‘Queer Coded’ Friendships: On David and Jonathan, Ruth and Naomi

The premise for this series is that, rather than queer identities truly being a ‘missing myth’ in the thought world of the Abrahamic faiths, gay and lesbian and other queer people do in fact see our experiences reflected in places within the Scriptures. Today I’d like to look at what is undoubtedly the most common example of this: in relationships that are ‘queer coded’ in some way: specifically the friendship between David and Jonathan and the woman-centric familial bond between Ruth and Naomi. First I’ll start by talking a bit about a what ‘queer coding’ is and reflect a bit on how we might talk about it responsibly in terms of the Scriptures. Then I’ll look at the reasons why gays and lesbians have read the two relationships in question as queer coded.

Queer coding is when the subtext of a character or dynamic between characters reads as queer, even if the text itself does not overtly state it as such. A great example that has recently been in the media is the character of Velma in the Scooby-Doo franchise. A recent adaptation showing her attracted to Daphne drew fire for ‘making’ a beloved childhood character lesbian, but lesbians responded by saying Velma’s always been queer and that the new scene only brought the subtext into the text. They point to the fact that Velma has always been portrayed as ‘butch’— with short hair and dressing so as to minimize the expression of femininity — and as showing no romantic interest in men. This subtext allowed lesbians (and gender-nonconforming queer folk) to see themselves in her. Another example was the character of Chandler in Friends, who was queer coded in the show’s first couple of seasons. Chandler was a handsome, intelligent professional, with a sharp wit, but who was notoriously bad at forming connections with women and whose most intimate connection was with his good looking male roommate Joey. In one early episode, Chandler finds out that all of his coworkers think he’s gay; and his friends agree that he ‘has a certain way’ about him. And after an episode where Chandler appears to be heart-broken after Joey moves out, the network had to issue a statement saying that they were just good friends. While these examples are neutral at worst, queer coding has often been negative, peddling in stereotypes to mark characters out as being dangerous or undesirable. Disney villains are notorious for this, with the effeminate General Radcliffe, Jafar, Captain Hook, and Scar or the butch Ursula (whose appearance was intentionally based off of the drag queen Divine) all queer coded in some way Likewise, men in subordinate roles and women in positions of power have often been queer coded (think Mr. Smithers in The Simpsons or LaFou in Beauty and the Beast, or Miss Trunchbull (also a villain, as it happens) in Matilda.)

With this in mind, when we say that relationships like Jonathan and David or Ruth and Naomi are ‘queer coded’, that doesn’t mean that we’re saying these were gay and lesbian relationships, but that these relationships have elements that resonate with queer experiences, that gay and lesbian readers can see ourselves in these characters and dynamics. It opens up a window of possibility that makes the characters more interesting and makes us wonder if perhaps there could be more going on in the stories than meets the eye. It would be irresponsible to say that David and Jonathan were gay, but it would be equally misleading to ignore or downplay the intimacy of their friendship and the ways that opens up possibilities for same-sex intimacy more broadly.

The queer coding of David and Jonathan’s friendship is a running joke among many Christians, but it’s worth reminding ourselves of the details. Jonathan, the son of Israel’s first king, Saul, is introduced in 1 Samuel 13-14 as a skilled warrior and intelligent leader. He wins battles, surprises the enemy, and is among the first to note his father’s rash behaviour as a problem. But, when the upstart shepherd’s son David is introduced at court, Jonathan’s reaction is strong and immediate:

When David had finished speaking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul. … Then Jonathan made a covenant with David because he loved him as his own soul. Jonathan 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. (1 Samuel 18.1-4)

In the next chapter, when Saul grows paranoid about David’s growing reputation, Jonathan breaks from Saul “because he took great delight in David” and conspires for David to flee the royal compound to safety, while formally interceding on his behalf. Later, we see Jonathan and David spending time alone together, sharing secrets and promises in a secluded field: “Jonathan made David swear again by his love for him, for he loved him as he loved his own life.”  And when it becomes clear that David must flee for his life, the two young men embrace, kiss, and weep before parting. Jonathan then disappears from the story until he is killed in a disastrous battle alongside his father. David publicly mourns them both, rending his garments and writing a hymn to their honour. In the song, his verse about Jonathan is particularly striking:

I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan;
greatly beloved were you to me;
your love to me was wonderful,
surpassing the love of women.
(1 Samuel 1.26)

Was this a gay relationship in the way we think of them today? Almost certainly not. Even ignoring the fact that our conceptions and categories of sexuality are very recent phenomena, and therefore hard to map onto old stories, David is otherwise shown to have a weakness for beautiful women. And if we feel awkward reading about intimate male friendships — men who aren’t afraid to embrace and talk about their feelings and fears — that says far more about our own society’s problematic archetypes of masculinity than it does about what’s happening in the Bible. But that said, even if we accept the fact that the language of loving and kissing and embracing in this story can be an expression of a healthy homophilia coexisting within a basic heterosexual sexuality, the story of David and Jonathan resonates strongly with the experiences of many gay men. The scene where Jonathan first meets David reads as an experience of love at first sight: Jonathan is so taken with David that, rather than seeing him as a rival for the throne, he immediately sets aside his own ambitions for David’s sake. The two men bind their souls together in covenant, language that is reminiscent of how we speak of marriage. And Jonathan undertakes a lot of risk, not just to preserve David’s life, but also just to see him and spend time with him. David may not read as ‘gay’ in the overall narrative, but Jonathan kind of does; Jonathan’s story reminds me so much of the kinds of unequal relationships and crushes gay men so often have on ‘straight’ or ‘curious’ friends in our youth. And even in David’s narrative arc, Jonathan stands out in the crowd of David’s many wives and women as, ultimately, the love of his life. In a world where marriage was almost entirely about family alliances and financial security, the lack of overt love referenced in those relationships should not be surprising. (Something that’s often lost in the debates these days about marriage is that the romantic partnerships we imagine as the marriage ideal are just as new-fangled and ‘unbiblical’ as any same-sex relationship!) But still, the text goes out of its way to highlight the important place Jonathan held in the heart of Israel’s greatest hero and king. In the rabbinic tradition, the love of Jonathan and David is praised as “the epitome of eternal love, a love unqualified and independent of worldly benefit” (quoted by Rabbi Steven Greenberg in Wrestling with God and Men, 99).

The dynamic between Ruth and Naomi is totally different from David and Jonathan but is no-less queer coded. And since it involves two women making their way together in a world dominated by men, it has been particularly resonant for lesbians. When we are introduced to our heroines, they are already family: Naomi is Ruth’s mother-in-law. But the family is in crisis as the men have all died. Naomi decides to leave her adopted home in Moab and return to Bethlehem; she encourages her daughters-in-law to stay and remarry but Ruth insists on going with her. And so the two women go back to Israel, where Naomi schemes for Ruth to marry her relative Boaz, thereby preserving their name and wealth. Boaz and Ruth have a child, who is then given to Naomi to nurse. On the surface, this story would seem to reinforce gender and sexual norms: The whole story revolves around the seduction of Boaz, after all. And yet, if we read the story from the side, a different picture can emerge.

The story begins with Ruth’s declaration of her commitment to Naomi:

Do not press me to leave you,
to turn back from following you!
Where you go, I will go;
where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people
and your God my God.
Where you die, I will die,
and there will I be buried.
May the Lord do thus to me,
and more as well,
if even death parts me from you! (Ruth 1.16-17)

The two women, originally bound through their relationships with men, are now bound only to each other. While in the world they inhabit, they are forced to find a man to support them, at the same time, the rest of the story is Naomi finding a way to honour Ruth’s commitment to her, a way for them to make a life together. They have transformed from being a legal family to a chosen family — a chosen family into which Boaz is subsumed even as legally speaking, it is Naomi and Ruth who are subsumed into his household. Even after the marriage and birth of Ruth’s son, Ruth is referred to as “more to [Naomi] than seven sons” (4.15). As biblical scholar Ruth Peser notes, the story thereby “both assumes and subverts the linear logic of genealogy” (”Things I Learned from the Book of Ruth”). The child in fact ends up with two fathers and two mothers: Boaz is the biological father, but under (a twisting of the logic of ) the laws of levirate marriage, Ruth’s late first husband (and Naomi’s son) Mahlon is the legal father. Ruth is the biological and legal mother, but the child is given to Naomi to nurse and care for. In a sense, then, the family dynamic could be read as two women raising a son, with Boaz as sperm-donor and benefactor.

Regardless of how we read the Book of Ruth, it’s a strange and unsettling story and one that is far less straightforward than that of David and Jonathan. The story demands a suspension of disbelief — the logic of the redeemed kinship ties is tenuous at best — as well as a suspension of our contemporary ethics — the security of our heroines is gained by essentially pimping out a vulnerable young woman and ‘trapping’ a wealthy and honorable land-owner. The goodness in the story is primarily to be found in the commitment of the two women to each other and the lengths they go to stay together in their chosen family. For that reason, the words “Where you go, I will go” inspire women in their relationships with each other today.

And so, these two Old Testament relationships are not ‘gay’, but they are profoundly ‘queer coded’ and they have therefore been fertile ground for gay and lesbian Jews and Christians seeking to see our experiences reflected in our sacred texts. No matter what else it may or may not do, the story of David and Jonathan upholds the power and possibility of two men binding their souls in love to each other, making covenant with each other, setting aside their own ambitions and undertaking risk on behalf of each other, and loving each other ‘surpassing’ all other loves. And it marks all this as not only possible but as good and holy. And similarly, the story of Ruth and Naomi lifts up two obscure women who commit themselves to making a life together, with their bonds of love for one another more important than any bonds they may have with the men in their lives. These stories, then, provide examples of same-sex love and commitment held up in the tradition as good, true, beautiful, and holy. And for queer readers of faith, that is far from nothing.

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