Men can’t be affectionate and still be men. At least that’s the way our culture tends to act. There are very few contexts where men can be emotional, exposed, and affectionate with each other. A football player can wipe away his teammates tears, and even smack him on the butt. And such behavior is genuinely believed to both masculine and relationally platonic. So when we come across men who are publicly affectionate we take it as nothing more than evidence of homosexuality. I wonder if that’s what has led so many to believe that Jonathan and David in the Old Testament are gay. Whatever the reason, the view that David and Jonathan are involved in a homoerotic relationship is an imposition on the text of Scripture, not one native to its original meaning.
Not many scholars seriously offer this position as a legitimate one these days. It had a rather resounding refutation in the late 90s by Markus Zehnder, but still a few continue to cling to it. The support for the argument is based around a few misreadings of the text itself. The first “evidence” for a homosexuality is found in 1 Samuel 18:1-5 and in 15-16. Here we read that Jonathan’s soul is “bound” to David’s soul. It is certainly strong language regarding their relationship. But what does it mean? The covenant that Jonathan makes with David in verse 3 is to adopt him into his family, they become kin. They relate to one another as brothers, not as romantic partners (see 2 Sam. 1:26). Furthermore the “binding” of Jonathan’s soul to David’s carries the same weight as the binding of Benjamin’s soul to that of Jacob’s (his father) in Gen. 44:30-31. It is a way to express deep kinship, not romantic love. Robert Gagnon says this of the “binding”:
The verb “qasar” usually refers to a binding together of people for political purposes. In effect, Jonathan is assuring David that he has hitched his fortunes to those of David, politically and emotionally. Whatever happens to David happens to Jonathan. If David hurts, Jonathan hurts. If David rejoices, Jonathan rejoices. Consequently, if David becomes king, Jonathan has every reason to rejoice. (The Bible and Homosexual Practice, 147)
We read too much into the language of the text if we assume this is about erotic love and not simply about loyalty to the future king. In fact the best readings of this whole story will be done in light of that important detail: David is the future king.
Robert Gagnon is right, I believe, when he points out that “The relationship between Jonathan and David cannot be divorced from the context of the royal court: Jonathan is the king’s son and rightful heir to the throne; but David is God’s apparent choice to lead Israel” (147-8). While Jonathan’s love is no doubt sincere, it also bears the markers of traditional political covenantal language and action. So the language of love is typical of covenant-treaties. And the gestures of handing over his robe and armor and sword, etc. are political acts assuring David of Jonathan’s loyalty. We should not read these as more than what they text permits. Even the language of 19:1, that Jonathan “took great pleasure” in David, is not sexual. The Hebrew “carries no sexual connotation in context, as the previous occurence in 18:22 indicates” (Gagnon, 149). There are clear political overtones to the language that must not be overlooked if we are to rightly interpret the text.
The most significant texts in relation to the nature of Jonathan and David’s relationship are found in 1 Samuel 20:30-34 and in 41-42. In each case there is strong language and that is sometimes misconstrued as erotic or romantic love. But again we must stress the political dimension of their relationship. So in 30-34 we read of Saul’s flying into a rage at the escape of David. He knows that it was his own son Jonathan who warned David of the king’s plan to kill him. In response Saul speaks of his son’s “shame,” and of the “shame of your mother’s nakedness”. The question about this text has to do with Jonathan’s “shame.” What is his shame, and what has that to do with his mother’s “nakedness”? It’s clear from the context that Saul is viewing this in terms of politics too, not in terms of sexual intimacy. He speaks of Jonathan’s “kingdom” in verse 31, saying that his kingdom will never be established so long as David is alive. His “shame,” then is in acquiescing to David’s throne instead of pursuing his own. There is no sense from the text that Saul views Jonathan as adopting the female role in sex, that is not his “shame” here. Rather it is his, perhaps “unmanly,” denial of his own right to the throne and his submission to David. The reference to his mother’s nakedness is simply a reference to the “shame” his mother has in giving birth to him. Saul is, in effect, saying, I am ashamed of you and your mother is sorry she have gave birth to you.
In 1 Samuel 20:41-42 we read of Jonathan and David kissing and weeping together. We must, again, read these passages in light of their ancient context. David bows three times to Jonathan, a common political practice indicating a farewell. David and Jonathan know that because of Saul’s anger they may never see each other again. But that does not have sexual overtones to it. Even the “kissing” must be understood in light of ancient cultural practices. Men in the ancient Near East kissed sometimes, with no homosexuality inherent in the kiss. In fact, Gagnon records that of the 27 occurrences of the Hebrew ver “to kiss”, 24 have no erotic element to them at all. He writes:
Of the three that do, two are from the Song of Solomon. Of the 24 that do not, 15 refer to kisses between relatives, usually between fathers and sons or between brothers. Four refer to two unrelated males kissing, again with no sexual connotation. (152, n.244).
Again there is nothing in the text that, when read in accord with its ancient context, dictates that Jonathan and David were engaged in some sort of secret same-sex attraction. Their love was both sincere and political. It was akin to brotherly love, or love of a servant for his King.
Some have suggested that the narrator of the story suppressed their homosexuality, but that is pure speculation. When we read the text in light of its context we have no reason for concluding that Jonathan and David loved each other in a romantic way. We see evidence of political submission, and of brotherly affection common in the ancient Near East. To suggest evidence of homosexuality in this story is to impose on the text what is simply not there.