Jonathan & David:
Their Three Covenants
Key Passages: 1 Samuel 23:1-18; 18:1-4; 20:1-23, 42

By Bruce L. Gerig

The reader of 1 Samuel might think that the tearful and tragic farewell of Jonathan and David in 1 Sam 20:41-42 marked the end of their relationship – but, in fact, it didn’t. Later, Jonathan appears again, in 23:16-18, making a surprise visit to David hiding in the wilderness. Before turning to look at this remarkable reunion, however, it will be helpful to summarize what happened to poor David after he left Jonathan and the capital city of Gibeah.

David on the run – David first headed for Nob (a town ca. 3 miles SE of Gibeah), where there was a sanctuary and a community of priests; and here he picked up some food and Goliath’s sword (21:1-9). His asking for and being given five loaves of holy bread from the tabernacle is another example of how life in Israel often varied from the law of Moses, since bread that was displayed before the Lord was only to be eaten by the priests (Lev 24:5-9, Mark 2:25-26). Moreover, David, in desperation and in a hurry, lies to Ahimelech the priest, telling him that he is on a secret royal mission, although he is not; and furthermore he is not on his way to meet other men, as he claims, who have pledged themselves to chastity. Still Hans Hertzberg believes that it may be significant that David begins his flight from “the sphere of the holy,” from the sanctuary and God’s presence,1 in spite of his woeful faithlessness and falsehood. David then flees to Gath (a Philistine city ca. 40 miles SW); but feeling very unwelcome and unsafe there, he acts like a madman and so is able to escape unharmed (21:10-15). He then retraces his steps NE (ca. 24 miles), to hide in the Cave of Adullam near the old Canaanite city by that name (and ca. 12 miles W of his hometown of Bethlehem).2 Here family members join him, along with some 400 men in distress, in debt, or discontented, who lodge in limestone caves scattered throughout the area (22:1-2). David decides to relocate his family to Moab (E of the Dead Sea); however, the prophet Gad then instructs David to return with his men to Judah, which he does (22:3-5). Meanwhile, Saul, hearing how Ahimelech had helped David, slaughters all of the 86 priests at Nob (except for one who escapes), including their families and animals (22:6-19). Abiathar, the sole survivor, joins David, bringing with him the treasured ephod (22:20-23, 23:6), the high priest’s vest which displayed twelve precious stones representing the tribes of Israel and carried in two pockets the sacred stones of Urim and Thummim, which were cast as lots to discern God’s will.

David then hears that the Philistines have attacked Keilah (ca. 3 miles S of Adullam), to rob its threshing floors of harvested grain. Even though a rescue mission would be very dangerous,3 David inquires of the Lord as to whether he should go and save the Israelites there. Since his men are fearful of being in Judah and of the Philistines, David inquires of the Lord twice – but God answers “Go … save Keilah,” and then “I will give the Philistines into your hand” (23:1-6, NRSV). So, even though David is not yet king, he takes up the task of defending God’s people.4 However, after rescuing the Keilahites, some there treacherously reported David’s whereabouts to Saul, who then “summoned all the people to war” against David (23:7-8). When this was told to David, he gathered together his band now numbering some 600 men and they set off, “wandering wherever they could go” (23:9-13). Finally, they reached the Wilderness of Ziph (ca. 13 miles to the SE) with its “strongholds” (23:14) of barren peaks and rock formations, a place where David and his men could both hide out and watch the horizon.5 Ziph was a town located in the easternmost part of the Judean hill country, which then sloped down to the barren Dead Sea region.6 In a larger sense, David’s whole life during this period, after he went on the lam, is summarized in v. 14:7 “David stayed in the desert, in the strongholds [and] in the mountains … [while] Saul kept looking for him day after day” (NJB).

Jonathan’s surprise visit – In spite of the Lord’s protection, David is still fearful, seeing how Saul relentlessly searches for him (23:15).8 As Walter Brueggemann notes, “Saul will pursue David to the edge of his realm, to the end of I Samuel, to the end of his own life. Indeed, Saul now has no other purpose than the elimination of David.”9 David’s miraculous success against the Philistines should have shown him that God was with him – and indeed the two talk as good friends, with an easy trust on David’s part (23:10-12). David escapes Saul’s hand, not because he is faster or more clever than the king, but because Yahweh keeps intervening. Yet still, David cannot help but worry. Then, lo and behold, who should show up, but Jonathan10 – his dear Jonathan, who loves him so much and is his dearest friend. The irony here, of course, is Saul and his troops cannot locate David, but Jonathan has no difficulty.11 Yet how did Jonathan make this journey and manage to slip away without his father’s knowledge? Also, what do you suppose was the response of David’s men when they saw the king’s son suddenly walk into camp?12 Yet Jonathan has come, knowing he might be killed by some of David’s guards or later by his father if he found out about this stealth visit and who once before had ordered his execution, although unsuccessfully (1 Sam 14:44). He bravely made his way over from his father’s camp, unobserved in the rough territory13 and perhaps under the cover of darkness. Whatever the hour, he came through the Lord’s leading and just at the right time, “to strengthen the hand” of David (23:16). This Hebrew phrase in the OT generally meant “to encourage,” especially the fearful.14 Later, when enemies gathered to try to discourage Nehemiah and the Jews from rebuilding the wall around Jerusalem, the governor (Nehemiah) prayed, “O God, strengthen my hands” (Neh 6:9, KJV), “give me strength” (CEV). Other translations of this phrase in 1 Sam 23:16 read, Jonathan “gave [David] fresh courage in God’s name” (REB 1989), “helped him find strength in God” (NIV 1978), and “encouraged him in his faith in God” (LB 1976).

Jonathan tells David quietly, “Don’t be afraid” (23:17a, CEV). He should not fear the future but keep his faith strong in the Almighty (Elohim). Then Jonathan gives David four reasons for doing this:15 “Do not be afraid; for the hand of my father Saul shall not find you; you shall be king over Israel, and I shall be second to you; my father Saul also knows that this is so.” (1 Sam 23:17, NRSV) (1) Saul will never find David, no matter how hard he tries. Although God is not mentioned in v. 17, he is the “reason” behind what is stated and foreseen here. Yahweh will guarantee what he has destined.16 David need not fear because God’s gracious and providential care rests upon him.17 The “hand of Saul” will never be able to find David, even though Jonathan found his way with apparent ease to come check on him. (2) David will become king over all Israel. Moreover, Jonathan tells David, “You [emphatic in the Hebrew] will be king” and “I [emphatic] will be second to you.”18 Earlier, in their long conversation (20:1-23), Jonathan only implied in general terms that David would someday be the man in power (v. 13b-15); now he says outright that David will be king.19

(3) Jonathan promises to support David and be by his side. – The Hebrew says literally, “and I [Jonathan] shall be to you [David] for second [mishneh]…” (23:17c, J. Green). Strong’s lexicon notes that mishneh (#4932) refers to “a repetition, duplicate, or double, or (by implication) a second in rank.” Esther 10:3 notes how Mordecai was made “second [mishneh] to King Ahasuerus [Xerxes I of Persia]” (J. Green), or “next” to him (KJV). Kyle McCarter points out that by the reign of Ahaz (king of Judah, some 275 years later) mishneh had become a formal title, for 2 Chron 28:7 speaks of “the king’s Second-in-Command [mishne hammelek]” along with the Crown Prince (ben-hammelek), and the Minister of the (Royal) Household (negid habbayit).20 J.P. Fokkelman suggests that Jonathan envisioned himself serving David in the new regime as a kind of “vizier” (minister of state),21 Robert Alter as a “viceroy” (deputy second-in-command).22 Still, as Peter Miscall points out, it should be remembered that mishneh can also mean “double” or “copy, [one’s] equal”23 – and this is the first meaning given in Brown’s and Strong’s lexicons.24 Perhaps it was not a high, front office that Jonathan really wanted, but rather to stand beside his beloved, to continue to encourage him, give him advice, watch out for his safety, and help him in other personal ways that could fulfill him and support him in becoming a great king over God’s people.

(4) Even Saul knows that this is so. – Finally, Jonathan says poignantly, Saul also knows, in his heart of hearts, what will be. Brueggemann notes, “He knows, but he cannot yet publicly concede. … Saul knows but he cannot yet admit it to himself” or accept that fact that David will succeed him to the throne. He must still cling to his “flimsy grasp on power and on the future.” Meanwhile, “the chase must continue.”25 Fokkelman notes how twice Jonathan refers here to Saul “my father” (v. 17), suggesting that although he loves David so much, he still feels a strong paternal connection. Perhaps he still leaves “the door to reconciliation open,” hoping that “Saul will change” (although he won’t). Then, as the dutiful and faithful son that he is, Jonathan would “not need to break with Saul just because he loves David.”26 Interestingly (and sadly), had Jonathan decided at this point to throw his support fully behind David, remain with him, and never return to his father’s court, he would have been spared his tragic death in battle on Mount Gilboa (31:2) and would have lived perhaps to see his vision for the future come to pass, with David and himself serving Israel as leaders and lovers. A gay or bisexual king is no more incredible than one who collected 1,000 wives and other sexual partners (Solomon, 1 Kings 11:3)! Still, Jonathan cannot let go of his father and family and the past. Some might want to judge Jonathan on this account, for his holding back, yet it is difficult in our modern age to appreciate the ties of duty and honor that bound a son to his father in ancient Israel. As Leslie Hunt notes, in OT times family life was father-centered and all those included in the larger family unit were ruled by the authority of the father, who held the power even to sacrifice them if he so desired. Moreover, the family provided the basis for social structure.27 It is very different today, when children often move far away from their parents, to begin fully separated and independent lives. However, the statement “Saul also knows that this is so” is interesting because it would seem grammatically to apply to the whole preceding compound statement – implying that Saul not only senses that David will someday be king, but that Jonathan also will someday desert him to support David. “Then the two of them made a covenant before the Lord; David remained at Horesh, and Jonathan went home.” (23:18, NRSV).28

The companions’ three covenants – So the Bible records three pacts that Jonathan and David made. The first covenant was made very shortly after they met. In 1 Sam 18:3-4 (NRSV), we read: “Then Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul [NIV: ‘as himself,’ nephesh]. Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that he was wearing, and gave it to David, and his armor [NIV, REB: ‘tunic’], and even his sword and his bow and his belt.” The preceding verses relate how after David had finished speaking with Saul, “the soul [nephesh] of Jonathan was bound [qashar] to the soul [nephesh] of David, and Jonathan loved [aheb] him as his own soul” (v. 1); and after this, Saul would not let David return home (v. 2). The emphasis here clearly is on the intense love Jonathan felt for David, expressed through the combined and repeated use of “loved,” “bound [to]” (this used only once), and nephesh, which indicates the extent of Jonathan’s love (as compelling as the love and interest one has toward oneself). Jonathan’s attraction to David appears in the narrative “like a bolt out of the blue”29 – spontaneous, intense, and earth-shattering for him. He expresses this love then by the giving to David all of the clothes he was wearing and all of the weapons he was carrying, the significance of which has been debated but which surely represented, as Hans Hertzberg explains, the “giving away [of] one’s own self,”30 i.e. the giving of his whole heart and self to David.

The second covenant was made near the end of their time together in Gibeah and is recorded in 1 Sam 20:16-17 (NRSV): “Thus Jonathan made a covenant with the house of David, saying, ‘May the Lord seek out the enemies of David.’ Jonathan made David swear again, by his love for him; for he loved him as he loved his own life.” (1 Sam 20:16-17, NRSV, italics added). Here, in contrast to the first pact, we are told something specific about what was said and sworn – which now includes both amorous and political elements. Yet the phrase “Jonathan made David swear again” is difficult; and there has been disagreement among interpreters as to who is swearing here, whether Jonathan or David. This is because the standard Hebrew (Masoretic) text reads “So again Jonathan caused David to swear…” while some important Septuagint sources (LXXL,B)31 suggest that the original read “So again Jonathan swore to David” (italics added in both cases).32 “Again” is a key word here. Kyle McCarter holds that since David has not yet sworn anything (at least that is noted in the text), the preferable reading is “Jonathan swore to David out of his love for him…”33 English translations are split on the matter. About half stay with Hebrew version, having David swear (KJV 1611; Lamsa 1933; RSV 1946; NASB 1960; Hertzberg 1964, p. 169; Amplified Bible 1965; LB 1976; NIV 1978; NKJV 1982; Green, J., 1986; CEV 1995). For example, the GNB (1983) reads, “Jonathan made David promise to love him…” The other half hold to the Septuagint version, having Jonathan swear (Thomson 1808; Brenton 1851; Moffatt 1926; Knox 1948; JB 1966; NEB 1970; Ackroyd 1971, p. 162; McCarter 1980, p. 333; Klein 1983, p. 202; REB 1989; NAB 1995; NJB 1998). For example, Peterson (2002) reads, “Jonathan repeated his pledge of love and friendship for David...” Overall, the textual evidence and larger context seem tilted toward the latter meaning, of Jonathan reaffirming his love to David. At least, we know there was some swearing of oath on both sides here, since 20:42 (NRSV) records, “Then Jonathan said to David, ‘Go in peace, since both of us have sworn in the name of the Lord, saying, ‘The Lord will be between me and you, and between my descendents and your descendents, forever.’” Still, the repetition of aheb/ahaba (“love/loved”) and of nephesh (“as [much as] his own life”) in 20:17 points to this pact having homoeroticized elements as well as political elements,34 although the same-sex content again is kept mostly hidden.

The third covenant was probably made several years later and is noted in 1 Sam 23:18 (NRSV): “Then the two of them made a covenant before the Lord…” Of course, this verse is tied to the preceding verse; and this covenant surely recognized both that David would become king and that Jonathan would support him and stand by his side in the new reign. Walter Breuggemann writes that the two friends covenant again “because such mutual promises [of loyal love] cannot be reiterated too often” among friends.35 Marti Stuessy feels that Jonathan keeps making covenants with David because on some level he questions David’s commitment.36 However, J.P. Fokkelman notes that the pact made in 23:18 is not merely “a simple extension or re-confirmation of the [earlier] pact” described in 1 Sam 20, for the later pact looks deeper into the future and “lays down the work distribution and relationship which is the centre of everything.”37 The third pact is best understood as a “fresh, bilateral covenant defining their new relationship.”38 In fact, each of the three pacts, while containing a common core of expressed love and commitment, seems to differ from what was pledged before, and so advances in content and adds detail. Although “love” is not mentioned specifically in the third covenant, this surely was the driving force that led the prince to make his perilous journey to see David and was the motivation behind his wanting to serve by David’s side in the new regime, as a kind of helpmate. Nevertheless, the lives of Jonathan and David are like those of most of us: wonderful loving relationships often appear quite unexpectedly in life, to thrill the heart (and the body) with pure delight; yet, at the same time, there remain those dreams that seem destined to die on the vine.

Jonathan's Gifts and Their Secrets


FOOTNOTES: 1. Hertzberg, p. 180.     2. Cf. LaSor, W.S., “Adullam,” ISBE, I(1979), p. 58.     3. Cf. Klein, p. 230.     4. Hertzberg, p. 190.     5. Cf. Alter, p. 143.     6. Butler, J.T., “Ziph,” ISBE, IV(1988), p. 1200.     7. Fokkelman II(1986), p. 435-36.     8. Youngblood, p. 741.     9. Brueggemann 1990, p. 162.     10. Ibid., p. 163-64.     11. Payne, p. 299.     12. Hertzberg, p. 193.     13. Evans, p. 103.     14. McCarter 1980, p. 374.     15. Klein, p. 229.     16. Fokkelman II(1986), p. 440.     17. Cf. Youngblood, p. 741.     18. Ibid.     19. Fokkelman II(1986), p. 442.     20. McCarter 1980, p. 374.     21. Fokkelman II(1986), p. 440.     22. Alter, p. 143.     23. Miscall, noted in Youngblood, p. 741.     24. Brown, p. 1041, and Strong, #4932.     25. Brueggemann 1990, p. 164.     26. Cf. Fokkelman II(1986), p. 441.     27. Hunt, L., “Family,” ISBE II(1982), p. 280.     28. The exact site of Horesh in the Wilderness of Ziph is unknown, cf. Youngblood, p. 741.     29. Schroer & Staubli, p. 28.     30. Hertzberg, p. 155.     31. LXXL refers to Lucian’s important text, and LXXB to a Septuagint text in the Vatican.     32. McCarter 1980, p. 337; cf. Cartledge, p. 242.     33. McCarter 1980, p. 333,335.     34. Schroer & Staubli, p. 29; cf. Ackerman, p. 183.     35. Brueggemann 1990, p. 164-65,148.     36. Steussy, p. 74.     37. Fokkelman II(1986), p. 440.     38. Youngblood, p. 741.

Ackerman, Susan, When Heroes Love, 2005.
Ackroyd, Peter, The First Book of Samuel, 1971.
Alter, Robert, The David Story: A Translation with Commentary of 1 & 2 Samuel, 1999.
Brenton, Lancelot C.L., trans., The Septuagint with Apocrypha: Greek and English, 1851, reprinted 1980.
Brown, Francis, et al., The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon, 2000 ed.
Brueggemann, Walter, First and Second Samuel: Interpretation, 1990.
Cartledge, Tony, 1 & 2 Samuel (Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary), 2001.
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.
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.
Klein, Ralph, 1 Samuel (Word Biblical Commentary), 1983.
McCarter, P. Kyle, Jr., I Samuel (Anchor Bible), 1980.
Payne, David, “1 and 2 Samuel,” The New Bible Commentary Revised, ed. by D. Guthrie et al., 1970, p. 284-319.
Schroer, Silvia & Thomas Staubli, “Saul, David and Jonathan – The Story of a Triangle? A Contribution to the Issue of Homosexuality in the First Testament,” in Samuel and Kings, ed. by Athalya Brenner, 2000, p. 22-36.
Steussy, Marti, David: Biblical Portraits of Power, 1999.
Strong, James, “Hebrew and Chaldee Dictionary,” in Strong’s Abingdon’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible…, 1890.
Thomson, Charles, The Septuagint Bible … in Translation, 1808, reprinted 1954.
Youngblood, Ronald, “1, 2 Samuel,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. III, 1992, p. 551-1104.

TRANSLATIONS: Amplified Bible, 1965.     Contemporary English Version, 1995. Good News Bible, 1983.     Jerusalem Bible, 1966.     King James Version, 1611.     Knox, Ronald: The Old Testament: Newly Translated from the Vulgate Latin – Vol 1: Genesis to Esther, 1948.     Lamsa, George: Holy Bible … from the Aramaic of the Peshitta, 1933.     Living Bible, 1976.     Moffatt, James: Holy Bible, 1926.     New American Bible, 1995.     New American Standard Bible, 1960.     New English Bible, 1970.     New International Version, 1978.     New Jerusalem Bible, 1998.     New King James Version, 1982.     New Revised Standard Version, 1989.     Peterson, Eugene: The Message, 2002.     Revised English Bible, 1989.     Revised Standard Version, 1946.


© 2006 Bruce L. Gerig

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