The Old Testament devotes considerable space to the friendship between David and Jonathan (1 Samuel 18–20; 2 Samuel 1)
. A perusal of the relevant chapters will help the reader appreciate the depth of the relationship between these two men. Nevertheless, until very recently no one seems to have suspected anything unusual behind this cycle of stories involving David and Jonathan. Even today many, if not most, readers see nothing more in these stories than reflections of a very close friendship between the two men.
However Tom Horner champions a very ingenious theory. In Jonathan Loved David, he insists that David and Jonathan were homosexual partners. Horner finds the strongest supporting evidence for his theory in the words of David's lament over the death of Jonathan, "I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; very pleasant have you been to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women." (2 Samuel 1:26)
Add to that the observation that David took his farewell from Jonathan with the sort of tenderness which he did not display toward his wife—kissing and shedding tears—and one begins to appreciate why some might wonder about the nature of the relationship between these two males.
As far as Horner is concerned, an unbiased reading of the story suggests that David and Jonathan were homosexual lovers. Moreover, Horner feels certain that the nature of such a relationship would have been generally known and understood. The important point is that no one at that time seems to have raised an eyebrow or shaken an accusing finger against the pair, says Horner. From this Horner concludes that there is evidence in the Bible itself which indicates that at least at a certain period in history homosexual behaviour was tolerated in Israel.
In David the King, Gladys Schmitt adds that the story of David's seduction of Bathsheba implies that David was actually heterosexual or at least bisexual in orientation. According to these theories the sexual mores of the Davidic era were rather free, at least as far as the affairs of the king were concerned.
Other scholars tend to be skeptical. They feel that Horner is reading too much into the text. Peter Coleman is convinced that "no implication of a homosexual relationship in modern terms is made in the biblical narrative of the friendship between these men." In Christian Attitudes to Homosexuality, he says that David's words should be understood metaphorically. They should not be taken to imply that David preferred homosexual sex with Jonathan over heterosexual relations with women. One should rather conclude that David had a strong emotional attachment to Jonathan and that he valued Jonathan's friendship even more highly than he did sexual relations with women. Coming from a man like David, who found Bathsheba irresistible, this would be no small compliment to Jonathan.
There is no hint anywhere that either David or Jonathan had any sort of problem in their heterosexual sex life. David had a large number of wives and concubines (2 Samuel 5:13). Only toward the end of his life is he said to have suffered impotence (1 Kings 1:1–4). Seen from today's perspective, if the two males can be shown to have carried on a homosexual relationship, they would have done so either as persons of heterosexual or at best bi-sexual orientation.
Is there enough evidence to substantiate anything of the sort? Nissinen thinks not. He finds nothing to indicate that David and Jonathan slept together. Their relationship should not be regarded as homosexual but as homosocial in nature. What we see here is "an example of ancient oriental homosociability, which permits even intimate feelings to be expressed," he says.
Nevertheless, people in the gay community are often loathe to relinquish the David–Jonathan texts in a discussion of homosexuality. While they acknowledge that actual sexual intercourse is only a remote possibility in the David–Jonathan cycle, they value these stories as an indication that physical sex is only one and often only a minor part of the homosexual relationships. These stories honour the display of intense affection between two males. The role of genital sex is of lesser consideration in a love relationship. Gay relationships like heterosexual relationships find their true basis in emotional support and affection rather than in the sex act as such.
What Do You Think?
Are we focusing too much on the sex act when we think about intimate same-sex (or heterosexual) relationships?
Would it be more appropriate to think of a celibate homosexual relationship between David and Jonathan?
How would the public be able to distinguish between two males just being close friends and being involved in a celibate homosexual relationship?
Which theory seems more or less convincing to you?
Do you consider it possible that homosexual activity on the part of consenting adults would have been tolerated in ancient Israel? Why, or why not?