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David and Jonathan

In the Hebrew Bible’s only story of male comradeship, King Saul’s son Jonathan swears loyalty and love to the young David, aiding the downfall of his father.

David and Jonathan
Giovanni Battista Cima de Conegliano

“I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women” (2 Sam 1:26).

So David mourns his fallen comrade, slain in battle on Mount Gilboa. But who was this Jonathan, and what was his love for David that surpassed “the love of women”? David’s song of mourning is an extraordinary outburst of grief at the loss of the dearest of friends. Many readers have even been inspired to rewrite it in their own words. The bond between David and Jonathan is the only clear example in the Hebrew Bible of what later readers would call “friendship.” Some readers wonder whether it is also the only example in the Hebrew Bible of a bond between male lovers (Lev 18:22 and Lev 20:13 notwithstanding).

There is certainly nothing else like this in the Hebrew Bible. The love of David and Jonathan looks more Greek than Israelite, as if the pair had migrated out of the epics of Homer and into the highlands of Canaan. But what does their love mean in the context of the books of Samuel?

In the biblical story, everyone seems to love David. He gains the love of the tormented King Saul by entering his court and playing music to soothe his terrible moods (1Sam 16:21). After David defeats the Philistine champion Goliath, the king’s son Jonathan loves David “as himself” (1Sam 18:1). They make a covenant together, in effect becoming brothers (1Sam 18:3, 1Sam 20:8). In another nod to Greek warrior traditions, Jonathan gives David his robe, armor, sword, bow, and belt 1Sam 18:4). After David leads Saul’s army to battle, all of Israel and Judah love him (1Sam 18:16). Finally, when the king’s daughter Michal falls in love with David (1Sam 18:20, 1Sam 18:28), Saul’s isolation is nearly complete.

This is a story of the intertwined fates of the young shepherd David, a man after God’s own heart, and the man he will soon replace: the increasingly unstable Saul, cornered by an uncompromising God and his jealous prophet, torn apart by suspicion of those around him, and destined to fall on his own sword as the Philistines close in (1Sam 31:4). The love Jonathan and Michal feel for David displaces the loyalty they are supposed to have toward their father, and as Saul’s jealousy leads him to seek David’s death, they each aid David at grave risk to themselves (1Sam 19:1-7, 1Sam 19:11-17, 1Sam 20:1-42).

This, then, is Jonathan’s love: a deep, emotional attachment to David that leads him to swear loyalty to David and protect him from the madness of his father. In the androcentric world of the story, none of the women who love David can compete with his comrade’s love. Jonathan is the only one for whom David himself expresses anything approaching love (1Sam 20:41, 2Sam 1:26).

  • James E. Harding

    James Harding is senior lecturer in Hebrew Bible at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand. He is the author of The Love of David and Jonathan: Ideology, Text, Reception (Equinox Publishing, 2013) as well as a number of articles and essays on the reception history of the David and Jonathan narrative.