2 Samuel 1:1,17-27
1 After Saul’s death, when David had returned from defeating the Amalekites, he stayed in Ziklag two days.
17 Then David sang this funeral song for Saul and his son Jonathan. 18 David ordered everyone in Judah to learn the Song of the Bow. (In fact, it is written in the scroll from Jashar.)
19 Oh, no, Israel! Your prince lies dead
on your heights.
Look how the mighty warriors
20 Don’t talk about it in Gath;
don’t bring news of it
to Ashkelon’s streets,
or else the Philistines’ daughters
the daughters of the uncircumcised
21 You hills of Gilboa!
Let there be no dew or rain on you,
and no fields yielding grain offerings.
Because it was there
that the mighty warrior’s shield
the shield of Saul!—
never again anointed with oil.
22 Jonathan’s bow never wavered
from the blood of the slain,
from the gore of the warriors.
Never did Saul’s sword return empty.
23 Saul and Jonathan! So well loved,
so dearly cherished!
In their lives and in their deaths
they were never separated.
They were faster than eagles,
stronger than lions!
24 Daughters of Israel, weep over Saul!
He dressed you in crimson with jewels;
he decorated your clothes
with gold jewelry.
25 Look how the mighty warriors
have fallen in the midst of battle!
Jonathan lies dead on your heights.
26 I grieve for you, my brother Jonathan!
You were so dear to me!
Your love was more amazing to me
than the love of women.
27 Look how the mighty warriors
Look how the weapons of war
have been destroyed!
“In the recent debate concerning the relationship of David and Jonathan as described in 1Sam 18-20 and 2 Sam 1 the main issue has been whether or not the love between these male persons should be characterized as ‘homosexual’. Since the concept of homosexuality is not inherent in the biblical text but rather reflects the modern interpretation of gender, its use has been justly questioned. It is argued in this article that neither the story of David and Jonathan nor such texts as Gen 19,1-11, Judg 19 and Lev 18,22 and 20,13 can be interpreted as reflecting the overall concept of homosexuality. The relationship of David and Jonathan may be understood as a socially acceptable male bonding between equals, in which mutual love and affection is depicted with some homoerotic traits but in which the differentiation of active and passive, i.e. male and female sexual roles plays no role. The biblical text does not disclose homosexual orientation, thus it is up to the modern reader to decide to what extent the relationship of David and Jonathan corresponds to what is today called ‘homosexuality’.” (Martti Nissinen, Biblica (1999)
If Nissinen is right, then, on the basis of the text we need to reconsider the insight it might have for healthy male-male relationships. And few relationships in the church need more attention than this one. Recent studies indicate that a chief reason men stay away or aloof from the church is its perceived “feminizing” way of life. Shades of Nietzsche and his alleged “slave morality” of Christianity!
David and Jonathan, on the other hand, were “men among men,” warriors, leaders, tough and virile. Israel’s faith was anything but “feminizing” for them. Yet it also did not hinder the remarkable love they shared. In this respect, these two worthies hold together just what men in the west have found so difficult to do – strength and tenderness, passion and compassion. They realize an expression of masculinity seasoned by the grace of the covenant that makes them counter-cultural in their time and place.
David and Jonathan obviously lived under very different conditions and expectations than we in the church do. And yet, should we not expect the gospel to season our lives as men in a similar way to them, a way of being male that exhibits that same combination of strength and tenderness, passion and compassion?
In my book The Incredible Shrinking Gospel: The Crisis of Evangelism in the 21st Century I surveyed some recent work on masculinity in the Greco-Roman world of Jesus and Paul and compared them with the latters’ canonical portraits. The points of convergence and divergence were instructive. I haven’t the space here to rehearse the evidence but I will share my conclusion:
“Though there is some overlap between the Greco-Roman and the Jesus-earliest Christian view of masculinity, the points of conflict and redefinition are more numerous and significant. It does appear that participation in the Empire of God deconstructs the Greco-Roman ideal and reconstructs a new framework within which a ‘gospel’ masculinity can be worked out afresh . . . (a “masculinity that expresses both a gentle strength and a strong gentleness) Jesus and the earliest Christians ‘did create space for men to consider themselves – and the other women, children, and men around them – differently.’ ”
It seems likely that David and Jonathan point to such an expression of “masculinity” in our text. Jesus and Paul do as well. And by “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit,” we just might too!