Sons or Lovers: Jonathan and David

In my last post, I showed some of the implications of J. David Schloen’s book for small-scale archaeological interpretation. But I think that some of its approaches are even more valuable for insights into the history of the area and also from there into Biblical Studies. I want to show that through an example. Earlier this year I took a course on the Jonathan narratives. As we read through the Hebrew text, I became fascinated by the key “house of the father” vocabulary coming up again and again. And I realized that if we read the text in that context, it had quite a different message from some that might be presumed if we see our modern assumptions reflected in it.


Let me turn to when Jonathan and David are first mentioned together in the story. David has just defeated Goliath, the Philistines have been driven back. At this point there’s what seems this odd interlude in the narrative about Saul asking whose son David is (1 Samuel 17:55-58). Shouldn’t he have known this already? After all, Jesse sent presents with David to the court (1 Samuel 16:18-23). It may indeed be that two different traditions are woven together here. But I think that the narrative at the end of David’s triumph over Goliath is important in the overall narrative of the story. Here the relationship between David and Saul is explained, into which Jonathan steps.

“Whose son are you, young man?” Saul asked him.
David said, “I am the son of your servant Jesse of Bethlehem.”

In David’s answer are three family references that show both the closeness and the challenge to Saul.
1. David is the son of Jesse.
This may be seen as a simple statement of identity, but through it David also indicates his first loyalty to his family.

2. Jesse is your servant.
This is the language that Schloen identified as familial language between independent houses, through which a clear hierachy is established. In a sense, Jesse is part of Saul’s household and we can see the nested structure of those households (David through being the son of Saul’s servant, is part of Saul’s household). But while the word indicates something of subservience, there is a hint of independence here.

3. Jesse and his family are from Bethlehem.
The clan association is spelled out here. While it may just be to locate David within  greater Israel, it makes clear David’s loyalties.

It was after this conversation about family that the life of Jonathan was bound with that of David. To me it seems that Saul and Jonathan followed two quite different ways in their relationship with David, and through it particularly with the house of Jesse.

Of Saul it is said (1 Samuel 18:2)

And Saul seized him from that day onward and did not give him back to the house of his father.

Here we even have the “house of the father” reference spelled out more clearly. Saul took David away from his father’s house, and changed David’s apparent loyalty to his, Saul’s, house, for now that would be David’s family, not the house of Jesse.

In contrast Jonathan acted quite differently (1 Samuel 18:3)

Jonathan made a covenant with David, for he loved him like his own life.

We have covenant language here, as between two kings. And just as kings in covenants back then promised to love each other, so Jonathan is said to love David. In a sense, through this David is recognized as the higher king in this relationship. At the very least, it signifies a relationship between two houses, not the absorption of David into Saul’s house.

Well, the story goes on to tell that David became more popular with the people so that Saul saw him as a threat. Saul plans to kill David, even though he is now part of Saul’s house.

The issue of family loyalty comes to a head in 1 Samuel chapter 20. David comes to Jonathan complaining that Saul wants to kill him. Jonathan disputes it. The test that David then devises is one of family loyalty. As a member of Saul’s household David is to dine with him at a specific festival. He stays away on purpose, with the excuse that he followed the call of his own family for the event. Some modern readers may see that as a lame excuse, but if we keep in mind the world in which this is set, it is one of the strongest provocations to Saul yet. It makes it clear to Saul that David will choose the house of Jesse and the clan (mispaha) of Bethlehem over being a servant in Saul’s house.

Saul’s reaction is violent, but nearly predictable (1 Samuel 20:30). He sees the clear provocation, but even more than that he is enraged that Jonathan does not see a threat in David’s family loyalties. For Saul it is as if Jonathan doesn’t get it. Doesn’t Jonathan see that David has negated loyalty to the house of Saul? Doesn’t he get that this is a threat to the whole family, that a different family is trying to ascend to the throne of Israel? It is interesting to point out that not only here, but more generally from now on, Saul calls David “the son of Jesse”. The family provenance is put into the foreground by Saul. And the narrators highlight it when Saul is speaking.

Let’s go back a bit and look at the relationship between David and Jonathan in this context. It seems as if Jonathan has recognised that David will be the new king. He does not forget his own family. He wishes that the LORD may be with David as he was with his father (Saul) (1 Samuel 20:14). And he makes a covenant with David in which he binds David to care for his own family and his descendants. Jonathan has realised who will be king, and whom the LORD intends to be king. While he seems to act against the interests of his own family, he actually works in the interest of it, for he ensures that David, the king to come, will deal kindly with his, Jonathan’s, family.

This relationship between Jonathan’s family and David continues long after Jonathan is dead and the house of David fights against the house of Saul, and David wins. That is why David shows mercy to Jonathan’s son Mephibosheth (2 Samuel 9).

After Saul and Jonathan are dead (killed by the Philistines), the struggle for kingship is clearly described as the war between the house of Saul and the house of David (2 Samuel 3:1+6). Family terminology is quite explicitly used. And while the new king Ish-bosheth, the son of Saul, continues to fight against David, the son of Saul, who was in line to be king, and who also had all the qualities to be king, had long recognised that the kingdom should go to David. The different attitudes of Jonathan and Ish-bosheth are contrasted. Jonathan had to choose between loyalty for family and the LORD’s anointed. He chose David, but at the same time remaining loyal to his family in every way he could.

More instances of “house of the father” terminology in the Jonathan and David narratives could be mentioned. While the Biblical texts are just laden with words referring to the family, I think we often do not notice them until we have been made aware of it.

The title for this post comes from a book by Jonathan Rowe: Sons or Lovers: an interpretation of David and Jonathan’s friendship. He uses anthropological approaches, such as studies on family allegiance, male roles, friendship, and honour. While his approach is different, his conclusions are very similar, also pointing to the importance of the family conflict in this narrative of Jonathan and David. He concludes that Jonathan’s narrative role is to legitimize the transfer of the kingdom to David’s house, with the implication that if Jonathan chose this king, so too should readers.

He does not really address the other interpretation of the Jonathan story that has become trendy in recent years. It is the interpretation of a homosexual relationship between Jonathan and David. Clearly, a possible homosexual relationship does not stand at the centre of the Jonathan narratives, but there is no question that the Biblical authors also portrayed an emotional aspect to the relationship between Jonathan and David. Jonathan was not just a sharp, calculating guy who ingratiated himself with the man he perceived to be the future king.

The phrase that Jonathan loved David like his own soul / life is used repeatedly (1 Samuel 18:1+3; 1 Samuel 20:17). While it may indeed echo the love between two covenant partners, such as kings, I think that it also portrays an emotional bond. For the reverse was also true: the covenant partnership between two kings was expected to also have an emotional aspect.

But the passage that is most often used by commentators is David’s lament for Saul and Jonathan (2 Samuel 1:19-27). As an aside, Jonathan was with Saul at this point and continued in his filial role. While the lament for Saul was elegant and gracious, the lament for Jonathan becomes emotional.

I grieve for your, Jonathan my brother;
you were very dear to me.
Your love for me was wonderful,
more wonderful than that of women.
1 Samuel 1:26

The word for “dear” נָעֵם can have erotic overtones in Hebrew. And then the love of Jonathan is compared with that of women, not with the love of some other covenant partner. I do agree that from our present worldview such terminology can (but does not have to) be interpreted as a homosexual reference. I am not so certain when we see it in the context of early Ancient Israel. I prefer to see it as the lament of the “best friend”, also referred to in ancient texts and ethnographic literature. It makes clear that family ties are not the only emotional ties that are destroyed on death (see Jonathan Rowe 2012:128). Nor would I read this particular passage against the grain of the whole narrative.

As Jan Fokkelman states: “The love of Jonathan does not have to be nailed to the mast of a late capitalistic liberation front whose members, after centuries of sinister suppression of homosexuals, wish to designate homosexual love the highest form of humanity.”

I have not widely read the literature for and against the homosexuality interpretation (or in any case bisexuality, since both were fathers) of David and Jonathan. But from some brief exposure it seems that comparison is made with later Greek, urban literature. I don’t think that those comparisons are very valid and that they are very ambivalent. Even in an earlier Greek rural context, the attitudes to and practices of homosexuality would have been quite different to that of the well-off urbanites. Nevertheless, Greek literature also has a lot to say about very close friendships between men that were clearly not sexual.

So, for example, the reference that Jonathan and David went out into the field (1 Samuel 20:11+35) should not be interpreted as a sexual reference (presumably because homosexuals get active in the field), but rather in the context of the struggle between the house of Saul and the house of Jesse. Here, in the field, Jonathan and David were in neutral territory, not in the physical town that represented the house of Saul.

In conclusion: the focus on Jonathan and David as homosexual lovers is a modern concern and distortion of the narrative motivated by current political positions. Rather, we should read the story in its own context with the presumed original audience. The concept of the “house of the father” helps us to understand that context. The text is just one example showing the difference our approaches can make to interpretation. I think that the narrative portrays Jonathan and David first and foremost as sons and then as covenant partners, who love each other (in the sense of respect). I hope that Jonathan will be seen more as someone who took the right actions in a conflict between families, and who did not put his own ambitions above what he perceived to be the way of God.

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