David Learns of the Deaths of Saul and Jonathan, 1-16

1:1 After the death of Saul, when David had returned from defeating the Amalekites, he stayed at Ziklag for two days. 1:2 On the third day a man arrived from the camp of Saul with his clothes torn and dirt on his head. When he approached David, the man threw himself to the ground.

Clothes torn and dirt on his head – are signed of mourning (Baldwin).

1:3 David asked him, “Where are you coming from?” He replied, “I have escaped from the camp of Israel.” 1:4 David inquired, “How were things going? Tell me!” He replied, “The people fled from the battle and many of them fell dead. Even Saul and his son Jonathan are dead!” 1:5 David said to the young man who was telling him this, “How do you know that Saul and his son Jonathan are dead?” 1:6 The young man who was telling him this said, “I just happened to be on Mount Gilboa and came across Saul leaning on his spear for support. The chariots and leaders of the horsemen were in hot pursuit of him. 1:7 When he turned around and saw me, he called out to me. I answered, ‘Here I am!’ 1:8 He asked me, ‘Who are you?’ I told him, ‘I’m an Amalekite.’ 1:9 He said to me, ‘Stand over me and finish me off! I’m very dizzy, even though I’m still alive.’ 1:10 So I stood over him and put him to death, since I knew that he couldn’t live in such a condition. Then I took the crown which was on his head and the bracelet which was on his arm. I have brought them here to my lord.”

“I stood over him and put him to death” – ‘Saul had lost his kingship because he had failed to kill an Amalekite king (cf. 1 Sam 15:9, 26); now an Amalekite that Saul had failed to eliminate would kill this Israelite king. Saul had been ordered to kill the Amalekites—now he ordered an Amalekite to kill him.’ (Bergen)

This account of Saul’s death is at variance with 1 Sam 34:1-14, which records that Saul asked his armor-bearer to kill him, but the armor-bearer refused, and so Saul fell on his own sword and committed suicide.

Some, such as Ackroyd, think that the two accounts represent two incompatible ‘traditions’ concerning Saul’s death.

Others, such as Brueggemann, are unwilling to adjudicate on the relative historicity of the two accounts.

This leaves two main approaches:

1. It may be that the young man is telling the truth.  Saul did indeed fall on his sword, but he did not die instantaneously.  The young man ‘finished him off’ – as this passage says.

Baldwin cites Mauchline (without agreement), ‘who thinks that the Amalekite’s narrative rings true, and regards David as blameworthy for disregarding the man’s “honourable motives and humanitarian considerations”.’

This is also the view of Bergen, who adds that this account, among other things

‘clears David of any suspicions that may have been aroused by his possession of Saul’s royal jewelry. David acquired them not by participating in the battle against Saul but by executing Saul’s killer.’

2. It may be that the young man is lying.  Rather than ‘just happening’ to find himself in the middle of a battle (v6), he was robbing corpses on the battlefield.  Coming across Saul’s dead body, he took the crown and bracelet.  He thought to find favour with David by claiming to have killed Saul.

Evans (UBCS) notes the discrepancies in the young Amalekite’s story:

‘Any person associated with the Israelite army who had been standing next to Saul with the chariots and riders almost upon him would not have avoided death. Nor does the Amalekite’s story explain how he could have been sure of the death of Jonathan. The writers probably are well aware of this deception and include the discrepancies to make the Amalekite’s lie clear to the reader.’

1:11 David then grabbed his own clothes and tore them, as did all the men who were with him. 1:12 They lamented and wept and fasted until evening because Saul, his son Jonathan, the LORD’s people, and the house of Israel had fallen by the sword.

The young man has evidently badly misjudged David’s expected reaction.  He had come with a ‘You will be pleased to hear that Saul is dead.  I finished him off myself.’  But David’s response is one of mourning and lament.

1:13 David said to the young man who told this to him, “Where are you from?” He replied, “I am an Amalekite, the son of a resident foreigner.” 1:14 David replied to him, “How is it that you were not afraid to reach out your hand to destroy the LORD’s anointed?” 1:15 Then David called one of the soldiers and said, “Come here and strike him down!” So he struck him down, and he died. 1:16 David said to him, “Your blood be on your own head! Your own mouth has testified against you, saying ‘I have put the LORD’s anointed to death.’ ”

David M. Gunn (Harper’s Bible Commentary) summarises David’s attitude towards Saul, leading up to this episode:

‘With Saul at his mercy (cf. 1 Sam. 24; 26), David explains his restraint in terms of not putting forth his hand against Yhwh’s anointed. Whether that restraint is an exercise in piety or in political shrewdness is not told to readers directly. Perhaps it contains a measure of both. Although Samuel never tells him so, David seems aware that Saul has been rejected as king by God (1 Sam. 15) and that his own anointing (1 Sam. 16) has been an anointing for kingship. Yet he does not presume to seize immediately what may still lie in God’s gift for the future. Rather he bides his time, building his power base (his small army and his circle of well-treated “friends” [1 Sam. 30:26]) and waiting for others to see to Saul’s demise. Dramatically now (2 Sam. 1:14–16) he proclaims his innocence of Saul’s blood by publicly mourning for him, by naming him once more (for the last time) as “Yhwh’s anointed” and by having the Amalekite put to death.’

Payne (NBC) comments of David’s action here:

‘The Amalekite, as a resident of Israel, was under obligation to obey Israel’s law-code, yet he had killed Israel’s king. In executing him as a murderer, David was already acting as if he were king and judge.’

Hubbard et al (WBC) comments:

‘Obviously, David had to take the Amalekite’s version at its face value, and act accordingly because this report was the first intimation of Saul’s death and, in the circumstances, there was no reason to question it.’

David’s Tribute to Saul and Jonathan, 17-27

1:17 Then David chanted this lament over Saul and his son Jonathan. 1:18 (He gave instructions that the people of Judah should be taught “The Bow.” Indeed, it is written down in the Book of Yashar.)
1:19 The beauty of Israel lies slain on your high places!
How the mighty have fallen!
1:20 Don’t report it in Gath,
don’t spread the news in the streets of Ashkelon,
or the daughters of the Philistines will rejoice,
the daughters of the uncircumcised will celebrate!
1:21 O mountains of Gilboa,
may there be no dew or rain on you, nor fields of grain offerings!
For it was there that the shield of warriors was defiled;
the shield of Saul lies neglected without oil.
1:22 From the blood of the slain, from the fat of warriors,
the bow of Jonathan was not turned away.
The sword of Saul never returned empty.
1:23 Saul and Jonathan were greatly loved during their lives,
and not even in their deaths were they separated.
They were swifter than eagles, stronger than lions.
1:24 O daughters of Israel, weep over Saul,
who clothed you in scarlet as well as jewelry,
who put gold jewelry on your clothes.
1:25 How the warriors have fallen
in the midst of battle!
Jonathan lies slain on your high places!
1:26 I grieve over you, my brother Jonathan!
You were very dear to me.
Your love was more special to me than the love of women.
1:27 How the warriors have fallen!
The weapons of war are destroyed!

Your love was more special to me than the love of women

'More special than the love of women'

In 2 Samuel 1:26 David laments:

I grieve over you, my brother Jonathan!
You were very dear to me.
Your love was more special to me than the love of women.

Their relationship has been introduced in 1 Samuel 18 –

18:1 When David had finished talking with Saul, Jonathan and David became bound together in close friendship. Jonathan loved David as much as he did his own life. 18:2 Saul retained David on that day and did not allow him to return to his father’s house. 18:3 Jonathan made a covenant with David, for he loved him as much as he did his own life. 18:4 Jonathan took off the robe he was wearing and gave it to David, along with the rest of his gear, including his sword, his bow, and even his belt.

Then, in Samuel 20,

20:30 Saul became angry with Jonathan and said to him, “You stupid traitor! Don’t I realize that to your own disgrace and to the disgrace of your mother’s nakedness you have chosen this son of Jesse?

And in v41 of the same chapter – David and Jonathan kissed each other and they both wept.

For some, these texts suggest that the relationship between David and Jonathan went beyond that of deep friendship, and entailed romantic love and perhaps even sexual intimacy.

If (it has been argued), the language employed in this passage had been used of a man and a woman, we would be celebrating it as one of the great love stories of all time.  But because the language is used of two men, we deny the ‘obvious’ implication that their relationship involved more than deep friendship.

‘When’ (it is asked) ‘was the last time you saw a heterosexual man, swept away by brotherly love, offer another man his most precious possessions in their first encounter? Suppose the pastor of your church (assuming he is a man), upon meeting another man for the first time, stripped himself of his suit and gave it to the other. Suppose in that same encounter he also offered his most precious possessions — perhaps a family Bible, a wristwatch with an inscription from his parents, and his beloved four-wheel drive pickup truck. Wouldn’t this strike you as more than just a little “queer”? Let’s face it, the author of 1 Samuel is describing a classic love-at-first-sight encounter that happens to involve two men.’

It appears that this interpretation, while urging us to pay greater attention to what the text actually says, is (wilfully?) blind to the huge differences between that age and culture and our own.  It also ignores the fact that the text, while obviously describing a very deep relationship, makes no mention at all of any sexual activity between the two men.  Indeed, from everything we know about OT law and practice, they would both have found the implication abhorrent.

Youngblood (EBC, rev) comments that

‘Tom Horner (Jonathan Loved David: Homosexuality in Biblical Times [Philadelphia: Westminster, 1978]) asserts that the relationship between David and Jonathan was homosexual (see esp. pp. 20, 26–28, 31–39). But the verb ʾāhēb (“love”) is not used elsewhere to express homosexual desire or activity, for which the OT employs yādaʿ (“know”), in the sense of “have sex with” (Ge 19:5; Jdg 19:22). The latter verb is never used of David’s relationship with Jonathan.’

The following goes some way towards a more reasonable account of the relationship between the two men:

‘In the ancient Near East, as in conservative Islamic societies today, adult men and women were not permitted to have friendships, casual or otherwise, with one another. Because social roles assigned to males and females differed greatly, men could not usually have close friendships, based on mutual interests, even with their wives. Women were excluded from many activities common to men; they could not take part in military affairs, and were generally excluded from religious rites as well. Men, in like fashion, were not expected to engage in most activities associated with women. Men had to cultivate their friendships with other men, while reserving sexual activity for their wives (or prostitutes). Sometimes such friendships could be intense, but they did not have a sexual component. Jonathan and David were great friends, fellow soldiers, brothers-in-law, and brothers in the faith, but they were not homosexual “lovers.”’ (Apologetics Study Bible)

Tim Chester, similarly:

‘Homosexuality was clearly forbidden by God’s law (Leviticus 18:22; 20:13). The writer of Samuel is not afraid to highlight David’s sin. But he gives no indication of any law-breaking in their relationship. Either he was ignorant of the sin, or he covered it up—neither of which is likely given his exposé of David’s adultery with Bathsheba in 2 Samuel 11–12. The suggestion of homosexuality probably reveals more about the sexualisation of our culture than it does about their relationship. The reality is that men can have an intimate and affectionate friendship without it becoming sexual, especially when they are comrades in arms.’

Living in Love and Faith rightly calls attention to the intensely personal nature of the relationship between the two men (see esp. 1 Sam 20:41).  But the relationship is nowhere described as explicitly sexual, ‘though it has been read that way by some’.  It may be that their friendship mattered more to each of them than their marriages (see 2 Sam 1:26, although allowance needs to be made for the rhetoric of mourning).

William Loader (who affirms same-sex sexual relationships) notes that:

‘[Some] cite the friendship between David and Jonathan as an example of a homoerotic relationship, not least because of the allusion to their love as surpassing the love of women (especially 1 Sam 20:41–42 and 2 Sam 1:17–26), but this is doubtful. Nowhere in early Jewish literature is there any indication that it was read in this way, which would have almost certainly have occasioned efforts to explain it differently. Close friendship between men need not have been homoerotic.’

(Two Views on Homosexuality, the Bible and the Church, p23f)

But there is another important element to be added.  That is the political element.

‘The language of love used to describe their relationship is found frequently in ancient Near Eastern texts to describe the loyalty of king and subjects, so here there are likely both personal and political connotations.’ (Harper’s Bible Commentary)

J.A. Thompson has analysed the meaning and usage of the verb translated ‘to love’.  This verb first occurs in the present narrative in 1 Sam 16:21, where it is applied to Saul’s ‘love’ for David (‘Saul liked him a great deal’):

‘Saul loved (‘ahill) him greatly and he became his armour-bearer (i Sam. 16:21). It is arguable that the verb ‘ahib was carefully intro-duced at this point because of a certain ambiguity of meaning. It is the proper term to denote genuine affection between human beings, husband and wife, parent and child, friend and friend. But since the verb can also have political implications and since, as we shall argue, it is used in such a sense elsewhere in the narrative, we may suspect that already in 1 Samuel 16:21 the narrator is preparing us for the later political use of the term.’

There is a parallel expression in 1 Kings 5:1, which says, literally, that King Hiram of Tyre ‘had always loved David’.  This is variously translated as:

‘Hiram was ever a lover of David’ (AV)

‘Hiram always loved David’ (ESV)

Hiram ‘had always been on friendly terms with David’ (NIV)

‘Hiram had always been a friend to David’ (NRSV)

‘King Hiram of Tyre had always been a friend of David’s’ (GNB)

‘(Hiram had always been an ally of David)’ (NET)

As the context makes clear, the relationship between Hiram and David was essentially a political one.

CP. 1 Sam 17:38f.  By means of this action, Jonathan is transferring his own status as heir apparent to David.

Baldwin wonders:

‘In our political world, where power plays such an important role, what would be thought of a prince who voluntarily renounced his throne in favour of a friend whose character and godly faith he admired?’

Thompson thinks that Jonathan’s bestowal of his weapons on David signifies something more than close friendship: it carries the political significance of the heir to the throne handing his rights over to the one who (as it turns out to be) is God’s anointed king.  As Saul himself will soon ask: ‘What more can he get but the kingdom?’ (v8).

In 1 Sam 18:16 we read that ‘all Israel and Judah loved David, for he was the one leading them out to battle and back.’

In 1 Sam 18:22 the same verb (often translated ‘to love’ ‘Saul instructed his servants, “Tell David secretly, ‘The king is pleased with you, and all his servants like you. So now become the king’s son-in-law.”‘

In 1 Sam 20:8 David appeals to Jonathan: ‘You must be loyal to your servant, for you have made a covenant with your servant in the LORD’s name.’

A little later, the same kind of political overtones are apparent again in Jonathan’s words to David:

1 Sam 20:14 ‘”While I am still alive, extend to me the loyalty of the LORD, or else I will die! 20:15 Don’t ever cut off your loyalty to my family, not even when the LORD has cut off every one of David’s enemies from the face of the earth 20:16 and called David’s enemies to account.” So Jonathan made a covenant with the house of David. 20:17 Jonathan once again took an oath with David, because he loved him. In fact Jonathan loved him as much as he did his own life.’

According to 1 Sam 20:30f Saul clearly understood that the relationship between Jonathan and Saul had (primarily?) political implications, for ‘Saul became angry with Jonathan and said to him, “You stupid traitor! Don’t I realize that to your own disgrace and to the disgrace of your mother’s nakedness you have chosen this son of Jesse? 20:31 For as long as this son of Jesse is alive on the earth, you and your kingdom will not be established. Now, send some men and bring him to me. For he is as good as dead!”’

So also in 1 Sam 22:7f ‘Saul said to his servants who were stationed around him, “Listen up, you Benjaminites! Is Jesse’s son giving fields and vineyards to all of you? Or is he making all of you commanders and officers? 22:8 For all of you have conspired against me! No one informs me when my own son makes an agreement with this son of Jesse! Not one of you feels sorry for me or informs me that my own son has commissioned my own servant to hide in ambush against me, as is the case today!”’

All of these references, according to Thompson, point to an interpretation of the verb ‘to love’ that is similar to that in 1 Kings 5:1 – ‘King Hiram of Tyre sent messengers to Solomon when he heard that he had been anointed king in his father’s place. (Hiram had always been an ally of David.)’ [Lit. Hiram had always loved David.]

But,

‘David’s very personal expression of emotion here should not be taken as evidence of a homosexual liaison with Jonathan; rather, it is a manifestation of the parameters of social relations that existed in ancient Israelite society. Marriages in ancient Israel took place primarily for the benefit of the tribe—to increase the size and strength of the social group through procreation (cf. Gen 1:28) and to increase its prosperity through the establishment of advantageous formal ties with other families (cf. Gen 34:21–23). A man’s wife was his partner in procreation and parenting, but not necessarily his best friend, confidant, or social peer. For David, Jonathan was the peer, friend, and confidant that no wife could ever have been in that society; and his untimely death left a gaping hole in David’s soul.’ (Bergen, NAC)

Regarding the verb ‘love’ in 2 Sam 1:26, it has been noted that,

‘while this verb always implies strong affection, it does not typically imply sexual expression. It is used in a wide variety of relationship contexts, and what is stressed here is the unusual intensity of affection. In this case, even allowing for the rhetoric of mourning, it might well mean that this relationship mattered more to David than his marriages.’ (Living in Love and Faith, p180)

The argument that the relationship between David and Jonathan was of a homosexual nature is further undermined by the fact that both men married, and in David’s case he was capable of uncontrollable lust towards other men’s wives (2 Samuel 11:2-26).  It would then have to be said that David was ‘bisexual’.  But this conclusion shows every sign of making the evidence fit the theory, rather than the other way round.

As Ed Shaw remarks:

‘what about the more plausible theory that Jonathan’s simple friendship was more precious to David than his complicated relationships with women (1 Samuel 25:42–44 lists three wives at this stage of David’s life)? Why is it not possible that he enjoyed the non-sexual intimacy of his friendship with Jonathan (also a married man) more than the sexual intimacy of his relationships with Abigail, Ahinoam and Michal? Why not conclude that he’s not saying Jonathan was better in bed than his wives – but that Jonathan’s friendship was better than anything David did in bed with his wives?’ (The Plausibility Problem)

According to Jonathan Rowe, key emphasis in the story of David and Jonathan is the way they measure up to the ideal of manhood (in a way that Saul does not).  As summarised by Ian Paul, such a man

‘fathers children, shows concern as a husband, takes an interest in matters of worship and judgement in law, excels in intelligent speech and (most important of all) is a valiant warrior.’

Rowe notes that

‘Significantly, David is described as ‘a man of valour, a warrior, prudent in speech, and a man of good presence; and the Lord is with him,’ a description that could apply equally to Jonathan.’

Each saw himself in the other:

‘The preceding narrative has revealed how David’s personal qualities are similarly those of Saul’s son, so it is unsurprising that Jonathan ‘loved him as his own soul,’ because David was ‘as his own soul,’ a literal translation that can also be rendered ‘as he himself.’ In the language of ancient friendship, David and Jonathan were ‘other selves,’ together because they were alike.’

It is not plausible, in the thought-world of the Old Testament, that such a relationship equated to a modern ‘gay’ relationship:

‘Jonathan and David are portrayed as ‘real men’ in order that their narrative voices are credible to original readers. Although 1 Samuel 20.30 does not refer to their sexual practices, homosexual acts were considered shameful—as evidenced by Leviticus—and it is virtually inconceivable that the portrayal of Jonathan and David as masculine heroes would have convinced should their liaison have been perceived as erotic. They were, indeed, “just good friends.”‘

The connection that we should make (says Rowe) is not that which exists between two gay men, but between the believer and Christ:

‘By engaging us in the dramatic story of David, Jonathan and Saul, the author highlights how loyalty to the Lord’s anointed is paramount, even when this conflicts with what might be demanded by others. Early readers would have identified the implication that loyalty to David’s successors was required. For Christians this speaks of loyalty to Jesus the Messiah, the seed of David. And just like Jonathan’s love for David, a Christian’s love for Jesus often calls for choices that are culturally unexpected. But that is another story.’

The trouble is, in our own over-sexualised age, we find it difficult to conceive that a close friendship might be anything other than sexual.  Yet C.S. Lewis remarked that male friendships could be even more intimate (in a non-sexual way) than male-female relationships. Lewis said, ‘Those who cannot conceive Friendship as a substantive love but only as a disguise or elaboration of Eros betray the fact that they have never had a Friend.’

Living in Love and Faith concludes:

‘The story therefore presents us with an example of covenanted friendship. This covenanted fidelity was not really analogous to marriage. It is clear that almost as soon as the covenant was made, David and Jonathan were parted never to meet again. Both men were already married – in David’s case multiply (2 Samuel 2.2, 5.13).’ (p188)

This publication leaves open questions about whether modern male friendships are capable of such deep emotions, and whether the church today might

‘honour and bless a same-sex relationship of covenanted fidelity today, which is devoted, affectionate, capable of superseding social conventions with regard to family loyalty, capable of being dismissed by those who are threatened by it as a perverse disgrace, and yet holy to the Lord?’

2 Sam 1:27 “How the mighty have fallen!
The weapons of war have perished!”