Sermon - 2nd February 2020
Creation ordinances; Saul, Jonathan and David
Scripture - Genesis 2:18-24, 1 Samuel 18:1b-4, 1 Samuel 20:41-42, 2 Samuel 1:17,26
Today, we are going to revisit two accounts in the Old Testament. One which is sometimes used against LGBT+ people, and one which is sometimes used to give a positive reading of same-sex relationships.
David, Jonathan and Saul are characters in the Bible whose lives can be reasonably interpreted to have elements of same-sex attraction. Saul was the first King of Israel; Jonathan was his son. David was the youngest of eight sons born to Jesse, a shepherd of Bethlehem.
This week’s first reading comes from the book of Genesis, which begins with two stories of creation: the first one, which mentions the Six Days of Creation, is perhaps more familiar to us. Our reading comes from the second creation account which focuses on God’s creation of humankind.
Reading 1: Genesis 2:18-24
18 Then the Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to live alone. I will make a suitable companion to help him.” 19 So he took some soil from the ground and formed all the animals and all the birds. Then he brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and that is how they all got their names. 20 So the man named all the birds and all the animals; but not one of them was a suitable companion to help him. 21 Then the Lord God made the man fall into a deep sleep, and while he was sleeping, he took out one of the man's ribs and closed up the flesh. 22 He formed a woman out of the rib and brought her to him. 23 Then the man said, “At last, here is one of my own kind— Bone taken from my bone, and flesh from my flesh. ‘Woman’ is her name because she was taken out of man.” 24 That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united with his wife, and they become one.
At the start of the Bible – the start of the world – God asks very little of humankind: work, keeping the Sabbath (or day of rest) and procreation. Theologians call these The Creation Ordinances, and it is the third of these which has become used against us LGBT people.
This text has something important to say about gender. The word we heard as “man” is not the usual word in Hebrew for “man” “ish" - it is “ha’adam” “the earth creature" – a genderless word. There is inconsistency across translations referring to “man” and the proper name “Adam”. In Genesis 3, the Hebrew uses the usual word man.
The crunch point for us LGBT people comes when this text is interpreted literally, when we are told that God in these Creation Ordinances defines marriage as heterosexual marriage between a male and a female.
Even though some extreme fundamentalists insist upon a literal understanding of creation, the mainstream churches do not, and they accept God’s role in creation that has taken some 14 billion years: evolution is difficult to deny when standing in London’s Natural History Museum surrounded by skeletons of giant dinosaurs!
Once again, motivated by irrational homophobia, many (mainstream) churches have accepted a metaphorical interpretation of the creation narratives, but have chosen to take a literal stance when it comes to God’s desire that we humans might live in companionship.
There are two significant problems with a literal interpretation: if one reads through the Bible, there are relatively few one-man-one-woman relationships. Abraham, the father of the three Abrahamic faiths – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – had a child through his wife’s maidservant, Hagar, whom he took as a second wife. Jacob, the father of the 12 tribes of Israel had two wives at the same time, and also bore sons through two maidservants. Lot who survived the destruction of Sodom, who was seduced while drunk by his own daughters: and one child born out of those incestuous liaisons is recorded as beginning the Moabite tribe. Ruth the Moabite raised her child with Naomi, the grandparent of Israel’s King David. Abraham, Jacob, David and Ruth are all mentioned in Jesus’ ancestry.
In the argument about the definition of marriage which is used to oppress LGBT+ people, in the face of the personal lives of the great figures of religious history which have deviated from this so-called norm, it seems difficult to argue the validity of this Creation Ordinance.
Another problem with this Creation Ordinance is finding a place in our understanding for those people, who for whatever reason remain unattached. Until the Protestant Reformation which began in the early 16th Century, it was generally considered a higher and nobler condition to be single and celibate. Indeed, the Gospels tell of Jesus’ life, and as there is no mention of a wife, and we conclude that He was unmarried.
Jesus’ teaching does contain quite a lot about marriage, and the epistles – those books of the Bible in the New Testament which follow the gospels – contain additional teaching about what it is to be a good partner; however, those themes are for a different sermon.
Jesus summarised the commandments in one word – “love”. In His teaching, Jesus often used hyperbole - that is, making an extreme statement to prove a point. In Matthew 20 and Luke 15, Jesus uses hyperbole to say that our love and desire for God should be first in our hearts, even beyond our love for partner, parents, siblings and children.
Keith Sharpe, author of The Gay Gospels, writes: “The clear and unmistakable message is that these structures are ultimately transient and will pass away, and if your life, identity and relationships are locked into them, you, too, will pass away unaware of the fullness of life with God and with no hope of resurrection.”
We come now to our second reading, telling the story of Israel’s King David and Jonathan, the eldest son of Israel’s first king, King Saul. David was introduced into the royal family as King Saul’s armour bearer. The love-triangle relationship between these three men – yes, three men – can be read in the Old Testament book of 1 Samuel, on into the start of 2 Samuel.
Reading 2: 1 Samuel 18:1b-4
1b Saul's son Jonathan was deeply attracted to David and came to love him as much as he loved himself. 2 Saul kept David with him from that day on and did not let him go back home. 3 Jonathan swore eternal friendship with David because of his deep affection for him. 4 He took off the robe he was wearing and gave it to David, together with his armour and also his sword, bow, and belt.
The writer of 1 and 2 Samuel seems to go out of his way to point out David’s handsome appearance and the depth of emotional bond he has firstly with Saul, and later with Jonathan. As armour-bearer, David will have been a constant companion, and dressing King Saul in his armour would have been regular, physically intimate task. We are also told about David’s musical ability and King Saul’s appreciation of David’s harp playing and singing. Other contemporary histories, especially those from Greece, are more directly explicit when it comes to the sexual nature of the relationships between a king and his armour-bearer: for example, the father of Alexander the Great, King Philip of Macedon and Pausanius (who ultimately assassinated Philip).
Elsewhere, Ancient Greek literature tells of Achilles and Patroclus and their love for each other. History records Alexander the Great and his life-long lover Hephaestion – even his mother, Olympias’, persistent nagging for him to marry and sire an heir.
The American Catholic theologian, Revd Dr Daniel Helminiak, who supports a ‘gay interpretation’ of the David-Saul-Jonathan relationship, cites several alternative interpretations of the Hebrew texts. For example, Saul’s words that David “found favour” in his sight, could be interpreted as a sexual relationship. Also, as Hebrew is written without vowels, certain words in the text could be understood as different meanings, depending on the vowels chosen. In 1 Samuel 16:20, the verb “to stand” – as in “David came to Saul and stood before him” with different vowels (“e” instead of “a”) could be translated as “David came to Saul and was sexually-aroused before him”.
Whatever interpretation we might take, Saul clearly had deep feelings of one kind or another for David, and when David met Jonathan, Saul’s angry and vengeful reaction clearly reads as envious or jealous, giving perhaps greater weight to the interpretation of Saul as a spurned lover.
As we heard read, Jonathan gives his most precious possessions – all his armour - to David. As the king’s son, these would have been of the best, and giving them away would have been a most generous gift: showering lavish and expensive gifts of this kind makes far more sense if we read the relationship between the two men as lovers.
Looking at the relationship between David and Jonathan, there are some key phrases describing the depth of love which they had for one another: “David and came to love [Jonathan] as much as he loved himself.” “Jonathan swore eternal friendship with David because of his deep affection for him.” This second phrase is a weak translation: the Hebrew uses the word “b’rit” (or covenant). Of the 113 occasions this word is used in the Old Testament, 110 of them refer to God’s covenants with humankind. Clearly, the writer of 1 and 2 Samuel did not chose this word lightly, and he chose it to describe the deep bond between David and Jonathan. One might even say that the covenant promise was tantamount to gay marriage!
When David was forced to flee for his life in the face of King Saul’s murderous intentions, the men’s deep love for each other is evident:
Reading 3: 1 Samuel 20:41-42
41 David got up from behind the pile of stones, fell on his knees and bowed with his face to the ground three times. Both he and Jonathan were crying as they kissed each other; David's grief was even greater than Jonathan's. 42 Then Jonathan said to David, “God be with you. The Lord will make sure that you and I, and your descendants and mine, will forever keep the sacred promise we have made to each other.”
Sometime later, both Saul and Jonathan are killed in battle, after which David becomes King of Israel. This is how the book of 2 Samuel begins: David’s heart is broken and writes a lament in praise of both men: if anything, these words of David confirm the nature of his loving relationship with Jonathan:
Reading 4: 2 Samuel 1:17,26
17 David sang this lament for Saul and his son Jonathan...
26 “I grieve for you, my brother Jonathan; how dear you were to me! How wonderful was your love for me, better even than the love of women."
King David’s sexual exploits did not end there. During his time with Saul and Jonathan, he married Michal, Saul’s youngest daughter. From what is written about their marriage, it does not seem a happy one. In 2 Samuel 6, Michal is recorded as despising David with all her heart.
We are perhaps more familiar – through the Leonard Cohen song “Hallelujah” – with David’s adulterous liaison with Bathsheba, followed by his scheming to have her husband conveniently killed in battle; and their child, the product of their adultery, died at birth
Even today, there are those of you here who will have been involved in heterosexual relationships out of conformity. In our now more enlightened and open-minded times, our understanding of both sexuality and gender is no longer binary (one thing or another), but that these are on a spectrum, one which can also change during a person’s lifetime.
Was David gay? Are David and Jonathan a gay couple to be celebrated? There is certainly strong evidence within the Biblical texts which support this interpretation, and one which is affirming by the selfless love, deep commitment and clear affection they had for one another. We might say that David was bisexual, but the relationship he had which is most closely described to be one of love and mutual support is the one he had with Jonathan, a man.
So, may God quicken our hearts to share the love He began in us all at the creation of the world.