1 Samuel 18-20

Good morning! We are one-quarter through the whole Bible today—no foolin’! 😉 Today also happens to be one of my favorite sections of the Bible ever, because I see myself and my “tribe” in this biblical story. Our passage (1 Samuel 18-20) focuses on David and Jonathan’s love for one another, and how Jonathan risks his father’s murderous rage to save David’s life. I read this as a gay man, and the whole narrative of their relationship (as well as how Jonathan’s father treats him) suggests that their love was known yet shameful and forbidden nonetheless. Countless others have not seen a gay relationship in these texts so I won’t insist that my interpretation is the only one, but leading biblical scholars are seeing this now as the best and simplest way to understand the story here. I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts!

However different ways David came to the attention of Saul according to the stories yesterday, what happens next in chapter 18 is a deep connection between David and Saul’s son Jonathan. David becomes all but a son-in-law to Saul, or at least is treated as such when he is brought into Saul’s household for good. Jonathan bares himself to David as a sign of his allegiance. Both David and Jonathan share a delight in taking holy risks (each of them have scored victories against overpowering Philistines), and the people adore both of them. Saul soon becomes jealous of David’s acclaim and starts to be suspicious of him. The intermingling awe, envy, fear and anger between Saul and David is remarkable—one could fill a whole book trying to understand their conflicted relationship. After a bait-and-switch with Saul’s eldest daughter, Saul agrees that his daughter Michal should marry David. (We see no sign of whether David loved Michal. Though she loves him at the start, their relationship will sour with time.) With the marriage, David truly does become son-in-law to Saul, yet the king is ever more jealous of David’s battlefield victories.

At the beginning of 1 Samuel 19, Jonathan saves David’s life by reminding his father how much David has done for Saul and the whole kingdom. Evil spirits “from the Lord” (what do you make of that??) plague Saul and he grows increasingly unstable. Saul’s anger comes from losing God’s favor, losing the hearts of the people, and losing his military prowess. Is he facing a more extreme version of getting old, with its long series of goodbyes to health, career, and all that one has come to rely on for self-regard? Perhaps that’s reading too much into it. In any case, Saul deals with his demons wrongly, trying to pin them on someone else (with a spear!). David escapes multiple times (including with the help of Michal) and flees the house of Saul to join Samuel. Everyone who approaches Samuel and David afterward—including Saul—falls under a “force field” which leads them to start prophesying. The prophetic authority of Samuel is greater and more lasting than Saul’s royal authority. Kings may rise up or be replaced, but the prophet endures as the “voice of God” throughout.

David and Jonathan make a last elaborate scheme to preserve David’s life in chapter 20. David wonders whether he can trust anyone, yet Jonathan proves faithful to the covenant they made together in 18:3-4. Jonathan will test and see whether Saul intends harm, then reveal it to David with a secret code. Saul answers harshly when he finds out that David is not at a new moon feast, and castigates Jonathan: “you have chosen the son of Jesse to your own shame, and to the shame of your mother’s nakedness”. To my ears, this sounds like a parent berating a child for homosexuality, though it could be that the shame is more because Jonathan has not defended his right to the throne at all costs. In any case, Jonathan shares the news with David via their secret plan, and David knows he must flee Saul’s house forever. The men share a deep, loving farewell—they know that this is likely goodbye forever.

As I said at the top, I read these stories as clear evidence that David and Jonathan loved each other in the way same-sex couples do now. In their time, such a connection—however tender and loyal—could only end in heartbreak and separation. Jonathan must go be his father’s son and act as prince of Israel. David must go follow his destiny and the God who is calling him to take the place of Jonathan’s father Saul. These “star-crossed lovers” find their consolation in promises of eternal loyalty, but then must part ways. Nevertheless, the Bible has kept the truth about their relationship for thousands of years, so that same-gender-loving readers can see ourselves in the Bible, including in one of Israel’s greatest heroes. At last, in our own time, David and Jonathan’s story could have another ending. Happy reading!

Read 1 Samuel 18-20.

Please join discussion of this passage at the Daily Bible Facebook group, or comment below. The passage for tomorrow is 1 Samuel 21-23. Thanks for reading!

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