I Samuel 20: David and Jonathan Part
The Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast Aug. 3, 2008. Craig D. Atwood
Introduction Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. I hope it has been a good week for you and those God has given you to love. It has been a rather busy week for the Atwoods. Madeleine has been participating in the Five Yesterdays program at Old Salem in the mornings and has been in Vacation Bible School at Christ Moravian in the evenings. Both programs have been very good. Five Yesterdays always ends with a Moravian lovefeast, with the children dressed in old Moravian style. Speaking of lovefeasts, the Song of Salem program this fall will focus on the theme of lovefeast in the Moravian tradition. We have some surprises in store for you! My daughter Sarah came back from Mission Camp yesterday tired, but otherwise unharmed. We’ve been cleaning and packing and are heading for vacation immediately following this lesson. Pastor Gerry Harris will be covering the class for the next couple of weeks. Gerry will be discussing the lectionary readings rather than I Samuel. We’ll pick up with chapter 21 when I return. My wife’s family is having a big gathering in Montana to celebrate the 100th birthday of Julie’s grandmother. We’ll be driving, which we can do guilt free now that we have a Prius hybrid. Here at Home Church we are having congregational conversations about our proposed capital campaign. The last available times are Aug. 10 and 17. Come and share your views about things we need to do here at the church. Speaking of churches, last week a woman told me about two pastors who were discussing their careers. One pastor bragged that when he preached the people were “glued to their seats.” The other replied, “I wish I had thought of that!”
I Samuel 20 Last week we began talking about chapter 20 of I Samuel. It is a long chapter, but I think it is worth reading most of it on the air. I’ll omit verses 12-17 which we discussed last week. READ
David was in a dilemma. Should he simply desert Saul and be hunted down by Saul’s men or should he risk returning to the court? We have seen repeatedly that David may have been pious, but he was no fool. He could act boldly, but he did not act rashly. In this chapter he is prudent in dealing with an unpredictable king. David suggests a plan to Jonathan to test the king’s intentions. Jonathan not only accepts David’s plan, he adds to it. He tells David to stay in hiding for a couple more days. After the feast of the New Moon is over, Jonathan will come to the field where David is hiding and deliver a coded message.
There is some ambiguity in the oldest texts of I Samuel, but it appears that the place that Jonathan indicated was the same place where David went into hiding when he fled from his bedroom window. That makes sense. Apparently this was a sheltered area in a rocky place next to a vacant field. It was a place where David and Jonathan could talk without being overheard or seen.
We can imagine what a lonely and grim time David had while he waited. Luckily he was a man accustomed to tending flocks in the field. He had not yet grown soft living in palaces and eating fine foods. At this point in his life, he is still a soldier – a general used to sharing the hardships of his men, but this vigil was different from waiting in a military camp or sleeping with his sheep. Like Jacob fleeing from Esau, David was all alone among the rocks. Also like Jacob, he did not know if he would live to see tomorrow, but unlike Jacob we do not know what David dreamed or if he wrestled with angels. We can imagine the thoughts that tormented his sleep more painfully than the stones on the ground. What if Jonathan betrayed him? What if someone had seen him? It must have been an agonizing wait, particularly when Jonathan did not return after the first evening.
Dinner at Saul’s The focus of this chapter, however, is not David. It is Jonathan who is the main actor. He goes to the New Moon feast hosted by his father, just as planned. Only three men are mentioned as being present, but that does not mean there was no one else in attendance. The ones mentioned were the chief men of the kingdom. King Saul is sitting against the wall, where he is safest. We should not be surprised that the king has his spear with him at the feast. He was not the head of a modern state; he was a warrior chieftain who could expect to be attacked at any time. Even if there were no real threat, a king like Saul would keep his spear as a reminder of the source of his power and prestige.
Jonathan is sitting opposite his father. No other sons or grandsons of the king are mentioned. The focus is entirely on Jonathan who is the heir to the throne. He sits in the position of highest honor across from the king. Next to Saul was Abner. This is not the first we’ve heard of Abner. He was the general who had introduced David to Saul after the defeat of Goliath, and here we see just what a powerful prince Abner was. He is seated beside the king at the festival.
Abner will be a very important figure in the rest of the history of David even though much of his career was spent in opposition to David. Abner was the most loyal servant of Saul, but after Saul’s death he will eventually side with David. Unfortunately for Abner, siding with David did not prolong his life since David’s general Joab would murder him. But all of that is in the future. For now, what is important is that it is Abner who is sitting beside the king.
David’s seat, as we already know, was empty. We are not told which seat it was. If Abner was next to Saul, we can assume that David was supposed to sit next to Jonathan across from Abner. That would put him in fourth place in the royal hierarchy. Whether or not others were at the festival, it is clear that David had attained a high position in the court, and his absence from the feast was scandalous.
At first Saul ignores David’s absence, attributing it to ritual uncleanness. There were many ways in which a man in ancient Israel could be made unclean for a ritual. The rules are all spelled out in Leviticus, and all I can say is that a man or woman was quite likely to be unclean for at least one day of a festival. It only took another day to purify oneself and be ready to participate in the sacred rituals. Thus when David did not appear the second day Saul grew suspicious.
Jonathan’s Lie On the second day Saul asks Jonathan where the son of Jesse is. It is interesting that Saul does not call Jonathan’s liege by his given name. He does not ask about David, but calls him the son of Jesse. Is this to insult David and remind everyone that David should have been honored to eat with the king? Or is it simply a way to dehumanize David and distance him from Saul? Before we kill a man in body, we first kill him spiritually. We take away his name and personhood. It is much easier to blow up or bomb people with no names or identities, much harder to kill an individual with a name. It is harder to kill David than merely a son of Jesse.
Saul assumes that Jonathan would know where David is. This is a further indication that David may have actually been a liege of prince Jonathan than of the king himself. You may remember that Jonathan is the one who supplied David with armor and weapons. Saul may also suspect that Jonathan and David are up to something.
One of the reasons that monarchy is a bad system of government is that it so often leads to sons trying to take their fathers’ thrones and fathers killing their children. So much of the mythology and literature of the ancient world was about the rivalry between kings and their sons that Sigmund Freud concluded that every son secretly wants to kill his father. Freud should have noticed that there are very few stories of shepherds or scholars killing their fathers. The problem is not human psychology but the lust for power. It is much better to hold elections and have term limits than to have a system that encourages violence and rebellion. As king, Saul had to worry about his son’s career plans.
As expected, Saul asks about David’s absences, and Jonathan tells his father the lie that he and David had prepared. He tells the king that David went home for a sacrifice being held by his family. This may be the origin of the common explanation of the departure of a government official on the grounds that he or she wanted to “spend more time with their family.” I suppose there are times when that is the true story, but usually it is no more true than it was in the case of David.
It is strange that Jonathan adds a twist to the story. He says that it was David’s brother who demanded that he be at the feast. It is possible that Jesse had already died, and David’s oldest brother was now the head of the family. Even so, it would be far less compelling for David to answer a summons from his brother than from his father. All in all, it is a very unconvincing story, and that may have been intentional. It was designed to test the king’s temper.
Saul’s Anger If the purpose of this charade was to test the king’s feelings about David, then the plan succeeded beyond expectations. The author describes Saul’s outburst vividly, even including his offensive curse that mentions the genitals of Jonathan’s mother. Some of the English translations clean the Hebrew up here so that we can read the story in church. Suffice it to say that Saul was really angry and insulted his son in very crude terms. His curses against Jonathan focus on the idea of rebellion. We know nothing about Jonathan’s mother, but Saul calls her a perverse and rebellious woman. Perhaps she was, or perhaps Saul is just saying that his son is behaving in an unnatural way. He is the one who is rebelling against his father by siding with this upstart son of Jesse!
Saul recognizes clearly what is going on. Jonathan has chosen to protect David even though it may ultimately cost Jonathan the kingdom. Remember the old dictum that “just because you are paranoid, it doesn’t mean people aren’t out to get you”? In other words, Saul’s insane fear of David had some basis in reality. He has heard Samuel’s prophesy that his kingdom shall not be established for long. His hope that his son will establish a dynasty is being dashed before his eyes. But to make matters worse, it is Jonathan himself who is throwing the kingdom away. Saul knows that David is a threat to Jonathan as well as to himself, but Jonathan is shielding him.
Saul pronounces that David must die. There is a pun in Hebrew. The “son of Jesse” will be a “son of death.” He orders Jonathan to send for David so that he can be executed for treason. It is no longer time for subtlety, and Saul wants Jonathan to take charge. Jonathan refuses. For the second time in the book of I Samuel Jonathan defends his friend before the king.
In his rage, Saul loses all control and reason. He hurls his spear at his own son. It is the second time that Saul has tried to kill Jonathan, but this time it is in a blind rage. Here is the great irony of family relationships. Saul is angry because he wants Jonathan to succeed him on the throne, but he tries to kill Jonathan in his anger. I wonder how often this happens less dramatically in families. We have great ambitious for our children and when they do not share those ambitions we alienate them. Too often we destroy the people or things we claim to love.
Saul may not have been trying to kill Jonathan, but he could have. Jonathan left the table in anger and refused to eat. The text says that it was both because he was grieving over David and because the king had disgraced him. This is an indication that there may have been more people at the meal than just the loyal prince Abner. Jonathan was probably shamed in front of several people, and he knew that he had lost respect in their eyes. The aspect of grief also makes sense if we recognize that even if David lives, he and Jonathan will be parted until the king dies.
Arrows The next morning Jonathan goes to the field where David is waiting. They had already worked out their code to communicate what happened at the feast. Jonathan has a young servant who has been ordered to fetch his arrows when he shoots them. Today the servant would probably have to go out and fetch the prince’s golf balls. It is not clear in the text whether Jonathan shot one or several arrows, but the signal was given. He tells the boy that the arrow is beyond him and he will need to go farther to find it. That is the message for David. He will have to go farther in order to be safe from the king. Jonathan adds the message that David must be quick and not linger.
David is not safe in Saul’s realm. If any of the king’s servants find him, he will be killed. We would expect the story to end here. The whole point of the coded message was so that Jonathan could tell David the truth without risking an open meeting with the fugitive. It would make sense that after Jonathan delivered the message he and the boy would take the arrows and return to the palace. But he and David could not part in this way.
The Farewell David emerges from his hiding place even though he now knows for sure that he is risking his life. He cannot sneak away without honoring the friend who has risked so much. This is one of those scenes that show you why people loved David and were loyal to him. A lesser man would have simply waited until nightfall and fled without a word. But David loved and honored Jonathan. So he rose and then he bowed three times to the ground. For centuries this has been a practice in the Middle East, a way to honor someone who is superior to you in the social hierarchy. David was showing Jonathan the honor that he owed to the King and to the king’s son. It was a final way of telling Jonathan that he was not a traitor or a rebel. How different this parting was from that of Samuel and Saul!
Suddenly Jonathan and David were kissing and weeping together. Presumably it was the prince who ran to David who was prostrate before him. They threw away all pretence and hiding in this tearful farewell. In our modern, mechanized world few of us know this kind of passionate friendship or this kind of heart-wrenching sacrifice. Nothing is worse than having to preserve the life of someone you love by giving up that very person. No matter what the future held, David and Jonathan knew that the old days were gone forever. The king would pursue David and he would have to defend himself. It was likely that a day would come when these friends might be shooting arrows at one another. But for now they would unashamedly demonstrate their love for one another.
Conclusion The last thing that David and Jonathan did before they departed was to renew their covenant before the LORD. It was not only a covenant between the two of them, but between their descendents. Their invocation of God as a witness between them was much different than the more famous scene at Mizpah when Jacob and Laban asked God to keep watch of the other while they were absent. The Mizpah blessing was a sign of mistrust while the covenant between Jonathan and David was one of deep trust and friendship.
They have no illusions that life will be fair to them. They are affirming their friendship in the midst of hardship, sacrifice and suffering. Jonathan will be returning to his father and will fulfill his responsibilities as a son, even unto death. Bruce Birch sums this chapter up well when he writes, “Jonathan could choose against his own self-interest and his father’s restricted vision of the future because his horizon was God’s future. His vision encompassed more than the present realities of a homicidal father, fugitive friend, risky intercession, and tearful parting. Beyond these events, Jonathan could see God’s future for Israel.” (I & II Samuel, NIB, 1137)