Friday, November 11, 2011

Contrasting Old and New Commentators on 1 Samuel 20

When doing some reading to prepare to preach on 1 Samuel 20, I was struck by different perspectives expressed by the commentators regarding the character of David (and Jonathan). David tells Jonathan to report to Saul that he has gone to Bethlehem for a yearly sacrifice, rather than to the new moon festival, while, in fact, he is hiding in the field (vv. 5-6). Jonathan follows through on the plan and, as David hides in the field (v. 24), Jonathan reports to Saul that David asked leave to go to Bethlehem (vv. 27-29). The question is whether or not David and Jonathan are guilty of outright deception in dealing with Saul.

Dale Ralph Davis, a modern interpreter, concludes that the reader might be bothered by Jonathan and David’s ruse. He writes,

Some readers may be disturbed to see that the Bible records Jonathan’s apparent “storying” for David. That is all the text is doing: reporting what Jonathan did. It does not recommend what he did. The Bible, as so often in such cases, ignores the rub the modern reader may feel. It is important, however, to distinguish between what the Bible reports and what it recommends. It tells you that Jonathan prevaricated for David; it does not say, “Go, and do thou likewise.” The Bible is telling a story, not teaching ethics here (1 Samuel: Looking on the Heart [Christian Focus, 1996]: p. 211, n. 9).

Contrast this, however, with the way one of the old path men deals with the same situation. Matthew Poole offers the following commentary on David hiding in the field in v. 24:

David hid himself, to wit, at the time appointed; for it seems probable that he went first to Beth-lehem, as he bade Jonathan tell his father, ver. 6, and thence returned to the field, when the occasion required; else we must charge him with a downright lie, which ought not to be imagined (without any apparent cause) concerning so good a man, especially in so distressed and dangerous a condition. And why should he hide himself there so long before the time when Jonathan was to come thither to inform him? Nor were there any need of appointing a certain time to meet, if David were there all the while.

The contrast reminded me of Peter Master’s comments concerning the description of the judges in Not Like Any Other Book: Interpreting the Bible (Wakeman Trust, 2004). Masters claims that many of the judges (like Samson and Jephthah) “have been horribly maligned and discredited” by modern interpreters (p. 109; see chapter 13, “Sticking Up for the Judges: A glorious range of heroes denigrated,” pp. 109-127). Would Masters say the same about the assumptions regarding the character of David and Jonathan in 1 Samuel 20?


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