Friday, June 8, 2012

Homosexuality and the Christian, Part 3: David and Jonathan

Back in the days when I taught biblical hermeneutics it was one of my responsibilities to help undergraduate students who knew no Hebrew or Greek to navigate the treacherous waters of understanding the "meanings" of words they encountered in the biblical text.  Then, as now, I had misgivings about the effectiveness of such training, though no doubt it instilled in the brightest of the students a healthy wariness of doing "word studies" and a rudimentary knowledge of the most egregious pitfalls to avoid.

The most basic error I taught them to avoid was what may be described as the "language fallacy."  This error, when applied to the Bible, often combines two fallacies, viz., the assumption that translation equivalents in two disparate languages share the same range of meanings, and the anachronistic assumption that words, and actions they describe, carry the same cultural connotations today as they did in the ancient Near Eastern and Mediterranean worlds of the biblical text.  This error at times has played theological havoc on the church, as when the notion of "righteousness" (Greek dikaiosynē) in Paul was tacitly assumed in the Middle Ages (with fallout remaining all the way to the present) to mean roughly the same thing as the Latin iustitia.  At other times, especially when the evolution of the English language is not taken into account, this can result in humorous misunderstandings of the text, such as the time I heard a lady express her fervent anticipation of living in a "mansion" in heaven as Jesus promised in John 14:2 (the word used by the fourth evangelist, monai, actually denotes "dwelling places" or "rooms").


How, you might ask, does this relate to the issue of homosexual relations?  Very simply, it is this error which is often used (whether due to naivete or postmodern ideology) to suggest that David and Jonathan were engaged in a homosexual relationship.  Consider the following texts drawn from the Deuteronomistic History of the Succession Narrative in 1 and 2 Samuel:



As soon as he had finished speaking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul.  And Saul took him that day and would not let him return to his father's house.  Then Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul.  And Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that was on him and gave it to David, and his armor, and even his sword and his bow and his belt.  (1 Sam 18:1-4)

But Jonathan, Saul's son, delighted much in David. (1 Sam 19:1)

Then Saul's anger was kindled against Jonathan, and he said to him, "You son of a perverse, rebellious woman, do I not know that you have chosen the son of Jesse to your own shame, and to the shame of your mother's nakedness."  (1 Sam 20:30)

And as soon as the boy had gone, David rose from beside the stone heap and fell on his face to the ground and bowed three times.  and they kissed one another and wept with one another, David weeping the most.  Then Jonathan said to David, "Go in peace, because we have sworn both of us in the name of the LORD, saying, 'The LORD shall be between my offspring and your offspring, forever.'"  And he rose and departed, and Jonathan went into the city. (1 Sam 20:41-42)

"Jonathan lies slain on your high places.  I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; very pleasant have you been to me; your love to me was extraordinary, surpassing the love of women."  (2 Sam 1:25b-26)
Read from the perspectives of 21st century English language and Western culture, this at first sight would appear to suggest that David and Jonathan were indeed homosexual lovers.  Heterosexual men today certainly don't speak or act that way toward each other today, no matter how close their friendship.  This has allowed revisionists such as John Boswell, David HalperinSusan Ackerman and Jennifer Wright Knust (among many others) to argue that they were indeed homosexual lovers, with the implied corollary that the Bible is more ambiguous and potentially affirming of such relationships than traditionalists allow.

A moment's reflection, however, causes one to notice some formidable potholes down that road, most obviously the clear evidence in the text of both Jonathan's and David's heterosexual proclivities — both were married (David multiple times), had children, and the story of David's adulterous and murderous affair with Uriah's wife, Bathsheba (2 Sam 11-12) casts the largest of shadows on the Samuel narrative as well as upon the Psalter (Ps 51).  As a result, it is common to read suggestions that the Deuteronomistic historian(s) "covered up" the true nature of David and Jonathan's relationship.  Reading between the lines, so it is argued, we can fill in the lacunae left by the narrators who left out even euphemistic references to such a romantic and/or sexual relationship.

Besides the obvious retort that such is a blatant, a priori argument from silence, it is here that I must ask the simple question, Why would they have to do that?  As I mentioned above, the historian(s) had no qualms about recording such heinous Davidic sins as adultery and murder in their theological evaluation of the course of his reign.  Indeed, apart from Daniel (and Jesus, of course), I can think of no major characters in Scripture who are presented in an entirely positive light, so that even their worst sins had to be whitewashed out of the record.  Indeed, the story of Israel is the story of a people whose failure to live by the covenantal stipulations led to their inevitable exile from the promised land.  The people of God are emphatically not those whose moral rectitude defines their relationship with him.  Had David and Jonathan been such lovers, it is doubtful the fact would have been covered up.  Even more certainly, the nasty fact of such a relationship would not have been transformed into a celebrated relationship in view of the theological concerns of the author(s) of the history.  Indeed, the behaviors of biblical heroes are not automatically viewed as exemplary because of their prominence in the narrative.  Their behavior, as with all their countrymen, had to be evaluated in terms of its faithfulness to the covenantal stipulations laid down in the Torah.

Further reflection reveals the threadbare character of the revisionists' arguments.  As Robert Gagnon states, "All of the expressions [suggested] as erotic in the David and Jonathan narrative have stronger Old Testament and ancient Near Eastern parallels with non-sexual relationships between close kin of the same sex."  Compare, for example, 1 Samuel 18:1 with Genesis 44:31: "[Jacob's] soul is bound up in [Benjamin's] soul."  Closer to home, compare 1 Samuel 19:1 with 1 Samuel 18:22: "Behold, the king has delight in you [i.e., David], and all his servants love you."

Similarly, as Gagnon notes, only 3 out of 27 occurrences of the word "kiss" in the Old Testament have a sexual connotation (compare, e.g., 1 Sam 20:41 with Genesis 33:4: "But Esau ran to meet [Jacob] and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept").  The "love" David had for Jonathan is no more necessarily erotic than the "love" all Israelites were to show to their neighbors (Lev 19:18).  In context, this "love" demonstrated by Jonathan consisted of his willingness to give up his right to the throne for his friend and his covenanted loyalty to David manifested by his willingness to die for him.  Such sacrificial loyalty, according to the narrator, went beyond anything David had yet experienced from a woman, erotic or otherwise.  Indeed, we (post)moderns betray our own obsession with the erotic when we assume sexual activity when it is not necessarily implied.  The entire context of the Succession Narrative (1 Sam 16:14-2 Sam 5:10) deals with the transference of the throne from the house of the Saul to the house of David.  The story of David and Jonathan serves this larger purpose in demonstrating how David came legitimately to the position of rightful successor to the throne.

Now, of course the language of the text could conceivably be used to speak of a homosexual relationship.  That is not disputed.  The real issue, however, is whether it is likely to have been so intended.  As a perspectivalist, critical realist, I harbor no illusions that I will ever be able to come to an "unbiased" interpretation of the text, let alone a certainly correct one.  That does not mean, however, that all perspectives are equally valid or that all interpretations are thereby on equal footing.  Nor does it mean that we can mine the text for unlikely or ambiguous evidence to support contemporary agendas, no matter how legitimate we believe these agendas to be.  Many today clearly want the text of Scripture to validate same sex erotic relationships.  I understand that.  There are many other things I wish the text allowed.  Wishful thinking, however, is not a sufficient ground for interpreting the text in ways it transparently was not meant to be understood.  For, even if it were determined that David and Jonathan probably had a homosexual relationship, the authors and editors of the text would have editorially subjected that relationship to the strictures explicitly laid down in the Torah.

I have only scratched the surface on this issue in this post.  Those who want to explore further can look at the work of Robert Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics (Nashville: Abingdon, 2002) 146-54, and especially Markus Zehnder, "Observations On The Relationship Between David And Jonathan And The Debate On Homosexuality," Westminster Theological Journal 69 (2007) 127-74.

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