Friendship in the Bible
A friend is one who comes in when the whole world has gone out. (Anonymous)
The glory of Friendship is not the outstretched hand, nor the kindly smile, nor the joy of companionship; it is the spiritual inspiration that comes to one when he discovers that someone else believes in him and is willing to trust him. (Ralph Waldo Emerson)
Faithful friends are a sturdy shelter: whoever finds one has found a treasure. (Sir 6:14) FRIENDSHIP IS AN EXISTENTIAL NEED that is backed up by biblical evidence. It is an art to be cultivated, whether with humans or with God. And this art often involves taking a risk, a willingness to stick out one’s neck or even to lay down one’s life for one’s friend if needed.
In our culture today, there is much talk about “love” but relatively little about friendship. Martin E. Marty asks a poignant question: “What’s so special about friendship?” He remarks that we “fall into” love but we don’t “fall into” friendship, although we can “fall out of” friendship.1 We have to work at friendship; friendship has to be cultivated; it has to be a mutual and mature relationship. When we fall into love, we walk on cloud nine, while being friends may often mean walking through dark valleys together. Martin Marty cites Gabriel Marcel who views a friend “as a way of being more than doing,” one who is “being at the disposal of someone else.” Being a friend means “being available”-a sharing of life, knowledge, and self. Being available “involves an attitude, a posture, a signaling that draws on the deepest elements of the self.” Such a person can engage and endure “creative schedule interruptions.” A friend is one you can count on. In short, friendship makes demands: be there– availability in life or death situations, in birth or grave encounters of another kind. A friend is even disposed to lay down his life for other friends. Can we be this kind of friend for others? God is such a friend and so is Jesus who calls us “friends,” not servants. Thus, “Friend” can well serve as a root metaphor for “God.”
In theological circles, Sallie McFague has noted this and suggests “Friend” along with Mother and Lover as a root metaphor for God. She thinks “Friend” is an apt image for God in our day and age, since it moves beyond gender, is inclusive, and connotes maturity and mutuality. It conveys the notion that God is with us and alongside us, just as a friend would be. This friend cares for us, is willing to suffer for us, and even die for us. This model has biblical antecedents in both the Old and New Testaments but especially comes to the fore in the Gospel of John where Jesus claims that he is willing even to lay down his life for his friends. McFague points out that “we exist only in relationship” and that our human relationships mirror those of humanity with God. Some common traits worthy of note among friends are loyalty, fidelity, and trust.2 This relationship of “friend” goes far back into history, in fact, has a long history, which we can trace only in brief.
Ancient Near East
Ancient Near East texts often shed light on the Old Testament. One of the most celebrated stories about friendship is found in the ancient Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh (ca. 2800 B.C.). The story goes like this. Gilgamesh, two-thirds god and one third human, is king of
Uruk, but he is a tyrant. Humans beg the gods to create a rival to him, since he is enlisting all their men into the army and taking all their women into his harem. This arbitrary power machine has to be curbed. So the gods create Enkidu (two thirds animal and one third human), who is later tamed by the goddess or sacred harlot Ishtar who civilizes him by lovemaking. Enkidu is transformed from animal to human through lovemaking. (Women continue to perform this magic on men to this day).
At some point Enkidu challenges Gilgamesh to a wrestling match. And guess who won? Neither. Instead they wrestle to a draw and become fast friends as they acknowledge each other’s strength and talent. They strike up an intimate friendship that takes them on hunting trips together as well as other outings. They roam the forests and get in trouble together by killing the Bull of Heaven, which angers the goddess Ishtar, who arbitrarily determines that one of them should die, and the lot falls on Enkidu. Soon he is slain, and his lifeless body forces his friend Gilgamesh to reflect upon the meaning of life and death. He becomes conscious of his own mortality for the first time and sets out on a journey for immortality.
As he travels to his destination to reach the survivors of the flood, he encounters a barmaid Siduri along the way who offers him some free advice: go back home, eat, and be happy with your human lot, for the gods have reserved immortality for themselves. Gilgamesh, however, pushes on until he reaches Utnapishtim and his wife, survivors of the flood and recipients of life immortal. They repeat the barmaid’s advice and send him home. They also present him with a plant of rejuvenation, which is to extend his life on this earth. But on his journey home, he stops for a moment to refresh himself by bathing in a river. While swimming, his plant of rejuvenation is eaten up or stolen by a serpent or snake.3 Sound familiar? This ending echoes Genesis 3, the “Fall story,” when Adam and Eve lose their friendship with God by making the wrong choice after being tempted by a serpent.
This ancient story illustrates the value of friendship: it is the death of Gilgamesh’s friend Enkidu that prompts the hero king Gilgamesh to embark on his quest for immortality. Friendship, love, suffering, death, and immortality are interwoven into a composite fabric of life’s journey, which is relational in nature. To exist means to be in relationship.
Old Testament and Friendship
Kathleen M. O’Connor emphasizes “relationship as the way of holiness.”4 If relationships are the key to holiness, then friendship qualifies as a taste or foretaste of a life with God. The Bible begins with God’s friendship with humans until humans (Adam and Eve) break that bond by sinning. Sin began to snowball with the Fall. It intensifies with the Cain and Abel feud, which is more lethal than the former, since sibling solidarity (blood brothers) was the closest family tie and of very high value because one’s family honor or shame was at stake. In biblical times, sibling rivalry was even more volatile than spousal rivalry and governs the plot of many biblical stories.
With Cain’s murder of Abel, sibling rivalry, treachery, and violence are now on the loose and strike closer to home. It is more shocking when brothers fight. When brothers’ blood begins to boil, when a blood brother spills the blood of his brother, we are in for trouble. It doesn’t get any worse than this. Against such a background, along with so much talk about “enemies” in the Psalms, this topic of friendship in the Bible takes on new meaning. But God, the true Friend of humans, does not want to stay on the outs with his people. He does not abandon them. He will give them and us a fresh start by calling Abraham, who is designated the “friend of God.” Later God will speak to Moses face to face, as to a “friend.” Other celebrated biblical stories about friendship include Ruth and Naomi, David and Jonathan, Mary and Elizabeth, and Jesus and his disciples.
Ruth and Naomi
Ruth remains loyal, faithful, and committed to her mother-in-law, Naomi, when it would have been easier to return to her native land of Moab. Instead, Ruth pledges to go wherever Naomi goes, to lodge wherever she lodges, and to even make Naomi’s people and Naomi’s God her own. This moving expression of her friendship with her mother-in-law is mind- and heart-boggling. This story is one of survival by two women in an all-male patriarchal society. Their bonding friendship is stronger than any conscious or unconscious prejudice that may have then existed. Their ability to trust one another keeps them alive and prosperous as they make the journey of faith together from famine, death, loneliness, and isolation to one of plenty and harvest, to new life and community. Ruth will become the great grandmother of King David but also a biblical exemplar of true friendship.
David and Jonathan
Much of Ruth’s capacity for friendship will rub off on David who befriends Jonathan, son of Saul (1 Sm 20). They help each other, confide in each other, trust each other, warn each other, covenant with each other, and love each other as they love their own life. It is interesting to note how their friendship began, how it grew and matured, and how it thrived in face of Saul’s opposition-in times good and bad due to their covenantal loyalty to each other, reflecting God’s covenant with his people. When Saul and Jonathan fall in battle, David eulogizes his dear friend Jonathan with words that still move one as he or she reads them today:
I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women. (2 Sm 1:26)
(When my younger brother and friend Tom died of cancer at age twenty-four, I wanted to incorporate this text into my homily but was too choked to deliver it).
David and His Soldiers
War in the Old Testament was considered “holy” and gave soldiers an opportunity to prove their heroism and courage as well as demonstrate honor or shame-treasured values and virtues in the Mediterranean world. In David’s case, war also made him more compassionate and led him to a greater capacity for friendship. It is no wonder that the Psalter, often attributed to David, begins with the sound advice of choosing and loving proper companions.
In an incident recorded in 2 Samuel 23:13-17, David is facing his enemy, the Philistines, and while under siege, he longs for water. Some of his brave warriors risk their lives going for it. When they retrieve it, however, he pours it out on the ground, illustrating his friendship and solidarity with them-not wishing to pull rank over them.5
Job and Friendship
David, but especially his son Solomon, are often linked to the Wisdom movement. Wisdom books such as Job, Sirach, and Psalms give much attention to the theme of friendship. We will note just some examples of that prevalent theme. The Book of Job (2:11-13 & 6:1430) is one opportunity to reflect upon friendship. The three comforters-Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar-respond to Job’s cries of affliction after he had lost all his possessions, home, and family, and had been inflicted with sores.
Initially, the “friends” have good intentions, want to empathize with Job, and remain silent as they are stunned by what they see. A silent presence is often comforting and the best medicine for the grief stricken. But this quiet presence does not last, and eventually they begin to analyze, criticize, and judge Job, suggesting that his suffering is due to some sin he must have committed. In the Old Testament, in Proverbs as well as in Deuteronomy, sin and suffering are often linked in the traditional theory of retribution. The friends continue to operate upon this principle that is challenged in the books of Job and Qoheleth. These “friends,” though, remain closed to any new insights or to any new theological ideas as they cling to their orthodox views. They remain verbose, accusatory, judgmental, and policelike in their watching over Job, taking the side of God when even God has become an enemy to Job.
“A friend is one who comes in when the whole world has gone out!” Job expects support and loyalty from his friends but finds none. They have become fair-weather friends, refusing to stand by him. Norman Habel boldly writes that when Job’s faith in God is shattered, the discovery of a true human friend is paramount and the human must take sides even against God in order to remain a trustworthy human covenantal partners The “friends” shirk their duty, hiding behind their orthodoxy.
The God of Job’s “friends” is too small, while Job’s God is great, wild, mysterious, full of wonder, and awe. When God addresses Job out of the whirlwind (chapters 38-41), he does not utter one word about sin, suffering, evil, or retribution. Rather, God resorts to God– talk (theology) that centers on his presence, power, and knowledge of and over all creation. The Book of Job, like all of Wisdom Literature, has its origin in Creation theology, and God speaks more like the “friend” Job was hoping to encounter among his human comforters. Later, in the epilogue, Job will be vindicated by God for speaking the truth about him, while the “friends” will be reprimanded for speaking falsely about God.
Friendship in Sirach
The “friends” in Job might be the reason that the author of Sirach is very cautious about the realm of friendship (see Sir 6:5-17; 9: 1016; 11:29-13:1; 22:19-26; 37:1-6). He is suspicious and almost cynical at times but is good at outlining the difference between true and false friends (6:5-17; 37:1-6), on choosing friends (9:10-16; 11:2913:1), and on the preservation of friendship (22:19-26). He applauds the one who is not just a fair-weather friend (6:8) but a faithful friend who is a “sturdy shelter,” a “treasure,” “beyond price,” and “life-saving medicine” (6:14-16).
One who finds a true friend is similar to one who finds wisdom. Both are worth more than silver, gold, coral, or jewels. Both are fine gifts and given to those who “fear the Lord,” which is the beginning of wisdom and probably the start of genuine friendship.
Friendship in the Psalms
Friends have the potential (as Job and Sirach know) of becoming one’s enemies, and this is feared also by the Psalmist who bemoans being betrayed by one who sat at table with him, his once companion who broke bread with him: “Even my bosom friend in whom I trusted, who ate of my bread, has lifted the heel against me” (Ps 41:9). Whether it be Judas at the Last Supper or a table confrere in a rectory or monastic setting, broken friendships are often a prime factor in disrupting community living. The entire Psalm 55 is a complaint about a friend’s treachery, again accenting that it’s not an enemy that has done the Psalmist in but a once trusted friend who sat at table with him, who shared pleasant company and walked together with him in the house of God (Ps 55:12-14).
Words often become swords after “speech smoother than butter” and “softer than oil” (Ps 55:21). For this reason, the Wisdom Literature points out the evil of gossip, and of a sharp, lying, and deceitful tongue. It enumerates four persistent evils: adultery, drunkenness, laziness, and gossip. Of these four vices, gossiping may be by far the worst since word slingers frequently talk about those whom they think “might be” adulterers, drunks, or lazy louts.
Elsewhere in the Psalms, grieving for a true friend is compared to lamenting a brother or mother (Ps 35:14). A false friend (once a bosom friend) is compared to a traitor who eats your bread and lifts up his heel against you (Ps 41:9). In a very dark, desolate, bleak, lonely, and despairing situation, “darkness” is considered one’s lone friend (Ps 88:18).
New Testament: Mary and Elizabeth’s Friendship
What was native to Ruth and Naomi, and to David and Jonathan, is also the charism of Mary and Elizabeth. Luke relates the story of young Mary’s visit to the aging Elizabeth when both were pregnant. The friendship and support offered by Mary to her cousin is remarkable and even causes the baby in Elizabeth’s womb to jump for joy. This story is reminiscent of the Ruth and Naomi tale, but in this case, Mary and Elizabeth are cousins, kinswomen, blood relatives who understand each other’s plight and are in it together like friends. Friendship runs in the family genes. Friendships transform human lives. In this case, friendship even transforms divine life.
Jesus and His Friends
Jesus, Mary’s son, helps transform human lives. In John’s Gospel (15:12-17), he will call his disciples friends, not slaves or servants. Elsewhere he will also call tax collectors and sinners his friends and eat with them. Someone has called this kind of table fellowship the pre-Easter scandal, prior to the scandal of the cross. Jesus will be willing to suffer and even to lay down his life for his friends.
Jesus enjoyed a special friendship with his disciples Peter, James, and John, who were privy to many personal and critical moments in Jesus’ life, such as the raising of a girl to life, the transfiguration, and the agony in the garden. John is often called the disciple whom Jesus loved, and it was he to whom Jesus entrusted his own mother.7
The existential import of friendship is backed up well in the Bible. One common denominator we can trace from Ruth onward through David through Mary and through Jesus is their capacity for friendship. It runs in their blood and is their hallmark. Befriending others, even strangers, foreigners, outcasts, sinners, tax collectors, and harlots is scandalous to some but native to Jesus: “It is by your love for one another that everyone will recognize you as my disciples” (Jn 13:31-35)
1. Martin E. Marty in U.S. Catholic (October 1991), pp. 30-32.
2. Sallie McFague, Metaphorical Theology: Models of God in Religious Language (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1982) and Models of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1987).
3. Victor H. Matthews & Don C. Benjamin, Old Testament Parallels: Laws and Stories from the Ancient Near East, (New York: Paulist Press, 1997), pp. 19-30.
4. Kathleen M. O’Connor, The Wisdom Literature, (Wilmington, De.: Michael Glazier, 1988), p. 19.
5, Walter Brueggemann, In Man We Trust (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1972), pp. 36-37.
6. Norman Habel, Job (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1981), p. 46.
7. Mark Link,Action 2000: Praying Scripture in a Contemporary Way (Resources for Christian Living, 1994).
Benedict Janecko, OSB
Benedict Janecko, OSB, is a member of the Benedictine Order and lives at St. Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, Pa. He studied at St. Anselmo College and the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome, receiving and STL and a SSL respectively. He has done further biblical studies in New York and in Jerusalem. He is the author of The Psalms: The Heart beat of Life and Worship and other biblical publications.
Copyright Spiritual Life Fall 2002
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