YEAR B: PENTECOST 5
July 1, 2012
2 Samuel 1:1, 17Ė27
The lectionary passes over the last part of 1 Samuel with its account of the developing tensions between David and Saul. Davidís skills and popularity make him a rival for leadership in Israel. The conflict between Israel, led by Saul, and the Philistines remains the setting for the personal drama. At the end of 1 Samuel Saul and his son Jonathan are killed fighting the Philistines and in todayís reading we hear of Davidís lament over them.
The death of Saul and his sons is a complex event for David. Saul has been trying to kill him, and David has been on the run, collecting armed forces to support him (1 Samuel 21-22). The situation is not dissimilar to guerilla warfare. To David, the death of Saul in battle (1 Samuel 31) means that he is no longer a hunted man; it also means that the primary obstacle between him and the throne of Israel has been removed. The situation in Israel remains highly charged, however, and Saul has many relatives (and sons) remaining who could claim power with some legitimacy, certainly with a stronger hereditary claim than David has.
Another complexity in this lament is the difference in relationships between David and Saul, and that between David and Jonathan. Saul sought Davidís death, fearing his popularity, his military feats and his meteoric rise (1 Samuel 19). Jonathan, however, was a close friend of Davidís, and remained so despite the tension that this caused between him and his father (1 Samuel 20).
The lament starts with a call that this news not be told to the Philistines, in the vain hope that they are not given further cause to rejoice at Israelís expense. By making a lament for the fallen king, David is placed in the role of a close relative or an heir to the king. With this focus at the start of the lament, the basis of the relationship between David and Saul is changed. The question at issue is no longer a struggle for power between David and Saul but a struggle between Israel and the Philistines, with the survival of the nation at stake. David, here, is speaking to and on behalf of all Israel.
After the mountainside has been cursed for being the place of their death (2 Sam. 1:21a), David presents the praise of Saul and Jonathan. He starts with them both together, and they are praised for bravely facing the battle, and not fleeing (vv. 21b-23). After this the passage proceeds to lament for each in turn, first Saul (vv. 24-25), then Jonathan (vv. 26-27).
The young women are called to lament for Saul, who has provided them with rich garments. After this, David presents his own, very personal lament for Jonathan. The lament notes the particular relationship between them, and how much David loved Jonathan.
The lament of David for Saul and Jonathan is important for at least two reasons. One is the political nature of this lament. David was hunted by Saul during his life. After the death of Saul, David portrays himself through this lament as being close to Saul, a natural heir and successor, and from this position he offers fulsome praise of Saulís prowess in battle and of his conduct in the face of death. This is in part a generous act when the relationship between the two had been so strained. It is also, however, good politics, offering the best chance for reconciliation and the best chance for a unification of power under David. By focusing on the common foe, Davidís lament changes the focus from the internal conflict to the possibility of external threat from the Philistines.
The other interesting question in focus in the lament is the relationship between David and Jonathan. This becomes difficult to discuss, particularly in churches where there can be fraught debate over homosexuality. Some writers are quick to deny the possibility of any sort of sexual relationship between David and Jonathan, based on a general idea of the impossibility of such a relationship being acknowledged in Israel in that era. Other writers are keen to claim this relationship, probably overly relying on a modern interpretation of the language used between David and Jonathan.
The relationship between David and Jonathan arises after David kills Goliath (see 1 Sam. 18:1-4). Here Jonathan makes a covenant with David. In 1 Samuel 20, Jonathan saves David from Saulís plan to kill him. Todayís reading is the third and last reference to the relationship between David and Jonathan. The textual evidence is not precisely abundant. Some things, however, are clear. First, any relationship between the two is clearly political, or has political overtones. Jonathan is Saulís heir, David is anointed by Samuel in secret (1 Sam. 16:1-13) and is the rising star in Israel. Jonathan places his allegiance with David challenging his fatherís authority, and putting his own inheritance at risk. This relationship portrays the house of Saul itself as divided in opposition to David, further isolating Saul.
Secondly, it is obvious that the relationship is close and personal. Many other political, religious and family alliances are made (and betrayed) in the biblical text, without the language of love, and without such obvious expressions of personal commitment (e.g. Solomon and his many wives, 1 Kings 11). But here there is a strong declaration of commitment and love on both sides: Jonathan when he makes his covenant with David, David when he makes this lament.
Beyond this, nothing can be said with any confidence about the possibility of a sexual relationship. It can, in my opinion, neither be ruled out nor clearly established. The personal nature of the last verse, and the clear personal love that David holds for Jonathan, however, should not be glossed over in interpreting this lament. It is one of the points that adds poignancy to the lament, and prevents it from becoming entirely a political response.
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