1 Samuel 18-23: The Queerness of David and Jonathan
Scripture is filled with complex mysteries and modern scholars continue to struggle over the complexity of them. The story of David and Jonathan is one of those great mysteries of homoerotism in the bible. Since this infinity between the two happens prior to the philosophical era, it is difficult to describe or contend if the relationship between these two men was carnal or amicable. This essay identifies challenges in the text, the role King Saul played, and how the relationship amid David and Jonathan is queer. This is further supported by exegesis of the text and accounts from other scholars.
Is there a fixation with the uncircumcised giant, Goliath? In chapter 17 of 1 Samuel, the mystery of how a child killed a giant is recorded. From the very beginning, the infatuation of the phallus is apparent. David, in dialogue with Saul states, “[y]our servant has killed both lions and bears; and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them, since he has defied the armies of the living God…The LORD, who saved me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, will save me from the hand of this Philistine[i].” Indeed there is, otherwise the condition of his phallus would not have been communicated, nonetheless David cuts off the man’s head and delivers it to Saul. Saul, in the next chapter, perhaps to embarrass and get David killed, gives him a directive to collect the foreskins of one hundred Philistines in order to marry his daughter, Michal[ii]. Returning to the beginning of chapter 18, an introduction to the queerness of David and Jonathan is presented.
Jonathan sees a stripling[iii] and becomes infatuated with him. This occurs after a correspondence between Saul and David. The scripture states that Jonathan’s soul is bound[iv] with David’s. Bound in Hebrew is נִקְשְׁרָ֖ה, meaning, “to bind, conspire,” but is parsed as perfect third feminine singular[v]. This verse details the beginning of an attraction, and is feminine on the part of Jonathan. I contend that this being bound leads the two to become a single soul or connection. If it is connectional, then the appearance of David, perhaps as well built with six-pack abs, and Jonathan, a hairless and slim built male, parallels a scene for the Queer as Folk.[vi] The two see in in other a desire the other one craves and that sight paves way to a convent.
David and Jonathan establish a covenant, arguably in the resemblance of a Jewish Marriage. However, Hebrew marriage was not necessarily a bond. The Jewish Marriage was a covenantal-contract. Blu Greenberg supports this saying:
“[I]n its most technical sense, marriage in Judaism is a change in personal status. Neither sacrament nor mere legal transaction, it enjoys the trappings of both: an aura of sacredness, the language of sanctification, the richness of ceremony and rite, the sanction of religious leaders.” It also involves a contract, a formal declaration, witnesses, signatures, and an exchange of monetary value[vii].”
With the definition of Jewish marriage identified, it cannot be concluded that the bond possessed between David and Jonathan was a marriage. There is still a paradox that exists leading on to believe that the two created a marriage bond between each other, that is, in secret. However, this text provides homoerotic detail in the reviling of senses, and the question remains: how did the two become acquainted with each other moving toward a homoerotic disposition?
In defense of the origins of this relationship, Oley Keren states, “[T]he roots of Jonathan’s acquaintance with David lie in the episode in which an evil spirit terrifies Saul (16.15). Saul’s courtiers propose that a musician be summoned to calm his mind. When Saul agrees, they describe their candidate’s promising qualities: he is ‘skillful in playing, a man of valour, a man of war, prudent in speech, and handsome in appearance’ (16.18)[viii].” Keren continues, “Saul cannot turn away such a talented candidate and sends messengers to David’s father to fetch him. When David arrives, Saul takes a fancy to him and makes him his armour-bearer (16:21). To keep the lad nearby, Saul asks Jesse to allow David to stay at court[ix].” From this analysis, we learn that the two encountered each other upon condition of circumstances, leading each other to produce a courtship, later frowned upon by Saul.
Saul’s jealously of David leads to strife and Jonathan becomes the mediator. This jealously has insinuated initially on part of Samuel. This priest has anointed David as the next monarch of Israel after YHWH rejects Saul’s leadership[x]. On part of his jealously, Saul imparts every scheme to end David’s life. Each time this attempt is made, the scripture states that YHWH was with David. I contend that God’s protection of David further rested in the hands of Jonathan. The bond became queer because of YHWH, who as the scripture states, who produce an evil spirit upon Saul[xi].
In God’s protection of David, I believe that the queerness became established through the spiritual connection united amid two beings, operating under the prophetic. I state this because, when Samuel protects David, each time the king sends servants to seize David and frenzy overtakes them, moving them to prophesy and strip their clothing[xii]. Again, the act of participating in a ritual that is not normative expresses queerness. The men are engaged in a nude “frenzy,” all in the name of YHWH. This prophetic ritual of séance is undeniably not how Saul intended the situation to circumstance.
Jonathan expresses a sincere love for David with an exchange of vows for fraternal eros in in the next chapter. Keren states: Jonathan makes two requests of David concerning the future: (1) that David not kill him (20.14); and (2) that David protect his descendants (20.15)[xiii].” This exchange seems to occur after an impassioned discourse of encounter. In further dialogue between Saul and Jonathan an assumption can be made that David and Jonathan engaged in some sort of carnal activity based upon the commentary Saul utters toward his son in 20:30.
Again, I contend that bond these two share is part of God’s own intervention to protect David for Saul. Markus Zehnder takes a different approach as to defining this relationship as platonic, however offers a point that validates the premise stated above. He states:
“[A]gainst this background it has to be pondered how Jonathan’s delight in David is connected with YHWH’s delight in David, is Jonathan’s delight to be understood as a consequence of YHWH’s delight on the human level? Perhaps the connection hinted at here can be described even more specifically: YHWH’s delight in David becomes effective in David’s political success; Jonathan’s delight in David is the means by which YHWH’s delight operates. This would mean that Jonathan’s delight in David corresponds to the will of YHWH; YHWH would even be its ultimate source. Alternatively, Jonathan’s delight could be understood as a correspondence to the divine delight: David’s way is smoothed by the double support given him both by God and by men; thereby, the hint at David’s status as “beloved” that is included in his name is confirmed in a concrete manner[xiv].”
Work of the Spirit through prophetic encounters created a queer relationship between David and Jonathan. It is relationship or intense homoeroticism and covenant. Although a priest does not conduct the Jewish marriage rite, this text invites the reader explore to likelihood of common-law marriage known and facilitated by the two. God’s will, as contended above, contribute whole-heartily to this purpose, since David is the next chosen and anointed king of Israel. The queerness of their relationship intensifies as situations become more critical, just like any relationship that occurs in daily life. I further conclude that if it had not been for God’s intervention, the life of David would have been terminated by jealousy. Furthermore, David and Jonathan substantiated a bond that no being could “put asunder.[xv]” Lastly, based upon the little evidence present, it was an erotic relationship filled with passion and desire. David loved Jonathan perhaps more than he loved himself, and the same vice versa. True love was produced from the will of YHWH and such complexity led to lascivious simplicity.
[i] 1 Samuel 17:34-35, NRSV.
[ii] 1 Samuel 18:25-29, NRSV.
[iii] 1 Samuel 17:56, Saul calls David this when inquiring of his nationality and origin.
[iv] 1 Samuel 18:1, NRSV.
[v] ”נִקְשְׁרָ֖ה“ (1 Samuel 18:1 BHS-T).
[vi] Queer as Folk. Directed by Russell Mulcahy. 2000. In episode 1, Brian and Justin spot each other outside of a club, latter retiring to Brian’s apartment.
[vii] Greenberg, Blu. “Marriage in the Jewish tradition.” Journal Of Ecumenical Studies 22, no. 1 (1985 1985): 3-20. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed May 3, 2016).(7).
[viii] Keren, Orly. “David and Jonathan: a case of unconditional love?.” Journal For The Study Of The Old Testament 37, no. 1 (September 2012): 3-23. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost(accessed May 3, 2016). (5).
[x] 1 Samuel 16, NRSV.
[xi] Throughout the entire story of Saul and David (1 Samuel 16-23), G-d initiates Saul’s jealousy with an “evil spirit.” However, each time this happens, God protects David, usually through Jonathan and once through his wife (Jonathan’s sister) Michal.
[xii] 1 Samuel 19:18-24, NRSV. An extreme state of chaos is occurring. It was perhaps like the day of Pentecost in Acts.
[xiii] Keren, 17.
[xiv] Zehnder, Markus. 2007. “Observations on the relationship between David and Jonathan and the debate on homosexuality.” The Westminster Theological Journal 69, no. 1: 127-174. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed May 3, 2016), p. 148. Zehnder is also quoting another author and adds: “Concerning the possible connection between the name “David” and the designation ”beloved,” see Johann Jakob Stamm, Beiträge zur hebräischen und altorientalischen Namenskunde (OBO 30; Freiburg: Universitätsverlag/Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1980), 25-43.”
[xv] Mark 10:9, KJV.