Jonathan & David:
After Jonathan's Death

Key Passage: 2 Samuel 2-21
By Bruce L. Gerig

After the deaths of Saul and Jonathan in battle (1 Sam 31), David was declared “king over the house [tribe] of Judah” (2 Sam 2:3); and a long (7-1/2 year), messy struggle ensued for the throne of the whole of Israel (2:8–3:1). Sandwiched in between stories of the murder of Abner, general of the opposing camp, (3:6–4:3) and the murder of Ishbaal, Saul’s son and the rival king, both by supporters of David (4:5-12), we learn of another member who exists in the house of Saul – a lone, surviving son of Jonathan (4:4). After David and Jonathan had separated (1 Sam 20:42, 23:18), Jonathan apparently had sought solace in marrying; and a child was born. So begins the story of Mephibosheth (real name: Meribbaal) and David, which plays out in five acts in 2 Samuel: Meribbaal introduced (4:4), Meribbaal honored (ch. 9), Meribbaal maligned (16:1-4), Meribbaal restored (19:24-30), and Meribbaal spared (21:1-9).

Meribbaal introduced (2 Sam 4:4) – Interpreters agree that the real name of Mephibosheth (4:4) was Meribbaal (1 Chron 8:34, 9:40), the latter meaning the “one who contends [fights] with Baal.”1 However, as ba‘al (“master, lord,” Strong #1167) became ever increasingly attached to the Canaanite storm-god of fertility (#1168) in the time of Solomon and later (see its frequent appearance in 1-2 Kings), an editor of 2 Samuel became so offended with the inclusion of Ba‘al in a number of Israelite names that he changed the ending of them instead to read boshet(h) (#1322), meaning “shame.” So, Jerubbaal was changed to Jerubbesheth (Judg 6:32, 2 Sam 11:21), Ishbaal (or Eshbaal) was changed to Ishbosheth (1 Chron 8:33, 9:39; 2 Sam 2:8), and Meribbaal was changed to Mephibosheth (1 Chron 8:34, 9:40; 2 Sam 4:4, etc.). So, Meribbaal, which could be read also as “Baal’s fighter,”2 was renamed as Mephibosheth in 2 Samuel, meaning probably “utterance of shame” or “idol-breaker,” a denigrating of Baal.3 Now, in the brief introduction to Meribbaal (Mephibosheth), in 4:4, we learn that when he was only five years old, he suffered two disasters: (1) the deaths of his father and grandfather, and in an accident that followed (2) he became crippled.4 As soldiers carried the news of the royal defeat and deaths southward from Jezreel and Mount Gilboa to Gibeah, Saul’s capital, Meribbaal’s nurse felt that she should flee with the boy to a safer location, across the Jordan River. However, in her haste, the child fell from her grasp5 and so became permanently “crippled” (4:4) in both feet (9:13). This early reference to a lame Meribbaal was surely intended to point out that this son of the house of Saul was hardly a threat to the throne,6 since being handicapped then was even less enviable than in a modern welfare state.7 Also, even though Ishbaal, Meribbaal’s uncle, would be murdered by supporters of David (4:5-8), Meribbaal could hardly serve as an Avenger of Blood, someone under the Law who killed, in return, another who had murdered a family member (Num 35:16-21; noted by Symon Patrick, 1703).8 In the Hebrew here, pasak (#6452) means to “hop, hesitate, or limp” and nekeh (#5223) means “crippled, smitten or lame” (Strong).9

Merribaal honored (ch. 9) – After David had securely established himself on the throne over all of Israel (5:1-4), “had settled into his [new] palace” and had “rest from all the enemies surrounding him” (7:1, NJB), he remembers Jonathan and their covenant. That Jonathan is heavy on his mind is reflected in his name appearing four times in this chapter (9:1,3,6,7). First, David makes a public appeal for information:10 “Is there still anyone left of the house of Saul to whom I may show kindness [hesed] for Jonathan’s sake?” (v. 1, NRSV). This leads to contact with the house(hold) of Saul through Ziba,11 Saul’s servant and steward, who perhaps earlier had been in charge of the royal estate12 – although later all of this would have become crown property belonging to David.13 When Ziba appears before David, he tells him about Meribbaal; and the mention again of the young man’s lameness infers that he is no military or political threat.14 Still, Lo-debar, where Meribbaal now lived at the house of the wealthy Machir, east of the Jordan River, lay near Mahanaim,15 the town where Ishbaal, the young man’s uncle, had established his residence16 and temporary capital of the northern kingdom.17

However, as J.P. Fokkelman writes, “After the death of his dearly beloved friend, [David now hopes that] he can honour and perpetuate Jonathan’s memory and their love by demonstrating hesed” to someone related to him – an intent mentioned three times in ch. 9, first to us and the court (v. 1), then to Ziba (v. 3), and then to Meribbaal (v. 7). The standard for this love will be “the lovingkindness [hesed] of God” (v. 3, Fokkelman’s trans.),18 which points to a “great kindness,” a “great love.”19 David remembers Jonathan’s request made of him many years earlier, that when he became king he would “show me [or my family] the loyal love [hesed] of the Lord” (1 Sam 20:15, RSV2).20 Although hesed (#2617) is often translated as “kindness” in 9:1,3,7 (cf. NIV, REB, NRSV, Peterson), John Mauchline notes that this is too weak a translation and that “love,” “devotion,” and “loyalty” would be better.21 Other interpreters have described hesed as referring to “reciprocal love” (Nelson Glueck, 1975), “covenant love” (N.H. Snaith, 1946), and “faithful love” (NJB 1998); and the Hebrew word conveys, at its core, a threefold meaning of “kindness, mercy and love” (G.A. Turner).22 So finally David meets Meribbaal, Jonathan’s own flesh and blood,23 and what a momentous arrival this must have been!24 A.F. Kirkpatrick figures that in addition to ruling for 7-1/2 years over Judah, David may have ruled in Jerusalem for at least 12 additional years leading up to ch. 9; so Meribbaal would now be around 25 years old.25 This time frame would place David in his late 40s (cf. 5:4-5), clearly reversing the earlier age difference between him and the older Jonathan (where there was perhaps an 11-year age difference, cf. Supplement 12A). Now David is the one with royal status and power, while Jonathan’s son is in a vulnerable position needing protection, support, and encouragement. However, when Meribbaal came into David’s presence, he must have fallen down before the king in abject (miserable) terror (9:6), knowing that kings at that time regularly exterminated all members of any previous dynasty.26 Yet, “Do not be afraid” David says to the trembling ben-Jonathan (son of Jonathan), perhaps recalling Jonathan’s soothing words, “Do not be afraid,” spoken to him in the wilderness, to strengthen his faith in the Lord (1 Sam 23:17, NRSV).27

David then extends his love to Meribbaal in three ways: (1) by giving him all of the land that had earlier belonged to Saul his grandfather, (b) by giving him a permanent seat at his own royal table, and (c) by appointing Ziba and his household to care for Meribbaal’s estate (9:7,9-10). Because 15 sons and 20 servants (v. 10) were appointed to “till the land” for Meribbaal, this must have included considerable property.28 David’s “warmth and care” for Meribbaal were revealed in his request also that he “eat at my [or: ‘the king’s’] table forever,” which is mentioned three times (9:7,10,13). Now Meribbaal bows to the ground a second time, with all of the difficulty and pain that this must have entailed, as he clumsily fell to his knees and then bent over to touch his forehead to the ground.29 Further, he refers to himself as only “a dead dog” (v. 8), a common deprecatory (depreciating) title30 which points to his inferior and despicable position, as well as to his gratefulness and amazement.31 Once David had applied this very slur to himself, when he called out to Saul, his pursuer in the wilderness: “Against whom has the king of Israel come out? Whom do you pursue? A dead dog? A single flee?” A nobody? (1 Sam 24:14, NRSV).

In the larger setting of 2 Samuel, one cannot help but remember David’s words when he marshaled his forces to take Jerusalem (5:6-9); and the Jebusites, in control of the main fortress, taunted him by saying that “even the blind and the lame will turn you back” from this citadel (v. 6). But David found a way to get his fighting men into the stronghold, ordering them “to attack the lame and the blind, whom David hates”! This may be part of the common pre-battle taunting32 (remember Goliath and David, 1 Sam 17:43-47); yet later word was passed around to the effect that David had also said, “The blind and the lame shall not come into my house [palace] (v. 7-8). Now, the handsome but over-spoken David is having to eat those words and face his bigotry. Still, without batting an eye, he welcomes and honors Maribbaal – the irony of which was surely not lost on the original readers.33 When David looks upon Meribbaal, indeed he sees Jonathan; and so he invites him to become a prized guest at his court and at his table. Thus the love between David and Jonathan attains a new stature34 and profoundness. Now, it has been suggested that David also wanted to keep Saul’s grandson “under careful watch” (Hertzberg)35 or “house arrest” (Youngblood).36 Yet Anderson notes that the editor of 2 Samuel, perhaps anticipating such skepticism, emphasizes twice the fact that Meribbaal was lame, at the beginning and at the end of this episode (v. 3,13), which would disqualify him as a rival for the royal office.37 It should be remembered what a big ado was made by the narrator over the good looks of Saul, David and Absalom (1 Sam 9:2, 16:12, 17:42; 2 Sam 14:25-26) in the context of their ascent to the throne. Also, in ancient Israel no one who was blind or lame (or had any other physical imperfection) could serve as a priest, to approach the altar or offer a sacrifice to God (Lev 21:17-23). Although critics regularly suggest that David gave Meribbaal a place at his table to keep an eye on him, the accent here is on generosity and honoring him, not surveillance.38 In the end, Meribbaal was made to feel like “one of the king’s sons” (9:11), and the homeless refugee became a fairly wealthy man (9:10).39 In return, Meribbaal will show David a loyalty, affection and faithfulness that often seems lacking in the king’s own sons, like Amnon and Absalom.

Meribbaal maligned (16:1-4) – A decade or so later (13:38, 14:28, 15:7), Absalom, David’s third-born son, leads a full-fledged insurrection against his father; and David must flee from Jerusalem to seek safety across the Jordan River (ch. 15). As he begins his journey, who should show up but Ziba, bearing provisions for the king, fruit from the land that he had been entrusted to administer. Ziba may have worried that David might think he would defect; and so he brings a gift of bread, raisins, wine, summer fruit (fruit cakes?40), and donkeys, as an expression of loyalty in the erupting civil war. But is this gift from Ziba or Meribbaal? David’s first question “Why have you brought these?” (16:2) solicits no real information (the donkey is “to ride” and the food “to eat”), and so he assumes that the gift comes from Ziba. David’s second question “And where is your master’s son?” (16:3) was meant to find out “Whose side are you on?”41 Ziba’s answer surprises the reader, as he claims that Meribbaal stayed in Jerusalem joyfully awaiting Absalom’s arrival, hoping that he will restore the house of Saul to the throne. Of course, Ziba is clearly slandering Meribbaal, since the latter has never put forth any claim for the throne before and could not possibly have thought that the people of Israel or Absalom would give the throne to a cripple.42 Yet, grateful for Ziba’s material (and psychological) support, David accepts Ziba’s allegation against the absent Meribbaal and so transfers all of the land previously given to Meribbaal to Ziba (16:4).43 In David’s impulsive action it seems like his long-standing promises to Jonathan have been superseded by his need for self-preservation. He has not violated the letter of his earlier promises, but he comes very close to violating their spirit.44

Meribbaal restored (19:24-30) – In a bloody battle in the dense forest of Ephraim, David’s forces finally defeat Absalom’s forces; and so the king and his retinue begin their slow journey from Mahanaim back to Jerusalem (18:6–19:15). A thousand people from the nearby tribe of Benjamin (including Ziba) come out to welcome David (19:16-23) – and Meribbaal appears, as well, having ridden out 30 miles or so from Jerusalem on a donkey to meet him. It is clear that Meribbaal “had not prepared [asa] his feet, and had not done [asa] his moustache, and had not washed his garments from the day the king went away” (19:24, J. Green’s trans.). The Hebrew asa (#6213) means to “do or make,” with a wide range of applications (Strong). The ancient rabbis held that the first clause meant that Maribbaal “had not cut his toenails,”45 although the REB reads “had not bathed his feet.” The NJB reads “had not cared for his feet or hands,” the latter addition based on a Septuagint text (LXXB).46 The second phrase is widely translated as “[not] trimmed his mustache.” Clearly Meribbaal’s careless and dirty look was a sign of mourning;47 and his long toenails, mustache growing over his lips, and smelly and soiled clothes could hardly have been faked as acts of public contrition.48 When David asks Meribbaal, “Why did you not go with me?” (19:25), he replies that Ziba had “deceived” him; and instead of preparing a donkey for him to accompany David as he had asked, Ziba had added his master’s private mount to the donkeys he used to bring his own ingratiating gift to David, before slandering his master before the king.49 However, Meribbaal expresses confidence that “the king is like an angel of God” (19:27), who knows everything that goes on in his kingdom and exercises divine wisdom in discerning between good and evil (cf. 2 Sam 14:20,17). Meribbaal praises David for sparing his life and for graciously including him at his table (19:28). His speech is so outstanding that it is difficult to remain skeptical of his compelling words – and finally he removes all hesitation by saying, “Let [Ziba] take it all [the property], since the king has returned home safely” (19:30).50

Before Meribbaal utters his final proof of loyalty, however, David interrupts him somewhat rudely with, “Why speak any more of your affairs? I have decided: you and Ziba shall divide the land.” (19:29). What did such an answer mean? Was David still unsure of who was telling the truth?51 Hardly. Did he simply lack the courage to retract his earlier decision entirely?52 Perhaps. He realized that he had been conned by Ziba and so he wants no further facts; he then makes a decision that he hopes will appease all of the members of Saul’s household.53 He was moved by Meribbaal’s sincerity, but still appreciated Ziba’s gift.54 Also, perhaps David did not want to trouble himself any further with this unpleasant matter on the happy day of his return to the throne.55 Underneath it all, however, as J.P. Fokkelman points out, lies David’s fear of admitting his failures, of showing uncertainity, and of also perhaps admitting any “tenderness and warmth of renewed hesed [love]” that he felt toward Meribbaal. Still, the narrative gives Meribbaal the last word, which should have been healing to David’s heart. In contrast to the corruption of Ziba and the crippled ability of David to do what is right, Meribbaal comes through all of this uninjured.56

Meribbaal spared (21:1-9) – The final mention of Meribbaal occurs in an episode where the Lord instructs David to settle a “bloodguilt” with the Gibeonites, with whom Joshua had made a treaty generations ago, promising that the Israelites would not harm them (Josh 9). However, Saul had tried to wipe them out (2 Sam 21:1-3). When David asked the Gibeonites how he could make amends, they demanded that “seven of [Saul’s] sons be handed over to us” (v. 4-6). So David turned over the five sons of Merab, Saul’s eldest daughter, and the two sons of Rizpah, Saul’s concubine – and they were executed (v. 9). The verb here (yaqa, #3363) means basically to “sever, dislocate” and could refer to a death by impaling, throwing down [a cliff], or hanging up (Strong, Brown). The important thing here is, “But the king spared Mephibosheth [Meribbaal] … because of the oath” that existed between David and Jonathan (v. 7). We never hear of Meribbaal again, although we can expect that he lived to the natural end of his days; and in the process his son Mica bore him four grandsons and produced a continuing lineage (1 Chron 9:40-44).

So what is one to make of all this? Well, David did not forget Jonathan, their love and their covenant; and after his kingdom was settled, he sought out, found and provided for Meribbaal ben Jonathan. In ancient times, dining together created a bond between people, as well as friendship, since private meals were for family, close friends, and honored guests. David honors and shows lovingkindness to Meribbaal by giving him a seat at his personal table and bringing him into the king’s social realm (Mary Douglas).57 Although David had to face his bigotry, he extends to Meribbaal a sincere compassion and continuing fatherly concern.58 David will spare his life a second time (21:7). For Meribbaal, although his infirmity had curtailed his freedom of movement and zest for life, his suffering had also purified him and given him an ability to endure his ordeal with dignity and to show the true essence of life, hesed (love and loyalty), to others, including David.59 In fact, Meribbaal continues the noble spirit of his father, Jonathan. David was a man also capable of noble actions, true sincerity, and great love (for God and others); but at the same time he often does not live to the reader’s expectations. In the final land decision (19:29), David does not extend to Meribbaal the “warmth and consideration” that he deserved for his love and loyalty.60 As Jonathan Kirsch notes, many attempts have been made “to conceal the flesh-and-blood David from us.” The Book of (1-2) Chronicles, for example, “is a bowdlerized [scrubbed-up] version of David’s biography as originally preserved in the Book of Samuel” – and if the latter had been lost, we would know nothing at all of David’s more human side, including, for example, “his passionate declaration of love for Jonathan…”61

David & Jonathan and the Epic of Gilgamesh

FOOTNOTES: 1. Driver 1913, p. 254; McCarter 1984, p. 128.    2. Keil & Delitzsch, p. 309.    3. Balchin, J.A., “Mephibosheth,” ISBE III(1986), p. 320; cf. also Keil & Delitzsch, p. 309, and Hertzberg, p. 264.    4. Fokkelman I 1981, p. 40.    5. Youngblood, p. 844.    6. Cartledge, p. 403.    7. Fokkelman I 1981, p. 40.    8. Youngblood, p. 844.    9. Strong, #6452, #5223.    10. Cartledge, p. 479.    11. Youngblood, p. 917.    12. Anderson, p. 142.    13. Fokkelman I 1981, p. 27.    14. Brueggemann 1990, p. 267.    15. Smith, H.P., p. 310.    16. Hertzberg, p. 300.    17. Anderson, p. 141.    18. Fokkelman, I 1981, p. 26.    19. Mauchline, p. 243.    20. Cf. Gordon, p. 249.    21. Mauchline, p. 243.    22. Cf. Turner, G.A., “Love,” ISBE III(1986), p. 174.    23. Youngblood, p. 917.    24. Fokkelman I 1981, p. 25.    25. Kirkpatrick, p. 315-16.    26. Balchin, J.A., “Mephibosheth,” ISBE III(1986), p. 320.    27. Youngblood, p. 917.    28. Gordon, p. 249.    29. Fokkelman I 1981, p. 29.    30. Ackroyd 1977, p. 93.    31. Fokkelman I 1981, p. 29.    32. Youngblood, p. 855.    33. Kirsch, p. 177.    34. Fokkelman I 1981, p. 58,30.    35. Hertzberg, p. 300.    36. Youngblood, p. 918.    37. Anderson, p. 143.    38. Brueggemann 1990, p. 268.    39. Anderson, p. 143.    40. Mauchline, p. 275.    41. Brueggemann 1990, p. 307.    42. Keil & Delitzsch, p. 424.    43. Fokkelman I 1981, p. 31.    44. Brueggemann 1990, p. 306-07.    45. McCarter 1984, p. 421.    46. Mauchline, p. 292.    47. Youngblood, p. 1036.    48. Cartledge, p. 616.    49. Youngblood, p. 1036-37.    50. Fokkelman I 1980, p. 32.    51. Cf. Ackroyd 1977, p. 181.    52. Kiel & Delitzsch, p. 449.    53. Cf. Brueggemann 1990, p. 328.    54. McCarter 1984, p. 422.    55. Cartledge, p. 616.    56. Fokkelman I 1981, p. 39.    57. Douglas, Mary, 1972; noted in Cartledge, p. 482.    58. Horner, p. 37.    59. Fokkelman I 1981, p. 40.    60. Ibid., p. 38.    61. Kirsch, p. 3-4.

Ackroyd, Peter, The Second Book of Samuel, 1977.
Anderson, A.A., 2nd Samuel (Word Biblical Commentary), 1989.
Brown, Francis, et al., The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon, 2000 ed.
Brueggemann, Walter, First and Second Samuel (Interpretation: A Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preaching), 1990.
Cartledge, Tony, 1 & 2 Samuel (Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary), 2001.
Driver, S.R., Notes on the Hebrew Text and the Topography of the Books of Samuel…, 2nd ed., 1913.
Fokkelman, J.P., Narrative Art and Poetry in the Books of Samuel. Vol. I: King David (II Sam. 9-20 & I Kings 1-2), 1981.
Gordon, Robert, 1 & 2 Samuel: A Commentary, 1986.
Green, Jay, Sr., gen. ed. & trans., The Interlinear Bible: Hebrew-Greek-English, 2nd ed., 1986.
Hertzberg, Hans, I & II Samuel: A Commentary, 1964.
Horner, Tom, Jonathan Loved David, 1978.
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vols. I-IV, 1979-88.
Keil, C.F., and F. Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on the Books of Samuel, 1950.
Kirkpatrick, A.F., The First and Second Books of Samuel, 1930.
Kirsch, Jonathan, King David: The Real Life of the Man Who Ruled Israel, 2000.
McCarter, P. Kyle, Jr., II Samuel (Anchor Bible), 1984.
Mauchline, John, 1 and 2 Samuel (New Century Bible), 1971.
Smith, Henry Preserved, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Books of Samuel, 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, vol. III, 1992, p. 551-1104.

TRANSLATIONS: New International Version, 1978.    New Jerusalem Bible, 1998.    New Revised Standard Version, 1989.    Peterson, Eugene: The Message, 2002.    Revised English Bible, 1989.    Revised Standard Version, 2nd ed. 1972.


© 2006 Bruce L. Gerig

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