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1 Samuel 18:14; 19:47; 20:1013, 1617comment (0)

May 15, 2008

By James R. Strange

Related Scripture: 1 Samuel 18:14; 19:47; 20:1013, 1617

Bible Studies for Life
Assistant Professor of Religion, Department of Religion, Samford University

Be Trustworthy
1 Samuel 18:1–4; 19:4–7; 20:10–13, 16–17

This week, we read from the beginning of the long Davidic saga recounted in 1 and 2 Samuel. The narrator develops characters and weaves a plot that keeps readers’ attention. The story also foreshadows much that is to come: in particular, the fall of Saul and the rise of David. Over the course of the full narrative, which ends in 1 Samuel 31, readers witness the slow slide of Saul, a great warrior and pious worshiper of God, into jealousy so severe it resembles paranoia. Elements of the narrative (for example, the text’s rather sanguine notion of holy war) pose vexing moral issues to many Christians, but it does have some lessons to teach. In an account with an ending readers already know (the boy shepherd, David, will be remembered as Israel’s greatest king), the narrator still manages to create suspense, and among the turns of the plot, Jonathan’s unswerving loyalty to David stands out.

This passage marks the first meeting of Saul’s son Jonathan (whose name means “Gift of Yahweh”) and David (“Beloved”). The narrator presents the two as daring young men who take great military risks yet emerge victorious (1 Sam. 13:23–14:23; 17:1–58). The bond between them is depicted as instantaneous. Take note of the language: “he loved him as his own soul” (1 Sam. 18:3; compare 1 Sam. 20:17). When the narrator mentions outright the love and loyalty that binds the two young men, he usually focuses on Jonathan. Apparently the narrator wants to emphasize Jonathan’s devotion to David, God’s anointed. The king’s son gives David his own armor and weapons, and David, not Jonathan, is made leader of the king’s army. These acts portend both David’s rise to the throne and Jonathan’s death.

Jonathan mediates between David and his father, ensuring David’s safety in the royal court. Such a deed is in keeping with Jonathan’s bravery, which the narrator established by recounting his raid against the Philistines in the face of impossible odds. Note again how Jonathan subsumes his own honor to David’s: Jonathan also “took his life in his hand when he attacked the Philistine[s],” but he speaks as if David alone has shown such courage. Unfortunately David’s return to favor forms only a brief interlude in the story. In an ironic twist, by speaking to his father on David’s behalf, Jonathan also takes his life in his hand (1 Sam. 20:30–34). The Israelite king becomes as dangerous to his own son — and to David — as a Philistine. In the face of that danger, Jonathan’s loyalty to David becomes all the more evident.

The foreshadowing grows in this tender scene. Jonathan’s oath, which is meant to show David the depth of his trustworthiness, also (unintentionally?) predicts the tragic end of the relationship. Readers’ sorrow intensifies, for they know how things will end. Saul does intend to harm David; hence Jonathan indeed will die.

Unbeknownst to both, after the goodbye of 1 Samuel 20:42, Jonathan and David will never meet again. Consequently Jonathan’s covenant points ever more clearly to a heartrending end. In the ancient world, a phrase that begins “May the Lord do thus-and-so” was an irreversible summons of divine power. So, with an oath that cannot be undone, Jonathan invokes God’s retribution over David’s enemies. Who is David’s greatest enemy until the end of 1 Samuel? It is Saul himself, who will fall on his own sword (1 Sam. 31:3–4), but not before his three sons, including Jonathan, die in battle (1 Sam. 31:2). The intensity of the dramatic irony suggests that Jonathan makes the oath knowing full well that he might be predicting his own end. It thus stands as another instance of Jonathan’s constant and selfless love for David. It also challenges believers to consider the limits of their own loyalty to those they profess to love, both humans and God.

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