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I am tired of superficial readings which read American/Anglo-Saxon norms into 1 Sam. I was asked for my reasons rejecting the ‘queer’ eisegesis of the David accession narrative, so here it is; this is based simply on rather basic observations, not going into anything in great depth.

The first pertinent aspect is the general narrative context. In the scheme of the Deuteronomic history (DtrH), the relationship between David and Jonathan happens between Saul’s fall from divine grace and before David’s accession as king in his stead. A quick summary will bear this out: In 1 Sam 14, Jonathan is the great hero and heir apparent; in 1 Sam 15, G-d promises to replace Saul as king; in chapter 16, David joins the court; in Ch 17 David defeats Goliath (whom neither Saul nor Jonathan can); in 1 Sam 18–20 is chronicled David’s quick rise and fall in Saul’s graces, which is intertwined with his relations with Jonathan. These chapters then lead into the narrative of David’s rebellion-which-isn’t-a-rebellion and eventually the end of Saul’s dynasty. This dynastic and military context needs to be remembered.

Two points are notable in Jonathan’s appearance at the beginning of this sequence (ch. 14): He is painted as a loved and successful warrior and as critical of Saul’s rule (vv. 29-30). The next we hear of Jonathan is after David’s success against Goliath (this remains pertinent even though the Goliath story looks like a separate tradition). Jonathan textually meets David as he is recounting his victory over the Philistines. (Chapter 20)

Here at the beginning of Chapter 20 we are told that “the Soul of Jonathan was bound to David” and that he loved him as his own soul (וְנֶפֶש יהונתן נִקְשְרָה דוד וַיֶאֱהָבֵהו יהונתן כְנַפְשו) (v. 1); that Saul kept him as part of his army (v.2, cf. 14:52); that Jonathan and David make a covenant (v. 3); Jonathan gives David his robe, armor, sword, bow, and belt (v. 4); that this was good in everyone’s eyes (v. 5). What does all this mean? Quite simply, this brief section shows Jonathan ceding his role as heir apparent and warrior to David, in light of his prowess and Divine favor. This is born out both in the vocabulary and in the later consequences, which we will see below. First, the phrase “bound to David.” “Bound” is קשר, which in most of its uses carries the political connotations of conspiring or conspiracy. Second, the word love (אהב) has the same variety of connotations as the English word does: it is used between G-d and people, friends, lovers, assembly men. Most importantly for here, not only is it used of Jonathan and Saul (16:21) for David, it is used of all Judah and Israel for David in v. 16.

After this episode, David demonstrates his impeccable honor and warrior skills, marries into the royal family, and is defended by Jonathan and Michal.

Then we come to scene at the new moon festival. This complex little episode is tightly wrapped up with concerns of loyalty, both familial and tribal. Without going into all the details (if you want them, I can send you the information on a forthcoming article), this episode demonstrates to Saul that David is indeed replacing his dynasty, and that Jonathan is supporting him, despite what that means for his own loss of status. It is the end of this chapter which appears to cause most ruckus (vv. 41-42).

The details are they kiss, weep, and David “exceedeth” (KJV, v. 41), and they remind each other of the covenant they had made back in vv. 14–16 (v. 42). (Note this covenant is also about familial ties and succession). The verb “to kiss” (וַיִשְקו) is often used in the HB between two male relatives, as well as between lovers; therefore, assumptions about its nature need to be careful (also, cf. Paul’s ‘Holy Kiss’, Rom 16:16; 1 Cor 16:20; 2 Cor 13:12; 1 Thess 5:26). Weeping is weeping. The end of the verse is more difficult (the phrase which the KJV translates as “Until David exceedeth” and the NRSV as “David wept more”. The verb is the hiphil of גדל “to be great.” The hiphil carries a range of meanings, but in the present context I would argue that it best translates as “was magnified.” In other words, David replaced Jonathan as rightful heir to Israel’s throne. Verse 42 is strongly reminiscent, to me, of the covenant between the Lord and Abraham: one of sworn loyalty, resulting in prestige, descendants, and the land of Israel.

On a textual basis alone, this relationship is a highly political one, one which reinforces the legitimacy of the Davidic monarchy. It is a helpful reminder on this point that this narrative was likely constructed well after the split of the Northern kingdom, and there it is speaking towards a situation in which the Davidic monarchy was likely imperiled, either by Israel or Assyria. If one buys a very late date for DtrH, then we are speaking about a time when the Davidic monarchy was either in exile or defunct.

In addition to this, when one strips away modern, Anglo-Saxon homophobic prejudices about male friendships and physical contact (i.e., in line with more Mediterranean and Middle Eastern modes of physicality), there is absolutely nothing in this pericope which suggests an Alexander-and-Hephaestion-like relationship.

 Jason M. Silverman
2 November 2010