The story of Jonathan and David, of which this text is a snippet, is one that is very rich with connections and meaning.
First of all, it is a love story. Scholars debate the exact nature of Jonathan’s relationship with David. Some view it is a strong friendship. Read in this way the story is a description of the power of non-romantic friendships to have fierce and life-giving love to their participants. Jonathan’s relationship with David gives both of them a sense of strength, support, and hope through dark days. In David’s case it is through the dark days that begin in this passage of David being in exile, wanted as a traitor by the king, on the run for fear of his life. Quite literally Jonathan saves David’s life at risk of his own. He does so by letting David know of his father’s murderous rage and judgment upon David. Yet I think it is more than giving hidden insight into David’s dangers. I think it is knowing Jonathan’s friendship remains steady and unchanged in tumultuous situation. Knowing another cares for you, loves you, come what may not for what you can do for them but simply for who you are is a powerful buoy through life’s storms. David beautifully puts the significance of his relationship with Jonathan in his words at Jonathan’s death in 2 Samuel 1 – “I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; You have been very pleasant to me. Your love to me was more wonderful Than the love of women.”
Likewise David’s relationship with Jonathan is a buoy for dark times for Jonathan. The dark days that now lay revealed ahead for Jonathan are days related to Saul’s mental illness. This scene shows Saul in a dangerous mood swing lashing out violently to kill his own son, Jonathan. It is hard to imagine the terror and confusion one feels when your parent has a mental health episode and lashes out at you due to their illness as happened to Jonathan unless you have been through it. From my own experience of people in family with mental illness I can only imagine it was an experience in which everything felt topsy turvy – up seemed down, left seemed right – where the bottom of his sense of safety and security seemed to drop out from beneath him. It can feel as if everything is laid bare, with no safe place to turn. What’s more, the fact Jonathan continues to reign alongside Saul and fight alongside him suggests to me that Jonathan ended up having to pick up the pieces, to look out for Saul and also to keep the kingdom running despite Saul’s sickness. To keep up the household or business of a family member unable to manage it due to mental illness can be a trying experience. I can barely imagine the darkness one feels upon one’s life when it is not just their business or household that is precariously placed due to their illness but the nation itself.
David’s love for Jonathan gave Jonathan a relationship as solid as steel. He knew despite the shaking of the foundations of his life, there was someone whose love for him had not been shaken. He knew something was solid.
Some see this love as the love of two dear friends, with no hint of romance. They see the physical intimacy – including at points removing clothing, kissing, and vowing using language reminiscent of modern marriage vows used to express their love for each other – as more reflective of how ancient Jewish culture was more open to physical and public expressions of affection between men than our own modern culture. Read in this way, we are reminded of the power of friendship to give us buoy and support in life, and also the value of letting your friends know their value to you.
Yet others point to these factors in the story, including how much more affection and heartfelt feeling between David and Jonathan as signs that this is a story of romance between two men. After all, David expresses more deep abiding love for Jonathan than any of his many wives. After all much of the physical affection they share, if written about a man and a woman, could in Hebrew be read as euphemistic for certain acts of sexual intimacy. Could David’s marriages to women have been but marriages of convenience for David and he be a man who truly loved men not women? Or could David have been bisexual or pansexual with this story of same-gender love being like a Romeo & Juliet story of two who truly fall in deep passionate love yet cannot be together due to the reality of politics at the royal court?
Read in this way this story becomes a tragic tale of romance, in which the two lovers never can live together openly as a couple due to the tragic situation they face.
Either way we read this story, we see a beautiful picture of same-gender love. This love gives these two men the courage and strength to face uncertainty, danger, heartache, fear, loss, and even separation from each other with resiliency. This story is a reminder of the power of love.
Galatians 5 tells us that the whole of Biblical Law is summed up in the call to love, and it lists love as a primary fruit of the Spirit of God saying that against love there is no law. Ultimately love is powerful.
My own thought is that the reason that scholars cannot determine if David & Jonathan were close friends or instead lovers is that God wanted that message unclear. By making it unclear God enables us to read the story both ways, since both the love of dear friends and the love of a significant other are gifts of God, in whatever packaging they come. Song of Solomon 8:6 tells us that love is stronger than death.
This true love which gives of one’s self for another is always a gift of God, however imperfectly expressed, and a strength in life. I think this story invites us to put away our fear of embracing the love of another, whether they be a friend or potential romantic partner, based on fear it will not work out. It didn’t work out in the case of Jonathan and David. Ultimately they never get their day in the sun together, never can have the sort of restful relationship that we all long for in our friendships or romance. But David in the end says it was worth it, and their love carries them forward.
Our world can teach us love has to come packaged in just the right way – fitting the Hollywood image, or only between a man and a woman – overlooking the many diverse ways love can burst forth in our lives. Yet to me the story of Jonathan and David embraces the messy, complicated, untidy ways love can burst forth in our lives that are life-giving. It acknowledges that even in such unexpected ways that love can be a gift of God and make our lives, as well as other’s lives, richer.
This picture of a love that warms us through the winters of this world to me is so beautifully pictured by the words of “I’ll Cover You” from the musical “Rent”:
Have you had relationships – whether friendships, romances, or even renewed kinship with family members – that you did not expect to become important yet were life-giving and transforming to you? I’d love to hear your stories on my blog.
Let’s embrace love in all its many forms, choosing to be shaped by love and to help weave more love into this world.
And I ain’t just whistling Dixie,
Your progressive redneck preacher,