Jonathan & David:
Jonathan's Background

Key Passages: 1 Samuel 13-15

By Bruce L. Gerig

The Philistines knew they had it good. As the Iron Age began (ca. 1200 B.C.1), they had guarded their advantage of knowing how to make iron as a state secret, allowing the Israelites only to purchase farming tools. No metalsmith was found in Israel – probably for either iron or bronze2 – and farmers had to go to Philistia (along the coastal plain of southern Canaan) to have their tools sharpened, including plow blades, digging tools, axes and sickles, and cattle goads. No one in Israel was allowed to possess a sword or spear except Saul and Jonathan, the king and heir apparent (1 Sam 13:19-22).3 Meanwhile, the Philistine soldiers were armed with long straight swords, spears and daggers, smaller face shields and better armor, and large chariots,4 as pictured in the famous battle scene at Medinet Habu, Egypt.5 Note all the metal weapons and armor that Goliath brought with him, albeit an exotic lot (17:4-7) and “javelin” (NRSV) is better translated as “sword” (Peterson), since kidon appears in the Dead Sea scrolls from Qumran definitely signifying a sword of some kind.6 Also, no ancient battle scene has ever shown a warrior with a javelin “slung between [the] shoulders” (17:6), although this could be said of the scimitar (a one-edged, curved sword, good for slashing), also a common weapon at the time.7 No wonder Saul spent his days dillydallying.

Jonathan makes his appearance in 1 Sam 13:2. Although we have no physical description given of him, since Saul was tall (10:23) and had been a “handsome young man” (9:2), perhaps Jonathan inherited his good looks. Still, maybe his father towered over him, as he addressed his son.8 What we do know for sure is that Saul formed a standing army, taking command of two-thirds of the men himself (located at a place called Michmash) and giving command of the other third to Jonathan (located at Gibeah). Perhaps Jonathan was around twenty years old when he entered the army (the traditional age for this in Israel, cf. Num 1:3) and he might have had some military experience before being appointed a commander. (We remember that Alexander the Great distinguished himself at the age of 17 as a cavalry commander in Philip’s army, at the crucial battle of Chaeronea, and then was made king of Macedonia in 336 B.C. at the age of 20.9 However, Jonathan never displayed Alexander’s level of military skill.) The larger section of 1 Sam 13-15 may be titled “The Decline of Saul,”10 and it is moving to read the whole passage. Two great themes interweave here. One describes Jonathan’s leading of two daring assaults on the Philistine forces thereby becoming a hero in Israel, while the second follows Saul’s disintegration as king and God’s rejection of him because of his disobedience. Chapter 13 begins with a number of uncertainties. Gaps in the royal introduction (13:1) leave the reader guessing as to how old Saul was when he began to reign and for how long he was king. Noted Hebrew scholar Kyle McCarter feels that the “three thousands” in 3:2 really means “three military units”11 or companies12 (Hebrew letters having non-numerical as well as numerical meanings). The Hebrew in 13:3, describing Jonathan’s first raid, has been translated in three different ways: he took the “garrison” (NRSV, NIV, REB), killed the “governor” (McCarter,13 NEB, Peterson), and destroyed a hallowed “pillar” (JB) at Geba.14 Probably the basic meaning of the Hebrew word nesib, “army camp” (CEV), is best (Strong, #4673). Scholars have also debated place names here, although Geba was probably located 2 miles south of the strategically-important, east-west Michmash Pass (located 8 miles N/NE of Jerusalem and where Jonathan’s second raid occurred), while Gibeah, Saul’s capital, is a different place, located around 2 miles south of Geba.15 Fortunately, most of the other text in these chapters is much more easily translated.

In this section, Jonathan emerges almost overnight as a national hero, through his enormous faith, courage, and initiative. His first surprise attack on the Philistines (at Geba), however, was an unmitigated disaster, for it elicited such a devastating Philistine counterattack that most Israelite soldiers fled into hiding or across the Jordan (13:3-7); and Saul trotted the 600 or so men who remained with him back to Gibeah, his hometown (13:15). However, this fiasco must have impressed upon Jonathan that human strategy, self-confidence, and even surprise were not enough to gain a victory over the dreaded Philistines; instead, he would have to turn humbly to Yahweh for guidance and deliverance. With a simple plan (suicidal from a human point of view), Jonathan and his aide climbed down into the valley of the Michmash Pass and showed themselves to the enemy, having asked God to reveal his will through what the Philistines would call down to them. If they said, “Come up to us,” then Jonathan and his aide would take that as a sign that God would give them a victory (14:1,6-12). So when the two heard this reply, they scrambled up the northern cliff of the Michmash Pass, probably even leaving behind their heavier weapons.16 Still, the “Philistines fell before Jonathan,” helplessly, as it were (14:13).17 God also caused great “trembling” to spread among the Philistines, including not only fear and panic but also (lit.) “a quaking of God,” an awesome earthquake (14:15).18 Tony Cartledge writes, “The disdainful Philistine troops had judged Jonathan to be an overconfident cub, but he scaled the cliff like a cat and then fought like an enraged tiger, felling Philistines left and right while his armor-bearer came behind to finish them off.”19 McCarter adds to this verse,20 “with darts [long arrows21] and crude flint weapons” (i.e. the humblest of weapons). Jonathan, whose name means “the Lord has given,” truly sees this become a reality in his life here.22 Yet also we see in this encounter Jonathan’s bravery and resoluteness; his ability to devise a plan, keep it secret and carry it out; his physical strength and athleticism; the obvious admiration he inspired in his aide; and most of all his trust in and personal relationship with Yahweh, who answers prayer.23

Although the KJV and most English versions translate 14:24a as “And the men of Israel were distressed that day” (based on the Masoretic text), McCarter prefers “Saul made a great blunder that day”24 (based on the older Septuagint text; and cf. NRSV, Peterson). In either case, what Saul did was to place a bizarre curse on all of his men, requiring that they fast until evening “and I have been avenged on my enemies” (14:24b). Now any general who withholds food from his army during a battle is not quite right in the head. J.P. Fokkelman also thinks that since Saul knew that Jonathan was away and would not know of the curse, perhaps he is digging a trap for his son here.25 Sure enough, it is not long before Jonathan unwittingly eats of some honey he finds dripping in the woods (14:25-27, NIV). Later, when Saul consults the sacred stones (14:36-45) to find the culprit for a divine silence that has fallen in his inquiries, his selection of only two steps to find the cause (the two royal commanders or the army, then Saul or Jonathan) suggests that the king already knows what he is looking for (cf. 14:39). When the lot points to Jonathan, the king shows no dismay or surprise, but immediately calls for his execution. Jonathan dutifully acknowledges his fault and accepts his fate, apparently feeling that to make any defense or appeal would be pointless.26 However, the army finds the idea of killing their hero all too preposterous; so they force Saul to back off. They have no doubt upon whom God’s favor lies.27 J.P. Fokkelman sees 1 Sam 13-14 as a triptych (three connected panels), with Jonathan’s bold act of faith the “radiant centre panel,” joined front and back by two dark panels, the first showing how irretrievably lost Israel’s situation is in facing the Philistines and the second revealing how far Saul has lost his grip on leading Israel, as he calls for the execution of his own son.28 Chapter 15, where Samuel utterly abandons Saul (v. 35), is darker still, although it also divides the book of 1 Samuel, since afterward the reader’s attention is focused on David, who makes his appearance in chapter 16.29

One interesting aspect of this story is the special bond that Jonathan develops with his young armor-bearer. Armor-bearers are mentioned some 21 times in the OT, in the books of Judges, Samuel, Kings and Chronicles. The primary duty of the armor-bearer (nose keli), as the name implies, was to carry the large shield and other weapons and items needed by a king (Saul, 1 Sam 31:4-6), commander-in-chief (Joab, 2 Sam 18:14-15), or champion (Goliath, 1 Sam 17:7), as he went into battle. The tomb of Senbi at Meir in Egypt shows a scene of the tomb’s owner hunting, while behind him stands his retainer or “arms-bearer” holding a battle axe, a quiver for arrows, and a water bottle.30 Jonathan’s armor-bearer is called a na‘ar (14:1,6), indicating that he was no older than a teenager (Strong, #5288); yet because he had to kill those whom his warrior struck down (14:14) and even protect him from the side or back, a fully-grown boy would be wanted, who was in top physical form and who had basic fighting skills and quick reactions. Jonathan had probably spent hours with the youth advancing his military training.31 A warrior might also select someone for whom he had a fondness. At least, Saul made David his armor-bearer for a while because “he loved him greatly” (16:21), a phrase which some have viewed as having a homoerotic edge. For example, Wallace Hamilton, in his novel David at Olivet (1979), portrays Saul as drawing David to his side in his tent at night (where David attended the king), until he becomes Jonathan’s companion, to Saul’s great displeasure.32 “Love” has a thousand meanings, of course; but still a big deal has just been made in the text about David’s remarkable beauty (16:12,18). Saul is the first of many who will “love” David and be taken in by his “charming appearance.”33

The account of Jonathan’s second raid (14:1-14), with his aide, is unusual in a number of ways. It is the fullest account in the Bible of an armor-bearer and the only place where he speaks, in a direct quote (v. 7). A spotlight seems to zoom in on their sharing one with another – 129 words in the Hebrew text of vv. 6-13, with 80 of them in direct conversation.34 Jonathan’s words to his armor-bearer reveal his spiritual depth. In this, his first speech in the Bible, he speaks of faith both at the beginning (“nothing can hinder the Lord from saving by many or by few,” 14:6, NRSV) and at the end (“Come up after me; for the Lord has given them into the hand of Israel,” 14:12). His “it may be that God will act for us” (v. 6) shows Jonathan’s respect for God’s freedom (to act or not to act), while at the same time his “the Lord has given them” to us (v. 12) shows his assurance in Yahweh’s faithfulness and provision.35 In the one sentence the youth speaks, he says (lit.): “Do all that [is] in your heart [leb]. Turn yourself, for I [am] here with you according to your heart [leb].”36 The KJV reads similar to this, although later English translations tend to change “heart” to “mind” (to move away from any same-sex emotions?). The word leb in OT Hebrew is used “very widely for the feelings, the will, and even the intellect” (Strong). It is a mistake, however, to wipe the dialogue in 14:6-13 clean of emotion, turning it into an intellectual discussion. The fact that the armor-bearer is mentioned here 9 times (in 14:1-17) shows that he more than a caddy; the two fight as a team.37 In fact, it may be this very strong emotional tie felt between Jonathan and his side-kick that was one reason why the narrator of 1 Samuel picked this whole story for telling in such detail, and especially the dialogue. As Gary Comstock suggests, the author(s) of 1 Samuel, who may have been sympathetic to same-sex feelings, appear(s) to have intentionally framed the story of Jonathan and David to “be read or heard differently by gay men than by nongay people”38 – although they describe it in a discreet manner. In fact, this masked (unnamed) armor-bearer “is a marker for the young David” whom we will later see also stands in “one heart with Jonathan, and with God” (in a sacred triangle, as it were). There is deeper subliminal meaning here, for those who have eyes to see it.39

In contrast to Jonathan’s emotional attachment to his aide, we sense right from the beginning that there is not much affection, respect or communication between the king and prince;40 in fact, their relationship grows more strained and fractured with every passing hour. Jonathan attacks Geba without informing Saul, and then the king responds by taking credit for the initiative himself (13:3c). It is not improved when Jonathan sneaks off a second time, with his aide, to carry out another raid on his own initiative. Clearly, Jonathan has a mind of his own, and even a bit of his father’s impetuousness along with his independence. As Fokkleman notes, Saul surely looked on Jonathan’s sneaking off with his aide as an attack on his authority and a loss of prestige. Black thoughts (jealousy, distrust, anguish, and uncertainty?) fill the king’s mind, which will only cause him to inflict further pain on himself (as well as those around him), as he self-destructs.41 Finally, the king becomes so angry he simply wishes his son dead. That not being accomplished, Saul apparently removes Jonathan from any army responsibility (e.g., he is nowhere seen in the confrontation with Goliath, ch. 17) and sends him home, where the idle prince perhaps misses his exhilarating life with other soldiers and especially the close attachment he shared with his young aide. Now there is a deep void in Jonathan’s life, as he waits for something (or someone) to fill it and rekindle his joie de vivre.

Chapter 14 presents Saul and Jonathan in utter contrast. All the glory accrues to Jonathan, while Saul looks ridiculous. Jonathan and his aide boldly snatch a military advantage; then Saul, surrounded by signs of God’s approval, insists on consulting the divine lot (14:16-19). Because of his oath, the soldiers cannot fight as well as they otherwise might have, and he places his son’s life in jeopardy. The final scene is pathetic, when the troops have to prevent the king from killing his own son. In contrast, Jonathan shows resolute decision-making and prompt action, along with other noble qualities. In fact, the prince displays all the marks of divine approval and public acclaim that would befit a king.42 Jonathan’s honesty, acceptance of blame, and willingness to accept his punishment stand in marked contrast to Saul’s proneness to use alibi and shift the blame.43 Yet, Jonathan is drawn into the tragedy of his father, even though he does not yet know of God’s rejection of Saul and his house for the throne of Israel (1 Sam 13:13-14, 15:26-28). Is this a sad example of the father’s iniquities being passed on to his children (Exod 20:5, 34:6; Deut 5:8)? But wait. God has a very special plan for Jonathan’s life – not what he expected, to be sure, and not an easy one – but one that will give him great joy (David’s friendship) and a special role (David’s survival) in God’s overarching plan. Jonathan is one of those forgotten heroes of the faith; so far I haven’t been able to find even a single image of him by himself in Jewish or Christian art, and only a handful with David. Yet, what if he had not been there to stand between his demented father and the distraught David? GLBT people committed to the Lord also have important work to do in God’s kingdom.

Homosexuality in the Ancient Near East, beyond Egypt


FOOTNOTES: 1. Bierling, p. 25.    2. Cf. 13:19; Dothan, Trude, “Philistines: Archaeology,” ABD 1992, V,333.    3. Cartledge, p. 176.    4. Packer, p. 272-76,306-07.    5. Bierling, p. 41, fig. 99.    6. Gordon, p. 154.    7. Bierling, p. 121, fig. 45.    8. Cf. Green, B., p. 242.    9. Nigel, p. 8,156.    10. Youngblood, p. 566. 11. McCarter, p. 225,227.    12. Cartledge, p. 172-73.    13. McCarter, p. 227.    14. Cf. Cartledge, p. 173.    15. Cf. Cartledge, p. 172; Youngblood, p. 654; Robinson, p. 74; McCarter, p. 227.    16. Evans, p. 67.    17. Cf. Fokkelman, II, p. 53.    18. Gordon, p. 137; McCarter, p. 233,236-37.    19. Cartledge, p. 182.    20. McCarter, p. 233.    21. Hoffmeier, J.K., “Weapons of War,” ISBE, IV(1988), p. 1038.    22. Green, B., p. 137.    23. Weir, T.H., “Jonathan,” ISBE, II(1982),1117-18.    24. McCarter, p. 242,245.    25. Fokkelman, II, p. 64.    26. Ibid., p. 72-74.    27. Gordon, p. 141.    28. Fokkelman, II, p. 26.    29. McCarter, p. 270.    30. Nichol, Thomas, “Armor-Bearer,” ISBE, I(1979),295; Hoffmeier, J.K., “Weapons of War, ISBE, IV(1988),1041.    31. Cf. Evans, p. 67. 32. Hamilton, p. 89-107.    33. Fokkelman, II, p. 139-40.    34. Ibid., p. 50.    35. Ibid., p. 53-54.    36. Green, J., 1 Sam 14:7.    37. Klein, p. 135.    38. Comstock, p. 89.    39. Green, B., p. 242.    40. Gordon, p. 136.    41. Fokkelman, II, p. 59-60.    42. Jobling, p. 94-95.    43. Cf. Green, B., p. 247.

Anchor Bible Dictionary, vols. I-VI, 1992.
Bierling, Neal, Philistines: Giving Goliath His Due, 2002.
Cartledge, Tony, 1 & 2 Samuel (Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary), 2001.
Comstock, Gary, Gay Theology Without Apology, 1993.
Evans, Mary, 1 and 2 Samuel (New International Biblical Commentary), 2000.
Fokkelman, J.P., Narrative Art and Poetry in the Books of Samuel. Vol. II: The Crossing Fates (I Sam. 13-31 & II Sam. 1), 1986.
Gordon, Robert, 1 & 2 Samuel: A Commentary, 1986.
Green, Barbara, How Are the Mighty Fallen? A Dialogical Study of King Saul in 1 Samuel, 2003.
Green, Jay P., Sr., gen. ed. and trans., The Interlinear Bible: Hebrew-Greek-English, 2nd ed. 1986.
Hamilton, Wallace, David at Olivet (novel), 1979.
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vols. I-IV, 1979-88.
Jobling, David, 1 Samuel, 1998.
Klein, Ralph, 1 Samuel (Word Biblical Commentary), 1983.
McCarter, P. Kyle, Jr., I Samuel (Anchor Bible), 1980.
Nigel, Cawthorne, Alexander the Great, 2004.
Packer, James, Merrill Tenney, and William White, Jr., The Bible Almanac, 1980.
Robinson, Gnana, Let Us Be Like the Nations: A Commentary on the Books of 1 and 2 Samuel (International Theological Commentary), 1993.
Strong, James, “Hebrew and Chaldee Dictionary,” Abingdon’s Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible…, 1890.
Youngblood, Ronald, “1, 2 Samuel,” Expositor’s Bible Commentary, III, 1992, p. 553-1104.

TRANSLATIONS: Contemporary English Version, 1995.    Jerusalem Bible, 1966.    King James Version, 1611.    New English Bible, 1970.    New International Version, 1978.    New Revised Standard Version, 1989.    Peterson, Eugene: The Message, 2002.    Revised English Bible, 1989.


© 2005 Bruce L. Gerig

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