We can’t have a discussion of Jonathan and David without touching on homosexuality. Twice in this chapter, they express their fondness for each other, and the chapter even closes with them apparently having a make-out session in the middle of a field.

Homosexuality – per se – is something of a new invention (at least in terms of being an identity rather than a predilection). So I think it would be anachronistic to try to understand David as a homosexual, rather than asking whether his relationship with Jonathan, specifically, was a romantic/sexual one.

Jonathan and David embrace, illustration from La Somme le roy, ca. 1300

Jonathan and David embrace, illustration from La Somme le roy, ca. 1300

I’ve also seen the argument that David may have been bisexual, given his many wives. This is anachronistic for the same reason, but suffers the additional issue of confounds. A man in a patriarchal society like that of ancient Israel likely had no choice but to have a wife/wives, particularly if he wishes to establish a dynasty. reading anything about sexuality into marriage in a culture where marriage doesn’t really have any alternatives is rather silly.

Kenneth Davis notes that, “among warriors [in other nearby cultures], homosexuality was condoned because of the bond it created between men” (Don’t Know Much About the Bible, p.181), so it’s not unreasonable that David may have felt comfortable letting his relationship with Jonathan be known (and vice versa) at that time and in that cultural context.

Others have noted that homosexuality is pretty strongly condemned elsewhere in the Bible, so it makes no sense for Jonavid to be mentioned, particularly with such focus and repetition. But there are plenty of other possible explanations.

One is that the relationship was so well known that the authors didn’t have the option of simply glossing over it. Instead, they chose to face it head on and cast in a way that made it seem like it a positive thing. It does not necessarily follow that they would be arguing that homosexual acts committed by anyone other than David are therefore okay. Kenneth Davis argues that David’s sexual exploits with women are later emphasized “as proof of what a macho guy he really was” – providing a counterbalance to the well-known relationship with Jonathan.

Another possible explanation is that the writings against homosexuality were targeting specific ritual practices, such as a symbolic coupling with Baal to make the rain come. In such a case, a homosexual relationship with God’s blessing would not come under the same rubric.

It could also be that the condemnation of homosexuality was a later tradition, or that the focus on homosexuality in Leviticus 18:22 and Leviticus 20:13 had to do with ritual purity. I argued several times in the reading of Leviticus that the prime concern of the book seems to be with keeping things in neat categories. Blemishes are bad, men must have testicles, men and women have sex, etc. The authors show clear discomfort around anything that deviates from the norm. It could be, then, that the condemnation of homosexuality was – at least at one time – a concern for priests, but not really a big deal for the common people (or princes and future kings). Given Leviticus gives us the only explicit condemnation of homosexual sex in the Old Testament, I’d say that there’s a strong argument to be made that it was only a concern to a relatively small segment of the population.

This all assumes that the relationship is, indeed, a romantic one. I don’t think that’s settled, though, at least for now. Abbie at Better Than Esdras combed through our text for other examples of kissing, finding:

  • Isaac asks his son to kiss him (Gen. 27:26).
  • Laban kissing his sons and daughters (Gen. 31:55).
  • Esau and Jacob kiss when they meet each other after a separation, weeping as David and Jonathan do (Gen. 33:4).
  • Moses kissing his father-in-law (Exod. 18:7).

By contrast, she found only two romantic kisses:

  • Jacob kisses Rachel (Gen. 29:11).
  • Kisses are given in the Song of Solomon (So. 1:2).

This doesn’t mean that David and Jonathan weren’t lovers, merely that this particular kiss isn’t proof of a relationship.