The following is an excerpt from my commentary on 1-2 Samuel, A Son To Me.
Saul was rejected from being king before the battle of Michmash (1 Samuel 13-14), but a replacement was immediately introduced, his son Jonathan. Just as Eli was replaced by his “son” Samuel and just as Samuel was replaced by his “son” Saul, so now fallen Saul was to be replaced by his son.
And Jonathan was a worthy candidate: Bold and aggressive as a warrior, full of faith in Yahweh’s strength, he was what his name suggests, a “gift of God” to Israel. He was everything that Saul had been early in his reign.
According to the pattern of 1-2 Samuel, however, the biological son did not replace the father. Instead, the biological son was himself replaced by an adopted son. Jonathan was introduced as the “son of Saul” only after Samuel had already cut Saul off from the kingdom (13:16). No sooner do we learn that he was a son, than we learn that he was a disinherited son.
Instead of being the replacement for Saul, Jonathan functioned in the story as a preview of the true replacement, David, and the similarities between the two were marked:
|Son of Saul, 13:16||Son-in-law of Saul, 18:26|
|Fights Philistines single-handedly, 14:1-5||Fights Goliath single-handedly, 17:41-51|
|Leads Israel to victory, 14:16-42||Leads Israel to victory, 17:52-54|
|Attacked by Saul twice, 14:43-46; 20:30-32||Attacked by Saul twice, 18:10-11; 19:8-10|
|Trusts Yahweh, not numbers, 14:6||Trusts Yahweh, not weapons, 17:47|
Doubtless many more analogies could be found, but these are sufficient to establish the point: Jonathan foreshadowed David, and David’s career was modeled on Jonathan’s.
In a stream of stimulating books, Rene Girard has offered a theory of culture that focuses on the phenomenon that Girard calls “mimetic rivalry.” According to Girard, human desire is not purely instinctual nor purely individual. Rather, desire is “mimetic,” that is, imitative; we want things because we see others wanting them, especially others whose lives serve as models for ours. Frequently, the desires of children are formed by the desires of their parents. A father’s passion for sporty cars is passed to his sons, and daughters pick up their mother’s delight in sewing.
Mimetic desire, though pervasive in human life, is fraught with danger. After all, if I want something because I see you desiring it, we are setting ourselves up to compete for it. The more closely we mimic the desires of others, the greater the danger of violent rivalry. The more sons mimic their fathers’ desires, the greater the danger of strife between fathers and sons.
Girard’s insights highlight some important aspects of the story of Saul, David, and Jonathan in these chapters. For each to some degree, the object of desire was the crown of Israel. As soon as Jonathan appeared in the story, he was a rival to his father, performing all the heroics that his father should have been performing. David was even more obviously a rival, since he was anointed as soon as he showed his beautiful eyes and handsome face (16:12-13).
In fact, David was a potential rival to both Saul and Jonathan: He was designated as Saul’s replacement, and that meant he was also destined to usurp the place of Jonathan. Saul certainly viewed David as a dangerous opponent, becoming envious of David’s exploits (18:6-8), suspicious of David’s popularity (18:9), and fearful of David’s success (18:12, 15, 29). Saul even became suspicious of Jonathan, seeking to kill him when he defended David (20:33-34) and blaming him for turning David against him (22:8). Saul was a case study in the violent tendencies of mimetic rivalry.
This is all the more striking when we consider the age difference between the two men. David was thirty when he became king (2 Samuel 5:4), and Saul reigned forty years (Acts 13:21). Thus, David was born in the tenth year of Saul’s reign. Jonathan, however, was already fighting with Saul in the third year of his reign at the battle of Michmash (1 Samuel 13:1, 3), and therefore must have been at least twenty at that time. By the time David was born, Jonathan was at least thirty and perhaps even older; though David and Jonathan are in a sense brothers, Jonathan was certainly old enough to be David’s father.
Instead of treating the dashing warrior from Judah as a young upstart, Jonathan recognized his qualities, conceded that the future belonged to him, and voluntarily gave up his own ambitions for David’s sake. Jonathan decreased so that David could increase.
The life of Jacob provides another kaleidoscope of perspectives on the early history of David. This is the theological backbone of the story of David, and it runs through the entire David narrative. It is the narrative background to the Davidic covenant, in which the Davidic king becomes “son” to Yahweh, the embodiment of Yahweh’s son Israel (cf. Exodus 4:23).
For now, it will suffice to point out how this analogy adds further luster to the character of Jonathan. Some of the parallels between Jacob and David are summarized in the chart below:
|Younger son, Genesis 25:26||Younger son, 1 Samuel 16:10-11|
|Chosen by God, Genesis 25:23||Chosen by God, 1 Samuel 16:12|
|Opposed by hostile father, Genesis 25:28||Opposed by hostile father-in-law, Saul|
|Flees Isaac’s house, Genesis 27:42-43||Flees Saul’s house, 1 Samuel 19:11-24|
Against the background of these parallels, Jonathan’s love for David stands out as all the more astonishing, for Jonathan was the “Esau” of this story. It would be hard to imagine a man less suited to the role of Esau.
Finally, we can overview the early life of David by referring to the three zones of the original creation. Saul sinned in the garden, the land, and the world; he offered illegitimate sacrifice, nearly killed his son, and allied with Agag king of Amalek. David became king after proving himself faithful in all three areas, and in each David had to prove himself in relation to both allies and enemies:
|Garden||King’s House||Michael; Jonathan||Saul|
|Land||Wilderness||Jonathan, Joab, Warriors||Saul, Nabal|
With enemies, David had to be shrewd and patient; with allies, he had to be both faithful and firm. Insofar as he was successful in these tasks, he was reversing the effects of Saul’s sins. Insofar as he failed, he was laying treacherous groundwork for his kingdom.
Meditating on the life of David through this grid would be a healthy exercise for anyone aspiring to leadership in the church, and we should expect rulers to prove themselves faithful in each area before they take their places as “clan chiefs” or “kings.” It is important to see again that ultimately it is Yahweh who trains David for his office, by throwing various sorts of obstacles in his way that stretch his wisdom, strength, and ingenuity.
Thanks to James B. Jordan for pointing this out to me in private correspondence.