Michelangelo’s David

Under the hands of Michelangelo, David became the most famous naked man in the world. It seems a fitting tribute to the most passionate man in the Bible that we view him, naked and proud, as the pinnacle of Renaissance art. Let me tell you the story of David, and his very, very close friend, Jonathan. (Saving the story of Michelangelo for later…)

1,000 years before Jesus there was a king of Israel named Saul, who was troubled by evil spirits, and sought a musician to help find some peace. Someone suggested one of the king’s warriors, David, and from that time, “when the evil spirit from God was upon Saul, that David took an harp, and played with his hand: so Saul was refreshed, and was well, and the evil spirit departed from him.” [1 Samuel 16:23] So David was a warrior, with a soft, sensitive side. As if that wasn’t enough, the Bible makes clear he was a hunk. “He was ruddy, and withal of a beautiful countenance, and goodly to look to.” [1 Samuel 16:12] (I can just hear the giggles of King James’s translators figuring out how to render that into English in 1611.)

Young David portrayed in Goliath by Gustave Doré

The Israelites were at war with the Philistines, and the Philistine giant Goliath taunted the Israelites, daring them to send out their best for a one-on-one battle. David took the challenge and slew Goliath with one stone from his slingshot. In victory he cut of Goliath’s head and took it to King Saul.

The king’s son, Jonathan, saw David and it was love at first sight, or as the Bible puts it even more clearly, “the soul of Jonathan was knit with the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as with his own soul.” [I Samuel 18:1] Jonathan then “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.” [I Samuel 18:3] Certainly a man who gives another man his girdle means business, although I think they mean belt. Considering that this was long before the invention of underwear, that story leaves Jonathan naked. David became part of the household from that day, and Jonathan was so smitten with his hunky buddy that he ends up offering David the inheritance of his throne. (ahem. So…Jonathan didn’t plan on the usual route of having sons to give his kingdom to?)

Something in the relationship really bothered King Saul, we can only imagine what, and it was so serious that Saul decided to kill David. Jonathon tells David of Saul’s plan, “and they kissed one another, and wept one with another – until David exceeded.” [1 Samuel 20:41] That last phrase generates some debate. It could mean David exceed Jonathon in his crying, but some evidence indicates that in the slang of the day it had a sexual connotation.

When King Saul and Jonathan are killed in a battle, David is heartbroken. “I am distressed for thee, my brother Jonathan: very pleasant hast thou been to me: thy love to me is wonderful, passing the love of women.” [2 Samuel 1: 25-26] Oh my. We don’t know the details, but this is way more than an a clap-on-the-back kind of friendship.

The anointing of David (wood panel from a synagogue in Dura Europos, Syria)

David went on to became King of a unified Israel, placed the capital in Jerusalem, wrote the poetry of the Psalms, had many wives and concubines (a biblical concept of a woman you own and have sex with without giving her the status of wife), and had a torrid affair with the hottie Bathsheba. She got pregnant, so David had her husband killed so that he could marry her. Adultery and murder didn’t diminish his legacy as God promised David that the Messiah would come from his line. Jesus was “of the House of David.” On his mother’s side. Obviously.

Straight out of the Bible we have David, ruggedly handsome warrior, giant-slayer, tender in song and poetry, lover of Jonathan and Bathsheba, adulterer, cold-blooded murderer, and God’s chosen. What to make of such a man? The story’s moral problems aside, David doesn’t sound particularly gay to me. He sounds passionate. There is a Hollywood quality about him, all dashing and brave, while tender and flawed, but triumphing in the end, and the audience leaves happy as long as they don’t think about the implications too closely.

Going on the morsels the scriptures give us, Jonathan sounds gay, and David receptive to Jonathan’s affections—not to imply that David benefitted or anything. (ahem, again.) David sounds like a man’s man, the kind of person many of us aspire to be, embodying deeply and energetically both the feminine and the masculine, both the strong and the soft, while living a life of gusto.

I don’t really care whether David and Jonathon were sexually intimate or had a deep platonic friendship. I do care that the Bible has preserved this ancient story of its greatest king loving another man passionately and without apology. It is a powerful image for God’s anointed to point to another man and say, “thy love to me is wonderful, passing the love of women.” Beautiful.