The amazing friendship that should never have been.
One of the grace notes in the Old Testament narratives is the various references to the passionate friendship between David and Jonathan.* When we encounter the first mention, we find the text telling us:
When David had finished speaking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul. (1 Samuel 18:1)
What strikes me about the sentence is that phrase Jonathan loved him as his own soul. It suggests the depth of feeling that Jonathan feels for this young man who has just slain the fearsome giant Goliath.
Another glimpse of the depth of Jonathan’s feelings comes two verses later. The text tells us:
Then Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul. Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that he was wearing, and gave it to David, and his armor, and even his sword and his bow and his belt. (1 Samuel 18:3-4)
Jonathan is so attached to David that he literally gives David the garments of his warrior honor: his robe, his armor, and his arms. It is an astonishing gift of liberality in a deeply warrior culture. And also an expensive gift. Armor was something so expensive that only the elite could wear it.
As we read on in 1 Samuel, we learn that this attachment between the two men is not a passing fancy. As David’s popularity with the public grows, it incites deep jealousy in King Saul. Saul begins to see and fear David as a rival. He also begins to entertain plans to kill this rival.
Jonathan tries to dampen his father’s fears by becoming an advocate for David. He reminds Saul of David’s bravery and his service to the kingdom. He asks his father, You saw it, and rejoiced; why then will you sin against an innocent person by killing David without cause? (1 Samuel 19:1-7)
Jonathan can pacify his father’s fears only temporarily. When Saul again makes plans to kill David, Jonathan sends a coded message to David to flee for his life. David is no longer safe in the royal court. As the two friends part—never to see each other again alive—we again get a glimpse of the passionate attachment between the two young men.
The text tells us:
As soon as the boy [who had been instrumental in delivering the coded message] had gone, David rose from beside the stone heap, and prostrated himself with his face to the ground. He bowed three times, and they kissed each other, and wept with each other; David wept more. (1 Samuel 20:41)
An Inter-generational Bond
Jonathan goes on to say to David:
Go in peace, since both of us have sworn in the name of the Lord, saying ‘The Lord shall be between me and you, and between my descendants and your descendants forever.’ (1 Samuel 20:42)
This friendship has become something more than a normal friendship. It has become a spiritual bond that will extend beyond their own lifetimes to their descendants.
We also note that the attachment is deeply mutual, as the text makes a special point that David wept more.
Some modern readers have asked if this friendship was something more than emotional. Was it homoerotic? Is there a hint of that in the detail that they kissed each other? But what kind of kiss was it? Was it erotic or just a kiss of deep affection?
Another hint occurs in David’s lament over Jonathan’s death when he describes his love for Jonathan as passing his love of women. I contend we can spin too much speculation from these details. The Bible draws a tantalizing veil over the nature of their friendship.
Later details in the Biblical narrative make clear that this deep attachment never waned. When Jonathan dies in battle with the Philistines, David launches into a passionate lament over the death of Saul and his son (2 Samuel 1:17-26). His tribute to Jonathan is especially poignant:
Jonathan lies slain upon your high places.
I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan;
greatly beloved were you to me;
your love to me was wonderful,
passing the love of women. (2 Samuel 1:26)
And David honors the bond that Jonathan saw as passing into future generations. When David learns that Jonathan left behind a handicapped son, Mephibosheth, David brings this son to live in the royal compound and provides him with a royal pension. The text says David treats the young boy as if he were one of his own sons. (2 Samuel 9)
An Improbable Friendship
What the stories about David and Jonathan bear witness to is the enormous prestige the ancient world gave to friendship. It was regarded as the highest form of human relationship, a far higher and often more intimate relationship than marriage. It possessed especially high value in the warrior cultures of ancient times. We find another passionate example in the friendship between Achilles and Patroclus described in Homer’s Illiad.
I discuss the reasons for this prestige in another of my blog postings Jesus’ Privileged Friends. You can click on it if you wish to learn more about the reasons ancient people so highly valued friendship.
But what is particularly striking about the friendship between Jonathan and David is that it should never have happened. Jonathan was after all a royal prince, the son of Israel’s King Saul. He, therefore, had higher social status that David, that upstart who had once served as a lowly shepherd herding sheep.
As we read the Biblical text, we learn that David indeed became a serious threat to the throne of King Saul. He in fact succeeded Saul as king of Israel. Saul hunted down David to kill this rival. He had good political reasons for doing so. This should have given Jonathan every reason for dropping this now politically inconvenient friend.
And yet the Biblical text tells us that the soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul. Jonathan remained loyal to David for the rest of his short life. And on the different occasions when he protected David from his father’s murderous rages, he put loyalty to his friend above loyalty to his father the king. It would be hard to find a similar example in all the many annals of royal dynasties in human history.
Likewise, as we have seen, David remained loyal to Jonathan, even beyond Jonathan’s death.
How can any of this have happened? It is a marvel among marvels. And a testimony to the power of passionate friendship.
* The accounts are scattered throughout 1 and 2 Samuel. They include: 1 Samuel 18:1-5; 1 Samuel 19:1-7; 1 Samuel 20; 2 Samuel 1; 2 Samuel 4:4; 2 Samuel 9; 2 Samuel 21:7