A. Heacock, Jonathan Loved David: Manly Love in the Bible and the Hermeneutics of Sex

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 13 (2013) - Review

Heacock, Anthony, Jonathan Loved David: Manly Love in the Bible and the Hermeneutics of Sex (The Bible in the Modern World, 22; Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix, 2011). Pp. Xvii + 181. Hardcover. US$95.00. ISBN 978-1-906055-50-9.

Following an autobiographical note about how he came to write Jonathan Loved David, Heacock states that “interpretations of the relationship between David and Jonathan reflect less the biblical narrative's historical context and/or author's intentions (despite any claims to the contrary) than they do the interpreter's cultural context” (p. x). The following chapters expose readers to various approaches to the interpretation of 1 Sam 18:1–2 Sam 1:27, which Heacock denominates the “David and Jonathan narratives,” culminating in his own reader-response informed exposition.

At the start of Chapter 1, Heacock identifies “proof texts” commonly employed to demonstrate an erotic relationship between the two men. He dismisses three as irrelevant (1 Sam 16:12; 19:1; 20:41), and then presents a useful variety of interpretations of the “credible” (p. 9) ones (1 Sam 18:1–4; 20:17, 30; 23:18; 2 Sam 1:26) by focusing upon key words (חֶסֶד, “loyalty”; אָהֵב “love”; בְּרִית, “covenant”; שְׁבוּעָה, “oath”; and בֹּשֶׁת, “shame”), plus David's lament.

Chapter 2 uses a threefold typology to survey how interpreters have approached the David and Jonathan narratives: (1) political-theological readings in which friendship legitimizes the transfer of kingship to David's house; (2) homoerotic readings that posit sexual political allegiances/sexual friendship; and (3) homosocial readings, which highlight the ambiguity of the men's relationship. Heacock summarizes the work of representative scholars in each category, although with more extended discussions of those who undertake homoerotic and homosocial readings.

Chapter 3, “Historicizing Manly Love,” problematizes the notion that people have a “natural sexual orientation” (p. 57). Heacock delineates trends in the study of sexuality, highlighting how ancient hierarchical views of sexuality have been replaced by discourses that employ gendered ideas of personhood. Pre-eminent among these, according to Heacock, are the modern medical and traditional theological views of sexuality. He then surveys evidence for homogenital relations in the classical Greek, Mesopotamian, and biblical periods, adducing a number of primary texts to support the contention that the ancients condemned such acts in order to protect kinship boundaries, or because of social-sexual conventions to do with power and status. Turning to biblical passages, Heacock discusses Lev 18:22; 20:13–14, the only texts in the Hebrew Bible that he thinks refer explicitly to homogenital acts, plus Gen 18:26–19:29 and the parallel in Judg 19:1–30. (He does not comment on Deut 23:17–18; 1 Kgs 14:24; 15:12; 22:46; 2 Kgs 23:7 or Job 36:14 since they lie “beyond the scope of [his] argument” [p. 90], and because of the contested nature of references to cultic prostitution.) Heacock acknowledges that these passages unambiguously proscribe homogenital sex acts between men, something that was unique among ancient law codes (see p. 90). He explains how these prohibitions relate to dominant conceptions of gender relations, male power, and honour and shame, as well as issues of Israelite religious identity.

In Chapter 4, “Male-Male Intimacy in Ancient and Modern Friendships,” the focus is upon male friendships in the Gilgamesh Epic and Homer's Iliad. Heacock avers that these narratives “show that expressing one's deep-seated emotions with a male friend in the ancient worlds was as essentially masculine as virtues such as heroism and loyalty” (p. 101). He then surveys interpretations of texts that perceive either a homosexual or homosocial relationship between the main protagonists, highlighting how these interpretations do not undermine the men's hyper-masculinity. An insightful final section argues that, unlike pre-nineteenth century friendships, contemporary friendships exist in a context of confused understandings of sexuality, with the result that individuals are forced to choose between intimate (homosexual) relations and a more distant, unsure sociability.

Chapter 5 examines the hermeneutical shift in biblical scholarship, whereby the locus of meaning has moved from ancient authors to modern day readers. Heacock argues that it is necessary to appreciate how contemporary readers' concerns are inevitably projected onto the text, and he embraces reader-response criticism's appreciation of how the reading community “makes meaning.”

In Chapter 6, “Queer Hermeneutics and the David and Jonathan narrative,” Heacock offers an interpretation of the biblical characters' relationship “through the lens of contemporary gay male friendship” (p. 130), something that he celebrates as providing new perspectives from readers who have been marginalised by the dominant schools of (historical-critical) interpretation. Heacock emphasizes the importance of intimacy in gay friendships, contrasting this with its absence in hegemonic notions of masculinity in Western industrialised nations. He then contends that David always conforms to “heteronormative masculine ideals” (p. 144), while Jonathan is “so smitten with David's manly beauty that his soul is bound to his friend's soul and he immediately gives up his right to the throne” (p. 141, cf. 1 Sam 18:3–4). Jonathan, though, according to Heacock, is sufficiently perceptive to realise that the salve for David's loneliness is “a queer friendship that balances the constraints of Israel's public expectations with David's personal needs for intimacy” (p. 146). David, however, “refrains from getting too close to Jonathan, preferring to initiate a friendship based on the impersonal protocols of covenants that will keep the man with a glimpse of subordinate masculinity at arm's length” (p. 146). Despite this somewhat strained relationship, Heacock can conclude his book with the statement that, “David and Jonathan are, I believe, in their own unique way, friends and lovers—conceivably one another's ‘other half’ ” (p. 150).

The volume ends with a 23 page bibliography, plus biblical and author indices.

There are many admirable features of Jonathan Loved David, not least of which is the clarity with which Heacock describes his chosen hermeneutic. Readers are left in no doubt as to why the author has preferred a reading strategy that foregrounds contemporary gay friendships over one that provides a purportedly positivistic interpretation. Yet Stanley Fish and others do not have the last word on this matter and, since those who reject Heacock's justification for his modus operandi will undoubtedly question the interpretation presented in Chapter 6, some treatment of how he would counter Speech Act Theory, for example, would at least have covered that quarter.

Indeed, Heacock himself admits that given the structure of Jonathan Loved David, Chapter 6 might be considered a non sequitur, since the earlier chapters are concerned with the story's ancient social context and caution against “the anachronistic nature of projecting homosexuality onto the ancient world” (p. 130–31). His defence is that his interpretation “does not advocate a sexual reading” (p. 131), yet he does not thereby avoid the difficulty of imposing a modern reading upon an ancient text because other aspects of his interpretation can be queried, for example, an attenuated view of covenant as contract (p. 146).

Nevertheless, it is clear that people reading from different perspectives and cultural or social locations will see things that others do not perceive and Jonathan Loved David presents a reading that has been hitherto relatively marginalised. In my own interpretation of David and Jonathan's friendship, I have argued that no reading can be ruled out of court simply because it is new or because one does not like the presuppositions of its advocates; to do so would be to ignore the fact that all interpretations, even traditional ones, carry ideological freight—indeed, if Liberation theology has taught us anything, perhaps we should say especially those of “traditionalists.”[1] Yet Heacock's assertion that the legitimacy of any interpretation depends upon the reading community in which it arises is problematic; the only test of an interpretation of a text is fidelity to the text itself not to the traditions of the reading community. Of course, this will be a contested matter as different traditions take different views, but readers must return to the text in order to test and clarify their understandings.

A second observation about Jonathan Loved David concerns the typology used to structure the discussion. Heacock has an obvious preference for homosocial readings, which he presents as a via media to “find a balance” (p. 5) between the conflicting positions of traditional political-theological and radical homoerotic readings. Yet while the typology usefully identifies interpretative trajectories, it is not without its own difficulties. Specifically, it fails to find a place for readings of the friendship of David and Jonathan that identify both an intimate, reciprocal friendship between the men and important political implications of their choice to prioritise loyalty to each other over familial obligations.

According to Heacock, making homosociality the hermeneutic key “highlights the interplay of complex dynamics of gender in the biblical narrative” (p. 4). Without denying that reading from this angle can shed light upon aspects of the narrative that have previously remained in the shadows, one can ask whether it is altogether helpful if the narrative does not primarily concern these issues. After all, the author has characters take divergent positions upon a whole host of other (moral) goods and evils including friendship, politics, family, honour, shame, life, and death.

A third observation, though, is that Jonathan Loved David is often attentive to these matters, especially in the earlier chapters. Thus regardless of the merits of Heacock's own interpretation, the book is a welcome contribution to scholarly debate about the men's relationship. On the one hand, his treatment of biblical sources using traditional historical-critical methods is apposite. For example, when dealing with one “proof text,” 1 Sam 16:12, Heacock has no time for the spurious suggestion that the narrator's comment about David's good looks (literally, “good of looking”) is sufficient to justify a homoerotic interpretation (p. 8). This contrasts with his own reader-response interpretation, which appeals precisely to David's appearance to explain Jonathan's infatuation (p. 141). On the other hand, Heacock offers many fair and generous presentations of secondary sources. In the first two chapters, especially, this reviewer would have welcomed some more incisive evaluations so as to ascertain Heacock's own positions (for example, of Damrosch's proposal that Jonathan is a “dutiful wife,” pp. 18–19). But the historical survey of male love in Chapters 3 and 4 is particularly useful, and Heacock has done a great service in showing its relevance for our understanding of the David and Jonathan story.

Even though Heacock's own interpretation will not command universal assent, Jonathan Loved David can be warmly recommended as a clear and interesting work, containing much valuable discussion to aid our understanding of these important biblical narratives.

Jonathan Y. Rowe, University of Exeter

[1] See Jonathan Y. Rowe, Sons or Lovers: An Interpretation of David and Jonathan's Friendship (LHBOTS, 575; London: Bloomsbury T & T Clark, 2012), 2–3. reference