A biblical homophobic slur?



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.


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


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.


[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).

David and Narcissistic Personality Disorder


Narcissus by Caravaggio depicts Narcissus gazing at his own reflection, c. 1594-96

I ended my previous post by suggesting that David exhibited classic signs of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). (Narcissism was named after a character in Greek mythology who fell in love with his own reflection.) I’m not a psychologist and don’t claim to have any qualifications to diagnose NPD, but I have had the misfortune of being the victim of a narcissist so I am somewhat qualified by virtue of my own unpleasant experience to be able to recognise narcissism when I see it. I won’t attempt here to detail all the clinical signs of NPD, but will simply outline those narcissistic characteristics which I detect in the story of King David.

The first thing that alerted me to the possibility, and which I mentioned in my previous post, was that Jonathan seemed to have become infatuated with David from the moment he met him. Narcissists are charming people. They collect friends easily. They are often the life of the party and love to be the centre of attention. Everyone loves them, initially, and it’s easy to become infatuated with one. If David was a narcissist I’m not surprised that Jonathan thought he was amazing: they are, or at least that’s what they want you to believe, and they are pretty good at winning people over almost immediately. In time, however, if you have become a part of a narcissist’s network (a lot of people call it their “web”) you will discover that although they initially seemed to be genuinely interested in you it was only part of a strategy to obtain your loyalty and devotion. They are not genuinely interested in anyone other than themselves, but they will show an interest in you in order to draw you into their network because they need admirers and “resources”, people who will loyally do their bidding. I noticed in the story of Jonathan and David that after Jonathan’s death, well after it seems, David had to make enquiries about whether Jonathan had any offspring. True friends would know that! You know if your friends have children, you know their names, you know about their school or career, and if they play a musical instrument. But David knew nothing about Jonathan’s children: he didn’t even know if he had any!

Because they are so focussed on themselves narcissists inevitably clash with friends and family. Often there will be one drama after another, one relationship breakup after another, and it will never be their fault! Narcissists have an inability to handle any criticism, so if you say or do something to upset them they will find a way to punish you. Typically they will give you “the silent treatment”. In my experience, my narcissistic friend would refuse to speak with me for months on end; no replies to emails or messages, and wouldn’t answer phone calls. They will decide when the punishment has gone on long enough, and often they will make contact again (and “forgive” you) when they need something from you. We get a hint that David was like this in the story about when he brought the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem, and danced in the streets in celebration. His wife Michal (who, incidentally, was Saul’s daughter and Jonathan’s sister) thought he was making a fool of himself, and said so. Big mistake! The account of this incident ends with the chilling line that “Michal the daughter of Saul had no child to the day of her death” (2 Samuel 6:16-23). In the context that line gives the impression that David didn’t sleep with her ever gain. Typical narcissistic punishment.

One by one a narcissist’s friends will leave them, or try to. Narcissists are simply too demanding, there will be constant drama, tension and friction, and you have to get away, for your own sanity. They will never understand why but will act as though they have been betrayed, as though their closest friend had put a dagger through their heart. This is almost certainly what happened when David’s friend Ahithophel sided with David’s son Absalom when Absalom attempted, with a great deal of popular support, to seize the throne from his father. I personally think Psalm 55 – about the betrayal of a close friend who became an enemy – may have been written by David bemoaning the betrayal by Ahithophel. Read it and see if you think it fits.

David’s family was disfunctional. His children attempted coups against him; his friends abandoned him. At the end of his life his courtiers had to find a young woman to sleep with him to keep him warm, suggesting none of his wives would do it. He died alone, and cold. This is what often happens to narcissists. Often even their own children steer clear of them. They sometimes die in prison cells, or while committing a crime (they tend to be reckless); often alone and lonely.

Perhaps I’m reading the story of David through the lens of my own experiences with a narcissistic friend (ex-friend now – I was finally able to end the friendship on my own terms). I may be misjudging David. I’d be interested in hearing from anyone who is qualified or who has had experience dealing with a narcissist.

David and Jonathan


Frederic Leighton, Jonathan’s Token to David, c. 1868

I am in two (or three) minds about the story of David and Jonathan in the book of Samuel. On one hand the description of their friendship is unique in the Hebrew Bible and displays an uncharacteristic intensity. I can understand why many writers have concluded that it was a homosexual relationship. Their relationship has been explored and commented on in scores of commentaries and articles, and it is well beyond the scope of this post to examine the history of scholarship on the matter, or to summarise all the arguments. When I say I am in two (or three) minds about the story it is because I see merit in three interpretations of the account of their friendship. They are not necessarily contradictory, and all three may be right, or at least contain elements which are harmonious. I will briefly summarise these three positions and am happy to provide references or further details in the comments section.

1. There are several elements in the D&J story which suggest an intensity beyond any other friendship between two men in the Bible. It begins with what seems to be their first meeting, at least as far as the record in 1 Samuel portrays it. Having just killed Goliath, and with Goliath’s severed head still in his hands, David was summoned to meet King Saul. He had barely introduced himself (“I am the son of your servant Jesse the Bethlehemite” 1 Sam. 17:58) when Jonathan appears to have been immediately smitten.

“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. 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“ (18:1-3).

Twice in three verses we are told that Jonathan loved him, but not why. We don’t even get any hint from the record that they had even spoken to each other at this point, and the repetition of “Jonathan loved him as his own soul” seems intentionally designed to emphasise that just seeing David and hear him speak was enough for Jonathan to fall head-over-heals in love with him. In addition to telling us that Jonathan loved David, the writer uses a variety of terms to describe the attraction: “Jonathan took great delight in David” (19:1), and David “found favour in his [Jonathan’s] eyes” (20:3). After Jonathan’s death David lamented that “your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women” (2 Sam. 1:26). These words, perhaps more than any others, have convinced many readers that theirs was a homosexual relationship.

Some commentators read 1 Samuel 18:4 as homoerotic  – “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” – while others see it as an act of allegiance, Jonathan seeing himself as a subordinate treaty partner. The use of the terms “servant,” “brother,” and even “love” would be appropriate in the context of a treaty, especially as 20:7-8 later describes a covenant between them. Joab’s speech to David (2 Samuel 19:6 [v.7 in Hebrew]) refers to David’s army as those who love him, so it is argued that Jonathan’s love for David was of the same type, that is, one of loyal devotion to a charismatic leader.

2. This leads to the second interpretation of the D&J relationship which I think has considerable merit. Lieut. Cmdr. Nathan Solomon, a military chaplain with the US Navy, wrote about the special bonds that often develop between soldiers in combat situations in “David and Jonathan in Iraq: Combat Trauma and the Forging of Friendship” [1] and argues that “no existing study of the relationship between David and Jonathan takes seriously their combat experience as a key to the friendship.” He writes:

It is in the chaos of combat and loss that friendships are forged that are unwieldy and intrusive in civilian life.  The language used to describe friendships in the civilian world simply cannot carry the freight these relationships ask them to bear.  Lacking the ability to verbalize the intensity with integrity, cultures default to language and categories with which they are familiar. The result is that the vocabulary of romance and kinship is often appropriated to describe what arises between comrades on the battlefield because no other suitable language or category exists.

Based on his work as a military chaplain working with men who have experienced the trauma of combat and the close bonds that are forged on the battlefield, he suggests that the friendship of David and Jonathan was not a homosexual relationship, but rather it “might be fruitfully analyzed as an intense friendship of the type forged in trauma, for it is the trauma that seems, in large part, to create and cement the friendship.” I personally think that Nathan Solomon’s perspective has a lot of merit.

3. We also need to consider the D&J story from a literary perspective and consider the role that it plays in the overall context of Samuel. What is the writer’s reason for writing the book, and what role does this friendship play for the writer in making his point, whatever that “point” is? There are a couple of things we need to note here about the D&J story within its overall context. First, we should note that the writer of Samuel reports a number of times that Jonathan loved David (adding in 20:17 that “he loved him as he loved his own life”), but never that David loved Jonathan. Was it a one-sided infatuation?  Interestingly, Patricia Tull notes that the Bible doesn’t actually describe David and Jonathan’s relationship in terms of “friendship.” [2] Even in David’s lament on the death of Jonathan, he says that it was Jonathan who loved him, not that he loved Jonathan – “your love to me was wonderful”. The closest he comes to mirroring Jonathan’s love was to say נָעַמְתָּ לִּי מְאֹד “You were very nice to me” which hardly seems to be the kind of thing you’d say to your lover! Elsewhere in 1 Samuel we are given details of Jonathan acting rashly (for example, he is introduced to the reader when he attacked the Philistine garrison at Michmash prematurely without waiting for his father, in 13:2-3). It is part of a narrative which depicts Saul’s rejection as king, and Jonathan’s unsuitability to succeed him. The purpose of the story about Jonathan falling in love with David after the briefest of encounters may have been to further highlight his unsuitability as a future king, because he was impetuous and driven by emotions, while also serving the dual purpose of showing why David was so suitable for the job – even the heir to the throne loved him!

We learn another interesting thing about David from this relationship. Later in the story, long after Jonathan’s death, David enquired “Is there still anyone left of the house of Saul to whom I may show kindness for Jonathan’s sake?” (2 Sam. 9:1). The story goes on to provide details of a surviving son of Jonathan, Mephibosheth (aka, Meribaal). What strikes me as particularly odd about this is that if David and Jonathan were lovers how likely would it be that he knew nothing about Jonathan’s son, and did not even enquire about him until what seems to be a considerable time later? This could further support the theory that Jonathan was infatuated with David, but that it wasn’t reciprocal. It could also imply that if D&J were indeed close friends, or even lovers, that David was a narcissist and didn’t care much for Jonathan beyond the fact that he enjoyed having him as an admirer. That would make sense of many of the other details of the story in which David seems totally incapable of forging “normal” or enduring relationships. His family is disfunctional, close friends eventually abandon him, and he dies alone and lonely; classic signs of narcissistic personality disorder. That, however, would open another can of worms. Perhaps another time.


[1] “David and Jonathan in Iraq: Combat Trauma and the Forging of Friendship,” in Probing the Frontiers of Biblical Studies (ed. J. Harold Ellens and John T. Greene; Princeton Theological Monograph Series 111; Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2009), 21–32. See also Solomon, Nathan. ““Only God Can Judge Me”: Faith, Trauma, and Combat.” Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology 69, no. 1 (2015): 63-75.

[2] Tull, Patricia K. “Jonathan’s Gift of Friendship.” Interpretation: a Journal of Bible and Theology 58, no. 2 (2004): 130-143. 


Biblical kings, good and bad (1)

Jeroboam sacrificing to his idol, oil on canvas by Claes Corneliszoon Moeyaert, 1641

Jeroboam sacrificing to his idol, Claes Corneliszoon Moeyaert, 1641

A consistent theme of the biblical books of 1 & 2 Samuel and 1 & 2 Kings (which was probably originally written as one book but was divided into four because it wouldn’t all fit on one scroll – in the Septuagint and other ancient versions it is one book in four parts known as 1-4 Kings) is that almost all the kings do evil. Measured against king David as the benchmark very few are up to standard. The overall impression one gets from reading the book of Kings is that both Israel and Judah had a succession of bad kings, with only a handful of exceptions. In the case of the northern kingdom of Israel it seems that they all get a bad report. If there were any good kings it appears that they could only be found in Judah, and then rarely.

In this series of posts I plan to explore whether or not all the kings of Israel and most of the kings of Judah were thoroughly bad, why almost all of them are judged as doing evil in the eyes of God, where the writer got his information, and how the book of Kings came to be in the form we have it today.

I’ll start with the phrase which recurs frequently (more than 30 times) throughout Kings: he “did what was evil in the sight of the LORD” which is sometimes followed by “and did not completely follow the LORD, as his father David had done,” or words to that effect. In the records of the northern kings (Israel) this description typically follows the form “He did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, and followed the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, which he caused Israel to sin,” while the southern kings (Judah) are sometimes measured against the standard of David, such as Solomon:

For when Solomon was old, his wives turned away his heart after other gods; and his heart was not true to the LORD his God, as was the heart of his father David. For Solomon followed Astarte the goddess of the Sidonians, and Milcom the abomination of the Ammonites. So Solomon did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, and did not completely follow the LORD, as his father David had done (1 Kings 11:4-6).

Sometimes this condemnation is combined with a description of the particular evil that he committed, such as  “They made their sons and their daughters pass through fire; they used divination and augury; and they sold themselves to do evil in the sight of the LORD, provoking him to anger” (2 Kings 17:17), but more often than not we aren’t given any details about they did that was particularly evil.

First, we need to look at the book of Kings in its literary context. Scholars often refer to the book as being part of the “Deuteronomistic History.” This terminology began with a German biblical scholar, Martin Noth, who proposed that Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, 1-2 Samuel, and 1-2 Kings form a single literary presentation of the history of Israel. [1] Since Noth’s groundbreaking work scholars have come up with several theories about who wrote the Deuteronomistic History (hereafter DtrH), whether it was an individual or group of people, if it was written over a lengthy period or at one time, if it went through a process of revision, addition, editing and redaction, if so, by whom, and when the process was finished. Scholars are a long way from reaching a consensus about this. In this series I will touch on some of these issues. The reason Noth, and others, have given the name “Deuteronomistic” to this group of biblical books is that they seem to share ideas, terminology and themes with the book of Deuteronomy. For example, the phrase about kings doing evil in the sight of God  is traditionally identified as a significant marker of Deuteronomism since similar phrasing is found in Deuteronomy 4:25; 9:18; 17:2; 31:29.[2] Because it shares similar language and themes with the DtrH, Jeremiah is also often classed as being “Deuteronomistic” and so some scholars have argued that the writer of Jeremiah may have played a significant role in producing the DtrH. I will also explore this connection later in this series.

I should state from the outset that I’m not intending to write a commentary on Kings, or to go through every king in Israel and Judah’s history! My particular interest is in the Jehu dynasty – a succession of five kings in the northern kingdom – and this interest was sparked primarily because my PhD thesis is on the book of Jonah, and the prophet Jonah is mentioned in Kings in connection with Jeroboam II, a king in the Jehu dynasty. It seems like an odd place to begin, but I will start with Jeroboam II because it was this king which aroused my interest in the kings in the first place. While looking at the mention of Jonah in 2 Kings 14, I noticed that the book of Kings generally treats the Jehu dynasty favourably (including its account of the reign of Jeroboam II with its naming of Jonah), although it assesses all of the kings in this dynasty with the standard formulaic “He did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, and followed the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, which he caused Israel to sin” (e.g. 2 Kings 13:2). I wondered why the record on the one hand seemed to treat them positively, but then on the other hand each king was condemned for doing evil. What evil?

2 Kings 14:25 says that Jeroboam II “restored the border of Israel from Lebo-hamath as far as the Sea of the Arabah, according to the word of the LORD, the God of Israel, which he spoke by his servant Jonah son of Amittai, the prophet, who was from Gath-hepher” (2 Kings 14:25). Jonah’s message in 2 Kings was one of comfort and hope for Israel “for the LORD saw that the distress of Israel was very bitter; there was no one left, bond or free, and no one to help Israel” (2 Kings 14:26). The historical narrative continues with an odd negative expression: but the LORD had not said that he would blot out the name of Israel from under heaven (v.27). It’s odd precisely because it is in the negative: “but the LORD had not said …” and it’s unusual to see things expressed this way in the Hebrew Bible. It implies that someone – although we’re not told who – was saying just that, namely that God would blot out the name of Israel, and that this message through Jonah specifically refuted this. We’re not told who was saying this, but we do get a clue later in the Bible (I’ll return to this).

To be continued …

[1] Martin Noth, Überlieferungsgeschichtliche Studien: Die sammelnden und bearbeitenden Geschichtswerke im Alten Testament (Tübingen: M. Niemeyer, 1957); English translation: Martin Noth, The Deuteronomistic History (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1981).

[2] Kurt Noll, however, has pointed out that the actual phrase occurs only in Deut 17:2 and argues that it begs the case for Deuteronomism in Kings. Kurt L. Noll, “Is the Book of Kings Deuteronomistic? And Is It a History?,”  Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament 21, no. 1 (2007): 68.

Irony, satire and humour in 1 & 2 Samuel



Samuel anoints Saul. Ridpath, John Clark Cyclopedia of Universal History (Cincinnati, OH: The Jones Brothers Publishing CO., 1885)

To do justice to this subject I would need to write several posts, an entire book perhaps. Indeed, Virginia Ingram wrote an entire PhD thesis on irony and satire in the 9 chapters of 2 Samuel commonly called the “Succession Narrative”. [1] Who knows, perhaps when I’m done with Jonah I will turn my attention to satire elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible. In this post I’d like to follow-on with some thoughts introduced in previous posts about whether the ironies in Samuel about good-looking men are part of an ironic style which pervades the book.

The introduction to the “succession narrative” in 2 Samuel 11, for example, says:

In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab with his officers and all Israel with him; they ravaged the Ammonites, and besieged Rabbah. But David remained at Jerusalem.

The writer couldn’t have been any clearer in highlighting the remarkable irony that when kings should have been fighting battles king David was at home gazing out of his window at a beautiful woman. The juxtaposition of two opposing ideas like “when kings go out to battle” with “David remained at Jerusalem” is a style the writer uses frequently in this book. In this case it highlights David’s failing as a king. One of the main purposes of a king was to fight battles; it was the expressly stated reason why the people wanted a king in the first place, to “govern us and go out before us and fight our battles” (1 Samuel 8:19). Yet David sends his general Joab to do his fighting for him. His affair with Bathsheba sets in train a series of disasters: first an adulterer, he then becomes a murderer, his family is a wreck, his administration of the kingdom is chaotic, there is civil war, his own son leads a coup against him, his friends and family abandon him in droves. And it all began because he wasn’t doing what the people wanted a king to do, and what he was appointed and anointed to do in the first place. As I’ve said before, the writer of 1 & 2 Samuel thinks monarchy is bad for Israel, and he demonstrates this by showing David, the “model” king to be a prime example of why it doesn’t work.

This juxtaposition of opposing ideas is similar to the positioning of the description of David as “ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome” immediately after the rejection of David’s good-looking brother on the basis that appearance is not important.  The writer of 1 & 2 Samuel seems to deliberately put seemingly contradictory statements side-by-side in order to draw attention to them. A further example of this, earlier in the story about whether or not Israel should have a monarchy, appears in the story about the elders of Israel coming to Samuel and saying “appoint for us a king to govern us, like other nations” (1 Samuel 8:5). Samuel disliked the idea and prayed about it. The LORD responded by saying to Samuel “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you” (v.7). In fact he says it twice: “Listen to them” (again in v.9). Samuel returned to the elders and tried to talk them out of the idea, giving a long speech about all the bad things a king would do (vv. 11-18). But the people insisted on having a king, and Samuel prayed about it again. Again the LORD said “Listen to their voice and set a king over them” (v.22). So, having been told three times by God to give them a king, you would think that’s what Samuel would tell the elders. God was in favour and they would get their king. But what does Samuel do? “Samuel then said to the people of Israel, ‘Each of you return home'” (v.22). Samuel may, in fact, have reported fully about his conversation with God, but if so the writer has chosen not to tell us. He wants to leave the impression that Samuel was still convinced that he was right, and by implication, God was wrong, and he’s not going to tell the people that they will get their king after all! (This may sound shocking, but the prophet Jonah does something very similar, arguing with God about his policy of being compassionate and merciful! Job also argues with God about divine justice, and whether God is just in allowing the righteous to ever suffer. More about this another time). As the story continues, God has to later tell Samuel he’s going to send someone to him to be anointed as king, and he sends Saul to Samuel the next day. Samuel made no effort himself to find a king or even to ask God about it. He just sulks about not getting his way.  What would Samuel have preferred? The writer leaves us in no doubt about that, right at the start of the story: “When Samuel became old, he made his sons judges over Israel” (v.1). He didn’t have a problem with hereditary leadership, he just wanted it to be his own dynasty that ruled Israel!

In this story we have something of a repetition of an incident earlier in Israel’s history, also involving a judge and an attempt to establish a hereditary office. Judges tells the story of the judge Gideon who successfully saved Israel from their enemies. So impressed were the people with his victories that they said to Gideon “Rule over us, you and your son and your grandson also; for you have delivered us out of the hand of Midian” (Judges 8:22). Gideon’s reply was theologically almost identical to Samuel’s reaction later: “I will not rule over you, and my son will not rule over you; the LORD will rule over you” (v.23). However, there is a remarkable irony in the Gideon story in the events that follow. First, Gideon asks for the people to pay him a gold earring each (a tax if you like); then he uses this gold to make an אֵפֹד ephod, which was probably some kind of garment designating a high office (the same word is used to describe the garments of priests, especially the High Priest, and which was used in consulting God and determining the divine will). Then Gideon has a son and names him Abimelech (v.31) which literally means “My father is king”! So, having rejected the office and title of king, Gideon then levies a tax (like a king), produces a garment to designate his high office (like a king), and names his son “My father is king”. After the death of Gideon Abimelech goes about to establish himself as king, clearly on the supposition that Gideon had founded a dynasty.

By appointing his own sons as successors Samuel was following the precedent set by the judge Gideon. Theologically they were on the same page (God is Israel’s king), but in practice they ruled as kings and wanted their sons to rule after them. By using similar language in his story to that used in Judges, the writer of 1 & 2 Samuel is making a literary connection, letting the reader know that history was about to repeat itself. The juxtaposition of God’s words to Samuel, “give them a king”, set against Samuel’s words to the elders of Israel in the finale, “go home”, highlight the irony. Samuel was not opposed to hereditary rulership; he was opposed to the idea that it shouldn’t be his family that would rule! No wonder that Samuel criticised almost everything that king Saul did and undermined his kingship.

Not all irony is humorous, although it can be. However, the repetitive nature of the ironies in 1 & 2 Samuel, highlighted by the juxtaposition of conflicting ideas, tends to ridicule the key characters, principally Samuel and David, and portrays their weaknesses in a somewhat comic way.

[1] “A King and a Fool? Verbal irony in 2 Samuel 11:1-19:8a” 2016, Murdoch University

Does God like handsome men? (2)

King-of-EgyptIn my previous post I asked the question what is going on in the story of the choosing of David as king, where God told Samuel not to choose someone based on their appearance, and then tells him that he has chosen David, noting that he was handsome and had beautiful eyes. The two comments stand so closely together in the text it seems to me that the writer is clearly wanting the reader/listener to note the irony. This kind of irony is relatively common in several books of the Hebrew Bible, including 1 and 2 Samuel. (Irony can be humorous, although not necessarily so. Whether or not it’s funny will depend on the listener’s perspective.)

It is probably not coincidence that nearly all of the good-looking people in Samuel are in David’s immediate family: his brother Eliab, his sons Absalom (2 Sam 14:25) and Adonijah, his daughter Tamar (2 Sam 13:1), Absalom’s daughter (also named Tamar 2 Sam 14:27), his wife Bathsheba (2 Sam 11:2) and his third wife Abigail (1 Sam 25:3). David’s predecessor Saul was also described as “a handsome young man. There was not a man among the people of Israel more handsome than he; he stood head and shoulders above everyone else” (1 Sam 19:2). The books of Samuel go to great lengths to compare and contrast Saul and David and to legitimate David’s kingship by highlighting Saul’s failings. There is a hint of this in the comment about Eliab: “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him” (1 Sam 16:7) which mirrors the words about Saul in the opening words “How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel” (v.1). When we get repetition of words or phrases in the Hebrew Bible, especially when they stand so closely together, it seems that the writer is almost certainly making a point of some kind.

Yet, when it comes to good looks, both Saul and David were noted for being very handsome. The unnamed [Davidic] king praised in Psalm 45 is described as “the most handsome of men” (v.2), splendid and majestic (v.3) and a casual reference in Judges 8:18 to certain men who “resembled the sons of a king” also suggests that being good-looking was a common feature of royals. Could it be that the writer(s) of Samuel was also comparing Saul and David with the comments about looks? Yes Saul was handsome, and tall, but David’s whole family were good looking! Or could it be that the writer, who apparently was not keen on the institution of monarchy at all, was making a sarcastic comment about kings? No matter how good-looking they are, kings aren’t good for Israel! I’m inclined towards this second view as the story of David is full of ironies and satire. Even though he is regarded later in the books of Samuel and Kings as the ‘benchmark’ for kings, against whom all the kings of Israel and Judah were compared, the writer goes to great length to show how deeply flawed he was. If the narrator was telling us that Saul’s good looks were actually a flaw, then David (and his family) were even more fatally flawed!

A note about similar words being paralleled in the biblical narratives for effect: I mentioned in the previous post that Joseph was also described as being handsome and good-looking (Genesis 39:6). In that story his good looks get him in to trouble, as he is seduced by the wife of an Egyptian official. But there is a striking parallel between the description of Joseph and his mother Rachel (Genesis 29:17). Joseph is described in Hebrew as יְפֵה־תֹאַר וִיפֵה מַרְאֶֽה and his mother Rachel as יְפֵה־תֹאַר וִיפֵה מַרְאֶֽה. Can you see the difference? There is none! Is this coincidence, is the writer hinting that Joseph was effeminate in his appearance, or is he deliberately hinting that in both cases their beauty caused them problems? There is another striking parallel in a story involving Joseph: Pharoah’s dream about 7 ‘sleek’ cows being eaten by 7 ‘ugly’ cows (Gen 41:1-4). The Hebrew word translated ‘sleek’ is יָפֶה, the same word that is translated ‘handsome’ or ‘beautiful’ elsewhere, and in the descriptions of Rachel and Joseph.  Why handsome and ugly cows? Why not just fat and thin? Is the writer making an ironical comment about human appearances, or having some fun (at Joseph’s expense) about what happens to people with good looks?