David and Jonathan’s Arrow Code

Matt Colvin at Colvinism asks the following 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.

He then cites his father who suggests:

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.

Since I have recently studied and taught through the book of Samuel in some depth, I’d like to take a stab at Matt’s question and suggest that his father is on the right track to draw our attention to the servant. This attention on the servant is entirely appropriate because the author of Samuel constructs the story with this servant largely in mind. When Jonathan forms the plan of the arrows the first time, the “lad” is pivotal to the scheme (vs. 21, 22). Jonathan and David never expected that their meeting would start out in solitude.

So who is this servant? He was a young man (v. 35) who served Jonathan. And Jonathan was the son of the king. And so the young servant of the king’s son would ultimately be the servant of the king himself and answered to him. At anytime he could very easily be questioned by the king concerning his son Jonathan’s actions. As long as the servant was innocent of any knowledge of Jonathan’s meeting with David, then he, the servant, would be safe. Jonathan knew the state of mind of his father, who would seek the life of anyone who tried to protect David. So as long as this servant was ignorant of the true intentions of the target practice in the field, then he was safe.

And so Jonathan’s purpose was to withhold from the servant the truth. He deceived him in order to protect him, an innocent party, from the vengeful attack of a bloodthirsty man. This story line had already played out in the previous chapter of 1 Samuel when both David and Michal deceive Saul in order to protect innocent David. Certainly, the claims of illness (19:14) and of the household idol with goats’ hair (19:16) deceived the tyrant Saul, but David also deceived Michal in order to protect her from Saul. He had threatened her in order to make her mistakenly testify to Saul about her own danger (19:17). In deceiving Michal, David deceived Saul and protected innocent life. David later applied the same principle in deceiving Ahimelech in order to keep him ignorant and therefore innocent in the eyes of Saul (1 Sam. 21). The principle in play in all these stories, including the one under consideration, is the protection of innocent life by means of deceiving a bloodthirsty tyrant.

So back to the code of the arrows in 1 Samuel 20. Jonathan is seeking to protect the innocent servant by deceiving him, relieving the servant from being a knowing accomplice in David’s escape. But Jonathan seeks to protect not only the servant through this deception; he is also protecting David by seeking to divert Saul away from David’s actual whereabouts. Through the servant’s mistaken testimony, Saul does not expect David to be in that field. Thus, in deceiving the servant, Jonathan is actually deceiving Saul and protecting innocent lives. And so Jonathan shoots the arrows, the servant collects them, incorrectly thinking that he is alone with Jonathan in the field, and then he leaves Jonathan (with David) alone in the field where provisions for the continuity of the royal covenant are once again repeated (20:42).

Our observations could end here, but several other details fill out the picture and link this story to other Biblical accounts (without even getting into the details of the code itself). Notice first the frequent repetition of the word “field” here in the text. This repetition reminds us of wrestling between close relatives. It was in the field that Cain killed Abel (Gen. 4:8). Throughout his life, Jacob wrestled (figuratively) with both Esau, a man of the field (Gen. 25:27), and his father Isaac, who favored Esau (Gen. 25:28). The field is the location of conflict between close family members. How did Jacob thwart Isaac and Esau’s plan to undermine God’s covenant promise to “the younger”? It was through deception. By means of deception, Jacob protected the covenant continuity from attack against those who were short-sighted and controlled by visceral passions (as Saul also was).

After Jacob gained this initial victory over Isaac and Esau, he had to pass through a death and resurrection experience by being driven from the land. This experience of death is repeated in David’s flight from Saul and his years of exile in the wilderness. David’s resurrection from death is also typified in microcosm within this very chapter in the facts 1) that David’s final departure occurs on the third day after a new moon, 2) that the number three (a number of new life, Gen. 1:11-12) occurs on two other occasions in the three arrows (20:20) and three bows (20:41), 3) that David must remain hidden behind a stone, and 4) that David is said to rise up to meet Jonathan (20:41).

The theme of resurrection in this story indicates that David has won a judicial victory and that we now should expect to see 1) that he will gain experiential victory in his subsequent life through suffering and 2) that he will begin gathering a people to himself to live within his struggle and victory. Saul will prove to be like the devil, whose head is judicially crushed at the cross but will be experientially crushed through the life of the church (Rom 16:20). He will be like a dangerous wounded lion prowling about seeking to devour David (cf. 1 Pet. 5:8). David’s resurrection here brings him into a wilderness period, a wilderness that follows the victory of the new moon (like Passover) and an exodus escape.

The sum of all these observations are these. Jonathan allies himself with David (who is another Jacob all throughout the book). Together in the field they deceive the servant, ultimately the servant of Saul, and in doing so deceive Saul himself in order to protect David’s life and insure the continuity of the covenant. By this deception, David wins an initial, judicial victory that guarantees his continued experiential victory until Saul is permanently set aside. Through these details, we see that David recapitulates and carries forward the story of the righteous Jacob and also anticipates the story of Jesus’ victory over the rulers of His day and ultimately over the Devil himself.

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