Neviim Tovim, blogs by Gillian Gould Lazarus

Machar Chodesh

Posted on: May 17, 2009

Machar Chodesh  1 Samuel 20:18-42

The New Moon

This haftarah is read whenever, in the words of Jonathan in the opening sentence,  ‘Tomorrow is the new moon,’ and this shabbat is therefore called מָחָר חֹדֶש Our haftarah comes under the heading of ‘Special haftarot’ and, as an aspect of Rosh Chodesh,  celebrates the natural phenomenon of the lunar cycle, rather than an event of Israelite history.

According to Gunther Plaut, Rosh Chodesh was regarded as a shabbat, when all abstained from work. A verse from Amos  provides evidence for this:

Hear this, you who trample the needy and do away with the poor of the land, saying, ‘When will the New Moon be over that we may sell grain, and the Sabbath be ended that we may market wheat?’[1]

From Talmudic times[2],  the Rosh Chodesh holiday was considered a privilege only of women,as a reward for withholding their jewelry during the episode of the Golden Calf.  In midrash Pirke DeRabbi Eliezer, we are told that in the incident of the Golden Calf, the women refused to relinquish their earrings to the men who were building the calf.[3]

Repetitions in 1 Samuel 19 and 20

1 Samuel 20, a gripping narrative about danger, friendship and escape, might give the reader a sense of déjà vu, when read in sequence after chapter 19. There we find a similarly gripping narrative about danger, friendship and escape, featuring the same characters but with a woman also in the picture. It begins:

Saul told his son Jonathan and all the attendants to kill David. But Jonathan was very fond of David and warned him, “My father Saul is looking for a chance to kill you. Be on your guard tomorrow morning; go into hiding and stay there. I will go out and stand with my father in the field where you are. I’ll speak to him about you and will tell you what I find out.”[4]

There, as in chapter 20, Saul has confided his plan to Jonathan, but Jonathan’s loyalty to David is greater, either out of friendship or, as many readers would have it, out of homoerotic love. David’s military success and popularity  threatens the dynastic expectations of Saul’s sons, including Jonathan, so Saul is naturally infuriated when Jonathan defends David in the haftarah we are about to read. Chapter 19 presents Saul’s reaction differently. When Jonathan spoke well of David, reminding Saul how Israel had benefited from David’s exploits, Saul listened attentively and replied ‘As surely as the Lord lives, David will not be put to death.’[5]

Saul does not remain long  in a conciliatory state of mind. David’s military success  arouses Saul’s jealousy and he attacks David with his spear. Somehow David eludes the spear, with which Saul fails repeatedly to hit his mark. [6]

David and Michal

That night, David makes his escape, assisted by his wife, Michal, Saul’s daughter who lets David out through her bedroom window. Michal’s deception of her father in this episode is reminiscent  of an incident involving her ancestor Rachel, the mother of Benjamin.[7]  Rachel’s motivation in stealing Laban’s teraphim is not clear, but there are points of similarity in the two stories,  especially when we read:

Michal took an idol and laid it on the bed, covering it with a garment and putting some goats’ hair at the head.  When Saul sent the men to capture David, Michal said, “He is ill.”  Then Saul sent the men back to see David and told them, “Bring him up to me in his bed so that I may kill him.”  But when the men entered, there was the idol in the bed, and at the head was some goats’ hair.[8]

The words teraphim, lakach and tasem occur in the Michal narrative, as well as that of Rachel.

וְרָחֵל לָקְחָה אֶת הַתְּרָפִים וַתְּשִׂמֵם בְּכַר הַגָּמָל

וַתִּקַּח מִיכַל אֶת הַתְּרָפִים וַתָּשֶׂם אֶל הַמִּטָּה

There are echoes of Jacob and Rachel in other aspects of  David and Michal’s relationship: they argue and Michal is infertile, though, unlike Rachel, she remains so. The relationship between David and Jonathan does not echo anything except itself in the various narratives about their friendship. There are no close male relationships in the Pentateuch, other than the love between fathers and sons. Brothers in particular come off badly.

Jonathan loves David but we are not told that David loves Jonathan:

After David had finished talking with Saul, Jonathan became one in spirit with David, and he loved him as himself. [9]

We see from later events that David loves women but, although Jonathan has a son, we do not know anything about his married life.

Consistency of characterization: Saul, Jonathan, David

It looks as if chapter 20 should be read as a variation of chapter 19, rather than a continuation of it. We know that there is often a doubling of narrative in the bible, which creates discrepancies and riddles if the duplicated passages are interpreted as being a linear representation of events. Robert Polzin  acknowledges that many scholars attribute the inconsistencies to the redaction of incompatible traditions, but makes the point that the characterizations in chapter 20 are quite consistent with those in previous chapters.[10]Jonathan’s love for David, his truthfulness and freedom from personal ambition are apparent in all the versions of his intervention between Saul and David. Saul’s jealousy of David and dangerously volatile mood swings are  depicted in a variety of episodes from chapter 18:7 onwards:

And the women sang to one another as they made merry, “Saul has slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands.” And Saul was very angry, and this saying displeased him; he said, “They have ascribed to David ten thousands, and to me they have ascribed thousands; and what more can he have but the kingdom?”  And Saul eyed David from that day on.[11]

As for David, the different versions of his escapades and escapes  tell us little of what he is thinking. Polzin says:

Whereas the narrator’s voice often reveals to the reader Saul’s true purposes, as well as his inner thoughts and feelings, and often speaks of others’ inner thoughts and feelings, especially their love and esteem for David, it gives us almost nothing in the entire five chapters since David’s appearance (chapters 16-20) that can be described as an inner psychological view of David


A covenant of love has existed between David and Jonathan ever since David’s slaying of Goliath brought him to prominence in royal circles.

David Alter points out that Jonathan is proactive in making the covenant and sealing it by a gift of clothing. This gift  is perhaps symbolic of Jonathan’s abdication in favour of David, especially as there are other symbolic changes of clothes in 1 Samuel: Saul tearing Samuel’s cloak,[13] Saul’s offer of armour to David,[14] David cutting Saul’s tunic[15] and Saul’s cloak of disguise when he visits the Witch of Endor.[16]

In chapter 20, David flees from Ramah where he had been hiding with Samuel, and comes to Jonathan for help. Alter points out that these are David’s first reported words to Jonathan, although Jonathan’s speech to David has been recorded in chapter 19.[17] David tells Jonathan  to explain David’s absence from Saul’s table at the feast of the New Moon and if Saul is incensed, David will take flight again. Going by Saul’s past form, David may well expect Saul to be murderously angry; Jonathan on the other hand speaks as if he has no knowledge of Saul’s previous violence towards David. He swears that he will let David know Saul’s intentions, and reaffirms his covenant of chapter 18.

The meeting of David and Jonathan in Chapter 20 is not their last. Their final meeting takes place when David is hiding from Saul in  Horesh in the Desert of Ziph.  The brief description shows that Jonathan’s characteristics of  supportiveness, piety and optimism are unchanged:

While David was at Horesh in the Desert of Ziph, he learned that Saul had come out to take his life.  And Saul’s son Jonathan went to David at Horesh and helped him find strength in God.  ‘Don’t be afraid,’ he said. ‘My father Saul will not lay a hand on you. You will be king over Israel, and I will be second to you. Even my father Saul knows this.’ The two of them made a covenant before the Lord. Then Jonathan went home, but David remained at Horesh.[18]

Rosh Chodesh at the court of Saul

Verse 18

This shows that David has a place at Saul’s court, which he is expected to occupy on the festival of Rosh Chodesh.

Verse 19

Why does Jonathan set their secret meeting for the third day?  It seems that the Rosh Chodesh celebrations occupy two days, as a second day is referred to in verse 34. Only after the festival will Jonathan be free to slip away. Jonathan urges to David to use a previous hiding place; this could refer to 19:1, when David hid in the field where Jonathan and Saul spoke about him.

A cunning plan

Verse 20 – 22

Jonathan devises a plan for communicating with David, hidden in a place where he can hear Jonathan speak to the servant. The Etzel Stone is used as a landmark so that Jonathan knows David is within earshot. Incidentally ETZEL is an acronym by which the Irgun is known: ארגון צבאי לאומי .

The covert  information which Jonathan intends to communicate concerns Saul’s plans towards David: is he reconciled to him or does he still seek David’s life?

The plan they devise is that Jonathan will shoot the arrows and and use the coded message to his na-ar, the boy, either that the arrows are this side, meaning no danger from Saul, or the arrows are beyond you, in which case go away for the Lord has sent you away. Rashi interpreted the  words The Lord has sent you away away, as meaning that the fall of the arrows will be directed by God as a sign, rather than  by Jonathan’s aim, that the arrows can be used as a means of divination.

Arrows, spears or javelins were the main weapons in Israel at this stage of the iron age and swords were of limited availability among the Israelites. At one stage, only Saul and Jonathan had swords.[19]  The Philistines were well-equipped with long iron swords – David took Goliath’s sword and decapitated him with him.[20] The same sword was kept  by the priests of Nob, wrapped in a cloth behind the ephod. When David asked for a sword or a spear, as he had no weapon with him, Ahimelech the priest  handed over the sword of Goliath, which David recognised:

[21]אֵין כָּמוֹהָ תְּנֶנָּה לִּי   There is none like it – give it to me.

Fidelity between friends

Verse 23

Jonathan concludes his rapid, urgent speech by invoking  the eternal covenant of fidelity between himself and David, which he affirms again in verse 42. It is noticeable that David’s words are unrecorded on both occasions. Jonathan will speak of this covenant again at their final meeting, when David is a fugitive in Horesh.

They do not meet after this as Jonathan will die with Saul in a battle against the Philistines on Mount Gilboa.At precisely that time, David and his followers will be in the pay of the Philistine king Achish.

Whether David remained loyal to Jonathan’s family is arguable. Once Jonathan is dead, David mourns equally for him and Saul. On the basis of David’s behaviour, a bystander would not guess that Saul had tried consistently to kill him, while Jonathan had been his loyal friend. When an Amalekite brings David news of their death:

David and all the men with him took hold of their clothes and tore them. They mourned and wept and fasted till evening for Saul and his son Jonathan, and for the army of the Lord and the house of Israel, because they had fallen by the sword.[22]

David’s lament in 2 Samuel 1 is notably even-handed in extolling Saul with Jonathan, even emphasizing that they were not parted in death. When he says I grieve for you my brother Jonathan, you were very dear to me. Your love for me was wonderful, passing the love of women,[23] the words hardly do justice to Jonathan’s fidelity. The proof of the pudding lies in David’s treatment of Jonathan’s son, when David is king. He asks Is there anyone still left of the house of Saul to whom I can show kindness for Jonathan’s sake? He seems to be unaware that Jonathan has a surviving son until a courtier comes up with the information.

The story of Jonathan’s son Mephibosheth does not  put David altogether in a good light, showing him as strangely credulous and much too quick to dispossess Mephibosheth. He appears to fulfil his oath to Jonathan, by insisting that Mephibosheth should be provided for and eat at the king’s table.  Mephibosheth is ‘crippled (literally ‘smitten’) in both feet’  so is unable to be a warrior and David chooses to be his protector.[24] We have seen from Saul’s Rosh Chodesh dinner that eating at the king’s table is no guarantee of personal safety.

Later on, David’s informant Ziba, who had been a servant in Saul’s household, deceives David into believing that Mephibosheth is disloyal:

Ziba said to him, “He is staying in Jerusalem, because he thinks, ‘Today the house of Israel will give me back my grandfather’s kingdom.'” Then the king said to Ziba, “All that belonged to Mephibosheth is now yours.” “I humbly bow,” Ziba said. “May I find favor in your eyes, my lord the king.”[25]

Ziba’s motivation of greed appears  transparent but nevertheless David chooses  to penalize Mephibosheth. His suspicion towards Saul’s remaining family is great, since they represent a rival claim to the throne, and being Saul’s grandson tilts the balance against Mephibosheth, even though he is also Jonathan’s son.When Mephibosheth makes a half-hearted attempt to vindicate himself, David rules that the property given to Ziba should now be divided between Ziba and Mephibosheth.[26]As this was originally  Mephibosheth’s patrimony, this represents a fifty per cent loss, but, like Jonathan, Mephibosheth is willing to renounce everything for David’s sake:

Mephibosheth said to the king, ‘Let him take everything, now that my lord the king has arrived home safely.’[27]

David’s reply is not recorded, as is often the case in his encounters with Jonathan. The commentary in the Talmud is:

When David said to Mephibosheth, ‘Thou and Ziba divide the land,’ a Heavenly Echo came forth and declared to him, Rehoboam and Jeroboam shall divide the kingdom.Rab Judah said in Rab’s name: Had not David paid heed to slander, the kingdom of the House of David would not have been divided, Israel had not engaged in idolatry, and we would not have been exiled from our country.[28]

However, when David appeased the Gibeonites by handing over seven of Saul’s descendants, whom the Gibeonites put to death, he chose at that time to keep faith with Jonathan by sparing Mephibosheth:

The king spared Mephibosheth son of Jonathan, the son of Saul, because of the oath before the Lord between David and Jonathan son of Saul.[29]

In a veritable purge of Saul’s family, Mephibosheth and his son Mica survive, their names listed in the two targumim to the book of Esther as the ancestors of Mordecai and Esther.

At Saul’s table

Verse 24

 The scene is set with David hiding in the field while a Rosh Chodesh meal takes place at  the court of King Saul.

Verse 25

Why does Jonathan give his place beside Saul to Abner, Saul’s cousin and chief of staff?  Kimchi’s interpretation is that  Jonathan was afraid to be next to Saul because of his volatile temper. Alter refers to a textual reading of וְיִקְדָם, instead of the Masoretic וַיָּקָם, offering the translation Jonathan preceded him instead of Jonathan stood up.[30]

  Verse 26

Saul notes David absence, but shows his equable side and makes no comment. The reader is told Saul’s thoughts, that David’s absence is caused by ritual impurity, a common condition which could be caused, as Alter suggests, by a seminal emission.[31]

Verse 27 – 30

Son of Jesse and sonofabitch

On the second day, Saul’s mood is quite different as we see when  he refers to David by the patronymic ‘son of Jesse’. Jonathan comes up with an excuse for David, saying that family affairs have taken precedence, but this infuriates Saul, as does the fact that Jonathan is making excuses for David. Saul’s abusive language, demeaning to Jonathan’s mother, suggests that Jonathan is showing contempt for his own birth and parentage by his allegiance with the son of Jesse. The significance of being the son of Jesse is twofold: on the one hand, Jesse is merely a farmer from Bethlehem whereas Jonathan is the son of the king. On the other hand, there is Jacob’s prophecy that kingship is attached to the tribe of Judah[32] and the interesting ancestry of Jesse, the son of Obed, son of Boaz, grandson of Nachshon ben Amminadab who, according to midrash was the first Israelite to walk into the Red Sea.[33] Amminadab was the great-grandson of Perez, who was one of the twin sons of Judah and Tamar.[34]

By calling Jonathan’s mother a perverse, rebellious woman, Saul may be implying also that Jonathan is a bastard  and not Saul’s rightful heir. Jonathan’s mother was called Ahinoam, of whom nothing is known except that she was the daughter of Ahimaaz.[35] Another Ahinoam, of Jezreel, was one of David’s wives, the mother of Amnon.[36]

What has he done?

Verses 31-32

Saul spells out to Jonathan that David threatens his kingdom and declares his intent to kill David, calling him בֶּן־מָוֶת,’son of death’. Jonathan is not intimidated and expresses David’s innocence by saying: Why should he be put to death? What has he done? David himself tends to protests his innocence with the words ‘What have I done?’ – he says this to his brother Eliab,[37]to Jonathan,[38] to Saul[39] and to Achish, the Philistine king.[40] David repeatedly portrays himself as a wronged innocent with this ingenuous expression.

Missing the target

Verse 33

This is the third time that Saul aims his spear at someone at close range. These seem to be  half-hearted attempts at killing as he misses every time, so David survives the spear in Chapters 18,[41] and 19,[42] as Jonathan does here. The Hebrew does not say that Saul intended to kill Jonathan but that he meant to smite him, and some translators say ‘he raised his spear’. The verb יָטֶל is from the root ט וּ ל and means ‘hurl’ or ‘throw’.[43] It is used of the great wind that hits Jonah’s ship as it heads for Tarshish:

וַיהֹוָה הֵטִיל רוּחַ גְּדוֹלָה אֶל הַיָּם.[44]

There is also a verb נ ט ל which means to raise. If this were the intended meaning, there should be a dagesh in the letter tet, to show that the letter nun has been dropped. The Masoretes chose the meaning ‘to hurl’ by leaving out the dagesh, indicating the verb ט וּ ל but the LXX has ‘He lifted up his spear..’ και επηρε Σαουλ το δορυ επι Ιωναθαν[45]

Jonathan fasts

Verse 34

Again we are given an insight into Jonathan’s thoughts, his anger and grief at the way his father treated him. His fasting on the second day of the month reminds us of another episode when Jonathan refrained from fasting. Saul had declared a fast before battle with the Philistines, saying ‘Cursed be any man who eats food before evening comes, before I have avenged myself on my enemies’.[46] Jonathan had not heard his father’s words and ate some honey; for which misdemeanour Saul was prepared to put Jonathan to death, except that the men of Saul’s army spoke up for him, saying:

Should Jonathan die – he who has brought about this great deliverance in Israel? Never! As surely as the Lord lives, not a hair of his head will fall to the ground, for he did this today with God’s help.” So the men rescued Jonathan, and he was not put to death.[47]

Meeting by the Etzel stone

Verse 35 – 8

The scene changes to outdoors where Jonathan keeps his secret appointment with David, who is still hiding near the Etzel Stone. Jonathan shoots not three arrows but one.(Was Shakespeare thinking of David and Jonathan when he spoke of ‘slings and arrows’, their characteristic weapons of choice?) There is a sense of urgency and danger in the speed of events.Jonathan tells the boy to run for the arrows and  shoots while he is running. He calls out ‘the arrow is beyond you,’ which one may suppose is meant for David’s ears, rather than those of the servants and adds ‘Make haste, don’t stay,’ which may also be a warning  to David.

Verse 39 – 40

Why does the narrator make the point – which already seems clear – that the lad knew nothing? The conspiratorial  relationship between Jonathan and David is being emphasized and we see that Jonathan, a notably truthful character, is capable of what Robert Polzin calls ‘double-voiced language’.[48] It is Saul, as much as Jonathan’s servant, who is being kept in the dark.

Jonathan gives his weapons to the boy and sends him away with them. This echoes the episode when Jonathan gave David his robe and weapons, divesting himself of  the symbols of his royalty and martial power.

Jonathan took off the robe he was wearing and gave it to David, along with his tunic, and even his sword, his bow and his belt.[49]

Verse 41

David is nothing if not grateful, bowing three times to the ground in  acknowledment of Jonathan’s royal status and David’s debt of gratitude to him. Then they behave as close friends, kissing and weeping together. Why does David weep longer? Is it that he feels compelled to exceed Jonathan and Saul in everything, even weeping?

David is depicted often as not very tall, perhaps because of the comparison with Goliath, but Saul is a six footer[50] and one can imagine Jonathan might approximate his father’s height. The imagery of the relationship between these two young men is that Jonathan is proactive, passionate, forthright and possibly tall; David is reactive, seductive, manipulative, shorter and more lachrymose.

However, the LXX does not mention David crying longer or, as the Hebrew says,   עַד דָּוִד הִגְדִּיל. Instead, it has: ‘[they] wept for eachother, for a great while’.

Verse 42

David and Jonathan part, though not for the last time. Characteristically, it is Jonathan who has a voice, who says לֵךְ לְשָלום, and who alludes again to the eternal covenant between them, his words closing resembling those with which he took leave of David in verse 23.

It is slightly reminiscent of Laban taking farewell of Jacob with the words: May the Lord keep watch between you and me when we are away from each other.[51] There was no close friendship between Jacob and his father-in-law Laban, but they were bound by a common interest in their posterity, the way a divorced couple with children are bound.

As we have seen, it is debatable whether David is faithful to Jonathan’s desendants.

Hunger and fasting in 1 Samuel

The Talmudic rabbis were unusually critical of Jonathan regarding an aspect of David’s departure. David’s next meal is taken by courtesy of the priests of Nob, who gave him the consecrated show bread, as well as the sword of Goliath. After he left Nob, Saul had the priests killed, for collaborating with David.[52]

Rab Judah said in Rab’s name: Had but Jonathan given David two loaves of bread for his travels, Nob, the city of priests would not have been massacred.[53]

The subject of fasting and hunger comes up elsewhere in the David and Jonathan narrative; in Jonathan breaking the fast decreed by Saul in chapter 14 and in Jonathan’s fast on the second day of the new moon, in response to Saul’s anger. Now the plot will be driven forward by David’s hunger when he reaches Nob. He has been in hiding for three days, and it does indeed seem that it might have been wise for Jonathan to slip him a sandwich, before taking his place at Saul’s table for the feast of Rosh Chodesh.

Jonathan is a high minded young man and a prince of Israel, and does not think about catering, but the author of 1 Samuel has a realistic knowledge of meal times and their importance in history.

[1]Amos 8:4-5

[2] Megillah 22b


PRE 45

[4] 1 Samuel 19:1-3

[5] 1 Samuel 19:6-7

[6] ibid 8-10

[7] Genesis 31:19-35

[8] ibid 13-16

[9] 1 Samuel 18:1-4

[10] Samuel and the Deuteronomist Robert Polzin, Indiana UP, 1989 p188

[11] 1 Samuel 18:7-9

[12] Polzin, loc cit p190

[13] 1 Samuel 15:27-28


ibid 17:38


ibid 24:5


ibid 28:8

[17] ibid 19:2-3

[18] 1 Samuel 23:15-18

[19] 1 Samuel 13:22


ibid 17:51

[21] ibid 21, 10

[22] 2 Samuel 1:11-12

[23] 2 Samuel 1:26

[24] 2 Samuel 9:7-11

[25] ibid 16:3-4

[26] ibid 19:26-27

[27] ibid 19:30

[28] Bavli Shabbat 56b

[29] 2 Samuel 21:7

[30] The David Story Robert Alter  WW Norton 1999 p127

[31] ibid

[32] Genesis 49:10


Sotah 37a; Numbers Rabbah 13:7


1 Chronicles 2:4-12

[35] 1 Samuel 14:50


1 Chronicles 3:1

[37] 1 Samuel 17:29


ibid 20:1


ibid 26:18


ibid 29:18

[41] 1 Samuel 18:10


ibid 19:10


BDB p376

[44] Jonah 1:4

[45] 1 Kingdoms 20:33

[46] ibid 14:24

[47] ibid 14:45

[48] Samuel and the Deuteronomist, Polzin p193

[49] 1 Samuel 18:4

[50] ibid  10:23

[51] Genesis 31:49

[52] 1 Samuel 21:1-7; 1 Samuel 22:16-19

[53] Sanhedrin 104a

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