David, Jonathan, and the Dangers of Reader-Centered Interpretation

by J. Alan Branch March 8, 2019

Some revisionist interpreters of Scripture claim David and Jonathan had a homosexual relationship. It is with some reservation that I mention this argument since the average Christian who reads the Bible never considers a homosexual slant on the friendship of David and Jonathan. The false claim that David and Jonathan were lovers reflects a deep sadness among homosexual men in particular: Many of them have never had a deep friendship with another male that was not sexual in nature. Therefore, the David and Jonathan passages are read in light of their own experience and not the historical context.

Deconstruction of the David and Solomon friendship shows literally no end in liberal scholarship, with Yaron Peleg of Cambridge going so far as to say the text of Samuel seeks to feminize Jonathan by presenting him in a womanly manner, and thus discredit him and the line of Kish as legitimate rulers of Israel. In his analysis, Peleg gifts little attention to the exciting narrative of 1 Samuel 14 in which Jonathan and his armor-bearer engage in an audacious attack against a far superior force of Philistines, with the two men climbing uphill over rocks to kill twenty enemy warriors. Such an account of bravery hardly seems intended to present Jonathan as a man insecure in his gender identity. Peleg’s odd theory tells us more about the never-ending, strange, and unholy speculations of reader-centered interpretation than it does about David and Jonathan.

The remarkable friendship of David and Jonathan is set against the backdrop of Saul’s unstable behavior.  As Saul’s son, Jonathan was the next in line for the throne, yet even Jonathan recognized God’s special blessing on the life of David. 1 Samuel 18:1 says, “Jonathan loved [David] as his own soul.” The Hebrew verb for love here is ahav and it is never used in the Old Testament in reference to describe homosexual desire or activity. The two clear Old Testament narrative passages describing homosexual desire are Genesis 19:5 and Judges 19:22.  In both of these cases, the verb yada is used to describe a demand for homosexual behavior, but this verb is never used to describe Jonathan and David’s friendship. When the Bible describes David and Jonathan’s friendship, the Hebrew word for love is not intended to imply a sexual relationship, but is used in the sense of loyalty to an agreement or friendship, and in this context it is not surprising that 1 Samuel 18:3 says Jonathan made a covenant with David.

There is no hint of a homosexual relationship between David and Jonathan.  Claiming such an unholy perspective displays a lack of understanding of customs and mores in the Ancient Near East. As David and Jonathan grieved together over the unstable behavior of Saul, 1 Samuel 20:41 records how they expressed their sadness at a friendship ruined by Saul’s insecurities and violence: “When the young man had gone, David rose from the south side and fell with his face to the ground, and bowed three times.  And they kissed each other and wept together, but David wept more.” Concerning the show of affection between David and Jonathan, Robert Gagnon says, “There is nothing inherently homosexual about two men kissing each other in ancient Near Eastern society.  These were not erotic kisses but kisses of sorrow that conveyed the deep emotional pain of a committed friendship and alliance cleft by circumstances beyond their control.”[1] Even in our own day, there are cultures where men greet one another with a kiss without any latent sexual intent implied.

After Jonathan died in battle, 2 Samuel 1:26 records that David mourned for him and said, “I grieve for you, Jonathan my brother.  You were such a friend to me.  Your love for me was more wonderful than the love of a woman.” The Hebrew noun for “love” here in 2 Samuel 1:26 is ahavah and its verbal form is found in Leviticus 19:18, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  Likewise, the same verbal form is also used to describe God’s love for Israel in 1 Kings 10:9. Leviticus 19:18 and 1 Kings 10:9 do not have any sexual overtones, and neither do the descriptions of David and Jonathan’s friendship. Puritan author Matthew Henry grasped David’s grief and said, “Nothing is more delightful in this world than a true friend. . . . Nothing is more distressful than the loss of such a friend; it is parting with a piece of one’s self.”

We should grieve when people think the deep friendship of David and Jonathan was sexual. Of course, we must teach correct Biblical principles of hermeneutics and that the authorial intent of the text reigns supreme over any modern interpretative gymnastics. But the revisionist argument concerning David and Jonathan reflects the brokenness of people across the LGBTQ spectrum: It is impossible for them to imagine two friends of the same sex who care deeply for each other without wanting sexual favors. And this is where the beauty of the local church can make the Gospel come alive for terribly wounded exiles of our culture’s sexual chaos: A local church may be the first place where some men or women have had other people of their own gender express genuine love with no hidden sexual expectations. When we do so, we get to make new friends in the name of Jesus and demonstrate to them what a real friendship is.

Notes

  1. ^ Robert Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics (Nashville: Abingdon, 2001), 151-152.