David and Goliath: history or legend?

Caravaggio, David with the Head of Goliath, c. 1607, in the Kunsthistorisches Museum Gemäldegalerie, Vienna

Caravaggio, David with the Head of Goliath, c. 1607, in the Kunsthistorisches Museum Gemäldegalerie, Vienna

The story of the boy David slaying the giant Goliath is undoubtedly one of the best known stories in the Bible. But did it really happen? Are all the stories in the Bible meant to be taken as historical facts, or were some of them written for some other purpose? We tell stories, we read fiction and watch films and television series for all sorts of reasons, including simply for entertainment. Is it possible that some of the stories in the Bible served similar purposes, including merely to entertain? If so, how can we tell when a story in the Bible is meant to give an historical account of actual events, or if it served some other purpose? In this post I’ll look at the popular story of David and Goliath.

The story is recorded only in 1 Samuel 17. The ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible (the Septuagint) has a shorter version, omitting verses 12-31 and 55-18:5 which describe how David came to be at the battlefield (his father sent him with some provisions for his three older brothers who were at the battle, and an odd detail about also sending some cheese for their commander); how David heard the threats made by the Philistine giant, Goliath; how he was introduced to king Saul; and a long section detailing how Saul enquired about David after he had killed Goliath. This second omitted section contains important clues as to the veracity of the story:

1 Samuel 17:55 When Saul saw David go out against the Philistine, he said to Abner, the commander of the army, “Abner, whose son is this young man?” Abner said, “As your soul lives, O king, I do not know.” 56 The king said, “Inquire whose son the stripling is.” 57 On David’s return from killing the Philistine, Abner took him and brought him before Saul, with the head of the Philistine in his hand. 58 Saul said to him, “Whose son are you, young man?” And David answered, “I am the son of your servant Jesse the Bethlehemite.”

18:1 When David had finished speaking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul. 2 Saul took him that day and would not let him return to his father’s house. 3 Then Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul. 4 Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that he was wearing, and gave it to David, and his armor, and even his sword and his bow and his belt. 5 David went out and was successful wherever Saul sent him; as a result, Saul set him over the army. And all the people, even the servants of Saul, approved. (1 Samuel 17:55-18:5).

There is a considerable problem with this section. It reads as though this is the first time Saul had met David or heard of him. This is a major difficulty because immediately preceeding the David and Goliath incident (v.16) there is a different account of David’s introduction to Saul in the previous chapter:

1 Samuel 16:14 Now the spirit of the LORD departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the LORD tormented him. 15 And Saul’s servants said to him, “See now, an evil spirit from God is tormenting you. 16 Let our lord now command the servants who attend you to look for someone who is skillful in playing the lyre; and when the evil spirit from God is upon you, he will play it, and you will feel better.” 17 So Saul said to his servants, “Provide for me someone who can play well, and bring him to me.” 18 One of the young men answered, “I have seen a son of Jesse the Bethlehemite who is skillful in playing, a man of valor, a warrior, prudent in speech, and a man of good presence; and the LORD is with him.” 19 So Saul sent messengers to Jesse, and said, “Send me your son David who is with the sheep.” 20 Jesse took a donkey loaded with bread, a skin of wine, and a kid, and sent them by his son David to Saul. 21 And David came to Saul, and entered his service. Saul loved him greatly, and he became his armour-bearer. 22 Saul sent to Jesse, saying, “Let David remain in my service, for he has found favor in my sight.” 23 And whenever the evil spirit from God came upon Saul, David took the lyre and played it with his hand, and Saul would be relieved and feel better, and the evil spirit would depart from him.

There is a clear contradiction between the two stories. If the first actually happened then by the time Saul goes out to do battle with the Philistines David was already in his service as his armour-bearer and personal musician, and Saul “loved him greatly.” It’s possible that the Septuagint translators deleted this section in chapter 18 because of the obvious difficulty that David was introduced to Saul twice, the second time after he was already well known to Saul and loved by him. It’s equally possible that this second introduction wasn’t in the Hebrew version they translated from because it was added later. The Dead Sea Scrolls don’t help us here because the Samuel manuscripts are fragmentary, having fallen prey to worms and the ravages of time, and the entire section from 1 Samuel 17:7 to 18:16 is missing. So the incident where David is introduced to Saul could have been deleted by the translators who noticed the difficulty and removed it in order to avoid the problem, or the discrepancy was created by a late editor of the Hebrew text who added it. If so, it’s unlikely that the editor wouldn’t have seen the problem; it’s more likely that he wanted to preserve both accounts of David’s introduction to Saul and wasn’t concerned about the contradiction. He was simply preserving two differing traditional accounts.  (Most scholars these days accept Emanuel Tov’s arguments for the Septuagint being the older version and the Masoretic Text being a later expansion. [1])

That’s not the only difficulty with the story. In both the Hebrew and Greek versions there is the detail that after killing Goliath David severed his head and “David took the head of the Philistine and brought it to Jerusalem; but he put his armour in his tent” (17:54). The first problem here is that Jerusalem wasn’t under the control of Israel at the time and it wasn’t until decades later that David himself is attributed with capturing it from the Jebusites (2 Samuel 5:6-9). It is unthinkable that the Jebusites would have allowed David to take Goliath’s head there, and for what purpose? (I’ll go into further detail about the conquest of Jerusalem in a later post). The second difficulty is that David is said to have put Goliath’s armour in his tent. What tent? The Hebrew version of the story tells us that David was at the battlefield simply to deliver some provisions to his brothers, who didn’t particularly welcome their kid-brother being there. David wasn’t one of the fighting soldiers, so he is unlikely to have had his own tent there. There is a clue here that this version of the story could itself have been a merging of two older stories: in one David was visiting his brothers with provisions; in the other he was one of the fighting men camped there.

There is a further contradiction between the story of David killing Goliath and another account of Goliath’s death which is almost glossed over later in Samuel and also in Chronicles.

Then there was another battle with the Philistines at Gob; and Elhanan son of Jair, the Bethlehemite, killed Goliath the Gittite, the shaft of whose spear was like a weaver’s beam. (2 Samuel 21:19) [2] 

Although this is a brief account two details support the conclusion that it’s the same “Goliath” apart from the fact that it’s an uncommon name. First “Goliath the Gittite” means the same as “Goliath of Gath”  (1 Samuel 17:4), and second, the expression “the shaft of whose spear was like a weaver’s beam” occurs in both accounts but nowhere else. The size of the spear was clearly noteworthy and it’s highly unlikely that there would be two different people with the same name from the same city whose spears were noteworthy. It’s likely that the story of Elhanan killing Goliath was taken over and adapted as part of the legend of David’s fighting prowess and added to Samuel later. The fact that both Elhanan and David were from Bethlehem may have made it easy to appropriate a story about a local hero and apply it to another local boy.

The two stories about David being introduced to Saul cast David in a good light, and make Saul appear as weak and ineffective, and with a mental illness. It’s easy to see why the writer or editor wants to preserve them both. It’s also interesting that the Chronicler, who generally portrays David in glowing terms, doesn’t include these stories in his Chronicles. We might think they would serve his purpose, but perhaps he hadn’t heard them or he didn’t regard this information as historically reliable, or it simply didn’t fit with his story which begins with the death of Saul.

It’s still a good story, but we should accept that it’s probably just that: a good story! And that’s ok. We shouldn’t assume that the writers of the Bible intended for every story to be taken as historical fact. They were as capable as anyone of telling a ripping good yarn to make a point. The important thing is the point they were making, not whether the story is true.

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[1] Emanuel Tov, “The Composition of 1 Samuel 16-18 in the light of the Septuagint Version,” in J. H. Tigay (ed.), Empirical Models for Biblical Criticism (Philadelphia, 1985), 98-130.

[2] Chronicles has an almost identical parallel:  “Again there was war with the Philistines; and Elhanan son of Jair the Bethlehemite, struck down Goliath the Gittite, the shaft of whose spear was like a weaver’s beam” (1 Chronicles 20:5). In both cases I’ve followed Robert Alter’s translation (Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2019.

Jonah, Samuel and satire

I had the honour of presenting a paper to the Fellowship for Biblical Studies in Sydney last week. Due to the coronavirus this was our first online meeting so it created some interesting challenges, and delivering a paper online was a first for me. Unfortunately, I lost my internet connection a couple times during the question and discussion period (some might think I conveniently lost my connection when faced with some tough questions!) so the recording doesn’t include the discussion (and also to protect the privacy of participants who may not have known the discussion was being recorded). However, I welcome feedback, comments and questions, so feel free to comment here or on the YouTube page.

Here is a link to a recording of my presentation. My paper can also be downloaded as a pdf here: FBS presentation notes, Jonah

Name puns: Solomon as a man of peace

Cornelis_de_Vos_-_The_Anointing_of_Solomon

The Anointing of Solomon by Zadok the priest. Cornelis de Vos, 1630.

Puns on names of people is a common phenomenon in many languages, including biblical Hebrew. Puns do not, however, translate easily from one language to another and so they are often lost in translation. The Bible contains a few well-known name-puns, largely because they are explained in the text or in translators’ footnotes. For example, we have one in 1 Samuel 25:25 where Abigail, speaking to David about her husband Nabal, says “My lord, do not take seriously this ill-natured fellow, Nabal; for as his name is, so is he; Nabal is his name, and folly is with him.” The pun isn’t obvious in the English translation but the explanation lets us know that one exists. In fact, the Hebrew Nabal נָבָל (more correctly pronounced Naval) means “foolish”, “worthless” or “good for nothing”.  Since it is unlikely his parents hated him so much as to call him “fool” from birth, scholars have discussed how the name might also be understood according to an alternative Semitic root meaning “noble.” The meaning “fool” would be a play on the double meaning of the name. It’s a word-play: his name may actually have meant “noble” but it sounded like the word for “fool” so it would be an easy way to denigrate him. These types of puns are much more common in the Bible than we might realise by reading an English translation, and it seems that they are particularly prevalent in the books of Samuel and Kings.

I mentioned in my previous post that Solomon’s name in Hebrew – שְׁלֹמֹה, Shlomoh – actually  sounds very similar to the Hebrew word for “peace” – שָׁלוֹם shalom – and he has a reputation for being a man of peace. The book of Chronicles is largely responsible for giving Solomon that reputation. In the book of Kings Solomon secures the throne through the bloody murders of his brother Adonijah and his supporters; hardly a man of peace. Further to this, it appears that the writer of Kings uses a series of puns playing on Solomon’s name and the word for peace, but using them in the context of bloodshed. Here are some of them:

  • Before David died he spoke with Solomon about his general Joab (a loyal supporter throughout David’s reign) and referred to two incidents where Joab killed Abner one of Saul’s commanders who had gone over to David, but whom Joab did not trust, and Amasa one of his own relatives whom he believed to be conspiring against David. David, however, read Joab’s motives differently and so he encouraged Solomon to carry out an act of post-mortem vengeance on his behalf: “you know also what Joab son of Zeruiah did to me, how he dealt with the two commanders of the armies of Israel, Abner son of Ner, and Amasa son of Jether, whom he murdered, retaliating in time of peace for blood that had been shed in war” (1 Kings 2:5). The word “peace” is mentioned several times throughout these narratives (e.g. 2 Samuel 3:21-23; 20:9).  An interesting thing here is that the vengeance was allegedly for shedding blood “in time of peace (שָׁלוֹם shalom)”. Ironically, throughout David’s reign, there never was “a time of peace”!
  • David’s advice/instruction to Solomon about Joab was “do not let his gray head go down to Sheol in peace” (1 Kings 2:6), emphasing that Solomon was not to allow Joab to have a peaceful death. He was murdered on Solomon’s instructions while seeking sanctuary at the altar of God.
  • The record of David’s death and Solomon’s accession to the throne (and, according to some scholars, the end of the long section in Samuel-Kings called the “succession narrative”) ends with Solomon ordering that Joab be struck down beside the altar at the tent of the Lord: “so shall the blood of Abner and Amasa come back on the head of Joab and on the head of his descendants forever; but to David, and to his descendants, and to his house, and to his throne, there shall be peace from the LORD forevermore” (1 Kings 2:33). David and Solomon blamed Joab for the kingdom’s woes because he allegedly shed blood during a time of peace; yet, ironically, they think that peace will eventually come through shedding more blood!
  • After Solomon secured the throne “Adonijah son of Haggith came to Bathsheba, Solomon’s mother. She asked, ‘Do you come peaceably?’ He said, ‘Peaceably‘.” (1 Kings 2:13). The question and declaration that he came in peace use the word שָׁלוֹם shalom. This “peacable” audience with Bathsheba was soon to end with Adonijah’s death.

After a great deal of war and bloodshed throughout David’s reign these early chapters of Kings give the impression that peace was finally expected to come through שְׁלֹמֹה, Shlomoh, Solomonthe man of peace. There are a number of ironies here. First, Solomon secured the throne only by shedding more blood; and second, the bloodshed was not over. Solomon thereafter commenced a series of military campaigns against neighbouring nations in order to secure peace through warfare. It may very well be that the writer of Kings is highlighting the irony by juxtaposing the word “peace” – which sounds like “Solomon” – with “blood”, “war” and “death” on several occasions.  Perhaps the writer wasn’t convinced by the propaganda of the Zadokite priests whose descendants were probably behind the writing of the alternative version of Israel’s history which made Solomon out to be a peaceful king. Through the clever use of puns Kings reminds its readers that Solomon’s so-called peace came at the cost of bloodshed! And “peace” which comes through bloodshed isn’t really peace.

How to read Samuel and Kings

Guercino_Saul_Davide

“Saul Attacking David” by Guercino (1591-1666), (Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Rome).

My title sounds a bit presumptuous: as if anyone needs to be told how to read the Bible! It’s really a kind of postscript to my previous posts about the possibility that David was a narcissist (yes, I know I said I was finished with that subject for now, but I thought this further note was important).

Some people react to the suggestion that David had a personality disorder by countering that he was “a man after God’s own heart” and he wrote so many beautiful psalms he must be a model of Godly behaviour. All I need to do really is to remind people that he was an adulterer and a murderer to set aside any notions that he was a paragon of virtue. But I should also restate something which I argued in earlier posts about the phrase “a man after God’s own heart”. For the full explanation you should read my posts here (and here and to a lesser extent here) but in a nutshell I explained that the Hebrew doesn’t necessarily read the same way as the English. The phrase “after [God’s] own heart” translates a single Hebrew word כִּלְבָבֹו. It literally means “according to his own heart” so the sentence then reads “the LORD has sought a man according to his own heart” (the prefix כ means as, or according to and a similar expression appears in 2 Samuel 7:21 where כְלִבְּךָ is translated into English as “according to your own heart”, the translators there correctly translating כ as “according to”.) [1] In other words, David is not being commended for being God-like, but rather the text reads as a simple statement that the choice of David as future king was God’s and God’s alone to make – God was following his heart in choosing David.

I could look at the David-psalms another time, but for now I want to comment on how we read the heroic stories about David in Samuel and Kings. It would be relatively easy to read these books as simple history: someone (or a group of people) was simply writing down the historical facts to record the history of Israel and Judah. But if it is simply history the writer has been very selective. A lot of important information has been left out and there is a serious imbalance in the amount of detail given about each king. If it was “simple history” we could expect, for example, that the most attention would be given to the longest reigning monarchs, yet some important long-reigning monarchs are glossed over. In any case, all history-writing has an agenda. A writer can never be totally dispassionate about the subject and will always portray his or her characters in a certain light, even when they are historical rather than fictional characters. So what could have been the possible agenda of the writer(s) of Samuel and Kings?

There are three main views about this:

  1. A large section of Samuel-Kings is sometimes called “the Succession Narrative” (also known as the Court Narrative, 2 Samuel 9 – 1 Kings 2) because it is argued that the writer is justifying the rightfulness of David’s claim to the throne, and the claims of his descendants to rule Judah at least, if not all Israel. In this reading Saul and his descendants (initially Jonathan and Ishbosheth) are portrayed as being weak, disobedient or otherwise unsuitable to rule Israel, while David is divinely-selected as God’s own choice. Of course, Samuel’s account of Saul’s anointing and enthronement reveal that he too was God’s choice. Reading Samuel-Kings as having an emphasis on God’s promise to David of a dynasty also ties in with messianic themes in the prophets, some psalms, and in the New Testament. These connections seem to emphasise the accuracy of reading Samuel-Kings as a kind of introduction and background to the Messianic Age. for There are several weaknesses with this view, and while some scholars still maintain it there tends to have been a shift away from it.
  2. There is another view that the writer(s) of Samuel-Kings was actually critical of monarchy in general and his goal was to demonstrate that none of the kings, from Saul, through David and Solomon, and down to the last of the kings before the exile, were any good. In his mind the institution of monarchy was flawed and even those with the best prospects of success (such as David) still failed miserably. This view argues that these histories were written during the exile (we can be certain of that because Kings ends with Jehoiachin going into exile in Babylon, so it couldn’t have been written earlier than that), while those in exile were discussing and planning their return from exile and what kind of government they would need. This writer argued against a return to monarchy because it was kings that got them into this mess in the first place! A good case can be made for the writer(s) to have been a priest or priests because when the exiles did return they abandoned any attempt to restore the monarchy and instead it was the priests who were most influential and powerful in rebuilding the nation.
  3. A third view combines these two options, although it in no way contradicts the second view. It argues that the material for Samuel and Kings was sourced from various earlier documents (official histories, stories, legends, etc) and put together over a period of time. At various stages through their history the work was updated to include the latest kings and events, and some of the earlier material may have been modified at the same time so that the story flowed smoothly. The final stage of editing would have been in the exile. This option explains why some of the material appears to be contradictory – as material was added which differed in some way from earlier material, little effort was made to ‘harmonise’ all the details. There is good evidence from elsewhere that ancient record-keepers didn’t have the same preoccupation with harmony and consistency that modern writers do, and they wouldn’t have had a problem with internal ‘inconsistencies’. This view makes good sense of conflicting data, and is consistent with what we might expect about ancient record-keeping and history-writing.

To me, the second and third options make a great deal of sense. David is portrayed as part of the problem: a deeply flawed person who established a dynasty which was never able to get it quite right, and which eventually led to Judah’s demise.

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[1] The ‘virtually unanimous trend in recent scholarship … understands the phrase “after [Yhwh’s] own heart” in 1 Sam 13:14 as a statement about Yhwh’s choice rather than David’s character’. (Benjamin J. M. Johnson, “The Heart of Yhwh’s Chosen One in 1 Samuel”  Journal of Biblical Literature Volume 131, Number 3, 2012). See also P. Kyle McCarter Jr, I Samuel: A New Translation with Introduction, Notes and Commentary(AB 8; Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1980), 229.  Since McCarter very few scholars have followed the traditional interpretation.

David and Joab – being the friend of a narcissist

Absalom and Joab

Trapped by his beautiful hair, the rebel Absalom is killed by Joab in this painting by the early 17th-century artist Giovanni Battista Viola from the Louvre.

This will probably be my final post, at least for now, in my series about David being a narcissist. I wanted to write something about what it’s like to be the friend of a narcissist, and in some ways I can relate to the biblical character Joab who seems to me to have been one of David’s best friends (if narcissists have “friends” in the same way most of us think of friendship).

Joab was David’s nephew – the son of his sister Zeruiah – the comander-in-chief of his army (1 Chronicles 11:4-6), and probably the commander of an elite group known as “the mighty men” (2 Samuel 10:7). He is credited with defeating several of David’s enemies and taking a number of cities (including Jebus, better known as Jerusalem, which became David’s capital [2 Chronicles 11:4-9]), and was the leading military figure throughout David’s reign. He is depicted as David’s staunchest supporter, and as the power behind the throne. At times he went against David’s express wishes – such as when he had David’s rebel son Absalom killed against David’s orders – but it seems when he did so it was always for David’s benefit. When Joab achieved victories for David, he gave David the credit even after David ceased to be actively involved in military campaigns (such as in the Ammonite and Syrian wars 2 Samuel 12:26-30; 21:15-17). Joab was the person responsible for putting down the rebellions of Absalom (2 Samuel 18:1-17) and Sheba (2 Samuel 20:1-22). In fact, Joab never lost a battle! To protect David, he also covered up David’s affair with Uriah’s wife. Unlike Abner, Saul’s commander-in-chief, Joab had no ambitions to occupy the throne himself. His only interest was to support David.

Yet David does not seem to show much gratitude to Joab for all he did for him. After Joab killed Abner (who switched his allegiance from Ishbosheth, Saul’s successor, to David) to avenge the murder of his brother at Abner’s hand – a move which benefitted David politically –  David publicly humiliated him and made him walk in sackcloth at Abner’s funeral. Yet, all the time Joab continued to work to support and strengthen David’s hold on power. After the death of Amnon, David’s heir apparent, he engineered for Absalom to return to court because he knew David pined for him (2 Samuel 14:1). This was a politically savvy move, as it brought Absalom back to Jerusalem where his ambitions could be held in check, because Absalom’s popularity was increasing and David’s was waning. Soon after, when David was publicly humiliated by an irate citizen, David blamed Joab for his declining popularity! (2 Samuel 16:9-10). Despite this public betrayal Joab remained loyal and saved David’s throne during Absalom’s revolt. Again, instead of being grateful to Joab for putting down the rebellion and saving his life, David lamented Absalom’s death, sapping the morale of his loyal fighting men and earning the rebuke of Joab on their behalf (2 Samuel 19:5-6). Again and again David publicly humiliated Joab and blamed him for his miseries, yet Joab remained loyal and worked tirelessly to support him. David’s generosity to others never flowed to Joab. Eventually David replaced Joab with Absalom’s former general Amasa, even though he lacked the support of the military and was a less capable leader. When there was another attempted revolt against David, this time by Sheba, it was apparent that Amasa would not be capable of putting down the rebellion. Joab murdered him, regained control of the military, defeated Sheba and put down the revolt. When Joab returned to Jerusalem it becomes clear that he was acknowledged by David as commander-in-chief (2 Samuel 20:23), although we get no details. Again it seems that David is incapable of recognising loyalty or showing gratitude to his most devoted supporter.

On his deathbed David warned Solomon to watch out for Joab! Even though he benefitted politically from the deaths of both Abner and Amasa, he told Solomon their deaths (at the hand of Joab) should be avenged, so after David’s death Joab was murdered on the orders of Solomon while seeking sanctuary at the altar of the Tabernacle (1 Kings 2:30-31). Loyal to David to the end, Joab was struck down on the advice of his ungrateful and vindictive ‘friend’ who depended on him for his success but could not bring himself to show any gratitude. In death, David proved himself, in my opinion, to be a narcissist beyond doubt. Narcissists depend on loyal supporters; they have a way of attracting people who are loyal and resourceful, and who will be useful to them, but they never really make them their “friends”. For a narcissist it’s a one-way relationship: they expect the people who are closest to them to be loyal and devoted, but it is never reciprocated. They seem to be almost incapable of showing gratitude, of putting themselves out for someone else, or able to reward loyalty.

I sympathise with Joab. Loyal to the end, but murdered for it. He probably would have made a better king than David, although he had no personal ambitions to rule. It’s likely he even genuinely loved David and only wanted the best for him. Narcissists are likeable, even loveable, but are rarely capable of reciprocating that love and devotion. Unless you’ve been in a relationship with a narcissist, or been a friend to one, it may be difficult to understand why someone like Joab could be so loyal to someone who never rewarded his loyalty or showed any gratitude. But if you have had that misfortune then, like me, you may be able to identify with the real victim in this story, Joab: the loyal and devoted servant who was humiliated, shunned and punished for his devotion.

David, Amnon, Tamar and Absalom – narcissism and its family consequences

Banquet of Absalom, Niccolò De Simone

The murder of Amnon at the Banquet of Absalom, Niccolò De Simone (17th century Flemish artist)

According to the book of Samuel, David’s family life was a mess! The biblical records don’t hide the facts that David was an adulterer, a murderer, a terrible father, a lousy husband and not much of a king either. On the positive side, it seems he was a pretty good musician and song-writer, but not much else is said in his favour. In this post I want to comment on a major incident which devastated David’s family, and relate it to my personal knowledge of what it’s like being in the family of a narcissist.  I should emphasise that as far as I’m aware there are no narcissists in my immediate family, and my understanding of what may have been going on in David’s life is based on my experience as the friend of a narcissist, and my knowledge of how he interacted with his family. I’d love to co-operate with a psychologist/psychiatrist to explore this further, so if you’re reading this and have professional qualifications dealing with NPD I’d like to hear from you.

Amnon, David’s eldest son and heir, has been described as “a chip off the old block” [1]. He was one of six sons born at Hebron to six different wives. Most of what we know about Amnon comes from one incident, but the story provides several important details which indicate that he was very similar to his father. Amnon was in love (or infatuated with) his half-sister Tamar and connived with a cousin (Jonadab) to get Tamar, with David’s knowledge and consent, to visit him while he was “sick” in bed. When Tamar visited Amnon in his bedroom Amnon raped her, but then his “love” – or lust – turned immediately to disgust and hate and he sent her away. We learn that when David heard about this he was incensed, but did nothing. Interestingly, two ancient versions of the story – the Septuagint and a scroll from Qumran (one of the Dead Sea Scrolls) – adds a note to the story that David did nothing because he didn’t want to upset Amnon whom he loved. With or without this note, David is portrayed as weak and this sets the stage for Tamar’s full-brother Absalom (David’s third son and Amnon’s half-brother) to conspire to murder Amnon two years later in an act of vengeance for his sister. (The full story is in 2 Samuel 13 and has been described as a “masterpiece of drama, suspense, and irony … The literary and dramatic climax … is approached with a drawn-out, suspense-building account of the scene and the dialogue in Amnon’s bedroom.” [2])

The parallels between this story and the earlier account of how David lured Bathsheba to his bed, and then murdered her husband Uriah, are striking. Both father and son were driven by lust, both crossed legal and moral boundaries, and both stories end in murder. It’s not unusual, apparently, for a narcissistic parent to have a narcissistic child (although the opposite can also be the case – having a narcissistic parent can drive a child to the other end of the spectrum – and it can also happen that one child of a narcissist also turns out to be a narcissist while their sibling is the opposite). One of the major characteristics of a narcissist is their belief that the rules don’t apply to them, and both David and Amnon ignored the rules about adultery and incest. Probably related to this is the fact that narcissists are generally impetuous and reckless (and it’s not unusual for them to die as the result of committing a crime). Their recklessness and attitude to rules is particularly the case with respect to sex and they are often known to be promiscuous. It seems that Amnon was very much a chip off the old block. Perhaps this is why the record in Samuel hints that David had an idea of what Amnon was planning, but ignored it.

The second part of the story – which is contrasted with the suspenseful and dramatic account of the rape by being markedly matter-of-fact – describes Absalom’s plot to murder Amnon at a banquet to which all his brothers were invited. Significantly, David was also invited to the banquet but declined. In an interesting article about ancient near eastern customs of hospitality, Anne Gudme notes that it was polite to first decline an invitation to a meal, but then to accept the invitation when pressed. [3] Declining the invitation on David’s part was therefore not unexpected, but then continuing to decline would have been insulting. If he had attended we could speculate about how things might have been different and if Amnon would still have been murdered in the presence of the king. However, perhaps Absalom expected David to decline. Anyone who knows a narcissist would also know that if it isn’t their idea they will either avoid it, or try to change the plan. In my own experience, it was almost humorous but I came to expect my narcissistic friend to change the arrangements for meeting up even when I was well on my way there. If I suggested eating Thai, he would say he’d prefer Italian. If I suggested Italian he’d want Indian. I remember once, soon after my birthday, he said he wanted to take me out for dinner and because it was my birthday I could choose to go anywhere. On our way to the venue of my choice (a place with a lot of good food options that suited my preferences), he changed the plan and we went somewhere that had nothing I could eat! David’s response to Absalom’s invitation therefore doesn’t surprise me. It wasn’t his idea, so he wasn’t going! His excuse was that it would be a “burden” on Absalom to have him and his entourage attend, but then the story is careful to point out that Absalom prepared a feast, as the Septuagint puts it, “fit for a king” (v. 27). It clearly wasn’t a burden at all; David simply didn’t want to go because it wasn’t his party.

After Amnon’s murder Absalom fled to Geshur (his maternal grandfather was king of Geshur) where he stayed for three years to avoid any consequences. But David’s response was passive and he is portrayed as detached. Absalom was later persuaded by David’s general to return from exile, althoug even then David refused to see him for two years (a typical narcissistic “punishment”). Thereafter Absalom became a popular leader and obtained a great deal of support when he attempted a coup against his father David. Absalom was killed during the attempted coup and on hearing the news of his death the story includes a poignant lament by David: “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!” (2 Samuel 18:33). I have no doubts that David’s grief was genuine. The poignancy of these words, however, highlights for me how inadequate he was as a father, and how he could be detached and uninvolved in the lives of his children except to punish them (ironically by being even more detached!), yet yearned for a relationship with them. Again, this is typical of narcissists. They expect their children to love them, while being detached except to punish them. It’s sad, and difficult for a friend to watch them saboutage their relationships. In a later post I may write about David’s friend Joab, and how he tried to “fix” the mess that David created around him, but failed, and how even this loyal friendship eventually ended.

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[1] For example, by Gray, Mark. “Amnon: a Chip Off the Old Block? Rhetorical Strategy in 2 Samuel 13.7-15 the Rape of Tamar and the Humiliation of the Poor.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 23, no. 77 (1998): 39-54. Gray cited an earlier use of the expression by J.P. Fokkelman, Narrative Art and Poetry in the Books of Samuel (Assen:Van Gorcum, 1981), p. 99.

[2] Howard, David M. “Amnon” in Freedman, David Noel ed. The Anchor Bible Dictionary. New York: Doubleday, 1992, volume 1, 196.

[3] Gudme, Anne Katrine de Hemmer. “Invitation to Murder: Hospitality and Violence in the Hebrew Bible.” Studia Theologica – Nordic Journal of Theology  (2019): 1-20. 

A biblical homophobic slur?

 

Julius_Kronberg_David_och_Saul_1885

David and Saul, Julius Kronberg, 1885. From this picture one would think that it was Saul, not Jonathan, who was in love with David!

A few posts back I wrote about the laws in Leviticus which are often quoted as evidence that the Bible condemned homosexuality, and discussed the term “uncover the nakedness of … [one’s father, mother, sister, etc].” I said there that this is generally regarded as a euphemism for having sex with that person, specifically taboo sex (i.e. incest). The phrase occurs rarely in the Bible outside these laws in Leviticus, although there are a couple notable exceptions. The first is in Genesis 9:22-23 in a story about Noah planting a vineyard after the flood, becoming drunk on wine which he produced, and then

“Ham [Noah’s son], the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside. Then Shem and Japheth [Ham’s brothers] took a garment, laid it on both their shoulders, and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father; their faces were turned away, and they did not see their father’s nakedness.”

The phrasing is not quite identical because in the Genesis story Ham “saw” his father’s nakedness, while the Leviticus laws are about uncovering nakedness. The first appears to be inadvertent, while the latter is deliberate. However, the fact that when Noah sobered up “and knew what his youngest son had done to him” (Gen. 9:24) and then cursed Ham’s son (Canaan), suggests to many scholars that what Ham did was more than to simply see his father naked. Some have argued that Ham exposed his father’s nakedness while others think he had sex with his father while he was drunk. This text probably deserves more attention, perhaps in a later post, but it is enough for now to say that seeing or uncovering nakedness probably both contain sexual innuendos.

I also wrote earlier about a possible homosexual relationship between David and Jonathan. If you’ve read my subsequent posts about David you will realise that I’m inclined to think that Jonathan had a homosexual attraction to David and was infatuated with him, but David was either oblivious to Jonathan’s feelings or he chose to use them to his own advantage. If David was a narcissist, as I suspect, then the latter could be expected. While taking another look at the D&J story I recalled that the story contains the only other reference to “your mother’s nakedness” outside of Leviticus (1 Samuel 20:30). In its context it seems to be an odd phrase:

Then Saul’s anger was kindled against Jonathan. He said to him, “You son of a perverse, rebellious woman! 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?

The background to Saul’s outburst against his son was Jonathan’s loyalty to David in covering for David’s absence from the royal court because David was in fear of Saul. Interestingly, leading up to this incident, David and Jonathan spoke about Saul’s hostility to David, and David noted that Saul was well aware of their friendship: “Your father knows well that you like me” (literally, I have found favour in your eyes 1 Samuel 20:3). And then a little later the narrator reminds us that “Jonathan made David swear again by his love for him; for he loved him as he loved his own life.” (v. 17, as if we needed reminding because he has already told us this twice!) I noted in my previous post that Virginia Miller has pointed out that when something is said three times in 1 Samuel it tends to be a case of overstatement for emphasis. So here I think the narrator is emphasising Jonathan’s attraction to David. And then comes this outburst about Jonathan choosing David “to your own shame, and to the shame of your mother’s nakedness.” Robert Alter has pointed out that this is quite violent and is a reference to the idiom for taboo sexual intercourse. [1] It is certainly odd why he would speak of “your mother’s nakedness” unless we understand it as an insulting idiom. He was not referring to any actual sexual intercourse between Jonathan and his mother, but it seems that for centuries the worse insults are those which make reference to having sex with one’s mother, giving rise to the idiomatic English expression “motherfucker”. I suspect that is what is happening here, but the very mention of shame (twice) coupled with a sexual innuendo suggests to me that Saul was making a slur of a sexual nature. Was he alluding to Jonathan’s attraction to David? Was this the first homophobic slur on record? Was this an ancient Hebrew idiomatic equivalent of faggot?

Because this phrase which we’ve encountered elsewhere is used here as part of an insult, and in the context where an emphasis is placed on Jonathan’s attraction to David, I would paraphrase it this way: “Shame on you! You’ve chosen to chase after your pretty boyfriend rather than being loyal to your family”, followed by some sort of derogatory slur of a sexual nature. Saul is hardly being commended for the slur. On the contrary, the narrator is describing Saul’s descent into insanity and the slur is therefore condemned rather than commended. Read this way it reinforces an interpretation of 1 Samuel which understands the friendship between David and Jonathan to have a homosexual element, even if the attraction was one-sided.

I should add a postscript that I don’t think the word “homophobic” is strictly correct in this context as there is no evidence that the ancient world had any concept of homosexuality, or heterosexuality for that matter. There is no evidence that they had a concept of sexuality at all. They were certainly familiar with homosexual acts, but probably had no need to categorise people based on their sexual preferences. So, if they didn’t have a word for homosexuality then homophobia would be equally out of place. But I use the word here because that is how we might understand it.

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[1] Alter, Robert, The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2019, vol. 2, 263.