1 Samuel 20:1–21:16
I know someone now in her eighties who lived for forty or fifty years with a friend. They had separate jobs, but in the rest of life they were inseparable, involved together in church and social life and spending their holidays together. The friend had a stroke a few years ago, and the woman I know took early retirement in order to be able to look after her and to make it possible for them to continue as full a life as possible together, still going off on adventurous holidays, and she went through grim bereavement when her friend eventually died, the kind of bereavement someone goes through when his or her spouse dies. There was the kind of relationship of mutual commitment between them that you might call covenantal. I used to ponder the likelihood that it would be much harder nowadays for two women or two men to make that kind of semipublic mutual commitment in the kind of conservative Christian circles to which they belonged because it would be broadly suspected that the relationship was in effect a same-sex marriage, and they would be horrified at that idea. In the modern West we have gotten into such a mess about same-sex relationships that the very idea of same-sex friendship has become imperiled.
It affects the way people read the relationship between David and Jonathan. Both straight people and gay people haveasked whether it was a physically homosexual relationship. Of course the story never says, “Oh, by the way, they weren’t gay.” Its framework for describing the relationship between them is friendship and mutual commitment, though this mutuality doesn’t mean the relationship meant the same to both men. The relationship’s energy comes from Jonathan. He “loves” David, cares about him, is loyal to him rather than to his father, cares about him as much as he cares about himself. He bound himself to David. It was his care and loyalty that led to the making of a covenant between them.
In the West in recent years we have come to assume that a person’s spouse is also his or her best friend. That worked for my wife and me, but it’s an idiosyncratic assumption. There’s no indication in the Bible that marriage is supposed to work that way, and it puts extra pressure on a relationship that has all the other demands that apply to it. A relationship of friendship and mutual commitment with another person of the same sex avoids some of that complication. Maybe a relationship of friendship and mutual commitment with a person of the opposite sex can do that, though that kind of relationship also carries the risks of getting sexually entangled. Then, of course, if one or both of the people involved is someone who is attracted to people of the same sex, this fact reshapes all those considerations.
The presuppositions of the story about Saul’s dinner are that the beginning of the month is a special occasion celebrated before God, with a special dinner eaten in God’s presence. But then, various things such as having sex or having contact with a dead body can make it inappropriate to rush into God’s presence, because sex and death are alien to God’s own character. Such considerations could make it appropriate to miss the first day of this celebration, but such taboos do not take long to wear off, so Saul could reasonably expect David to show up the next day. His failure to do so puts Saul on the track of the fact that something odd is going on. Related considerations surface in the story of David’s emergency visit to Ahimelech, where he has to assure the priest that his men have not had sex lately before Ahimelech is willing to let them eat provisions from the sanctuary. His willingness to do so was still irregular. In Mark2 Jesus refers back to this story as an example of how the Old Testament is not legalistic in the way it treats the Torah, so that there is similarly no need to be legalistic about the Sabbath. The point about the note concerning Doeg will emerge in the next chapter.
As usual, in reading this story it is worth asking why someone wrote it and what function it fulfilled. The connected narrative as a whole belongs at least to the time when David had become king, and one function it would fulfill is to assure its readers that the process whereby David came to the throne was entirely honorable. After all, Jonathan is the person you would expect to succeed his father as king. Why did he not do so? At one level the answer is that God determined otherwise, but people would know that David was capable of being a sharp political operator, at least until he lost his groove in the middle of his reign. Did he maneuver Jonathan out of his “rightful” place as Saul’s successor? No, the story says, Jonathan was so enthusiastic about David (like everyone else apart from Saul) that he maneuvered himself out of his rightful place. Whether he realized it or not, to put it theologically Jonathan was happy to go along with God’s intention to put David on the throne. “May Yahweh be with you as he was with my father,” he says. Both halves of the sentence are worth pondering. The first is a wish that God may prosper and advance David, never mind if Jonathan loses. In the second, the grievous feature is the past tense verb. God used to be with Saul, which meant that things went well for him. Now God is not, and they do not.
The story also acknowledges expectations that would apply to David as king. He is to keep commitment to Jonathan not only during his lifetime but after his death. The two men are of similar age so you might not expect that Jonathan would die before David, but actually he will do so. So what will happen to Jonathan’s family? For all David’s popularity in his own circles, there will be many people still loyal to Saul who will assume that someone from Saul’s family should succeed Saul. Such considerations mean that after a coup, a new ruler is tempted to make a point of eliminating potential rivals to the throne, and these include Jonathan’s sons. Second Samuel 9 and 21 will tell us how David made a point of honoring hispromises to Jonathan in the way he arranges to care for Jonathan’s handicapped son Mephibosheth and to arrange for Jonathan’s burial.
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