bible blog 1094

This blog offers a meditation on the Common Lectionary daily readings along with a headline from world news:

Death of a Ilan Halevi, Jewish supporter of Palestinian cause.

Jewish man who learned from the holocaust to side with the oppressed

Jewish man who learned from the holocaust to side with the oppressed

1 Samuel 20:1-23

New Revised Standard Version, Anglicised (NRSVA)

The Friendship of David and Jonathan

20 David fled from Naioth in Ramah. He came before Jonathan and said, ‘What have I done? What is my guilt? And what is my sin against your father that he is trying to take my life?’ He said to him, ‘Perish the thought! You shall not die. My father does nothing either great or small without disclosing it to me; and why should my father hide this from me? Never!’ But David also swore, ‘Your father knows well that you like me; and he thinks, “Do not let Jonathan know this, or he will be grieved.” But truly, as the Lord lives and as you yourself live, there is but a step between me and death.’ Then Jonathan said to David, ‘Whatever you say, I will do for you.’ David said to Jonathan, ‘Tomorrow is the new moon, and I should not fail to sit with the king at the meal; but let me go, so that I may hide in the field until the third evening. If your father misses me at all, then say, “David earnestly asked leave of me to run to Bethlehem his city; for there is a yearly sacrifice there for all the family.” If he says, “Good!” it will be well with your servant; but if he is angry, then know that evil has been determined by him. Therefore deal kindly with your servant, for you have brought your servant into a sacred covenant[a] with you. But if there is guilt in me, kill me yourself; why should you bring me to your father?’ Jonathan said, ‘Far be it from you! If I knew that it was decided by my father that evil should come upon you, would I not tell you?’ 10 Then David said to Jonathan, ‘Who will tell me if your father answers you harshly?’ 11 Jonathan replied to David, ‘Come, let us go out into the field.’ So they both went out into the field.

12 Jonathan said to David, ‘By the Lord, the God of Israel! When I have sounded out my father, about this time tomorrow, or on the third day, if he is well disposed towards David, shall I not then send and disclose it to you? 13 But if my father intends to do you harm, the Lord do so to Jonathan, and more also, if I do not disclose it to you, and send you away, so that you may go in safety. May the Lord be with you, as he has been with my father. 14 If I am still alive, show me the faithful love of the Lord; but if I die,[b] 15 never cut off your faithful love from my house, even if the Lord were to cut off every one of the enemies of David from the face of the earth.’ 16 Thus Jonathan made a covenant with the house of David, saying, ‘May the Lord seek out the enemies of David.’ 17 Jonathan made David swear again by his love for him; for he loved him as he loved his own life.

18 Jonathan said to him, ‘Tomorrow is the new moon; you will be missed, because your place will be empty. 19 On the day after tomorrow, you shall go a long way down; go to the place where you hid yourself earlier, and remain beside the stone there.[c] 20 I will shoot three arrows to the side of it, as though I shot at a mark. 21 Then I will send the boy, saying, “Go, find the arrows.” If I say to the boy, “Look, the arrows are on this side of you, collect them”, then you are to come, for, as the Lord lives, it is safe for you and there is no danger. 22 But if I say to the young man, “Look, the arrows are beyond you”, then go; for the Lord has sent you away. 23 As for the matter about which you and I have spoken, the Lord is witness[d] between you and me for ever.’

Achiiles (centre right) argues with Odysseus. Patroclus is far right.

Achilles (centre right) argues with Odysseus. Patroclus is far right.

Friendship, especially between warriors, is a notable theme in  Mediterranean literature of the heroic age, as for example the friendship of Achilles and Patroclus in the Iliad. The author of the Samuel books describes the love between David and Jonathan as a true relationship caught in the toils of David’s ambition and Saul’s (not unjustifiable) fear that David will supplant Jonathan as his successor. There is just a hint that Jonathan’s love is more determinative than David’s; he swears by the Lord his loyalty to David’s house, while David swears by his own love for Jonathan. Later, however, David acknowledges his love for the dead Jonathan and protects his son Mephibosheth in fulfillment of his oath.

It is a sad reflection on modern sensibility that this sober story has been used by supporters of homosexual equality to provide a heroic past for their sexual orientation. I also support equality for homosexual people, but find this kind of biased interpretation both childish and demeaning, as if all strong love between men must have a sexual component. (It’s equally daft to say it must not). When David speaks of Jonathan’s love as “passing the love of women” he is affirming a relationship, not a sexual preference.

As the biblical tradition develops there is a tendency for the human reality of its main characters to become attenuated, as if loyalty to God were the only thing that mattered. But in the earlier strands of tradition there is a greater intermingling of the humanity and relationships of the characters with their importance in the story of faith. The author of  Samuel, in a few words, gives a bright image of the love of David and Jonathan, almost irrespective of God, and yet not totally, as their friendship ensures David’s survival against the odds, which just happens to be the will of God.

Medieval image of David and Jonathan

Medieval image of David and Jonathan

Friendship is a great glory of human life; but is insufficiently celebrated in the Christian tradition. There are only a few prayers and hymns which bother to mention one of the chief joys of living. Martin Buber, the great Jewish philosopher of the 20th century, reminded his readers that what he called the I-Thou relationship, in which both partners acknowledge the fullness and mystery of each other, is a fundamental dimension of human existence, in which people can discover the reality of themselves, their world, and their creator. In saying “Thou” to any created being we also address the Eternal Thou. We do not by-pass this world and its living beings in order to get to God; we can only address him through them. Nor do we treat our friendships as a means of reaching God; in enjoying them for their own sake, we are reached by God.

The ancient story of David and Jonathan honours friendship and respects its mystery.

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