1 Samuel 18:1 says:
‘As Saul was speaking, [the heart of his son] Jonathan became bound to David… He loved him as much as his own life.’
This verse is one of a few that are often quoted to argue that King David and Jonathan were lovers. Could that be true?
Well, not according to the manuscripts that we use. Our Bible uses the oldest Greek manuscripts that are older than the Hebrew manuscripts by many centuries... And in our manuscripts, 1 Samuel 18:1 does not appear!
crossed it out in our translation, along with many other verses in that chapter, as they all appear to be later additions. They are part of a larger group of verses which don’t appear in the oldest sources and contradict the rest of the passage, even putting the events in the wrong order.
We must also consider that under the Law, gay sex was punished with the death penalty. Even if, for the sake of argument, there was a sexual relationship between two men, would they have flaunted their close relationship so openly that Samuel could write about it? Would it rather not have been kept entirely secret, like gay relationships are today in countries with the death penalty, like Saudi Arabia?
Besides, Jonathan was old enough to be David’s father. It is far more likely that Jonathan merely felt a protective, fatherly, love for the young lad.
Also, the house of Saul, and David, both had many enemies in their lives; one would think that anything which could be used against them would be.
The part which talks about loving him more than his own life does appear to be genuine, though, as the words were merely copied from later in the book at 1 Samuel 20:17, which says:
Jonathan swore an oath to David because of his love for him… For he loved him as much as his own life.
However, people usually take this out of context, for just beforehand Jonathan made David swear to show him mercy, despite being related to his father, Saul:
...throughout the rest of my life, you must agree to deal with me in the mercy of Jehovah! ‘And after I die, you must be merciful to my house throughout the age... (1 Samuel 20:14-15)
Making someone promise that they won’t take violent revenge, is hardly the sentiment heard between lovers. Notice also that the love is one-way, it’s only mentioning Jonathan’s love for David, not the other way around.
Later, after Saul and Jonathan died in battle, David composed a long poem about the events (remember that David was a poet and musician). Part of it, in 2 Samuel 1:25-27, says:
You were killed in the mountains.
I grieve over you, JonNathan,
O my brother, you were always there for me.
Your affection for me amazed me,
More so than the love of women. ‘But now, the mighty have fallen,
And their weapons of war are destroyed.’
First of all, notice again that this is talking about a one-way love from Jonathan. Also, what we translate as ‘affection’ and ‘love’ is the word agape, which means principled love, it is not eros, the word for romantic or erotic love.
So, for what it’s worth, the opinion of the Greek translators of the 3rd century BCE understood this to be David comparing the principled love from Jonathan to be better than the principled love he received from women. In other words, they did not understand it to be erotic love. This agape love can indeed come from a wife, but also from a mother, or a daughter, an aunt, or a grandmother.
Okay, but if that’s the case, why did David not compare Jonathan’s love to the love of a father for his son? Why compare the love to that with women? After all, as we said, the age-gap between them was just like that of a father and son...
Well, our translation may clear this up. Our wording suggests that what was greater here, was not the love itself, but the amazement that David felt because of receiving it.
Indeed, the love David got from Jonathan was remarkable, since by all accounts, Jonathan should have been David’s enemy – not friend! So no wonder David was amazed by it, far more amazed than he would be if a woman dedicated herself to him... that would be normal, but Jonathan’s dedication was very unusual. Love from a woman would not be. In effect, he was saying:
‘I could understand why a woman might love me, but I’m amazed that you – of all people – would do so!’
Rather than being words of a gay lover, these are absolutely the words of a straight man who was shocked that the son of the rival King would betray his father, give up the throne, and dedicate himself to the man that Saul regarded as a rival and traitor.
Of course, if you’re looking for mistranslations and cultural misunderstandings that end up sounding rude or funny, there is no shortage of them.
The final frequently-quoted verse is 1 Samuel 20:41, which says in part:
‘Then he [David] kissed his friend [Jonathan] and they both cried over this ending of David’s important position.’
Some assume that this kissing implies a romance. However, yet again we find the problem is that Westerners do not understand Semitic cultures. Kissing others of the same sex is an ordinary part of life. It was done in greeting, saying goodbye, or to bless someone; including before a long journey – which is exactly what was happening here. It is still the custom in many places today.
Indeed, it’s not the only account of a man kissing another man in 1 Samuel. In 10:1 it says:
Well at that, SamuEl took a flask of oil and poured it over [Saul’s] head, and he kissed him and said: ‘Jehovah is anointing you to be the ruler over His inheritance.’
So the kissing does not indicate romance, it was ordinary part of the ancient Semitic culture and is both expected and required.
You’ll find this cultural practice at:
- Exodus 4:24
- Exodus 18:7
- 2 Samuel 14:33
- 2 Samuel 15:5
- 2 Samuel 19:39
- 2 Samuel 20:9
- Matthew 26:49
- Acts 20:37
- Romans 16:16
- 1 Corinthians 16:20
- 2 Corinthians 13:12
- 1 Peter 5:14
Therefore, in a situation where two close friends know they will never see each other again (as was the case here), it would be utterly bizarre for the custom of kisses goodbye to be suddenly absent.
If they did not go through the normal custom of kissing, it would almost imply that they hated each other!
So, all of this appears to be a mixture of:
- A fake Bible verse,
- Poor translation,
- A lack of understanding of the context,
- A lack of understanding of Semitic culture,
- And perhaps a dose of wishful thinking.
Our Bible uses older manuscripts than most Bibles do. Check us out!