Sermon - 28th January 2018
Saul, David and Jonathan
Scripture - 1 Samuel 10:17-24; 16:1, 10-12; 16:19-23; 18:1-5; 20:3-4; 2 Samuel 1:25-26
[An audio version of this sermon, in mp3 format, is available via the link at our Spirituality > Audio and Video page.]
We are part-way through a sermon series which considers how we see ourselves as LGBT people reflected in the stories of our bible.
When I last preached to you I shared some thoughts about Ruth and Naomi and I painted a picture of gracious and generous love conquering the many influences which would have separated two people who love each other.
Today’s story, also from a very early part of the Hebrew tradition, is much more about jealous love stirring up the influences which might tear apart the relationship between two people. But it’s a story which is worth hearing because it reflects our own passions when we too can be driven by jealousy and destructive possessiveness.
We start with a character called Saul and in our first short reading we hear how the God of the Hebrew people chose Saul to be their king.
[1 Samuel 10:17-24]
Did you pick up on the reference that Saul was taller than anyone else? Earlier in the text, when God is choosing Saul to be king, Saul is described as “a handsome man in the prime of life” … “a head taller than anyone else in Israel and more handsome as well”.
Just store the idea for the moment that manly beauty has entered this narrative.
The story of Saul moves quite quickly. At first he wins some battles and brings honour to his people. But he makes some bad choices in another major battle and the people turn against him. When the people start to reject him, God tells the prophet Samuel that Saul must be replaced.
So, at God’s request, Samuel goes to Bethlehem and is told by God to focus on the sons of a man called Jesse as the new King of Israel is within that family.
[1 Samuel 16:1, 10-12]
Did you hear those words, “He was a handsome, healthy young man, and his eyes sparkled”? Again, manly beauty has featured in the story.
Saul continues as King but in a much weakened state. One of Saul’s attendants mentions David’s skills as a player of the harp and suggests that David’s musical gifts may help Saul to overcome his mood. So David is summoned from Bethlehem to the royal court.
[1 Samuel 16:19-23]
Did you notice, “Saul liked him very much and chose him as the man to carry his weapons”? The subtext of that statement is that this handsome, healthy young man with the sparkling eyes was appointed to be one of Saul’s most physically intimate servants - effectively the houseboy who would be in regular physical contact with Saul.
Some translations say armour-bearer instead of weapon carrier, and that phrase is even closer to the idea of someone who would dress and undress the King. Whatever Saul wanted from David, he clearly wanted him really close.
There are other references to David’s good looks as the story continues. When David faces Goliath, David is described as “just a nice, good-looking boy”.
But when David returns to Saul having killed Goliath, a rival for David’s attention happens to be at the celebration.
[1 Samuel 18:1-5]
The story says that Saul became jealous of David because he was receiving more praise from the people than Saul. David’s was the name on everyone’s lips instead of Saul’s. But what do we make of the fact that a young man much closer to David’s own age has suddenly come into the drama?
Jonathan becomes aware that Saul is so jealous of David that he plans to have David killed. Repeatedly Jonathan shows his love for David by warning him about Saul’s intentions and by helping David to avoid danger.
[1 Samuel 20:3-4]
In another plan to save David’s life, the text tells us, “Once again Jonathan made David promise to love him for Jonathan loved David as much as he loved himself” (1 Sam 20:17).
The rest of the First Book of Samuel tells of many of David’s exploits both as one of Saul’s military leaders and as someone whom Saul was regularly seeking to get rid of. The First Book ends with the death of Saul in battle, and the Second Book of Samuel focuses on David’s subsequent life and achievements.
But there is a remarkably moving passage in the Second Book when David hears that Jonathan was also killed in the battle alongside Saul.
[2 Samuel 1:25-26]
“Better even than the love of women.”
And so the love triangle ends.
Just as with the story of Ruth and Naomi, we cannot know what the early readers of this story were expected to understand about the relationships between Saul, David and Jonathan. The writing seems to have homoerotic elements to it.
Some scholars find extended meanings behind certain words - meanings which they believe the people reading the stories would have picked up and would have recognised as explicitly sexual.
Certainly, there seems to be a theme across the writing that manly beauty can be described in positive terms within cultural histories as something which is to be admired. Perhaps a feature to note is that the feminine aspects of men, or the attractions of a softer, less powerful male image, don’t seem to carry any value within the culture of the time.
It does seem that as long as the characters are handsome, healthy, manly men associating with other handsome, healthy, manly men, and win the battles they fight because they are so manly, they are not to be challenged about how they might express the bonds between them.
And I do wonder whether that cultural bias towards overt masculinity is what lies behind Paul’s reference to sex between men in First Corinthians when he seems to condemn sex only with soft, passive or effeminate men. I think there is some gender bias, cultural prejudice and ambiguity being exposed here, and we who are of a more effeminate nature may need to look elsewhere to see our reflection in scripture - but we are there!
I do see a love story here between the King, his son, and the handsome, rugged servant with the sparkling eyes, and as with many other love stories that I have observed in our own time, and some that I have experienced in my own life, I see some aspects of today’s lives reflected in the story. The story is relentlessly male, but I think some of the reflections apply to everyone.
- I see a classic love triangle, and all of the stresses and complications associated with such a situation.
- I see the love of an older man for a younger man, with all the mismatches and different expectations that can occur between generations.
- I see what can happen when rivalry for power or authority intrudes into the emotional side of relationships.
- I see the extremes of dedication and sacrifice that we will go to for someone we love deeply.
- And I see jealousy turning relationships into battlegrounds when our deepest emotions are disturbed by a rival for the attention of those we love.
Like so many of the stories in our Bible, this one has a message about what it is to be human, and I think it reflects many aspects of life today in our own communities and in the lives we live there, because it reflects the common humanity, with all its failings, that we all still share.
As followers of Jesus, we find the answers to the flaws in our humanity in the good news of how our lives can be if we put God first, others second, and ourselves last. That is the code we live by and the message we share when we deal with jealousy, rivalry, obsession and possessiveness.
In many respects, Saul, David and Jonathan may be a tragedy to learn from; but at its core it is a still a love story to treasure, to embrace, and to hold up as a mirror to our own lives.