Tibble Tuesday: Slashfic week (1 Samuel 18–20)

OK, had a bit of travel this weekend, which is no excuse for why I didn’t do this before the weekend.

On the advice of reader and old friend Greg Sanders, I’m supplementing with Robert Pinsky’s The Life of David. It’s quite insightful and almost seems to render my efforts here moot, being a blend of supposition, personal reflection, and scholarly study of David’s life. I’m not sure I agree with him on everything, but he’s worth a read: scholarly but not too dry.

Also, of interest for the last writeup, here’s a well-researched post going into greater detail than I did about the continuity kludges and shoddy editing of David’s introduction to the story.

Short, snarky summary: Jonathan loves David. Saul hates David. The second of these is prone to variation but not the first. Saul’s daughter Michal also loves David. Incestuous, hate-fueled groupsex presumably happens offstage among our four principals, in between murder attempts. Saul “throws his spear” a lot, IYKWIM.


So, a little background, together with my deep, dark, terrible secret: I’m not really named Jake. “Jacob” is my middle name, and my real first name is “David”, so I have a kind of special bond to the David story. Now, as to why I am named David: I’m not named after any honored ancestor or whatnot, but rather after a nice thought by my parents. See, my older brother, who is also not named for any ancestor, received the name of “Jonathan” (unlike me, he’s kept it). And the parents decided that if they had another son they’d name him after the guy who, as immortalized in song and story, was very close to Jonathan and regarded him with an extraordinary friendship. Erotic subtext aside, I actually like that.

So these chapters dwell tremendously on the relationship between David and Jonathan. As I’ve already hinted at (twice) above, there is definitely a romantic and possibly an erotic element in the relationship between the two young men. Over the next several chapters, Jonathan gives several proofs of his devotion, but at the beginning of Chapter 18, we get a simple declaration that, after the interview with Saul that finished the last chapter and gave him a place in the king’s retinue (for the second time), Jonathan felt a tremendous love for David, and bestowed his clothes and arms (presumably princely garb, Jonathan being a prince) upon his new soulmate. This is simultaneously very ceremonial-seeming and very intimate (and, at the risk of going to the eroticism well too many times, I kind of have to point out that Jonathan is presumably nude after this transfer). Anyways, Jonathan himself disappears briefly from the story at this point to make room for some David/Saul interactions.

Having distinguished himself militarily in the last chapter, and now being pat of Saul’s retinue which is currently encamped with the army, David is necessarily embedded into a martial lifestyle, and, of course, because hie is the Chosen One, distinguishes himself tremendously, with able leadership and success on his missions. His leadership qualities must’ve been gossipped about, because on the army’s return, the triumphant song sung to welcome them is effusively flattering: “Saul has slain his thousands, and David his ten-thousands.” As you might imagine, the king isn’t exactly thrilled by the comparison, and from this point until his death, Saul is going to (with occasional interruptions) scheme about just how to do away with the young soldier/musician (depending on your origin story) who has upstaged him.

Thus, the remainder of these three chapters mostly describes Saul’s plots, David’s evasions, and the protection Saul’s children provide. Saul tips his hand early: shortly after hearing the song which made him so jealous and paranoid, Saul was gripped by an “evil spirit of God” (as before, I’m reading this as basically some sort of mental disorder). Then Saul throws a spear at David while he’s playing the lyre (guess that music didn’t calm him as much as everyone hoped) but misses twice (I have no idea what the “twice” refers to—maybe Saul throws two spears, or tries this on two separate occasions?).

When this doesn’t work, Saul sends David away to lead the army: the textual justification is that Saul feared David and wanted him out of the court, but maybe he was also hoping for some sort of military mischance to do away with his rival (and if that sounds familiar, then, um, yeah, David’ll try the same thing when he becomes king, but it’ll work). However, since Saul is Doomed and David is Chosen, this plan backfires and David comes home covered in glory.

A side note at this point: David has of course already gone to war (in the Goliath story) and come home covered in glory (right after the Goliath story). It may seem like every single thing that happens during this narrative happens twice. There’s a reason for that: there are, as indicated by both that post linked at the top of this post and Pinsky’s Life, among other scholarly sources, at least three different authorial groups with their grubby mitts on this book: the “Early Source” folk-hero storytellers, the “Late Source” anti-monarchical theocrats, and our good old friends the Deuteronomists, who supported the Davidian dynasty specifically and the priesthood as a subordinate governmental body. Somehow, the Deuteronomists, who extesively redacted and edited most of the texts they got their hands on, completely failed to integrate their two textual sources, which is why every major plot point happens twice with variation of particulars.

So, anyways, Saul sends David off to lead the army (protip: if you suspect someone of seeking to depose you, putting them in control of your military apparatus is a really bad way to dispose of them), and of course he succeeds and gains the adoration of “Israel and Judah”. I’ve commented on this phrasing back when it showed up in verse 11:8, but the capsule recap: referring to Judah and Israel as separate entities is ostensibly anachronistic, because until the civil war under Rehoboam, Judah was part of Israel.

Even in spite of David completely failing to die in battle, whether as a leader or in single combat, Saul’s still pretty wedded to the idea of sending him off to die in war, and he names him as a chosen warrior to fight the Philistines (for at least the third time in this chapter alone), and offers a reward of his eldest daughter Merab to hasten David on his way to the front lines and probable death. David balks at the honor, and while he dithers, Saul gives Merab in marriage to some other guy. The ruse might’ve worked if he’d kept patient.

Fortunately, fate is smiling on Saul (well, to the extent it ever does) in that his second daughter Michal’s got the hots for David, and Saul figures the same trick might work again and offers Michal’s hand in marriage, and this time, recruits some courtiers to try to convince David to accept the honor. David’s still reluctant, probably rightfully suspecting that the guy who tried to kill him twice (that he knows about) isn’t doing this from the goodness of his heart. But the response he gives to the courtiers is less about the murder attempts and more about the wealth imbalance, how he, as a poor man, can’t possibly marry a king’s daughter, and so forth. Surprise! That was apparently the exact development Saul was waiting for, and he magnanimously offers to accept, in lieu of the standard bride-price, a hundred Philistine foreskins.

Now, were I David, I might lay low for a while, make a deal with an unscrupulous mohel, and come back with goods in hand without, uh, having to havest them myself. It’s not like they have their nationality stitched on them (although I guess they might be a bit small). But enough of flights of fancy about how one might easily acquire large quantities of foreskin, because David does this in the most direct manner possible: he goes out with his troops, kills two hundred Philistines, and then cuts off the relevant bits (or, more likely, makes a subordinate do it. Privilege of rank, y’know).

In fact, it’s pretty stupid of Saul to think this plan would work (not that Saul’s shown himself to be the sharpest spoon in the drawer), seeing as how David has already killed lots and lots of Philistines, and a hundred more wasn’t much of a task. Really, if it had occurred to him to take these grizzly trophies earlier in his military career, he’d already have met Saul’s demand.

So David gets a princess (but no, he doesn’t get two for fulfilling the request twice over — it’s a one-time deal), and Saul just gets more broody and paranoid while David’s reputation grows. So, through Chapter 18, Saul’s attempts to kill David have resulted in a tremendous increase in his rival’s reputation, a new ally in the form of his wife, and tipping his hand that he’s trying to kill David. Good job, your Majesty.

Chapter 19 is more of the same, in the same rhythms. Saul once again tips his hand, by telling Jonathan to murder David. Instead of killing his best friend, Jonathan immediately warns him of the plot and sends him into hiding, and decides to plead with Saul for David’s life, pointing out that David has done great service to Israel and no injury to Saul. The ever-mercurial Saul acknowledges the truth of this and swears not to harm David (no, it won’t last), so David comes back home, fights the Philistines again, and once again gets attacked by Saul with a spear (for the third time? or maybe just the second). He escapes again, but for some reason doesn’t skip town upon this obvious indication that Saul isn’t a man of his word.

Only later does he show the wisdom to actually quit town: that night Saul sends his man to seize David at home, but before they arrive, he’s betrayed again, this time by his daughter Michal, who lowers her husband down from the window (shades of Rahab, and her rescue of the spies from Jericho). Michal temporizes as long as possible to give David time to get away, pleading that he’s ill and can’t be moved, but one of her subterfuges is a bit curious in its particulars: it’s the old bit about disguising an inanimate object for a sleeping person, but in her case she uses a wig of goat hair and the household idol as the disguise. The part that surprises me, of course, is the idol: it hints at an Israelite society which was at the very least idolatrous, possibly polytheistic. That seems like something I’d think the Deutronomists would have excised.

Following David’s escape comes a comic interlude: David seeks shelter with Samuel and his followers to Ramah, and when Saul hears of it, he sends out a squad of men to retrieve David. But when they come upon Samuel’s followers prophesying (or “speaking in ecstasy”: the precise term used suggests glossolalia, trances, and the like) they immediately fall to prophesyig themselves. Saul sends a second group, and they prophesy too. Then he sends a third, and they also start prophesying. Finally he decides that to get a job done right, you have to do it yourself, and, oops, when Saul himself comes to Ramah, he immediately strips naked and starts prophesying! I assume this is meant to be comical; it certainly reads as comical, with the evil king stripped of his dignity and self-control. It’s also apparently etiological in some way, because the final verse of chapter 19 includes the educational postscript “That is why people say: ‘Is Saul too among the prophets?'” Presumably that was some sort of maxim or idiom of the author’s day for which this story in meant to serve as an etiology. I only know the phrase myself as a reference to this story and not the other way around.

In Chapter 20 Jonathan gets the spotlight, deploying his diplomatic skills in David’s service. David’s gone to ground with Jonathan, and wants to know when or if it’ll be safe for him to come out again (considering how well tihs went down last time he got an assurance of safety, I don’t know why he’s bothering). David suggests that Jonathan offer an excuse for his absence at the king’s table and see how Saul reacts to the news that David isn’t present. Jonathan agrees to sound Saul out and then offers to convey the news to David through an unnecessarily convoluted communication method in which David hides while Jonathan shoots arrows, and the instructions Jonathan gives to his arms-attendant will secretly convey the necessary information to David. Clever, but, as we shall see later, completely pointless.

So for two nights, Jonathan goes to dinner and watches Saul. The first night nothing untoward happens, because Saul assumes some sort of ritual uncleanliness is keeping David at home. The second night, though, he asks where David is, and Jonathan provides his excuse.

Saul’s response is one of the more extensive insults in the Bible and a bit problematic. He calls Jonathan the “son of a perverse woman” and accuses him of treason to not only his own shame but also the “shame of his mother’s nakedness”. Them’s some strong words, and mostly, um, directed not at Jonathan but at his mother. We might consider this to be a phrase akin to “son of a bitch”, but some of the particular terms used hint at a much more sexualized condemnation of his mother, so I’d venture that he’s actually calling Jonathan a bastard (in the genealogical as well as idiomatic sense). The proximity of these sexual referents to “siding with the son of Jesse” is also a hint (but only a hint) at the erotic undertones of Jonathan and David’s relationship. Jonathan attempts to defend David as he did before, and Saul throws a spear at him and misses. Dude has no imagination (and lousy marksmanship).

The chapter ends with Jonathan conveying the news to David. He and his boy go out, he shoots some arrows, and Jonathan shouts out the instructions to the boy which had been pre-arranged as the danger signal. So far, so good. Then he sends the servant home, goes to David’s hiding place, embraces him and weeps, rendering all the secrecy moot.

Ah, Jonathan. You have a good heart, and an eloquent tongue, but maybe you should leave the spy shit to the professionals. They swear eternal friendship, and David, having finally survived enough of Saul’s rages to have gotten the hint that he ain’t never gonna stop trying to kill him, departs from Saul’s court forever.

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About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

One Response to Tibble Tuesday: Slashfic week (1 Samuel 18–20)

  1. gsanders says:

    Thanks for the shout out, and glad you enjoyed the book! Out of curiosity, anything you particular disagreed with? I seem to recall Pinsky giving more weight to the hundred foreskin things, I think he took that number seriously in a way that other battle death counts were viewed as ridiculous.

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