Chapter 20 feels awkward following the last few chapters, despite the note in the first verse telling us that the events take place after David’s escape to Naioth. The chapter makes far more sense if we assume that it came from a separate tradition, one in which David only suspects that Saul has turned against him.

My New Bible Commentary, which frequently argues against the multi-source hypothesis, tries to explain away the oddity by casting this chapter as an attempt to convince Jonathan of the threat:

Certainly after the events of ch. 19 David can have been in no real doubt as to Saul’s intentions; but this chapter does not in fact suggest that he had – rather to the contrary (v. 3). It was Jonathan who could not believe it of his father (v. 2). (p.298)

Which sort of works. We could read it as Jonathan believing that 1 Sam. 19:6 ended the matter, naively believing that his father has passed through his wanting to kill David phase. But then we have to believe that what follows – with Saul tossing a spear at David and David escaping and all the assassins – happened without Jonathan’s knowledge. The same Jonathan who confidently declares in 1 Sam. 20:2 that his father tells him absolutely everything.

The result, then, of accepting the New Bible Commentary‘s view is seeing Jonathan as an absolute naif.

Which seems to fit the portrayal of him in this chapter, honestly. When David asks Jonathan what he’s done for Saul to want to kill him, Jonathan tells him not to worry because he won’t die. And I’m just like, that wasn’t the question, you fool. (Allowing, of course, for translation and rhetoric.)

Jonathan’s reasoning is that Saul tells him everything, so he will know if Saul is plotting to kill David. David, however, isn’t so sure. Saul knows that the two of them are buddies, he argues. The implication being that he might control the outflow of information in Jonathan’s presence as a result. “Truly, as the Lord lives and as your soul lives, there is but a step between me and death” (1 Sam. 20:3).

The Plan

David and Jonathan come up with a plan to prove, once and for all, whether Saul is trying to kill David. David will go into hiding for three days. If, during that time, Saul asks after him, Jonathan is to say that he’d asked permission to go to Bethlehem for a sacrifice – a family affair. Interestingly, this is the same cover Samuel gave in 1 Sam. 16:2-3 to avoid arousing suspicion when going to anoint David.

If Saul accepts the explanation, David will know that it’s safe to return to court. If, however, Saul is angry, they will know that he is determined to do bad things to David. Because, apparently, two spear-throwing incidents weren’t evidence enough.

David and Jonathan, by Cima da Conegliano, ca. 1505-1510

David and Jonathan, by Cima da Conegliano, ca. 1505-1510

Their conversation continues and Jonathan again answers the wrong question. They plan a communication system to allow Jonathan to get news to David without arousing suspicion, then they renew their vows to each other. In the midst of it, Jonathan says: “should it please my father to do you harm, the Lord do so to Jonathan, and more also” (1 Sam. 20:13). I haven’t read ahead, but this sounds like some major foreshadowing.

On the first night of David’s hiding, Saul notices his absence at dinner. He figures that David must have accidentally become ritually unclean and shrugs it off. On the second night, however, he becomes suspicious (as we read in Exodus-Deuteronomy, most instances of uncleanliness are purged by evening, so the explanation doesn’t hold up over a second day).

He asks Jonathan where David is, and Jonathan gives the planned excuse about the sacrifice in Bethlehem. Saul becomes slightly irritated, calling Jonathan a “son of a perverse, rebellious woman” (1 Sam. 20:30), going on to say: “Do I not know that you have chosen the son of Jesse to your own shame, and to the shame of your mother’s nakedness?”

If we take the view that David and Jonathan don’t just like each other but like like each other, it seems that this could be a reference to that. Another possibility is that Saul is recognizing David as competition for the crown – Jonathan’s competition. So long as Jonathan is on Team David, “neither you not your kingdom shall be established” (1 Sam. 20:31). The “shame” he speaks of, then, would be of turning against the interests of his family by not pursuing the creation of a dynasty.

To punctuate his argument, Saul then throws a spear at his son.

This is a guy who is apparently known for throwing spears at people, as he did so in 1 Sam. 18:10-11, then again in 1 Sam. 19:10. You’d think there’d be a point (no pun intended) where people would just refuse to be in a room with Saul if he has a spear nearby.

In accordance with their plan, Jonathan heads out to the field and fires an arrow, directing his servant to fetch it in the way that would tell David that it is most definitely not safe for him.

Despite all the secret signals, they end up meeting up and having a long chat anyway, during which they re-confirm their bond, kiss, and cry a lot.

Not that both times Jonathan has saved David so far, it has involved David hiding in a field (1 Sam. 19:1-3).