This entry is part 21 of 121 in the series: Tough texts
- Genesis 1:26 – Why a plural name for God?
- Genesis 3 – traditional and revisionist readings
- Genesis 3:16b – ‘Your desire shall be for your husband’
- Genesis 5 – the ages of the antedeluvians
- Genesis 6:1f – ‘The sons of God’
- Genesis 6-8 – A worldwide flood?
- Genesis 12:3 – ‘I will bless those who bless you’
- Genesis 15:16 – ‘The sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its limit’
- Genesis 19 – What was the sin of Sodom?
- Genesis 22 – “Abraham, kill your son”
- Exodus – Who hardened Pharaoh’s heart?
- Exodus 12:37 – How many Israelites left Egypt?
- Leviticus 18:22; 20:13 – homosexual acts prohibited?
- Leviticus 19:18 “Love your neighbour as yourself”
- Deuteronomy 23:6 – ‘Never be kind to a Moabite’?
- Joshua 6 – the fall of Jericho
- Joshua 10 – Joshua’s ‘long day’
- Judges 19:11-28 – The priest and the concubine
- 1 Samuel 16:14 – ‘An evil spirit from the Lord’
- 1 Samuel 28:7-14 – Did Samuel visit from the grave?
- 2 Samuel 1:26 – ‘More special than the love of women’
- 2 Sam 24:1, 1 Chron 21:1 – Who incited David?
- 1 Kings 20:30 – ‘The wall collapsed on 27,000 of them’
- Psalm 105:15 – ‘Touch not my anointed’
- Psalm 137:8f – ‘Happy is he who dashes your infants against the rocks’
- Isaiah 7:14/Matthew 1:23 – “The virgin will conceive”
- Daniel 7:13 – ‘Coming with the clouds of heaven’
- Jonah – history or fiction?
- Mt 1:1-17 and Lk 3:23-38 – the genealogies of Jesus
- Matthew 2:1 – ‘Magi from the east’
- Matthew 2:2 – The star of Bethlehem
- Matthew 2:8f – Can God speak through astrology?
- Matthew 2:23 – ‘Jesus would be called a Nazarene’
- Matthew 5:21f – Did Jesus reject the Old Testament?
- Matthew 7:16,20 – ‘You will recognise them by their fruit’
- Matthew 8:5/Luke 7:3 – Who asked Jesus to help?
- Matthew 8:5/Luke 7:7 – son? servant? male lover?
- Matthew 8:22/Luke 9:60 – ‘Let the dead bury their dead’?
- Matthew 8:28 – Gadara or Gerasa?
- Matthew 10:23 – ‘Before the Son of Man comes’
- Mt 10:28/Lk 12:4f – Whom should we fear?
- Matthew 10:28 – ‘destroy’: annihilation or everlasting punishment?
- Matthew 10:34 – ‘Not peace, but a sword’?
- Matthew 11:12 – Forceful entry, or violent opposition, to the kingdom?
- Mt 12:30/Mk 9:40/Lk 11:23 – For, or against?
- Matthew 12:40 – Three days and three nights
- The Parable of the Sower – return from exile?
- Mt 15:21-28/Mk 7:24-30 – Jesus and the Canaanite woman
- Mt 16:28/Mk 9:1/Lk 9:27 – “Some standing here will see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom”
- Matthew 18:10 – What about ‘guardian angels’?
- Matthew 18:20 – ‘Where two or three are gathered…’
- Matthew 16:18 – Peter the rock?
- Matthew 21:7 – One animal or two?
- Mt 24:34/Mk 13:30 – ‘This generation will not pass away’
- Matthew 25:40 – ‘These brothers of mine’
- Matthew 27:46/Mark 15:34 – Jesus’ cry of dereliction
- Matthew 27:52f – Many bodies raised?
- Mark 1:41 – ‘Compassion’, or ‘anger/indignation’?
- Mark 2:25f – ‘When Abiathar was high priest’
- Mark 3:29; Luke 12:10 – The unpardonable sin
- Mark 4:31 – ‘The smallest of all the seeds’?
- Mark 6:45 – ‘To Bethsaida’
- Mark 12:41-44/Luke 21:1-4 – ‘The widow’s mite’
- Luke 2:1f – Quirinius and ‘the first registration’
- Luke 2 – Was Joseph from Nazareth, or Bethlehem?
- Luke 2:7 – ‘No room at the inn’
- Luke 2:8 – Shepherds: a despised class?
- Luke 2:39 – No room for a flight into Egypt?
- Luke 4:16-19 – An incomplete quotation?
- Luke 7:2 – ‘Highly valued servant’ or ‘gay lover’?
- Luke 14:26 – Hate your family?
- Luke 22:36 – ‘Sell your cloak and buy a sword’
- John 1:1 – ‘The Word was God’
- John 2:6 – symbol or history?
- John 2:12 – Did Mary bear other children?
- Mt 21/Mk 11/Lk 19/Jn 2 – When (and how many times) did Jesus cleanse the Temple?
- John 3:16f – What is meant by ‘the world’?
- John 4:44 – ‘His own country’
- John 7:40-44 – Did John know about Jesus’ birthplace?
- John 7:53-8:11 – The woman caught in adultery
- John 10:8 – “All who came before me were thieves and robbers”
- John 10:34 – “You are gods”
- John 14:6 – “No one comes to the Father except through me”
- John 14:12 – ‘Greater deeds’
- John 20:21 – “Just as the Father has sent me, I also send you.”
- John 21:11 – One hundred and fifty three fish
- Acts 5:1-11 – Ananias and Sapphira
- Acts 5:34-37 – a (minor) historical inaccuracy?
- Romans 1:5 – ‘The obedience of faith’
- Romans 1:18 – Wrath: personal or impersonal?
- Rom 3:22; Gal 2:16 – faith in, or faithfulness of Christ?
- Romans 5:18 – ‘Life for all?’
- Rom 7:24 – Who is the ‘wretched man’?
- Romans 10:4 – ‘Christ is the end of the law’
- Romans 11:26a – ‘And so all Israel will be saved’
- Romans 16:7 – ‘Junia…well known to the apostles’
- 1 Corinthians 14:34 – ‘Women should be silent in the churches’
- 1 Corinthians 15:28 – ‘The Son himself will be subjected to [God]’
- 1 Corinthians 15:29 – ‘Baptized for the dead’
- 1 Corinthians 15:44 – ‘Raised a spiritual body’
- 2 Corinthians 5:21 – ‘God made Christ to be sin for us’
- Galatians 3:17 – How much later?
- Galatians 3:28 – ‘Neither male nor female’
- Galatians 6:2 – ‘The law of Christ’
- Galatians 6:16 – The Israel of God
- Ephesians 1:10 – ‘The fullness of the times’
- Philippians 2:10 – ‘The name that is above every name’
- 1 Cor 11:3/Eph 5:23 – ‘Kephale’: ‘head’? ‘source’? ‘foremost’?
- Colossians 1:19f – Universal reconciliation?
- 1 Thessalonians 2:14f – ‘The Jews, who killed Jesus’
- 1 Timothy 2:4 – ‘God wants all people to be saved’
- 1 Timothy 2:11f – ‘I do not allow woman to teach or exercise authority over a man’
- 1 Timothy 4:10 – ‘The Saviour of all people’
- Hebrews 6:4-6 – Who are these people?
- Hebrews 12:1 – Who are these witnesses?
- 1 Peter 3:18-20 – Christ and the spirits in prison
- 2 Peter 1:4 – ‘Partakers of the divine nature’
- 2 Peter 3:9 – ‘The Lord wishes all to come to repentance’
- Jude 7 – ‘Unnatural desire’
- Revelation 7:4 – The 144,000
- Revelation 14:11 – ‘No rest day or night’
In 2 Samuel 1:26 David laments:
I grieve over you, my brother Jonathan!
You were very dear to me.
Your love was more special to me than the love of women.
Their relationship has been introduced in 1 Samuel 18 –
18:1 When David had finished talking with Saul, Jonathan and David became bound together in close friendship. Jonathan loved David as much as he did his own life. 18:2 Saul retained David on that day and did not allow him to return to his father’s house. 18:3 Jonathan made a covenant with David, for he loved him as much as he did his own life. 18:4 Jonathan took off the robe he was wearing and gave it to David, along with the rest of his gear, including his sword, his bow, and even his belt.
Then, in Samuel 20,
20:30 Saul became angry with Jonathan and said to him, “You stupid traitor! Don’t I realize that to your own disgrace and to the disgrace of your mother’s nakedness you have chosen this son of Jesse?
And in v41 of the same chapter – David and Jonathan kissed each other and they both wept.
For some, these texts suggest that the relationship between David and Jonathan went beyond that of deep friendship, and entailed romantic love.
If (it has been argued), the language employed in this passage had been used of a man and a woman, we would be celebrating it as one of the great love stories of all time. But because the language is used of two men, we deny the ‘obvious’ implication that their relationship involved more than deep friendship.
‘When’ (it is asked) ‘was the last time you saw a heterosexual man, swept away by brotherly love, offer another man his most precious possessions in their first encounter? Suppose the pastor of your church (assuming he is a man), upon meeting another man for the first time, stripped himself of his suit and gave it to the other. Suppose in that same encounter he also offered his most precious possessions — perhaps a family Bible, a wristwatch with an inscription from his parents, and his beloved four-wheel drive pickup truck. Wouldn’t this strike you as more than just a little “queer”? Let’s face it, the author of 1 Samuel is describing a classic love-at-first-sight encounter that happens to involve two men.’
It appears that this interpretation, while urging us to pay greater attention to what the text actually says, is (wilfully?) blind to the huge differences between that age and culture and our own. It also ignores the fact that the text, while obviously describing a very deep relationship, makes no mention at all of any sexual activity between the two men. Indeed, from everything we know about OT law and practice, they would both have found the implication abhorrent.
Youngblood (EBC, rev) comments that
‘Tom Horner (Jonathan Loved David: Homosexuality in Biblical Times [Philadelphia: Westminster, 1978]) asserts that the relationship between David and Jonathan was homosexual (see esp. pp. 20, 26–28, 31–39). But the verb ʾāhēb (“love”) is not used elsewhere to express homosexual desire or activity, for which the OT employs yādaʿ (“know”), in the sense of “have sex with” (Ge 19:5; Jdg 19:22). The latter verb is never used of David’s relationship with Jonathan.’
The following goes some way towards a more reasonable account of the relationship between the two men:
‘In the ancient Near East, as in conservative Islamic societies today, adult men and women were not permitted to have friendships, casual or otherwise, with one another. Because social roles assigned to males and females differed greatly, men could not usually have close friendships, based on mutual interests, even with their wives. Women were excluded from many activities common to men; they could not take part in military affairs, and were generally excluded from religious rites as well. Men, in like fashion, were not expected to engage in most activities associated with women. Men had to cultivate their friendships with other men, while reserving sexual activity for their wives (or prostitutes). Sometimes such friendships could be intense, but they did not have a sexual component. Jonathan and David were great friends, fellow soldiers, brothers-in-law, and brothers in the faith, but they were not homosexual “lovers.”’ (Apologetics Study Bible)
Tim Chester, similarly:
‘Homosexuality was clearly forbidden by God’s law (Leviticus 18:22; 20:13). The writer of Samuel is not afraid to highlight David’s sin. But he gives no indication of any law-breaking in their relationship. Either he was ignorant of the sin, or he covered it up—neither of which is likely given his exposé of David’s adultery with Bathsheba in 2 Samuel 11–12. The suggestion of homosexuality probably reveals more about the sexualisation of our culture than it does about their relationship. The reality is that men can have an intimate and affectionate friendship without it becoming sexual, especially when they are comrades in arms.’
Living in Love and Faith rightly calls attention to the intensely personal nature of the relationship between the two men (see esp. 1 Sam 20:41). But the relationship is nowhere described as explicitly sexual, ‘though it has been read that way by some’. It may be that their friendship mattered more to each of them than their marriages (see 2 Sam 1:26, although allowance needs to be made for the rhetoric of mourning).
William Loader (who affirms same-sex sexual relationships) notes that:
‘[Some] cite the friendship between David and Jonathan as an example of a homoerotic relationship, not least because of the allusion to their love as surpassing the love of women (especially 1 Sam 20:41–42 and 2 Sam 1:17–26), but this is doubtful. Nowhere in early Jewish literature is there any indication that it was read in this way, which would have almost certainly have occasioned efforts to explain it differently. Close friendship between men need not have been homoerotic.’
(Two Views on Homosexuality, the Bible and the Church, p23f)
But there is another important element to be added. That is the political element.
‘The language of love used to describe their relationship is found frequently in ancient Near Eastern texts to describe the loyalty of king and subjects, so here there are likely both personal and political connotations.’ (Harper’s Bible Commentary)
J.A. Thompson has analysed the meaning and usage of the verb translated ‘to love’. This verb first occurs in the present narrative in 1 Sam 16:21, where it is applied to Saul’s ‘love’ for David (‘Saul liked him a great deal’).
‘Saul loved (‘ahill) him greatly and he became his armour-bearer (i Sam. 16:21). It is arguable that the verb ‘ahib was carefully intro-duced at this point because of a certain ambiguity of meaning. It is the proper term to denote genuine affection between human beings, husband and wife, parent and child, friend and friend. But since the verb can also have political implications and since, as we shall argue, it is used in such a sense elsewhere in the narrative, we may suspect that already in 1 Samuel 16:21 the narrator is preparing us for the later political use of the term.’ (Thompson)
There is a parallel expression in 1 Kings 5:1, which says, literally, that King Hiram of Tyre ‘had always loved David’. This is variously translated as:
‘Hiram was ever a lover of David’ (AV)
‘Hiram always loved David’ (ESV)
Hiram ‘had always been on friendly terms with David’ (NIV)
‘Hiram had always been a friend to David’ (NRSV)
‘King Hiram of Tyre had always been a friend of David’s’ (GNB)
‘(Hiram had always been an ally of David)’ (NET)
As the context makes clear, the relationship between Hiram and David was essentially a political one.
CP. 1 Sam 17:38f. By means of this action, Jonathan is transferring his own status as heir apparent to David.
‘In our political world, where power plays such an important role, what would be thought of a prince who voluntarily renounced his throne in favour of a friend whose character and godly faith he admired?’
Thompson thinks that Jonathan’s bestowal of his weapons on David signifies something more than close friendship: it carries the political significance of the heir to the throne handing his rights over to the one who (as it turns out to be) is God’s anointed king. As Saul himself will soon ask: ‘What more can he get but the kingdom?’ (v8).
In 1 Sam 18:16 we read that ‘all Israel and Judah loved David, for he was the one leading them out to battle and back.’
In 1 Sam 18:22 the same verb (often translated ‘to love’ ‘Saul instructed his servants, “Tell David secretly, ‘The king is pleased with you, and all his servants like you. So now become the king’s son-in-law.”‘
In 1 Sam 20:8 David appeals to Jonathan: ‘You must be loyal to your servant, for you have made a covenant with your servant in the LORD’s name.’
A little later, the same kind of political overtones are apparent again in Jonathan’s words to David:
1 Sam 20:14 ‘”While I am still alive, extend to me the loyalty of the LORD, or else I will die! 20:15 Don’t ever cut off your loyalty to my family, not even when the LORD has cut off every one of David’s enemies from the face of the earth 20:16 and called David’s enemies to account.” So Jonathan made a covenant with the house of David. 20:17 Jonathan once again took an oath with David, because he loved him. In fact Jonathan loved him as much as he did his own life.’
According to 1 Sam 20:30f Saul clearly understood that the relationship between Jonathan and Saul had (primarily?) political implications, for ‘Saul became angry with Jonathan and said to him, “You stupid traitor! Don’t I realize that to your own disgrace and to the disgrace of your mother’s nakedness you have chosen this son of Jesse? 20:31 For as long as this son of Jesse is alive on the earth, you and your kingdom will not be established. Now, send some men and bring him to me. For he is as good as dead!”’
So also in 1 Sam 22:7f ‘Saul said to his servants who were stationed around him, “Listen up, you Benjaminites! Is Jesse’s son giving fields and vineyards to all of you? Or is he making all of you commanders and officers? 22:8 For all of you have conspired against me! No one informs me when my own son makes an agreement with this son of Jesse! Not one of you feels sorry for me or informs me that my own son has commissioned my own servant to hide in ambush against me, as is the case today!”’
All of these references, according to Thompson, point to an interpretation of the verb ‘to love’ that is similar to that in 1 Kings 5:1 – ‘King Hiram of Tyre sent messengers to Solomon when he heard that he had been anointed king in his father’s place. (Hiram had always been an ally of David.)’ [Lit. Hiram had always loved David.]
‘David’s very personal expression of emotion here should not be taken as evidence of a homosexual liaison with Jonathan; rather, it is a manifestation of the parameters of social relations that existed in ancient Israelite society. Marriages in ancient Israel took place primarily for the benefit of the tribe—to increase the size and strength of the social group through procreation (cf. Gen 1:28) and to increase its prosperity through the establishment of advantageous formal ties with other families (cf. Gen 34:21–23). A man’s wife was his partner in procreation and parenting, but not necessarily his best friend, confidant, or social peer. For David, Jonathan was the peer, friend, and confidant that no wife could ever have been in that society; and his untimely death left a gaping hole in David’s soul.’ (Bergen, NAC)
Regarding the verb ‘love’ in 2 Sam 1:26, it has been noted that,
‘while this verb always implies strong affection, it does not typically imply sexual expression. It is used in a wide variety of relationship contexts, and what is stressed here is the unusual intensity of affection. In this case, even allowing for the rhetoric of mourning, it might well mean that this relationship mattered more to David than his marriages.’ (Living in Love and Faith, p180)
The argument that the relationship between David and Jonathan was of a homosexual nature is further undermined by the fact that both men married, and in David’s case he was capable of uncontrollable lust towards other men’s wives (2 Samuel 11:2-26). It would then have to be said that David was ‘bisexual’. But this conclusion shows every sign of making the evidence fit the theory, rather than the other way round.
As Ed Shaw remarks:
‘what about the more plausible theory that Jonathan’s simple friendship was more precious to David than his complicated relationships with women (1 Samuel 25:42–44 lists three wives at this stage of David’s life)? Why is it not possible that he enjoyed the non-sexual intimacy of his friendship with Jonathan (also a married man) more than the sexual intimacy of his relationships with Abigail, Ahinoam and Michal? Why not conclude that he’s not saying Jonathan was better in bed than his wives – but that Jonathan’s friendship was better than anything David did in bed with his wives?’ (The Plausibility Problem)
The trouble is, in our own over-sexualised age, we find it difficult to conceive that a close friendship might be anything other than sexual. Yet C.S. Lewis remarked that male friendships could be even more intimate (in a non-sexual way) than male-female relationships. Lewis said, ‘Those who cannot conceive Friendship as a substantive love but only as a disguise or elaboration of Eros betray the fact that they have never had a Friend.’
Living in Love and Faith concludes:
‘The story therefore presents us with an example of covenanted friendship. This covenanted fidelity was not really analogous to marriage. It is clear that almost as soon as the covenant was made, David and Jonathan were parted never to meet again. Both men were already married – in David’s case multiply (2 Samuel 2.2, 5.13).’ (p188)
This publication leaves open questions about whether modern male friendships are capable of such deep emotions, and whether the church today might
‘honour and bless a same-sex relationship of covenanted fidelity today, which is devoted, affectionate, capable of superseding social conventions with regard to family loyalty, capable of being dismissed by those who are threatened by it as a perverse disgrace, and yet holy to the Lord?’