illumination of King David playing a psaltery

Study Notes – 1 Samuel 18 1-5 & 19 1-7

We are studying 1 Samuel 18:1-5 and 1 Samuel 19:1-7 for Sunday, August 4. These are two of three passages in 1 Samuel that narrate Jonathan’s deep friendship for David, and its consequences, the third being the long narrative in chapter 20, where David actually has a speaking part. [Here are some study questions on this text.] Here are my notes on this text:

BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: The books of 1 & 2 Samuel tell the complex story of the transition from an ancient Israel that did not have a king to an ancient Israel that has a monarchy, established by the Great King David, with a political and religious center in Jerusalem. We probably shouldn’t expect a story like that to be pretty, and this story fulfills that expectation.

[It would make a good movie, or a Netflix original series. There could be as much double-dealing violence and sex as in Game of Thrones.]

I have the persistent feeling that I should recuse myself as a reader of stories that have to do with David. This feels like pleading guilty to an indictment, since I’m sure there must be something wrong with not liking the character who’s a king after YHWH’s heart. Nevertheless, I confess, David strikes me as a sinister and manipulative character who uses his considerable charm to get away with murder over and over again. I tend to side with his brother Eliab in 1 Samuel 17:28. Maybe it’s a birth order thing. So readers of my reading should be forewarned.

[On the other hand, if God can love David, maybe there’s hope for someone like me, so there’s that. Although the birth order thing is not in my favor.]

Our texts are about half-way through the text of 1 Samuel. We’ve heard the judge – prophet – man of God Samuel’s backstory and heard his mother raise a psalm of praise to a God who reverses all the power arrangements of the social order and then backs the monarchical winner. We’ve followed Samuel’s rise and his teacher Eli’s demise and the demise of terrible father Eli’s corrupt offspring and the loss of the ark of the covenant to the Philistines. We’ve heard the people clamor for a king, and heard Samuel tell them what a lousy idea that is. And then watched Samuel track down and anoint Saul, who from the get-go exhibits the baffling lack of confidence in himself and in God that is going to destroy him and the rest of his family and almost the nation of Israel.

And we readers have been let in on the secret of David’s anointing as king, already, in 1 Samuel 16, with YHWH as the arranger of Samuel’s clandestine political intrigue. So we already know how this is all going to end, although the plot hasn’t played out yet. [I say again: Netflix original series material.]

And Saul has been introduced to David twice, first at the end of chapter 16 (see 17-23), and again in chapter 17 (see 17-18, 55-58). And David has commended himself as both a musician and as a murderer. Of Goliath, though, so that’s all right. [Once again: TV gold. We know precisely whose bloody decapitation we are supposed to cheer loudly for in this story.]

After this, Saul will turn more and more decisively against David, and begin chasing him down, so that David will be on the run and in hiding for the rest of 1 Samuel, will have a couple of chances to destroy Saul himself but will nobly pass them up and instead will let the course of disastrous military action eliminate Saul, and Jonathan, from the picture. [To be fair, this is what Saul himself had planned for David, according to 1 Samuel 18:17 & 21.] 2 Samuel will take up David’s civil war with Saul’s son Ishbaal, his establishment of his capital in Jerusalem, and the court history.

So, right here, we are at the turning point in the story of the relationship between Saul and David. Jonathan will play a key role in that turning point, it seems.

CLOSER READING: Starting with chapter 18, the subjects of the verbs seem to be important. In v1, Jonathan’s soul and Jonathan do the action. In v2, Saul takes some action – by latching on to David and not letting him return to Bethlehem. In v3 Jonathan makes a covenant with David, and in v4 Jonathan takes off either everything he is wearing, or at least the outward and visible symbols of his royalty and military might – his ability to fight.

Finally, in v5, David gets a couple of unambiguous verbs. He goes out and acts wisely which seems to be intrinsically related to being successful. But at Saul’s sending.

So that he is good in the eyes of all the people, and Saul’s servants.

Because everybody likes the look of David. (See 1 Samuel 16:12. A really suspicious reader might even let this color how she reads 1 Samuel 16:7.)

However, I also notice this: in v1, the text explicitly assigns the verb love to Jonathan. In v3, however, when “he loved him as his own soul” comes up, the text does not name the he. So a reader might be inclined to think the “he” is Jonathan, since that pattern was established in v1, and since Jonathan seems to be the covenant maker here.

But the text is more coy than that.

It might be good to notice, too, that the text is silent as to the substance of the covenant. This seems unusual for covenant-making texts in Hebrew scripture, although I haven’t done my homework on this. Therefore noteworthy.

Back to v2, why does Saul keep David at court? Is it because Saul likes David? Or is it because Saul does something to please Jonathan? [Considering how often we’ve had our daughter’s friends over, and her friends’ parents have had her over, and for what – shopping trips, trips to Holiday World and the zoo, vacations – that latter seems like a real possibility.] Or does this already suggest something like confinement?

Skipping over to chapter 19, once again, although David is a persistent object of the transitive verbs, he is not the subject of any verbs outside of Jonathan’s speeches about him.

So, Saul plans to kill David, but Jonathan delights in or desires David (depending on how we delight or desire to translate this verb).

Jonathan does a lot of talking in vv2-7, which is almost entirely one speech or another of Jonathan’s. Jonathan reveals his father’s secret plan to David, and conceals David, and then further exposes his father to David’s surveillance, while speaking persuasively on David’s behalf.

Jonathan’s speech to Saul pulls out all the stops. He invokes the prospect of sin (opening and closing with this), vs. innocence – David being the innocent here, Saul the sinner. In between, he positions David as a servant of Saul, an agent of YHWH, and a cause of Saul’s rejoicing.

Saul hears Jonathan, and swears by the life of YHWH [about which Jesus would presumably have something to say] that David will not be killed.

He’s right about that, as it turns out, even though he will change his mind right away about trying.

Jonathan then reveals this news to David, and brings David back to Saul. The negotiated cease-fire falls apart almost immediately.

SUMMARY THOUGHT(S): Our curriculum material, and I assume from that the thinking of the National Council of Church’s Committee on the Uniform Series, has assigned these passages the role of introducing four weeks on the “personal side” of covenant-making. After this, we’ll be looking at Ruth for a couple of weeks, and then Ephesians 5. I am not entirely sure what I think about this, and even if I did, my thoughts on it all might not be the most reliably catholic.

One thing I think, however, is that we are sometimes highly motivated to locate a positively pious message in whatever passage of scripture we’ve chosen to focus on.

And in our tradition we have good feelings about covenants, so on the surface that makes sense as a thematic focus.

But context is everything. If the book of Samuel were a Netflix original series, Jonathan would be a tragic, doomed character. So how ought we to feel about this particular covenant, the substance of which is so obscure, the terms of which are so [as far as we can tell from the text] completely one-sided? And who ought we to imagine Jonathan represents, assuming he must represent someone in the spiritual-reading cast of characters? What other tragic, loving, all-in covenanting character will fit …?

Perplexing, that.

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