Did David really care for Mephibosheth?

00000mephiboshethI tentatively suggested in my two prior posts that David may have had Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). As I understand it, narcissism is a spectrum and NPD is at one end. In the middle, or at the other end depending on how you devise the spectrum, is where the majority of people sit, with a healthy level of self-esteem and self-confidence. (Most of the information I have on narcissism and NPD comes from the excellent book by Dr Craig Malkin, Rethinking Narcissism [1]). David, I think, was further along the spectrum than most people, heading towards the end where it becomes a personality disorder, or he was right there. It’s not uncommon for leaders, such as Presidents, Prime Ministers and monarchs, to have NPD. It’s their overblown ego which helps to get them there.

I suggested earlier that David’s ignorance of Mephibosheth’s existence – particularly surprising because his father Jonathan was supposedly one of David’s best friends – is a sign of David’s narcissism. However, a friend asked if that could be right seeing David seemed to genuinely care for Mephibosheth, who was disabled, “crippled in both feet” (2 Samuel 9:13). My initial reaction was that narcissists can be kind and caring, and it depends where they sit on the spectrum as to how much this will motivated by self-interest. My narcissistic friend, for example, was a really nice person most of the time and was a good friend to me at a time when I needed one. But as time progressed I learned that this is the typical modus operandii of a narcissist, and that they will often use kindness as a means of making you indebted to them so that you “owe” them your loyalty. I’m not sure that they do this consciously – it may very well be a learned subconscious mechanism. My friend, for example, would sometimes say “Remember I did such-and-such for you? Well, now I need you to do something for me.” They are good at keeping track of favours they’ve done, and will call it in when they need something in return.

Interestingly,  since I started exploring this angle, Dr Virginia Miller has sent me something she has written in her forthcoming book about David [2]. Dr Miller writes: “It is more likely that David only offered חסד [ḥesed usually translated mercy, but see below] to Mephibosheth because it was in David’s own interests to do so and not because he was doing goodwill to Mephibosheth.” She makes the excellent observation that ḥesed is mentioned three times within a short space in 2 Samuel 9, referring to the covenant that David made with Jonathan, and the repetition has the effect of overstating it. This word, often translated as “mercy” has a variety of meanings in the Hebrew Bible and Miller argues that from its context here it has the sense of covenant loyalty. She argues that the over emphasis on David’s pledge of loyalty suggests that David only offered to help Mephibosheth because it was in David’s own interests to do so, making a display of honouring a covenant he made with Jonathan some twenty years earlier. The political situation at the time warranted a display of loyalty on David’s part but, as Miller suggests, he honours the covenant with Jonathan in word but not in spirit.

David’s “kindness” to Mephibosheth – giving him a place at David’s royal court – was effectively a means of keeping the grandson of the previous king under house arrest and under control, incapable of being a threat to David’s succession. David’s lack of genuine concern is revealed later in the story when, on the say-so of a servant who profited by telling lies about Mephibosheth, David handed all Mephibosheth’s property to the servant without questioning Mephibosheth or giving him an opportunity to defend himself (2 Samuel 16:1-4). When confronted about this later (2 Samuel 19:24-30) he still couldn’t admit to making a mistake (narcissists never do!) and in a face-saving gesture offered to return only half the confiscated property, allowing the lying servant to keep the rest.

Such duplicity is not uncharacteristic of David. One of the most famous incidents from his life was his adulterous affair with Bathsheba who was married to Uriah, an officer in David’s army. David ordered for Uriah to be sent to the front lines in a battle, ensuring his death, and therefore demonstrating that even arranging the death of an innocent man was just a means to his narcissistic ends. As I see it, making a show of being kind to a potential threat to his throne, while also keeping him tightly under his control, is also characteristic of narcissism. Narcissists will use people in any way that suits their purposes. They are resources, means to an end. David’s treatment of both Uriah and Mephibosheth indicates this pattern of behaviour.

But narcissists are not necessarily thoroughly bad people, although they are generally deeply troubled. As many experts argue, their personality disorder most likely developed in response to childhood circumstances which produced in them a fear of abandoment and a lack of self-esteem. Their narcissism is a cover for feelings of inadequacy. There are some hints in the Bible that David’s childhood may have been troubled. In the story where the prophet Samuel went to the hometown of Jesse to find and anoint the future king of Israel (1 Samuel 16), Samuel invited Jesse and his sons to a communal event. After all Jesse’s sons were introduced to the prophet, Samuel asked “Are all your sons here?” to be told, “There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.” (16:11). We never learn why David wasn’t invited along with his brothers to the event. Surely a worker could be found to look after the sheep! It makes me wonder if there was a reason why David wasn’t considered to be quite equal with his brothers. Then, in Psalm 51:5 [v.7 in the Hebrew], written (according to its title) by David after his adultery with Bathsheba had been exposed, he says “In sin I was born and in sin my mother conceived me.” Is there a hint here that David was conceived out of wedlock? Was he sent to keep the sheep when his brothers were invited to a party because as an illegitimate son he wasn’t regarded as fully one of them? If David was rejected as a child by his own family this could explain why he needed to prove himself and why he developed a personality disorder in order to convince himself that he was worthwhile, or even better than everyone else.

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[1] Malkin, Craig. Rethinking Narcissism: The Secret to Recognizing and Coping with Narcissists. Harper, 2016.

[2] Miller, Virginia, A King and a Fool? The Succession Narrative as a Satire. Biblical Interpretation Series 179, general editors Paul Anderson and Jennifer L. Koosed.  Leiden, Boston: Brill, 2019, 44-47 (forthcoming, due for publication in October).

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