In First and Second Samuel, in the Hebrew Bible, a variety of scholars have tried to justify homoeroticism between David and Jonathan. Indeed, most, following the passage at the beginning of Second Samuel note that “[Jonathan’s] love was wonderful to [David] [m]ore than the love of women” (2 Sam 2:26). Some use this to compare David and Jonathan’s love to an erotic one between women, for an erotic analogy is suggested. Detractors do not go that far, suggesting that the ancient Israelite world abounded with male-female sex devoid of emotional attachment, and that the David-Jonathan relationship might merely overflow with emotions through homosociality—that is, something like a non-sexual deep intimacy. Love does not imply sex here; neither does sex imply love, they say, and maybe, they continue, there is a political culture that places the David-Jonathan bond into one of political-alliance.
Others find assurance for eroticism in different passages, especially in the disrobing in First Samuel 18. Jonathan takes off his cloak and gives it to David, they both make a pact, and Jonathan’s soul becomes bound up with David’s. The phrase “Jonathan loved [David] as himself” is nearly repeated twice, in an incredibly laconic text. In (at least) rabbinic interpretation (and more than just the Rabbis hold this principle: you can too!), repetition suggests that each instance of the phrase bears a different meaning: a double meaning would be required here. So sure, a political meaning that centers on the David-Jonathan pact may be necessary: Jonathan loved David as a proxy for the pact; but one more meaning—either a homosocial or same-sex relationship bond—could avail itself through the double-meaning interpretive principle. Let it not be too forward to contextualize this text with Jonathan’s act of taking his clothes off (it is there in the text!), that there may be something erotic here.
But the slight eroticism that passes the sieve of political pact and homosociality continues to exist on shaky interpretive ground, however fun it might be. Nevermind the fact that David and Jonathan kissed each other and wept with each other (1 Sam 20:41); all of the detracting Biblicists can read the text with their reductive lens of political alliance and, at best, homosociality—rejecting the possibility that David and Jonathan had an erotic relationship. “These actions signified friendship in the ancient world,” they might say, “a deep friendship nonetheless, but only a friendship.” I think they’re wrong: there is one verse we have not addressed yet (Robert Gagnon, the villain against queer Bible interpretation, made it onto the Wikipedia article for David and Jonathan surrounding this verse, so I write against him, and for myself).
Our focus is on First Samuel 20:30: “Saul flew into a rage against Jonathan. ‘You son of a perverse, rebellious woman!’ he shouted. ‘I know that you side with the son of Jesse—to your shame and to the shame of your mother’s nakedness!’” This is a strange situation: Jonathan “sided” with David (the son of Jesse) to the shame of his mother’s nakedness. What gives?
There are few other instances of shame related to a mother’s nakedness, found in the incest prohibitions in Leviticus. The rule, derived from Leviticus 18, is that a step-relative represents the relative’s nakedness. For example, a woman having sex with her step-father violates the nakedness of her mother. A man having sex with his step-father violates the nakedness of his mother. The latter is the case in First Samuel.
Jonathan, here, would be having sex with his step-father, for he violates the nakedness of his mother. The question here is: who is Jonathan’s step-father? The answer obviously depends on Jonathan’s mother, Ahinoam (1 Sam 14:50). Ahinoam, later, had been taken by David as his wife (25:43)—it is unclear exactly when David married her, but the marriage tells us that David is Jonathan’s step-father.
So, only by David having sex with Jonathan could Jonathan bring shame to his mother’s nakedness. David and Jonathan had sex. Therefore, David and Jonathan’s biblical relationship is not merely a “bromance;” it is not merely “homosocial;” it is not merely “political;” it is a same-sex relationship. It is not up to me whether to declare this sex act is “moral” or “immoral” based on the text itself: I only know that ethics are more complex than the valorization of certain characters within the biblical narrative. I also know that the childhood version of me would have liked this reading as an option, for I resonated with this story and did not—yet—know why.
Unfortunately, counterarguments exist, and I’d like to address them quickly. Jonathan could have had sex with his mother. Yet, in that case, Saul's preceding statement, “I know that you side with the son of Jesse,” would be rendered nonsense. Jonathan could have had sex with another person who was married to his mother (his mother, then, was not the later Ahinoam that David married, but the earlier one). This is an argument from silence, and is not likely, for there would be no reason for Ahinoam be married to anyone other than Saul, unless David had stolen Saul's wife. Yet, some still argue that the two Ahinoams cannot be the same, because that would be just plain unlikely. However, it seems more probable that David would steal Saul’s wife—for David and Saul are rivals—than for two separate people named Ahinoam to appear in the same book of the Bible (and nowhere else) and be completely different. The most probable and unifying explanation of this passage is sex between David and Jonathan.
Let’s quickly parse the benefits of this explanation—for some might just hunker down and ignore the gay sex. First, Jonathan’s sex with David connects both David and Saul’s Ahinoam into one person, rather than creating new (textually non-existent) people for Jonathan to have incest sex with; this enforces the declaration that Jonathan sided with David. Second, David and Jonathan’s sex consummates the not-explicitly-sexual, but highly suggestive descriptions of their love expressed throughout First and Second Samuel. Third, David and Jonathan's sex does not exclude the political and social dynamics of David and Jonathan’s relationship: it just places their relationship within a homoerotic framework that provides a larger unity to their narrative. Fourth, sex strengthens the analogy of David’s love for Jonathan as (but also surpassing) his love for women, while retaining both sexual pleasure and love in the relationship (i.e. sex can imply love here, although sex does not always imply love throughout the Hebrew Bible). Fifth, David and Jonathan’s sex-act is intuitively sensible for anyone that does not immediately preclude same-sex sex acts. Clearly it is beneficial, in comparison to interpretations that avoid David and Jonathan’s gay sex, to adopt an interpretation explaining that David and Jonathan committed a sex act together under the category of non-consanguine incest.
There is a same-sex sex act (aka gay sex) in the Bible that is not exclusively prohibited, tied into a love that is often commended (for conservative interpreters) when taken out of a sexual context. It’s problematically incest-y though, but not consanguine. Suck it, Robert Gagnon.