David fled from Naioth in Ramah. He came before Jonathan and said, ‘What have I done? What is my guilt? And what is my sin against your father that he is trying to take my life?’ He said to him, ‘Perish the thought! You shall not die. My father does nothing either great or small without disclosing it to me; and why should my father hide this from me? Never!’ But David also swore, ‘Your father knows well that you like me; and he thinks, “Do not let Jonathan know this, or he will be grieved.” But truly, as the Lord lives and as you yourself live, there is but a step between me and death.’ Then Jonathan said to David, ‘Whatever you say, I will do for you.’…
…Jonathan said to David, ‘By the Lord, the God of Israel! When I have sounded out my father, about this time tomorrow, or on the third day, if he is well disposed towards David, shall I not then send and disclose it to you? But if my father intends to do you harm, the Lord do so to Jonathan, and more also, if I do not disclose it to you, and send you away, so that you may go in safety. May the Lord be with you, as he has been with my father. If I am still alive, show me the faithful love of the Lord; but if I die, never cut off your faithful love from my house, even if the Lord were to cut off every one of the enemies of David from the face of the earth.’ Thus Jonathan made a covenant with the house of David, saying, ‘May the Lord seek out the enemies of David.’ Jonathan made David swear again by his love for him; for he loved him as he loved his own life…
…Then Saul’s anger was kindled against Jonathan. He said to him, ‘You son of a perverse, rebellious woman! Do I not know that you have chosen the son of Jesse to your own shame, and to the shame of your mother’s nakedness? For as long as the son of Jesse lives upon the earth, neither you nor your kingdom shall be established. Now send and bring him to me, for he shall surely die.’ Then Jonathan answered his father Saul, ‘Why should he be put to death? What has he done?’
Jonathan continues to protect David against Saul’s plans to kill him and to challenge his father, until Saul’s anger boils over against Jonathan too. A breach in their relationship seems final. The focus moves onto Jonathan’s love for David and their relationship.
Some scholars argue that the text implies a homosexual relationship, pointing to 20:41 (where the two men kiss) and 2 Sam.1:26 (that compares David’s love with that of women) in support. Others reject this interpretation, claiming that an asexual, brotherly devotion is being described. We cannot know who is right, nor how an ancient society would have interpreted the precise words used. In truth questions of sexuality are not the main focus here; and we should always be wary of reading our own view on a contemporary issue into an ancient text.
Jonathan’s willingness to risk his life for David’s sake and the mutual covenant between them (sworn in the name of God) are the key issues. Both promise to show a love like God’s covenant love towards the other – and towards everyone in each other’s extended family (the probable meaning of ‘house’ in this context). They entrust their uncertain futures to God, seeking mutual reassurance that whichever of them survives will show compassion.
Taking oaths in God’s name was ancient tradition and they were understood to be totally binding. Are you ever guilty of making promises too lightly, with little thought to the consequences for others if you break them? What personal risks would you take for the sake of a friend? Do we ever become self-absorbed about what’s happening in our life and overlook the existence of loving responsibilities towards a wider circle of family and friends too? With God at the centre of our lives we are more likely to behave well and with compassion.
Loving God, you love us with a love beyond our understanding and we rest secure in this knowledge. You set us in community and command us to love one another in a similar way.
Forgive us when we allow concerns about how human love is expressed to prevent us from loving someone in obedience to you. Forgive us when we fail to keep our promises.
Fill us with your love. Amen.
The Revd Dr Janet E Tollington A retired minister and member of Downing Place URC in Cambridge