In many Christian communities around the world this coming weekend, the first reading will include this ancient Hebrew lament, The Song of the Bow (2 Sam 1:17–27 NRSV.)
David intoned this lamentation over Saul and his son Jonathan. (He ordered that The Song of the Bow be taught to the people of Judah; it is written in the Book of Jashar.) He said:
Your glory, O Israel, lies slain upon your high places!
How the mighty have fallen!
Tell it not in Gath, proclaim it not in the streets of Ashkelon;
or the daughters of the Philistines will rejoice,
the daughters of the uncircumcised will exult.
You mountains of Gilboa,
let there be no dew or rain upon you, nor bounteous fields!
For there the shield of the mighty was defiled,
the shield of Saul, anointed with oil no more.
From the blood of the slain,
from the fat of the mighty,
the bow of Jonathan did not turn back,
nor the sword of Saul return empty.
Saul and Jonathan, beloved and lovely!
In life and in death they were not divided;
they were swifter than eagles,
they were stronger than lions.
O daughters of Israel, weep over Saul,
who clothed you with crimson, in luxury,
who put ornaments of gold on your apparel.
How the mighty have fallen in the midst of the battle!
Jonathan lies slain upon your high places.
I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan;
greatly beloved were you to me;
your love to me was wonderful,
passing the love of women.
How the mighty have fallen, and the weapons of war perished!
David’s deep sense of loss after the death of Jonathan celebrates the love they shared as exceeding the love of women, meaning—one presumes—heterosexual love between men and women.
It has long been noted that David’s words seem to be an affirmation of homoerotic sexual attraction since the explicit contrast is with heterosexual love between men and women. The words seem to put the love of David and Jonathan in a similar category to the love which we commonly observe between different genders.
The related traditions of genuine affection between Jonathan and David, despite their social location as rivals for the royal succession, need to be kept in mind as we seek to make sense of this text.
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.
Saul spoke with his son Jonathan and with all his servants about killing David. But Saul’s son Jonathan took great delight in David. Jonathan told David, “My father Saul is trying to kill you; therefore be on guard tomorrow morning; stay in a secret place and hide yourself.
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.
David rose … and prostrated himself with his face to the ground. He bowed three times, and they kissed each other, and wept with each other; David wept the more. Then Jonathan said to David, “Go in peace, since both of us have sworn in the name of the LORD, saying, ‘The LORD shall be between me and you, and between my descendants and your descendants, forever.’” He got up and left; and Jonathan went into the city. (1Sam 18:1–4; 19:1–2; 20:16–17,41–42 NRSV)
Earlier today, a friend asked me whether we would be safe in assuming their ‘love’ was more than just friendship? Was it probably also intimate and sexual?
As I reflect on this question, I think the most we can say with any certainty is that the passage celebrates male/male affection as something deep, passionate and enduring.
Of course, as a ‘progressive’ Christian I would like to read this text as an affirmation of homoerotic attraction, but I just do not think we can defend such a reading of the text.
It is fascinating that the David character affirms that the love he and Jonathan enjoyed was better than the love of women, but the narrative is describing two elite military males here. Those two contexts (elite, military) are critical elements of the enduring relationship between David and Jonathan.
In paying attention to my own dynamics as a reader, I recognise that I am also a privileged member of a cultural elite in our own day. I am also someone who happens to be heterosexual, with no significant same-sex attraction. Consequently, the words of David do not resonate with me in the way they might resonate for friends who identify as LGBTI.
At the very least, this text invites us to look beyond rigid gender stereotypes based on physical sexual characteristics. We are slowly realising that our reality as humans is somewhat more complicated than these traditional stereotypes suggest.
As a preacher next Sunday, I find myself asking what is the good news for various people, queer and straight, in these texts?
I also note that Jesus crosses gender boundaries in the Gospel this Sunday, as he heals a woman with a persistent vaginal haemorrhage and then raises a dead girl to life.
Most of us are not surprised that Jesus would respond to a request that he visit a sick girl, or that he would heal an older woman on his way to see the girl. We are not even surprised that he kept going to see the little girl even after he got word that she had already died.
We respond to these stories from our cultural context where women are (mostly) assumed to be equal with men, and from our post-Easter faith perspective.
For the contemporaries of Jesus and for the readers of Mark’s Gospel, things were very different. As they still are for Orthodox Jews today, who refuse to sit next to a woman: whether that be on a park bench or in an aeroplane.
Jewish gender boundaries were clear and rigid in the time of Jesus.
Jesus broke the rules.
Jesus included women and girls in the community that gathered around him, and he was accompanied by at least a few women as he travelled from Galilee to Jerusalem. How the tongues must have wagged.
How does the good news of Jesus transgress gender boundaries in our own day?
When a young woman is raped and murdered on her way home from work in Melbourne, and another is raped and assaulted while being driven between here and Armidale, while a young girl is kidnapped at knife point and sexually assaulted in Newcastle … what does the Gospel mean to these women and their families?
We have come a long way in tearing down the boundaries that people have erected on the basis of gender.
As church we need to be a safe and nurturing place for women and girls.
As church we need to be active in our community so that Grafton is a safe place for women.
God’s love knows no bounds, and neither can our commitment to justice and equality.