Wednesday, December 29, 2010

David and Jonathan: Love between men in the Bible

David and Jonathan window (detail) from St. Mark's Portobello, Edinburgh, Scotland, 1882

Love between men is celebrated in the Bible with the story of David and Jonathan. They lived about 3,000 years ago, but they still inspire LGBT people of faith -- and many others. David’s feast day is today (Dec. 29).

The two men met when David was a ruddy young shepherd.  Jonathan, a courageous warrior, had returned victorious from battle.  Jonathan was the eldest son of Saul, Israel’s first king. David was taken to see King Saul right after beheading the Philistine giant Goliath. Scholars estimate that David was about 18 and Jonathan was at least 10 years older.

Jonathan fell in love at first sight of the handsome young hero. As the Bible says, “The soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David.” Their story gets more chapters in the Bible than any other human love story.

David, the second king of Israel, was an acclaimed warrior, musician and poet. He is credited with composing many of the psalms in the Bible. The gospel genealogies list David as an ancestor of Jesus.

The modern idea of sexual orientation didn’t exist in Biblical times, but the powerful love story of Jonathan and David in 1 and 2 Samuel suggests that same-sex couples are affirmed and blessed by God.

Sixteeenth-century Spanish mystic John of the Cross is one of the many writers who used their same-sex love as a model for divine love. “The love Jonathan bore for David was so intimate that it knitted his soul to David's. If the love of one man for another was that strong, what will be the tie caused through the soul's love for God, the Bridegroom?” John of hte Cross asked in “The Spiritual Canticle.”

Artists throughout the ages have tried to capture the drama and passion of their story, beginning with the moment that David and Jonathan met.  A beautiful romantic version of their first meeting appears on their stained-glass window at St. Mark's Portobello, a Scottish Episcopal church in Edinburgh. The inscription states, “The soul of Jonathan was knit with the soul of David” (1 Samuel 18:1).

David and Jonathan window from St. Mark's Portobello, Edinburgh, Scotland, 1882

Created in 1882, the window has a dedication at the bottom: “In loving memory of George Frederick Paterson of Castle Huntly who died at Portobello, 30th Sept. 1890, aged 33.” All that is known about Paterson is that he was in the army and unmarried. The window was paid for by "a friend."

“Jonathan Greeting David, after David killed Goliath” by Gottfried Bernhard Goez, 1708-1774 (Wikimedia Commons)

Soon after David and Jonathan met, the two men expressed their commitment by making a covenant with each other. The dramatic moment is described in 1 Samuel 18:3-4: “Then Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul. Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that he was wearing, and gave it to David, and his armor, and even his sword and his bow and his belt.”

California artist Ryan Grant Long emphasizes the homoeroticism of the gesture as Jonathan strips off his robe and wraps it around David with a kiss on the neck in the image at the top of this post. For more about Long, see my previous post Artist paints history's gay couples.

“David and Jonathan” by Ryan Grant Long

Artist Brandon Buehring imagined both men stripped bare in a private encounter between Jonathan and David in his “Legendary Love: A Queer History Project.” He uses pencil sketches and essays “to remind queer people and our allies of our sacred birthright as healers, educators, truth-tellers, spiritual leaders, warriors and artists.” The project features 20 sketches of queer historical and mythological figures from many cultures around the world. He has a M.Ed. degree in counseling with an LGBT emphasis from North Carolina State University in Raleigh. He works in higher education administration as well as being a freelance illustrator based in Northampton, Massachusetts.

“Jonathan and David” by Brandon Buehring

A more traditional view is presented by 16th-century Italian painter Cima da Conegliano. In both images David is still carrying the head of Goliath as he bonds with his new friend Jonathan, hinting at the union of violence and eroticism.

“David and Jonathan” by Italian painter Cima da Conegliano, 1505-1510 (Wikimedia Commons)
“Jonathan Made
a Covenant with David”
by Trudie Barreras
Collection of
City of Light /
First Metropolitan
Community Church
of Atlanta

In contrast New Mexico artist Trudie Barreras shows the new friends both putting aside their armor to make a covenant with each other (left).

The Bible chronicles the ups and downs of David and Jonathan’s relationship over the next 15 years, including tears and kisses. King Saul is jealous of David's popularity and keeps trying to kill him, while his son Jonathan rescues his friend in various ways. An 18th-century German “friendship medal” (below) captures another highlight as Jonathan pledges to David, “I will do the desires of your heart” (“Ich will die thun was dein Herz begehrt”) from 1 Samuel 20:4.

German friendship medal of Jonathan and David by Philipp Heinrich Müller, c.1710 (Wikimedia Commons)

Other artists focus on a dramatic moment that came later when Jonathan met David at a pile (or "ezel") of stone to warn him that Saul intended to kill him. An 1860 woodcut by German artist Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld illustrates that tearful farewell scene from 1 Samuel 20: 41-42:

"Then they kissed each other and wept together—but David wept the most. Jonathan said to David, “Go in peace, for we have sworn friendship with each other in the name of the Lord, saying, ‘The Lord is witness between you and me, and between your descendants and my descendants forever.’”

“David and Jonathan” woodcut for "Die Bibel in Bildern", 1860, by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld (Wikimedia Commons)

Detail from "David and Jonathan
at the Stone Ezel"
by Edward Hicks
Another version of the farewell scene was painted by American folk artist and Quaker minister Edward Hicks in 1847.  In both paintings a boy can be seen carrying away their weapons.  In the lower right Hicks places a scene of the Good Samaritan rescuing a downtrodden man.  Interestingly, the Jonathan and David window at St. Mark's Portobello is also paired with a window showing the Good Samaritan.

"David and Jonathan at the Stone Ezel" by Edward Hicks, 1847

David and Jonathan became so close that it looked like someday they would rule Israel together. But that day never came because Jonathan was killed in battle. David mourned deeply for him with a famous lament.

There are many translations of 2 Samuel 1:26, each one expressing how the love between Jonathan and David was “greater than,” “more wonderful than,” “deeper than” or otherwise “surpassing the love of women.”

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

The love between the two men is honored in a golden icon by Brother Robert Lentz. Unlike most images of Jonathan and David, the Lentz icon shows Christ above blessing their relationship. It is one of 10 Lentz icons that sparked a controversy in 2005 when conservative Roman Catholic leaders accused Lentz of glorifying sin.

Jonathan and David by Br. Robert Lentz, OFM
www.trinitystores.com

Contemporary gay Israeli artist Adi Nes gives shocking clarity to David and Jonathan by using images of homoeroticism and homelessness to subvert stereotypes about people in the Bible. The triumph of David over Goliath is often used to symbolize Israel’s military victories over its enemies, but Nes chooses to depict David as a vulnerable youth with a crutch, leaning on another young man for love and support. Dirty and unkempt, they embrace beneath an industrial overpass covered by graffiti. They look battered, perhaps from a gay bashing. The tender moment suggests the scenes when “the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David” or when “they kissed each other and wept together.” (For more about Adi Nes, see my previous post “Gay Israeli artist Adi Nes humanizes Bible stories. “

“Untitled (David and Jonathan)” by Adi Nes

Gay-positive Bible scholars have written extensively about the relationship between David and Jonathan. The classic book on the subject is “Jonathan Loved David: Homosexuality in Biblical Times” by Thomas Horner.

Jonathan and David embrace.
Manuscript illustration, circa 1300
La Somme le roy
The love between the two men is also celebrated in literature, including the poem “The Meeting of David and Jonathan” by 19th-century English poet John Addington Symonds. He is known as an early advocate of male love (homosexuality) and wrote many poems inspired by his own homosexual affairs. In “The Meeting of David and Jonathan” he writes:

There by an ancient holm-oak huge and tough,
Clasping the firm rock with gnarled roots and rough,
He stayed their steps; and in his arms of strength
Took David, and for sore love found at length
Solace in speech, and pressure, and the breath
Wherewith the mouth of yearning winnoweth
Hearts overcharged for utterance. In that kiss
Soul unto soul was knit and bliss to bliss.

The full poem appears in “Many Moods: A Volume of Verse” by Symonds.

It’s impossible to know whether David and Jonathan expressed their love sexually. Some consider David to be bisexual, since the Hebrew scriptures also recount how he committed adultery with Bathsheba and later made her one of his eight wives. There is no doubt that many people today do honor David and Jonathan as gay saints.

Their story is used by contemporary LGBT Christians to counteract conservatives who claim that the Bible condemns homosexuality. The “David loved Jonathan” billboard below is part of the Would Jesus Discriminate project sponsored by Metropolitan Community Churches. It states boldly, “David loved Jonathan more than women. II Samuel 1:26.” For more info on the billboards, see our previous post, “Billboards show gay-friendly Jesus.”

David loved Jonathan billboard from GLBT Christian billboards from WouldJesusDiscriminte.com and WouldJesusDiscriminte.org

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Related links:

David and Jonathan: Why did God focus on their intimate partnership? (GayChristian101)

Homosexuality and Tradition: David and Jonathan (Pharsea’s World)

David the Prophet and Jonathan, His Lover (Queer Saints and Martyrs - And Others)

David y Jonatán: El amor entre hombres en la Biblia (Santos Queer)

Bible story of David and Jonathan’s first meeting: 1 Samuel 18

Bible story of Jonathan’s death: 2 Samuel 1

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Special thanks to Ruth Innes for the photo and info on the stained-glass window at St. Mark's Portobello.

Special thanks to Mitch Gould, curator of LeavesOfGrass.org, for introducing me to David and Jonathan at the Stone Ezel by Edward Hicks.  It is part of their project on LGBT Quaker history.

Special thanks to Kevin Elphick for pointing out the quote from John of the Cross.

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This post is part of the LGBT Saints series at the Jesus in Love Blog. Saints and holy people of special interest to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) people and our allies are covered on appropriate dates throughout the year.

Copyright © Kittredge Cherry. All rights reserved.
http://www.jesusinlove.blogspot.com/
Jesus in Love Blog on LGBT spirituality and the arts
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Icons of Jonathan and David and many others are available on cards, plaques, T-shirts, mugs, candles, mugs, and more at Trinity Stores




4 comments:

Trudie said...

I've been waiting to see what comments would come up about David and Jonathan, but since no one else has remarked, I thought I'd share just a couple of ideas.

First, of course, it is quite obvious that there was SOMETHING going on because of Saul's intense jealousy. Not to go any further along that road, though, one must admit that given the customs of the time, a strong bond between two men, even with a physical component, was not unusual. what may have been unusual was the fact that David and Jonathan were peers, not (as with Saul and David) older mentor and younger servant.

What really needs recognizing, though, is that the fact that David in later years seemed to be completely in tune with his culture's notion that women were possessions, not people. In that context, it is not surprising at all that he believed his relationship with Jonathan, being a peer relationship of equals, was better than the love of women -- IN EVERY WAY!

That is, of course, the lesson we must take from current same-gender relationships. Where there is a sense of equality of power, deeper relationships inevitably result. This CAN be true of heterosexual relationships, but too often even today, it is not. This is what the One Man - One Woman advocates really want: the archaic model that has been all too familiar through the centuries, of male domination and female submission.

KittKatt said...

The love between David and Jonathan is beautiful in many ways. Thank you, Trudie, for highlighting their equality and its implications for today. And thanks again for sharing your painting of David and Jonathan here.

A LOT of people are reading this post even though they don’t leave comments. Last year’s post on David and Jonathan was the 4th most popular post here based on traffic, getting 876 page views from May to Dec 2010. This year I added more art and the Symonds poem.

Colin said...

The “David loved Jonathan” billboard is wrong in saying “David loved Jonathan more than women. II Samuel 1:26”. The verse actually says that Jonathan’s love to David was more wonderful than the love of women. While the biblical author says a number of times that Jonathan loved David, the author never says that David loved Jonathan. Nevertheless, it is still a prominent story of same-sex romantic attraction and love.

KittKatt said...

Don't you think that David returned Jonathan's love? It seems obvious from the overall story, even if most translations don't use the “L-word” to describe David's feelings for Jonathan. It does seem that Jonathan's love for David was more intense than David's love for Jonathan.

Your comment caused me to reread various translations of David's lament for Jonathan, and I see that you do have a valid point, depending on the translation.

I discovered this rather surprising translation from the Douay-Rheims Bible:

“I grieve for thee, my brother Jonathan: exceeding beautiful, and amiable to me above the love of women. As the mother loveth her only son, so did I love thee.”

It boldly states that David loved Jonathan -- and then adds the comparison to the mother's love for her son, which is found in no other translation. It looks like they couldn't stand the same-sex love between biblical heroes!