Love, Covenant, and Friendship

In my previous post, I drew attention to the way the Catholic Church frequently references friendship in her pastoral advice related to homosexuality. In this post, I want to examine the nature of friendship itself more deeply, particularly as it relates to two other crucial Biblical concepts: love and covenant. The relationship between love and covenant will be obvious to most contemporary readers; the connection between covenant and friendship, however, is frequently neglected in contemporary Christian teaching.


If we examine the Bible, however, this neglect should surprise us. Each of the three most important covenants in salvation history is characterized by friendship between God and the human representatives—Abraham, Moses, the Twelve Apostles—to whom He entrusts the covenant. Abraham, the great father of all who share his faith (Romans 4:16) is also called a friend of God (2 Chronicles 20:7; James 2:23). God “spoke to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend” (Exodus 33:11). And at the Last Supper, on the night when Christ instituted the new and eternal covenant, He said to the Twelve, “No longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you” (John 15:15). He also frames His own sacrifice on the cross—the definitive act in salvation history—as an act of friendship: “Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). By calling His disciples friends, Jesus led Thomas Aquinas to conclude that charity (the Latin equivalent of agape love in New Testament Greek) was identical to friendship (Summa Theologiae IIa-IIae 23.1).

If we want to understand what God meant when He made covenants with His people, it’s important to understand what a “covenant” meant in the culture that God first spoke to. The most extensively described human covenant in the Bible is the covenant friendship between David and Jonathan (1 Samuel 18:3). For this reason, a significant portion of this post will focus on their relationship, which not only helps us to understand the connection between covenant and friendship at the human level, but also should help us to understand the connection between friendship and covenant in our relationship with God. If we persevere in faith and love, we will ultimately see God face-to-face, as Moses did (1 Corinthians 13:12, compare with Exodus 33:11). True friendship can thus give us a glimpse in this life of the love that we will experience in its fullness in Heaven.

Analogies of Love

Most Christians know the two greatest commandments: “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” and “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Deuteronomy 6:5; Leviticus 19:18; see Matthew 22:36-39, Mark 12:29-31; Luke 10:25-28).

Love is not only at the center of Christian ethics, however. It is also central to theology (the study of God) and anthropology (the study of human nature). Christian theology asserts that God Himself is love (1 John 4:8), and at the very heart of reality is the eternal communion of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The love between the Persons of the Trinity is part of God’s essence. And because we are created in God’s image, a critical component of Christian anthropology is our capacity and need to be loved and to love. Thus, St. Augustine could write, “you see the Trinity if you see love” (De Trinitate, VIII, chapter 8, §12; for a more complete discussion of the relationship between the Trinity and human love, see Deus caritas est, especially sections 19-39).

Scripture uses a variety of analogies with human love to help us understand what it means to say that God is love, or what it means to love God: He is our Father; His union with His chosen people is like the union of husband and wife in marriage; humans can become His friends.

The analogy of fatherhood is not only crucial to our understanding of God’s relationship to us: it is also the most important human analogy for understanding the relations within the Trinity. (For some earlier reflections related to this theme, see here, and follow-up thoughts here).

Marriage, too, is an important analogy for understanding the union between God and His covenant people. This  can be seen negatively in the book of Hosea, where the infidelity of Hosea’s wife is repeatedly compared to Israel’s lack of faithfulness to God. Although the Mosaic Law tolerated divorce (Deuteronomy 24:1-4), even in the Old Testament, the Prophets made clear that God hated divorce as a violation of the marriage covenant (Malachi 2:13-16) and an image of the people’s unfaithfulness to God.

More positively, both the Apostle Paul and the Apostle John taught that the mystical union of the man and woman in marriage is an image of the union of Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5:32; Revelation 19:7-8, 21:2-9, 22:17). Although Scripture itself does not explicitly make this comparison, many interpreters—both Jewish and Christian—have read the Song of Songs as an analogy for the mystical union of the soul with God.

It is interesting to note, however, that the Bible never explicitly speaks of a particular person as “married” to God—even in the case of the Virgin Mary, where it would make the most sense to do so. Instead, the Bible describes those who are closest to God as His friends (as noted above).

David and Jonathan: Covenant Friendship

Because the friendship of David and Jonathan is the most fully described human friendship in Scripture, it is a good place to begin if we want to understand why friendship is a good analogy for understanding the love between God and Abraham, Moses, and the Twelve. It is also important for understanding the love that all of us are invited to share, a love which finds its fulfillment in the beatific vision, when we meet God face to face.

Saul was Israel’s first king, anointed by the prophet Samuel (1 Samuel 9-10). However, after Saul offered an unlawful sacrifice, Samuel informed him that God would take his kingdom and give it to “a man after his own heart” (1 Samuel 13:13-14; see also Acts 13:22). Unknown to Saul, Samuel subsequently anointed David to be his successor (1 Samuel 16:1-13).

After David saved Israel by killing Goliath the Philistine, King Saul invited him to meet. At that meeting, David met the King’s son, Jonathan. They seem to have experienced something like friendship at first sight.

When [David] had finished speaking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul. And Saul took him that day, and would not let him return to his father’s house. Then Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul. And Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that was upon him, and gave it to David, and his armor, and even his sword and his bow and his girdle. (1 Samuel 18:1-4).

At first, Saul welcomed David. As David’s military successes earned more and more praise from the people, however, Saul became jealous and began to fear that David was a threat. He determined to kill him, but because Jonathan “delighted much” in David, he convinced his father to spare his life (1 Samuel 19:1-7). Saul soon became afraid of David again, however, and once again conspired to kill him.

Seeing that he was in danger, David appealed to Jonathan for protection, reminding him of the “sacred covenant” they have entered into together (1 Samuel 20:7). Jonathan promised to protect David, and said,

May the Lord be with you, as he has been with my father. 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. When the Lord cuts off every one of the enemies of David from the face of the earth, let not the name of Jonathan be cut off from the house of David. (1 Samuel 20:13-16).

Once again, Jonathan made David swear by his love for him, “for he loved him as he loved his own soul” (1 Samuel 20:17). By this point it is clear that Jonathan recognized that David would be King after Saul. Instead of promising to protect David when he inherited his father’s throne, he pledged his loyalty to David and asked for his protection.

God anointed David as Saul’s successor, but Jonathan might easily have chosen to fight to keep the throne. His choice to swear loyalty to David and protect him makes him a critical part of the plan God has for David—a plan which includes becoming a human ancestor of Christ (Matthew 1:6; Luke 3:31).

Jonathan returned to his father and again pleaded David’s case. This time, Saul tried to kill even his own son Jonathan. When Jonathan went out to meet David, who was hiding in a field, David “fell on his face to the ground, and bowed three times; and they kissed one another, and wept with one another, until David recovered himself” (1 Samuel 20:41). Jonathan then sent David away with this benediction:

Go in peace, forasmuch as we have sworn both of us in the name of the Lord, saying, “The Lord shall be between me and you, and between my descendants and your descendants, for ever” (1 Samuel 20:42).

Modern readers typically don’t pay attention to just how radical a commitment David and Jonathan have made. Because of their covenant, Jonathan transferred his loyalty from his father to David, and risked even death to protect David from his father. (Compare this with Jesus’ call to place friendship with Him above family ties in Luke 14:26-27.) He also gave up his own claim to his father’s throne, and David promised to protect Jonathan, the most likely rival to his own claim to the throne. Even more surprising, they did not just swear lifelong loyalty to each other: their covenant remained binding even for their descendants (see 2 Samuel 9:1-13).

This sort of promise is so unusual in contemporary Western culture that we may be tempted to think of it as some sort of radical exception, as far removed from normal human life as the parting of the Red Sea or the virgin birth. In fact, however, such friendship was more like traveling by foot from city to city: an ubiquitous part of ancient and medieval life that we do not often remember.

There’s a good example of this in the Iliad, the great Greek epic poem about the Trojan war. In Book 6, Glaucus met Diomedes, King of Argos, on the battlefield. Glaucus was fighting for the Trojans, and Diomedes was fighting for the Greeks. When Diomedes challenged him, Glaucus bragged that as the grandson of Bellerophon, he was ready to fight anyone. Diomedes remembered that his grandfather Oeneus had sworn friendship with Bellerophon, and he told Glaucus. They agreed that they were bound by their grandfathers’ ties of friendship. In the same way that Jonathan gave his armor to David, Diomedes gave his armor to Glaucus, and Glaucus gave his to Diomedes. They agreed not to harm each other, and to avoid each other even though they both continued to fight for their own side in the war.

Though there were many differences between Greek and Jewish culture, and their practices of covenant friendship were not identical, they at least agreed that the kind of covenant friendship that existed between David and Jonathan or Bellerophon and Oeneus was not merely a private affair, but something that had binding, public consequences which were passed down from generation to generation.

This kind of friendship has no parallel in the modern world, and so it is easy to misunderstand it. Today, friendship is seen as essentially private. In the past, however, when the modern bureaucratic state either did not exist, or was far less powerful than it is today, such friendships were essential to maintaining social cohesion.

It might seem that if friendship played a more significant public role, it would be much more likely to become utilitarian, the kind of mutual defense pact that early modern philosophers imagined human beings, motivated by enlightened self-interest, would make in a hypothetical “state of nature.” Or we might imagine it as the kind of distant relationship we maintain with the various political, legal, financial, and commercial bureaucracies which provide so much of the cohesive power in modern life.

In fact, however, ancient and medieval friendship was not only an essential public good, it could also be a much deeper and more meaningful personal relationship than it is today, when it is mostly confined to the private sphere. The Jews of King David’s time tolerated polygamy, and the Mosaic law explicitly permitted a man to divorce his wife. David, like the other Jewish patriarchs, had multiple wives, and was not that close to any of them. Vows to friends could be more binding than marriage vows, lasting not only until death, but binding one’s descendants as well. The security of those vows made friendship potentially the most nourishing personal relationship—in both the public and private spheres—in ancient and medieval cultures.

Thus David could mourn after Jonathan’s death: “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 Samuel 1:26). But his lament only tells us what the story had already shown. When he had to flee from Saul, his parting from his wife Michal was quite business-like (1 Samuel 19:11-17), far less emotional than his farewell to Jonathan in the next chapter.


Without understanding the depth of friendship which was possible in the ancient world, and understanding what covenant friendship meant to the ancient Israelites, we cannot understand why the Bible describes Abraham, Moses, and the Twelve as God’s friends, or why human covenant that the Bible describes in the greatest depth is a friendship, not a marriage. This lack of understanding, in turn, inhibits our ability to understand both God’s love and His covenants with us.

If we think of friendship as essentially tentative and transitory, that we enjoy our friends in high school or college, but then lose track of them when we “move on,” we will not understand the radical commitment that God expects from His friends or why St. Jerome could insist, “a friendship that can end was never true.”

Moreover, without understanding the nature and value of true friendship, we often will not know how to respond with proper pastoral care to those who have fallen for its counterfeits. For example, what is called the hook-up culture on college campuses is probably better understood as a false understanding of how to cultivate healthy friendships than solely as a corruption of marriage. As the Catechism teaches,

2347 The virtue of chastity blossoms in friendship. It shows the disciple how to follow and imitate him who has chosen us as his friends, who has given himself totally to us and allows us to participate in his divine estate. Chastity is a promise of immortality.

Chastity is expressed notably in friendship with one’s neighbor. Whether it develops between persons of the same or opposite sex, friendship represents a great good for all. It leads to spiritual communion.

And as I already noted, the Church has made chaste friendship an important part of her pastoral approach to homosexuality, and has sometimes understood homosexual acts as a distorted expression of friendship. Much more can be said about how a robust theology of friendship could inform practical efforts to help everyone live chaste lives. But in this post, I only gesture at possibilities; my primary goal is simply to give a much fuller treatment of what the Bible says about love, covenant, and friendship, as they apply to our relationships with God and with each other.

15 thoughts on “Love, Covenant, and Friendship

  1. Ron,

    You might get lucky and be able to have such a friendship with one person in your entire life (maybe). Even the ancients had such covenants flourish between (maybe) a couple of friends, once in a blue moon. It was not the norm. But you are right, if we don’t understand the depth of friendship we can’t understand God relationship to us.

    Nonetheless C.S. Lewis valued all sort of “transitory” friendships.

  2. They should be celebrated. I think if this happens (publicly) today it would be celebrated, don’t you? I would celebrate it. If it happens privately (most likely) it would be celebrated by those that know about it.

  3. While I can appreciate that you’ve established the existence, in the ancient world, of a committed friendship with social and legal ramifications that extended beyond the grave, you have a ways to go to establish that this sort of friendship would be either appropriate or possible in a person who experiences same-sex attractions. Simply put, the friendship that exists between a married man and a woman who is not his wife would be different for a single man; between two men; between two women; between a caregiver and a child; between a servant and a master; a priest and fellow priest; a priest and a nun; a priest and a layperson; or a cloistered nun and virtually anybody. The type of friendships that it is possible or advisable for person to have depend greatly upon that person’s temperament, state of grace, and state of life. There is doubt surrounding all of these things in the case of someone who experiences same-sex attractions. It’s conceivable that the friendship that would allow this homosexual person’s chastity to blossom might very well not be the friendship he wants. Indeed, friendship between David and Jonathan is, for many people, interpreted in a fashion that would render it void of all homoeroticism, and therefore an inappropriate standard for people who experience same-sex attractions, since they could not help but bring their own depraved desires into it. I hope, in your coming posts, that you will do more to establish why the friendship that might be appropriate for people with same-sex attractions would be this sort of friendship and not another.

    • Of course friendships would be different between different people of different circumstances and different states. Still, love and friendship may flourish. We are each unique but remain eligible for the intimacy of friendship. At the same time, I must, as a married woman, take care in friendship with a man, that the intimacy of friendship doesn’t lead to physical intimacy. Ah! But the the same would be true if I were single. I would hope to know myself well enough and be open enough to the leading of the Spirit to avoid that temptation. How sad to deny friendship out of fear alone.

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