texts’ emphatic identification of the ​whole self o​f Jonathan with that ​of David, we may have good textual reason to prefer this latter possibility. Just as Jonathan declared David a ​second self in bestowing his princely garments and weapons upon him, so here Jonathan declares that he will be “a double,” “a copy,” a ​second self to David.

Jennings notes that in this possibility “we are offered a glimpse of the abolition of male rivalry on the basis of love,” thus “the homoerotic bond appears to subvert the whole hierarchical order in which such relationships are otherwise inscribed.”184 The two cut a covenant for a third and final time, and this is the only instance in which it is explicitly stated that the covenant is mutually made. The reader is left wondering about this possibility as the narrative progresses through the bloody and brutal process of gaining and maintaining political power throughout the rest of the Samuel tradition.

*****

Let us consider two moments in David’s life after Jonathan that further develop this interplay between political and personal interests. In 2 Sam. 18, David learns of the death of his son Absalom, and we read that “he wept,” crying, “My son, Absalom! My son, my son, Absalom! Would that I had died in your stead! Absalom, my son, my son!”[5] Alter notes that when Jonathan died, David “intoned an eloquent elegy,” and when his infant son by Bathsheba died, he spoke sombre words about his own immortality and the irreversibility of death: “I will go to him, but he will not return to me.”[6] Now, at the death of Absalom, the eloquent David is reduced to a sheer stammer of grief, repeating over and over: “​beni Avshalom” ​(“my son, Absalom”).[7] David’s identity as father here takes total precedence over his role as king, and Absalom’s identity as son overshadows entirely his role as enemy-usurper. Again we find political gain overlaid with personal grief. Joab in fact chastises David for prioritizing his love for Absalom over his duty to the people, accusing him of showing disregard for those who risked their lives in his service.[8]

In 2 Sam. 21, we read that David agrees to “hand over” seven of Saul’s sons to the Gibeonites that they may “impale them before Yhwh at Gibeon on the mountain of Yhwh.”[9] David spares Mephibosheth “because of his covenant with Jonathan,”[10] but takes the two sons of Saul’s former concubine Rizpah, and the five sons of Saul’s daughter Merab, and gives them to the Gibeonites, who “[impale] them on the mountain before Yhwh.”[11] The text continues:

“[Then Rizpah] took sackcloth and spread it on a rock for herself. From the beginning of harvest until rain fell on them from the heavens; she did not allow the birds of the air to come on the bodies by day, or the wild animals by night.”[12]

When David is told of what Rizpah has done, he has the bones of Saul and Jonathan exhumed and buried in the land of Benjamin along with the bones of the impaled Saulide descendants.[13] The actions of Rizpah capture the attention of David, confronting him with the human cost of his political manoeuvre, and reminding him of the pain of personal loss. David had spared Mephibosheth because of Jonathan’s love, and now the Saulide descendants receive proper burial because the love of a bereaved mother for her murdered sons moves the king and shames him into right action.[14] In this episode, love saves lives, love bestows dignity. Interestingly, David takes his initial course of action (handing the Saulide descendants over to their cruel deaths) in an attempt to appease Yhwh and so end a famine in the land,[15] but it is only after Rizpah’s actions and David’s response to them that the text reports that ​elohim ​“was moved by prayer for the land.”[16]

The ultimate example of this valuing of the personal over the political in the David-Jonathan material is, of course, Jonathan. Jonathan, who prioritized his love for David over and above any possible political aspirations he may have had. David praised this love as “wonderful,” but would not truly understand or emulate it during Jonathan’s lifetime.

Goldingay suggests that Jonathan “took David as close to loving someone as David would ever get,” and notes that “no one would ever replace Jonathan, and David’s personal story would be all downhill from then on.”[17] Perhaps it is not insignificant that Jonathan means “gift,” or “Yhwh has given;” and perhaps his loss may be read as a tragedy not only for David and Jonathan, but for Israel, and, we might add, for the biblical tradition that followed.

*****

The Samuel tradition cannot be reduced to an historical recounting of events or to political propaganda. Instead, we have a remarkable narrative account of Israel’s imagined past that includes an undercurrent of human pain in political upheaval; moments and details unnecessary for historical or apologetic agendas but powerful in their provocation of human experience.

In the David-Jonathan material we find the consistent overlaying of personal language with political nuance: in Jonathan’s love we find a personal bond overlaid with political consequence, and in David’s lament we find an instance of political gain overlaid with personal grief. I propose that it is in this implicit consideration of the uneasy relationship between love and power that the David-Jonathan material may speak most helpfully to contemporary debates about Christianity and sexual identity, where the saving of lives and the bestowing of dignity are central concerns, and where the prioritizing of power over love carries an enormous human cost.

The crucial consideration is not whether or not David and Jonathan had a sexual relationship, but ​if, why, and how readings of the relationship should be determinative for Christian communities with regard to debates about homosexuality. The conclusions we come to will necessarily have to do with our understanding of Scripture; namely, what Scripture ​is and is for.​ Tradition history has demonstrated that Hebrew traditions were reinterpreted by successive generations to respond to new situations. Mary C. Callaway writes: “The canon represented formalization of an ancient phenomenon: a core of traditions that was continually contemporized for the benefit of the community​.”[18]

The New Testament evinces a similar process of adaptation within the canon; we might consider, for example, Jesus on divorce. Loader writes that Jesus’ handling of divorce “puts the complexities of relationship issues in a new or wider perspective” where possibilities “outweigh absolute prohibitions.”[19] Jesus in fact reimagines one’s entire relationship to the law and to Divine. Consider his regular use of parables and of the provocative precursor: “You have heard it said, ​but I tell you​…” The significance to the first-century Jewish mind of Jesus’ flouting of the Sabbath and his statement: “Man was not made for the Sabbath, but the Sabbath for man” can hardly be overstated.[20] The modern equivalents for the Christian mind might be: “Man was not made for the Scriptures, but the Scriptures for man,” and, “You have read, ​but I tell you…​” The very fact that Jesus claims Torah for himself[21] whilst challenging the religious leaders’ understanding of it is suggestive of the possibility of alternative readings and of the potential for widespread misunderstanding amongst the religious elite of any time and place.

*****

The coming together of biblical and late modern worlds is a fraught process; to engage this material is to engage in a cross-cultural encounter across thousands of years. Loader writes that engagement with ancient texts, like engagement with other persons, entails both respecting distance and remaining open to proximity. Respecting the otherness of the text means trying to hear it on its terms, in its own context and language.[22]

The sexual ethics of the Bible (both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament) are alien to the contemporary western world; they are framed in terms of purity and property systems. L. William Countryman writes that the first-century Mediterranean world – its sexual ethics or any other single aspect of its culture – ​is not the substance of the gospel;​ rather, “the demands of the gospel of grace are being constantly renewed and fitted to new situations; there is no simple list that can be lifted out of Scripture, or the church’s past experience or reflection, and simply applied to the present.”[23]

Countryman comments that, when the New Testament rejected the imposition of the purity codes of the Torah on Gentile Christians, it was not in order that a new, distinctively Christian purity code might take their place. He reflects thus that the church finds itself placed under “essentially the same test” as that which confronted the pious among the Jewish people during Jesus’ own ministry, and the circumcision party within the earliest Christian church.[24] Tolbert points out that necessary tools of survival in a marginalized, colonized context (e.g. cultural exclusivity, fear of difference, insistence of unity, a rigidly ordained social order) could and would be “transformed into tools of oppression when Christians ceased being the colonized and became instead the colonizer.” Tolbert suggests that every thoughtful, serious Christian should have a “deep ambivalence” about the Bible; a precursory review of the history of Christianity’s use of the Bible – particularly the “seemingly easy complicity of the Bible with regimes of violence and death” – should make any morally conscious person very uncomfortable. Interpretations are always a combination of the stories themselves, and the interests, commitments, and beliefs of the people or groups reading the stories. Thus, Tolbert writes that readers, and the ways in which they decide to apply what is read, can make the difference in whether or not anyone gets killed:

Such killing has come in many forms, from the grosser forms of burning at the sake, stoning, torturing to death, gassing in ovens, slaughtering by the sword, gun, or bomb to the more subtle but still quite effective forms of ostracism, derision, defamation of character, cursing, casting out of the community, etc.[25]

*****

The uneasy relationship between power and love to which the Samuel tradition testifies in Israel’s transition to monarchy, is the same uneasy relationship to which the gospels testify in the Jewish religious leaders’ response to Christ, and it is this same uneasy relationship between power and love with which Christian tradition has struggled and continues to struggle. Over the last seventeen-hundred years of European and Euroamerican history, the Christian church has been the chief architect of an obsessive and proscriptive attitude towards sexuality.[26] The Christian tradition that views homosexuality as sinful rests on a view of sex as fundamentally sinful and legitimate only within monogamous marriage for the purpose of procreation.[27] An adequate Christian theology and ethics of sexuality cannot derive solely from ostensibly static biblical traditions rooted in the socio-sexual mores of the ancient Mediterranean world; but must, rather, consist in a dialectical relationship between not only Scripture and tradition, but also normative and descriptive accounts of human existence and experience. As Countryman writes:

“We live in our own moment, and we meet, in that moment, God’s grace… All theology must be true to the speaker’s living, not spun out as the logical consequence of an objectivized intellectual system, but cohering with an experience of grace in the world we actively share.”[28]

There has emerged among Catholic moral theologians in the last several decades a comprehensive effort to revise the traditional Catholic view of sexuality. The starting point of the moral system developed is that sexual morality or immorality is an expression of moral or immoral human relationality. Relationships are moral when they are mutual, supportive of the full personal growth of each person, committed, and faithful; relationships are immoral when they are abusive, violent, exploitative, keep people in truncated stages of development, and lead to lying, deceit, and betrayal.[29]

Loader concludes that, ultimately, our most important sexual organ is our brain, and the most important biblical text pertaining to sexuality is the commandment to love one’s neighbour as oneself.[30] Thus, while historical- and literary-critical analysis of the the David-Jonathan material serves to unsettle heteronormative assumptions about the Bible and to highlight homoerotic possibilities within the text, I propose that our analysis may serve a queer hermeneutic in its implicit consideration of the interplay between the political and the personal, and the uneasy relationship between power and love. Ultimately, the church’s response to queer sexual identity ought not be determined on the basis of the biblical texts’ portrayal of the relationship between David and Jonathan, but, rather, on the basis of the imperative to love.

*****

We have attempted to consider the nature of the relationship between David and Jonathan using certain tools of historical- and literary-critical analysis in service of a queer hermeneutic. Our historical-critical analysis has served our queer hermeneutic in demonstrating that the Bible clearly presupposes certain attitudes about sex and gender that are rooted in the socio-sexual mores of the ancient Mediterranean world and are foreign to the views likely to be defended openly by most adherents of Christianity and Judaism. Thus, debates about human sexuality cannot be decided on the basis of biblical precedent alone, and attempts to directly apply biblical texts to contemporary debates about modern concepts may result in the imposition of deeply problematic and harmful ancient cultural assumptions into the modern church and world.

Our literary-critical analysis has served our queer hermeneutic in highlighting and challenging instances where modern heteronormative assumptions have been imposed upon the ancient text; in affirming a personal dimension to Jonathan’s love toward David as well as the possibility of David’s reciprocation; and in demonstrating that literary-critical analysis can neither confirm nor dismiss the possibility of an homoerotic and/or homosexual dimension to the relationship between Jonathan and David.

Finally, I have attempted to combine insights from these methodological approaches to propose a kind of synthesis, a possible reading of the text that imagines the Samuel tradition, and the David-Jonathan material within it, to speak to the interplay between the political and the personal. Namely, the prioritizing of love over power, and the terrible human cost of the inverse. In Jonathan’s love we find personal attachment overlaid with political consequence, and in David’s lament we find political gain overlaid with personal loss. The ultimate example for the prioritizing of the personal over the political in the David-Jonathan material is Jonathan, who chooses love over power. The text goes on to suggest that such an ordering of priorities can save lives, bestow dignity, shame kings into right action and move gods to mercy. Beauty for ashes; the government of heaven.

In reflecting on the use of ancient traditions in contemporary debates about modern concepts, I have proposed that it is in this implicit consideration of the uneasy relationship between power and love that the David-Jonathan material of the Samuel tradition speaks most helpfully to contemporary discussions around Scripture and sexual identity, where the saving of lives and the bestowing of dignity are central concerns, and where the Christian traditions’ prioritising of power over love continues to carry a terrible human cost.

*****

By way of conclusion, I offer the following midrash on Mark 2:23-28:

One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?” He answered, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? He entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.” Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So, the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” He continued, “Have you never read what Eve did when she saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food, a delight to the eyes, and desirable for gaining wisdom? She took of the fruit of the tree, though she had been commanded not to, and she gave also to her man who was with her. Have you never read what Lot’s wife did when she heard the destruction of her community behind her? She turned and looked, though she had been commanded not to. Have you not read what the midwives Shiphrah and Puah did when baby boys were born to the Hebrew women in Egypt? They lied to Pharaoh that the babies might live, though lying is forbidden. Have you never read what Jonathan did when David finished speaking to Saul? He loved him as his own soul, with a love surpassing the love of women, a love prohibited in Torah. Stories and laws were made for people, not people for stories and laws; and the Christ is Lord even of these. You crush people with unbearable religious demands, you shut the door of the Kingdom of Heaven in people’s faces. The dogmatic wolfpack closes in to trample every tender thing. You are careful to tithe even the tiniest income from your herb gardens, but you ignore the more important aspects of the law – justice, mercy, and faith. The bride wears white. You build tombs for the prophets your ancestors killed. You think you wouldn’t have killed the prophets. You think you wouldn’t have argued that the abolition of the slave trade would destroy the economy; that racial integration would destroy society; that women’s liberation would destroy the home. Go ahead and finish what your ancestors started: crucify the Christ for claiming lordship over your stories and laws. O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones God’s messengers. How often I have wanted to gather your children together as a hen protects her chicks beneath her wings – to ennoble the choice of Eve, the tears of Lot’s wife, the lie of the midwives, the love of Jonathan; your choices, your tears, your lies, your loves – but you would not let me. And now, look, your house is abandoned and desolate.

*****

“The soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul.”
1 Sam. 18:1

“To love one’s neighbour as oneself – this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
Mark 12:33-34

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


[1] Alter, ​The David Story,​ xviii.

[2] 2 Sam. 3:16.

[3] Alter, ​The David Story,​ xxiv.

[4] 1 Sam. 23:16-18, ESV.

[5] 2 Sam. 18:33.

[6] 2 Sam. 12:23.

[7] Alter,​ The David Story,​ 311.

[8] 2 Sam. 19:7.

[9] 2 Sam. 21:6.

[10] 2 Sam. 21:7.

[11] 2 Sam. 21:8-9.

[12] 2 Sam. 21:10.

[13] 2 Sam. 21:11-14.

[14] Cf. Stone, ​1 and 2 Samuel, 2​ 19-221.

[15] 2 Sam. 21:1.

[16] 2 Sam. 21:14.

[17] G oldingay, ​Men Behaving Badly, ​136-38.

[18] Mary C. Callaway, “Canonical Criticism” in ​To Each Its Own Meaning: An Introduction to Biblical Criticisms and their Application ​eds. Steven L. McKenzie and Stephen R. Haynes (Louisville, Kentucky: Jn. Knox Press, 1993), 121. Emphasis mine.

[19] Loader, ​Making Sense of Sex, 1​ 41-47.

[20] Cf. Mark 2:23-28.

[21] Cf. John 8:58-59.

[22] Ibid.,​ 1​47.

[23] L. William Countryman, “New Testament Sexual Ethics and Today’s World” in ​Sexuality and the Sacred: Sources for Theological Reflection ​eds. James B. Nelson and Sandra P. Longfellow (London: Jn. Knox Press, 1994)​, 28-30. Emphasis mine.

[24] Countryman, ​New Testament Sexual Ethics, 3​ 3.

[25] Mary Ann Tolbert, “Foreword: What Word Shall We Take Back?” in ​Take Back the Word: A Queer Reading of the Bible (​ Cleveland, Ohio: The Pilgrim Press, 2000), vii-xi.

[26] Carter Heyward, “Notes on Historical Grounding: Beyond Sexual Essentialism” in ​Sexuality and the Sacred: Sources for Theological Reflection ​eds. James B. Nelson and Sandra P. Longfellow (London: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994)​,​ 13.

[27] Rosemary Radford Ruether, “Homophobia, Heterosexism, and Pastoral Practice” in ​Sexuality and the Sacred: Sources for Theological Reflection ​eds. James B. Nelson and Sandra P. Longfellow (London: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994)​,​ 388.

[28] Countryman, ​New Testament Sexual Ethics, 2​ 9.

[29] Ruether, ​Homophobia, Heterosexism, and Pastoral Practice, ​390-91.

[30] Loader, ​Making Sense of Sex, 1​ 48. Cf. Mark 12:33-34.


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