Sermon - 24th January 2016
The Bible and sexuality 3: Creation ordinances, David and Jonathan
Scripture - Genesis 2:18-24; 1 Samuel 18:1-4, 20:41-42; 2 Samuel 1:17, 26
[An audio version of this sermon, in mp3 format, is available via the link at our Spirituality > Audio and Video page.]
Today, we reach the half-way point in our series looking at certain texts in the Bible which have been used against LGBT people, and at characters in the Bible whose lives can be reasonably interpreted to have elements of same-sex attraction. Two weeks ago, Lee spoke of how isolated verses in Leviticus, written for a specific audience in history, are taken out of context, the use of which has caused us LGBT people much pain. Last week, Philip examined the story of Sodom’s destruction, destroyed for its appalling lack of hospitality, but the name of that city is now eponymous with a verb to describe gay sex, albeit a pejorative one.
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]
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.
While we may not hold with the literal narrative of creation – Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden – like many ancient stories, it is a vehicle for conveying a message, just like Jesus used parables in His teaching. As we heard in the opening verse of this reading, God’s motivation is that humans should not be alone. Our reading mentions companionship with animals, and many of us will have enjoyed having pets. The crunch point for us LGBT people comes when this teaching 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, 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. Jacob, the father of the 12 tribes of Israel had two wives at the same time, and also bore sons through two maidservants. Last week, we heard about 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. Two weeks ago, Lee spoke about Ruth the Moabite, and how the child she reared with Naomi was the grandparent of Israel’s King David. Abraham, Jacob, David and Ruth are all mentioned in Jesus’ ancestry. Both St Matthew’s and St Luke’s gospels contain genealogies of Jesus.
In the argument about the definition of marriage which is used to oppress us 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.
In our words of confession earlier in our service, we were reminded of the greatest commandments, summarised 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]
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).]
The American Catholic theologian 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. [The verb “to stand” – as in “David came to Saul and stood before him” with different vowels could be translated as “David came to Saul and had an erection 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 choose 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]
Some time 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]
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.
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.
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.
May God quicken our hearts with His Spirit to share the love He began in us all at the creation of the word. Amen.