Jonathan's Gift of Friendship
Patricia K Tull. Interpretation. Richmond: Apr 2004.Vol.58, Iss. 2; pg. 130, 14 pgs
Copyright Interpretation Apr 2004
The story of Jonathan and David stands out as the Bible's lengthiest and most complex narrative reflection on friendship. Far from idealizing the mutuality of their devotion, however, this story invites readers to ponder the human freedom to accept, reject, exploit, or reciprocate the gift of a friend's loyalty.
Neither of the two most striking stories of interpersonal devotion in Hebrew scripture actually employs the term "friendship." In both of these stories, the relationship is between in-laws: Naomi and her daughter-in-law Ruth, and Jonathan and his brother-in-law David. The story of Ruth's devotion to Naomi begins tragically and works its way toward joy. Though Naomi's several experiences of abandonment through death have left her despairing of God's good intentions, Ruth's devotion initiates a chain reaction of loyalty (hesed, Ruth 1:8; 3:10) involving another relative Boaz, Naomi herself, and ultimately the entire community, delivering Naomi from bitterness to hope and vindicating the reputation of the God "under whose wings [Ruth has] come for refuge" (2:12). In Ruth, friendship acts in an ideal way, enlarging life not only for the giver and the receiver but for all around. Despite Naomi's tragic past, her story concludes with a marriage, a birth, a blessing, a whole community singing in unison, and in the story's punchline, the ancestry of judah's kings. This pastoral narrative, with its absolute lack of enemies and its harmonious ending, offers welcome respite from the harsher realities found both in other parts of scripture and in our own world. Ruth's tale "reveals the potential for joy at the heart of friendship."1
Jonathan's friendship with David, by contrast, never has time for joy. Rather, it is beset with conflict from the very start, conflict that only deepens over the course of events. The discontinuities found in the opening lines hint at the fissures to come:
When David had finished speaking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul. Saul took him that day and would not let him return to his father's house. Then Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul. Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that he was wearing and gave it to David, and his armor, and even his sword and his bow and his belt (1 Sam 18:1-4).
Saul's imperious actions, with their ambiguously ominous undertone, cut in two this first description of Jonathan's love for David. Though heavy-handed, these actions seem to signal Saul's affection for David. But within four verses, Saul's enmity toward David emerges as the story's primary theme, when David's popularity ignites Saul's rage. The friendship of Jonathan and David is set in a stormy, tragic narrative, full of painful choices and no-win decisions.
Literature about David and Jonathan is quite divided. On the one hand, many readers in search of models of loyalty idealize this pair. Medieval writers such as Abraham Cowley composed lengthy elegies to their friendship, sometimes interweaving these retellings with syntheses of classical theories about friendship and love.2 Several recent commentators and essayists similarly view the friendship of David and Jonathan in a wholly positive light, drawing from it examples of pure loyalty, mutual devotion, allegiance that transcends death and, in some cases, homoerotic attraction.3
On the other hand, literary analyses of David's character as it emerges throughout the Samuel corpus derive a more ambivalent portrait of the rising king, and therefore a much more complex relationship with Jonathan. Kurt L. Noll, for example, offers a scathing, if sometimes humorous, critique of David's duplicity and Jonathan's naivete.4 Others perceive Jonathan less harshly, but identify gray areas in David's character that render his motives and morals unclear.5 Whether the narrative intends to supply enough clues for readers successfully to "know good and evil" in relation to David, or whether its ambiguities are meant instead to demonstrate the mixed character of the human heart, is itself a subject of scrutiny.6
These marked differences in the perception of David, and therefore of his friendship with Jonathan, stem in part from the influence of ancient tradition. The sanitized version in 1 Chronicles, the admiring remembrances of judah's premiere king in 1-2 Kings, and the connections with David in the psalm superscriptions all help generate positive evaluations. A harmonized reading of the biblical David cannot avoid giving his characterization in 1-2 Samuel every benefit of doubt, so that he comes across as heroic-or at least, in his worst moments, as excusably human. But a reading of the character of David that relies wholly on 1-2 Samuel (and a reading of Jonathan's character cannot be executed in any other way, since he does not appear in Chronicles, Kings, or Psalms) must resist the pressure of subsequent tradition.
Much of the ambiguity surrounding David in 1-2 Samuel arises from the narrator's omission of direct information about his inner life. The motives, thoughts, feelings, and fears of many others-especially of Saul and his family members-are relentlessly revealed, while those of David remain opaque.7 Jonathan loves David; Michal loves David; the people love David; Saul fears David. But how does David feel about them? Nothing whatsoever is said of David's feeling for Michal, except that "David was well pleased to be the king's sonin-law" (1 Sam 18:26). As for David's feelings for Saul, we learn that when David entered Saul's service "he loved him greatly," but who is the subject and who is the object (1 Sam 16:21)? Translations that attempt to resolve the ambiguity invariably attribute the love to Saul. As for David's feelings for Jonathan, a similar ambiguity reigns. Readers searching for evidence of David's love for Jonathan often cite 1 Sam 20:17, which literally reads "Jonathan adjured David again in his love for him, for he loved him as he loved his own soul." Though the pronouns are ambiguous, loving "as he loved his own soul" has already been attributed to Jonathan in ch. 18.
Given so little direct revelation, readers must work through many narrative cues to evaluate David's motivations and actions. It is possible to read David as sincere, though flawed. However, he can also be read as far more politically motivated than honest. This is the case not only after the Uriah debacle in 2 Samuel 11, but from the very beginning of the story.
Evidence for and against David's sincerity stands side by side throughout the story. For instance, on the one hand, the youthful David righteously declares of Goliath, "Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?" On the other hand, his declaration follows immediately upon hearing of the rich rewards awaiting Goliath's killer, prompting his first redundant question: "What shall be done for the man who kills this Philistine?" (1 Sam 17:26). On the one hand, the older David stridently denounces the killings of Saul, his son Ishbaal, and his general Abner, eulogizing the dead and in two cases executing the self-proclaimed killers.
On the other hand, these protestations over done deeds that benefit his interests only serve to bolster his public ratings, for the narrator points out that "all the people took notice of it, and it pleased them; just as everything the king did pleased all the people" (2 Sam 3:36). On the one hand, a still older David searches out Jonathan's lame son Mephibosheth in order to "show kindness for Jonathan's sake" (2 Sam 9:1). On the other hand, the description of Mephibosheth's status in David's court resembles more than anything that of the captive King Jehoiachin in the court of the Babylonian king Evil-Merodach (2 Kgs 25:27-30).
It is difficult to evaluate Samuel's David. As he ages and as the cracks in his character become fissures rending the kingdom apart, we may begin to suspect that David is a man too emotionally and politically complex even to know his own depths. But if he were simple, he would be less likely to fire readers' imaginations and inspire us to think critically about our own mixed motives.
DAVID AND JONATHAN
Clues to Jonathan's character emerge before David is introduced, in a narrative that contrasts him with his father Saul. Jonathan first appears as a victor in battle, just after Saul has become king (1 Sam 13:3). The next chapter relates Jonathan's second triumph over the Philistines, achieved against great odds with the help of his armor-bearer (14:1-23). But his victory is overshadowed by what the storyteller deems a "very rash act" by Saul (14:24): a curse upon any soldier who tastes food before the battle is won. Like the rash oath of Jephthah (Jdg 11:38-39), this one backfires badly: Jonathan, ignorant of his father's words, tastes a honeycomb that the famished troops have stumbled upon. When warned of Saul's oath, Jonathan announces: "My father has troubled the land; see how my eyes have brightened because I tasted a little of this honey" ( 14:29). Unaware of this breach, Saul proposes to despoil the Philistines by night, but the priests suggest a consultation with God first. When God does not answer, Saul proclaims a lottery to determine who is at fault, decreeing that the offender will die, even if it is his own son. The lots falls to Jonathan, who confesses his deed and presents himself to die. Saul is about to kill him when the troops intervene.
This complicated story raises questions about Saul's leadership, Jonathan's filial respect, and the solidarity between them. Jonathan is shown to be valiant and capable in battle, indiscrete in his criticism, candid even in the face of death, and more valued by the troops than by his own father. Conversely, Saul loses face in the episode by displaying a lack of knowledge, poor judgment, insecurity, rigidity, and a peculiar talent for painting himself into a corner. Saul's word is less than effective: Jonathan criticizes him, the priests contradict him, God stonewalls him, and the army outmaneuvers him. Contrasts and tensions between father and son appear that will remain consistent throughout their story.8 What we do not yet see is the loyalty that will bind Jonathan to his father even when he realizes his dynasty is doomed.
Jonathan meets David at the beginning of ch. 18, immediately after David kills the Philistine Goliath. In contrast to the edginess depicted in ch. 14, Jonathan's feelings for David are here described with flowering repetition: "The soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul.... Then Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul" (1 Sam 18:1, 3). No cause is presented for this love-it simply seems to spring from the fullness of Jonathan's zeal. Speculating on the commonalities contributing to Jonathan's instant affection, Shimon Bakon notes similarities between their initial battle stories: each, armed with little more than valiance and faith, trounces stronger enemies: "one need not wonder that he found in David a kindred spirit."9
Jonathan immediately gives David his own robe, a highly potent symbol ever since Samuel used Saul's accidental tearing of his robe as a prompt for announcing that the kingdom would be torn from Saul and given to a better neighbor (15:28). Though David neither acts nor speaks, he apparently accepts from Jonathan what he refused from Saul, his armor and sword (cf. 17:38-39), as well as his belt and bow.
The nature and terms of Jonathan's covenant with David are unclear. On the one hand, the act is surrounded by unusually ardent language. On the other hand, biblical covenants are generally more political than personal in scope, especially in the Samuel corpus.10 This fact, combined with the political uses even of the term "love" ('ahab)u and the symbolism implicit in royal clothing and weaponry, suggest that much more is going on than personal affection. This is the first of three times that Jonathan makes a covenant with David, and only in the third instance, in their final meeting in ch. 23, is it stated outright that the covenant is mutually made.
Saul's first jealousies of David's prowess and popularity develop immediately. Nearly as soon as Jonathan loves David, Saul attempts to kill him. In ch. 19, Jonathan assumes his primary role as would-be mediator between Saul and David. Attempting to allay his father's suspicions and return David to the court, he enjoys only momentary success before Saul once again tries to kill David, who flees.
Chapter 20 records the longest and most poignant episode between Jonathan and David. Here David approaches his friend demanding to know what he has done to incur Saul's murderous rage. Jonathan initially denies Saul's intentions but soon consents to do whatever he can to help David. Together, they hatch a plan to ferret out what is on Saul's mind by observing his response to David's absence during the feast of the new moon. Jonathan will provide a signal to David by what he says to his servant while shooting arrows in the field.
Jonathan is slow to admit that his father actually means to kill his friend. Given that Saul has already revealed his murderous intentions in the previous chapter, we may wonder whether Jonathan is suffering from denial or is simply unwilling to acknowledge what both friends know. Jonathan may be accused of naïveté, but unlike many around him, he shows no trace of a darker side. The prospect of losing the crown to David arouses none of the jealousy that drives his father into uncontrolled frenzies. Neither does Jonathan show any of the calculation or dissembling that will be displayed more and more by David, beginning with the next episode concerning the priest Ahimelech.
Though Jonathan may not see his friend or his father with clarity, he does exhibit tragic prescience about the future, hinting with unintended irony at some of the sadder events to come. In response to David's invocation of their covenant and request that Jonathan show loyalty to him (hesed, v. 8), Jonathan asks for reciprocal loyalty:
May the LORD be with you, as he has been with my father. If I am still alive, show me the faithful love (hesed) of the LORD; but if I die, never cut off your faithful love (hesed) from my house, even if the LORD were to cut off every one of the enemies of David from the face of the earth ( 1 Sam 20:13b-15).
Readers know that Samuel and God have rejected Saul's kingship; we also know that God chose David to replace Saul. Here, Jonathan expresses both awareness and approval of David's destiny and asks his friend to return to his descendants the loyalty Jonathan has consistently shown him. Given that dynastic overthrows often meant death for former royalty (see esp. 2 Kings 9-10), this no small request.
From this point on, Jonathan's loyalty will be torn between his father and his friend. Even when his father tries to kill him, Jonathan remains a dutiful son in his father's house, rather than joining David's band of merry men in the wilderness. he will follow Saul all the way to death. Though the narrator describes Jonathan's soul as "bound" to David's soul, David is also accurate when he says of Jonathan and Saul, "In life and in death they were not divided" (2 Sam 1:23).
Jonathan's loyalty to those he loves stands out prominently. While Saul repeatedly flipflops in his intentions toward David, Jonathan does not waver. The narrator discloses no word, deed, or motive on David's part that earns him Jonathan's trust. One may well wonder whether Jonathan is too pure to take seriously the shortcomings of beloved others, or whether Jonathan is simply made of nobler stuff than they. We need not deify Jonathan to admit that he is the friend few of us deserve but most of us would dearly love to have.
The elaborate sequence in ch. 20 continues with a patiently paced narrative unfolding the results of the friends' plot to expose Saul's attitude. Saul misses David at the feast, and on the second day inquires after him. Hearing Jonathan's excuses, Saul angrily announces the future that seems to be on everyone's mind: "For as long as the son of Jesse lives upon the earth, neither you nor your kingdom shall be established" (1 Sam 20:31). Once again Saul proposes to kill David and then, contradicting all his expressions of paternal concern, tries to spear Jonathan as he previously attempted to spear David.
The next morning, Jonathan goes to the field with his servant and performs the agreed-upon signal, which conveys the message but does no justice to either his feelings or the drama. he sends the servant away unaware, he and David kiss and weep, and David leaves with his blessing. This moment marks David's final departure from the court of King Saul and begins his years as a fugitive. Despite Jonathan's indignation toward his father and allegiance to David, Jonathan returns to the palace.
Commentators have applauded David's display of emotion at the end of v. 41, which says literally: "And each wept with the other until David exceeded" (higdtt). Although the RSV managed to find in this, "until David recovered," most translations smooth it into "and David wept the more." Some view this as a sign that David returns Jonathan's deep affection. Others observe that he has much to bewail besides separation: his banishment, his danger, his ever-increasing distance from the destiny for which he was anointed. While Jonathan's grief is distinctly unselfish, the sources of David's grief are less clear.
Jonathan meets David in the wilderness one last time (1 Sam 23:16-18). There he offers his most confident and yet most tragically mistaken prediction: "Do not be afraid; for the hand of my father Saul shall not find you; you shall be king over Israel, and I shall be second to you; my father Saul also knows that this is so" (v. 17). Jonathan makes it crystal clear that he is willingly, even eagerly, abdicating the kingship. If we know the story's outcome, Jonathan's hopes are filled with pathos. Before they part for the final time, the two make yet a third covenant. The exact terms are again left unstated, but the context suggests a pact that David will be king and will continue to show good faith toward Jonathan's family.
Several chapters later, in the midst of rising successes for David and a long slide into ignominy for Saul, Jonathan is killed by the Philistines, along with two of his brothers (1 Sam 31:2), just before Saul commits suicide. The narrator goes to great lengths to clarify that, even though David has by now joined the enemy, he has been barred from this battle ( 1 Sam 29:6-10) and is far away pursuing the Amalekites at the time of the deaths of Saul's family. Several explicit time references provide David an airtight alibi (see 1 Sam 29:11; 30:1; 2 Sam 1:1-2).
David learns of the deaths of his enemy and his friend several days later. After disposing of the messenger who claims to have killed Saul, David voices a heart rending lament for both Saul and Jonathan. he begins with a radical shift of loyalties. Forsaking forever the trust of Achish of Gath that has protected him for years,12 David expresses Israelite grief: "Tell it not in Gath ... or the daughters of the uncircumcised will exult" (2 Sam 1: 20). Laying aside his own bitter experiences with Saul, David praises the dead king for his military prowess and economic bounty.
But personal grief is reserved for Jonathan in the lament's climax (v. 26). Readers may be relieved to discover that David appears sincere in his grief for his friend. Yet what David says is not "greatly beloved were you to me" (as in the NRSV) but rather, employing the unusual verb na'am, something closer to "very pleasant have you been to me" (RSV, see also KJV, JPS, and NASB). The verse continues: "Your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women."13 His attention is not on his love for Jonathan, but on Jonathan's love for him.
As elsewhere in his story (see 2 Samuel 22 and 23), David comes across more positively in poetry than in narrative, more appealingly in speech than in action. While most commentators, even some who are otherwise critical of David in the Samuel narratives, praise the lament, others suggest that "we should not allow its beautiful cadences and lofty sentiments to obscure its ironies and ambiguities."14
Clearly, Jonathan gave all he could to David and expected a mutual commitment. Clearly David trusted Jonathan and, with some prompting, made promises to him. Until this point, David has not been in the position to give much back, but now the tables are turning. From here on, the story of David and Jonathan addresses the question left hanging by Jonathan's several pleas: how will the new king treat the remnants of the house of Saul?
DAVID AFTER JONATHAN
In the verse immediately following his lament, David prepares to go to judah for his anointing as king. Three verses later he is making diplomatic overtures toward the town that so revered Saul, Jabesh-gilead. The next several chapters detail David's slow progress toward securing the throne of Israel from his rival, Saul's son Ishbaal. Although he wages war against the house of Saul and does nothing to prevent the assassinations of Ishbaal and the powerful Abner, David dramatically stands aloof when their murders are reported to him. Here, his attitudes and actions are defined not by his covenant with Jonathan but by his rivalry with the house of Saul.
In the midst of the story of Ishbaal's death, the narrator parenthetically introduces Jonathan's son Mephibosheth, crippled at the age of five when dropped by a frightened nurse (2 Sam 4:4). For the next five chapters we are peripherally aware of this potential rival, or rather potential beneficiary of his promise to Jonathan. But we learn nothing more, and questions hover. Does David know Jonathan has a son? When will he acknowledge him? Will he fulfill Jonathan's fears or his hopes? Or will he do nothing about this son of his greatest friend and grandson of his greatest enemy?
After securing the throne of judah and later Israel, David invades Jerusalem and makes it his own, builds a palace, takes more wives, has more sons, and brings the ark of God into the city. he is promised a dynasty by God through the prophet Nathan and subdues all his enemies. Only then, nine chapters and about a generation after the death of Jonathan, does David inquire whether there are any living heirs to Saul to whom he might show kindness for Jonathan's sake. Apparently there are several, or at least there were, for we learn later that seven of Saul's sons and grandsons were available to be sacrificed to make peace with the Gibeonites (2 Sam 21:8-9).15
Inquiring of Ziba, servant of Saul's house, David learns of Jonathan's son Mephibosheth. he summons him, gives him his grandfather's land, and invites him to eat at the royal table. Repetition abounds in this section. David expresses three times, in ever more forceful language, his intent "to show kindness for Jonathan's sake" (2 Sam 9:1, 3, 7).16 Four times we hear, from both David and the narrator, that Mephibosheth will eat at his table always (2 Sam 9:7, 10, 11, 13). It is pointedly repeated that Mephibosheth is lame in both his feet (2 Sam 9:3, 13; see also 2 Sam 4:4, 19:26). Other details are reported: Ziba has fifteen sons and twenty servants (v. 10), Mephibosheth has a single son named Mica (v. 12), and all in Ziba's house became servants to Mephibosheth (v. 12).
David's first meeting with Jonathan in 1 Samuel 18 was repetitive and detail-laden as well, but there the focus was on the depth of Jonathan's love. Here the repetitions and details seem to labor hard to deflect attention away from David's feelings about Jonathan's son. Yet several indirect clues to the king's attitudes and intentions are provided. First, this episode contrasts sharply with David's treatment of other Saulides. he has waged war on Ishbaal, occasioning both his death and that of his great-uncle Abner. he has forcefully taken Jonathan's sister Michal from her husband (2 Sam 3:13-16); he has allowed seven of Jonathan's kinsmen to be slaughtered (2 Sam 21:1-9). But now David seeks a recipient for his kindness. second, uncomfortable parallels emerge between Mephibosheth at David's table and David at Saul's table, underscored by Mephibosheth's unwitting repetition of David's self-reference as a "dead dog" (2 Sam 9:8; cf. 1 Sam 24:14). David's hospitality is perhaps expressed less brusquely than Saul's (1 Sam 18:2), but it carries the same double edge of protection and confinement. Third, lurking behind all the references to Mephibosheth's physical disabilities is the only other reference to lameness in the Samuel corpus: David's exchange with the Jebusites about hating the lame and the blind (2 Sam 5:8). Was that simply defiant rhetoric necessitated by the Jebusites' taunt (5:6)? Or does the narrator mean for us to remember that episode and the odd saying that proceeds from it, "the blind and the lame shall not come into the house" (5:8), and to wonder what, if anything, it has to do with Mephibosheth's coming into David's house? In any case, we do not hear more of their relationship for many years. Certainly we are given no reason to imagine that David keeps an eye out for (or on) Mephibosheth simply because his soul is knit to his.
As it turns out, it is David's son, rather than Jonathan's, who causes the king trouble. Years later, beating a hasty retreat from Jerusalem before the beloved but treacherous Absalom, the usurped king is greeted on the road by Mephibosheth's servant Ziba, laden with provisions for David's retinue. When the king asks, "Where is your master's son?" Ziba replies, "He remains in Jerusalem; for he said, 'Today the house of Israel will give me back my grandfather's kingdom'" (16:3). David immediately grants Ziba all of his master's property. As improbable as Mephibosheth's enthronement may be at this moment, David at least believes that Mephibosheth believes it is possible. Left hanging is the question David apparently fails to consider: Is Ziba telling the truth? Or has he seen an opportunity to ingratiate himself with the king at his master's expense?
Within days, David returns to Jerusalem, victorious but bereft of his beloved son Absalom. Ziba again rushes out to meet the king. he arrives barely ahead of Mephibosheth himself, who "had not taken care of his feet, or trimmed his beard, or washed his clothes, from the day the king left until the day he came back in safety" (2 Sam 19:24). David is put to the test here: who is deceiving him, the servant or the son? Or does it really matter? In the wake of his own paternal grief, in a vulnerable moment when all past griefs return afresh, how will David greet this orphan of his closest friend? Now that the enemies of David have been defeated, as Jonathan wished, will David renew his covenant with the house of Jonathan? Could bereaved father and grieving scion comfort one another, bringing Jonathan's devotion full circle? Can we read any paternal concern into David's question, "Why did you not go with me, Mephibosheth?"
Mephibosheth responds with a plausible tale: "My lord, O king, my servant deceived me; for your servant said to him, 'Saddle a donkey for me, so that I may ride on it and go with the king.' For your servant is lame. he has slandered your servant to my lord the king. But my lord the king is like the angel of God; do therefore what seems good to you" (2 Sam 19:26-27). On the surface, either his claim or Ziba's could be true. Indeed, readers have differed widely in their judgment of Mephibosheth, from those who believe his integrity is self-evident to those who claim it cannot be determined to those who view him as disingenuous.17 No matter whose is the treachery, it is a serious offense, and for Mephibosheth the stakes are high. Certainly if there is any doubt, some investigation on David's part seems warranted.18 But David responds with the abrupt pronouncement: "Why speak any more of your affairs? I have decided: you and Ziba shall divide the land" (19:29). As many have noted, David's proposal to divide Mephibosheth's estate in half elicits an answer much like the one Solomon elicited from the true mother of the baby he proposed to divide in half: "Let him take it all, since my lord the king has arrived home safely" (19:30; cf. 1 Kgs 3:26). For some interpreters, Mephibosheth's spontaneous response, when cross-referenced with the later story, sufficiently demonstrates his innocence, and David's inattention stands as a clue that "David cannot be bothered to sort out the truth."19 We do not have to determine Mephibosheth's motives to see that David's haste to set his case aside does little justice to Jonathan's life-risking efforts on his behalf. Jonathan loved David without testing his loyalty at all; David questions the loyalty of Mephibosheth but is unwilling to sort it out even for Jonathan's sake.
Given the frequency with which the families of usurped kings were massacred, David's protection of Mephibosheth is notable. Mephibosheth manages to keep half of his possessions, and his family survives thirteen generations more (1 Chron 8:33-40). In that sense, David shows kindness for the sake of Jonathan his friend. But David's actions never match Jonathan's in dedication or clarity of motives. he is last seen refusing to answer the man who, like his father, professes readiness to give everything in exchange for David's safety.20
THE GRACE OF FRIENDSHIP
Throughout his life, David is surrounded by a large cast of supporting characters. Few are able to respond dispassionately to his commanding presence. he inspires steadfast devotion and bitter hatred, love and anger. As a youth he is loved by royalty and ruffians alike. Later, despised by his own son and banished from his own palace, he encounters myriad instances of loyalty: Ittai the Gittite with 600 men (2 Sam 15:18-22); the priests Abiathar and Zadok (15:24-29); Hushai (15:32-37; 16:16-23; 17:1-16); Shobi, Machir, and Barzillai (17:27-29), to name a few. The devotion of Joab and his brother Abishai is so automatic that their presence is assumed (18:2). Most of these friends risk their lives to regain David's kingship for him. David's gratitude is as uneven as the ragged course of events that brings him to the end of his life. Barzillai he remembers fondly on his deathbed (1 Kgs 2:7). But his loyal general, advisor, and hatchetman Joab, the one at his side since his renegade days, whose cunning saved David's life and reputation in spite of himself, is bitterly condemned (IKgs 2:6).
In the midst of this complex exchange of favors and disfavors, trust and mistrust, what can we make of the friendship between Jonathan and David?
First, it should be acknowledged that by revealing Jonathan's inner life, the narrator provides information that is never available in the real world. Omniscient disclosures reveal Jonathan's heart more directly than any of us will ever know the hearts of our intimate friends. In withholding David's inner thoughts and forcing readers to judge David's sincerity on the basis of his words and actions over the course of decades, the story more closely recreates the ambiguities of the real world, in which no authoritative narrator clues us in on the character of those around us. In that sense, readers' experience of trying to understand David approximates our sorting out of loyalties in our own lives.21
Still, even if we bracket out direct narrative commentary, Jonathan's actions and words are self-consistent in ways that David's are not. Jonathan means what he says and says what he means; he never surprises us with a lie. By contrast, David's exceptionally violent duplicity toward Uriah in 2 Samuel 11 clashes jarringly with his piety in previous chapters. His renegation on his oath to Shimei (2 Sam 19:23; 1 Kgs 2:8-9) stands as a troubling indication of the king's moral degeneration by the end of his life. Some have argued that an initially innocent David struggles with the problem of loyalty throughout his life, and becomes hardened only in his old age. If that were the case, it would only be fair to note that Jonathan did not live long enough to turn into the seasoned sinner David did (i.e., only the young die good).
However, David's duplicity toward those who love him does not begin with Uriah. David's lies to the innocent priest Ahimelech, which lead to the slaughter of an entire town (1 Samuel 21-22), occur early in his career. By the time he repeatedly deceives the trusting king Achish of Gath (1 Sam 27:8-12; 28:1-2; 29:6-9), readers have been fully notified of the vast distinction between what David says and what he means. We have no reason to question Jonathan's integrity, but every reason to wonder whether David would ever let loyalty stand in the way of personal advancement.22
In his rich book The Dignity of Difference, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explores the importance of covenants in a contractual world:
Social life cannot be reduced to a series of market exchanges. We need covenants as well as contracts; meanings as well as preferences; loyalties, not just temporary associations for mutual gain. These things go to the heart of who we are.... For life to have personal meaning, there must be people who matter to us, and for whom we matter, unconditionally and nonsubstitutably. Ask someone what his or her greatest source of happiness is, and they are unlikely to mention their latest car, their last holiday, their new designer jeans. They are, or were, more likely to say: my marriage partner, my children, my reputation, my friends. Lose these and we lose the very concept of happiness, of a life well lived, of dedication to something larger than ourselves.23
Friendship often begins with the unmotivated kindness of one person toward another, a generous, uncalculated action offered simply from the joy of companionship. Jonathan's spontaneous love initiates friendship, and over the course of several episodes he continues to nurture it. he asks nothing of David in the present; all he asks for the future is to be remembered for the sake of his descendants. His is not a failure of loyalty; if anything, it is a failure of perception. Jonathan does not, as Ben Sira will later recommend, gain his friend through testing, but trusts hastily (Sir 6:7). At the same time, in such a fault Jonathan stands in good company with the God whose love for humankind precedes and exceeds all possible returns.
The extent to which a friendship grows into mutuality depends much upon the stuff of which each friend is made. When Ruth insists on traveling to Bethlehem with her motherin-law Naomi, we know nothing of the contents of their prior relationship, although we can reasonably assume Ruth has good reason for her devotion. She sees her mother-in-law through a difficult passage, until Naomi, hopeful once again, finds a way to reciprocate. Each benefits from the friendship, receiving from the other what they cannot do for themselves.
To some extent, the same is true for Jonathan and David. Jonathan helps when David is down and out; David helps Jonathan's son when Jonathan is dead.24 These are not small .
matters. Yet David's capacity to be a friend, like his capacity to nurture successfully all his central relationships, is not nearly as great as his capacity to inspire the love and loyalty of others. Though surrounded by many different kinds of people during his lifetime, many of them clearly more interested in a contractual relationship than in loyalty for its own sake, David also enjoys an extraordinary number of opportunities for covenantal relationships. Having wasted these opportunities, having betrayed and neglected the loyalty of others, he finds himself surrounded at death not by devotion but by intrigue and manipulation, friends and family competing for the spoils. It speaks volumes that though a beautiful young woman is contracted specifically to keep him warm, David remains cold (1 Kgs 1:1-4).
Though Jonathan died violently, he died with his loyalties intact, having betrayed neither his father, his friend, nor his progeny. David had a longer life, more children, more notoriety, and more of just about everything ambition could name, including the better friend. But by all indications, Jonathan lived the better life.
What emerges from this story is that friendships, like marriages, are made not in heaven alone, nor on earth alone. They may be most aptly described (to borrow a vivid image from the story of Absalom's demise) as "hanging between heaven and earth" (2 Sam 18:9), influenced not only by lofty aspirations but also by human limitations. Jonathan received the best eulogy in scripture, but that was not what he most desired. As many times as he adjured David to look out for his descendants, there is nothing Jonathan could have done to make David a better friend to him than he was. In one sense, this story reflects a sad tale of unfulfilled desires: Jonathan's for David's commitment, Michal's for David's love, Saul's for the love of his constituency, God's for a "man after his own heart" (1 Sam 13:14), Absalom's for reconciliation with his father, David's for reconciliation with his son, the Israelite people's for a just king.
In another sense, given the intricate flaws and self-deceptions of human nature, the human capacity for violence reflected as much in the pages of scripture as in the contemporary news, any bond of loyalty, however imperfect, is itself a little miracle, a limited but significant reflection of divine compassion. Jonathan's gift of friendship was a gift of pure grace, free to be reciprocated or squandered. The fact that Jonathan, years after his own death, could inspire a degree of loyalty that tempered David's political drives even somewhat testifies powerfully to the memory of kindness received. David's story is exceedingly rich with insight into human relationships. Among other things, it cautions readers to recognize and reciprocate the gifts of friendship freely offered.
[Sidebar] [I]f David were simple, he would be less likely to fire readers' imaginations and inspire us to think critically about our own mixed motives.
[Sidebar] As elsewhere in his story (see 2 Samuel 22 and 23), David comes across more positively in poetry than in narrative, more appealingly in speech than in action.
[Sidebar] We have no reason to question Jonathan's integrity, but we may rightly wonder whether David would ever let loyalty stand in the way of personal advancement.
[Footnote] 1 R. A. Putnam, "Friendship," in Reading Ruth: Contemporary Women Reclaim a Sacred Story, ed. J. A. Kates and G. T. Reimer (New York: Ballantine, 1994) 54. 2 "Davideis: A Sacred Poem of the Troubles of David," in The Complete Works in Verse and Prose of Abraham Cowley, vol. 2, ed. A. B. Grosart (New York: AMS, 1967) 45-115, esp. 54-56. see also T.-L. Pebworth, "Cowley's Davideis and the Exaltation of Friendship," in The David Myth in Western Literature, ed. R.-J. Frontain and J. Wojcik (West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 1980) 96-104. 3 See, e.g., G. Robinson, Let Us be Like the Nations: A Commentary on the Books of 1 and 2 Samuel, ITC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993) 158: "The friendship-love between Jonathan and David has become an example for all time of all true friendship relationships." see also H. W. Herzberg, l and 2 Samuel, OTL (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1976) 154-55; T. W. Cartledge, I and 2 Samuel, Smyth and Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon, Ga.: Smyth and Helwys, 2001) 243-45; E. Peterson, First and second Samuel, Westminster Bible Companion (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1999) 101, 232; K. D. Sakenfeld, Faithfulness in Action: Loyalty in Biblical Perspective (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985) 7-16, as well as her article "Loyalty and Love: The Language of Human Interconnections in the Hebrew Bible," in Backgrounds for the Bible, ed. M. P. O'Connor and D. N. Freedman (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1987) 215-29; R. Weems, "Missing Jonathan," The Other Side 33 (January-February, 1997) 50-54; T. Homer, Jonathan Loved David: Homosexuality in Biblical Times (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1978) 26-39. 4 K. L. Noll, The Faces of David (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997) 50-63, 93-95. 5 See, e.g., D. M. Gunn, "David and the Gift of the Kingdom (2 Sam 2-4, 9-20, 1 Kgs 1-2)," Semeia 3 (1975) 14-45; J. C. Exurn, Tragedy and Biblical Narrative (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 1992) 26, 70-119; R. Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (New York: Basic, 1981) 114-30; and L. G. Perdue, '"Is There Anyone Left of the House of Saul... ?' Ambiguity and the Characterization of David in the Succession Narrative," JSOT 30(1984) 67-84. 6 Perdue proposes that "the narrator's characterization of David is intentionally ambiguous so that two very different interpretations of David may emerge, depending on the reader's own assessment of the motives resting behind the king's actions and speeches.... The storyteller's design is to demonstrate the complexity of David" ("Is There Anyone Left," 71). see also J. S. Ackerman, "Knowing Good and Evil: A Literary Analysis of the Court History in 2 Samuel 9-20 and 1 Kings 1-2," JBL 109 (1990), who argues that David's story "has elements that are both favorable and hostile to the characters in the story because it was written by a great artist who was presenting life in all its multifaceted complexity ... envisioning an intricate balance between human freedom and divine sovereignty" (p. 59). 7 See Alter's treatment in The Art of Biblical Narrative, ch. 6, esp. 118-19. 8 For a detailed treatment of this episode, see D. M. Gunn, The Fate of King Saul, JSOTSup 14 (Sheffield: JSOT, 1980) 68-70. For a critical reading of Jonathan in this episode, see Exum, Tragedy and Biblical Narrative, 77. 9 Shimon Bakon, "Jonathan," ]BQ 23 (1995) 146. 10 See, e.g., 1 Sam 11:1; 2 Sam 3:12 and 5:3. 11 J. A. Thompson, "The Significance of the Verb Love in the David-Jonathan Narratives in 1 Samuel," VT24 (1974)334-38. 12 See 1 Sam 27:12 and 29:3-9, especially v. 9 where Achish calls David "blameless as an angel of God." 13 Although this essay is about friendship, it is hard to avoid the sexuality questions this verse ignites in our contemporary cultural and ecclesiastical context. While other arguments can be mounted about scripture in relation to homosexuality, I believe too much has to be read into the story to find a sexual relationship between David and Jonathan. The much subtler (and perhaps more interesting) question of what the narrative clues might have invited the original audience to gather about Jonathan's sexual leanings seems a difficult one to adjudicate from our historical distance and perhaps awaits a less polarized generation's study. 14 Exum, Tragedy and Biblical Narrative, 93. 15 P. K. McCarter, 2 Samuel, AB 9 (New York: Doubleday, 1984) treats the question of the relationship of 2 Sam 21:1-14 with 2 Sam 9:1-13 at length, suggesting that in a previous redaction the massacre of the seven Saulides immediately preceded the story of Mephibosheth (pp. 262-65). 16 In his discussion of this section, Perdue points out that "a rather common literary technique that exposes deception is a character's repeated affirmation of his integrity and goodwill" ("Is There Anyone Left," 75). 17 For the range of reactions to both Mephibosheth and David in this episode, see Peterson, First and second Samuel, 232 and W. Brueggemann, First and second Samuel, IBC (Louisville: John Knox, 1990) 328, who view David's response as magnanimous; D. Damrosch, The Narrative Covenant: Transformation of Genre in the Growth of Biblical Literature (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987) 247 and S. Lasine, "Judicial Narratives and the Ethics of Reading: The Reader as judge of the Dispute between Mephibosheth and Ziba," Hebrew Studies 30 (1989) 65, who believe the episode portrays him in a negative light; C. Conroy, Absalom Absalom! Narrative and Language in 2 Samuel 13-20 (Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1978) 106, who views Mephibosheth as contemptible; J. P. Fokkelman, Narrative Art and Poetry in the Books of Samuel, VoI I: King David (2 Sam 9-20; 1 Kgs 1-2) (Assen: Van Gorcum, 1981) 23-40, who is convinced and impressed by Mephibosheth; and H. Hagan, "Deception as Motif and Theme in 2 Sam 9-20; 1 Kgs 1-2," Biblica 60 (1979) 318, who believes the problem is unsolvable. 18 Lasine, "Judicial Narratives," 64. 19 Damrosch, The Narrative Covenant, 247. see also the detailed discussion of this episode in Ackerman, "Knowing Good and Evil," 52-53. 20 As Fokkelman comments, "The safe return of the king is everything to him, and the property nothing.... The one who is physically lame is morally and psychologically the only one who emerges from these entanglements inviolate" (Narrative Art and Poetry, 39). 21 For a discussion of the relationship between judging biblical characters and judging in daily life, see Lasine, "Judicial Narratives," 56-58. 22 Exum (Tragedy and Biblical Narrative, 146) notes the many people close to David who become his steppingstones in the acquisition of power. D. J. Elazar (Covenant and Polity in Biblical Israel [New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1995] 304) views Jonathan as "a singularly noble man who sacrifices his own interests for his friend." David, however, "appears to be a good and magnanimous friend, but his friendship never gets in the way of his ambition." 23 J. Sacks, The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations (New York: Continuum, 2002) 157. 24 Although Sakenfeld's discussions of David and Jonathan's relationship stop short of dealing with David's later treatment of Mephibosheth, she helpfully points out some interpersonal dynamics of biblical hesed: loyalty is requested when individuals are unable to fulfill their need on their own, the action requested is genuinely necessary, only one person is conspicuously able to provide assistance, and the one in need is not in a position to exercise control over the person being asked ("Loyalty and Love," 222-23).
[Author Affiliation] PATRICIA K. TULL Professor of Old Testament Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary