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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.
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.”
Ryan Grant Long, a young gay artist based in Wisconsin, 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
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)
a Covenant with David”
by Trudie Barreras
In contrast Atlanta 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
"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|
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
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
The love between Jonathan and David provides a foretaste of the love between a soul and God. As 16th-century Spanish mystic John of the Cross wrote in “The Spiritual Canticle”:
“The love Jonathan bore David was so intimate, it knitted his soul to David’s. If the love of one man for another was that strong, what will be the tie caused by the soul’'s love for God, the Bridegroom; especially since God here is the principal Lover...”
David and Jonathan: Why did God focus on their intimate partnership? (GayChristian101)
Homosexuality and Tradition: David and Jonathan (Pharsea’s World)
Subjects of the visual arts: David and Jonathan (glbtq.com)
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
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.
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.
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