Jonathan said to him, ‘Tomorrow is the new moon; you will be missed, because your place will be empty. On the day after tomorrow, you shall go a long way down; go to the place where you hid yourself earlier, and remain beside the stone there. I will shoot three arrows to the side of it, as though I shot at a mark. Then I will send the boy, saying, “Go, find the arrows.” If I say to the boy, “Look, the arrows are on this side of you, collect them”, then you are to come, for, as the Lord lives, it is safe for you and there is no danger. But if I say to the young man, “Look, the arrows are beyond you”, then go; for the Lord has sent you away. As for the matter about which you and I have spoken, the Lord is witness between you and me for ever.’
So David hid himself in the field. When the new moon came, the king sat at the feast to eat. The king sat upon his seat, as at other times, upon the seat by the wall. Jonathan stood, while Abner sat by Saul’s side; but David’s place was empty.
Saul did not say anything that day; for he thought, ‘Something has befallen him; he is not clean, surely he is not clean.’ But on the second day, the day after the new moon, David’s place was empty. And Saul said to his son Jonathan, ‘Why has the son of Jesse not come to the feast, either yesterday or today?’ Jonathan answered Saul, ‘David earnestly asked leave of me to go to Bethlehem; he said, “Let me go; for our family is holding a sacrifice in the city, and my brother has commanded me to be there. So now, if I have found favour in your sight, let me get away, and see my brothers.” For this reason he has not come to the king’s table.’
Then Saul’s anger was kindled against Jonathan. He said to him, ‘You son of a perverse, rebellious woman! Do I not know that you have chosen the son of Jesse to your own shame, and to the shame of your mother’s nakedness? For as long as the son of Jesse lives upon the earth, neither you nor your kingdom shall be established. Now send and bring him to me, for he shall surely die.’ Then Jonathan answered his father Saul, ‘Why should he be put to death? What has he done?’ But Saul threw his spear at him to strike him; so Jonathan knew that it was the decision of his father to put David to death. Jonathan rose from the table in fierce anger and ate no food on the second day of the month, for he was grieved for David, and because his father had disgraced him.
It’s not easy to identify with the characters in this saga, with fights over kingship and the wrestling for power. It seems to belong in a very different world from our own. But there is something here, at this point in the story of Saul and Jonathan, that might remind us of moments in our own lives when we quarrelled with our parents. There may not have been spears thrown at the dinner table, but most of can remember moments of drama, stormings out, doors slammed and relationships stretched to breaking. That line about Jonathan rising from the table in fierce anger and eating no food – and those phrases about grieving and feeling disgraced – they evoke memories of our own childhood or teenage struggles as well as of our own frustrations with offspring. Saul’s anger towards Jonathan, and the terrible things he says about his mother, might remind us of some of the things we have heard or said in our families, terrible things that we wish could be erased, words that wound like spears leaving hurts that are hard to heal. We might sympathise with Saul’s desire to protect Jonathan (if not with his attitude to women…!), but also with Jonathan who wants the freedom to love and befriend whom he will.
The Bible is reassuringly honest about the way that love and hatred can sometimes come so close to one another. And I can imagine that even for those with the best and warmest of families, there are moments of ‘rising from the table in fierce anger’. Even Jesus, it seems from the Gospel accounts, had ‘moments’ with his own family. And I’m sure that the parable of ‘the prodigal son’ comes from a deep wisdom about family brokenness and pain, but also from a deep faith in the infinite possibilities of redemptive love.
O God, who loves us intimately and fiercely, hold us when we rise in anger, and help us to remember with grace. Tend with your love our deepest wounds, so that we may sit around the family table in open fellowship and in hopeful love. Amen.
The Rev’d Dr Susan Durber is the minister of Taunton URC.