Who were David and Jonathan?
King David of Israel needs little introduction. He is the larger than life figure who killed the giant Goliath, bedded Bathsheba, and is said to have written many of the Psalms. Even though he was born the youngest son of a commoner, he was divinely chosen to became the second king of Israel after God rejected the first king, Saul’s, claim to a dynasty.
David’s relationship with Saul’s family as a whole was complicated. At various times he served Saul as a musician and a celebrated military commander, but at other times had to flee for his life from the king due to Saul’s jealousy and (well-founded) fear that David may gain the throne. David married the princess Michal, Saul’s younger daughter, and he closely bound himself to Saul’s eldest son Jonathan by a formal covenant (1 Samuel 18:3).
If Saul had been allowed to pass his throne on to his son, Jonathan would have been the next king of Israel. Jonathan is presented as a talented warrior, beloved by his father and the people as a whole. Yet instead of fighting David’s claim to the throne, he formed a close alliance and personal relationship with him. David and Jonathan’s interactions are full of drama, mixing personal and political intrigue, and at times even turning Jonathan’s loyalties against his powerful father.
Why is there speculation that they may have been lovers?
All of the Biblical passages in the books of 1 and 2 Samuel that portray David and Jonathan’s relationship are emotionally charged and intimate.
We first read of the two men meeting in 1 Samuel 18:1-4 right after David kills the Philistine giant Goliath. David, the unknown shepherd boy, is brought before Saul and Jonathan, still carrying the giant’s bloody head. Unsurprisingly, he makes quite an impression on both the king and his son. In fact, from this first meeting, “the soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul.” Fortunately for Jonathan, his father Saul immediately makes David a new member of the royal entourage and the two young men’s futures become intertwined.
However, David’s good standing with King Saul is short-lived. Merely one chapter later in 1 Samuel 19, we learn that Saul wishes to kill David because he is becoming too popular with the people. Jonathan, who “took great delight in David,” intervenes by warning him. David keeps a low profile for a few days while Jonathan manages to talk his father out of the murder. All is well… until 1 Samuel 20 when Saul becomes again intent on killing David. This time David gets word of the plot before Jonathan and goes to him for protection. What follows is a dramatic and touching scene where Jonathan once again saves David’s life.
Having sounded out Saul and realized that his intentions of murder are real, Jonathan returns to where David is hiding to warn him. He and David use a pre-arranged code involving Jonathan’s instructions to his servant boy during archery practice. David, from his hiding place, overhears the code that means danger and knows he has to flee for his life. He waits until Jonathan sends the servant boy back to town.
“As soon as the boy had gone, David rose from beside the stone heap” where he was hiding and bowed to Jonathan in thanks. Then, “they kissed each other, and wept with each other; David wept the more. Then Jonathan said to David ‘Go in peace.’…He got up and left; and Jonathan went into the city” (1 Samuel 20:41-42).
At this point David begins a life on the run, often hunted by Saul. He continues to live as an outlaw until Saul dies in battle and he is free to come out of hiding. Tragically Jonathan is killed in the same battle as his father and David hears of both deaths on the same day. David goes into mourning, lamenting, “Saul and Jonathan, beloved and lovely! In life and in death they were not divided; they were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions” (2 Samuel 1:23). For Jonathan though, he has especially tender words: “I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women” (2 Samuel 1:26).
Why does it matter if they were a couple?
People tend to have pretty strong opinions about whether David and Jonathan were lovers. If the legendary King David had a same-gender relationship that was portrayed positively in the Bible, it could provide powerful precedent for similar relationships today. For many Christians, especially LGBTQ people, the intensity and love between the two men provides a beautiful example of a Biblical romance. For other Christians, the belief that same-gender relationships could not be portrayed positively in the Bible leads to the conclusion that the two must simply have enjoyed a particularly strong friendship.
Because of this, writing about David and Jonathan’s relationship tends to be polarized, with some authors refusing to even consider the possibility of a sexual relationship, and others making the assumption of a relationship their starting point. In between are plenty of people who have weighed the evidence and come to a conclusion, but even among Biblical scholars there is no consensus about what that conclusion should be.
Well, were they?
The truth is, we don’t know. The Bible clearly demonstrates David and Jonathan’s deep commitment to each other, but does not refer explicitly to a physical relationship between the two men beyond kissing. Even then, some of the details us modern readers would assume point to a romantic relationship may not indicate one at all.
For example, men kissing each other is not necessarily a sign of homosexuality in an ancient context. Men kissing platonically is unremarkable in the Old Testament in other passages, especially if the men are related. David and Jonathan are only mentioned to have kissed once they were brothers-in-law through David’s marriage to Jonathan’s sister Michal.
Similarly the word “love” used in the David and Jonathan stories usually indicated personal affection, but it was also used to indicate loyalty in political alliances. Might some of the men’s closeness have come from the political advantage of forming a bond that did not include King Saul? Though it seems unlikely that alliance was all that was at stake in these intimate stories, given the court setting politics must have played some role in the David and Jonathan’s interactions.
There are many more questions that can be raised about the Biblical context and translations of these stories. For example, when David laments Jonathan’s death by saying that his love was “wonderful, passing the love of women” is he paralleling types of love or contrasting them? Is he referring to sexual love or emotional attachment? It is difficult to find a whole lot of scholarly agreement on any of these interpretive questions.
In spite of all the uncertainty about motives, physical intimacy and meaning, the story of David and Jonathan’s relationship remains compelling. What we know we have in this story is an extraordinary example of love and faithfulness between two people of the same gender. Throughout their lives David and Jonathan protected each other through all of the politically charged dangers of their time and declared their love. Whether that love was ever expressed sexually is a question that the Bible simply does not answer.
Jeff Miner and John Tyler Connoley, “David loved Jonathan more than women,” excerpt from The Children Are Free: Reexamining the Biblical Evidence on Same-sex Relationships
Kittredge Cherry, QSpirit, “David and Jonathan: Same-sex love between men in the Bible” (2016)
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Hayyim Angel, “When love and politics mix: David and his relationships with Saul, Jonathan, and Michal,” Jewish Bible Quarterly 40, no. 1 (January 2012): 41-51.
Markus Zehnder, “Observations on the relationship between David and Jonathan and the debate on homosexuality,” The Westminster Theological Journal 69, no. 1 (2007 2007): 127-174.