Monday, November 14, 2011

Passing the Love of Women

I picked up Anthony Heacock's Jonathan Loved David: Manly Love in the Bible and the Hermeneutics of Sex (Sheffield Phoenix, 2011) at the library to see what current scholarship was saying about the subject. What I learned was that the nature of the relationship between Jonathan, the son of King Saul, and David, Saul's successor to the throne, is ambiguous and will probably never be settled for certain.

For those who don't know, the story boils down to this. After the shepherd boy David killed the Philistine warrior Goliath with a slingshot, David was presented in Saul's court, where he caught the eye of Saul's son Jonathan:
1 Now it came about when he had finished speaking to Saul, that the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as himself. 2 Saul took him that day and did not let him return to his father’s house. 3 Then Jonathan made a covenant with David because he loved him as himself. 4 Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that was on him and gave it to David, with his armor, including his sword and his bow and his belt.
What Saul didn't know was that David had already been chosen by Yahweh as his successor. Saul had fallen from fickle Yahweh's favor, and Yahweh had sent his prophet Samuel to anoint David (who "was ruddy, with beautiful eyes and a handsome appearance", 1 Samuel 16:12) in secret. Yahweh then sent an evil spirit to give Saul migraines, and his servants offered to find a skillful harp player to soothe his troubled brow, a kid named David son of Jesse. "Saul loved him greatly, and he became his armor bearer." Oddly, though, by the next chapter all of this was forgotten; Saul didn't even know who David was when he volunteered to kill Goliath.

Anyway, Jonathan fell heavily for David, so much so that when Saul became jealous of David's military and popular success and decided to have him murdered, Jonathan took David's side, helping him to escape Saul's assassins. (So did Saul's daughter Michal, whom Saul had given to David in marriage during one of his periods of favor.) Jonathan swore a covenant with David, pledging his loyalty to him after David became King, as Jonathan knew he would. In the end, Saul and all three of his sons, including Jonathan, were killed in battle with the Philistines, and David became king. He then sang a lament over Saul and Jonathan:
23 “Saul and Jonathan, beloved and pleasant in their life,
And in their death they were not parted;
They were swifter than eagles,
They were stronger than lions.
24 “O daughters of Israel, weep over Saul,
Who clothed you luxuriously in scarlet,
Who put ornaments of gold on your apparel.
25 “How have the mighty fallen in the midst of the battle!
Jonathan is slain on your high places.
26 “I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan;
You have been very pleasant to me.
Your love to me was more wonderful
Than the love of women.
27 “How have the mighty fallen,
And the weapons of war perished!”
It's not at all surprising that many gay men have read this love story between two men as a love story between two men, if you take my meaning. It's also not surprising that tradition-minded heterosexuals have insisted that it totally is not, okay? A common weasel-word is "platonic," which I always find amusing: yes, the word has come to mean affection untinged by erotic feeling, but if you read your Plato you'll see that he took erotic feeling between males for granted, but urged self-control and sublimation, at least for those who wanted to be philosophers. It's also argued that David and Jonathan were both married -- you know, like Oscar Wilde and John Addington Symonds -- so they couldn't have been homos. Another argument is that sex between men was a sin before God, so David wouldn't have done anything like that, and the biblical writers would never have written a positive story about two sodomites. The second half of this claim is stronger than the first, since David was not known for chastity; it would be strange to find a proto-gay love story in the Hebrew Bible, but we also find positive incestuous couples like Abraham and Sarah, so who knows? Jonathan's betrayal of his father in favor of David is a pretty serious offense, though probably excused by the fact that, unknown to Jonathan, he was merely seconding Yahweh's choice of David as king anyway.

On the other hand, you've got people like the Would Jesus Discriminate? project, whom we've met before. They claim that "At Jonathan’s funeral, David declares that he loved Jonathan more than any woman." This is a misreading. David says that Jonathan's love for him was wonderful, but says nothing of his own feelings for Jonathan. Heacock points out that throughout the story it is Jonathan who loves David: David is the object of everybody's love -- Saul, Jonathan, Michal -- but he never reciprocates. (The closest he comes to a declaration of feeling is at their last meeting: "they kissed each other and wept together, but David wept the more", 1 Samuel 20:41).

Heacock surveys a great deal of scholarship about the David and Jonathan story, and comes to no firm conclusion about it. That's because the story is ambiguous: it can be read in numerous ways. At one point he says wryly of Daniel Helminiak, a well-known pro-gay interpreter of the Bible (page 37):
Moreover, Helminiak asserts that his interpretation is in stark contrast to the literalist or fundamentalist interpretation, which takes a text to mean ‘whatever it means to somebody reading it today’. Such claims are ironic when closer analysis reveals that homoerotic interpreters rely heavily on the ‘plain sense meaning’ of the biblical narrative as read today insofar as they see intimacy between two men as indicative of homosexual or bisexual relations.
Of course this works both ways, since antigay interpreters are just as insistent that the plain sense meaning of the Bible makes it obvious that no erotic relationship was intended. But there is no plain sense meaning to this story. It should also be remembered that it is fictional. David was probably a historical figure, but the Biblical stories about him aren't history. In some ways this could make interpretation of the story easier, because the question would only be what kind of relationship the author was trying to depict. That, however, is what we can't know.

Heacock stresses the role of politics in the tale: Jonathan's covenant with David affirms his acceptance of David as the next king of Israel, just as David's marriage to Michal created a bond between Saul's house and David. The trouble is that this is a false antithesis: politics don't exclude copulation, and I don't think anyone has argued that David and Michal never had sex just because theirs was a political marriage. It works in the other direction, too: Jonathan bound himself to David to prove how serious his love was, in hopes of getting David to love him back. (A modern parallel: if a man asks a woman to marry him -- a religious, social and political bond -- that doesn't mean he feels no desire for her.)

One way to settle the debate could be to compare other legends about ancient heroes, which Heacock does. These are just as problematical. Heacock spends some time on the Epic of Gilgamesh, which among other things recounts the love of Gilgamesh and the hairy man Enkidu. This story has a somewhat better chance of referring to an erotic relationship, because of the marriage and bridal imagery it uses; but even so, it's not certain, and is much debated. The other important example is the love of Achilles and Patroclus in the Iliad. Though the two are clearly devoted to each other, and Achilles is devastated by Patroclus' death, their relationship is different from the later Athenian institution of pederasty. As Heacock admits, a century or two after Homer, Greek readers took for granted that Achilles and Patroclus were lovers. (This shoots down the popular complaint about "modern" reinterpretations of platonic relationships, as I've pointed out before.) They apparently spent a lot of time arguing about which was the erastes (lover) and which the eromenos (beloved), since Homer was explicit that Patroclus was older (and so should have been the lover), yet Patroclus "performs duties such as cooking, feeding and grooming the horses, and nursing".

It's important to remember that it isn't only gay readers who import their preconceptions into the reading of the text: Heacock quotes Robert Brain, who wrote in his 1976 book Friends and Lovers that "Plato and his friends, overt homosexuals without a doubt, read a sexual element into Homer’s friendships, transferring their own subjective sentiments to a quite different situation." Of course, Brain, an overt heterosexual without a doubt, would never read a text in light of his own subjective sentiments. But the gay classicist David Halperin basically agrees that "the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus is a tale of a comrade-relationship, part of an older folklore of heroes and their pals, and not about a sexual relationship at all" (Heacock 112).

Or again, Heacock quotes a scholar named Zehnder (131):
Apparently unconvinced by reader response theory and its authority to question the epistemological foundations of interpretive theory, Zehnder dismisses the ‘so-called queer reading’ of the David and Jonathan narrative on the grounds that its proponents ‘take their own homosexual self-identification or experiences as the starting point of their reading’ … Zehnder… dismisses the queer reading because it uses the biblical text to ‘define and advance the agenda of one’s own group’ instead of getting back to ‘what the original author(s) really wanted to convey’ – as though other approaches, particularly the historical-critical method he advocates, are able to do this.
Heacock himself comes down in favor of reader-response interpretations which permit a homoerotic reading:
Although I do not wish to advocate a homoerotic interpretation in this instance, I do not necessarily deny the validity of a reader-oriented interpreter producing such a reading, or believe that the incidence of eroticism in any way cheapens the friendship or devalues the characters of the two men [131, note 12].
Though Heacock doesn't say so, Christian theology has always been built on misreadings -- often blatant -- of scripture. The Christian doctrine that Jesus' career was foretold in minute detail by the Hebrew prophets, which is no marginal matter, is supported in the New Testament by yanking passages out of context so that they seem to refer to Jesus. In a few cases, prophecies were simply invented. So why shouldn't gay Christians do the same?

I also want to spend some time on Heacock's construction of differences between male-to-male (or "homogenital", as Heacock calls them) relationships in antiquity and those in present-day England and America. There he follows the orthodox interpretation of Michel Foucault, with the usual problems resulting. But I'll try to get to that in a day or two. This was mainly an overture.