David and Jonathan

The amazing friendship that should never have been.

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Jonathan and David embrace in friendship. From a 13th century French illuminated manuscript.

One of the grace notes in the Old Testament narratives is the various references to the passionate friendship between David and Jonathan.* When we encounter the first mention, we find the text telling us:

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. (1 Samuel 18:1)

What strikes me about the sentence is that phrase Jonathan loved him as his own soul. It suggests the depth of feeling that Jonathan feels for this young man who has just slain the fearsome giant Goliath.

Another glimpse of the depth of Jonathan’s feelings comes two verses later. The text tells us:

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 Samuel 18:3-4)

Jonathan is so attached to David that he literally gives David the garments of his warrior honor: his robe, his armor, and his arms. It is an astonishing gift of liberality in a deeply warrior culture. And also an expensive gift. Armor was something so expensive that only the elite could wear it.

As we read on in 1 Samuel, we learn that this attachment between the two men is not a passing fancy. As David’s popularity with the public grows, it incites deep jealousy in King Saul. Saul begins to see and fear David as a rival. He also begins to entertain plans to kill this rival.

Jonathan tries to dampen his father’s fears by becoming an advocate for David. He reminds Saul of David’s bravery and his service to the kingdom. He asks his father, You saw it, and rejoiced; why then will you sin against an innocent person by killing David without cause? (1 Samuel 19:1-7)

 Jonathan can pacify his father’s fears only temporarily. When Saul again makes plans to kill David, Jonathan sends a coded message to David to flee for his life. David is no longer safe in the royal court. As the two friends part—never to see each other again alive—we again get a glimpse of the passionate attachment between the two young men.

The text tells us:

As soon as the boy [who had been instrumental in delivering the coded message] had gone, David rose from beside the stone heap, and prostrated himself with his face to the ground. He bowed three times, and they kissed each other, and wept with each other; David wept more. (1 Samuel 20:41)

An Inter-generational Bond

Jonathan goes on to say to David:

Go in peace, since both of us have sworn in the name of the Lord, saying ‘The Lord shall be between me and you, and between my descendants and your descendants forever.’ (1 Samuel 20:42)

This friendship has become something more than a normal friendship. It has become a spiritual bond that will extend beyond their own lifetimes to their descendants.

We also note that the attachment is deeply mutual, as the text makes a special point that David wept more.

Some modern readers have asked if this friendship was something more than emotional. Was it homoerotic? Is there a hint of that in the detail that they kissed each other? But what kind of kiss was it? Was it erotic or just a kiss of deep affection?

Another hint occurs in David’s lament over Jonathan’s death when he describes his love for Jonathan as passing his love of women. I contend we can spin too much speculation from these details. The Bible draws a tantalizing veil over the nature of their friendship.

Later details in the Biblical narrative make clear that this deep attachment never waned. When Jonathan dies in battle with the Philistines, David launches into a passionate lament over the death of Saul and his son (2 Samuel 1:17-26). His tribute to Jonathan is especially poignant:

Jonathan lies slain upon your high places.

            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. (2 Samuel 1:26)

And David honors the bond that Jonathan saw as passing into future generations. When David learns that Jonathan left behind a handicapped son, Mephibosheth, David brings this son to live in the royal compound and provides him with a royal pension. The text says David treats the young boy as if he were one of his own sons. (2 Samuel 9)

An Improbable Friendship

What the stories about David and Jonathan bear witness to is the enormous prestige the ancient world gave to friendship. It was regarded as the highest form of human relationship, a far higher and often more intimate relationship than marriage. It possessed especially high value in the warrior cultures of ancient times. We find another passionate example in the friendship between Achilles and Patroclus described in Homer’s Illiad.

I discuss the reasons for this prestige in another of my blog postings Jesus’ Privileged Friends. You can click on it if you wish to learn more about the reasons ancient people so highly valued friendship.

But what is particularly striking about the friendship between Jonathan and David is that it should never have happened. Jonathan was after all a royal prince, the son of Israel’s King Saul. He, therefore, had higher social status that David, that upstart who had once served as a lowly shepherd herding sheep.

As we read the Biblical text, we learn that David indeed became a serious threat to the throne of King Saul. He in fact succeeded Saul as king of Israel. Saul hunted down David to kill this rival. He had good political reasons for doing so. This should have given Jonathan every reason for dropping this now politically inconvenient friend.

And yet the Biblical text tells us that the soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul. Jonathan remained loyal to David for the rest of his short life. And on the different occasions when he protected David from his father’s murderous rages, he put loyalty to his friend above loyalty to his father the king. It would be hard to find a similar example in all the many annals of royal dynasties in human history.

Likewise, as we have seen, David remained loyal to Jonathan, even beyond Jonathan’s death.

How can any of this have happened? It is a marvel among marvels. And a testimony to the power of passionate friendship.

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* The accounts are scattered throughout 1 and 2 Samuel. They include: 1 Samuel 18:1-5; 1 Samuel 19:1-7; 1 Samuel 20; 2 Samuel 1; 2 Samuel 4:4; 2 Samuel 9; 2 Samuel 21:7

Snow Fall in Advent

How a blizzard brings to mind one of Jesus’ parables.

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One of my favorite parables of Jesus is his story of the ten wise and foolish bridesmaids who await the arrival of a long-delayed bridegroom and his wedding procession. We find it in Matthew 25:1-13.

The parable is commonly read during the Advent Season. It has inspired many artistic interpretations. My favorite is Johann Sebastian Bach’s gorgeous cantata, Wachet Auf.

As I was thinking about the parable recently, my thoughts drifted. I recalled a December blizzard that blanketed our region several years ago. The memory inspired this poem:

 

It snowed last night.

In the morning light

I gazed upon a vanished landscape

As if a frozen volcano had exploded

And buried all in layers of white ash.

Everything low had disappeared:

The autumn leaves,

The hibernating grass on the brown earth,

The rose bushes that stand sentinel

Against the house wall.

The garden sculptures poked their heads

Out of their snow graves

As if gasping for one last breath.

Sidewalks were gone, so were streets.

One did not know where to avoid

The drain ditches that carry off the rain water.

The groaning trees lifted their branches

Into the air

As if in prayer

To be relieved of their white anxieties.

In a cloudless sky

The sun beamed upon the land

As if a priest were bestowing his blessing.

The land radiated back the benediction.

My eyes could not absorb such beauty.

I had to don dark glasses

When I stepped out to walk the dog.

She tried to dig a pathway

To the lawn, like a locomotive

Pushing its way through a snow-bound mountain pass.

She did not get far. She peed,

Then made a beeline back inside.

As a breeze whiffed over the drift tops,

Worries like snow tumbleweeds spilled into my head.

Would the road get plowed in time

For the school buses to make their rounds?

Would I make it into work?

Blizzards are like Advent.

They demand that we let go,

Take our seat by the gate,

Trim our oil lamps,

And await the coming of the Bridegroom.

 

Pioneer Jesus

Precisely because he is a full human being, Jesus can open to us the pathway into wholeness.

 I was reading the Epistle of the Hebrews when I came to this passage, as it is translated by the New Revised Standard Version:

It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. (Hebrews 2:10)

As sometime happens when I am reading a passage, one word jumps off the page and grabs my attention. In this case, it was the author describing Jesus as the pioneer of their salvation. That word pioneer seemed an odd choice.

When I hear the word pioneer, what first comes to mind is this definition: one of those who first enter or settle a region, thus opening it for occupation and development by others. * So I think of childhood heroes like Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett, who launched into the virgin lands of the American West and opened them for settlement.

Why use this word to describe Jesus? That’s the question I asked myself. I wondered what was the Greek word that lies behind this translation. Consulting the Greek text, I found it was the word archegos. I opened my Greek dictionary to see what meaning it might assign to this word.

The first meaning the dictionary gave it was: a leader, a ruler, a prince. That made sense in that one meaning of the Greek word arche is rule or office. But then the dictionary gave the word archegos the additional meaning of: one who begins something, an originator, a founder. That, too, made sense in that the primary meaning of arche is beginning.

Given these meanings, why did the translation team select the word pioneer? Since I cannot talk with one of team, I must hazard a guess. Certainly Jesus could be regarded as the Christian’s leader or ruler. But I noticed the context places great emphasis on the importance of Jesus’ sufferings.

The importance of Jesus’ sufferings comes up again in a later passage: Hebrews 4:14-16. There we read that Jesus can sympathize with our weaknesses, because he was one who was tested just as we are, but came through the tests into victory. The author counsels his readers, therefore, to approach the throne of grace boldly in their prayers. The one who sits on that throne is not a harsh, unfeeling judge, but one who understands our challenges because he has experienced them too.

Opening a Spiritual Mountain Pass

Here is where the translation pioneer begins to resonate for me. The author of Hebrews has no doubt about the divinity of Jesus, but he also believes just as firmly that Jesus was a real human being. We find in the epistle some of the most exalted language in describing Jesus, but also language that depicts his real humanity. The Jesus of Hebrews is a victor certainly, but a victor who has achieved his victory through a real experience of a life limited by the constrictions, anxieties, and trials of real human beings.

As the pioneers of America broke through the barrier of the Appalachian mountains and opened up to others the vast expanses of territory on the other side, so likewise I can think of Jesus as this pioneer who breaks through all the limitations of human life to open to humanity the vast and spacious territory of the Kingdom of God.

Now that the barriers have been broken through, the rest of us can follow. Jesus shows us the way to transform our trials and sufferings into mountain passes that can conduct us into a spacious wholeness beyond them. We find that way described for us in the gospels. Which is why the gospels are so central to our spiritual journeys. They describe not just Jesus the pioneer, but also the road which he opened up in the wilderness and on which he summons us to follow him.

With the gift of the Holy Spirit, Jesus offers us the same power to grow through our own life sufferings and challenges into that spaciousness of life that we call salvation. He invites us to follow him on the road he has pioneered–which includes both a cross and a resurrection–so that we can experience that wholeness of life which he has entered into in advance of us.

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* This is the first definition given the word in The Random House Dictionary of the English Language. New York: Random House, 1966.