Sunday, May 22, 2011

Jonathan and David: Three Takes

The story of David and Jonathan--their friendship and loyalty in the face of danger and almost certain death has inspired men and women for millennia. A seventeenth-century poet and distant ancestor of mine, Anne Bradstreet, commemorated their love and mutual respect in these words, spoken by David:

"O lovely Jonathan! how wast thou slain?
In places high, full low thou didst remain
Distrest for thee I am, dear Jonathan,
Thy love was wonderfull, surpassing man,
Exceeding all the love that's Feminine,
So pleasant hast thou been, dear brother mine."

Recently, I learned of another prominent early American figure who idealized the friendship between David and Jonathan, calling on that bond as a way to sanctify one of his own friendships. When John Adams was studying law under the tutelage of Colonel James Putnam, he met another young lawyer named Jonathan Sewall. As lawyers Adams and Sewall rode the Massachusetts circuit together, traveling with a judge from one small town to another, bringing justice--or at least legal closure--to the people. Sewall and Adams frequently shared a room and sometimes a bed on these trips; there was no Marriott waiting for them in eighteenth-century Charlestown. As a result of their constant companionship, the two men grew very close; Adams recalled that "he always called me John, and I him Jonathan, and often said to him, 'I wish my name were David.'" Adams loved Sewall as a brother and friend--but he recorded this story in order to make the point that he loved his country more than anything else in the world. Sewall, you see, was a Tory, a man loyal to King George the Third.

When Sewall invited Adams for a walk in 1774, just before he was to leave for the First Continental Congress, Adams had to make a choice between his dearest friend and his country. On that walk, Sewall

"said 'that Great Britain was determined on her system; her power was irresistible and would certainly be destructive to me and to all those who should be severe in opposition to her designs.' I answered 'that I knew Great Britain was determined on her system, and that very determination determined me on mine' . . . The conversation . . . terminated in my saying to him, 'I see we must part, and with a bleeding heart I say, I fear forever; but you may depend upon it, this adieu is the sharpest thorn on which I ever sat my foot.'"

Bradstreet and Adams invoked the friendship of Jonathan and David because that relationship was such a powerful symbol of trust and friendship, but they were far from the first to do so. Ancient Jewish and Christian commentators have invoked the story of David and Jonathan for centuries--and even they were only following in a tradition begun by the Israelite prophet Amos. Writing just 300 years after David and Jonathan, Amos is famous in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for three verses. 

Two of those describe a period of apostasy that Latter-day Saints associate with the years between the death of the apostles and Christ's appearance to Joseph Smith in 1820: "Behold, the days come, saith the Lord God, that I will send a famine in the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord: and they shall wander from sea to sea, and from the north even to the east, they shall run to and fro to seek the word of he Lord, and shall not find it" (8:11-12). The other verse emphasizes the importance of prophets--"Surely the Lord God will do nothing, but he revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets" (3:7)--and serves as a commentary on the relationship between Jonathan and David. 

Amos 3:7 clearly paraphrases the language of 1 Samuel, where David flees from the wrath of Saul and Jonathan promises to act as an advocate for David. David asks Jonathan, "what is my sin before thy father, that he seeketh my life?" and Jonathan replies, "thou shalt not die: behold my father will do nothing either great or small, but that he will shew it me" (1 Sam. 20:1-2). The similar English language in these two verses is a product of similar Hebrew; both texts revolve around the same three Hebrew words: 'asah (will do) dabar (nothing) galah (but he will show/reveal). What can we learn by recognizing the connection between these two texts? 
  1. We can learn that Amos read 1 Samuel, that 1 Samuel was written before Amos. This point may seem obvious, but it's worth making, given the questions scholars have and ask about biblical chronology.
  2. We can learn something about the relationship between prophets and those that they preach to. By paraphrasing 1 Samuel 20:2, Amos suggests that prophets relate to those over whom they have stewardship in the same way that Jonathan related to David. In the Book of Mormon prophets are repeatedly accused of teaching the people "according to your own desires" in order to "keep them down even as it were in bondage, that ye may glut yourselves with the labor of their hands" (Alma 30:27). Amos frames the relationship between prophet and people as a corollary of the relationship between Jonathan and David so that the people will know (paraphrasing 1 Samuel 18:1) "that the soul of a prophet is knit with the souls of the people, and a prophet loves them as his own soul." 
  3. We can learn something about the relationship between God and his prophets. Despite his love for David, Jonathan always remained true to Saul. He identified first and foremost as a son, remaining true to and present with Saul throughout his life. Jonathan loved David, but his first obligation was to Saul. The Father-Son relationship which Amos describes between God and his prophets reminds me of the progression made by Joseph Smith, who was first described by God as a "servant" (Doctrine & Covenants 5:1), then as a "friend" (D&C 84:63), and finally as a "son" (D&C 130:15). 
  4. We can learn something about the relationship between God and his people--especially as that relationship existed in Amos' time. The exchange between Jonathan and David reprized by Amos is one that takes place as Saul prepares to murder David; the exchange between Amos and Israel takes place as God prepares to scatter and 'destroy' Israel. Jonathan buys David time and space through his advocacy with Saul and timely warnings to David; Amos offers Israel the same chance, but if they refuse to hearken to his voice, they will be destroyed as surely as David would have been destroyed. 

1 comment:

Jo Jo said...

This was a very interesting read. I can't believe no one else has thought to leave a comment to agree. I love that John Adams, a founding father and righteous man, understood scripture so well. Just like you ;-)