Are same-sex relationships found in the Bible?

This is the third of three posts from Dr. B. Dlamini extracted from a presentation he gave at the 2016 CIHA Blog Conference on Religion, Governance and Humanitarianism in Africa. Read Tuesday’s part one and yesterday’s part two.

By Dr B. Dlamini, Siyakhana – Ecumenical Community of the Paraclete

As can be seen from what transpired in the workshops, the general opinion is that people in same-sex relationships should repent and be converted, if they are to experience the fruits of salvation. Another opinion is that this type of relationship is alien to the Christian way of living. That is one reason whenever the subject of same-sex relationship is brought up, quick comes the question, “is it found anywhere in the Bible?” The usual answer is “no.” Those who adamantly assert that same-sex relationships find no support in the Bible often rush to say that the Bible is very clear on its condemnation of homosexuality. This also seemed to be the stance shared by Nkosi (2016) in her paper presented at the UKZN HIV and AIDS Inaugural Research Indaba. When a questioner pointed out that the Bible offers no condemnation of homosexuality, there were many dissenting voices. This view, however, that the Bible clearly condemns homosexuality is not an accurate one. At a number of points in the Old Testament there are beautiful affirmations of same-sex love. Two notable examples are David and Jonathan, and Ruth and Naomi. Elaborately treated, however, is the relationship of David and Jonathan.

David makes his first appearance in the Bible in chapter 16 of the First Book of Samuel. Before his appearance a background is set. The Lord is sending Samuel the prophet to go anoint a king among Jesse’s sons. “I am sending you to Jesse of Bethlehem, for I have chosen my king from among his sons (v. 1). The Lord instructs the frightened and hesitant Samuel what exactly to do. The Lord tells Samuel to arrange a feast, a sacrifice, and invite Jesse to thereto. Samuel is promised further instruction along the way. When Samuel enters Bethlehem, the elders of the city come trembling to meet him. Worried, they inquire about the occasion of this visit of the prophet in their territory. The prophet assures them that he brings no bad tidings but has come peaceably, to offer sacrifice, to which they are invited. “So cleanse yourselves and join me today for the banquet,” or “purify yourselves” Samuel says to them (v. 5). To be able to take part in the banquet all need to cleanse themselves. The Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary defines a banquet as “a large formal meal for many people, often followed by speeches in honour of someone.” The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary of Current English defines a banquet as an “elaborate meal, usu for a special event, at which speeches are made.” The invitation and the instruction to cleanse themselves included Jesse and his sons. It is notable, indeed remarkably strange, that David was not among the sons. A great feast is about to take place at his home, and he does not know. There is no attempt, either by his brothers, or his father, to include him. He is left out in the cold when the family is having a memorable visit of the prophet who throws a great party in his home. He is not to be part of the party. One wonders when does a family ever settles down to feast without a members of theirs included. The prophet Samuel senses that there is something just not coming together here, and asks Jesse, “Are these all the sons you have?” To this Jesse replies “There remains yet the youngest, but behold, he is keeping the sheep (v. 11). Jesse’s response suggests that he may as well continue doing that he is good at, keeping sheep, and have nothing to do with banquets and feasts. Yet the prophet insists that he be fetched.

It took a prophet to realise there is something amiss in the family of Jesse, namely, the alienation, the exclusion, of the one son.  It is the prophet who calls for the inclusion of the one son who is deemed by the family to be worth alienating and excluding from family feasts. The prophet is clear in his instruction to have the son sent for, “we will not begin the sacrificial banquet until he arrives here,” or “we will not sit down to eat until he comes” (v. 11). Arrive, the son did. The one excluded son turns out to be ‘Mr Party,’ who did not need to be cleansed or purified before taking his rightful place at the banquet table.  A description of him / his is given.

David is described in the African Bible as “a youth handsome to behold and making a splendid appearance.” The Jerusalem Bible says, “a boy of fresh complexion, with fine eyes and pleasant bearing,” while the Oxford Bible states that he “had beautiful eyes, and was handsome” (v12). The same chapter describes his anointing as chosen and designated by the voice of God. Upon his anointing, the spirit of the Lord is said to have “seized on David and stayed with him from that day on” or “the Spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward” (v. 13). To this the African Bible adds a comment: “Whenever God has to choose somebody for a great mission he seems to take pleasure at upsetting all the logical rules of common sense. God does not look at things and at people through human eyes … If one listens to the voice of the Lord and accepts it in faith one learns to look at the world and humankind through the eyes of God.” David is deemed to be that compassionate person who, assisted by faith, has learned to look at the world and humankind through the eyes of God. This is demonstrated by his attitude to Saul, as later recorded in chapters 24 and 26 of the same book. They contain a record of two instances when David spared the life of Saul, out of mingled piety and magnanimity (Douglas, 1982).

David ministers to Saul. The same chapter 16 depicts what happens to a person deserted by the spirit of the Lord. It is stated there that the spirit of the Lord had departed from Saul and he was subsequently tormented by an evil spirit that led to his anxiety and depression (v14). One of the results of Saul’s rejection, therefore, was the departure of the Spirit of God from him, with a consequent depression of his own spirit, which at times seems to have approached madness (Douglas, 1982). To this the New Bible Dictionary adds a comment: “There is an awesome revelation of divine purpose in the providence by which David, who is to replace Saul in the favour and plan of God, is selected to minister to the fallen king’s melancholy” (1 Sam. 16:17-21).

David is well-qualified to serve. In chapter 17, it is stated that when David took service with Saul, Saul became very fond of him, made him his armour-bearer, and sent Jesse the message, “Allow David to remain in my service, for he meets with my approval” (v22). This was because David presented himself with the necessary qualifications to serve Saul: He is a musician who can soothe the king in moods of despondency, as stated in verses 16, 17, 18 and 23; he is also a warrior, as also stated in verses 18 and 21. This, therefore suggests that the relationship between David and Saul became very close. David is a skilled musician, and a formidable enough warrior to become the king’s armour-bearer (v. 21).

Courage, care and tenderness marked the character of David. Chapter 17, of the same book, tells that David was brought up to be a shepherd (verses 15 and 34). In this occupation he learnt the courage which was later to be evidenced in battle (v. 34) and the tenderness and care for his flock which he was later to sing of as the attributes of his God. Like Joseph, he suffered from the ill-will and jealousy of his elder brothers, perhaps because of the talents with which God had endowed him, as stipulated in verse 18 of this chapter and in verse 28 of the following one.

Jealousy changes the course of events. At first all went well. Saul was clearly pleased with David, whose musical skill was outshining, and appointed him as armour-bearer as well. Then the well-known incident involving Goliath, the Philistine champion, changed everything (1 Sam. 17). The way was clear for David to reap the reward promised by Saul – the hand of the king’s daughter in marriage, and freedom for his father’s family from taxation; but a new factor changed the course of events – the king’s jealousy of the new champion of Israel. The same jealousy that David has known from his elder brothers he now gets to experience from his close ally, King Saul.

The story of David and Jonathan is recounted more clearly from the 18th Chapter of the First Book of Samuel. The African Bible gives the start of the story the heading, “David and Jonathan: Two Bodies, One Soul.” The same Bible goes on to state, in the first verse, “By the time David had finished speaking with Saul, Jonathan had become so fond of David as if his life depended on him; he loved him as he loved himself.” The Jerusalem Bible reads, “After David had finished talking to Saul, Jonathan’s soul became closely bound to David’s and Jonathan came to love him as his own soul.” The Oxford Bible states, “When he had finished speaking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul.” The third verse goes on to state that “Jonathan entered into a bond with David because he loved him as himself. Jonathan divested himself of the mantle he was wearing and gave it to David, along with his military dress, and his sword, his bow and his belt.” The Jerusalem Bible reads, “Jonathan made a pact with David to love him as his own soul…” The Oxford Bible states, “Then Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul.” The African Bible adds a comment: “David’s friendship with Jonathan is immortalized in the dirge of 2 Sam. 1:19ff. Jonathan’s gift of garment and equipment (v. 4) is more than a gesture; it is a token of the covenanted friendship that now existed between them – David was Jonathan’s alter ego (v. 3). The Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary defines alter ego as a noun denoting “the part of someone’s personality which is not usually seen by other people.” The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary of Current English defines alter ego as “one’s other self; very intimate friend.” The compilers of the African Bible were not hesitant to state that there was intimacy between David and Jonathan.

Hatred and jealousy marks the person deserted by the Spirit. Clearly, Saul became jealous of the intimacy between David and Jonathan, not forgetting that he himself had enjoyed a very close relationship with David. Now, he has to watch his son Jonathan, having him instead.  Saul’s dealings with David declined progressively in amity. The young national hero is found escaping a savage attack on his life by the king, reduced in military honour, cheated of his promised bride and married to Saul’s other daughter, Michal, after a marriage settlement which was meant to cause David’s death (1 Sa. 18:25). Clearly, not only is the person deserted by the Spirit led to anxiety, depression, melancholy and madness but to hatred and jealousy as well. Thus hatred and jealousy are seen in Saul (1 Sa. 18:28), as can be seen in all people deserted by the Spirit.

Jonathan saves David. In Chapter 19 Jonathan saves David’s life from the hand of Saul, first by telling the latter that his life is in danger, and by speaking well of him to his father. Speaking to Saul, his father, Jonathan says, “Let not your majesty sin against his servant David, for he has committed no offence against you, but has helped you very much by his deeds…” The Jerusalem Bible reads, “Let not the king sin against his servant David, for he has not sinned against you, and what he has done has been greatly to you advantage…” The Oxford Bible states, “…his deeds have been of good service to you…” (v4). It took a son, to caution his father, against harming a person who has been of good service to him. Sons are meant to learn from fathers, not vice versa. So, when are fathers taught by sons? Clearly, only when something blinds their memory is this ever required. What is blinding the father and preventing him from seeing the most obvious?

Jealousy is blinding and distorting reality. Is King Saul not aware that David has committed no offence against him but that he has been very much of help to him? Does the king not know that everything David has done has been greatly to the advantage of the former? Is the king not aware that David has been of good service to him? King Saul is only an epitome of what goes on in society. Is this not a clear depiction of how those who wield power want to debase gays and their contribution in society? Is this not a depiction of how society want to negate the contribution that is only to their advantage, simply because it is made by gays? Yes, gays are those who sin against none but often sinned against. Is it not time to acknowledge that society is well-served by the presence of gays in their midst?

Love is not jealous. The African Bible has, as heading for Chapter 20 of the First Book of Samuel has, “Friendship Stronger than Jealousy.” The friendship of David and Jonathan grows in strength and they agree to protect and support each other. They continue confiding in each other in this chapter, the latter saying to the former, “I will do whatever you wish.” The Oxford Bible reads, “Whatever you say, I will do for you.” They bond themselves to each other by further mutual agreement, Jonathan saying to David: “if I am still alive, show me the loyal love of the Lord, that I may not die; and do not cut off your loyalty from my house for ever / And may the Lord take vengeance on David’s enemies / may you show me the kindness of the Lord. But if I die, never withdraw your kindness from my house. And when the Lord exterminates all the enemies of David from the surface of the earth, the name of Jonathan must never be allowed by the family of David to die out from among you …” Jonathan then renewed his oath to David, “And Jonathan made David swear again by his love for him; because he loved him as his very self,” “as his own soul” (v. 17).

Homophobia is hatred. Saul attempts to sow division and hatred between David and Jonathan. He is telling Jonathan that as long as David lives Jonathan has neither future nor kingdom to enjoy.

Homophobia apportions blame. Blame is particularly apportioned to mothers, as can be seen in 1 Sam. 20:30.  This has become a popular form of cursing gays, berating their mothers, as though they particularly had anything to do with the making of a homosexual.

Homophobia is disgraceful. Jonathan escapes his father’s spear (1 Sam. 20:33). Saul is enraged about the closeness of David and Jonathan, and even attempts killing his own son who questions him on his intent to kill David. Out of both anger and grief, Jonathan eats no food. He feels his father has disgraced him by his attitude to his relationship with David. He goes out to sound warning shots to David.

Love is healing. Verse 41 describes a very intimate moment between David and Jonathan. After the lad had been sent away, David rose from beside the stone heap and “they kissed with Jonathan, and wept aloud together, until David recovered himself.” They then bid farewell and they parted.

Love is the supreme gift of the Spirit. In Chapter 23 Jonathan, again, seeks out David. When he finds him he, once again, strengthens his resolve in the Lord. They make a joint agreement again at Horesh, Jonathan saying to David, “You shall be king of Israel and I shall be second to you. Even my father Saul knows this” (v. 17). Love does not seek its own interests (1 Cor. 13:5).

Love is wonderful. Upon receiving the news of Jonathan’s death, David lamented and wept for him in these words, “Jonathan lies slain upon thy high places. I am distressed for you my brother Jonathan; very pleasant have you been to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women” (2 Sam. 1:25-26).

David loved women. The second Book of Samuel, chapter 11, narrates how much David loved women, not hesitating to kill Uriah so as to acquire his wife. Yet the love he had experienced from Jonathan far surpassed that of women. There is no indication that there was genital expression in this relationship, nor is there any reason to suggest that there was none. The point is simply made that deeply and emotionally expressed love between two persons of the same-sex is affirmed. Indeed there is a suggestion that this kind of love is something of a cause for celebration.

Lamentation is short-lived. David remains committed to Jonathan. When the lamentation is over, David remembers his obligations towards Jonathan and his family. He chooses to be faithful to the commitments he made to Jonathan. He sends for the son of Jonathan, and had Meribbaal brought to him. He assures Meribbaal of the kindness and restoration awaiting him, for the sake of his father, Jonathan. The affection lingers long.

Clearly, there are traces of same-sex relationships in the Bible. They are presented as relationships that are beneficial and healthy for those involved, for their families, and for community at large. The story of David and Jonathan is a case in point for same-sex relationships between two men.  So, those who discriminate against, and are disfavourably disposed towards same-sex relationships, cannot, and may not, legitimately claim to be doing so in the name of the God of the Old Testament, nor in the name of Jesus of Nazareth.

Concluding summary

From the workshop on LGBTIQ and human rights many had an opinion that it is proper to speak of LGBTIQ rights in political discussions, but not in church as Christians. The name of Jesus and the discussion of queer people as having a share in human rights just do not come together. Coming out from the participants in this workshop was the opinion that there are Bible texts that could be deemed to be stipulating clearly that Christians should not even be talking about queer people’s rights, since such people are already condemned and do not belong to the body of Christ. In the second workshop, on Theologies of human sexuality, many participants held the opinion that same-sex relationships are destructive and do not seem to be deemed beneficial and healthy for individuals involved in them, for their families, and for community at large.

The third workshop offered a challenge to Christians who are good in words, but lacking in deeds. It came out clearly from the reading and the reflection that deeds, too, must be a testimony and witness to the commitment to Jesus, not just magic religiosity of the use of the name of Jesus while practising hatred towards some of the children of God. Further reflection on the third workshop reveals that through Christ, who died and rose from the dead, salvation is offered to everyone as the gift of the grace and mercy of God. This makes the way of life of Christians distinct from that of their contemporaries so that cultural beliefs, customs and mores of the society around should not be allowed to hinder the spreading of that grace and mercy.

The Golden Rule commands Christians to do for others the good that they wish for themselves, quite apart from the behaviour that they expect or experience from them. Following the Golden Rule brings the perspective of the merciful Father to a world marked by the principle of retaliation. Following the Golden Rule calls Christians to fight for justice, love, and truth.

This fight for justice, love, and truth requires of individuals and communities to open their eyes and hearts to the suffering of others, and present solutions rather than inflicting pain and causing problems to our neighbour by violating their rights.

The Christian call to work for justice, love and truth is thus, at the same time, a call to compassion, after the heavenly Father who is tender hearted, and after the compassionate Christ who is moved by ignorance and sheepishness. Compassion is to be seen in readiness to welcome all people as they are, without expecting them to renounce who they are.

David does not need to cleanse or purify himself before settling down to the banquet that he almost missed, owing to his marginalisation by his family. He is already cleansed and purified for the feast. Hatred and jealousy marks the person deserted by the Spirit. Welcoming the other requires the indwelling of the Spirit. Often our unwelcoming attitudes are based on lack of faith, and oftentimes looking at reality through human eyes. Courage, care and tenderness marked the character of David. These are the same markers of the character of God the Father and Jesus the Son.

Jealousy is blinding and blurring reality and changes the course of events.

Homophobia as hatred disgracefully apportions blame where it does not belong.

Love, as the supreme gift of the Spirit, is wonderfully and particularly healing.

Love is not short-lived.

It seems almost everything that happened in the life of David has something significant to say about the position of the marginalised of society:

David was pushed to the margins: he is alienated, excluded, left out in the cold and darkness, and not informed on family matters.

His leadership gifts and accompanying talents are looked down upon. He is only seen as good for the sheep, and not for leadership position.

It takes a prophet to realise there is something amiss in the set-up where some member of the family does not count, and hence his potentiality trampled underfoot.

It takes a prophet to raise up the down-trodden and sit them in their rightful place.

It takes the insistence of the prophet to see that the set-up is made right.

In the one excluded is where the Spirit of the Lord is found to reside / finds favour.

Those excluded are the most compassionate of human creatures.

The exclusion has afforded the marginalised an opportunity to develop all their potential to the full: he comes out a skilled leader and musician.

The good work of the excluded is not appreciated and valued.

Those who have benefitted from the good work of the marginalised are their greatest persecutors instead of embracing them.


Dlamini, BD. 1992. Ministry of Pastoral Counselling with Gays in Black Society Today in the Context of Pietermaritzburg and Surroundings. Unpublished Masters Dissertation. University of KwaZulu-Natal: Pietermaritzburg.

Dlamini, BD. 2005. Contextual and Theological Factors Influencing the Practice of Pastoral Counselling with Families of Gays, with Special Reference to South Africa. Unpublished Doctoral Thesis. University of KwaZulu-Natal: Pietermaritzburg.

Douglas, JD. 1973. New Bible Dictionary, (2nd Ed.) Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press.

De Fleuriot, G. 1981. Church and Human Relations in Industry: Introduction to the Teachings of the   Church on Labour and Related Matters. Bangalore: Theological Publications.

South African Council of Churches. 2015. Proposed 2016 Action Plan: The South Africa We Pray For. Johannesburg.

The African Bible

The Jerusalem Bible

The Oxford Annotated Bible

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