Was King David Gay?

Our subject here is a Web writer named Jeramy Townsley, but the arguments he offers on this subject are not unique to him, so while we will use his material as a basis, his name and identity is not of the highest relevance. (The website this item is from has also not been updated since 2015.) The subject here is the question, "Were David and Jonathan gay lovers, according to the Bible?"

Townsley says of arguments in this regard, "while not quite compelling, [they] leave open the strong possibility that they were involved in an homosexual marriage."

How is the case made? The first point is from 1 Samuel 18:21:

And Saul said, I will give him her, that she may be a snare to him, and that the hand of the Philistines may be against him. Wherefore Saul said to David, Thou shalt this day be my son in law in the one of the twain.

This verse, coming as it does after the following:

And Saul said to David, Behold my elder daughter Merab, her will I give thee to wife: only be thou valiant for me, and fight the LORD'S battles. For Saul said, Let not mine hand be upon him, but let the hand of the Philistines be upon him. And David said unto Saul, Who am I? and what is my life, or my father's family in Israel, that I should be son in law to the king? But it came to pass at the time when Merab Saul's daughter should have been given to David, that she was given unto Adriel the Meholathite to wife. And Michal Saul's daughter loved David: and they told Saul, and the thing pleased him.

...one would immediately suppose that the "twain" or two are Merab and Michal. The words "the one" are admittedly a KJV addition for clarity, but this is apparently all Townsley needs to let his case in:

The actual translation of this phrase is somewhat controversial, being literally translated "You will become my son-in-law through two." In this instance, the correct interpretation of this verse is crucial, because it radically shapes our view of David and Jonathan's relationship, since Scripture only indicates that David had any kind of relationship with two of Saul's children: Jonathan and Michal. Some translations interpret this verse as meaning that Saul "said for the second time," or that David has a "second opportunity" to become Saul's son-in-law. These interpretations, however, are strained, and the Hebrew does not easily lend itself to mean either of these. Most standard translations clearly interpret the verse to mean that David will become Saul's son-in-law for the second time...

Townsley hereafter quotes English versions in the service of suggesting that it means that David "will become his son-in-law for the second time" (where Jonathan was the first). But there are a few social issues Townsley needs to consider before he gets too excited.

To begin, had such a marriage indeed taken place between Jonathan and David, that means that Jonathan would have either become a member of David's house, or David would have become a member of Jonathan's house. Since Saul does not want David in power, as is quite clear, and would also presumably want Jonathan to have the throne after him, there is no way Saul would have permitted either scenario. There would be no threat if a daughter became part of David's house. So a marriage between these two is politically impossible to begin with.

Second, the passages after this tell a differing story: "And Saul commanded his servants, saying, Commune with David secretly, and say, Behold, the king hath delight in thee, and all his servants love thee: now therefore be the king's son in law. And Saul's servants spake those words in the ears of David. And David said, Seemeth it to you a light thing to be a king's son in law, seeing that I am a poor man, and lightly esteemed?"

Would Saul need to send his servants to persuade David of this, or would David ask if it was a light thing to be the king's son-in-law, if he already was?

Finally, 18:21 itself, and the word "twain," can mean "in both" but can mean in a "second". It is in fact the Hebrew word for the numeral two. What Saul is saying here is that David will be his son-in-law in the second daughter offered. There is no call for an idea of a "first marriage" here, other than a wish to see something in the text that is not there.

Next in service, it is noted:

The first offer Saul made to David for a wife was Merab, but she married Adriel of Meholah instead (18:19). The only other covenant made between Saul's family and David was between David and Jonathan in 18:3, which is not a covenant of business or politics, but of friendship/love ("ahbh"). Moreover, this relationship is described in very strong emotive language, starting in 18:1.

We can stop right here and give Townsley a failing grade in Ancient Near Eastern society, because "strong emotive language" is just par for the course for these people in all of their relationships. Townsley knows correctly that platonic relationships as such did not exist in this time, but he's either uninformed of, or ignoring, more relevant data.

We present here material previously used in our item on the alleged homosexuality of Jesus:

To put it bluntly, such arguments view intimate relationships through jaundiced Western eyes. Put your head on the breast of another man today here in America, and the jokes will fly. But in the ancient East, not so; and even today, such affectionate displays are typical on that side of the world, and well-publicized (remember all the news clips of Arab and Middle Eastern leaders kissing each other on the side of the face?), which is probably why we don't hear these sorts of verses brought up in service of homosexual Bible characters, except by the incredibly underinformed.

Abraham Rihbany (The Syrian Christ, 65), a native of the East early last century, bore with some patience the misinterpretations of modern Westerners (he named Robert Ingersoll particularly) who read the Bible through their eyes and tastes and missed certain points about what was being said and done. The particular instance of John 21:20 represents a custom "in perfect harmony with Syrian customs. How often have I seen men friends in such an attitude. There is not the slightest infringement of the rules of propriety; the act was as natural to us all as shaking hands. The practice is especially indulged in when intimate friends are about to part from one another, as on the eve of a journey, or when about the face a dangerous undertaking. Then they sit with their heads leaning against each other, or the one's head resting upon the other's shoulder or breast."

By the same token, Easterners will use "terms of unbounded intimacy and unrestrained affection" to one another: "my soul," "my eyes," "my heart." Paul's holy kiss (Rom. 16:16, etc) is no more of a homosexual exchange.

Townsley is therefore underinformed any time he cites non-sexual, affectionate behavior as meaningful for his case. Yet this he does, going back to 1 Samuel 18:1-4 and finding a "love at first sight" citation:

And it came to pass, when he had made an end of speaking unto Saul, that the soul of Jonathan was knit with the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul. And Saul took him that day, and would let him go no more home to his father's house. Then Jonathan and David made a covenant, because he loved him as his own soul. And Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that was upon him, and gave it to David, and his garments, even to his sword, and to his bow, and to his girdle.

Townsley admits that there is no linguistic similarity between this and language in Gen. 2 which refers to "becoming one flesh," but he insists that "there is a striking similarity in concepts between the son leaving the parents to join to a spouse, and the two becoming one."

Is there? As noted above, such a linkup would have been political suicide for Saul, David, and/or Jonathan, and this language is no different (indeed, far tamer) than that which Rihbany describes among close, non-homosexual friends.

We may note that commentators regard Jonathan here as passing over his royal insignia -- in effect, his right to the throne -- to David, and those who see a sexual encounter here may note that only one person seems to be getting undressed. And lest anyone make much of that "loved" bit, it is the same word used to say that the Lord loved Israel (Deut. 7:8, 1 Kings 10:9, 2 Chr. 2:11, 9:8, Hosea 3;1). The same word is often used, as Townsley notes, of relationships that would clearly have a sexual component (just look through Song of Songs) but it implies, as agape does, a more practical concern.

Townlsey notes these cites, but does not tell us that the word is used of the relationship between God and Israel.

To his credit, Townsley admits that the evidence here is "persuasive" to him, but "not conclusive," also admitting that he knows of no "other extant Hebrew literature of that era that refers to a gay marriage," and whether "Saul would have seen David and Jonathan's covenant as one of legal marriage." Not that all "covenants" were marriages anyway; it is the same word used to refer to God's promise not to destroy the world again after the Flood, and to God's agreement with Abraham.

On the lack of mention of sexual activity between the two, it is countered that "very few Old Testament relationships which are clearly marriage relationships have subsequent descriptions of sexual activity" (actually, they do, in the form of children; and Townsley only says this, with no accounting at all) and suggests that 2 Samuel 1:26 ("I grieve for you, Jonathan my brother; you were very dear to me. Your love for me was wonderful, more wonderful than that of women.") may be just such a reference, which means that all of Rihbany's people must be having sex with each other as well.

One might add that "love" is certainly not the same as sex, and one might suggest that a caring, non-sexual relationship can be immensely satisfying -- one wonders how much of our modern, sex-crazed mindset Townsley has absorbed and wrung out on the text.