Bromance. Why’s that so weird?

The story of David and Jonathan takes place in 1 Samuel 18-20. We, the audience, are introduced to this small story of a huge friendship amidst a much greater story about King Saul, his jealousy and greed against David, who is rising in power to become the new king. Ironically, Jonathan who is Saul’s son, befriended the shepherd boy David, and promotes him as future king by passing over his own birth right to the throne to David. This is where the short transitional story of David and Jonathan’s friendship occurs.

When the [troops] came home [and] David returned from killing the Philistine, the women of all the towns of Israel came out singing and dancing to greet King Saul with timbrels, shouting, and sistrums. The women sang as they danced, and they chanted:

Saul has slain his thousands; David, his tens of thousands!

Saul was very much distressed and greatly vexed about the matter. For he said, “To David they have given tens of thousands, and to men they have given thousands. All that he lacks is kinship!”…

… Saul urged his son Jonathan and all his courtiers to kill David. But Saul’s son Jonathan was very fond of David… – 1 Samuel 18:6-8, 19:1 TANAKH

The relationship between David and Jonathan has been misinterpreted since the early Christian church times. It’s been utilized by a bunch of different organizations and sects who interpret the relationship of David and Jonathan as erotic and homosexual. These twisted interpretations provide verification and proof of personal beliefs about God, man, or anything else related to the story. For example Yaron Peleg states in his article present the in “Love at First Sight? David, Jonathan, and the Biblical Politics of Gender:”

The notion that the relationship between Jonathan and David involved more than just friendship, that it was also sexual, is not new. The friendship between the two men gained exemplary status as a love story already in early Christianity.’ In our own time, the idea has long been part of the lay reading of the relationship between the two.- Within contemporary gay culture, David and Jonathan have been established as a proverbial royal couple; an inspiring example for a future acceptance and tolerance of gays in the Western world. In recent years, these popular notions have been augmented by more substantial biblical scholarship, which attempts to validate the homoeroticism of the ancient love story by employing gender or queer theories.2

However, once examining this literary text about David and Jonathan, and really revealing the truth about the original Hebrew translation of the bible – which shows David and Jonathan as mere close friends – it raises a few questions about the interpretations that have been widely circulated in our American culture.

For example, why is it that men cannot be close friends with another man without being termed gay or homosexual or other derogatory names which imply same sex relations? Isn’t it odd how women are allowed to have deep, close emotional relationships with other women without being viewed as homosexual. Yet there is absolutely no room for an emotional connection between men in a straight mans’ world.

Markus Zehnder noted in his essay “Observations on the Relationship between David and Jonathan and the debate on Homosexuality” that the Hebrew verbs that are translated into the English words for love and kiss are not words that are used typically between a man and a woman relationship. He researched the number of times and the context in which each word was used and concluded at the end of all his research that the context in which these were used were not meant in a romantic or erotic manner. The verbs that are used in romantic relationships for love and kiss are different than what’s used between David and Jonathan. Similarly the verbs that are used in the story of David and Jonathan are ones that are used when father and son embrace or two close friends embrace after a long time of being apart or right before they split for a long time.  Two paragraphs are quoted in the footnotes of the systematic analysis of the verbs love and kiss. [1]

Even though the story it’s self is quite short, there is a lot of interaction between David and Jonathan in the Old Testament. Perhaps the most controversial dialog that that happens between David and Jonathan is when David records the victory over Israel, and in his letter he writes in grief over Jonathan. He states:

I grieve for you, my brother Jonathan, you were most dear to me. Your love was wonderful to me more than the love of women.- 2 Samuel 1:26 TANAKH

By analyzing this segment of their relationship, the grief over the lost friend, we can apply many of the same theories to the rest of the relationship. Before analyzing this scripture its best to state a few assumptions first, so that interpretation is coherent and logical. The background of this story presents the relationship of David and Jonathan as open to interpretation. The story talks about them being joined in spirit so much so that they love one another as their own souls. Jonathan has helped save David by warning him of Saul’s plans to kill him, and providing him with an escape plan to escape his father’s wrath. Between the time David fled from Saul’s palace to the time when this letter was written, David had grown in power to rise and become stronger than Saul. This letter was written upon the defeat of Saul and his death and unfortunately Jonathans too.

The first assumption to be made is that death compels the deepest utmost emotions in a person. Death allows people to overlook all the annoyances and petty strife that one had with the deceased. It’s arguable that it puts you into perspective of what really matters and it’s arguable that out of sympathy the deceased is raised higher in the livings hearts than what’s actually deserved. Which is really true is irrelevant to the point that this death of Jonathan was wrenching the deepest emotions and feelings out of David. The point being that if there were sexual tension and romantic love, it would not be hidden by David now.

A second assumption is that this letter is written while David’s grief is at its highest impact on David’s emotions and feelings toward Jonathan. The words “your love exceeds the love of any women,” is pretty easily interpreted as lover, simply because a woman’s love is sexual. This point is what should be challenge our American way of thinking.

It’s clear from the other stories of David that he does not have very high standards on values of women. Thinking about Bathsheba, David’s hundreds of wives, and lack of mention of any women who really challenged him spiritually and encouraged him, as we would assume was the case in religious marriages today, implies that he was not a man who attached ever attached his soul to a woman. David was a man who was very much attracted to women but never experienced them as the complementing soul that he found in Jonathan.

He was undoubtedly attracted to women; he married enough times to prove that. As if all those women were not enough for him he had to go have an affair too. However, this attraction and desire for women never exceeded sexual desires, and his heart was compelled for more than sex.

This desire for relationships that are more than sex is usually associated with a female desire, but modern religions have also worked toward this alternative way to join two hearts be the practice of abstinence. This is preached in almost every Christian youth group in worldwide, but is also, which is not quite so trivial, the main practice of monks and saints and religious leaders. Absitince has become the “ideal” like a sign of ones strength in religious circles and has even developed a standard code of morality in our common day culture that is frequently deliberately ignored, but is still present as a conscience in the back of American minds. Code rules like “don’t go out alone with a member of the opposite sex, don’t sleep over at the opposite sex’s house, and heaven forbid don’t move in with them before marriage. All these ‘measures of precaution’ are to prevent sexual immorality which helps open relationships in other areas of life, and produce a spiritual maturity and relational satisfaction that David experienced with Jonathan.

Was this David’s thinking? There’s no way to know, and I highly doubt it. However the underlying attraction to morality and spiritual growth of his relationship with Jonathan is nothing like the “love” of a woman and could easily produce the emotions that he loved jonathan more than a woman; but in reality loving jonathan more than women and loving jonathans relationship more than a womans relationship are two completely different things.

Another way to to look at this statement is to notice and recognize the difference in a womans love and a friends love. David is comparing the two and choosing the type of love he prefers. In this respect, Jonathan is offering him unconditional love – love that laid down his own life for the sake of his friend – and women offer temporary pleasure. It’s not hard to see why David would say the love of jonathan far exceeded the love of women in this respect. This in a sense is a parallel to modern Christianity. Jonathan represents Jesus, and David represents man.

I grieve for you, my brother Jonathan, you were most dear to me. Your love was wonderful to me more than the love of women. – 2 Samuel 1:26

The Pirkei Avot is one of the 63 study scriptures of the Mishneh which are the scribed versions of the Oral Law that was passed down for generations and generations in the 2nd century. These Jewish scriptures offer a bit of the relational insight into the way Jewish believers would have seen the relationship of David and Jonathan. This commentary quotes:

The sages characterized the relationship between Jonathan and David in the following Mishnah: “Whenever love depends on some selfish end, when the end passes away, the love passes away; but if it does not depend on some selfish end, it will never pass away. Which love depended on a selfish end? This was the love of Amnon and Tamar. And which did not depend on a selfish end? This was the love of David and Jonathan. (Avot 5:16)

This scripture in the Avot reveals more of the understanding of how the friendship between David and Jonathan could be one that was not romantic or homosexual, and still be a deep friendship that has great love for one another. “Depending on a selfish end” is dooming any relationship for failure, whereas building up one another in unselfishness is the assurance of everlasting commitment and love. Jonathan laid down all his rights to the power, succession, and authority for David. He really understood loving someone more than yourself, and what that looks like; humbling yourself and lifting the other up.

The Shirley and Jacob Fuchsberg Jerusalem  Center has a modern commentary on this text where they develop what that kind of relationship looks like. A relationship that is not selfish in the end is a relationship that is built on different values that will not cease once they no longer are receiving what is beneficial. To make the point more clear, the Haftarah Commentary states:

Anyone who establishes a friendship for access to power, money, or sexual relations; when these ends are not attainable, the friendship ceases…love that is not dependent on selfish ends is true love of the other person since there is no intended end. – Rabbi Shimon ben Tzemach Duran (Spain, North Africa 14th-15th century)

This kind of friendship where love is selfless and not selfish is something that our culture has completely lost, arguably in marrages that’s why divorce rates are so high, but also in our friendships. Business relationships are more common even on the small scale. American children are taught young through public school system to make friends with who you want to look like. Whatever benefits they might give you. This was not the style of relationship between David and Jonathan, their relationship was selfless and humble to one another, not selfish and greedy. Our culture today has perverted the closeness of relationships between men, due to the stigma of a ‘manly man’ and the cultural standards placed on young boys.

Such stigma’s like, boys should play outside, be into sports, hunt, fish, chase girls, and never cry, while girls should be emotional, play with dolls, fantasize about prince charming, and insist on romance, are the type of values that have contributed to the thought and acceptance of men and women relationships.


[1] “The Semantics of the Verb an s {“to love”). Rather complex conclusions come out of an examination of the uses of the verb 3118 which goes beyond the limits of 1 Sam 18:1 and 20:17. The verb anx is attested 141 times in the HB. “Eighty-one of the attestations deal with the relationship between man and God or between human beings, the latter covering fifty-four of the eighty-one attestations. In thirty of the fifty-four instances a sexual component is included or at least possible.58 In all of these cases^^ it refers to relationships between a man and woman, never to relationships between persons of the same sex. These observations lead to the conclusion that from a purely statistical point of view the verb 3ns as used in 1 Sam 18:1 and 20:17 may or may not include a sexual component. In light of the fact that in all cases which actually do or at least may contain a sexual component it is always male-female relationships that are referred to, the probability that the verb 3n N in 1 Sam 18:1 and 20:17 has to be understood in a sexual way is very low (pg 144)

The Semantics of the Verb an s {“to love”). Rather complex conclusions come out of an examination of the uses of the verb 3118 which goes beyond the limits of 1 Sam 18:1 and 20:17. The verb anx is attested 141 times in the HB. “Eighty-one of the attestations deal with the relationship between man and God or between human beings, the latter covering fifty-four of the eighty-one attestations. In thirty of the fifty-four instances a sexual component is included or at least possible.58 In all of these cases^^ it refers to relationships between a man and woman, never to relationships between persons of the same sex. These observations lead to the conclusion that from a purely statistical point of view the verb 3ns as used in 1 Sam 18:1 and 20:17 may or may not include a sexual component. In light of the fact that in all cases which actually do or at least may contain a sexual component it is always male-female relationships that are referred to, the probability that the verb 3n N in 1 Sam 18:1 and 20:17 has to be understood in a sexual way is very low (pg 144)

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About Ashley Lee

I am going into my senior year of college at the University of Kentucky this fall as a Chemistry major. I took a job as a photographer for a day camp over the summer. But I'm studying Thai culture abroad in Bangkok this fall. My life is random. My life is good.
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6 Responses to Bromance. Why’s that so weird?

  1. bethanyschuler says:

    I think what you have written so far is really good! I never thought about the comparison you made between David and Jonathan and man and Jesus. It’s a really good and interesting point. You made a lot of comparisons to our culture which I also thought was good. But maybe you should include some parts of our culture that do look positively on homosexual relationships. I might also include any other homosexual relationships in the Bible or Old Testament, just to show some parallels or if there are none, explain why that may be.

  2. Kristina Strine says:

    I really enjoyed reading what you had so far! I can tell through your writing that you’re really interested in your topic. I also agree with what Bethany said, that you should try and include some parallels between the Bible/ Old Testament. I think that will help tie your whole paper together. Also, I liked the way you talked about the comparisons to our culture. It helped me relate and compare the story of David and Jonathan to something I could relate to. Keep up the good work!

  3. cmweid2 says:

    I love your topic. One thing I particularly find great is that you found research talking about how the Hebrew words for love and kiss are not what we Americans may interpret it to be and that there may be a little bit mistranslation of the scripture’s words.

    Your paper thus far is very strong and easy to read and understand. You definitely seem to know what you’re talking about.

    Have you considered somehow including movie references, such as “I love you, Man”, which has been brought up in class? I see you compare the acceptance (or lack thereof) of a bromance in our modern day culture. Maybe you could also link that into movies? Just a thought. Great paper, and keep it going strong!

  4. spgi222 says:

    This is a great topic and a relevant one to all of us today. I like how you made the comparisons between David and Jonathon, and i believe ity would work even better if you incorporated some comparison between this and another set of people today. Also, i think some research in homosexuality, more specifically what seperates a homosexual and a heterosexual relationship then and now.

  5. oliviag55 says:

    Great job so far! I really like your background on David, he was really unlucky with women, and it definitely helps explain how/ why he would say “your love was greater to me than the love of women” in a platonic, non-sexual way. I think it could be good to expand on this idea with some of the things that we talked about in class, like why men view a friendship between their “bros” as better (more loyal, pure) than their romantic relationships, you could tie in other people suggestions with a modern example of “bros before hos” mentality.
    In your section on the “kiss” I was reminded of Romans 16:16, I Corinthians 16:20, and the many other places where Paul tells Christians to greet each other with “a holy kiss” which is defnitely a platonic, non-homosexual act, as Paul is very clear in other parts of his writing, (just like the Old Testament) that homosexuality is not condoned by God.
    And definitely include the part on the semantics of “to love”

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