NOTE: This message was delivered on the Shabbat of December 13, 2014, at Kehilat Sh’ma Yisra’el. You may also listen to it, if you wish.
For some time now, we have been exploring together a character study of King David. In previous lessons, we learned about the historical context into which David was born, as well as details of the king that David was anointed to ultimately replace, King Sha’ul. In the most recent lesson this past summer, we looked at the famous conflict between David and the giant P’lish’tim known as Golyat, or Goliath, as he is more popularly referred to. All of those previous lessons can be found on our community website, Sh’ma Yisra’el dot net.
But today we turn our focus to the study of a new aspect in the life of King David, as we focus on his friendship with King Saul’s son, Jonathan. This friendship is of great symbolic significance, especially in the view of David as a shadow of the Messiah. It’s a friendship that is addressed right away as we begin our reading in I Samuel 18, beginning at verse one:
I Samuel 18:1-4
By the time David had finished speaking to Sha’ul, Y’honatan found himself inwardly drawn by David’s character, so that Y’honatan loved him as he did himself. That day, Sha’ul took David into his service and would not let him go home to his father’s house any more. Y’honatan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as he did himself. Y’honatan removed the cloak he was wearing and gave it to David, his armor too, including his sword, bow and belt.
Now, before we delve into the text here from our Messianic perspective, I want to address some of the current cultural controversies that surround this text, so as to avoid the cultural pollution that surrounds it. In recent years, there has been a strong cultural push to normalize same-gender relationships, even to the point where there are those who claim to follow God, who claim the Bible does not forbid the actions of their lifestyle.
While we in this community recognize that this is misleading, often there is pressure not to address such arguments because it might be deemed unfriendly, or even hateful, by others. Yet if we refuse to refute ideas that are untrue, only the ideas that are untrue are spoken, and the silence of those who read the Torah in spirit and truth becomes deafening.
Therefore, allow me to briefly address how this passage has been misinterpreted by some, so that we can set those disruptive ideas aside and appreciate the passage for the powerful teaching it actually is.
One of the leading teachers who addressed the David and Jonathan relationship as being supportive of same-gender attractions is Matthew Vines. While he admits it is speculation, Vines has been frequently interviewed in popular media. In those interviews, he suggests that the relationship between David and Jonathan is one which possibly extended into the physical realm.
Clearly, this is an example of imposing a modern cultural filter over a Torah passage that is a product of a completely different period of time, culture, and context. And frankly, we ought not be surprised.
In our time and culture, especially in the last fifty years or so, we’ve witnessed a societal drift that has not only raised the emphasis on sex, but also more generally on the importance of self over the importance of selflessness, of sacrifice, of the greater good.
As a result of this modern cultural drift, many people are left with a fractured, and ultimately limited, vocabulary when it comes to the topic of love. Remember, we live here among the nations and among their values, a concept known as the Diaspora. And we must remind ourselves constantly that while we live among the Diaspora, we are not part of it.
However, like the generations of Ya’akov who lived among the Egyptians, the longer we dwell among the world, the more challenging it becomes to remember we are not of this world. With each generation, we become less familiar with the types of love that exist outside of romantic love. Too often, if we hear someone utter the phrase, “I love you,” we immediately default to the idea that it must mean physical affection and expression.
That message even worms its way into even the most seemingly harmless examples of popular entertainment. One of my favorite movies from my college years was the Billy Crystal-Meg Ryan movie, When Harry Met Sally. One of the more memorable lines in that film, attributed to Harry, was when he suggested that “a man and a woman can never be friends” because the guy is always interested in something more. While it comes across as a clever line, it is a concept that has polluted male-female relationships by suggesting there is always an agenda. And now that same mentality is used by some to re-interpret the friendship of David and Jonathan.
So, to move past this cultural pollution, it becomes necessary, almost, to speak in a foreign tongue. We must speak in a language many in our current culture no longer understand: the language of love, and the types of love that are not just defined by its physical expression.
First of all, there is no suggestion in the text of a romantic connection between David and Jonathan. If we take a closer look at the text itself, this becomes clearer. Let’s read that first verse again:
I Samuel 18:1
By the time David had finished speaking to Sha’ul, Y’honatan found himself inwardly drawn by David’s character, so that Y’honatan loved him as he did himself.
Now, “loved him as he did himself.” What passage should that immediately call to mind? Why, it’s straight out of Torah. We read this in:
Don’t take vengeance on or bear a grudge against any of your people; rather, love your neighbor as yourself; I am Adonai.
That concept was also reflected by Messiah Yeshua Himself, as we read in:
Yeshua answered, “The most important is, ‘Sh’ma Yisra’el, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai echad [Hear, O Isra’el, the Lord our God, the Lord is one], and you are to love Adonai your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your understanding and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You are to love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other mitzvah greater than these.”
One basic tenant of Torah interpretation is that we should first and foremost use Torah to explain Torah, and this passage is no exception. The wording of Jonathan’s love for David is almost identical to the Torah concept from the passage in Leviticus.
But what sort of love is “loving your neighbor as yourself,” then? How does it look? How is it to be understood? Well, David himself does a good job of explaining it when he is lamenting over the deaths of Saul and Jonathan in:
II Samuel 1:25-27
How the heroes have fallen in the heat of battle, Y’honatan killed on your high places! I grieve for you, my brother Y’honatan, you meant so much to me! Your love for me was deeper than the love of women. How the heroes have fallen and the weapons of war perished.”
So, Jonathan’s love for David here is described as “deeper than the love of women.” Again, this could be twisted in its meaning by teachers like Matthew Vines, but we must understand it not our own culture and context, but the culture and context of the Tenach.
To further explain David’s relationship to Jonathan, I turned to:
The friendship was confirmed by a covenant, Jonathan giving David his garments, sword, and bow, and on several occasions David escaped death at the hands of Saul through the intervention of Jonathan … The disinterestedness of Jonathan’s affection for David is emphasized in the fact that Saul himself reminded him that while he had nothing to gain through David he had much to lose.
We’ve seen friendships confirmed by covenant many times in our study of Torah, most popularly in the covenant made between Ya’akov and Esau, ending their lifelong feud in last week’s Torah portion, VaYishlach, specifically in Genesis 33. So that is suggestive of a covenant of brotherhood between two men who were not brothers by birth.
Yet what can we make of this concept of “disinterested love?” What is it, exactly? When one hears the word “disinterested” in our culture, the mind immediately goes to a one-sided sort of affection; the idea that one person cares about the other, but it is not mutual. But that’s clearly not the case between David and Jonathan. They both made that covenant of brotherhood. So what does “disinterested love” really mean?
Well, it has traditionally been defined as “a loving attraction to a person or thing only because of the love of God,” and “a movement of the heart toward what is found to be good…. an outpouring and progress of the heart toward the good, which aims at union with God.”
The great Jewish rabbi, Maimonides, also wrote of this concept of disinterested love, which for him was Talmudic in origin. He contends that whereas the relationship of man to God described in the Bible is based on reciprocity (man serves God, and God satisfies man’s material needs), that prescribed in the Talmud is based on disinterested love (the service of God for its own sake).
We recognize both of these types of love for God in our Messianic Jewish traditions. It calls to mind, for me, the words of the Dayenu, which means, “It would have been enough.” That song, in itself, shows that it is our desire to worship HaShem simply for who He is. Yet God consistently goes beyond simply existing and does provide for us, even though He does not need to do so to be worthy of our worship, devotion, and praise. Therefore, we sing Dayenu! It would have been enough if this was all you had done, yet you, L-RD, did even more for us.
The concept of worship of God for its own sake is also embedded in the traditional mourner’s prayer, the kaddish, which stands apart from many traditions in its subject matter and focus.
In our modern western tradition, we often spend time extolling the virtues of the person who has passed away, our mind dwelling on fond memories now made bittersweet by that person’s present and future absence from our lives. But does that serve to lift us out of our grief, or extend it?
By contrast, what are the translated words of the kaddish?
They read as follows:
Glorified and sanctified be God’s great name throughout the world, which He has created according to His will.
May He establish His kingdom in our lifetime and during our days, and within the life of the entire House of Israel, speedily and soon; and say, Amen.
May His great name be blessed forever and to all eternity.
Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, extolled and honored, adored and lauded be the name of the Holy One, blessed be He, beyond all the blessings and hymns, praises and consolations that are ever spoken in the world; and say, Amen.
May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life, for us and for all Israel; and say, Amen.
He who creates peace in His celestial heights, may He create peace for us and for all Israel; and say, Amen.
Now, I came into Messianic Judaism from a background of evangelical Christianity, and the first time I read the Kaddish, I didn’t understand the rationale behind it at all. Where was the talk I was so familiar with, of the missed loved one being in a better place now, and our hope to be reunited with them in the heavenly kingdom? Why, Kaddish mentions nothing about such things! It focused purely on the character and nature of HaShem. At first, for me, it made no sense. It is a prayer that seemed to be generic and off-point, or so I thought at the time.
And then, a few years later, I lost my mom after many health struggles and her final battle with cancer. And I was given the opportunity to go before my Messianic community at the time and recite the Kaddish. And that was when the light, for me, turned on.
You see, it was not the first time in my life I had lost someone, and yet it was the first loss of a parent. And I remember so often, after a funeral was over and people suffering the death of a loved one felt they could speak freely without the fear of creating offense, at these other funerals, people would confide that the words of the pastor, and of friends and family, all rang so hollow. Speaking of fond memories and how much someone will be missed only redirected their minds back to the loss, the very thing that was causing them grief. Words intended to bring comfort only made that grief more sharply felt.
But the kaddish?
There, in the moment of the deepest grief of my life to that point, I stood before my faith community and spoke words extolling the virtues of God, the goodness of His character, which never changes or passes away.
And I got it.
That is why Kaddish doesn’t dwell on the loss, but on the L-RD. Because, in the end, He is all we have that we can cling to and know with full assurance that He will always be there for us. HaShem does not perish, He does not disappoint, He never abandons. Focusing on His goodness does not draw our thoughts back to the source of our grief, but draws them toward the God of Yisra’el, toward the One capable of carrying us through our darkest hours.
If, in our weakest and most distracted moments, we can praise God for His goodness, and acknowledge before our entire community that our trust remains firm in Him, then indeed, the work of healing the grief weighing us down can begin. At those moments, our voices join with all the men of faith down through the ages. With Yonah, who, trapped in the belly of a large fish, in the process of being digested, cried out in spite of his circumstances to testify to the greatness of HaShem. With Yob, who, despite losing everything dear to him in the world, from his wealth to his family to his own health, refused the temptation to curse HaShem and die, but instead testified to the goodness of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. With Rav. Sha’ul and Rabbi Silas, who, despite being in chains in prison, praised God and testified to his goodness even though they were being held captive.
That is what the concept of disinterested love is all about. It is anything but one-sided. It is declaring the goodness and trustworthiness of God, not because of what you’ve gained by His blessings, but simply because it is true regardless of your circumstances.
So, how does this apply to David and Jonathan’s friendship?
It does nothing less than give us the perfect Biblical, historical, cultural context of how their friendship is described. You see, if teachers like Matthew Vines were correct, then David could never have described his relationship with Jonathan as being “deeper than the love of women.” If their connection was only physical or romantic, it would have to be described as being exactly the same as the love of women. Deeper, in the Hebrew mindset of David’s time, means something beyond physical affection.
Now, in light of our study, we can see that the kind of love Jonathan holds for David has nothing to do with what he can gain by his friendship with David. For there is nothing to gain for the son of a king to befriend the son of a common farmer. In fact, King Sha’ul warns Jonathan of this in:
I Samuel 20:30-31
Sha’ul flew into a rage at Y’honatan and said, “You crooked rebel! Don’t I know that you’ve made this son of Yishai your best friend? You don’t care that you’re shaming yourself and dishonoring your mother, do you? Because as long as the son of Yishai lives on this earth, neither you nor your kingdom will be secure.
Modern theologians like Vine look at this passage and assume “shaming yourself and dishonoring your mother” meant the same thing back then as it might be said to mean today, and assume that their relationship was romantic. But the actual conflict is that Jonathan is a prince in Yisra’el, while David is a shepherd, the son of a farmer, and not seen as being the sort of person a prince ought to consider his best friend, because there is nothing for the prince to gain by the relationship, and in fact, he could lose all he has by indulging in that friendship. Why? Because David’s popularity, in the wake of his defeat of the giant P’lish’tim, Golyat, begins to soar. In fact, we read this in:
I Samuel 19:6-9
As David and the others were returning from the slaughter of the P’lishti, the women came out of all the cities of Isra’el to meet King Sha’ul, singing and dancing joyfully with tambourines and three-stringed instruments. In their merrymaking the women sang, “Sha’ul has killed his thousands, but David his tens of thousands.” Sha’ul became very angry, because this song displeased him. He said, “They give David credit for tens of thousands, but me they give credit for only thousands. Now all he lacks is the kingdom!” From that day on, Sha’ul viewed David with suspicion.
You see, King Saul can sense that David’s popularity is already eclipsing his own. And in the mindset of a king, that represents a threat to their ability to reign. To help us understand this, we should look to a modern parallel.
I was in high school in the early 1980s, when England’s Prince Charles decided to marry Lady Diana Spencer. Few people may remember this now, but the woman who was to become known as Princess Di was not a popular choice among certain members of the royal family. The main concern about her rose from the fact that Diana’s popularity quickly eclipsed that of her husband’s.
Charles, at the time, was not considered traditionally handsome and editorial cartoons exaggerated the size of his nose and ears; by contrast, Diana was considered the more attractive of the pair, and the more she spoke publicly, the more she connected with the concerns of the average British citizen, which only served to push her popularity even higher.
Befriending those who are more popular than you is a sort of threat that we today have a hard time understanding, but was a real concern for Jonathan as the natural successor to his father’s throne. Therefore, his friendship with David was considered shameful not because of some physical relationship between them, but because it created the appearance that even Jonathan liked David more than his own father. Jonathan befriending David would be distantly similar to Malia Obama, the President’s daughter, deciding to hang out with Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, or Sarah Palin. It’s just not considered to be a good thing to do.
What this tells us about Jonathan is that, despite his own self-interest, which should have led him to stick by his father and speak against the popular David, he instead recognizes the spirit of God at work in David’s life. It is because of Jonathan’s love for HaShem that he holds no grudge or jealousy against David. Instead, he recognizes the blessing of David’s anointing, that the prophet Samuel had performed years before, active in David’s life. Jonathan was in tune with HaShem enough that even if it meant he himself would never be king, he saw God at work in David and found himself supportive of God’s selection of David, even though there was nothing in it for him.
That’s what disinterested love, in the sense that Maimonides taught about it, or the sense that it is expressed in the Torah instruction to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Jonathan loved and obeyed God so deeply, that when he recognized God had selected David to be the next king of Yisra’el instead of him, he was able to overcome any petty jealousy and work toward helping bring about God’s will for David.
That’s disinterested love; love with nothing to gain. Loving someone because by doing so, you draw your own life close to God and His will. And that’s the sort of love that Jonathan and David shared, and that’s why it was called deeper than the love of women. Romantic love, even in marriage, is expressed in this world, but Yeshua teaches that the World to Come is so different, romantic love may not even be recognizable anymore. He taught that in response to a controvery about a widow who had had several husbands, and who’s wife she might be in the world to come.
By contrast, loving others because you love the God who gave you both life is a love that lasts into the World to Come, because the true object of that love is HaShem Himself.
How does the love of David and Jonathan help us recognize a shadow of Messiah in the life of David? The parallel is actually quite obvious in light of our study.
For one, Jonathan’s response to David should call to mind the way in which Yeshua’s talmidim responded to His call to them to come and follow Him. They do so without hesitation, without considering even what they are leaving behind, and instead follow Yeshua as soon as he calls them, leaving everything they had known to that point behind.
Without delving into distracting details, King Sha’ul simply represents the present world. David represents the World to Come. And Jonathan represents the whole house of Yisra’el. Simply put, we see a shadow of Messiah in the life of David because, like Jonathan, we must choose where our own loyalties lay. Do we cling to the world as we know it, as represented by King Sha’ul, or will we embrace the promise of the World to Come, the Messiah, represented by David?
If one loves HaShem and obeys His instructions, the choice becomes so easy to make that it is almost no choice at all. We embrace the World to Come, the kinsman-redeemer, who delivers us out of this world and into the World to Come. We embrace Messiah because when we see where the blessing of God lies, that is where we want to dwell, also. Under His blessing, His protection, His promise, His rule.