Saul’s Sexual Insult and David’s Losing It

By Bruce L. Gerig

Saul’s sexual insult – Following the long conversation between Jonathan and David (1 Sam 20:1-23), the scene moves to the first evening meal of the New Moon festival in Saul’s palace (v. 24-34). The king sat at his usual place at the table, with his back to the wall (v. 25), a position of safety and no doubt honor.1 Abner the general sat next to him, David’s seat was empty, and Jonathan either sat opposite (Septuagint Greek) or stood (Masoretic Hebrew) in front of his father,2 perhaps too nervous to sit at all.3 On the second day of the festival, when Saul asked why David had not come, Jonathan gave him the prearranged answer: because David had asked leave to join his family for an annual sacrifice offered in Bethlehem (v. 6,27-29). At this point, we read: “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, Strong #977] the son of Jesse to your own shame [bosheth, #1322], and to the shame [bosheth] of your mother’s nakedness [‘erwa, #6172]? 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 [lit. ‘for he is a son of death,’ J. Green].’” (1 Sam 20:30-31, NRSV). When Jonathan asked, “Why…?,” the enraged king threw his spear at the prince, who barely escaped it. In his blind rage, Saul saw Jonathan and David as one; and as the spear came hissing at the prince, Jonathan no longer could deny David’s diagnosis of Saul.4 Then Jonathan “rose from the table in fierce anger” and left, eating nothing at all that day, because “he was grieved [Fewell & Gunn: ‘hurt’5] for David, and because his father had disgraced him [KJV: ‘had done him shame’]” (v. 32-34). Kyle McCarter thinks that “disgraced him” refers to Jonathan,6 while Ralph Klein thinks that it refers to David.7 Probably Jonathan hurt because of the peril his beloved David was in, although the prince was the one who had been shamed at the table. J.P. Fokkelman holds that the “shame” in 20:34 (although another word is used: kalam, #3637) most naturally points back to the “shame” (bosheth) mentioned in Saul’s outburst in 20:30.8 Yet Hertzberg points out that Jonathan’s angry departure shows the strength of his feeling for David.9 One can see Saul’s attitude deteriorating toward David, as he changes from calling him at first by his personal name (“David,” 16:22; 18:11,22) to using his family name (“son of Jesse,” 20:27,30,31) to finally assigning to him the name of a condemned man (“son of death,” v. 31).10 Yet, what does this highly-charged sexual language in Saul’s insult really mean?

“You son of a perverse, rebellious woman!” (NRSV) – The Masoretic Hebrew reads lit. “son of a perverse woman in respect to rebelliousness [having gone astray]”;11 and the Septuagint Greek and the Qumran 4QSamb Hebrew texts read “son of rebelling young women.12 Jerome, usually sensitive to erotic nuances in the original, conveys the idea in his Latin Vulgate translation (ca. 400 A.D.) of “son of a woman freely seizing a man [whom she desires].”13 Most English translations read very close to the NRSV (above), gliding over the fact that the Hebrew here is actually quite vulgar.14 A more accurate translation would be “You son of a slut!” (Peterson 2002) or “You son of a bitch!” (Jobling 1998, p. 178; Schroer & Staubli 2000, p. 29) – the latter conjuring up the image of a promiscuous pup in heat. Further, Lucian’s version of the Septuagint adds a second word, gunaikotraphe, to the phrase here, meaning and calling Jonathan “[you] women-nourished [= effeminate (man)].”15 S.K. Soderlund notes that the Samuel recension (a revision based on critical sources) of Lucian of Antioch (martyred 311) appears in particular to preserve elements of great antiquity, which by careful analysis S.R. Driver and others have been able to use to make significant emendations (corrections or additions) to the later Masoretic Hebrew text, which dates from bet. 500-1000 A.D.16 John Chrysostom (ca. 347-407), bishop of Constantinople, paraphrased this line by describing Jonathan as “You son of common whores, who are men-crazy and run after every man who comes into sight; you weak, effeminate wretch; you nothing of a man [!], who lives only to shame yourself and the mother who bore you.”17 In fact, Danna Fewell and David Gunn hold that Saul well may have been inferring here that Jonathan is a woman, like the perverse, rebellious female from whose genitals he came.18 As Hans Hertzberg notes, with his “foul-mouthed anger” Saul is saying that Jonathan is “utterly ‘degenerate.’”19 Still, Chrysostom recalls 1 Sam 20:30 in a sermon on 1 Cor 13:4 (“Love is patient…”) and praises Jonathan who, in the face of Saul’s insult, did not “turn away from his beloved” but “displayed his fondness as an ornament.” What a “wonderful quality…” Even though the king was trying to put the crown on the prince’s head, Jonathan “went away and fell on David’s neck.” True love knows no shame, but will “endure all for the beloved.”20

“[T]o the shame of your mother’s nakedness” (NRSV) – Relating to the third and last part of Saul’s insult, H.P. Smith (1899) writes that while it has remained common in the Near East to revile or humiliate a man by referring to his mother’s nakedness, still Saul chooses to express his excitement here in coarse language.21 Martti Nissinen also notes that the “indecent” language here may simply be an “oriental outburst of rage” and it might also relate only to “an intimate [but non-sexual] camaraderie of two young soldiers.” Still, he asks, “What could Saul have seen as so shameful in an ordinary friendship of his son and the young man under his care?”22 What is clear is that Saul’s outburst is loaded with sexual terminology – including ‘erwa (#6172, “nakedness”), bosheth (#1322, “shame”), and possibly bachar (or chaber, see below; pronounced ka-BEAR). Susan Ackerman notes that in the OT “nakedness” (‘erwa) most often refers to the genitalia.23 Barry Bandstra and Allen Verhey point out that there are a number of Hebrew terms for “nakedness” in the OT: ‘arom (#6174) and ‘erom (#5903) are primarily associated with a lack of clothing (e.g. the state of the newborn or the poor), while ‘erwa (#6172) is usually associated with sexuality. For example, in the incest laws in Lev 18:6-18, to “uncover [someone’s] nakedness” meant to expose that person’s genitals,24 for sexual purposes. The Lord commanded Israel not to build steps leading up to any altar, lest the priests’ “nakedness [= genitals] … be exposed” to those standing below (Exod 20:26), which would be defiling in a cultic (worship) setting.25 Not surprisingly, bosheth appears also in Saul’s insult, not once, but twice – applied first to Jonathan and then to his mother. As Tom Horner notes, “nakedness” and “shame” were associated in mainstream Israelite thinking. This can be seen, for example, in the Garden of Eden story, where we are told that before the fall Adam and Eve “were both naked [‘erwa], and were not ashamed” (Gen 2:25, using bosh, the verb form, #954); however, after the fall, they “knew that they were naked” (3:7, ‘erom) and they “hid” themselves (3:8). Often captives were taken away naked to shame them, and in that way they could more easily be taken advantage of sexually, as indeed they sometimes were.26 On one occasion (2 Sam 10:1-5), David sent envoys with friendly greetings to Hanun, an Ammonite ruler; but the suspicious king “shaved off half their beards and cut their robes off at the buttocks and sent them home half naked” (v. 4, LB) and greatly embarrassed. Of course, Saul’s insult here was not really directed against Queen Ahinoam, but against Jonathan; and one has to wonder what the prince might have done (nakedly, sexually and shamefully) to receive this kind of abuse.

“Do I not know that you have chosen the son of Jesse to your own shame…?” (NRSV) – The key Hebrew word here is bachar (#977), which means “to choose,” or more precisely, as an active participle here, “[you] are choosing” (cf. J. Green). In its place, the Septuagint uses metochos (#3353), a noun, which Charles Thomson (1808) and Sir Lancelot Brenton (1851) rendered in their early English translations of the Septuagint as “an accomplice.”27 However, S.R. Driver (and quoting D.H. Weir) rendered this word as “a companion [of],” preferring the Greek text over the Hebrew.28 Moreover, Charles van der Pool (2005), in his Apostolic Bible Polyglot (with interlinear text, in Greek and English), renders metochos as “a partner [to].”29 Strong’s Greek-English dictionary (1890) notes that metochos comes from the verb metecho (#3348), meaning “to share, participate, or belong to.” Bauer’s lexicon (1958), translated by Arndt and Gingrich (1979), renders the noun metochos as “[a] partner, companion.” Kittel and Friedrich’s NT theological dictionary (1933-73), translated and abridged by Bromiley (1985), notes that in the Septuagint metochos often meant “companion.”30 Of course, a more basic question is not whether the Hebrew or the Septuagint is the more authentic text, but what is the precise meaning of “choosing” or “companion” here? Most English translations remain with bachar, rendered as “[you] have chosen” (cf. KJV 1611; McKane 1963, p. 129; Hertzberg 1964, p. 170; NKJV 1982; NRSV 1989; Breuggemann 1990, p. 151; CEV 1995; Alter 1999, p. 128; Fox 1999, p. 105) – or, more accurately, “are choosing” (Green, J., 1986; Elman 1994, p. 244). Others read “are in league [with]” (JB 1966; McCarter 1980, p. 334; cf. Peterson 2002); “have sided [with]” (NIV 1978; GNB 1983; cf. NJB 1998); “have made friends [with]” (Ackroyd 1971, p. 165; NEB 1970; cf. REB 1989; cf. Fokkelman II(1986), p. 334); “are delighted [in]” (Lamsa 1933); “are a comrade [of]” (Klein 1983, p. 202); or “are the companion [of]” (Driver 1890, p. 136; Moffatt 1926; Horner 1978, p. 31; NAB 1995). Tom Horner supports Driver in the idea that the original Hebrew bachur (#970; Strong: “a selected youth, a choice young man”) got somehow misread as bachar (#977, “to choose”) in the handing down of the Hebrew text31 (which originally had no vowels). We have already noted (in Supplement 12A of this series) the use of bachur applied to Saul in 1 Sam 9:2, translated as “a young man in his prime” (NEB, REB). Jerome’s Vulgate translation uses the verb diligo, which has the primary meaning of “to love” (Levine’s dictionary 1967) and on which Ronald Knox (1948) based this translation of 1 Sam 20:30: “At this, Saul fell into a rage with Jonathan; What, cried he, thou son of a lecherous wife, dost thou think I have not marked how thou lovest this son of Jesse, to thy own undoing and hers, the shameful mother that bore thee?” The Vulgate reads numquid ignoro quia diligis filium Isai…,” which may be translated into modern English as “do you think I am ignorant that you love (cherish) the son of Jesse…?”

A composite and contextual approach – Textual evidence, then, points to both political and erotic components. The political component – As H.P. Smith (1899) notes, the reason given in 1 Sam 20:31 for Saul’s anger is that “For as long as the son of Jesse lives … thy kingdom shall not be established.”32 Robert Polzin (1989) explains that Saul is upset at his naïve and shortsighted son.33 Kyle McCarter (1980) recalls the old theme of Saul’s fear, which takes on a new dimension as Saul becomes aware “not only that his own position is threatened by David’s popularity, but also that Jonathan’s is; that is, Saul now knows that David stands in the way of his establishment of a dynasty.”34 William McKane (1963) writes that Saul is angry because Jonathan is putting his friendship with David before the loyalty he owes his father, as well as acting against his own interests, since Saul is sure that David has his sights fixed on the throne.35 The erotic component – C.F. Keil and F. Delitszch (1950) hold that bachar means “to choose a person out of love, to take pleasure in a person.”36 Tom Horner (1978) translates the second phrase of Saul’s outburst (from the Greek)37 as “For, do I not know that you are an intimate companion to the son of Jesse...?” (20:30, italics added).38 Warren Johannson (1990) translates the same phrase as “do I not know that you are the darling of the son of Jesse…?” (italics added).39 Jonathan Kirsch (2000) agrees that the Greek version, probably the more accurate, does seem to suggest that Jonathan is sleeping with David.40 Certainly, this is as valid an interpretation as any other; and, perhaps in the end, it is the most accurate one, since one must connect the clues here with other homoerotic, semi-buried clues found elsewhere in the text. Although Nissinen (1998) states that he does not see a homosexual relationship here, he then writes, contradictorily, that Saul’s mention of the mother’s nakedness “gives the impression that Saul saw something indecent in Jonathan’s and David’s relationship.” He notes that the word bachar (“choosing”) indicates a permanent choice and firm relationship.”41 Ackerman (2005) also notes that Saul’s insult seems to suggest that Jonathan, through his disgraceful actions, has brought shame to his mother. The language Saul uses is “extremely sexually-charged” – as if we were meant to interpret it in sexual ways. “Saul perceives his son’s misdeeds to be sexual as well as political.” She notes that the same word “to choose” is used also in Gen 6:2 to describe “the sons of God [who] saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them[selves] wives of all which they chose [bachar]” (KJV).42 Silvia Schroer and Thomas Staubli (2000) conclude, “The issue here is not only the political scandal of a prince betraying father and kingdom for the sake of a stranger, but also the effrontery [audacity] of this homosexual love.”43

David’s losing it – In the morning, Jonathan goes out into the field with the bad news, and he and David have an emotionally wrenching farewell (20:35-42). Either Jonathan shoots a number of arrows (20:20,36), the third one being the decisive one,44 or in the end he only shoots one,45 perhaps in his great desire to see David. The Hebrew in 20:36 reads “arrows which I am shooting,” but in 20:38 “Jonathan’s boy gathered the arrow and came to his lord” (J. Green). In either case, Jonathan hastily shuffles the boy back to the palace; and he looks for David, who then appears from behind a stone formation. Then David “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) – although a footnote in the NRSV says that the meaning of the Hebrew at the end is “uncertain” (cf. KJV: “until David exceeded”). This is one of those dramatic scenes in literature where strong emotions remain hidden in the text, but are hinted at through a series of terse, emotion-ridden verbs, each of which is significant. David prostrated himself and bowed three times, then the two men kissed each other and wept together, until David “exceeded.”

David prostrating himself and bowing three times – Bowing down to a superior was a common practice in ancient times,46 as an Oriental way of paying homage.47 To do this, one fell down on one’s knees, then gradually bowed over until the forehead touched the ground.48 In spite of their close and intimate friendship, Jonathan was still a prince and David a subject. However, David’s “gestures of thanks and honour” should not be viewed as distracting from the deep feeling that these two felt for each other.49 Later, when David saw Saul at a distance, he “bowed his nose to the earth and prostrated himself” (1 Sam 24:8, lit. trans., J. Green). In the next chapter, when Abigail came seeking favor, she “fell before David on her face, bowing to the ground” (1 Sam 25:23, and again in v. 41, NRSV). Later, when Mephibosheth (who was five years old when his father Jonathan was killed, 2 Sam 4:4) was brought before David, the boy “fell on his face and bowed himself” (2 Sam 9:6, J. Green) before the king. Yet, since Jonathan wanted a love affair between himself and David that was “equal and mutual,” David’s prostrating himself here “strikes a discordant note” with the prince.50 Jonathan surely would have preferred David just rushing into his arms!

Jonathan and David kissing and weeping – The OT mentions kissing most often in the context of the family, e.g., between siblings (Joseph and his brothers, Gen 45:15), other family members (Moses and his older brother Aaron, Exod 4:27), and in-laws (Naomi and her daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah, Ruth 1:9) – although Ruth’s covenant speech (1:16-17) suggests way more than simple friendship. Donald McKim notes that in the OT “kisses were more than conventional” and “they were enacted with great emotion.”51 There are kisses of friendship, of course, and kisses of passion. Perhaps the most expressly erotic kiss in the OT is found in Proverbs 7, which describes a woman who, when her husband is away, goes out into the street, finds a senseless youth whom she likes, then “seizes him and kisses him” and invites him to come home to her bed, saying, “Come, let us take our fill of love until morning; let us delight ourselves with love.” (Prov 7:6-19, NRSV). The “beloved” in the Song of Songs dreams, “Let him [my lover] kiss me with the kisses of his mouth” (1:2), then she says to her lover, “[Y]our kisses are the best wine…” (7:9), but also wishes, “O that you were like a brother to me, [then] … If I met you outside, I would kiss you, and no one would despise me” (8:1, NRSV). Dr. Paul R. Johnson in his Gay Version of the Song of Songs (1987) proposed a revisionist reading of this admittedly difficult book, where e.g. Marvin Pope notes that “there is no general agreement … as to the number of dramatis personae [players] … nor the assignment of speeches to speakers.”52 Johnson translates asher leselomoh in 1:1 not as “which is Solomon’s” (KJV), but as a proper name, “Asher of Solomon” (Asher is a common name in the OT, cf. Gen 30:13, 35:26, etc.). Johnson identifies Asher as a descendent (or son) of Solomon, who has a black mother, since he is described as “black” (1:5). Then Johnson translates kalla (#3618) in 4:8 as “Caleh,” the name of the young beloved, rather than “spouse” (KJV). Johnson views Caleh in the story as a humble shepherd youth from the north who serves as a palace guard, perhaps guarding the harem and castrated for that purpose.53 He notes, for example, that no prince in his right mind would ask a young girl to go sleep with the shepherds (1:8) and that shad (#7699) in 1:13 can refer to male “nipples” as well as to female “breasts.”54 Whether this richly-sexual book might be open to such a reading requires further investigation. However, Johnson notes that as with Jonathan and David, the same terms and phrases are used with Asher and Caleh as between a man and a woman in love.55 Although kissing between men in the ancient Near East need not have conveyed eroticism, the emotional context of Jonathan’s and David’s farewell scene suggests that these were kisses of great affection and devotion. Also, it should be noted that this is the first time in the text where we see that Jonathan’s feelings for David are reciprocated, since earlier we were given no word of David’s emotional engagement.56 The kisses here clearly express their love for each other.57 Sadly, however, after the briefest period of companionship, they are forced into a lifelong separation, robbed of the friendship, solace, and joys which it provided.58

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