According to what we’re told in the Hebrew Bible (the Christian “Old Testament”), Jonathan, a king’s son, loved a man who would become a more famous king, David — and David in turn loved Jonathan. No matter what the actual history behind the story, what we’re presented with in the Bible is a tale of two manly military heroes who participated in a loving same-sex relationship.
The details of their relationship, the kind of relationship celebrated in legends around the world, are found in the book of 1 Samuel. And discussion of the nature of their relationship has continually intrigued scholars while nudging any homophobia in the air.
What we’re told in this portrayal of the two is that Jonathan was a veteran warrior older than David, and that as a prince he had a rocky relationship with his own father, Saul, then king of Israel. Father/son confrontations include Jonathan standing up against his father to protect David, helping David escape his father’s threats to kill David (20:30-31), and pleading with his father to be kind to David’s family.
Saul is portrayed as believing that David was a threat to him and his reign because of his close relationship with Jonathan. As David tells Jonathan: “Your father knows very well that I have found favor in your eye.” (20:3)
But Jonathan’s filial defiance is starkly displayed when the text says he would put his own well-being on the line with his father for David: “But if my father is inclined to harm you, may the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely.” (20:13)
Both men are pictured as macho warriors who would do their manly duty culturally – they’d marry and sire children as men of any sexual orientation do in traditional cultures where they don’t think in terms of modern definitions of sexual orientation. David’s dalliances with women would also become legendary.
But as the new king after Saul’s and Jonathan’s deaths in battle, David himself would go out of his way to locate, and then show special concern for, Jonathan’s paraplegic son Mephibosheth. The text notes twice, as if to emphasize it, that David did this “for the sake of your father, Jonathan.”
David’s loyalty will not only include restoring to Jonathan’s son all the land owned by the late King Saul, but also granting the distinct honor to Mephibosheth that “you will always eat at my table.” And: “So Mephibosheth ate at David’s table as one of David’s sons.” II Samuel (9:11)
The whole story, though, clearly wants us to know how close their relationship is. The very first thing we’re told about the two together, the very first reference to their relationship, informs us that “Jonathan became one in spirit with David [literally, the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David], and Jonathan loved him as himself.” I Samuel (18:1)
Then, immediately, these introductory verses add without any extenuating explanation that they entered into a same sex “covenant” just because of this love! “Then Jonathan made a covenant with David because he loved him as himself.” (18:3)
Such an upfront manner of introducing the relationship of Jonathan and David to listeners and readers without any other explanation indicates clearly that the text wants us to know what their relationship is in order to understand any later stories it chooses to tell us.
And the final of those stories about the two men focuses on the last words that I Samuel thinks we should know they said to each other.
When David learns that Saul is intent on killing him, David regretfully decides that he must flee the palace’s influence. So Jonathan and David meet outside of town in the country surreptitiously under the guise of Jonathan doing target practice.
Jonathan dismisses his servant, telling him to return to town with Jonathan stripped of all his weapons. And the two are then alone.
David came out of hiding, “fell on his face to the ground, and bowed three times. And they kissed each other and wept together, but David more.”
Jonathan says his final goodbyes by telling David to go in safety and with his final words reminding David of the eternal covenant they had made with each other: “In as much as we have sworn to each other in the name of the Lord saying, ‘The Lord is witness between me and you, and between my descendants and your descendants forever.’” (20:40-42)
This portrayal of Jonathan and David’s same-sex relationship is the stuff that makes up the kind of memorable stories that are passed down in song and myth anywhere. It’s a familiar story of heroic lovers.
But, it’s not finished. There’s yet a further epilogue about this love in the received texts.
As the new king, David will marry eight times, creating numerous political relationships, and have many children. Yet, when David learns that Saul and Jonathan are killed in battle, the story says that David composed a public lament that’s added to the tale by the writer of II Samuel.
As written, David’s lament includes these words about his feelings toward Jonathan:
“I grieve for you, Jonathan my brother;
You have been very dear to me.
Your love to me was wonderful,
More wonderful than the love of women.” (1:26)
Without a doubt, this all intends to portray a loving relationship between members of the same sex. In response, then, how we proceed beyond the text with our understanding can tell us about our homophobia.
Did their relationship include intimate sexual activity? The text doesn’t say, does it?
Does a relationship between two men who are this close naturally require sexual activity between them? Can two heterosexual men have such a close relationship even though it’s a very homosocial one?
Biblical stories, like all ancient folklore, aren’t just retold, written down, and passed on by their tellers because of some dispassionate, objective interest in dead history. Let’s face it, most of what happened in the past has been ignored and has disappeared from any record.
They are kept alive and retold for purposes such as entertainment, explaining the present, or teaching morals to future generations. Everyone, therefore, interprets them in terms of the cultural prejudices they’ve absorbed or their creative individual minds.
But this tale of Jonathan and David wants us to know about some kind of same-sex relationship, historical or legendary, doesn’t it?
There are scholars who dismiss any sexual element, ignore or downplay these details, or just deny that it could be sexual because of the scholars’ homophobia.
But then, there are scholars who think it could be portraying a relationship of cultural heroes that listeners of its day would have no problem with – valiant male warriors having sexual activity with men. Other early writings from the region, such as the earliest epic in the world, the well-known Epic of Gilgamesh include heroes who openly loved and had sex with other men.
Still other scholars are convinced that today we would call this a homosexual, or at least bisexual, relationship and that these verses were the descriptions of the day that would be understood to describe one. Such a now-classic detailed study with that conclusion from 1978 was Tom Horner’s Jonathan Loved David, though he is not alone in that assessment.
Whatever kind of same-sex relationship these texts are meant to portray, though, it’s clear that such a legend of two men loving each other deeply was no problem for those who included it in the biblical canon.
The apparent lack of homophobia of those who conveyed the story of Jonathan and David back then and in that particular cultural milieu, meant that they didn’t feel compelled to assure us that no sex was involved. Same-sex sexual activity apparently didn’t make any difference at all to them.
And not having that need or compulsion to mention or deny it, also tells us something about the general acceptability and heroic honorability of loving same-sex relationships then — sexual or not. Those who gave us this story just didn’t care if Jonathan and David expressed their love for each other with sex.
But we certainly live in different times.
Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at the University of Kansas where he taught for 33 years and was department chair for six years, Robert N. Minor (he/him), M.A., Ph.D is the author of 8 books as well as numerous articles and contributions to edited volumes. He is an historian of religion with specialties in Biblical studies, Asian religions, religion and gender and religion and sexuality. His writing has been published in Whosoever since 2005 and he continues to speak and lead workshops around the country. In 1999 GLAAD awarded him its Leadership Award for Education, in 2012 the University of Kansas named him one of the University’s Men of Merit, in 2015 the American Men’s Studies Association gave him the Lifetime Membership Award, and in 2018 Missouri Jobs with Justice presented him with the Worker’s Rights Board Leadership Award. He resides in Kansas City, Missouri and is founder of The Fairness Project.