Neviim Tovim, blogs by Gillian Gould Lazarus

Archive for the ‘Tanakh’ Category

Jonah speaks only five prophetic words throughout the book of his name and these are they:

 עוֹד אַרְבָּעִים יוֹם וְנִינְוֵה נֶהְפָּכֶת    In forty days Nineveh will be overthrown.

 Not only are the words few but apparently false as Nineveh is not overthrown in forty days.

The rest of the book of Jonah is story, without the oracles which appear in all the other books of the prophets. In this way, he resembles the earlier prophets of the book of kings, Elijah and Elisha, whose stories are characterised by miraculous incidents.

The editors of Yamim Noraim, Rabbi Jonathan Magonet and Rabbi Lionel Blue, explain the choice of the book of Jonah for Yom Kippur. It shows the power of repentance and is associated with fasting because the people of Nineveh fast and repent.

Verse 1 – 2

The prophet Jonah ben Amittai is mentioned  in  2 Kings 14,25, during the reign of Jeroboam II, who reigned in the kingdom Israel between about 825 and 790 BCE.  The Assyrian Empire was approaching the height of its power although it had not yet destroyed the Northern kingdom of Israel, which fell in  722 BCE.

In the book of Jonah, God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh – the heart of the evil empire – and proclaim against it. Usually Hebrew prophets are sent to prophesy to the people of Israel or Judah.

We know from the book of kings that Jonah was from the North, from Gath-hepher in the region of Zebulun. According to midrash, Jonah was descended from Zebulun,[3] which is particularly appropriate because of Jacob’s prophecy: Zebulun shall dwell by the seashore; he shall be a haven for ships.[4] Jonah is not called a prophet in the book of Jonah although he has a prophetic mission.

The name Jonah  means dove.  Interestingly, the monastery on the Hebridean island of Iona was founded by St Columba, which also means dove – Colum, in his native Ireland and colombe in French. The name Iona must be a tribute to the biblical Jonah, when Columba – the dove – was washed up on to its shores.

 Jonathan Magonet, quoting the Zohar, ascribes another meaning to the name  Jonah:  ‘troubled’, a participle of  י  נ ה, to oppress.[5]

Verse 3 

 Jonah heads for the port of Joppa, nowadays called Jaffa, and boards a ship heading as far as possible from Ninevah, to Tarshish, which we have seen is identified with Spain, the western extremity of the known world. A midrash in the Talmud says that Jonah was so eager to get away that he financed all the passengers on the ship.[6]

Why does Jonah refuse his commission and flee? The text does not give us an answer in so many words. Redak commented that Jonah fled from the land of Israel as he believed that, outside of Israel, the spirit of prophecy would desert him, deriving this from an early, perhaps third century midrash, the Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael:

[Did he think he] could (really) flee from the presence of the Lord? Does not Scripture already say ‘Where can I go from Your spirit? Where can I flee from Your presence?[7]

The author of the Mekhilta then relates a parable: a priest’s servant fled to a cemetery, thinking that he would be beyond his master’s reach, but the master said ‘I have other servants who can come after you.’ Similarly, Jonah fled from the Land of Israel, intending to flee from God, but God caused a great tempest to bring him back.[8]  The Mekhilta also makes the point that Jonah thought that the Ninevites were more prone to repentance than the Israelites, and that God would be angry at Israel, who were slow to repent.

The author of the midrash Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer (eighth or ninth century CE) explains that  Jonah had been sent to Jerusalem to announce its destruction but Israel repented and God did not destroy the city. Consequently Jonah  acquired  a reputation as a liar. When God sent Jonah to Ninevah, he refused, not wanting  to appear a liar again.[9] Deuteronomy 18 warns of  false prophets whose prophecies do not come to pass:

When a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word which the LORD has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously.[10]

Commentators have noticed the repetition of וַיֵּרֶד, he went down; we also have the repetition of קוּם, to rise up, in verses 2 and 3. We saw in verse 3 that Jonah went down to Joppa and down into the ship; in this verse he goes down to the ship’s hold and his falling asleep, from the root ר ד ם, is a pun on  going down when the yod prefix is attached to it.

Verse 4 – 5

Note the word רוּחַ which means spirit as well as wind; later on, east of Nineveh, Jonah will again be afflicted by severe weather.

During the storm, the sailors feared for their lives, each calling to his god. Where was Jonah during this time of mortal danger? Going down to the innermost part of the ship, he fell into a deep sleep: וַיֵרָדַם. This is from the verb ר ד ם  although ישן is the more usual word for sleeping). Jonah’s tardemah can be seen as a biblical motif: a sleep which occurs at a point of significant change: for example, the deep sleeps of Adam[11] and Abram,[12] or it can be regarded as an elaboration of the narrative to emphasise something about Jonah’s state of mind: perhaps his flight from God or even his trust in God.

The version of Jonah in the LXX actually says ‘he was asleep and snoring’: εκαθευδε και ερεγχε, to convey the deep sleep.

 Verse 6

The captain is like a messenger of God because he repeats to Jonah the words of God’s call: קוּם קְרָא, ‘Arise and call.’

Verses 7- 16 

The sailors draw lots, to see who on board has brought the storm upon them and the lot falls on Jonah. They question him and Jonah himself tells them to throw him into the sea, so that the storm will abate. They are humane and  row hard to save themselves without casting Jonah overboard, but eventually they throw him into the sea and the storm ceases.The sailors are awed and they make vows, נְדָרִים, a word which has special resonance on Yom Kippur.

 The word for sailors is מַלַּחִים, ‘salts,’ perhaps.  According to BDB it is a loan word from Assyrian[14]  They draw lots – goralot – which fall on Jonah.  Goralot, probably stones, are well attested elsewhere in the bible and are used by Aaron in connection with the scapegoat, providing a seasonal connection:[15]

When the sailors question Jonah he identifies himself as a Hebrew – Ivri anochi – and a God-fearing man. The sailors are not Hebrews but they are God-fearing.  Jonah seems to have an unconscious proselytising force; the sailors are or become pious in his presence, as do the people of Nineveh.

In the LXX, which, until this point, closely matches  the Masoretic Text, Jonah does not say he is a Hebrew but δουλος Κυριου ειμι εγω ‘I am a servant of the Lord.’

The sailors ask Jonah how they can calm the sea and it is Jonah himself who tells them they must throw him overboard. Note that he has courage for this, though not for the mission to Nineveh. When the sailors fail  to save Jonah  by rowing for the shore, they call on God, using the tetragrammaton.[16]  A midrashic work called Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer, composed in the ninth century CE, tells that the mariners threw their idols overboard to lighten the load during the storm.[17]

After they have thrown Jonah overboard and the storm has abated, they sacrifice and make vows (nedarim, another seasonal word) to God. The Hebrew text tells us that they feared fear, sacrificed sacrifices and vowed vows:[18]

וַיִּירְאוּ הָאֲנָשִׁים יִרְאָה גְדוֹלָה אֶת יְהֹוָה וַיִּזְבְּחוּ זֶבַח לַיהֹוָה וַיִּדְּרוּ נְדָרִים

This is the last we hear of them, but their susceptibility to Jonah’s words is something they have in common with the Ninevites.

 Chapter 2, verse 1

God has prepared a great fish to swallow Jonah, who survives three days and three nights in the belly of the fish. God prepares (מ נ ה) four things in the book of Jonah: a great fish, a gourd, a worm and an east wind.[19]

 A midrash relates that, on the fifth day of creation, God gave the fish the commandment to vomit up Jonah at the appointed time.[20]

Midrash has quite a lot to say about the fish: that its interior was a beautiful synagogue; that the fish was about to be devoured by Leviathan, but  Jonah frightened Leviathan away but revealing it was destined to become plat du jour  at the feast for the righteous in the time to come. There is also a midrash that, whereas Jonah was comfortable inside the fish, he was then swallowed by a female fish, where he was uncomfortably squashed as the female fish was pregnant. In chapter 2:1, the fish is called a dag,a male fish, but in verse 2 it is called dagah, which is feminine. In the LXX, the fish is ketos, which seems to be the generic term for a sea monster, cetacea being the zoological term for aquatic mammals.

If we look again at the creation of sea creatures on the fifth day of creation:

 God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarm, according to their kinds[21]

וַיִּבְרָא אֱלֹהִים אֶת הַתַּנִּינִם הַגְּדֹלִים

We should note that the LXX, for this verse says that God created ta kete ta megala:

Και εποιησεν ο Θεος τα κετη τα μεγαλα.

The Hebrew word taninim, sometimes dragons, sometimes sea monsters, is translated into Greek as a creature which is perhaps a whale but which, whatever it is, matches the creature which swallowed Jonah. 

The rabbis said that הַתַּנִּינִם refers to leviathan.[22]

A Babylonian godddess called Tiamat took the form of a sea monster and her name has been associated by some with the  Hebrew word תְהוֹם, the deep. Ugaritic literature has a sea beast called lotan, which is connected with leviathan, evidence for this being that the adjectives applied to the Ugaritic lotan match the adjectives used of leviathan in Isaiah:

In that day the LORD with his hard and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will slay the dragon (tanin)that is in the sea.[23]

The motif  of three days  will appear again, in the three days in takes to cross Nineveh. The authors of  the New Testament were very interested in Jonah’s three days in the whale:

 For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.[24]

They may well have been picking up the motif of three days as a significant period, which is well attested  in the Tanakh.     

Chapter 2, verses 2-10

Jonah prays inside the whale, thanking God for saving him. Some scholars have regarded Jonah’s prayer as external to the book, in the way that Hannah’s prayer, in 1 Samuel 2, has the appearance of an addition. However, the opposite opinion is also well represented.

 For Jonah, the belly of the whale is Sheol, and not a well-appointed synagogue, as in the fanciful imagination of the midrashic author. He speaks of being cast into the depths of the seas, of despair, of remembering God and giving thanks to God who saves him. Essentially the prayer tells Jonah’s story.  It is set very nearly in the middle of the book, so to speak, in the very bowels of the book: there are 18 verses in the book of Jonah before the psalm and 21 after it. The epicentre of Jonah’s story is 2,7, a verse which encapsulates the mood of Yom Kippur :

 I went down to the bottom of the mountains; the earth with her bars closed upon me for ever: yet hast thou brought up my life from the pit, O LORD my God.

לְקִצְבֵי הָרִים יָרַדְתִּי הָאָרֶץ בְּרִחֶיהָ בַעֲדִי לְעוֹלָם וַתַּעַל מִשַּׁחַת חַיַּי יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהָי


Chapter 3, verses 1 – 3

 God speaks to the fish who vomits Jonah on to dry land.  The word of  God comes to him  again, telling him to go to Nineveh and proclaim its imminent fall. Jonah is not back to square one because he has experienced strange events and suffering, and now he sets out for Nineveh.  

 Verses 4 – 6

Here Jonah speaks his five prophetic words:

 עוֹד אַרְבָּעִים יוֹם וְנִינְוֵה נֶהְפָּכֶת    In forty days Nineveh will be overthrown.

 In the LXX, Jonah says ‘In three days, Nineveh will be overthrown.’

 The book  of Jonah distinguishes between the mission of the prophet and the fulfillment of his prophecy. Ninevah is not after all overthrown, but still Jonah must speak his five  words in the appointed place and, in spite of his procrastination, no doubt at the appointed time.

 The people of Nineveh responded at once: they fasted and put on sackcloth. When the king of Nineveh heard of it, he proclaimed a fast and said ‘Let every man turn  from his evil way, and from the violence of his hands. Who knows, God may turn and relent…?’

The sins of Ninevah are not specified and the king of Nineveh is not named.

  Nineveh is an extremely large city, three days walk across. After Jonah has delivered his prophecy and emerged on the east side of the city – which we know is the far side because he  approached from the west – he has, one might infer, spent three days crossing Nineveh, just as he spent three days in the dag gadol. The proliferation of the king’s command to wear sackcloth will have taken a certain amount of time, perhaps the three days in which Jonah crosses the city.

Verse 3,7

The king includes animals in the fasting and the wearing of sackcloth, even decreeing that cattle and flock should not graze. (Al yiru) According to Herodotus, including animals in mourning was customary in the Persian empire.[34] Pagan gods and mythological creatures often had animal attributes, being, for example, part jackal, part bull, part fish or part horse. Attributing human attributes to animals may be the converse of such a perspective. More prosaically, the sackcloth on the animal may be simply a sign of the mourning of the owner. Dr A Cohen[35], in his translation of the Trei-Asar, cites the Apocryphal book of Judith, where, in response to the threat of the mighty Assyrian army, every man of Israel and their wives, children,   servants and cattle put sackcloth upon their loins.[36]

 Verse 9

    Who knows whether God will not turn and repent?

The syntax brings to mind David’s words, after he had fasted and prayed for the life of his infant son.[37]

Even closer are the words of the prophet Joel:

“Yet even now,” says the LORD, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;  and rend your hearts and not your garments.” Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and repents of evil.  Who knows whether he will not turn and repent, and leave a blessing behind him.[38]

 Verse 10

For God repented of the evil which He said He would do…

The idea of God relenting in this way is not unusual in Tanakh; we have seen it in the case of David’s census,[40]  in an oracle of Jeremiah,[41] in the prayers of Amos on behalf of Israel,[42] as well as in Moses’ many dialogues with God.

The Mishnah tells us that God responded to the change in the behaviour of the Ninevites, rather than to the display of repentance:

Concerning the men of Nineveh, [it does not say] ‘God saw their sackcloth and their fasting,’ but And God saw their works that they turned from their evil way.[43]

The passage goes on to quote the prophet Joel: Rend your heart and not your garments.[44]

Chapter 4

Verses 1-2

God does relent towards Nineveh but Jonah is distressed, and angry. He quotes Exodus 34: A God gracious and merciful, slow to anger…[45] the words which God proclaimed to Moses on Sinai and which appear in the liturgy of all the services on Yom Kippur. Jonah knows God’s attributes of mercy and compassion and he seems to feel that his  mission was pointless from the outset; furthermore Ninevah was potentially a dangerous place for an Israelite troublemaker.

 Verse 3

Why does Jonah plead for death? Does he feel that his reputation as a prophet is damaged because Nineveh was not destroyed?

Jonah’s argument with God is the reverse of Abraham’s bargaining for Sodom and Gomorrah: Abraham wants God to save lives in Sodom but only Lot and his daughters are saved. Jonah wants to see the destruction of Ninevah, but all are saved.

Verse 4 

Previously, God spoke to Jonah in commanding mode. Now He enters into a dialogue  with him, with the question: הַהֵיטֵב הָרָה לָךְ – ‘Does your anger do good?’. Jonah does not reply, or his reply is  unrecorded.

Verse 5

Jonah has arrived from the west and walked through the city; when he leaves he is to the east, but not too far to be a spectator. He has been on the run, one way or another through most of the story, with the exception of his time in the whale. Now he makes himself a succah and sits under its shade.

Verse 6

Just as God prepared a fish, He now prepares a gourd, a קִיקָיון, to shelter Jonah and Jonah  feels great happiness: שִֹמְחָה גְדוֹלָה, perhaps because God is sheltering him.  A gourd is said to be a squash, pumpkin, marrow, melon,all of which are cucurbitaceae, of the cucumber family, but  Ibn Ezra says rightly of the קִקָיון: One need not know what species of plant this was, to understand the lesson.

As Jonah has already made himself a succah for shelter, why does the gourd make him happy? Possibly it provides additional shade, but perhaps also it is a sign of God’s protection, of which Jonah has not been sure until now, even when saved from the whale.

Verse 7-8

Jonah had gone out on the east side of the city and turned to watch events while there was still enough sunlight for him to require shade. He would have seen the sun set over the city. At dawn, the worm, prepared by God, struck the gourd which dried up. The sun rose behind Jonah, striking his head. The word struck or smote, וַתַּךְ is used of the worm which attacked the gourd and the sun which beat down on Jonah’s head.The driving wind reminds us of the great wind which prevented Jonah’s getaway from Joppa.

 Again, Jonah wishes to die.

 Verse 9

God asks again if Jonah is right, הַהֵיטֵב, to be angry about the gourd. angry, עַד־מָוֶת.

Verses 10-11

God replies to Jonah with an a fortiori argument: if Jonah, who did not labour over the plant, cares about its survival, how much more so should God care for the 120,000 persons of Nineveh, whom – it is implied rather than said – God created and and preserved.

  As  Jonathan Magonet and Lionel Blue point out in their commentary, Jonah cared for the gourd as a tool for his safety rather than as the work of his hands. The gourd actually saves him  and Jonah depends on it. The attachment which Jonah feels for this plant is therefore a very strong emotion and serves as an analogy for God’s care for Ninevah.

 120,000 is one of the biblical numbers which signifies many; it is found elsewhere in connection with men fallen on the battlefield [47] and sheep offered for sacrifice by king Solomon.

Rashi comments that the people of Nineveh resembled cattle as they were too clueless to know their right hand from their left.

There is an episode in Genesis involving an apparent confusion about the left and right hand; this is when Jacob blesses Ephraim and Manasseh. Joseph says:

Joseph said to him, “No, my father, this one is the firstborn; put your right hand on his head[50]

Jacob’s act of blessing the younger child with his right hand and the older with his left has echoes of Jacob’s own youth, when he obtained the firstborn Esau’s birthright, but Jacob does not speak of this when he replies to Joseph. Instead, he looks to the future:

I know, my son, I know; he [Manasseh] also shall become a people, and he also shall be great. Nevertheless his younger brother shall be greater than he, and his offspring shall become a multitude of nations.[51]

The descendants of Ephraim were indeed so numerous that the name Ephraim is used by  the  prophets[52]   to represent the whole of of the Northern Kingdom. The ‘multitude of nations’ which Ephraim became were vanquished by descendants of those Ninevites who did not know their right hand from their left. In 722 BCE, about fifty years after Jonah’s lifetime – if he was contemporary with King Jeroboam II, as stated in 2 Kings 14 –  the Northern Kingdom would fall to the Assyrians. The Assyrian capital city Nineveh would be destroyed by the Babylonians in 612, fulfilling the prophecy of Nahum.[53] If Jonah had not specified forty days, he, like Nahum, would have got it right.

Lastly, the cattle. We saw that they were included in the fast and the wearing of sackcloth. Jonathan Magonet suggests that the words וּבְהֵמַה רָבָּה contribute to a  numeric balance of Jonah’s words and God’s words in this chapter.[54] He also points out that animals and nature, in the Jonah story, are proactive in the service of God.

I suggest that the ending of Jonah is particularly memorable because, uniquely among  books of the bible, it ends with a question. However, the question is not about the cattle;  it is something more pertinent to the mood of Yom Kippur:  ‘Shall I not feel pity?’  וַאֲנִי לא אָחוּס

September 2008  Ellul 5768






[1] Megillah 31a

[2] 2 Kings 14,23-25

[3] Genesis Rabbah 98,11


 Genesis 49,13

[5] A Study in the book of Jonah, J Magonet, Guild of Pastoral Psychology, Lecture 208

[6] Nedarim 38a

[7] Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael, Bo 1

[8]  ibid

[9] Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer 10

[10] Deuteronomy 18, 22

[11] Genesis 2,21


 Genesis 15,12

[13] NT Matthew 8,24  NB  Peter the disciple is called Bar Jonah in Matthew 16,17

[14] BDB p572


 Leviticus 16, 7-10

[16] Jonah 1,14


 PRE 10,31

[18] Jonah 1,16

[19] Jonah 2,1; 4,6; 4,7; 4,8

[20] Genesis Rabbah 5,5

[21] Genesis 1,21

[22] Bava Batra 74b

[23] Isaiah 27, 1

[24] NT Matthew 12,40,

[25] Genesis 22,4

[26] Hosea 6,2

[27] Genesis 42,18

[28] Exodus 19,16

[29] Joshua 2,16

[30] Esther 5,1

[31] Genesis Rabbah 56,1

[32] Surah Saaffat chapter 37, 145-148

[33] Jonah in Ninevah, H Clay Trumball, Journal of Biblical Literature vol 11, no 1 1892

[34]The Histories 9,24: ‘They shaved their heads and cut the manes of their horses and mules.’


 The Twelve Prophets trans Rev Dr A Cohen, Soncino Press 1957  p146


 Judith 4,9

[37] 2 Samuel 12,22

[38] Joel 2,14

[39] Exodus 32,14

[40] 2 Samuel 24,16 and 1 Chronicles 21,15


 Jeremiah 18,7-8


 Amos 7,2-6

[43] Taanit 2,1

[44] Joel 2,13

[45] Exodus 34, 6-8

[46] 1 Kings 19,4

[47] Judges 8,10; 1 Chronicles 28,6

[48] 1 Kings 8,63

[49] Matthew 6,3

[50] Genesis 48,18

[51] ibid verse19

[52] Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, Obadiah, Zechariah


 Nahum 1,1ff

[54] Yamim Noraim p1016

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

  • Gillian Gould Lazarus: Thank you Keith.
  • keithmarr: Dearest Gillian < div dir="ltr">Not only do you manage to read all this filth without throwing up but you manage to make me laugh
  • Gillian Gould Lazarus: Unless they are members of the group in general agreement with the Labour manifesto of 2019 but against the excesses which are often found in these gr