Homosexual relationship or scandalous image of masculinity?

David and Jonathan: On men and their relationships

Bochum - Soul mates, kisses and tears: the story of David and Jonathan raises the question for some readers as to whether there was more to it than just friendship. In this guest article, exegete Mathias Winkler explains how this is to be understood and what problematic images of "manhood" have to do with it.

Published  on 11.02.2024 at 12:36  – by Mathias Winkler

It begins with a story that has become a proverb: the little shepherd David against the great warrior Goliath. David's victory guarantees him a place at the court of the Israelite king Saul. But the young hero also attracts the attention of another, Saul's son Jonathan, the Israelite hereditary prince, the number two in the state.

The Bible tells us that Jonathan's self is united with David's self (one could speak in modern terms of an "intimate soul mate") and he loves David as his own life (1 Samuel 18:1-4). Both make a covenant with each other. Jonathan undresses, takes off his robes, his sword and his bow and gives everything to David. It is easy to imagine a man in love standing naked and disarmed in a double sense before another man. Is this the beginning of a homosexual relationship between David and Jonathan?

A thought experiment

Whether you understand Jonathan and David as homosexual lovers, with kissing, cuddling and sex, depends on the perspective from which you view this relationship, and even more on what you understand masculinities and male relationships to be. I would like to focus on the last point.

Mathias Winkler
Bild: ©privat

PD Dr Mathias Winkler is a professor at the Chair of Old Testament Studies at the Faculty of Catholic Theology at Ruhr University Bochum.

A man sits in a café, another joins him, they both kiss. Are they homosexual lovers? Most Germans would spontaneously say: "Yes." If you were to ask the French or Italians or other Mediterranean neighbours, the answer would be: "Not necessarily." I haven't revealed how the men in the café kiss. If it was a French kiss, it would be obvious to everyone that they were lovers. If it were a kiss on the left and right cheek, it would be a normal greeting sign in certain countries and cultures.

We can learn something from this thought experiment for the story of David and Jonathan: we don't find out how they kiss - and automatically fill this gap in the "how" with our prevailing expectations of masculinity. The same applies to the parting tears. Are men only allowed to cry for women they love? Are men not allowed to cry for other men? Such ideas are based on the fact that in our current time and culture men are not allowed to show emotions, at least that is a very common expectation of "blokes". Boys are not supposed to cry; crying in public is considered unseemly for "real men". Whether we read David and Jonathan as homosexual lovers therefore depends above all on our current (!) ideas of masculinity and our understanding of publicly displayed emotions.

David and Jonathan
Bild: ©adobestock/ruskpp

David and Jonathan treat each other differently in the Bible than perhaps fits in with our idea of male friendship. But what does that really mean?

Today's ideas of masculinity and gender identity are not those of a culture from more than 2500 years ago. We are geographically, culturally and temporally very far removed from those who left us the biblical stories. Perhaps they understood the kisses, the tears and the words of mourning very differently than we do today. While physical contact between men is considered strange male behaviour today - apart from the firm handshake - it may have been completely acceptable for male relationships back then. Perhaps it was "normal" for men to cultivate friendships in which a kiss and a firm handshake were part of the deal, in which it was natural to mourn tearfully over male friends and to part from each other in pain. Male relationships certainly looked different back then than they do today. We know this from the literature that has survived over the millennia, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh, in which the hero Gilgamesh and his best buddy Enkidu experience an intimate male friendship, a 'bromance' with many emotions, tears, etc.

Listening with two ears

So are Jonathan and David homosexual lovers? Or is their relationship a male friendship? If we listen to the story with the ears of an Israelite who lived in ancient times, he is more likely to have recognised a "bromance". His ideas of successful male relationships coincide with the description of David and Jonathan's relationship. Such a male relationship may well have had homoerotic elements without this being considered socially unacceptable. Both men, David and Jonathan, have wives and children. Heterosexual relationships and intimate male friendships are not mutually exclusive.

„Welche Beziehungen zwischen Männern gelten im Rahmen welcher Männlichkeitsvorstellung als 'angemessen'?“

—  Zitat: Mathias Winkler

However, when we hear about David and Jonathan's relationship with the ears of people living in Germany today, it suggests a homosexual or homoerotic relationship. In today's culture and times, the prevailing view is that male relationships such as David and Jonathan's are incompatible with a heterosexual man. The consequence of this view is that the two are gay. It is precisely the prevailing ideal of the heterosexual man who lives in non-intimate male friendships that is virulent today, because this ideal has the consequence that successful relationships for heterosexual men only exist with women. This can lead to an excessive demand on heterosexual relationships, but also to loneliness. In Germany today, men are particularly affected by this.

No reason to get upset

The exegetical debate about whether Jonathan and David had a (secret) homosexual love affair is actually a sham debate. This is because it does not actually revolve around the question of the homosexuality of the two men, but rather around the question of Which relationships between men are considered "appropriate" within which concept of masculinity? The answer to this is simple: every era has different ideals of successful male relationships.

The discussion about David and Jonathan's relationship and the uproar about it is actually an examination of male images of our time. The story is not a scandal. But it is suitable for reflecting on scandalous, because sometimes harmful, images and ideals of men in our time and culture.

by Mathias Winkler