Jonathan & David: Their Companionship
Key Passages: 1 Samuel 20

By Bruce L. Gerig

After David flees from Samuel (Saul and his troops having trailed him to the prophet’s camp to kill him, 1 Sam 19:18-24), surprisingly he heads back to the king’s capital of Gibeah (20:1). No matter – he desperately needs the help of Jonathan, the only person he trusts.1 Timewise, 1 Sam 18 stretches over an extended number of months, as David gains military experience2 and piles up victories (18:5,13-14,30). However, in chs. 19-20 it is hard to determine how much time elapses between the recorded events,3 for time is clearly condensed and the clock is ticking, as David flees from Michal to Samuel (19:11-24) then back to Jonathan, with only three days left before he must leave the prince and the capital city for good (ch. 20).

Chapter 20 divides into two halves, the first a long dialogue between Jonathan and David (20:1-23), then its aftermath (20:24-42). In the conversation, David at first struggles to convince Jonathan that his father is once again trying to kill him; then he offers the prince a plan whereby he can check out for himself his father’s true intensions (20:1-9). Regarding how he will get back to David, Jonathan devises a plan (20:10-13a,18-22). Also, in the midst of this, Jonathan renews and expands his love pact with David (20:13b-17,23). The great length of this whole recorded conversation underscores its unique value, as it reveals the deepening of their relationship, the immortalizing of their covenant, and the belief they have that their love can conquer anything the future may hold.4 The second half of this chapter also divides into three parts: Jonathan soon experiences firsthand Saul’s rage toward David at the royal New Moon festivities (20:24-34); then he lets David know through the secret arrow-signal that it is not safe for him to return (20:35-40); and finally the two share a wrenching and emotional goodbye (20:41-42).

Their conversation – The first part of the dialogue (20:1-9) begins with David excitedly asking (three times), why is Saul trying to kill me? (20:1b)5 This concern cannot be understood without recalling the earlier oath that Saul had sworn to Jonathan, that “As the Lord lives, he [David] shall not be put to death” (19:6).6 Therefore, Jonathan is sure that no hostile intention exists; so he answers, “That’s impossible!” (20:2). Mary Evans thinks that Jonathan’s uncomplicated character makes him want to hold onto his father’s earlier assurances, and for this reason he finds it difficult to accept that Saul has regressed to his earlier murderous attitude.7 Tony Cartledge suggests that the prince loves his father and is loyal to him almost to a fault, and so his heart is torn.8 The truth is, of course, that Saul has been plotting behind Jonathan’s back, even though the prince thought he had “his father in his pocket.”9 Therefore, David must show Jonathan that the threat against his life is very real, so that he can secure his support.10 So David says, “Your father knows well that you like me” and that is why he hides his actions from you (20:3a, NRSV). The Hebrew reads literally, “…that I have found grace [ken] in your eyes” (J. Green, KJV); but more modern translations render this as “Your father knows very well that I enjoy your favour” (NJB 1998) or, more to the point, “…how much you like me” (GNB 1983, CEV 1995). Although the RSV and NEB translated ken widely as “favor,” this word can also point to the approval, delight and joy that one finds in another’s loveliness and sweetness.11 David cannot verbalize his feelings for Jonathan, but he can and does acknowledge here the prince’s deep feelings for him.

Finally, David’s ominous words “there is but a step between me and death” (20:3b) silence Jonathan;12 and he then asks the prince to tell Saul that he (David) has asked leave to attend an annual family sacrifice in Bethlehem – to see what the king’s reaction will be (20:5-7). If Saul is angry, David pleads with Jonathan not to seek a reconciliation again (20:8b), which not only failed the first time, but nearly cost David his life (19:6-10). Straightforward as he is, Jonathan does not deviate from the love he felt for David from the first moment he set eyes on him, in contrast to the more complex, often secretive, and sometimes deceptive person with whom he made his covenant.13 Jonathan excels at affectionate, unselfish friendship, while David displays a more resolute, superior intellect.14 So, Jonathan says to David, “Whatever your heart [nephesh] says, I will do for you” (20:4, cf. J. Green) – echoing in an interesting way the words that Jonathan received from his armor-bearer before they scaled the Michmash cliff together: “Do all that is in your heart [nephesh] … for I am here with you…” (1 Sam 14:7, J. Green).15 The relationship between Saul and David has now deteriorated to the point where Jonathan must choose between them; but without hesitation, he gives David carte blanche (full freedom) to ask for whatever he wants.16 Later (20:16b), Jonathan will call down God’s judgment upon all of David’s enemies, which, sadly enough, includes his father.

The next topic (20:10-13a,18-22) is how Jonathan will report back to David what he learns – which Jonathan swears to David he most certainly will do (20:12-13a). So, he offers this plan: three days hence, at the end of the three-day New Moon festival, the prince will come out into the field where David is hiding (20:19), near the “stone Ezel” (J. Green 1986, KJV 1611, NIV 1978) or a certain “mound” (McCarter 1980,17 REB 1989) or “big boulder” (Peterson 2002) – probably a well-known landmark.18 Jonathan will come with a young servant lad, who would never suspect that there is more going on here than the usual archery practice. The secret signal for David will be this: a short shot with instructions to the boy to fetch the arrows nearby would indicate that David may safely return to court, but a long shot with instructions to the boy “It’s beyond you! Keep going farther” would indicate that David must flee for his safety (20:18-22).19 The New Moon festival occurred when the first sliver of the crescent moon appeared to begin a new lunar cycle (every 29-1/2 days). Although the Law called for special sacrifices (meat, grain, and wine) to be made at the start of each new month (Num 28:11-15), in Saul’s day the event seems to have been celebrated as a family festival20 – another example of how real life deviated from religious law in ancient Israel. One wonders how Saul could have expected David to appear in his presence;21 but he does, in fact, think that David will – or should – be there, in his service (20:27). Probably David had been given a seat at the king’s table as his son-in-law.22

Midway through the conversation, Jonathan suggests that he and David “go out into the field” (20:11) to continue talking. The court is “too hot” a place for David to remain for long.23 There, hidden away among the grass or grain, Jonathan brings up again the subject of their love covenant (20:13b-17,23). Mendenhall and Herion define berith (#1285, “covenant”) as “an agreement enacted between two parties in which one or both make promises under oath to perform or refrain from certain actions stipulated in advance.” This term covered many different types of oath-bound promises, relationships, and treaties. Typically it called upon a deity to “witness” the oath, to observe subsequent behavior, and to carry out blessings and curses attached to the agreement.24 Besides the great covenants that Yahweh made with Noah, the patriarchs, and Israel (e.g., Gen 9:9-17, 15:7-21, 17:1-14; Exod 6:2-8), the OT also describes many bonds or agreements that were made between people.25 All human covenants in Israel were made in the presence of God, who was invoked as a witness; so when David calls his pact with Jonathan a “covenant of the Lord” (20:8, literal trans.; KJV) or “sacred covenant” (NRSV), this was nothing unusual; but it also meant that Yahweh had been called upon to witness the making of their solemn pact.26 The term berith was commonly applied to political treaties, but also to business contracts, military orders, and marriage commitments. For example, the Israelites in the besieged city of Jabesh-gilead sought to make a peace “treaty” with Nahash the Ammonite (1 Sam 11:1); Solomon “made a treaty” with King Hiram of Tyre to provide timber and stone to build the Temple (1 Kings 5, esp. v. 12); Jehoiada the high priest made a “covenant” with certain captains and guards “and put them under oath in the house of the Lord” to guard the life of Joash, young heir to the throne (2 Kings 11:4-8); and a proverb condemns the prostitute, who has forgotten her sacred “covenant” of marriage (Prov 2:27).27

In contrast to the first secretive pact between Jonathan and David (18:1,3-4), the content of the second pact is clearly spelled out. Facing the real possibility that David may have to leave him and the capital for good, Jonathan begins to look into the future. His blessing, “May the Lord be with you, as he has been with my father” (v. 13b) and his requests, “If I am still alive, show me the faithful love [hesed] of the Lord” (v. 14) and “if I die, never cut off your faithful love [hesed] from my house” (v. 15a) implicitly recognize – and give us our first textual evidence – that Jonathan now believes that one day David will be king.28 It is hardly conceivable that David, in his first meeting with Jonathan (18:1,3-4) – or perhaps at all – would blurt out to him that he was destined to be the next king and not the prince. Instead, the ever-cautious David consistently displays a submissive attitude toward Jonathan, e.g. saying, “you have brought your servant into a sacred covenant” (20:8, italics added) and at their parting prostrating himself repeatedly before the crown prince (20:41). As J.P. Fokkelman notes, “We readers enjoy the advantages of overview and retrospect,” but should resist the temptation to make this the starting point of our perception.29 We should be careful about reading things into the text without any real basis there. It could very well be that by now David’s demonstrated military courage, his charismatic spell over everyone, and God’s blessing on everything he did had led Jonathan, by his own intuition, to conclude that David would or should be the next king of Israel. What Jonathan knew also was that new kings were prone to assassinate all rival families;30 and so he asks David to show kind, merciful and unfailing love (the full meaning of hesed31) to him and his descendents (20:14-15) when he comes to the throne. In their second covenant, then, they reaffirm their love for each other, Jonathan gives David a blessing for his safe-keeping, and David promises to show hesed love to Jonathan and his descendents when he is king (20:14-17).

Saul’s outburst – When Saul learns that David is not coming to the New Moon festivities, he goes ballistic: “Then Saul’s anger was kindled against Jonathan. He said to him, ‘You son of a perverse, rebellious woman! Do I not know that you have chosen [bachar, pronounced ba-KAR] the son of Jesse to your own shame [bosheth], and to the shame [bosheth] of your mother’s nakedness [‘erwa]? For as long as the son of Jesse lives upon the earth, neither you nor your kingdom shall be established. Now send and bring him to me, for he shall surely die.” (1 Sam 20:30-31, NRSV). When Jonathan asked, “Why…?” (v. 32), Saul hurled his spear at him – and then Jonathan knew that this is what his father wanted for David. Relating to the first part of Saul’s insult (“You son of a perverse, rebellious woman!”), Ronald Youngblood notes that it “is difficult to render [the Hebrew’s full force here] without being equally vulgar” – although he suggests that “You bastard!” (GNB, 1976)32 or “You son of a rebellious slut!” (NJB, 1985) come close. Relating to the last part of Saul’s insult (“and to the shame of your mother’s nakedness”), Kyle McCarter notes that ‘erwa in the OT most often refers euphemistically (indirectly) to the genitals; and so the reference here is to Queen Ahinoam’s sexual organs, from whence Jonathan came.33

Relating to the middle part of Saul’s insult (“Do I not know that you have chosen the son of Jesse to your own shame…?”), some scholars have wondered whether bachar (“to choose”) wasn’t originally chaber, meaning “companion” (e.g., D.H. Weir, S.R. Driver, H.P. Smith), based on the Septuagint text. Most English translations stay with the standard (Masoretic) Hebrew. Still, you “are choosing” (bachar) in this verse can be understood in different ways, including being “in league with” David (JB 1966), for political reasons; “siding with” David (NIV 1978), perhaps in a more general sense; or “are delighted in” David (Lamsa 1933), with romantic overtones. Probably all three (political, affectional, and homoerotic) aspects are involved. David Jobling (1998) notes, David’s threat to Jonathan’s succession is certainly why Saul condemns David to death (20:31); yet this fails to explain the full extent of Saul’s fury against Jonathan. “It is fair [therefore] to look for some unspoken cause for the irrational rage, and the modern experience of irrational homophobia suggests that this may be the cause.” This interpretation is bolstered when Saul brings Jonathan’s choice of David directly into the sexual realm with the phrase “to the shame of your mother’s genitalia.” Perhaps Saul is trying to lay the blame for his son’s sexual inclination and behavior on the queen, since the idea of a gay son being a “mama’s boy” is a common accusation of homophobia. Also, Saul wishes to make sure that no one thinks that he might have been responsible in any way for Jonathan turning out like this.34

Their parting – The next morning Jonathan went out into the field and signaled the bad news to David. Then David came out of hiding and “prostrated himself with his face to the ground. He bowed three times, and they kissed each other, and wept with each other; David wept the more.” (20:41, NRSV) The KJV and J. Green translate the last part literally as “until David exceeded [italics added].” Of course, bowing down to the ground was the Oriental way of paying homage to a superior, in this case, a royal prince. Kissing between men was done more easily in OT times than in our culture (and still is done commonly in the Middle East today). In the OT we read of men kissing in an nonerotic sense, including Laban and his nephew Jacob (Gen 29:13); Samuel and the young Saul (1 Sam 10:1); and King David and Barzillai, the son of his good friend Chimham (2 Sam 19:39).35 Yet, probably there was some eroticism attached to David kissing his incredibly beautiful son Absalom (2 Sam 14:33), as well as afterward when Absalom kissed all the men who came to see David and so “stole the[ir] hearts” (2 Sam 15:5-6). The enigmatic part of 20:41 is the phrase ‘ad higdil (“until [David] exceeded”). Strong’s lexicon notes that gadel/gadal mean basically “large”/“to make large”; and these terms are used in the OT to convey ideas such as excelling at something, becoming famous, or growing in size. However, a set of old Arabic words (kabirun/akbara), which also mean “large”/“to grow large,” are found used in certain contexts to convey the sexual meanings of “erection”/“to have an erection, to ejaculate.” The study of parallel words in Hebrew and Arabic often help scholars by shedding light on unclear words and poorly understood texts in the OT. Warren Johannson thinks that the Bible editor in 20:41 “drew a discrete veil over the subsequent events” in Jonathan’s and David’s embrace.36 Still, J.P. Fokkelman notes, this is the only kiss we have in 1 Samuel and the only mutual kiss in 1-2 Samuel; therefore, it must be important. It is, in fact, “the emotional climax of the entire [recorded] episode.”37 As Ralph Klein notes, the kisses here clearly expressed Jonathan’s and David’s love for each other.38 The Song of Songs contains a number of erotic kisses (1:2, 7:9, 8:1); and whether a kiss is erotic or not depends, of course, on who is kissing. We shall never know for sure whether their physical embrace and kisses led to a more intimate sexual sharing; yet in this setting and context such a possibility cannot be easily dismissed. What we do know is that the usually composed David is so overcome with emotion (and passion?) that Jonathan has to take charge, comforting him, holding him close, reminding him that their love is forever,39 and then finally sending him away into the shadows and the unknown.


More On Saul's Sexual Insult and David's Losing It

FOOTNOTES: 1. Youngblood, p. 720.     2. Cf. Hertzberg, p. 162.     3. Blaikie, p. 317.     4. Fokkelman II(1986), p. 291,293-94.     5. Hertzberg, p. 172.     6. Fokkelman II(1986), p. 295.     7. Evans, p. 93.     8. Cartledge, p. 240.     9 Fokkelman II(1986), p. 297.     10. Klein, p. 204.     11. Smedes, L.B., “Grace,” ISBE, II(1982), p. 547.     12. Kirsch, p. 74.     13. Cf. Polzin, p. 188-89.     14. Cf. Hertzberg, p. 172.     15. Green, B., p. 336; and cf. J. Green’s translation.     16. Fokkelman II(1986), p. 291,299.     17. McCarter, p. 337.     18. Ackroyd, p. 164.     19. Cartledge, p. 242.     20. Ibid., p. 241.     21. Klein, p. 206.     22. Robinson, p. 112.     23. Fokkelman II(1986), p. 308.     24. Mendenhall, G.E. & G.A. Herion, “Covenant,” ABD, I, p. 1179,1181.     25. Cf. Thompson, J.A., “Covenant (OT),” ISBE, I(1979), p. 792.     26. Robinson, p. 111.     27. Cf. Brown, #1285, p. 136.     28. Cf. Klein, p. 207.     29. Fokkelman II(1986), p. 313.     30. Cartledge, p. 241.     31. Cf. Turner, G.A., “Love,” ISBE, III(1986), p. 174.     32. Cf. the original translation (1976), although the 2nd ed. (1983) is otherwise quoted throughout this study.     33. McCarter, p. 343.     34. Jobling, p. 161.     35. McKim, D.K., “Kiss,” ISBE, III(1986), p. 43.     36. Johannson, W., in Houser, W. & W. Johannson, “David and Jonathan,” EH, I, p. 298.     37. Fokkelman II(1986), p. 350.     38. Klein, p. 210.     39. Cf. Fokkelman II(1986), p. 350.

Ackroyd, Peter, The First Book of Samuel, 1971.
Anchor Bible Dictionary, vols. I-VI, 1992.
Blaikie. W.G., The First Book of Samuel (The Expositor’s Bible), 1898.
Brown, Francis, et al., The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon, 2000 ed.
Cartledge, Tony, 1 & 2 Samuel (Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary), 2001.
Driver, S.R., Notes on the Hebrew Text of the Books of Samuel, 1890.
Encyclopedia of Homosexuality (EH), ed. by Wayne Dynes, et al., 2 vols., 1990.
Evans, Mary, 1 & 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.
Green, Barbara, How Are the Mighty Fallen? A Dialogical Study of King Saul in 1 Samuel, 2003.
Green, Jay, Sr., gen. ed. & trans., The Interlinear Bible: Hebrew-Greek-English, 2nd ed. 1986.
Hertzberg, Hans, I & II Samuel: A Commentary, 1964.
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vols. I-IV, 1979-88.
Jobling, David, 1 Samuel (Berit Olam: Studies in Hebrew Narrative & Poetry), 1998.
Kirsch, Jonathan, King David: The Real Life of the Man Who Ruled Israel, 2000.
Klein, Ralph, 1 Samuel (Word Biblical Commentary), 1983.
McCarter, P. Kyle, Jr., 1 Samuel (Anchor Bible), 1980.
Polzin, Robert, Samuel and the Deuteronomist. Part II: 1 Samuel, 1989.
Robinson, Gnana, Let Us Be Like the Nations: A Commentary on the Books of 1 and 2 Samuel (International Theological Commentary), 1993.
Smith, Henry Preserved, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Books of Samuel (International Critical Commentary), 1899.
Strong, James, “Hebrew and Chaldee Dictionary,” in Strong’s Abingdon’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible…, 1890.
Youngblood, Ronald, “1, 2 Samuel,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, III, 1992, p. 551-1104.

TRANSLATIONS: Contemporary English Version, 1995.     Good News Bible, 1976.     Good News Bible, 2nd ed. 1983.     Jerusalem Bible, 1966.     King James Version, 1611.     Lamsa, George: Holy Bible … from the Aramaic of the Peshitta, 1933.     New English Bible, 1970.     New International Version, 1978.     New Jerusalem Bible, 1985.     New Jerusalem Bible, 2nd ed. 1998.     New Revised Standard Version, 1989.     Peterson, Eugene: The Message, 2002.     Revised English Bible, 1989.     Revised Standard Version, 1946.


© 2005 Bruce L. Gerig

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