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    A queer reading of King David

    A sermon on Pentecost 7 July 11, 2021 by Sebastian Meadows-Helmer
    Filed Under:
    Pr. Sebastian

    We’re having a lot of readings about King David this summer.
    The semi-continuous first reading series on David began in mid-June and will continue into August,
    and so I thought it would be important to have a least one sermon on David.
    Also, I wanted to continue the thread from my Pride Sunday sermon entitled “God’s family is queer”, and offer a queer reading of King David,
    in light of some of the past Sundays’ readings,
    but also making mention of today’s first reading which describes the festal procession of the ark of the covenant into Jerusalem.

    The ark of the covenant was a gold-plated wooden chest about a meter long carried on poles.
    In the chest were the stone tablets of the law presented to Moses,
    as well as perhaps a golden pot of manna, and Aarons’ rod that budded.
    It was covered by a large veil of skins and purple cloth.
    The ark was the main symbol of religion in Israel,
    a sign of the presence of Yahweh, often carried in procession in war,
    and it was a symbolic throne for the invisible deity.

    It had been located in a village about 20 miles from Jerusalem,
    and after the conquest of the city, and its being declared the capital,
    the ark was carried in an ancient Near Eastern ritual ceremonial march to its new home in a tent at the centre of the kingdom.

    And David and all the house of Israel were dancing before the Lord with all their might, with songs, lyres, harps, trumpets and tambourines and castanets and cymbals: a veritable orchestra or ancient marching band. (2 Sam 6:5)

    In the Introduction to the Day I mentioned that this festive march reminded me of a Pride Parade, with its colourful pageantry, music and nudity and dancing.

    (V14) And David danced before the Lord with all his might;
    David was girded with a linen ephod.
    The ephod was a form of underwear that was worn by priests.
    So King David, picture this, was dancing half-naked in front of everyone, appearing half-crazy.

    (V16) And Michal, Saul’s daughter, and David’s wife, saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord, and she despised him in her head.
    This evokes for me a form of homophobia, or rather biphobia in the disgust shown by homophobic protestors at a Pride Parade.

    (V20) Following the event, Michal, (his wife) came out to meet David
    (and in a sarcastic tone scolds him):
    “How wonderfully the King has distinguished himself today,
    by uncovering himself before the eyes of his servants’ maids as any vulgar fellow might shamelessly uncover himself.”
    (Maybe he even lost his underwear during the dance.)
    You acted just like some burlesque street dancer”
    How shameful! You’re a disgusting pervert!, Michal might have continued.
    It seems Michal disapproves not only of his public nudity,
    but maybe is alluding to his sexual orientation as well.


    Now as we contemplate this strange text I want to take a step back and talk about why it’s important to do queer readings of texts,
    where queer means “non-normative, inclusive of LGBTQ2SIA+ topics.”

    Queer approaches to the Bible examine the histories of the ancient contexts to see how different they are to today,
    and acknowledge that how we understand gender and sexuality is different from 2500 years ago.
    Some topics of sexuality are similar, like rape, and incest.
    Others are different to a degree, like marriage.
    Marriage today is no longer a transfer of property of the bride from the father to the husband.
    Other sexual topics have no parallel, for example:
    discussions of internet pornography,
    or understandings of sexual orientation, committed same-gendered relationships, and gender identity and expression.
    (Queer Theologies, Chris Greenough, 2020, p.104)

    Queer methods of Biblical criticism are influenced by feminist studies which examine how patriarchy and power in ancient times influenced texts.
    That is, texts were written by men in a male-dominated society,
    where only free men had legal standing,
    and thus the texts will have a particular worldview,
    especially regarding women, and their perceived inferiority.
    Feminist readings draw attention to how patriarchy in the Biblical texts is interpreted and put into practice today,
    not only in more conservative churches like with Roman Catholics and Evangelical Fundamentalists,
    but also to a lesser degree,
    in mainline Protestant denominations.

    Prior to feminist and queer studies, texts were mostly interpreted to the detriment of women and sexually marginalized individuals.
    Just think of how homophobia, transphobia, and misogyny are so often rooted in how Biblical texts are interpreted,
    whether here in our Region of Waterloo, or globally, in parts of Africa for example.
    How we read the Bible is so important, with what lenses we read them…
    it can be a matter of life and death (as comes up for example in the current debate over conversion therapy.)

    (Greenough 109)
    One of the hallmarks of queer theory is reading texts with suspicion,
    particularly being suspicious of the presumed heterosexuality of the biblical characters and their relationships.
    In other words,
    normally we would presume that all Biblical characters are heterosexual, but queer theory says…wait a minute, maybe we’re not so sure!

    For example, most people don’t realize that there are not too many examples of monogamous life-long relationships in the Bible,
    even though Bible-thumpers regularly claim this.
    In fact most Biblical relationships are decidedly queer.
    Many of the men described in the first books of the Bible had multiple wives and concubines.
    David had 8 wives and at least 10 concubines.
    On the other hand, with Jesus and his disciples and Paul etc., there is no direct mention of their wives and if they were married.

    The so-called Christian nuclear family with one wife, one husband, both virgins at marriage, never divorced, 3 kids and a dog and picket fence.… the idolatry of this “nuclear family” benefits no-one.
    What about other family structures, do they have less value in the eyes of God? How ridiculous!
    If we examine Biblical texts with a queer lens this way…
    we can affirm that the Bible is not just for married heterosexuals with kids! The Bible is for everyone, no matter your family structure or if you’re single, or whatever.!
    And that is part of God’s boundless grace,
    as we start to realize the diversity of the human family
    and the value that each person possess,
    regardless of the sexual union they are currently in.

    (Greenough 105)
    Another queer interpretation method focusses on “positive same-sex relationships” described in biblical texts, such as that of Naomi and Ruth, and of course David and Jonathan whom I’ll discuss in a moment.
    Please understand that exploring the narrative this way does not “expose David and Jonathan as a gay couple engaging in sexual acts,
    but points to the value of their same-sex relationship.”


    Nevertheless, King David is a bisexual icon for some Jews and Christians.
    He was an artist and poet, playing the lyre for King Saul who is said to have loved him, and whose bouts of depression were lifted when David played for him.
    David was known for his good looks, and is described as being ruddy
    and handsome, with beautiful eyes.

    -
    The first book of Samuel describes in considerable depth the relationship of Jonathan, Saul’s son, with David.
    We read:
    (1 Sam 19:1) Saul’s son Jonathan took great delight in David, and
    (1 Sam 18: 1) Jonathan loved him as his own soul.

    What a strong phrase: Jonathan loved David as his own soul,
    or his own life!
    Later on, a farewell scene describes the two men kissing each other and weeping. (1Sam 20:41)

    Now the love of Saul for David, and Jonathan for David could indicate political relationships, as even into modernity,
    sex, power and politics are all intertwined.
    Also, there is of course many potential meanings,
    both in antiquity and today, for the word love,
    recognizing that love is not just heterosexual.
    What is without doubt, is that Jonathan and David shared a close relationship.
    Jonathan in this relationship “is characterized in ways that one would more likely expect from one of David’s wives.”
    We cannot assume deep affection automatically means sexual relationship, however,
    (Queer Bible Commentary, Ken Stone, 2004, p.207) “The fact that both David and Jonathan marry women and father children tells us nothing at all about the possibility that they may have had some sort of sexual relationship with one another as well.
    It is clear that, in other parts of the ancient Mediterranean world,
    such as Greece, sexual relations between males were not automatically considered incompatible with marriage to women or with parenting.”

    So, we can’t prove that David and Jonathan had sexual relations,
    but we also can’t assume or prove that they didn’t.


    Another interesting story is the covenant that is formed between the two men.
    We read in First Samuel 18:
    “Then Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul. Jonathan stripped himself of his robe that he was wearing and gave it to David, and his armour, and even his sword and his bow and his belt.”


    Chris Greenough writes:
    “Their love is cemented in a covenant Jonathan makes with David- a commitment to one another in the form of a union.
    This text does not require a reader to have a finely tuned gaydar to be able to see it as an example of same-sex commitment.
    The emotional attachment between the two men is undeniable,
    and the fact that their relationship was publicly condoned by the men in the army is significant”. (Queer Theologies, Chris Greenough, 2020)

    However, one person in particular does not approve of Jonathan’s relationship with David,
    namely the only other man said to have loved him, King Saul.

    (1Sam 20:30) In a fit of rage, Saul once shouted at Jonathan, insulting and accusing him:
    “Do I not know - that you have chosen the son of Jesse to your own shame, and to the shame of your mother’s nakedness!”
    Your “mother’s nakedness” is a euphemism, or polite way of saying the pudenda, or external genitals of Jonathan’s mother.
    I read this as an accusation of a homosexual relationship,
    that Saul is saying Jonathan is shamefully choosing male genitalia over female genitalia and thus insulting his mother.
    If there was anyone who knew David had attractions to both genders,
    it would be Saul, and he seems to be jealously accusing Jonathan of taking over his own relationship with David.

    -
    Needless to say, both King Saul and Jonathan are killed in battle,
    and David afterwards sang a lament, called the Song of the Bow (which we heard on June 27th) in their honour.
    The words go like this:
    (2 Sam 1:26) 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. (NRSV)
    Or in another translation:
    I’m crushed by your death. Your friendship was a miracle-wonder, love far exceeding anything I’ve known, or ever hope to know. (MSG)

    The Lament over Saul and Jonathan further suggests the possibility of a homoerotic relationship between David and Jonathan.
    Certainly the reference to their love being greater than the love of women is unusual!

    “It is quite possible that David’s lament over Jonathan actually testifies to a world in which the lives of most people were characterized by, on the one hand, ongoing sexual relations with persons of the opposite sex; and on the other hand, affectionate and emotionally intimate relations and companionships with persons of the same sex which, however, did not necessarily mean sexual intercourse.” (Ken Stone, Queer Bible Commentary, 2004, p.208)


    —-
    So acknowledging the possibility of a homo-erotic relationship between David and Jonathan, where does that leave us today?

    Besides a perhaps fresh reading of an old text, somewhat controversial, it reminds us of the richness of the Holy Scriptures,
    that they continue to confound and disturb us, as well as to comfort and console us.
    We also recognize the great diversity in human expression,
    Particularly more recently: gender identity and sexual orientation,
    and acknowledge how the world, and especially the church benefits,
    when we open up the Bible to acknowledge new realities,
    that perhaps we were blinded to in the past.

    The Body of Christ has many gifts, but is one body.
    We need everyone’s gifts and identities.
    The world and the church is the richer, and the fuller, from the diversity of gender expression, identity and sexual orientation of our fellow siblings in Christ.
    And that’s perhaps something we can learn from this queer reading of King David. Amen.

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