Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

David’s lament over the deaths of Saul and Jonathan, a fine example of Hebrew poetry, is a particularly difficult text to preach, for this convergence of difficultly intertwined relationships lacks any reference to the LORD.

July 1, 2012

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Commentary on 2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27

David’s lament over the deaths of Saul and Jonathan, a fine example of Hebrew poetry, is a particularly difficult text to preach, for this convergence of difficultly intertwined relationships lacks any reference to the LORD.

Textual Horizons

Throughout the story of the Saul and David, there are threads that weave in and out the narrative.   Two such relational threads from earlier in the story need to be highlighted before going into David’s lament over Saul and Jonathan: David’s relationship with Saul’s son Jonathan, and David’s relationship with Saul. 

Just after David slays Goliath and defeats of the Philistines (last week’s pericope1), the first of threads come into full view, when the narrator shares, “the soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul.”2 

The full character of the relationship between Jonathan, a warrior in his own right3 respected by the people,4 is not altogether clear.  Over the last thirty-five years, there has been a growing openness to and resulting debate about interpreting the relationship between David and Jonathan as a homosexual relationship.  On this a caution: It is difficult, if not impossible, to draw direct comparisons between relationships portrayed in scripture and those lived today.  The interpreter must be careful not to draw too simplistic a picture of relationship types across and between cultures today, let alone making comparisons of relationships today with those depicted in ancient texts from ancient cultures.  Returning to the narrative itself, the interpreter must also be cautious given the complex relationships that both David and Jonathan have with many others throughout their stories.

All that said, if there is a relationship depicted in scripture that provides images for talking about a loving relationship between two men, homosexual or heterosexual, this is it.  David lamenting Jonathan’s death in the pericope for today, says, “I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.”5   The question of orientation, which is ambiguous and ultimately unanswerable, need not render scripture into a witness for any particular interpretation or ideology.

What is clear, rather, is that the deep, committed bond and friendship between these two figures, which leads Jonathan to make a covenant with David,6 to warn David of Saul’s desire to have him killed,7 to speak well of David to Saul in spite of his father’s wishes,8 and which leads David to sing of Jonathan’s death as if his own self had died. 

Also weaving into David’s lament in today’s pericope is his tumultuous relationship with Saul.   It is crucial at this juncture to recall the LORD’s involvement in the relationship of David and Saul:

The LORD said, “Rise and anoint [David]; for this is the one.”  Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the LORD came mightily upon David from that Day forward.  Samuel then set out and went to Ramah.  Now the spirit of the LORD departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the LORD tormented him.9

While David does not ascend to the throne for some time,10 the shift in the spirit of the LORD11 is a liminal point in the drama that continues right through their shared story and into the lament in today’s text.  Ordained by the movement of the LORD’s spirit, Saul and David, remain adversaries.  However, David, the then-Philistine mercenary, refused to lead his men against Saul.12  Saul’s death comes upon Mount Gilboa in battle with the Philistines.  After the Philistines have killed three of Saul’s sons, Jonathan, Abinadab, and Malchishua, he recognizes that all is lost and, rather than dying at the hand of the Philistines, falls on his sword.13

David’s grief at the deaths of Saul and Jonathan14 is acute.  From this flows his lament, a beautifully constructed example of Hebrew poetry that never mentions God.  Woven together here are these two relational threads, David’s relationships with both Saul and Jonathan, drastically different thought they were.  Of note is the observation of William Holladay, David “chose to eulogize the two men side by side…, to honor the king by naming him one more time than he named Jonathan, and to express his personal affection for Jonathan by direct address…”15  David’s grief-stricken work of art draws together his predecessor on the throne and his deepest friend, father and son at odds over the LORD’s favor upon the throne of Israel.16 

Preaching Horizons

It should be no surprise that David, the psalmist, is able to offer up such a poignant lament, a work of art.  It should be no surprise that David is able to express such deep feelings about Jonathan.  What is surprising is that he is able to do so about Saul, the foe who repeatedly desired him dead.  Perhaps the questions of Ambrose of Milan will help to ponder the place of David’s lament in the context of this larger narrative.

“What mother could weep thus for her only son as he wept here for his enemy?  Who could follow his benefactor with such praise as that with which he followed the man who plotted against his life?”17

11 Samuel 17: [1a, 4-11, 19-23] 32-49 – 4th Sunday after Pentecost (24 June 2012)
21 Samuel 18:1
31 Samuel 13:3
41 Samuel 14:45
52 Samuel 1:26.  For further reading on the interpretation that the relationship of David and Jonathan as homosexual relationship, cf. Yaron Peleg, “Love at First Sight? David, Jonathan, and the Biblical Politics of Gender,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 30 (2005): 171-189; and on the interpretation that their relationship is a “deep friendship,” cf. Markus Zehnder, “Observations on the Relationship between David and Jonathan and the Debate on Homosexuality,” Westminster Theological Journal69 (2007): 127-174. 
6 It is not entirely clear how to understand “covenant” here.  It is likely not an image of the suzerainty treaty between the LORD and Israel, but more in line with a pact or agreement between two equal parties. 
71 Samuel 19:2
81 Samuel 19:4-6
91 Samuel 16:12b-14
102 Samuel 5:3
111 Samuel 16:12b-14
121 Samuel 30:23
13Saul’s suicide is point in scripture where suicide is not condemned. 
14Evidently, the other two sons of Saul who were slain alongside Jonathan (1 Samuel 31:2) were not lamentable. 
15William L. Holladay, “Form and Word-Play in David’s Lament over Saul and Jonathan,” Vetus testamentum 20 (1970) 188.
16On the distant but visible horizon of this text are the extreme measures taken by David (2 Samuel 21) during the three-year famine.  With the exception of Jonathan’s son, David executes by the hand of the Gibeonites Saul’s remaining progeny. Hearing that Saul’s concubine, Rizpah, had protected the bodies from the birds for some time, David had the bodies of those whom he had had executed together with the bones of Saul and Jonathan buried properly in the land of Benjamin.  As if repairing a rupture by performing this burial (and executing the remnants of Saul’s house?), God begins again to heed “supplications for the land” (2 Samuel 21:14b). 
17Ambrose, “On the Duties of the Clergy,” 3.9 – NPNF2 10.77.