Understanding David and Jonathan

The entire relationship between David and Jonathan appears to be a literary construct from beginning to end. It justifies David’s future rule by rhetorically removing the natural heir apparent. Jonathan would have had every expectation of being king someday—the first Israelite to succeed his father to the throne. Perhaps even more than Saul himself, Jonathan had reason to be protective of the kingship, and wary of David’s popularity. There are no comparative examples of princes willingly relinquishing the throne in favor of someone outside the royal family. Jonathan’s love for David, and the elaborate relationship they enter into, is historically unrealistic.

See Also: The Historical David: The Real Life of an Invented Hero (HarperOne, 2013).

And: The Re-Emergence of Source Criticism: The Neo-Documentary Hypothesis

By Joel Baden
Associate Professor of Old Testament
Yale Divinity School
December 2013

The biblical story of the relationship between David, future king of Israel, and Jonathan, crown prince and expected future king of Israel, has garnered much attention and affection. Here we see how true devotion—or perhaps even more than that—has major ramifications, leading to the glorious rule of David. It is a story of love and friendship. It is also a story that makes very little historical sense.

Saul feared and despised David because he sensed—quite rightly—that David was a threat to his throne. But aside from Saul, the other person in Israel who had the most to fear from David’s success and popularity was Jonathan. Jonathan had been a successful and popular military leader before David arrived, thus positioning himself as ready to ascend to the throne after Saul. In fact Jonathan may have had even more at stake than Saul: Jonathan’s succession would be the most important indication that the newly inaugurated kingship in Israel was a lasting proposition. Any challenge to Saul’s reign was equally a challenge to Jonathan.

And yet the Bible does not present Jonathan as someone who fears or is threatened by David. On the contrary, Jonathan is said to have loved him. He defends David to Saul, he protects David from Saul, he even conspires with David against Saul. And throughout it all, in the biblical account, Jonathan effectively abdicates his natural right to the throne in favor of David.

In their first scene together, Jonathan and David make a covenant and, though it is unclear what the contents of the covenant are, the ceremony by which they cement it has great importance: “Jonathan took off the cloak and tunic he was wearing and gave them to David, together with his sword, bow, and belt” (1 Sam 18:4). Though this may seem a rather strange thing to do, remember that Jonathan is not any youngster—he is the king’s son, the crown prince, the presumptive heir to the throne. His clothing and equipment would not be that of the common man or soldier. He would be wearing royal garb, equipped with royal arms. Giving these to David is highly symbolic. It is simultaneously an act of abdication and of anointment. David, not Jonathan, is dressed as the next in line to be king.

When Jonathan agrees to find out Saul’s intentions regarding David, he again debases himself before David, though this time verbally. He says that if Saul is in fact trying to kill David, “May the Lord be with you as he used to be with my father…. Thus has Jonathan covenanted with the house of David; and may the Lord requite the enemies of David!” (20:13–16). This speech is remarkable not for Jonathan’s unwavering support for David, but for the basic assumptions implicit in it. “May the Lord be with you as he used to be with my father”—in this Jonathan is effectively transferring the kingship from Saul to David, rather than to himself. “Thus has Jonathan covenanted with the house of David”—here Jonathan uses royal terminology, “the house of David,” even before David has become king, much less founded a dynasty that could be described as his “house.” “May the Lord requite the enemies of David”—again Jonathan puts David in the position of king, surrounded by enemies vying to remove him from the throne. Just as he did when he gave David his royal clothes, here too Jonathan rhetorically abandons the throne to his beloved friend. And we, as readers, have little choice but to begin seeing David as the presumptive heir to the throne.

In order to justify David’s unlikely kingship, three things must be established by the biblical narrative. The first is that David is worthy of the kingship. The second is that Saul is unworthy. The third, and least obvious, is that Jonathan, the presumptive heir to Saul’s throne, approves of being replaced by David in the royal succession. It is not enough simply to make Saul look bad and David look good. All the comparisons in the world between the two would not override the expectation that Saul should be succeeded by his son according to the custom of dynastic kingship. So the biblical narrators need to convince us that David and not Jonathan is the natural choice to follow Saul as king.

The biblical account portrays Jonathan as symbolically and rhetorically abdicating his royal inheritance in favor of David: first by giving David his royal clothes and arms, and then by speaking in terms that put David in the position of authority, complete with a dynastic house. From the moment he enters the story, Jonathan is subordinated to David. Jonathan is gullible, while David perceives the situation keenly. Jonathan ferries messages between David and Saul. Jonathan has no discernible role other than as David’s defender. As Jonathan continues to praise David in the highest terms and to express his devotion, Jonathan is diminished practically to the point of non-existence when compared to the brave and noble David.

Precisely because these elements all contribute to the goal of rhetorically removing Jonathan from the line of succession, they are very much open to doubt. The bestowal of the royal clothes on David is very similar to other biblical stories in which the gift of clothing symbolizes the passing on of status—such as the moment when Elisha dons the mantle of his predecessor Elijah and thereby acquires his prophetic powers (2 Kgs 2:13–15), or when Aaron’s priestly garments are passed on to his son Eleazar (Num 20:28). The private speeches in which Jonathan defends David’s innocence and treats him as the presumptive king are unverifiable, but they are so fully in keeping with the message that the biblical narrative is trying to convey that we must doubt their historical accuracy.

The Bible replaces Jonathan with David. There is no claim, however, that Jonathan is incompetent, as is the case with Saul. There is no need for the biblical authors to call into question Jonathan’s fitness to rule, for Jonathan will never have the chance to ascend the throne—he is killed, by happy coincidence, side by side with his father. What is required is the demonstration that Jonathan willingly accepts David’s replacement of him—and this is accomplished by portraying Jonathan as in love with David.

Many scholars have raised the possibility that David and Jonathan had a homosexual relationship. Certainly the Bible comes close to saying so. Over and over again we are told that Jonathan loved David. And while frequently the word “love” in the Bible and the rest of the ancient Near East has a non-romantic meaning of “covenant loyalty”—this is probably what it means when it says that Saul loved David, for example—the use of the word in the case of Jonathan seems to go beyond that. Jonathan does not just “love” David. “Jonathan’s soul became bound up with the soul of David” (18:1). Jonathan “delighted greatly in David” (19:1)—the same Hebrew word used in Genesis to describe Shechem’s desire for Jacob’s daughter Dinah (Gen 34:19). When Jonathan dies, David laments for him in these words: “More wonderful was your love for me than the love of women” (2 Sam 1:26). The comparison to the love of women can hardly have a political valence; this is as close to an expression of romantic attachment between two men as we find in the Bible.

There is nothing historically objectionable about the idea that David and Jonathan were lovers. We need not suppose that David was gay, in our modern understanding. It is clear enough that were we to apply such contemporary labels, we would be more justified in calling him bisexual, considering his multiple marriages and explicitly sexual attraction to Bathsheba. But any such terms—homosexual, bisexual—are inappropriate when describing the ancient world. Sexuality as we understand it today is a social construct, a category imposed on people in order to define them within a larger cultural system. In the ancient world there were no such categories or constructs. There was no notion of a person being “gay” or “straight.” People engaged in heterosexual or homosexual acts in various degrees. Much of the time these were, by the standards of their contemporary societies, entirely unobjectionable—consider the famous example of Alexander the Great. Even the Hebrew Bible, despite what many people think, has virtually nothing to say on the matter—only two verses in Leviticus, from the hand of a priestly author with a particular agenda who did not speak for the entirety of ancient Israelite culture. If David and Jonathan were lovers, there is no indication that anyone at the time would so much have batted an eye, much less been morally outraged—certainly the Bible seems to be unbothered by its own hints in that direction.

At the same time, the Bible does not intend explicitly to condone a homosexual relationship between David and Jonathan, as some have suggested. The point is that if such a relationship existed, the biblical authors present it as mere fact. The physical expression of Jonathan’s love for David is not important. What is important, from the biblical point of view, is the political ramifications of that love, the benefits that accrued to David as a result of Jonathan’s affection. Sex is power, in the ancient world as today, and David is depicted as using Jonathan’s love for him to his advantage.

That said, the entire relationship between David and Jonathan appears to be a literary construct from beginning to end. It justifies David’s future rule by rhetorically removing the natural heir apparent. Jonathan would have had every expectation of being king someday—the first Israelite to succeed his father to the throne. Perhaps even more than Saul himself, Jonathan had reason to be protective of the kingship, and wary of David’s popularity. There are no comparative examples of princes willingly relinquishing the throne in favor of someone outside the royal family. Jonathan’s love for David, and the elaborate relationship they enter into, is historically unrealistic.

Jonathan is a cipher for the reader. His view of David mirrors and makes explicit the view that the reader comes to—or is intended to come to. Everything that Jonathan sees in David—his innocence, his devotion to Saul, his goodness—is the opposite of what Saul sees. It is, however, exactly how we are supposed to understand David. Jonathan says to Saul, “Let not your majesty wrong his servant David, for he has not wronged you; indeed, all his actions have been very much to your advantage…. Why should you incur the guilt of shedding the blood of an innocent man, killing David without cause?” (19:4–5). Jonathan puts into words what the reader is meant to be thinking: that David is blameless, fighting tirelessly for Saul’s army, and that Saul’s pursuit of David is unjustified. The rhetorical power of having this view expressed by Saul’s own son cannot be overstated: the one person besides Saul who should be most wary of David’s growing fame puts David’s innocence, and evident lack of ambition, front and center. If Jonathan, of all people, believes in David’s goodness, then who is Saul—or the reader—to think otherwise?

Jonathan is not the only one depicted as loving David. In these first few chapters of David’s life, he is explicitly said to be loved also by Saul (1 Sam 16:21), by the people of Israel and Judah (18:16), and by Michal (18:20). What is clear enough from the biblical story is that every time someone loves David it results in a distinct advantage for David. Saul’s love leads to David’s being taken into the royal court. The people’s love is necessary for David to be accepted as king, when the time comes. Michal’s love is an opportunity for David to become part of the royal family proper, and it saves his life. And Jonathan’s love protects David from Saul and allows David to escape more than once. All this affection is literarily useful: David succeeds not by his own machinations, but by the free choice of others. David does nothing in the biblical account that could be worthy of condemnation. Saul appoints him head of the army, and David fills that role bravely and without any self-aggrandizement. It can hardly be David’s fault that the troops and the people at large grow fond of him; he is simply doing his job. When Saul tries to kill David with his spear—twice—David is doing nothing threatening. In fact, both times we are told that David is playing the lyre for Saul when the spear flies at him. When Saul offers his daughters in marriage, David’s response is self-effacing: “Who am I and who are my kin, my father’s family in Israel, that I should become your majesty’s son-in-law?” (18:18); “Do you think that becoming the son-in-law of a king is a small matter, when I am but a poor man of no consequence?” (18:24). Jonathan and Michal love David of their own free will, like the rest of Israel; David did not coerce them into helping him. He is, from start to finish, utterly innocent of his own success.

This is both manifestly apologetic and entirely unlikely. To put it bluntly: one does not become king against one’s will, especially when one is not of the royal family. David became king, so David must have wanted to become king. One does not simply stumble onto the throne.

The story of David and Jonathan is a part of a larger rhetorical argument made by the biblical authors throughout the David story, but especially in the narrative of his time at Saul’s court. We can see them struggling to explain how it is that a kid from a backwater town, from a nothing family, ended up as king over Israel. Jonathan is an important piece in that puzzle. In reality, it seems almost certain that he had nothing to do with David’s rise to power—indeed, it is hard to imagine that he would have been anything other than thoroughly opposed to it. But by the time the story of David and Jonathan was written, Jonathan wasn’t around anymore to announce that he was being defamed (as well as disrobed).

At the same time, the fact that the biblical authors felt the need to create this story about Jonathan’s virtual abdication of the throne is revealing. In the end, it’s unnecessary on the level of the plot: Jonathan dies in battle alongside Saul, and David is crowned in Hebron by the Judahites (and later by the Israelites) without his interactions with Jonathan ever coming into play. That is to say, he would have become king, at least according to the biblical story, had he never encountered Jonathan at all. So why would the biblical authors go to all this trouble?

It seems most likely that they were trying every possible means to make absolutely clear that a) David never actively sought the kingship and b) David was, in some ways, a semi-legitimate king. Jonathan is but one angle on this, though he is an important one. The need to make these two arguments, with such force and so many times over, strongly suggests that a) David actively sought the kingship and b) David was in no way an even remotely legitimate king.

The David and Jonathan story is a wonderful example of the rhetorical art of the biblical authors. It gives us a clear window onto the nature, motivation, and results of their efforts. We can appreciate the message communicated by the story, the historical and ideological rationales behind that message, and the lasting influence that their interpretation of David’s rise had for the generations to come.

Comments (8)

Thanks for the summary of the story. What leads you to your conclusion? Of course the story is literary. The Bible is literary. But why should the story be a construct unrelated to history or to the relationship that is portrayed? Samuel is not my field of study, but I wonder if there are not other clues as to why this story is told. I would expect clues that are outside our social reasons.

#1 - Bob MacDonald - 12/28/2013 - 04:53

Thanks for interesting essay. It's not irrelevant, I suppose, that 'David' (not a standard Semitic name) means 'beloved' - the point being that people who can get themselves loved by all and by the people have a title to rule greater than what comes by lineage, since it is the greater sign of divine election. Which may be a problem for the idea of hereditary monarchy - solved to some degree by the idea of a 'House of David', a way of linking lineage with love: contrast 'Saul and his bloody house' of II Sam 21. Such is David's attractiveness that the best member of Saul's family was won over.
Were the authors of Sam able to consult annals from the time? If they did, did they find an official record of the sacrifice of Saul's descendants at Gibeon? This is by far the most dramatic and terrifying element in the story of the two royal houses. Maybe there was no such record, because Chron has all of Saul's male family die at Philistine hands. So there is some doubt about the availability of annals in later times. The genre of intimate rather than annalistic history had not been invented in David's time. It seems inconceivable that there would have been an official record of Jonathan's investing David with royal insignia - which is rather a woman-like action. Jonathan is surely portrayed as making himself a woman for David - the best of Saul's family but not a real man, knowing in his heart that he is not fit to be king.
We surely have all the hallmarks here of an interpretation of history rather than a recounting of a record of history.
Maybe there was some memory, even gossip, about the closeness between Jonathan and David. But this closeness could have been, and for the reasons you give far more likely would have been, one in which Jonathan was the dominant partner, with his political supporters rallying round David after his death. We may as a matter of faith believe the story that we have received but without the premises of faith other possibilities are more likely.

#2 - Martin - 12/28/2013 - 21:22

Interesting,but the article in my opinion does not go far or deep enough. Jonathan , was a popular hero as far as the Israelites minus Judah were concerned. Just look at the story where the army is prepared to sacrifice themselves instead of him. His popularity was such that David, never the popular hero in his lifetime could not dare to touch his son and had to allow him to live. What his, Davids house,did do in writing the story of there founder was latch onto that popularity by linking him David to Jonathan Don't forget that the popular choice for king over Israel was not David but Saul's son.The "history" as we have it was written by the victor probably in the time of Solomon,so that some of Jonathans popularity would rub off on him.

#3 - Daniel Baharier - 12/31/2013 - 19:13

Saul's authority as king came from his anointing by Samuel. David's authority to be king came from his anointing by the same Samuel. Jonathan seems to have realized how God's authority for kingship was conferred through Samuel, acting for God, and he acquiesced to God's will. Jonathan was not stepping aside simply because of his love for David but instead because of his fear of God. Of course, I take the Bible at face value and look, not at how the story of Jonathan and David was constructed, but for what it has to say about the relationships between God and man and man and man. To me, the story of Jonathan and David demonstrates that, above all, Jonathan loved/feared God even more than he loved David. It should also be remembered that, chronologically, Jonathan was about twenty-five years older than David, so his attitude toward David might have been as a father to a son, which, combined with Jonathan's respect for Samuel's anointing of David, could explain his self-sacrifice as "normal."

#4 - Dan Bruce - 06/15/2014 - 13:03

Many fine things have been observed here about this biblical account but the original piece is an example of what happens when you leave God out of the story and why I was told many years ago that the atheism to worry about is in the departments of religion and not in the areas of science and in the most highly regarded schools.

#5 - Barbara Wheeler - 10/09/2016 - 12:32

I believe the points of view of Dan Bruce and Barbara Wheeler are correct. In the analogy God is totally dismissed from the narrative. That is typical of an academic. I submit that Jonathan saw God's hand on David and recognized that anointing and submitted to it. Further, I do not subscribe to the notion that David was a calculating opportunist seeking the throne. While he was definitely imperfect, he was a man after God's own heart who clearly was in the plan of God to fulfill the lineage of the Savior.

While I'm still studying the relationship between David and Jonathan I am reminded that God brought down entire cities because of unacceptable behavior. It seems counter-intuitive to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah for such lascivious behavior but then condone it in his anointed.

#6 - Kelly Berard - 05/23/2017 - 15:46

I feel very lucky to have found this article. I have been reading Samuel I and II rather obsessively lately, greatly struck by the vivid intensity of the writing, the visceral presence of God, the complex examination of stagecraft and politics, and a stunning ruthlessness that makes The Godfather look like a choirboy. And of course, David and Jonathan, which I read over and over again. I really think you nailed it completely. I do think that Jonathan was in love with David (You will be King, and I will be your second), and David loved Jonathan. Whatever they did or didn't share physically, I find the comparison that was made in a comment of these men to Sodom and Gomorrah to be utterly uninformed. What the men outside Lot's house demanded was forcible rape of the most brutal sort. Nothing could be farther from the love of David and Jonathan.

#7 - Lawrence Jurrist - 11/21/2017 - 18:10

Reading of the interpretation given is most interesting, and the comments made are even of greater interest. They reminded that we are dealing with a story, and as with all stories the varied interpretations seem endless. By their very nature, interpretations mirror the age in which they emerge. One might wonder if the love between David and Jonathan would have been seen as an outward manifestation of homosexual attraction in earlier times, or is it particular to the modern age where the idea of love seems prisoner to sexuality? Additionally, the article itself and some of the comments given demonstrate that this Bible can be assessed from reasoned perspectives divorced from the dogmatism of creed. However, such antiseptic assessments do not remain unchallenged for the truth is that for centuries before our time every passage in this book was believed to be godly inspired literature. The emotional link between two men, it seems, was divinely mandated.

#8 - Pietro Lorenzini - 02/23/2018 - 07:22

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