Thursday, June 17, 2010

Homosociality and the Friendship Between David and Jonathan

OT SS Lesson #23 -- Originally posted at Mormon Matters
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 authorityhe 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.
Jonathan Lovingly Taketh His Leave of David” by Julius Schnorr von Karolsfeld

19 Responses to “Homosociality and the Friendship Between David and Jonathan”

  • Ren
    Interesting! I’d read recently of such a relationship Abraham Lincoln had and I think homosociality is a more fitting term for what I read than homosexuality.
    People often speculate that Oprah and her bff Gail have something going on and they laugh about it. What people are seeing in them looks like the very best of friends to me. I can remember as a teen having a couple intense friendships and having my sexuality questioned and attacked.
    It does seem to conjure up fear of judgment and discomfort for people when you’re the one under scrutiny.
  • bbell
    On my mission in South Africa is was not uncommon for black men who were friends to walk hand in hand down the street. If a man liked you he might hold on to your hand for a minute or 2 and have a conversation. These were men who were very hetero and while holding hands they might be discussing sports or women in a very hetero way.
  • dblock
    The behavior that you describe BBell not only common in Africa, the behavior is common thru out Europe. Its’ only looked down upon in America because of its Puritan roots.
  • Christopher
    A couple of points worth considering:
    1. Concepts and labels such as “homosexuality” and “heterosexuality” are a construction of the 20th century (and the mid twentieth century at that). Slapping these labels on previous generations (whether 19th century Mormons or ancient biblical figures) is anachronistic.
    2. Re: Its’ only looked down upon in America because of its Puritan roots. The Puritans, of course, were not as puritanical as many assume. Richard Godbeer’s research is well worth reading on the subject. And the degree of the Puritans’ influence on American culture—including notions of morality and religiosity—is highly debatable. Chalking up perceived prudishness on the part of modern Americans to a somewhat isolated settlement four hundred years ago distorts our understanding of both morality today and Puritanism historically and does little to actually explain what you want it to.
  • Vort
    I agree with the gist of your article. I have long thought it a shame that men in our culture are disallowed from holding hands or walking arm in arm past the age of about seven for fear of being perceived as homosexual. But that very attitude of antihomosexuality paradoxically leads to the opposite pole, when people reading the Bible conclude that David and Jonathan (or the centurion and his servant, or even Jesus and his disciples) engaged in homosexual relations because their friendship is mentioned.
    Your example of nineteenth-century bed-sharing practices is illuminating, since today two men sharing a bed would be perceived by most people as an acknowledgement of homosexuality, when in fact it need mean no such thing. I first encountered this on my mission, where bed-sharing between missionaries was explicitly prohibited. Even then, I fully understood why it was prohibited and sort of laughed at the idea that anyone would actually share a bed with his companion, but I also felt it was sort of a shame that such a rule would need to be made for what would otherwise be an innocent and mutually beneficial setup (so no one has to sleep on the floor).
    Suggesting the woodcut is somehow a representation of temple covenant making seems to me beyond the pale. Beyond the covenant-breaking ramifications, it’s a silly comparison to anyone familiar with what you’re referencing. The woodcut shows a man embracing another. A glance suffices to show that the elements you allude to are simply not there.
  • Christopher
    Er in my #4, point 1, “20th century (and the mid twentieth century at that)” should be “19th century (and mid-to-late 19th century at that).”
  • dblock
    Correct me if I’m wrong but didn’t Americans’ practice this, especially those living on farms, up to the time when the masses left the farms to go work in the cities.
    From what I’ve read, American Indians use to practice this also.
  • mh
    I agree with your take on this BiV. I find king david very fascinating and I have wanted to discuss many issues about him (such as this). scholar walter zanger has claimed that david orchestrated the death of both saul and jonathan, which adds an interesting twist to the story. could it be that david is much more ruthless than we all imagine?
  • Ben S
    Thanks for this BiV. I was going to mention something similar in my podcast on this weeks lesson, with a link to
  • reader Rachel
    Thanks for the post BiV. I just read through these stories the other day and was left wondering what to make of it all. In the confusion, the only clear feeling I had was annoyance that Michal was “given” to David, then taken away by her father and given to someone else, and then given back to David.
  • Rigel Hawthorne
    The scriptural reference about becoming Saul’s son-in-law by one of the two seems rather clear that it is related to the two daughters of Saul that are mentioned in the immediately preceding verses. Also, keep in mind that a “betrothal” in the ancient east was considered virtually as if a marriage had already taken place in terms of familial recognition.
    As to the gift of clothing, I found the following quotes to be of interest:
    Adam Clarke’s Commentary
    Presents of clothes or rich robes, in token of respect and friendship, are frequent in the East. And how frequently arms and clothing were presented by warriors to each other in token of friendship, may be seen in Homer and other ancient writers.
    Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown Commentary
    To receive any part of the dress which had been worn by a sovereign, or Iris oldest son and heir, is deemed in the East the highest honour which can be conferred on a subject. The girdle, being connected with the sword and the bow, may be considered as being part of the military dress, and great value is attached to it in the East.
    Keil & Delitzsch Commentary on the Old Testament
    As a sign and pledge of his friendship, Jonathan gave David his clothes and his armour. Meil, the upper coat or cloak. Maddim is probably the armour coat.. This is implied in the word wª`ad (OT:5704), which is repeated three times, and by which the different arms were attached more closely to madaayw (OT:4055). For the act itself, compare the exchange of armour made by Glaucus and Diomedes (Hom. Il. vi. 230). This seems to have been a common custom in very ancient times, as we meet with it also among the early Celts (see Macpherson’s Ossian).
    “I have wondered if these men were not physically intimate”
    It seems natural to wonder that through the 21st century lens as BiV put it so eloquently. We don’t seem to think of the act of a male biblical figure washing the feet of another male biblical figure as one that demonstrates homosociality, but if men’s footwashing clubs sprung up in 2010 in the USA, it would very likely be considered more than just homosociality.
  • MoHoHawaii
    I find it interesting that the Bible’s most romantic story turns out to be between two men. There’s no other Old Testament story with this kind of passion. Jacob and Rachel are the only competition, and they are a distant second.
    Homosocial or homosexual, does it really matter? Why not just accept the ambiguity that is present in the text?
  • Vort
    #12 MoHoHawwaii Homosocial or homosexual, does it really matter? Why not just accept the ambiguity that is present in the text?
    Because the ambiguity is false, an artifact of our culture of eroticization of the non-erotic. And it matters greatly, since homosocial activity is a necessity of celestial society while homosexual activity is a grave and repugnant sin.
  • Clark
    “…homosocial activity is a necessity of celestial society…” What??? Do you have a source. D&C 93 claims to the same sociality that exists here will exist there, but to me this speaks against homosocial behavior, not for it.
  • SNeilsen
    Do you think we know what exactly happened all those thousands of years ago to people who may or may not have existed. I think the artifact is the lenses we are looking through and sometimes we need a new prescription.
  • TS
    This made me think of many return missionaries that leave the church because they have now been “outed” and want to continue living a homosexual lifestyle. I wonder if some of this has come from a fear of having had homosocial experiences while on the mission field, which might have left some of these men with a feeling of confusion. I dont know, just a thought. ? But I also on the other hand don’t see much of anything wrong with the possibility of David and Jonathan actually being partners.
  • Vort
    #16: So you’re saying that a missionary’s experience of close friendship with his companion “might have left [him] with a feeling of confusion” and opened him to a homosexual lifestyle? Am I understanding you correctly?
  • TS
    Yes, and no… Because homosocial behaviors such as holding hands or embracing for what might be “too long of a moment” are looked down upon in typical western society… when men experience this it might “scare” them to a certain degree. Even possibly have them thinking “I’m enjoying this, does this mean I’m gay?” I’ve had a couple of close friends come back from the mission field and left the church due to homosexuality. I have never talked to them about their experiences on the mission field, but if I do, I wonder if this would be an experience they would have.
  • Late Bloomer
    I can comment on TS’s hypothesis.
    I came from a straight-laced Mormon family of 9 where no one hugged or kissed. I can’t recall a time when I saw my parents kiss. Then I was sent to Korea where public interaction between men and women is frowned on but touching, hugging, holding hands with members of the same sex was very prevalent. It was both amazing and wondrous to me. My investigators would reach over and hold my hand during church. Going to the traditional bathhouses I’d see old friends scrubbing each others backs with no sexual intent whatsoever. This culture seemed so backwards to my westernized paradigm and yet there were aspects that I thought were beautiful. I had worked with a group of deaf kids that I grew terribly close to and I was devastated when I got word of my transfer. At my farewell party, one of the teenage boys came over and was holding my hand while signing with the other how much he was going to miss me. Then, he reached up and kissed me on the lips. To this day, I do not know if this was an extension of the cultural affection between Korean males, a tactile communication amongst the deaf, or if he was sexually attracted to me. I do know that I liked the feel of the attention and missed it upon returning to the states.
    I never considered myself gay, though it sounds as if other people already slapped that label on me. But it wasn’t until my return that I really felt the void of the affection I had encountered in Korea and began discovering cheap substitutes or even seeking it out in less innocent venues. If I had been raised with more tactile affection then maybe the thrill of this “forbidden” type wouldn’t have been as encompassing and powerful. Only in hindsight and through education am I able to see the obvious path I was on and it makes it easier to separate this “homosocial” type of interaction with the “homosexual” interactions.
    Don’t know about anyone else but that is my experience.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Actually, only David and Jonathan know the depth of their feelings and commitment to each other. Based on King David's propensity for sending a man to his death just to gain possession of his widow leads one to believe that he would likely be what the 21st century calls a "bisexual". Again, we don't of a certainty, know. I find it sad that a research would put forth the premise that David would have actively plotted regicide and the death of his most
devoted and loyal friend. If, by some incredible chance might actually be the case, then David has even more to answer for than that of which we were previously aware.
There exists a very large body of daguerreotypes/photographs from the 19th and 20th centuries of friends is poses that would indicate a deeper relationship than that of mere passing friendship. Most indicate the 'homosociality' hetertofore mentioned, but others show far deeper relationships. These intimate friendships seem to blossom during wartime as numerous photos of military men show. For example, many young men from rural backgrounds find themselves thrown into harms way and seek out someone for moral and personal support. When a major battle engagement was imminent it was not too unusual for these men to have a mutually consented to sexual experience, albeit justified by the idea that they wanted to experience intimacy at least once before their death. This occurred in the Vietnam war also, as some of the poignant letters left at the Vietnam Memorial attest.
I have no idea how the prophet Joseph would have viewed all of this. He certainly had many close, personal platonic friendships. But when John M. Bernhisel, a confirmed batchelor, became involved with the Saints as their representative, Joseph prevailed upon him to marry, and marry he ultimately did. But I know of two men, one in the mission field and the other a resident of the mission who feel in love. The missionary told his prospective partner in life that he was 'going to die young'. He went on to to say that the other man would be loved again by someone else. After the elder's mission was completed they spent about two weeks together, before the returned missionary went back to his home in the west, promising his partner that they would spend the following summer together touring the west. Less than three months later the partner received word in the early morning that his friend had been killed. The surviving partner has never been the same. I asked about this event and he replied, "I have never been the same. My life now is a postscript and a waiting game. Death is the next important milestone in my life. It would have been a hell of a lot easier if we had both died together." He asked me a while back why the scripture, "God is love" wasn't qualified as, "God is heterosexual love, without premartial sex, and solemnized in the Temple", if heterosexuality is the eternal, celestial standard. He said that as the scripture reads now it seems to be purposely misleading, because it gives him hope that someday he will have his partner back in an eternal loving relationship. All I could answer was that we still don't have all the answers about the eternities. Even the prophet Joseph said that if he told all the Saints evertything he knew about the Celestial Kingdom they would kill him. That was probably the wrong answer since it still gave him hope, but I could not bring myself emotionally lacerate him as others in the ward have done.