As I announced in my last article, I will be writing a series of articles probing the nature of the relationship between David, later to become the most famous king of Israel, and Jonathan, the son of King Saul.
Immediately after the boy David kills Goliath, David is brought before King Saul. It’s then we come to the first intriguing passage:
“When David had finished speaking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul. Saul took him that day and would not let him return to his father’s house. Then Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul. Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that he was wearing, and gave it to David, and his armor, and even his sword and his bow and his belt” (1 Samuel 18:1-4)(New Revised Standard Version),
To be sure “love” is used in the Bible to describe erotic and sexual attraction, but the meaning in Hebrew is always context-dependent. The same word is used to describe the love of all the people for David. The same word is also used a few verses later to describe the feelings of David’s wife toward him. Like English, there are ambiguities and nuances with the Hebrew word for “love.” It does not always refer to romantic love.
In Scripture David is universally described as handsome and beautiful; and David’s defeat of Goliath would not be the only time he was hailed as a hero. It would be a mistake, however, to suggest the entire nation was involved in a romantic tête-à-tête with David. The majority position among scholars is that the foregoing passage is best understood as significant for its political implications. “Love language” of this type was used in vassal treaties. People were expected, nay obligated, to “love” their king. The argument, then, is that Jonathan is acknowledging David as God’s choice to be the next king.
While most attention has focused on the use of the term “love,” I am intrigued by the implications of Jonathan’s soul (nephesh) being bound. Some have suggested on the basis of this language that Jonathan and David were best friends and platonic soulmates. Nepheshis certainly expressive of great intensity. It is incorrect to spiritualize it as some have tried, however. Nepheshis not pure spirit completely divorced from impure flesh. Such dualism did not exist in the Hebrew of the time. Nepheshconveys a “fullness of self” that includes the body and all that comes with it (it’ physical impulses and sexual passion). Jonathon loved David with his “whole being.”
Equally interesting are the implications of the interpretive choices. In some parts of Scripture, nepheshis translated as “life” and, in other instances, “heart.” Arguably, one could say Jonathan gave his heart to David. On the basis of this passage the argument that Jonathan had a romantic interest in David is not conclusive, but it is highly suggestive.
By The Rev. Mark Andrew Jones, BSG
St. Nicholas Episcopal Church