LGBTQ+ people in biblical religions often turn to the story of Jonathan’s love for David as an example of biblical affirmation of same-sex love. The biblical narrative in 1 and 2 Samuel stresses Jonathan’s love for David from the moment David and Jonathan meet to Jonathan’s death after which David utters the famous words, “your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.” Nevertheless, “love” can indicate many different kinds of relationship, both sexual and non-sexual, and one finds much resistance among biblical scholars to reading Jonathan and David as a model of sexually-expressed love between men. While some passages in the text are sexually suggestive, nothing in the Bible explicitly states, “David and Jonathan had sex.” Thus, the strategy of holding up Jonathan and David as a biblical vindication of same-sex love and desire only throws LGBTQ+ people back into the exhausting state of being endlessly debated.
My new book, David’s Loves, Jonathan’s Laments: Gay Theology, Musical Desires, and Historical Difference speaks from the pain of the experience of being caught in the crosshairs of that debate. Inspired in large part by Mary Daly, it also speaks from an impatience with the state of being stuck in a debate that endlessly repeats itself. This inspiration from Daly is only one way in which feminist thought deeply informs my project of rethinking the relationship of Jonathan and David.
Rather than trying to “prove” that Jonathan and David’s love was sexual, I turn to music about this story to explore ways of identifying with it in a way that doesn’t trap LGBTQ+ people in the ecclesial and academic stalemate of “did they or didn’t they?” Using a rich body of queer musicology that explores the various ways music expresses and enables queer identity, I explore ways in which direct identification with specific musical pieces about this story can strengthen LGBTQ+ people in our self-exploration and healing.
The turn to music also has the advantage of recontextualizing the story in a way that does not force the question of fidelity to biblical traditions. Rather, the musical versions can allow people to think about Jonathan and David separately from their biblical context. In this mode, one can hear the story exclusively as part of the historical experience of same-sex desire. Alternatively, for those who wish to remain connected to biblical traditions, the new insights musical experience can shed on the story can be brought back to a reading of the Bible in a new way. By turning from the text to musical interpretations of the text, I hope to provide one bridge across a sometimes contentious divide between people who wish to transform traditional religions and those who reject them.
This commitment to creating spaces for dialogue across difference is part of the book’s grounding in relational theology. I start the book by looking at a particular interpretation of Jonathan and David that treats their relationship as a model for doing relational theology, Gary David Comstock’s Gay Theology without Apology. In his hands, Jonathan and David give vivid expression to the feminist and lesbian relational theologian Carter Heyward’s insights about God as “our power in mutual relation.” I thus explicitly center feminist modes of thinking in my approach to reclaiming this story. This attention to feminist perspectives includes discussion of many ways in which the biblical context does not provide readers with feminist models of relationality.
Both Comstock and Heyward present their readers with contradictory ideas about historical change and what it means to relate to others in the context of ongoing changing assumptions. On the one hand, both want to affirm relation across difference. On the other hand, both seek some kind of continuity between their models of relationality and what one finds in the biblical text and subsequent Christian tradition. To think through the unexamined contradictions in this line of thinking, I turn to music from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to examine how performing music from the past sets up inevitable negotiations with other worlds. These negotiations sharpen our sense that relating to the other is different than looking in a mirror. In this sense, the book adds a layer to Heyward’s and Comstock’s feminist and gay relational perspectives.
I’ll just close by letting you hear some of the music I discuss in the book, and hope it whets your appetite for more. The centerpiece of the book is Thomas Weelkes’ “sacred madrigal” “O Jonathan,” composed in the first quarter of the seventeenth century. In this piece, note how the voices seem to caress each other as they intertwine of the words “passing the love of women.”
Another approach to the text is by Weelkes’ contemporary Thomas Tomkins. In this case, I note how performers add a layer of interpretation. Tomkins’ text selection is very brief – a simple statement that David mourned over Saul and Jonathan. I describe how some performances emphasize the relation of David and Saul, treating Jonathan as an afterthought. On the other hand, the Oxford Camerata lets the music build up to the moment Jonathan’s name is uttered, making Jonathan’s name the climax.
It is such varieties of interpretation in music that highlights that interpretive freedom with the text is both inevitable and a source for freeing engagement with the biblical text from authoritarian prescriptions that lock us into a stifling obedience
Dirk von der Horst is an adjunct lecturer of Religious Studies at Mount St. Mary’s University, Los Angeles. He earned his doctorate from Claremont Graduate University and his revised dissertation was published with Wipf and Stock as Jonathan’s Loves, David’s Laments: Gay Theology, Musical Desires, and Historical Difference. He juggles a spiritual commitment to life with despair over ecological disaster and a world of injustice on a daily basis.