The story of David and Jonathan is one of the most inspiring examples of true friendship anywhere. Our LDS SS manual firmly places this lesson within the mainstream view of Biblical exegesis, presenting the two as strong personal and platonic friends. As I studied the covenant made between these young men in 1 Samuel 18, I was touched by the loyalty shown by the young Jonathan, because he “loved [David] as his own soul.” Because of this love, Jonathan relinquishes his hopes for his father’s throne in deference to God’s choice. In a symbolic and ceremonial gesture, Jonathan strips off his robe, which represents the authority he holds to succeed his father, King Saul, and gives it to David. He also gives David his sword and his bow, representing his military prerogative; and his girdle, which symbolizes spiritual truths and the kingdom of God.
But other writers, beginning with Homer and continuing to the present day, have noted the strong elements of intimacy and eroticism within the relationship. David’s love for Jonathan is described as “wonderful, passing the love of women.” Saul also reprimands Jonathan at the dinner table, accusing him that “thou hast chosen the son of Jesse to thine own confusion, and unto the confusion of thy mother’s nakedness.” Martti Nissinen concludes that this “choosing (bahar) may indicate a permanent choice and firm relationship, and the mention of “nakedness” (erwa) could be interpreted to convey a negative sexual nuance, giving the impression that Saul saw something indecent in Jonathan’s and David’s relationship. Some also interpret this as Saul’s caution that choosing David as a lover meant that Jonathan could not produce an heir to the throne. There is also an exchange pointing to 1 Samuel 18:21. Here Saul tells David that when he marries Michal he will become his son-in-law for the second time. There is reason to suppose the union of Jonathan and David represents the first.
What does it mean that the soul of Jonathan was knit with the soul of David?
In trying to interpret the story of these two Biblical figures, I am greatly influenced by my reading of Michael Quinn’s Same-Sex Dynamics among Nineteenth-Century Americans. In this book, Quinn describes a nineteenth-century Mormon culture far more hospitable to and tolerant of same-sex relationships than that of modern Mormonism, which he regards as “homophobic.” He gives several examples of long-term relationships among Mormon couples he believes were homosexual. But in doing so, he also admits of a world and an era where emotional intimacy and physical closeness of same-sex friends did NOT involve homoeroticism. He gives examples of letters written in the nineteenth century between platonic friends which contained emotional intensity and passionate references. Same-sex friends held hands, kissed each other on the lips, and sometimes slept in the same bed for years at a time. These things are more aptly described as “homosociality.” Reading about this phenomenon gave me an insight into the world view of previous ages that I had not understood before reading the book.
At times when I read the story of David and Jonathan through my twenty-first-century lens, I have wondered if these men were not physically intimate. The words and images used to describe their relationship are passionate, ardent, concupiscent. But reading about some of the homosocial behaviors Quinn describes has convinced me that David and Jonathan were not gay. I agree with Quinn that too many Americans find homosociality frightening. Some of my returned-missionary friends have spoken with embarrassment of the strong male bonding they experienced on their missions. They recall vivid episodes involving platonic intimacy — walking arm-in-arm, embracing, and other emotional and physical affection. We are suspicious and uncomfortable with these things in our modern paradigm. But homosociality can be an enlightening concept to consider. I’m glad this relationship is included among all of the other unusual associations described in the Old Testament!
BONUS: The woodcut of Jonathan and David pictured below may be astonishingly evocative, both to LDS members endowed before 1990 and to those familiar with Masonic ritual.