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literature

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The Bible  
 
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Conservative writers have been equally assiduous in attempting to contain the homoerotic resonance of the biblical relationship. Writing little more than a century after the last of the David story in the Books of Kings had been composed and recorded, for example, the compilers of the biblical Books of Chronicles deleted the episodes of David's affection for Jonathan (as well as mention of any other instance of his emotionally exuberant behavior) in order to fashion a David who might more easily serve as an example of the decorous moral ideal to which successive rulers should aspire.

Likewise, in The Jewish Antiquities (early first century C.E.), Josephus deleted the passage describing Jonathan's stripping off his princely garments as a token of his devotion to the handsome shepherd-commoner, in its place adding parenthetically--just after describing Jonathan's amazement at Saul's outburst against David--that Jonathan "revered him for his virtue," thus deflecting his father's charge that Jonathan's affection for Saul's enemy called his legitimacy into doubt (1 Sam. 20:30). Josephus also replaced David's sublime elegy for Jonathan with the prosaic explanation that David's "grief was made heavier by the thought of Saul's son Jonathan who had been his most faithful friend and had been responsible for saving his life."

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More recently, in God Knows (1984), Joseph Heller has David reason that "most likely it was that line about Jonathan, love, and women near the end of my famous elegy that is more to blame than anything else for the malicious gossip about the two of us," protesting finally that "I am David the King, not Oscar Wilde."

Richard Howard's retelling the story of David's defeat of Goliath from the giant's point of view, however, offers an apt model for gay reclamation of an important cultural tradition. Howard's poem allows a voice to be heard that the Bible does not permit to speak and that orthodox tradition attempts to still.

Ruth

Ruth's refusal to desert her mother-in-law Naomi during her worst distress--and particularly her oath that "wither thou goest, I will go: and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God" (Ruth 1:16)--makes The Book of Ruth the biblical narrative most immediately available to lesbian interpretation.

Jeannette Foster, for example, reads the Ruth narrative as "a masterly portrait of a somewhat passive young woman, twice playing the heterosexual role with success, but dominated by another love at least as compelling as that for the men she successively married"--first Naomi's son and then her kinsman Boaz. Indeed, concludes Foster, the Book of Ruth is so touching because of its subtle depiction of a "devotion" seemingly "unconscious of its own deeper significance."

Ruth's promise of fidelity to Naomi has had a particular resonance in lesbian writing. In Helen Anderson's Pity for Women (1937), for example, protagonists Ann and Judith recite Ruth's words while attempting to ceremonialize their union.

The thematic center of Isabel Miller's Patience and Sarah (1969), perhaps the first self-consciously lesbian-feminist novel in English to have commercial success, is the painting that Patience, an artist, makes for their home. She "painted Boaz and Ruth and Naomi, Boaz distant, very small, his back turned, leaving. I call it, 'Where Thou Lodgest, I Will Lodge.'" Patience is at first concerned that, despite the camouflage offered by a biblical subject, visitors might be upset by the passion of the two women's embrace depicted in the scene. Her conclusion to proceed with the painting anyway both reenacts the courage of the biblical women to persevere together and dramatizes the inspiration that that courage has been to lesbian lovers and artists.

Jesus and the Beloved Disciple

Identification of John as the disciple who would "lean . . . on Jesus' bosom, whom Jesus loved" (John 13:23; see also 21:20) inspired an important medieval homoerotic tradition.

In his twelfth-century treatise De speculo caritas, for example, Aelred of Rievaulx defends those occasions when "some are joined to us more intimately and passionately than others in the lovely bond of spiritual friendship" by asserting that Jesus himself had forestalled criticism that such special relationships were "improper" by allowing "one, not all, to recline on his breast as a sign of his special love."

Likewise, in De Amicitia Spirituali, Aelred contrasts John with Peter, emphasizing that "to Peter he gave the keys of his kingdom; to John he revealed the secrets of his heart. . . . [Peter] was exposed to action, John was reserved for love." Depictions of John as an ephebe resting his head on the chest of a bearded Jesus were popular in medieval art; such statues were often situated at the entrance to monasteries.

Fourteenth-century attempts to spiritualize the Ganymede story led to the conflation of John, thought to have been spiritually ravished with the gift of eagle-sighted prophecy, with the beautiful young shepherd whom Zeus/Jupiter took the form of an eagle to ravish sexually and abduct to heaven.

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