For generations and generations, Jewish and Christian believers have pointed to the relationship between young King David and Jonathan (heir apparent and son of King Saul), as a model of brotherly love and devotion. For thousands of years, scholars and devoted believers have seen David and Jonathan as nothing more (or less) than the finest example of friendship (philic) love possible between two heterosexual men. David clearly demonstrated his heterosexuality in the wives he took and the children he fathered. But recent scholarship has sought to reconstruct and reinterpret the relationship between these two men. In response to growing cultural acceptance of homosexuality, a few religious leaders are now re-reading the scriptures and generating support for the claim David and Jonathan were actually homosexual lovers.
While recent cultural developments have certainly begun to influence the way people read the text, the vast majority of believers, scholars and theologians still interpret the text in the traditional way. In addition to the literally thousands of teachers, professors and church leaders, here are just a few examples from published scholarly works:
Robert Pfeiffer (1948)
Said the relationship between David and Jonathan was “intense and sincere, but nonetheless virile [i.e. manly, and not homosexual]”
David Payne (1970)
Said Jonathan’s feelings were (simply) an “admiration and respect for David”
J.A. Thompson (The Significance of the Verb Love in the David-Jonathan Narratives in 1 Samuel, 1974)
Said the connection between David and Jonathan was “the kind of attachment people had to a king who could fight their battles for them”
Stan Rummel (Clothes Make the Man – An Insight from Ancient Ugarit, 1976)
Said Jonathan’s giving of his robe and weapons to David in the covenant was simply a political symbol for handing the throne over to him. There was no sexual meaning
Rabbi Israel Weisfeld (1983)
Said David and Jonathan’s relationship is simply “classic description of genuine unselfish love”
Jerry Landay (David: Power, Lust and Betrayal in Biblical Times, 1998)
Said “The friendship of Jonathan and David was the embodiment of the sheer love of man for man, an intimacy based on shared experiences and dangers, … a kind of intuitive trust that transcends the taint of ambition, jealousy or the claim of sex”
But after Alfred Kinsey published his famous book, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male in 1948, a few writers began to take a second look at the relationship between David and Jonathan. While still much in the minority, these writers have influenced the way some people read and interpret the text:
David Mace (Hebrew Marriage, 1953)
Claimed the relationship was an example of “the comparatively harmless homosexual attachments of adolescence”
George Henry (1955)
Claimed David and Jonathan were homosexual lovers, although he apparently realized the Biblical evidence of later wives and children spoke against this possibility, so he maintained their homosexuality was only a passing phase
Raphael Patai (Family, Love and the Bible, 1960)
Claimed “The love story between Jonathan the son of King Saul, and David the beautiful young hero, must have been duplicated many times in royal courts in all parts of the Middle East and in all periods”
Tom Horner (Jonathan Loved David, 1978)
Claimed the story of David and Jonathan was simply a retelling of the homosexual relationship between Gilgamesh, King of Uruk, and Enkidu, his close companion
Gary Comstock (Gay Theology Without Apology, 1993)
Claimed anti-homosexual social pressures caused Samuel to write the text in a way concealing the homosexual truth of the relationship
David Jobling (1 Samuel, 1998)
Claimed “Nothing in the text rules out, and much encourages the view that David and Jonathan had a consummated gay relationship. The text does not force this conclusion on us; there are obvious cultural reasons why it would not. But it is at least as valid as any other”
Jonathan Kirsch (King David: The Real Life of the Man Who Ruled Israel, 2000)
Claimed “something more heartfelt and more carnal may have characterized the love of David and Jonathan, even if the Bible dares not speak its name. … Much effort has been expended in explaining away David’s declaration of love for Jonathan, a declaration that suggests an undeniable homoerotic subtext”
No serious or expansive effort to describe David and Jonathan as homosexuals was made prior to Kinsey’s impact on our culture. As our culture changed, however, many simply changed the way they looked at the ancient text, even though the traditional interpretation of the text taught just the opposite. When the text was originally written, and when its readers were far closer to the action than we are today, David and Jonathan were seen as nothing more than good friends. Only recently has this been interpreted differently. There are only two possibilities here: there was an ancient bias which suppressed the truth for thousands of years, or there is a new bias which is guiding a new interpretation. To be fair, there have even been a few recent writers who have tried to stay neutral on this topic:
J.P. Fokkelman (Narrative Art and Poetry in the Books of Samuel, Volume 2, 1986)
Said the “The love of Jonathan does not have to be nailed to the mast of a late capitalist liberation front whose members, after centuries of sinister suppression of homosexuals, wish to designate homosexual love the highest form of humanity. It would be even less sound to assure us in suspiciously strong tones that Jonathan and David were most definitely not gay.”
Is it possible David and Jonathan expressed love toward one another, even swore an oath and entered into a covenant, without being homosexuals? David’s love for Jonathan is displayed in the Biblical text the very first time Jonathan met David (immediately following David’s defeat of Goliath and as he was presented to King Saul)
1 Samuel 18:1-3
Now it came about when he had finished speaking to Saul, that the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as himself. And Saul took him that day and did not let him return to his father’s house. Then Jonathan made a covenant with David because he loved him as himself.
Jonathan also made a covenant with David:
1 Samuel 20:16-17
So Jonathan made a covenant with the house of David, saying, “May the LORD require it at the hands of David’s enemies.” And Jonathan made David vow again because of his love for him, because he loved him as he loved his own life.
And later, when Jonathan was killed, David lamented his loss with these words:
2 Samuel 1:25-26
“How have the mighty fallen in the midst of the battle! Jonathan is slain on your high places. I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; You have been very pleasant to me. Your love to me was more wonderful than the love of women.”
Two Hebrew words were used here to describe the emotion of love in these passages. The first was ‘ahab (aw-hab’) or ‘aheb (aw-habe’), and it can definitely be used to describe a sexual relationship between a man and a wife. The second word is ‘ahabah (a-hab-aw), and this too can be used to describe a similar marital love. But in the 247 times these words are used to describe love in the Old Testament, far less than 20% of the time are they actually used to describe the love between two sexual partners. Far more often, (over 4 to 1) the words are used to describe the love between friends or between God and his creation. Here are just a few examples:
Now therefore, my son, listen to me as I command you. Go now to the flock and bring me two choice kids from there, that I may prepare them as a savory dish for your father, such as he loves.
Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his sons, because he was the son of his old age; and he made him a varicolored tunic.
You shall therefore love the LORD your God, and always keep His charge, His statutes, His ordinances, and His commandments.
1 Samuel 18:16
But all Israel and Judah loved David, and he went out and came in before them.
1 Kings 10:9
Blessed be the LORD your God who delighted in you to set you on the throne of Israel; because the LORD loved Israel forever, therefore He made you king, to do justice and righteousness.”
The LORD appeared to him from afar, saying, “I have loved you with an everlasting love; Therefore I have drawn you with lovingkindness.”
He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
In these passages, it is obvious the word used for love is not meant to connote a sexual relationship. There is no Biblical account of an explicit sexual encounter or relationship between David and Jonathan. If they were homosexual lovers, why is there no open description of this fact? Some (as we’ve seen above) argue social pressures forced the writer to hide the truth. But there are open discussions of homosexual activity in other places in the Bible, why not here? In those areas of the Bible where homosexual behavior is openly discusses, it is always in a negative sense (as something we shouldn’t do). If Samuel was cleverly hiding the homosexual behavior between David and Jonathan here, he was doing so as a prophet of God, knowing full well such behavior was offensive to God.
Why Would Anyone Think David and Jonathan Were Lovers?
How was David and Jonathan’s love deeper than that of a man and woman? These two men were connected as brothers-in-arms during war. If you’ve ever talked to two friends who fought side by side in World War 2 (just watch “Band of Brothers”) you know the love between men in wartime is in some ways deeper than the love between a man and a woman. This form of love and admiration is consistent with the Biblical text, the clear teaching of the Bible related to homosexuality, and the historic, traditional interpretation of the relationship between David and Jonathan. With this in mind, let’s examine a few key issues related to the David and Jonathan’s friendship:
1. Why Did They Kiss?
Some have pointed to the kiss between David and Jonathan to argue they were homosexual lovers:
1 Samuel 20:41
When the lad was gone, David rose from the south side and fell on his face to the ground, and bowed three times. And they kissed each other and wept together, but David more.
In this passage, Jonathan is sending David away because he knows his father (King Saul) is trying to kill David. Jonathan knows he may never see his dear friend again. So he kisses David. The Hebrew word used for this kiss is nashaq (naw-shak’) and it is used 35 times in the Old Testament and in only 4 of these uses is the word used to describe a sexual or romantic kiss. Over and over again, the word is used to describe the cultural greeting of the time:
So it came about, when Laban heard the news of Jacob his sister’s son, that he ran to meet him, and embraced him and kissed him, and brought him to his house.
Then Esau ran to meet him (Jacob) and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.
1 Samuel 10:1
Then Samuel took the flask of oil, poured it on his (Saul’s) head, kissed him and said, “Has not the LORD anointed you a ruler over His inheritance?
2 Samuel 19:38-39
All the people crossed over the Jordan and the king crossed too. The king then kissed Barzillai and blessed him, and he returned to his place.
The kiss between David and Jonathan, when seen accurately in the majority context and use of the Hebrew word, does nothing to advance the notion they were homosexuals. Even today, we see men in the middle east continue to greet and interact with each other utilizing a kiss to express their friendship or commitment to one another (without a homosexual relationship).
2. Why Did He Take His Clothes Off?
Revisionists also claim Jonathan disrobed in front of David in some sort of sexual way (or as some sort of sexual display of commitment):
1 Samuel 18:2-5
Then Jonathan made a covenant with David because he loved him as himself. And Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that was on him and gave it to David, with his armor, including his sword and his bow and his belt. So David went out wherever Saul sent him, and prospered; and Saul set him over the men of war. And it was pleasing in the sight of all the people and also in the sight of Saul’s servants.
We must be careful not to focus entirely on what is said in a passage without considering what is not said. You’ll notice here the passage does not say Jonathan stripped completely in front of David. In addition, the passage says nothing about any sexual activity, a kiss or an embrace, or anything leading us to believe there is a sexual component in the passage. Some argue when Jonathan gave his weaponry to David he was actually surrendering the symbols of his manhood, but this does a disservice to the passage. Here is how historical and tradition commentators have discussed the Biblical episode:
Adam Clarke’s Commentary
Presents of clothes or rich robes, in token of respect and friendship, are frequent in the East. And how frequently arms and clothing were presented by warriors to each other in token of friendship, may be seen in Homer and other ancient writers.
Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown Commentary
To receive any part of the dress which had been worn by a sovereign, or Iris oldest son and heir, is deemed in the East the highest honour which can be conferred on a subject. The girdle, being connected with the sword and the bow, may be considered as being part of the military dress, and great value is attached to it in the East.
Keil & Delitzsch Commentary on the Old Testament
As a sign and pledge of his friendship, Jonathan gave David his clothes and his armour. Meil, the upper coat or cloak. Maddim is probably the armour coat.. This is implied in the word wª`ad (OT:5704), which is repeated three times, and by which the different arms were attached more closely to madaayw (OT:4055). For the act itself, compare the exchange of armour made by Glaucus and Diomedes (Hom. Il. vi. 230). This seems to have been a common custom in very ancient times, as we meet with it also among the early Celts (see Macpherson’s Ossian).
Reading from the context of the culture, 1 Samuel 18:3-5 actually describes a covenant of brotherhood between Jonathan and David, as Jonathan pays high tribute to the man who just killed Goliath and had earned the right to wear the armor. This hardly proves the two men were lovers.
3. Why Does It Look Like a Marriage?
Those who would interpret David and Jonathan’s relationship in a homoerotic sense also point to scripture to make the case Jonathan and David considered themselves to be married in some way. Look at this passage describing Saul’s reaction when he discovered Jonathan was ultimately siding with David:
1 Samuel 20:30-31
Then Saul’s anger burned against Jonathan and he said to him, “You son of a perverse, rebellious woman! Do I not know that you are choosing the son of Jesse to your own shame and to the shame of your mother’s nakedness? “For as long as the son of Jesse lives on the earth, neither you nor your kingdom will be established. Therefore now, send and bring him to me, for he must surely die.”
Advocates of a homosexual reading of this passage will sometimes point to the description of “nakedness” in this verse and claim it is referring to a sexual relationship. They claim Jonathan somehow chose David sexually. They also claim Saul was upset because Jonathan could not be established as king unless (and until) he had a female partner with whom he could bear children as heirs to the throne. But this also does a disservice to the passage. Who is described as naked? It’s Jonathan’s mother. There is nothing in the passage describing a sexual relationship between the two men. In fact, this passage says nothing about any type of marriage. Saul is upset about one thing: Jonathan took David’s side against Saul. Jonathan and David were sworn to each other as brothers, and Saul was simply upset Jonathan would treat David more like family than his own father.
4. Why Does He Say David Is A “Son-In-Law” Twice?
Revisionists also point to a passage that seems to indicate David had two opportunities to become Saul’s son-in-law. Let’s begin by examining the passage in question, presented in a partial way, as it is often presented by homosexual advocates:
1 Samuel 18:17,21
Then Saul said to David, “Here is my older daughter Merab; I will give her to you as a wife, only be a valiant man for me and fight the Lord’s battles.”… And Saul thought, “I will give her to him that she may become a snare to him, and that the hand of the Philistines may be against him.” Therefore Saul said to David, “For a second time you may be my son-in-law today.“
Those who hope to interpret a homosexual relationship here maintain Saul offered David a second opportunity to be his son-in-law because the first opportunity for David was realized through Jonathan. They argue David’s union with Jonathan makes him Saul’s son-in-law, even before David’s marriage to Merab, Saul’s daughter. But let’s take a deeper look at the passage. Before we can truly assess what would make David Saul’s son-in-law in the first place, we must look at the issue of betrothal in the ancient world. In Biblical times, the moment a woman was betrothed to a man (pledged or promised to be married to him), she was considered married to him, even though she was not yet formally united to the man in a ceremony. For this reason, a woman who was betrothed to someone and slept with another man was considered to be an adulteress. If a woman wanted to break a betrothal, something similar to a divorce would have to occur. Once we understand this historic truth, many other passages of scripture start to make sense. Take a look at this passage from Deuteronomy:
If there is a girl who is a virgin engaged to a man, and another man finds her in the city and lies with her, then you shall bring them both out to the gate of that city and you shall stone them to death; the girl, because she did not cry out in the city, and the man, because he has violated his neighbor’s wife. Thus you shall purge the evil from among you.
Clearly in this law written for Israel, an engaged girl is described as a wife, even before she is officially married. In addition to this, we are all familiar with this part of the nativity story:
Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.”
Joseph thinks about divorcing Mary for what he thinks she has done. How can he do this when they aren’t even married yet? Because, (once again) this engaged woman was considered married to her betrothed, even before the official ceremony. Given this truth, let’s take a look at the situation with David and Merab one more time. As it turns out, David had already been betrothed to Merab. This occurred the moment he defeated Goliath:
1 Samuel 17:22-25
Then David left his baggage in the care of the baggage keeper, and ran to the battle line and entered in order to greet his brothers. As he was talking with them, behold, the champion, the Philistine from Gath named Goliath, was coming up from the army of the Philistines, and he spoke these same words; and David heard them. When all the men of Israel saw the man, they fled from him and were greatly afraid. And the men of Israel said, “Have you seen this man who is coming up? Surely he is coming up to defy Israel. And it will be that the king will enrich the man who kills him with great riches and will give him his daughter and make his father’s house free in Israel.”
Since David was the man who killed Goliath, he was the man to whom Merab was pledged. At this moment, David became Saul’s son-in-law; at the very moment David defeated Goliath. This was the first time David became Saul’s son-in-law. So why does Saul say marrying Merab would then be David’s second opportunity to be Saul’s son-in-law in 1 Samuel 18:21? To understand this, we must read the entire passage from Samuel:
1 Samuel 18:17-21
Then Saul said to David, “Here is my older daughter Merab; I will give her to you as a wife, only be a valiant man for me and fight the Lord’s battles.” For Saul thought, “My hand shall not be against him, but let the hand of the Philistines be against him.” But David said to Saul, “Who am I, and what is my life or my father’s family in Israel, that I should be the king’s son-in-law?” So it came about at the time when Merab, Saul’s daughter, should have been given to David, that she was given to Adriel the Meholathite for a wife. Now Michal, Saul’s daughter, loved David. When they told Saul, the thing was agreeable to him. And Saul thought, “I will give her to him that she may become a snare to him, and that the hand of the Philistines may be against him.” Therefore Saul said to David, “For a second time you may be my son-in-law today.”
This is the key to the comment Saul makes in verse 21. Although Saul had already betrothed his daughter to David as a result of his killing of Goliath, Saul conveniently ignored this betrothal when he instead promised Merab to Adriel the Meholathite. Here is what traditional commentaries have to say about this:
Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown Commentary
Saul said to David, Behold my elder daughter Merab, her will I give thee to wife –Though bound to this already [1 Samuel 17:25], he had found it convenient to forget his former promise. He now holds it out as a new offer, which would tempt David to give additional proofs of his valor. But the fickle and perfidious monarch broke his pledge at the time when the marriage was on the eve of being celebrated, and bestowed Merab on another man; an indignity as well as a wrong, which was calculated deeply to wound the feelings and provoke the resentment of David. Perhaps it was intended to do so, that advantage might be taken of his indiscretion. But David was preserved from this snare.
In light of this, Saul’s comment in verse 21 makes sense. Saul had betrothed Merab to David twice. Once when he defeated Goliath and once here in the passages preceding verse 21.
So Were They Lovers?
If we are to believe David and Jonathan were lovers, we must ignore the plain reading of the scripture and the historic, traditional understanding of the text. In addition, we must believe Samuel, one of God’s prophets in the tradition of the Mosiac cultural law condemning homosexuality in Leviticus, would then approve of this homosexual relationship enough to carefully cloak it in the text. I hope this very brief review of the texts under consideration will help you to understand the orthodox Christian perspective of David and Jonathan’s relationship. David and Jonathan were the deepest of friends, true brothers in both cause and faith, but they were nothing more.