Know your past live your future

David and Jonathan by Anthony Oliveira

David and Jonathan by Anthony Oliveira

Illustration by Elena Durey.

Anthony Oliveira is a PhD in English literature at the University of Toronto and culture writer. You can find him on Twitter at @meakoopa

To read the Hebrew Bible is to encounter language picked clean to the bone. In his essay “Odysseus’ Scar,” literary scholar Erich Auerbach noted that while the Homeric epics externalise operations and motives, delighting in a permanent flat surface against which events and characters and rhetorical figures can flit and shimmer, the Bible’s language is the language of silence and suspension, an iron sky against which God’s voice bursts like thunder: “Whence does [God] come, whence does he call to Abraham? We are not told. He does not come, like Zeus or Poseidon, from the Ethiopians, where he has been enjoying a sacrificial feast.” Instead God is for the Jewish people “less a cause than a symptom of their manner of comprehending and representing things,” an impetus erupting without sentiment or ornament into time with a call as indelible as it is inscrutable, paring away flesh and incidentally until “all else left in obscurity […] mysterious and fraught with background.” 

This stark, laconic effect is aggravated if your encounter with the text is in the fragmentary mosaic of community readings. The stories can come like shafts of light through stained glass, slivers whose larger picture is obscure: who is it who begat who? Who speaks? Who knocks? Who loves? Our work – as it was for me, when I was a small, confused, and wholly enrapt child listening from a narrow pine church pew –  becomes forensic. 

This archaeological rescue is exacerbated particularly for queer readers, for whom even the most forthright stories of gay love are too often occluded and tissued over by censorious and apologetic theologians and critics and preachers: “a different culture”; “mistranslated”; “just friends.”  The work of a community that does not wish to acknowledge us either in its text nor in its bench.

But even in the direst wilderness or most raging battlefield, we know one another.

On the desolate and pitiless plain, David strips himself of his cumbersome armour and confronts the giant Goliath, spitting his curse upon him: "And I will give the carcasses of your host unto the fowls and beasts, that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel” (1 Samuel 17:26). From his sling into Goliath’s skull the young shepherd drives a stone and, bestriding the Philistine invader’s enormous fallen bulk, with the giant’s own sword from his shoulders strikes his head. The young David carries the prize to Saul, the King in Israel, and presents the head and the story of his victory to the king before the royal court, including Saul’s son and heir, Jonathan. 

And again the thunder rolls, as in a terse verse the coordinates of David’s life and the history of two kingdoms are radically reoriented: “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” (1 Samuel 18:1).

There are not many love stories in the Bible, and fewer still in which the love is redemptive. Ruth and Naomi, whose vow to one another forms the basis of modern marriage vows (“Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay; your people will be my people and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16))  is one; the centurion who beseeches an astonished Jesus on behalf of his beloved servant (Luke 7:1-10) is another. 

David and Jonathan’s love is the apotheosis of this redemptive love; despite centuries of embarrassed and embarrassing exegesis, their relationship is explicitly romantic, explicitly “surpassing the love of women” (2 Samuel 1:26), and its power is the means by which God (in his usual manner of favouring the outcast, the second son, the marginalised) remakes and renovates the collapsing and decadent reign of the paranoiac Saul, bringing rain to a parched landscape.

Swearing a covenant to one another, David and Jonathan’s love is of an intensity that dissolves sense of self. Jonathan, prince of his father’s house, undresses for David, one by one covering the young shepherd with the clothes he has shed: “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” (1 Samuel 18:4). This unmaking that is also a doubling ritually stages a union which Jonathan makes explicit when he shares his birthright with his beloved David: “Thou shalt be king over Israel, and I shalt be next unto thee” (1 Samuel 23:17). It is a covenant that unites not only two people, but two kingdoms, as the Israel of Jonathan’s father gives way to the ascendant Judah of David.

This disgraceful union enrages the already unbalanced Saul, who has become psychotically envious of the beautiful and popular hero, beloved of people and God alike, showered at his court with songs, riches and wives to Saul’s simmering enmity. More than once in his fit Saul flings his spear at David while he entertains the court with his music, eventually forcing David to flee into the forest. Jonathan concocts a plan to warn David if his father plans murder; he will shoot his bow – the bow with which he symbolically sealed their union – and depending where the arrows land, David (hiding in the wilderness beneath the battlements) will know Saul’s intent. 

Jonathan desperately tries to broker peace, but Saul’s fury is laid bare. “Do not I know that thou hast chosen the son of Jesse to thine own confusion and the shame of thy mother’s nakedness?” (1 Samuel 20:30) Saul bellows at his son’s perversity. Jonathan realizes his father’s jealousy has reached its murderous pitch, and so warns him by arrowshot. The two meet furtively in the forest for a terrible farewell, which the text describes with its usual unabashed frankness: “And they kissed one another, and wept with one another, until David exceeded” (1 Samuel 21:41). Grief-stricken, they part, renewing their vow: “The Lord be between me and thee, and between my seed and thy seed forever” (1 Samuel 21:42). They meet only once more, again in the forest in secret amid one of Saul’s obsessive hunts for his adversary, and then never again.

Stripping him of honours and all pretense of hospitality, Saul’s campaign against David and his guerilla faction drives them further into the wilderness and Saul further into madness. The king’s complete abandonment of God and obsession with his legacy is signaled by his abhorrent consultation with the Witch of Endor, who uses her necromantic power to summon the dead prophet Samuel and shrivel at last the king’s rage. An uneasy peace is barely brokered between the king and the shepherd when the Philistines again sweep into Israel.

David is not there on Mount Gilboa when Jonathan dies. Neither can he prevent the desecrations they visit upon the prince’s body. Stripping him of the armor he had once put on David, the Philistines mutilate and hang from the city walls. Eventually it is recovered, and burnt, and buried beneath a tree with those of his father Saul, who himself died ignobly (whether by suicide or a servant’s hand, the text and history are unclear, but David has the servant who claims to have done it killed regardless).

When David hears the news from Gilboa, his grief is terrible. The poet (and now king) sings an elegy for Jonathan, one of the most oft-quoted and beautifully wrenching moments in the Bible:

“How the mighty have fallen in battle!
Jonathan lies slain on your heights. 

I grieve for you, Jonathan my brother;

You were so dear to me: 

Wonderful was your love to me, surpassing the love of women.
How the mighty have fallen!
 and the weapons of war have perished!” (2 Samuel 1:25-7)

David seeks a way to honour his lost Jonathan, and hears he has left behind a child, Mephibosheth, who has been left crippled – dropped by his nurse when the news came his father was killed. Against the counsel to destroy this potential rival claimant to his new throne, David seeks him out and brings the destitute creature to his court, “that I may show him kindness, for Jonathan’s sake” (2 Samuel 9:7). What their conversations consist of the text, in its usual gnomic way, does not tell us, but for the rest of his life, Mephibosheth sits for dinner at the king’s table.

And David decrees forever after that the children of the kingdom of Israel be taught “the Lament of the Bow” - his song for Jonathan, lost on Gilboa’s heights, whom the king loved as himself. 

Illustrator Elena Durey is an queer Irish illustrator, currently studying BA (Hons) Illustration in sunny Falmouth and would like to meet your dog.

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