Thursday, October 4, 2012
David and Jonathan
My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about David and Jonathan:
Q: Was the relationship between King David and his friend Jonathan, which is described in the book of 1 Samuel, a close platonic friendship, or was it really a romantic relationship? If these two men were romantically involved, how can this be reconciled with the Old Testament laws forbidding such relationships?
It has become more common lately for some authors to envision the relationship between David and Jonathan as being a homosexual romance. However, it is important to note that this is a very recent development. My research has not revealed evidence that this was proposed by anyone earlier than the 1950s, and even then it seems to have been proposed only rarely and theoretically, and not seriously considered until well after 1970.
This alone ought to raise skepticism regarding the claim, because whenever we encounter a 40-years-young assumption about a 3000 year old piece of literature, it is highly unlikely that the assumption has any credibility.
Yet historicity alone is not the only difficulty with this view of the relationship. The verse that is most frequently the focus of these claims is 2 Samuel 1:26, in which David, while lamenting Jonathan’s death, describes his friendship with Jonathan as “greater than the love of a woman.” For a reader without a background in Hebrew, I can see how the imagination might seem to suggest a romantic relationship. However, two linguistic clues lead us to consider other options.
First, the language used in this verse about David and Jonathan’s friendship is that of “love.” Hebrew does not use the word “love” to refer to a sexual relationship. In fact, it does not even use it to refer to an emotional feeling. Instead, to love is to sacrificially and selflessly place another’s interests ahead of one’s own, such as when Jonathan acknowledged God’s will that David be king (1 Samuel 18) rather than clinging to the idea that the throne should rightfully be his own. In Hebrew it is, instead, the word “know” that is used to refer to a sexual relationship. Throughout the Old Testament, when a couple consummates an intimate relationship, it uses the language of knowing and not the language of loving.
Additionally, David’s words are set in the context of Hebrew poetry, which was not based on rhyme, as we are used to, but rather on structure and on parallelism. What we see in 2 Samuel 1:26 is a parallel that is meant to emphasize the difference between the parallel subjects. So, David is not saying that he relates sexually to both Jonathan and to women and comparing the two experiences. Instead, He is saying that the friendship he enjoys with Jonathan is not only superior to any relationship he might enjoy with a woman, but that it is of a completely distinct kind.
Even if it were plausible that the relationship between David and Jonathan were intimate rather than platonic, it would be very difficult to prove with certainty. On the other hand, the legal prohibitions set forth in Leviticus are very clear. One of the most basic principles of Bible reading is that the clear passages shed light on the unclear ones, and not the reverse. Therefore we would have to conclude that the clear prohibitions earlier in the Bible make it impossible that David and Jonathan’s relationship could be simultaneously romantic and honorable in the Old Testament’s worldview.
Even if this relationship were to be as asserted in the recent opinions, it would not lead to the conclusion that the relationship was moral. For example, the Bible also describes David’s acts of adultery and murder later in life, but the fact that they are described does not lead to the conclusion that they were exemplary acts. Elsewhere in the Old Testament, Job’s friends give him all manner of wrong answers about his suffering, but this does not mean that the answers are divinely approved, but rather merely descriptions of the events.
In any case, regardless of one’s position on homosexual behavior, the fact is that this story is simply not relevant to the question. The language and context make it quite clear that the relationship was anything but sexual, but even if the potential existed that it were, the mere description of the situation by the Biblical authors would not render it divinely approved, meaning that an intellectually honest person on either side of the question of homosexual relationships will simply have to look elsewhere for their evidence.