David and Jonathan: Same-sex love between men in the Bible

Gay David and Jonathan window from St. Mark's Portobello, Edinburgh, Scotland

Love between men is celebrated in the Bible with the story of David and Jonathan. “Your love to me was wonderful, surpassing the love of women,” David said in his famous a lament for Jonathan. David’s feast day is Dec. 29.

Their story inspires LGBTQ people and affirms that same-sex couples are blessed by God. New and historical artists illustrate the same-sex love between Jonathan and David here.

The two men met when David was a ruddy young shepherd.  Jonathan, a courageous warrior, had returned victorious from battle.  Jonathan was the eldest son of Saul, Israel’s first king. David was taken to see King Saul right after beheading the Philistine giant Goliath. Scholars estimate that David was about 18 and Jonathan was at least 10 years older.

Jonathan fell in love at first sight of the handsome young hero. As the Bible says, “The soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David.” Their story gets more chapters in the Bible than any other human love story. There are no actual wedding ceremonies in the Bible, but the covenant between Jonathan and David is described in detail.

David, the second king of Israel, was an acclaimed warrior, musician and poet. He is credited with composing many of the psalms in the Bible. The gospel genealogies list David as an ancestor of Jesus.

The modern idea of sexual orientation didn’t exist in Biblical times, but the powerful love story of Jonathan and David in 1 and 2 Samuel suggests that same-sex couples are affirmed and blessed by God.

David and Jonathan in scripture and art

Sixteeenth-century Spanish mystic John of the Cross is one of the many writers who used their same-sex love as a model for divine love. “The love Jonathan bore for David was so intimate that it knitted his soul to David’s. If the love of one man for another was that strong, what will be the tie caused through the soul’s love for God, the Bridegroom?” John of the Cross asked in “The Spiritual Canticle.”

Artists throughout the ages have illustrated the the drama and same-sex passion of their story, beginning with the moment that David and Jonathan met.  A beautiful romantic version of their first meeting appears on their stained-glass window at St. Mark’s Portobello, a Scottish Episcopal church in Edinburgh. The inscription states, “The soul of Jonathan was knit with the soul of David” (1 Samuel 18:1).

David and Jonathan window from St. Mark’s Portobello, Edinburgh, Scotland, 1882

 

Created in 1882, the window has a dedication at the bottom: “In loving memory of George Frederick Paterson of Castle Huntly who died at Portobello, 30th Sept. 1890, aged 33.” All that is known about Paterson is that he was in the army and unmarried. The window was paid for by “a friend.”

Another stained-glass window of David and Jonathan is located at Calvary Presbyterian Church in Indiana, Pennsylvania. It was created in the Tiffany style by Robert L. Dodge in 1906. The window is dedicated to the memory of John Sutton and A.W. Wilson, founders of Indiana University of Pennsylvania. It can be seen online at Stained Glass Resources Inc., which restored the window in 2000.

Jonathan and David by Br. Robert Lentz, OFM
www.trinitystores.com

The love between the two men is honored in a golden icon by Brother Robert Lentz. Unlike most images of Jonathan and David, the Lentz icon shows Christ above blessing their relationship. It is one of 10 Lentz icons that sparked a controversy in 2005 when conservative Roman Catholic leaders accused Lentz of glorifying sin.

“Jonathan Greeting David, after David killed Goliath” by Gottfried Bernhard Goez, 1708-1774 (Wikimedia Commons)

Soon after David and Jonathan met, the two men expressed their commitment by making a covenant with each other. The dramatic moment is described in 1 Samuel 18:3-4: “Then Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul. Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that he was wearing, and gave it to David, and his armor, and even his sword and his bow and his belt.”

California artist Ryan Grant Long emphasizes the homoeroticism of the gesture as Jonathan strips off his robe and wraps it around David with a kiss on the neck in the image at the top of this post. For more about Long, see my previous post Artist paints history’s gay couples.

“David and Jonathan” by Ryan Grant Long

 

Artist Brandon Buehring imagined both men stripped bare in a private encounter between Jonathan and David in his “Legendary Love: A Queer History Project.” He uses pencil sketches and essays “to remind queer people and our allies of our sacred birthright as healers, educators, truth-tellers, spiritual leaders, warriors and artists.” The project features 20 sketches of queer historical and mythological figures from many cultures around the world. He has a M.Ed. degree in counseling with an LGBT emphasis from North Carolina State University in Raleigh. He works in higher education administration as well as being a freelance illustrator based in Northampton, Massachusetts.

“Jonathan and David” by Brandon Buehring

 

A more traditional view is presented by 16th-century Italian painter Cima da Conegliano. In both images David is still carrying the head of Goliath as he bonds with his new friend Jonathan, hinting at the union of violence and eroticism.

“David and Jonathan” by Italian painter Cima da Conegliano, 1505-1510 (Wikimedia Commons)

 

In contrast New Mexico artist Trudie Barreras shows the new friends both putting aside their armor to make a covenant with each other (left).

Jonathan Made a Covenant with David by Trudie Barreras

“Jonathan Made a Covenant with David” by Trudie Barreras, Collection of City of Light / First Metropolitan Community Church of Atlanta

The Bible chronicles the ups and downs of David and Jonathan’s relationship over the next 15 years, including tears and kisses. King Saul is jealous of David’s popularity and keeps trying to kill him, while his son Jonathan rescues his friend in various ways. An 18th-century German “friendship medal” (below) captures another highlight as Jonathan pledges to David, “I will do the desires of your heart” (“Ich will die thun was dein Herz begehrt”) from 1 Samuel 20:4.

German friendship medal of Jonathan and David by Philipp Heinrich Müller, c.1710 (Wikimedia Commons)

 

Other artists focus on a dramatic moment that came later when Jonathan met David at a pile (or “ezel”) of stone to warn him that Saul intended to kill him. An 1860 woodcut by German artist Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld illustrates that tearful farewell scene from 1 Samuel 20: 41-42:

“Then they kissed each other and wept together—but David wept the most. Jonathan said to David, “Go in peace, for we have sworn friendship with each other in the name of the Lord, saying, ‘The Lord is witness between you and me, and between your descendants and my descendants forever.’”

“David and Jonathan” woodcut for “Die Bibel in Bildern”, 1860, by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld (Wikimedia Commons)
Detail from “David and Jonathan
at the Stone Ezel”
by Edward Hicks

Another version of the farewell scene was painted by American folk artist and Quaker minister Edward Hicks in 1847.  In both paintings a boy can be seen carrying away their weapons.  In the lower right Hicks places a scene of the Good Samaritan rescuing a downtrodden man.  Interestingly, the Jonathan and David window at St. Mark’s Portobello is also paired with a window showing the Good Samaritan. Scholar Mitch Gould analyzes the painting for the Jesus in Love Blog in his article Biblical same-sex love found in “David and Jonathan” art by Edward Hicks.

“David and Jonathan at the Stone Ezel” by Edward Hicks, 1847

 

David and Jonathan became so close that it looked like someday they would rule Israel together. But that day never came because Jonathan was killed in battle. David mourned deeply for him with a famous lament.

There are many translations of 2 Samuel 1:26, each one expressing how the love between Jonathan and David was “greater than,” “more wonderful than,” “deeper than” or otherwise “surpassing the love of women.”

I grieve for you, Jonathan my brother;
you were very dear to me.
Your love for me was wonderful,
more wonderful than that of women.

Contemporary gay Israeli artist Adi Nes gives shocking clarity to David and Jonathan by using images of homoeroticism and homelessness to subvert stereotypes about people in the Bible. The triumph of David over Goliath is often used to symbolize Israel’s military victories over its enemies, but Nes chooses to depict David as a vulnerable youth with a crutch, leaning on another young man for love and support. Dirty and unkempt, they embrace beneath an industrial overpass covered by graffiti. They look battered, perhaps from a gay bashing. The tender moment suggests the scenes when “the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David” or when “they kissed each other and wept together.” (For more about Adi Nes, see my previous post “Gay Israeli artist Adi Nes humanizes Bible stories. “

“Untitled (David and Jonathan)” by Adi Nes

 

Gay-positive Bible scholars have written extensively about the relationship between David and Jonathan. The classic book on the subject is “Jonathan Loved David: Homosexuality in Biblical Times” by Thomas Horner.

Jonathan and David embrace.
Manuscript illustration, circa 1300
La Somme le roy

It’s impossible to know whether David and Jonathan expressed their love sexually. Some consider David to be bisexual, since the Hebrew scriptures also recount how he committed adultery with Bathsheba and later made her one of his eight wives. There is no doubt that many people today do honor David and Jonathan as gay saints.

Their story is used by contemporary LGBT Christians to counteract conservatives who claim that the Bible condemns homosexuality. The “David loved Jonathan” billboard below is part of the Would Jesus Discriminate project sponsored by Metropolitan Community Churches. It states boldly, “David loved Jonathan more than women. II Samuel 1:26.” For more info on the billboards, see our previous post, “Billboards show gay-friendly Jesus.”

David loved Jonathan billboard from LGBT Christian billboards from WouldJesusDiscriminte.org

David and Jonathan in music

The love between the two Biblical heroes is celebrated in classical music, such as “O Jonathan, Woe Is Me,” a sacred madrigal for six voices by 17th-century Englisher composer Thomas Weelkes. The text comes from 2 Samuel 1:25b-26 and ends with the telling phrase, “passing the love of women.”

Music based on the same-sex love between Biblical heroes David and Jonathan is explored in the 2017 interdisciplinary book “Jonathan’s Loves, David’s Laments: Gay Theology, Musical Desires, and Historical Difference” by Dirk von der Horst.  He connects the writings of LGBTQ theologians and Bible scholars with early modern musical interpretations by composers such as Handel and Weelkes.  Queer possibilities are reinforced when he listens closely to the music with scholarly exegesis and historical analysis of whether the love between Jonathan and David was homoerotic.  It includes a foreword by pioneering feminist theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether.  The author teaches religions at Mount St. Mary’s University, Los Angeles.

David and Jonathan in literature

The love between the two men is also celebrated in literature, including the poem “The Meeting of David and Jonathan” by 19th-century English poet John Addington Symonds. He is known as an early advocate of male love (homosexuality) and wrote many poems inspired by his own homosexual affairs. In “The Meeting of David and Jonathan” he writes:

There by an ancient holm-oak huge and tough,
Clasping the firm rock with gnarled roots and rough,
He stayed their steps; and in his arms of strength
Took David, and for sore love found at length
Solace in speech, and pressure, and the breath
Wherewith the mouth of yearning winnoweth
Hearts overcharged for utterance. In that kiss
Soul unto soul was knit and bliss to bliss.

The full poem appears in “Many Moods: A Volume of Verse” by Symonds.

Epic same-sex love between David and Jonathan is fleshed out in the 2016 historical novel “The Prince’s Psalm” by Eric Shaw Quinn, a New York Times-bestselling author. Beginning with young David slaying Goliath, the book shows how he won the heart of Prince Jonathan, heir to the throne of Israel. The star-crossed warrior-lovers face conflicts with King Saul and others as the Biblical story unfolds and David grows to become a king himself. The author uses artistry and restraint to present sex scenes between David and Jonathan (and each man with his own wife). With meticulous research and dynamic storytelling skills, he brings alive the dramatic same-sex love story at the core of religious tradition. The author is a celebrity ghostwriter who wrote novelizations of the TV series “Queer as Folk.”

LGBTQ books related to David and Jonathan

The Love of David and Jonathan: Ideology, Text, Reception” by James E. Harding (2014)

Jonathan Loved David: Homosexuality in Biblical Times” by Tom M. Horner (1978)

The Prince’s Psalm” by Eric Shaw Quinn (2016) (historical novel about the homosexual love between Jonathan and David)

Jonathan’s Loves, David’s Laments: Gay Theology, Musical Desires, and Historical Difference” by Dirk von der Horst (2017)

LGBTQ links related to David and Jonathan

David and Jonathan: Why did God focus on their intimate partnership? (GayChristian101)

Homosexuality and Tradition: David and Jonathan (Pharsea’s World)

David the Prophet and Jonathan, His Lover (Queer Saints and Martyrs – And Others)

Bible story of David and Jonathan’s first meeting: 1 Samuel 18

Bible story of Jonathan’s death: 2 Samuel 1

To read this article in Spanish, go to:
David y Jonatán: El amor entre hombres en la Biblia (Santos Queer)

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Top image credit: David and Jonathan window (detail) from St. Mark’s Portobello, Edinburgh, Scotland, 1882. Special thanks to Ruth Innes for the photo and info.
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This post is part of the LGBTQ Saints series by Kittredge Cherry. Traditional and alternative saints, people in the Bible, LGBTQ martyrs, authors, theologians, religious leaders, artists, deities and other figures of special interest to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people and our allies are covered.

Copyright © Kittredge Cherry. All rights reserved.
Qspirit.net presents the Jesus in Love Blog on LGBTQ spirituality.

Walt Whitman on What Makes Life Worth Living

By Maria Popova (brainpickings.org)

“Do you need a prod?” the poet Mary Oliver asked in her sublime meditation on living with maximal aliveness“Do you need a little darkness to get you going?” A paralytic prod descended upon Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) in his fifty-third year when a stroke left him severely disabled. It is a peculiar kind of darkness to be so violently exiled from one’s own body — a cascade of exiles, for it forced Whitman to leave his home in Washington, where he had settled after his noble work as a volunteer nurse in the Civil War that first taught him about the connection between the body and the spirit, and move in with his brother in New Jersey. Still, he kept reaching for the light as he slowly regained corporeal agency — a partial recovery he attributed wholly to being “daily in the open air,” among the trees and under the stars.

But as his body healed, the experience had permanently imprinted his mind with a new consciousness. Like all of our unexpected brushes with mortality, the stroke had thrust into his lap a ledger and demanded that he account for his life — for who he is, what he stands for, what he has done for the world and how he wishes to be remembered by it. As nature nursed him back to life in her embrace, Whitman found himself reflecting on the most elemental questions of existence — what makes a life worth living, worth remembering? He recorded these reflections in Specimen Days (public library) — the sublime collection of prose fragments, letters, and journal entries that gave us Whitman on the wisdom of trees and music as the profoundest expression of nature.

Walt Whitman (Library of Congress)

Writing to a German friend on his own sixty-fourth birthday, ten years after his paralytic stroke, Whitman reflects on what the limitations of living in a disabled body have taught him about the meaning of a full life:

From to-day I enter upon my 64th year. The paralysis that first affected me nearly ten years ago, has since remain’d, with varying course — seems to have settled quietly down, and will probably continue. I easily tire, am very clumsy, cannot walk far; but my spirits are first-rate. I go around in public almost every day — now and then take long trips, by railroad or boat, hundreds of miles — live largely in the open air — am sunburnt and stout, (weigh 190) — keep up my activity and interest in life, people, progress, and the questions of the day. About two-thirds of the time I am quite comfortable. What mentality I ever had remains entirely unaffected; though physically I am a half-paralytic, and likely to be so, long as I live. But the principal object of my life seems to have been accomplish’d — I have the most devoted and ardent of friends, and affectionate relatives — and of enemies I really make no account.

Above all, however, Whitman found vitality in the natural world — in what he so poetically called “the bracing and buoyant equilibrium of concrete outdoor Nature, the only permanent reliance for sanity of book or human life.” Looking back on what most helped him return to life after the stroke, Whitman echoes Seneca’s wisdom on calibrating our expectations for contentment and writes:

The trick is, I find, to tone your wants and tastes low down enough, and make much of negatives, and of mere daylight and the skies.

[…]

After you have exhausted what there is in business, politics, conviviality, love, and so on — have found that none of these finally satisfy, or permanently wear — what remains? Nature remains; to bring out from their torpid recesses, the affinities of a man or woman with the open air, the trees, fields, the changes of seasons — the sun by day and the stars of heaven by night.

Specimen Days remains a kind of secular bible for the thinking, feeling human being. Complement this particular fragment with Dostoyevsky’s dream about the meaning of life, Tolstoy on finding meaning when life seems meaningless, and the forgotten genius Alice James — William and Henry James’s brilliant sister — on how to live fully while dying, then revisit Whitman on why literature is central to democracy and his timeless advice on living a vibrant and rewarding life.