Let’s face it, David’s life was a tragic soap opera to watch. It’s no wonder he had a lot of problems as an adult: what kind of kid turns out normal after he’s killed a giant, worked for someone who wants to kill him, and spends most of his young adult years as a refugee in exile?
Ah, but there’s a silver lining tying it all together: I’m talking of course about Saul’s son, Jonathan, who Scripture says loved David “as his own soul.” After defeating Goliath, Saul takes David under his wing, and gives him responsibility on a national scale. David quickly gains an even greater reputation than the king, prompting Saul to turn sour with jealousy, and in a fit of rage, attempt to take David’s life. He ends up running from Saul for multiple years, before he eventually is crowned king of Israel after Saul’s death.
I encourage everyone to read the whole thing, starting in 1 Samuel 17, and ending in 2 Samuel 1. It’s a wild ride. But for those primarily interested in the bromance, check out 1 Samuel 18-20, then skip to 2 Samuel 1. Both before and during Saul’s pursuit of David, Jonathan works behind the scenes, and alongside his beloved, to avert disaster and diffuse the situation. David and Jonathan make covenantal bonds together, they tie their families together with multi-generational promises, they laugh and cry together, they kiss, they embrace, they fall at each others’ feet, they say goodbye then meet spontaneously again, and at the end (spoiler alert!), Jonathan dies in battle, along with his father and two brothers. David, when he hears this news, tears his clothes, fasts, and writes a lamenation called The Song of the Bow.
In this poem, which he commands the people of Judah to learn and repeat, David says this about Jonathan:
“Jonathan lies slain upon your high places.
26 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.”
Sure, David calls Jonathan a “brother,” which isn’t exactly a romantic moniker. And sure, maybe all he meant by his love “passing the love of women” was that he was more ~emotionally close~ with Jonathan than with any of the women he slept with or married (since, you know, marriage wasn’t for love back then, and women were seen as literally inferior beings).
But I’d ask you to hold your dismissal, and read the passage again in light of the suggestion that David and Jonathan were a thing. Read it with lgbt people in mind; your friend or relative. Read it as a soap opera, with fictional characters whose silly drama is a broad-stroke caricature of real life narratives. Whatever helps you imagine what it could mean for an lgbt person if David and Jonathan were connected in that way.
That’s what we did at Soulforce this summer: during our VBS, our spiritual strategist Alba Onofrio set our sights on dismantling the structures that weaponize Christianity against lgbt folks, and helped us move towards liberating our bodies, decolonizing our minds, and healing our souls.
This is deep spirit work, and it was hard. I’d been avoiding reading large portions of Scripture for a long time, because the tension and exhaustion I knew I would feel would be too much. As much as I love meeting God in the pages of the Bible, most of the time I flip through certain verses and texts it’s in order to defend my existence, and justify my life choices to people who want to control what I do with my body.
But in the right context, spoken by a friend for the purpose of building up, not tearing down, Alba’s voice breathed new life into sacred text, and I was released into the gift of tears. I looked into the terrible, dramatic, heart-wrenching soap opera of David’s exile, and saw myself in Jonathan, willing to give my life for a boy I loved, to fight for him until death do us part. I looked into a sacred story, and saw my own reflected in its depths. I felt Scripture as life-giving once again.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of good representation for lgbt folks. I don’t just mean the representation we see in Hollywood (while lgbt actors have careers, most lgbt characters pander to stereotypes). I mean representation in life. Can we look around and see viable models of lgbt people in relationship with each other? Can we look at our churches and see lgbt people perfectly integrated in all positions? Can we look backwards, and see our stories in the pages of history?
Straight folks take this representation for granted, so it’s difficult sometimes to truly perceive the cavernous gap between the world as they see it, and the world from our eyes. But bridging that gap is possible, and in fact necessary if the church is to remain relevant in a changing culture (and by “remain relevant,” I mean survive).
To be honest, I had encountered in passing the argument that “David and Jonathan were gay!” as a justification for pro-gay theology, during my evangelical days. It struck me at the time as grandstanding, disingenuous, and manipulative of the “plain sense” reading of Scripture. While I obviously think very differently today, I’m not actually saying I firmly believe and am convinced that David and Jonathan can be called gay by our modern standards (David was actually bisexual–bisexuals exist too!). In fact, that kind of black-and-white thinking is exactly what I’m trying to say is stifling, obstructive, and life-draining.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter exactly what happened between David and Jonathan; whether they had sex or not, whether David reciprocated Jonathan’s feelings or not, whether Jonathan, were he alive today, would classify those feelings as romantic or sexual.
Simply allowing for that possibility is enough for lgbt people like me to take a shuddering breath, to feel a release from the pressure we’ve fought against for so many years.
It’s like insisting that unicorns are mentioned in the Bible: it’s a fun mental exercise, used to reveal the insipid legalism in much of the evangelical mindset. We can’t know either way; the point of it all is to maintain space for mystery, to entertain the possibility that maybe there’s more to life than we realize, more than what fits into our comfortable binaries and our social institutions.
But I do have to leave with an observation: not all God’s children are born with gaydar. If the straights can’t be trusted to recognize rainbow people when we march across the pages of fiction (my entire English class once protested of the blatantly lesbian Annie John “but some gals are pals, it’s just hard to tell!”), can we really trust them with any other literary or historical figures?