David and Jonathan by James E. Harding

“I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women” (2 Sam 1:26).

So David mourns his fallen comrade, slain in battle on Mount Gilboa. But who was this Jonathan, and what was his love for David that surpassed “the love of women”? David’s song of mourning is an extraordinary outburst of grief at the loss of the dearest of friends. Many readers have even been inspired to rewrite it in their own words. The bond between David and Jonathan is the only clear example in the Hebrew Bible of what later readers would call “friendship.” Some readers wonder whether it is also the only example in the Hebrew Bible of a bond between male lovers (Lev 18:22 and Lev 20:13 notwithstanding).

There is certainly nothing else like this in the Hebrew Bible. The love of David and Jonathan looks more Greek than Israelite, as if the pair had migrated out of the epics of Homer and into the highlands of Canaan. But what does their love mean in the context of the books of Samuel?

In the biblical story, everyone seems to love David. He gains the love of the tormented King Saul by entering his court and playing music to soothe his terrible moods (1Sam 16:21). After David defeats the Philistine champion Goliath, the king’s son Jonathan loves David “as himself” (1Sam 18:1). They make a covenant together, in effect becoming brothers (1Sam 18:3, 1Sam 20:8). In another nod to Greek warrior traditions, Jonathan gives David his robe, armor, sword, bow, and belt 1Sam 18:4). After David leads Saul’s army to battle, all of Israel and Judah love him (1Sam 18:16). Finally, when the king’s daughter Michal falls in love with David (1Sam 18:20, 1Sam 18:28), Saul’s isolation is nearly complete.

This is a story of the intertwined fates of the young shepherd David, a man after God’s own heart, and the man he will soon replace: the increasingly unstable Saul, cornered by an uncompromising God and his jealous prophet, torn apart by suspicion of those around him, and destined to fall on his own sword as the Philistines close in (1Sam 31:4). The love Jonathan and Michal feel for David displaces the loyalty they are supposed to have toward their father, and as Saul’s jealousy leads him to seek David’s death, they each aid David at grave risk to themselves (1Sam 19:1-7, 1Sam 19:11-17, 1Sam 20:1-42).

This, then, is Jonathan’s love: a deep, emotional attachment to David that leads him to swear loyalty to David and protect him from the madness of his father. In the androcentric world of the story, none of the women who love David can compete with his comrade’s love. Jonathan is the only one for whom David himself expresses anything approaching love (1Sam 20:41, 2Sam 1:26).

James E. Harding, "David and Jonathan", n.p. [cited 2 Dec 2022]. Online: https://www.bibleodyssey.org:443/en/people/related-articles/david-and-jonathan


James E. Harding

James E. Harding
Senior lecturer, University of Otago

James Harding is senior lecturer in Hebrew Bible at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand. He is the author of The Love of David and Jonathan: Ideology, Text, Reception (Equinox Publishing, 2013) as well as a number of articles and essays on the reception history of the David and Jonathan narrative.


A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."

Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the northern kingdom of Israel during the divided monarchy, or more broadly describing the biblical descendants of Jacob.

Lev 18:22

22You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.

Lev 20:13

13If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them.

1Sam 16:21

21And David came to Saul, and entered his service. Saul loved him greatly, and he became his armor-bearer.

1Sam 18:1

Jonathan's Covenant with David
1When David had finished speaking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own ... View more

1Sam 18:3

3Then Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul.

1Sam 20:8

8Therefore deal kindly with your servant, for you have brought your servant into a sacred covenant with you. But if there is guilt in me, kill me yourself; why ... View more

1Sam 18:4

4Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that he was wearing, and gave it to David, and his armor, and even his sword and his bow and his belt.

1Sam 18:16

16But all Israel and Judah loved David; for it was he who marched out and came in leading them.

1Sam 18:20

20Now Saul's daughter Michal loved David. Saul was told, and the thing pleased him.

1Sam 18:28

28But when Saul realized that the Lord was with David, and that Saul's daughter Michal loved him,

1Sam 31:4

4Then Saul said to his armor-bearer, “Draw your sword and thrust me through with it, so that these uncircumcised may not come and thrust me through, and make sp ... View more

1Sam 19:1-7

Jonathan Intercedes for David
1Saul spoke with his son Jonathan and with all his servants about killing David. But Saul's son Jonathan took great delight in Dav ... View more

1Sam 19:11-17

11Saul sent messengers to David's house to keep watch over him, planning to kill him in the morning. David's wife Michal told him, “If you do not save your life ... View more

1Sam 20:1-42

The Friendship of David and Jonathan
1David fled from Naioth in Ramah. He came before Jonathan and said, “What have I done? What is my guilt? And what is my sin ... View more

1Sam 20:41

41As soon as the boy had gone, David rose from beside the stone heap and prostrated himself with his face to the ground. He bowed three times, and they kissed e ... View more

2Sam 1:26

26I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan;
greatly beloved were you to me;
your love to me was wonderful,
passing the love of women.

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