David and Jonathan

“As soon as he had finished speaking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul. And 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. And Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that was on him and gave it to David, and his armor, and even his sword and his bow and his belt.” (1Samuel 18:1–4 ESV)

Where did this story come from?

David and Jonathan have never met, as far as we can tell. David is returning from his victory over Goliath. He is the boy-hero of Israel anointed by God as the future King of the nation. He mets the young prince, the one whose throne he will usurp. And Jonathan loves him. It is not the fact that their souls are knit together which should hold our attention, it is the fact that this unity is produced between two who are so different, such natural enemies.
The story unfolds but the friendship is fraught with the weight of David’s destiny. In 1 Samuel 20, when Saul turns against David, Jonathan keeps his covenant by warning David of the danger. He lets fly an arrow, and a cry, whose trajectory speeds David into exile. But before David leaves there is time to renew their covenant, and weep.

“…though David wept more.” (1Samuel 20:41 HCSB)

The friends meet again in chapter 23. David is hiding from Saul in the Wilderness of Ziph.

“Then Saul’s son Jonathan came to David in Horesh and encouraged him in his faith in God, saying, “Don’t be afraid, for my father Saul will never lay a hand on you. You yourself will be king over Israel, and I’ll be your second-in-command. Even my father Saul knows it is true.” Then the two of them made a covenant in the LORD’s presence. Afterward, David remained in Horesh, while Jonathan went home.” (1Samuel 23:15–18 HCSB)

A third covenant. And a plan: “I’ll be your second-in-command.” The friends do not weep as they part this time. But they will not see each other again. Jonathan dies by his Father’s side in battle. His father’s victim by a Philistine arrow. David wept more.

How the mighty have fallen in the thick of battle!
Jonathan lies slain on your heights.
I grieve for you, Jonathan, my brother.
You were such a friend to me.
Your love for me was more wonderful than the love of women.
How the mighty have fallen and the weapons of war have perished!
(2Samuel 1:25–27 HCSB)

The story of David and Jonathan is the heroic friendship of the Old Testament. There is some suggestion that the story was retailed after the fact to help secure David’s lineage against any possible revolt and return by the Israelites to the House of Saul. Maybe it’s just a story prone to misappropriation: from Victorian Romantics to contemporary Gay christians. What sort of friendship is this?

It appears to have everything that Derrida fears: a sworn oath, one soul in bodies twain, the friend in the figure of the brother, even the exclusion of women! But this story has something else that Derrida, and many others, fail to notice: the presence of a third.

It was there in the very beginning, in the unseen hand that bound life to life. And they were genuinely bound together: Jonathan saving David’s life from Saul; David’s anointing irredeemably altering Jonathan’s life, in a sense, ending it.

The third is there in the form of the covenant. The sworn oath of the friends is not merely to do and be good to each other.David and Jonathan Rather, because of who David is, and who Jonathan is, it is a covenant to make him King. The prince gives David his royal robe, his sword, bow, belt (1 Samuel 18:4). The covenant commits the friends to a plan marked out in the divine anointing. The final consummation of the covenant is done, ‘in Yahweh’s presence’ (1 Samuel 23:18). It is the presence of a third that bids them be friends who are by nature enemies.

It is a friendship known in its traces. Only the fallen Jonathan ever draws out the depth of what the friendship meant to David. But was he friend, or brother? Both. Jonathan the Prince befriended a shepherd boy, freely gave of himself into a relation that did not arise from any prior obligation, not of nature or oath. His friendship arose freely but consummated itself in covenants. Friendship is the freedom to bind oneself to another, a freedom that cannot exist where one is already bound. David the King calls the dead prince, ‘brother’. It the moment of the consummation of their plan. But the friend is not there, he has fallen. David acknowledges in the name ‘brother’, an obligation that cannot be escaped, however freely it came.

But if this is where friendship ends, beside a grave, with only traces, can we truly say with Tennyson,

I hold it true, whate’er befall;
I feel it, when I sorrow most;
‘Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.
(In Memoriam A.H.H., XXVII)


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