Studying 1 Samuel 19 1-7

We are studying 1 Samuel 19:1-7 for Sunday, October 4 – which happens to be World Communion Sunday, too. The text is one of the key episodes in the story of the famous friendship of Jonathan and David. [Some questions on the text are here.] Here are some notes on that text:

BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: We’ve moved into the book of 1 Samuel.

Traditionally the text was attributed to Samuel, and assumed to have been written around the time of the events it narrates. Nowadays, we think of it as part of the Deuteronomistic history of early Israel, the long work that comprises the books of Joshua through 2 Kings. We attribute it to an author or authors probably working with existing texts and narrative traditions, and with a distinctive interpretive perspective on the history of early Israel, around the time of king Josiah, and then again during or just after the exile. In other words, the text we have reflects some sophisticated thinking about the history of the people of Israel, and some sophisticated literary expression of that thinking.

The first part of the book of Samuel relates the transition from the time of the judges to the early monarchy – specifically, the reign of the Great King, David. The second portion of the book, II Samuel in today’s Bibles, will relate the events of David’s reign itself. This first part gives us the stories of Samuel – last of the judges, Saul – first of the kings, and David part I – the man of destiny. Their stories are intricately bound up with one another. Jonathan, Saul’s son and heir, David’s fast friend, who is the main agent in our text for Sunday, is one of the important supporting characters in this national epic.

The first eighteen chapters of I Samuel have told the story of Samuel, from his mother Hannah’s prayer for a child, through his apprenticeship to the failing priestly character of Eli, to his stint as judge over Israel (1 Samuel 1-7). Then, the people want to have a king “like all the other nations” (1 Samuel 8). Whether this is a great idea or not is at least debatable – and the text debates it. Saul enters the text, Samuel anoints Saul king over Israel, and Saul proceeds to fight the Philistines and not follow instructions (1 Samuel 9-15). Jonathan, Saul’s son, appears in the later chapters of this section (13 & 14), as a brave and adventurous fighter and also as rather wiser than his father. He’s also popular with the people – all in all, a sympathetic character.

David is introduced to us readers twice, first in chapter 16 where Samuel anoints him king and he goes to play the harp for Saul, and next in chapter 17 where he meets Saul again for the first time and slays Goliath. [That is, sometimes we get the impression that these stories are not exactly in chronological order.] Things are great for a few verses in chapter 18; Jonathan adores David, and so does everyone, and David does some great service for Saul in battles with the Philistines. But then Saul notices that people love David more than they love him, and after that, Saul continually looks for ways to get David killed.

Our text is early in this part of the narrative, before Saul has gotten really serious about doing away with David. All he’s done is thrown a spear at David one night when he was feeling particularly psychotic, and then tried to get David to go out to do battle with the Philistines to earn his daughter’s hand in marriage, and (hopefully, thinks Saul) be killed in the process. Twice. So David finally gets the princess (Michal, not her older sister), and also stays alive.

After this, Saul will get increasingly serious about eliminating David. Jonathan will play a crucial part in helping David to escape, and to embark on the part of his career where he assembles an army while hiding out in the wilderness and staying on the run from Saul and his army. The stories from that time, and finally of the death in battle of Saul and Jonathan, will fill out the rest of the book.

Our text doesn’t appear in the lectionary, so it’s one of those things you won’t know about the Bible if all you know is the lectionary. Thank God for the Uniform Series, and its promotion of Biblical literacy.

We should probably be aware that David is the darling of the Deuteronomistic history. Even as the text tells us readers things about David that make us wonder why. The text’s steadfast love for David colors the presentation of all the other characters more or less brightly. Jonathan is one of the brightest, because he is so devoted to David and so instrumental in David’s surviving the conflict with Saul.
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CLOSER READING: There is a lot of talking in this text: speaking, telling, saying, and later even swearing. Most of it is done by Jonathan, a little is done by Saul, and none is done by David. David is exclusively the object of the talk, and of instructions, and of the actions and plans of Saul and Jonathan.

Jonathan is also the main actor in this episode.

This short text is a neat, tightly structured, complete story that establishes a life or death conflict of desires, and then effects the resolution of that conflict by means of discourse. It’s an amazing beautiful little gem of text.

In verse 1, Saul and Jonathan are opposed: Saul spoke about killing David, but Jonathan delights in David – so, the two characters want two different things. Jonathan now proceeds to do a lot of speaking about not killing David, as follows:

In verse 2, Jonathan tells David about Saul’s speaking, and its content, and then issues three instructions to David (guard, stay, hide) to put him out of harm’s way. He then describes a plan (still speaking, note) that will involve some actual action – going out, standing next to his father – but also some more speaking and telling, as well as learning and watching.

In verse 4, in direct contrast to Saul, who speaks about killing David, Jonathan speaks good about David (literally). In this long speech, he mentions sin three times, pointing out that Saul is contemplating sin but that David has not sinned, quite the opposite, is innocent. He emphasizes the king/servant relationship that ties Saul and David – at least for now. He tells a story about David’s military service against the Philistines, highlighting the different kind of life or death stakes that were involved there, reminding Saul that he was glad David lived through that. Furthermore, remember, YHWH brought deliverance by means of David.

[That’s a little messianic morsel that Jonathan himself probably does not have in mind, but which will be hard for readers who think of David as a messianic model to miss. Whether and how the Deuteronomist might have had it in mind is a good question.]

Jonathan is great at speech-making!

Saul listens to this, and then makes a covenantal and prophetic pronouncement: “As YHWH lives, he [David] shall not be put to death.” It’s truthful foreshadowing, even though Saul will try to take it back in a few verses.

Then Jonathan does some more speaking, by calling David and telling David all this, and then brings David to Saul, and “he [David] was in his presence as before” – conflict of wills resolved.

Whose presence is David in? Saul’s? Jonathan’s? It could be either. Indeed, it’s both. It’s also what Jonathan wanted from verse 1, and has accomplished in the course of the text.

It’s also worth noting that the first four verses of the text emphasize Saul and Jonathan’s relationship of father and son. Jonathan is Saul’s son Jonathan, Saul is “my father” or “his father” vis-à-vis Jonathan. After verse four, there are no more relationship terms, it’s all proper names. This could be a coincidence, but most likely not. Most likely the author is here calling the reader’s attention to the cross-cutting and destiny-driven relationships of love, loyalty, and obligation that are in play in this dense courtly triangle.

David never says a word or does a thing, and yet the text is all about him.
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