Posted by: mattcolvin | August 21, 2014

David and Jonathan’s Arrow Code

OK, exegetes, disciples of James Jordan, and Bible scholars. I have a question. It’s about the story of David and Jonathan in 1 Samuel 20. Why is it that Jonathan resorts to this elaborate code-acting, shooting arrows and telling his lad “Look, the arrows are beyond you!” while David hides… and then Jonathan and David come out and talk face to face without any concealment or coded actions? I could understand the arrow-code without the subsequent conversation. But as it is, it makes no sense to me.

The whole point of the coded action, with its two pre-arranged alternatives, is for Jonathan to communicate clearly to David while seeming, to any other observer, to be speaking only to his servant lad. Then to openly meet with David in the same field seems to throw away all advantage gained by this device.

Google book search turned up nothing terribly enlightening. Robert Polzin, in Samuel and the Deuteronomist, p. 189, says that “In the coded message of the arrows, the only matter that David did not already know is that now, finally, Jonathan is no longer ignorant of affairs.” True enough, but no help to my puzzlement.

David Daube has nothing on the topic, even though it’s precisely the sort of puzzle he likes to solve. Anyone got a commentary that addresses it?
My father suggested, in a comment on this post on August 9, 2006:

One commentator has suggested that Jonathan, after the angry confrontation with his father the king, suspected that even his own servant might be spying on him. Once the servant left the field, he was no longer worried about being spied on. I suppose the implication was that Jonathan and David devised a coded method of communication, in case there was no opportunity to talk out of others’ earshot; in the event, such an opportunity did arise, but only after they had already used their code.

Still not sure about this one.



  1. […] Matt Colvin at Colvinism asks the following about the story of David and Jonathan in 1 Samuel 20: […]

  2. Here’s my best shot:

    • That’s outstanding, Joe! I really like the parallel with David’s escape in ch. 19. However, I don’t see any evidence that Michal was herself deceived by David or threatened by him. Despite that, I think the solution must lie along the path you have sketched by comparison with other similar narrative episodes in 1 Samuel.

      • Different commentators interpret 1 Sam. 19:17 different ways, and I don’t think it makes a huge difference where one falls. Who is deceiving whom? Is Michal deceiving Saul by making up something that David didn’t really say? Or is she genuinely recounting something that actually happened at some point? Either way, a deception is taking place.

      • Agreed.

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