Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2007.10.46

ALSO SEEN: Susan Ackerman, When Heroes Love. The Ambiguity of Eros in the Stories of Gilgamesh and David.   New York:  Columbia University Press, 2005.  Pp. xviii, 353; ills. 58.  ISBN 0-231-13260-3.  $47.50.  

Reviewed by Jean-Fabrice Nardelli, Université de Provence (

If one epithet holds true about the bonding of Gilgamesh with Enkidu in the Gilgamesh and David with Jonathan in Samuel, it is 'ambiguous'. While those students of ancient sexuality and Semitic scholars who consider that it would do violence to the texts to exclude a lustful dimension in the dealings of either couple have never proved their case convincingly enough to make it mainstream, the advocates of the conservative Christian viewpoint, on the other hand, have failed to demonstrate once and for all that these dealings are nothing more than friendly, and possibly homosocial. This is due to the fact that the textual evidence lacks clarity, and affords material for both views.

Rather than trying to elaborate an interpretation and then attempting to explain away as many of the loose ends as possible, A(ckerman) focuses on this fundamental ambiguity of the male-male affect in the primary documents. She envisions this ambiguity as the key to the meaning of the relationships of both Gilgamesh / Enkidu and David / Jonathan. Her interpretive touchstone is the rites-of-passage model, specifically the liminal version, in which crises are 'redressed' by a period of ambiguity, a limbo characterized for the main protagonists with blurred social status and a cycle of exploits and hardships functioning as the steps of an initiation, by the end of which the hero of the narrative comes back into society with a whole new status.

Being a deviation from the norm, male-male sexual dealings may be explained as belonging to a liminal episode, a phase of abnormality due to the between and betwixt state, for both Gilgamesh (once he accepted his own mortality after Enkidu's death, at long last he was able fully to live as a man and a king) and David (after he survived Saul's jealousy and took the place of Jonathan as heir to the throne, he could be the rightful king Saul failed to be due to his impiety). Thus A. is able to make sense of several crucial characteristics of our twosomes that are otherwise unaccounted for: the a priori strange, blurred gender to which Enkidu and Jonathan are assigned by the Gilgamesh and Samuel and, still weirder due to the ancient notions about sexuality, the egalitarian status Gilgamesh and Enkidu exhibit. Only during a liminal phase could these two characters be engaged qua equals in a mutually agreeable sexual liaison.

True, she concedes, liminality works better for Gilgamesh / Enkidu: in the case of David / Jonathan, it is superseded by another agenda of the narrators, what she terms the sexual apologetic. David's seizure of the throne had to be vindicated against Jonathan, and the son of Obed had to appear as the sole legitimate king. To this end, Jonathan's rights were to be diminished as much as possible; this was obtained by making him seem subservient, and willingly so, to David. In early Israel as well as in other parts of the Semitic world around 1000 B.C., we know that sexual roles were isomorphic with social rank; women were subordinate to men in that, being in the passive position in intercourse, they held an inferior status. If a man assumed the sexual stance assigned by convention to women, he moved downward socially speaking; thus, for the narrators of Samuel, all they had to do was to insinuate that David and Jonathan were in an homoeroticized relationship. Therefore David is portrayed as being always personally so beloved to Jonathan that the prince almost seems to live only for him, while David hardly reciprocates this affection -- he takes it for granted and utilizes it.. In other words, Jonathan, by 'loving' David in a way incompatible with his manly status and by behaving as his wife rather than his brother-in-law, was to be deemed unfit for the throne by the readers of 1 Samuel. Of liminal ambiguity then there can be no question, because homosexuality served as a tool in the Davidic royal propaganda.

There is much to admire between these covers, as well as a good deal of matter not obviously to the point. The sections on homosexuality and liminality are lengthy and indulge in excessive detail; the introductory chapter on Samuel takes the form of a vindication of the historicity of King David, a vindication which looks out of place in a work that claims to decode the literary artifacts that are the David, Jonathan, Saul, Michal, etc..., of Samuel. In addition, the reader lacks a conclusion summarizing A.'s findings and attempting to compare formally the male-male love of Gilgamesh / Enkidu with the one of David / Jonathan. Instead, he is furnished with an Epilogue on David and some of his wives.

As I have shown elsewhere at length1 the book suffers from being wholly hypothetical in some of its most basic contentions and from circular arguments. If you do not consider that Gilgamesh and Enkidu or David and Jonathan are liminal, which is different from considering them borderline characters,2 then all too often all the tenets of liminality A. canvasses are either structural data (the overall composition of the Standard Version of the Gilgamesh and the second half of 1 Samuel are supposed by her to mirror rites-of-passage) or specifics whose probative value does not amount to much. If you do not find yourself convinced by A.'s adherence to the 'gendered' approach to facts that are (said to be) constitutive of male-male sex and affect in the Semitic world, you will spot at a glance where, unlike 'queer theory,' she draws rather too firm a line between homosexual and heterosexual behaviors. If you know what is truly at stake in the condemnation of homosexual intercourse in Leviticus, that is, which of the two partners, the active or the passive male, assumes a role which is ungodly according to the Holy Code and what was previously the case, you will be less than certain that A. is right to postulate that David, since he possesses the male gender and superior status in his relationship with Jonathan, had to be preserved against the charge of having put the other man in the submissive position, viz., disgraced him. This could only be done by portraying Jonathan as the one who, wholly unconventionally for someone in the subordinate / passive role, initiated the homoeroticized pairing by bestowing freely his 'love' to David as the partner who begged to be disgraced and made as low as women, even lower than women perhaps because he renounced his own proper gender.3

I do not mean that A. necessarily went astray in each of these cases, but the reader must keep in mind that she is arguing on quicksand. By circular arguments I designate the cases where A. backtracks in order to make a point and, by so doing, contradicts the outcome of her previous discussion. For example, liminality, therefore ambiguity of expression and in conception, is declared to inform many of the dealings of David and Jonathan; but it turns out that, for the apologetic to operate, their homosexuality must be fairly obvious, with Jonathan readily assuming the passive stance and inferior status out of his 'love' for David.

What is more, compared to the best previous scholarship on Gilgamesh / Enkidu, A.'s book does not bring to the fore any new philological insight. It hardly supersedes the sophisticated analysis by Walls of the ways in which the Gilgamesh constructs same-sex desire;4 and it misses the confirmation, by an expert Assyriologist, that the imagery and metaphors to which Gilgamesh and Enkidu are assigned strongly suggest same-sex love and lust,5 thus ruling out any ambiguity. Finally, it ignores the new evidence, from sources as early as some of the Sumerian Gilgamesh tales, for a homosexual affair between the two heroes, because A. wrote before George's edition was published.6

Still, A.'s liminal love between Gilgamesh and Enkidu seems less unlikely a scheme of explanation than her complex theory about David and Jonathan and may well be partially right, if only because it is neat and offers a gain in interpretation. The same cannot be said of her exegesis of the Hebrew twosome. For one thing, while the passages where David and Jonathan interact are notoriously elusive and cry for detailed scrutiny, this part of the book is a good deal shorter than the Gilgamesh section: David and Jonathan as liminal beings fill a mere 28 pages [200-227], against 51 for Gilgamesh and Enkidu as such [99-150]). No wonder if the reasoning seems rushed. More dangerously, the chapter on David and Jonathon is fraught with cases of ignoratio elenchi and leaps of faith. Because she identifies Jonathan's behavior with a submissive stance as if this were self-evident, A. always assumes that David the lyre-player or courtier, not Jonathan the eldest son of the king, is the dominating member of the twosome, although David does nothing save accept the other man's love.7 Not only is the author . building a house of cards, but the whole Hebrew section of A.'s book exhibits an astounding degree of selectivity with regard to scholarly literature and, what is more damaging, to passages of potential or certain relevance in Samuel.8 Still, her survey of the texts of interest for the David / Jonathan pairing, though far from perfect, nonetheless represents a big step forward for its thoroughness, clarity, and lack of prejudice, and will be compulsory reading for scholars of whatever persuasion.

This is a brilliant book, learned, moderate, sensible, which could have been a tremendous one had not the adherence to liminality loomed so large and had the author contrived to look more closely at what it entailed, between 2000 and 1000 B.C in the Semitic world, for two men of the warrior class to bond. Gender studies still have much light to shed on Semitic homosexuality.


1.   With much comparative evidence from Egypt, Ugarit and Sumer and a compendium of the evidence for same-sex feelings and acts between the members of the two couples: Nardelli, Homosexuality and Liminality in the Gilgamesh and Samuel, Amsterdam, Hakkert, 2007.
2.   Viz., exhibiting a set of patterns which does not agree with what we know (or guess) to have been the standard in their social class (elite) without being altogether alien to it. Let me take an example: "Gilgamesh, supposedly Uruk's supreme authority, is portrayed as an almost hopeless dependant when he beseeches his mother to interpret his two dreams that presage the coming of Enkidu" (105); the truth is that, being plagued with symbolic visions of which he cannot make head nor tail, the hero, king or not, could have done a lot more idiotic things than running to his mother for an explanation. The differences between mainstream and seemingly liminal behaviors in Mesopotamia from the Old Babylonian era onwards and in Early Israel should really have been investigated by A.
3.   With the majority of the interpreters of Biblical homosexuality, A. chooses to endorse S. M. Olyan, "'And with a Male You Shall Not Lie the Lying Down of a Woman': On the Meaning and Significance of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13", Journal of the History of Sexuality 5.2 (1994), 179-206; however, his conclusions , most notably his view that the Holy Code targets the one male who is active during the intercourse rather than the passive have not gone unchallenged. See J. T. Walsh, "Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13: Who Is Doing What To Whom?", Journal of Biblical Literature 120.2 (2001), 201-209. Therefore, it is a blatant petitio principii to write that "the text, by atypically depicting the womanlike member of its homoerotized relationship as the relationship's initiator, defends David against the charge that he forcibly feminized another man, an act for which, under the terms of passages such as Gen 19:1-11, Lev 18:22, 20:13, and Judg 19:22-26, he might otherwise be condemned " (A., 226).
4.   N. H. Walls, Desire, Discord and Death. Approaches to Ancient Near Eastern Myth (Boston, American Schools of Oriental Research, 2001), 11-92.
5.   M. P. Streck, Die Bildersprache der akkadischen Epik (Münster, Ugarit Verlag, 1999), 104-215.
6.   See further Nardelli, Le motif de la paire d'amis héroïque à prolongements homophiles. Perspectives odysséennes et proche-orientales (Amsterdam, Hakkert, 2004), 206-208.
7.   She repeats the mainstream belief that the 'love', 'aheb, Jonathan offered to David during their first alliance is replete with political overtones, that is, it constitutes an abdication of Jonathan's rights. Of course, if that is so, 'aheb means actually 'loyalty' as is well known in Near Eastern treaties (see, e.g., Françoise Briquel-Chatonnet, Les relations entre les cités de la côte phénicienne et les royaumes d'Israël et de Juda [Leuven, Peeters, 1992], 33 top with note 37). But such a loyalty treaty would not be a berît, an 'alliance', asSamuel emphatically states it is, and the standard interpretation seems at odds with various other pointers of the text . More regular explanations of the two Hebrews' initial berît can be devised, among which a lord / vassal treaty, whereby Jonathan as the stronger part elevates David and binds him to himself as his protégé, and a matrimonial alliance (something which we know was deemed a berît. in the Hebrew Bible, although it only binds heterosexual couples)
8.   She says little about the three consecutive alliances they contract, about the curious phraseology by which Jonathan is said to 'love' David when he first sets his eyes on the other man (1 Sam 18:1) or about the Bow elegy itself, by no means a text free from difficulties. She has nothing on the gift of Jonathan's armor, weapons and clothes to David (she simply registers the fact) though it may seem to mean submission, on the status each of the two men possesses at the beginning of their relationship, and on the (homo)sexual insult Saul shouts at Jonathan during the banquet David misses (1 Sam 20:30). Briefly put, her catalogue of the evidence is unduly strained.

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