(I Samuel 20:18-42)
October 25, 2003
The relationship between King Saul and David is a tragic drama. The great acrimony between the king and his younger, more talented disciple, and the agony of Saul\’s son Jonathan, who is torn between loyalty to his father and his fealty to his friend, are almost too painful to bear. What precipitated this situation? What poisoned the relationship between the king and his favored servant? David, after all, was taken in by Saul after his miraculous victory over Goliath. He became Saul’s favored military hero and court singer. He was Jonathan’s most treasured friend.
The event which precipitated this tragic situation happened well before David entered the plot of the story. Samuel, the prophet, had already warned Saul that his reign as king would come to a premature end. Saul understood this prophecy to be a warning rather than a message of inevitability. It consumed him to the point of paranoia since he was not about to forego the crown. The details of how to avoid the loss of the kingdom were left to Saul’s imagination. He did not know where or when or how the monarchy might be wrenched from his hands. Saul became a tortured soul. This untenable situation brought about Saul’s great ambivalence toward David. On the one hand, he was attracted to David’s brilliant military prowess and his abilities as a court singer. Yet, these same gifts made him wary of David. This perception was reinforced by the reaction of the crowds to David’s success: “And the woman sang one to another in their play, and said: ‘Saul has slain thousands and David tens of thousands.” (1 Samuel 18:7) David is, for Saul, a marked man, since Saul sees retaining his rule as an ultimate value. Anything that interferes with it must be removed.
According to Professor Uriel Simon, Jonathan saw the situation differently than his father did. Jonathan was unhampered by his father’s “ghosts”. Consequently, he was able to see David for the special figure that he was. He developed a close friendship and a covenant with David. He seemed to realize that it would be David who would ultimately become king and not him. In Simon’s words: “For Saul, politics expedience determines a person’s worth while for Jonathan, a person’s individual worth should determine their political significance. (Bakesh Shalom v’Rodefehu p. 156) Saul\’s flawed reasoning ultimately led to his incapacity and downfall.
This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
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