|Were David and Jonathan Gay?
In an attempt to reclaim their religion from homophobia, someGLBT people have sought representations of same-sex love in the Bible. One of the most often-cited "gay couples" is David, the Old Testament hero, and Jonathan, son of King Saul.
Some three thousand years ago, at the end of the Bronze Age, David, a young shepherd from Bethlehem, made a name for himself by slaying Goliath, a Philistine giant, with a blow from his slingshot. David initially came to the court of Saul, first king of the Israelites, to perform as a musician, but soon gained recognition as a soldier.
King Saul's son, Jonathan, was several years older than David and a commander in his father's army. Himself known for his prowess in battle, Jonathan took a liking to the young newcomer, and the two became fast friends. "And it came to pass," the Bible says, "that the soul of Jonathan was knit with the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul" (I Samuel 18:1).
According to the Bible, God chose David over Saul's son and heir to be the second king of the Israelites. While Jonathan accepted this fate, King Saul berated his son for his relationship with David, accusing him of placing friendship over family loyalty and his future kingdom. Saul also became increasingly jealous of David's growing military success and plotted his demise. In addition, argue some gay commentators such as Andre Gide, Saul was consumed with lust for the handsome young hero.
Jonathan learned of his father's plans and was determined to warn David. Fearful of Saul's wrath, David hid himself in a field near the palace. Jonathan devised a code whereby he would alert David whether he could safely return or should flee. The two men made a covenant, promising that they and their descendents would remain friends forever. Upon parting, "they kissed one another, and wept one with another, until David exceeded" (I Samuel 20:41).
Jonathan and Saul eventually died together in battle against the Philistines. Upon hearing the news, David mourned Jonathan's passing with the lament: "I am distressed for thee, my brother Jonathan: very pleasant hast thou been unto me: thy love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women" (II Samuel 1:26).
While the Bible's two books of Samuel provide considerable detail about the friendship between David and Jonathan, they do not reveal whether the two men had a sexual relationship, and the question is debated to this day.
"There can be little doubt, except on the part of those who absolutely refuse to believe it, that there existed a homosexual relationship between Jonathan and David," writes author Tom Horton, claiming that the ancient Israelites were certainly influenced by the surrounding Mediterranean cultures in which homosexual relations were common and sexual liaisons between warriors were admired. "One cannot read [the account of their relationship] without discerning that Jonathan was the love of David's life," concurs the Rev. Nancy Wilson, a member of the Metropolitan Community Church Board of Elders. "Centuries of homophobic Biblical interpretations have kept them in the closet too long!"
Some have gone so far as to argue that the covenant between David and Jonathan was equivalent to a marriage. A similar claim has been made about David's ancestor, Ruth, and her mother-in-law, Naomi. Ruth's vow of fidelity"for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge" (Ruth 1:16)is used today in both gay commitment ceremonies and heterosexual marriages.
On the other side of the debate, commentators deny that the relationship between David and Jonathan had an erotic component. James Patrick Holding argues that the assumption that the two men were lovers is a product of "jaundiced Western eyes." In that era, he says, declarations of passionate feelings and physical expressions of affection were common between platonic friends. "Put your head on the breast of another man today here in America, and the jokes will fly," he writes. "But in the ancient East, not so; and even today, such affectionate displays are typical on that side of the world."
Regardless of whether David and Jonathan had a sexual relationship, they were not "gay" by today's definition. David had eight wivesincluding one of Jonathan's sistersand the Biblical tale of his adulterous relationship with Bathsheba indicates that he was sexually attracted to women, not simply married out of a sense of obligation or political ambition. Furthermore, the notion of "homosexual," "bisexual," and "heterosexual" individuals did not exist in Old Testament times. "David was not a 'homosexual' because he loved Jonathan, or Jonathan because he loved David," writes Horner. Rather, he says, they were "simply well-rounded men" who acted within the standards of a society that accepted different kinds of sexual behavior.
While it is impossible to know whether David and Jonathan were lovers or simply close comrades, their relationship has proved inspirational to many gay men. And Davidwhom the Bible describes as being "of a beautiful countenance and goodly to look upon" (I Samuel 16:12)has been portrayed as an icon of male beauty in art and literature throughout history.
Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics. She can be reached care of Letters from CAMP Rehoboth or at PastOut@qsyndicate.com.
LETTERS From CAMP Rehoboth, Vol. 15, No.2 March 11, 2005