King Saul had his problems with young David, but this did not prevent an unusually close relationship from developing between David and Saul’s son Jonathan. Indeed, the Bible reports that Jonathan “made a covenant with David, because he loved him as dearly as himself. Jonathan stripped off the cloak that he was wearing and gave it to David, together with his armor—even his sword, his bow and his belt” (1 Samuel 18:3–4). What was this covenant? Why did Jonathan give David his clothes? The passage has long been a puzzlement to scholars.
Clearly, there must be more to the gift than the generous act of a prince to a shepherd boy without clothing for the court or equipment for battle. Drawing on the general idea of covenant, some scholars have suggested that the gift was a sign of an unconditional covenant of trust between the two—despite Saul’s suspicions of David. Others have suggested that the ceremony was a recognition of the alter ego of each for the other; according to this interpretation, the clothing is so much a part of the wearer that when Jonathan gives his clothing to David it is as though he gave away his self.
There is something unsatisfying about these explanations. Somehow, they fail to convince. Accordingly, the episode has remained a puzzle in Biblical exegesis—perhaps because there was no paradigm activity by which to assess it. That which is incomparable is incomprehensible.
However, a recent article by Professor F. Brent Knutson of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock in Ras Shamra Parallels: The Texts from Ugarit and the Hebrew Bible, Vol. IIa, provides a parallel which unlocks the mystery. Knutson focuses on a tablet from the ancient city of Ugarit in which another “crown prince” determines his destiny by removing his clothes.
Ugarit is the name of an ancient Mediterranean seaport, now in Syria and known in modern times as Ras Shamra. Beginning in 1929 French archaeologists led by C. F. A. Schaeffer discovered at Ugarit a major cache of clay tablets dating from the 14th–13th centuries B.C., written in cuneiform signs. The largest group of these tablets used a previously unknown script which has been labelled Ugaritic. When it was deciphered, it turned out to be an alphabetic script—the only alphabetic script written in cuneiform signs. The language of the tablets was a form of Northwest-Semitic with a clear relationship to Hebrew. The text of the tablets dealt with cult, ritual and mythology.
These tablets produced a sensational impact on Old Testament studies. For the first time, scholars had direct and original evidence of the religious life which confronted the Israelites when they settled in Canaan.
007However, the impact of these tablets in Ugaritic has deflected attention from another large segment of tablets excavated at the same site. These other tablets recorded the political and legal activity of the city. They were written, not in Ugaritic, but in a syllabic cuneiform script in a language known to scholars as Akkadian. Akkadian was the language of international diplomacy at that time. (The El Amarna letters—diplomatic correspondence from Egypt—are also written in Akkadian cuneiform and date approximately from the same period.) Akkadian is a very complex language, not directly related to Hebrew. Much of the appeal of Ugaritic to Old Testament scholars lies in its similarity to Hebrew. Akkadian, on the other hand, is infinitely more difficult to control.
The particular tablet on which Knutson focused to interpret the David-Jonathan episode was published nearly twenty years ago, but its significance had escaped the attention of Biblical scholars—perhaps because it was written in Akkadian, rather than Ugaritic.
The tablet on which Knutson relies (RS 17.159) regulates a divorce between Ammistamru (a thirteenth century king of Ugarit) and his queen (the daughter of Benteshina of Amurru). First, the tablet provides a property settlement for the queen: she receives permission to take away with her all that she brought to Ugarit. The text next turns to the question of the couple’s son, the crown prince. He can go with his mother if he wishes, but he will then abdicate his right to the throne. He must indicate this choice by leaving his clothes on the throne! The key passage of the tablet reads:
Utrisharruma is prince in Ugarit. If Utrisharruma says, “I will go after my mother,” let him place his garment on the throne, (and) let him go. Ammistamru, king of Ugarit, shall establish another of his sons in Ugarit as prince.
This act—placing his clothes on the throne—is irrevocable; for then the king will name another of his sons as his successor.
For both Utrisharruma and Jonathan, the clothes symbolize their position as crown prince. The parallel provided by Utrisharruma’s dilemma suggests that when Jonathan gave his garment to David in 1 Samuel 18:3–4, he thereby irrevocably yielded his right to the throne to David. This is the content of the covenant.
However, if the two texts are parallel, they are not identical. The tablet from Ugarit calls for public removal of the clothing; the Samuel narrative reports a secret covenant, hidden from Saul. Knutson suggests that the author of the Samuel narrative—writing from a point of view clearly sympathetic to David and the Davidic dynasty—drew upon an old court custom to buttress the legitimacy of the Davidic dynasty and its claim to the throne of Israel.
In the Biblical narrative, Jonathan gave David even more than his clothes—he added his armor as well. This is not just an irrelevant detail. It responds to the vignette in 1 Samuel 17:38–39, where Saul himself clothed David in his own “armor” (the same word is used for “armor” in the Jonathan episode). Saul intended to outfit David only for his impending battle with Goliath: David rejected the offer, preferring his own weapons. The Biblical writer uses the model provided by the Canaanite court practice to suggest that here David rejected Saul’s unwitting and inappropriate offer; however, David later accepts Jonathan’s gift of his armor. By this contrast, the Biblical writer seeks to emphasize David’s integrity. He is no usurper of Saul’s throne. He makes no claim to that which is not rightfully his.
If the David and Jonathan episode demonstrates that the Hebrews were familiar with the Canaanite court custom in which clothes symbolize the royal office, the 008Joseph story in Genesis 37–50 shows how an artful writer can turn clothes symbolism into a clever motif that threads its way through the tale: Every time Joseph loses his clothes he goes to jail; every time he receives new clothes he becomes a ruler.
In Genesis 37 Jacob gives his favored son Joseph a long, sleeved robe. The same kind of robe is mentioned in only one other Biblical passage (2 Samuel 13:18–19) where it is worn by King David’s daughter Tamar, suggesting that both the robe which Tamar wore and the robe which Jacob gave Joseph were in fact garments of royalty. Amnon raped Tamar and then turned against her. In despair, she tore her long, sleeved robe; like the Canaanite prince Utrisharruma on the tablet from Ugarit, Tamar’s rent robe symbolized her loss of status.
When Joseph in his long, sleeved robe angered his brothers by his dreams of ruling over them, they “stripped him” (the same verb used in 1 Samuel 18:4 when Jonathan “stripped off” his clothes and gave them to David) of his robe, threw him in a pit, and finally sold him into slavery (Genesis 37:23–28). The loss of his robe symbolizes Joseph’s loss of position, as in the text from Ugarit. Here, of course, the removal is not voluntary but forced on the “prince.”
The next panel in the Joseph story finds the favored son in Egypt, in the service of Potiphar. Potiphar’s wife desires Joseph; however, he refuses her. In a final confrontation he runs from her, but she clutches his cloak which he leaves behind as he dashes out the door (Genesis 39:12). Potiphar’s wife accuses Joseph of attacking her, pointing to his cloak as evidence (Genesis 39:13–18).
Interpreters have pointed to the similarity between the episode with Potiphar’s wife, on the one hand, and the Egyptian wife in the “Story of the Two Brothers”b, on the other. However, this Egyptian parallel concerns only the false accusation of an innocent man by the wife. It has nothing to do with the clothing motif. In the Bible, the loss of Joseph’s clothing inevitably signals a loss of his status. Potiphar immediately throws Joseph into jail.
Joseph’s fortune again takes a turn for the better when he changes clothes in preparation for his appearance before Pharaoh to interpret his nightmares (Genesis 41:14). This time Joseph’s new clothes signal to the careful reader his success in interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams. This in turn leads to Joseph’s final promotion as Pharaoh’s chief of staff. As a sign of Joseph’s new authority, Pharaoh gives his own signet ring to Joseph, has him dressed in fine linen, and places a gold chain around his neck (Genesis 41:42). Interpreters of this passage have noted that the signet ring makes Joseph the actual public executor of the royal decrees, and the gold chain around his neck is a sign of honor attested in Egyptian sources. Thanks to the record of the divorce of a Ugaritian king from his queen, we now know that the garments also give symbolic expression to Joseph’s new position.
The court custom reflected in the cuneiform tablet from Ugarit also illuminates other Biblical passages. Upon Aaron’s death, his clothing is passes on to his son (Numbers 20:24–28). Ahijah tears his garment into twelve pieces, symbolizing the kingdom (1 Kings 11:30–31). Elijah gives his mantle to Elisha, signaling a transfer of the prophetic office (1 Kings 19:19–21). A transfer of garments also marks the transfer of office from Shebna to Eliakim (Isaiah 22:21).
In Isaiah 47:1–2, the removal of clothing marks the downfall of the “virgin daughter of Babylon.” In Ezekiel 16:37 and Hosea 2:3, 10, the stripping of an adulterous wife as part of her punishment symbolizes her ignominy. In Ezekiel 26:16, as the “princes of the sea” vacate their thrones, they leave their royal garments behind. In Zechariah 3:3–7, Joshua’s change of clothing marks his endowment with authority and privilege.
Parallelism does not mean identity. No Biblical text portrays the exact circumstances found in the tablet from Ugarit. However, a parallel, such as the situation of the Ugaritic crown prince, provides a point of comparison—highlighting differences as well as similarities. The ancient court custom at Ugarit does draw attention to the Canaanite concept of clothes as status symbol. That certain Hebrew authors knew of this custom and appropriated it for their own purposes seems clear from the clay tablet buried at Ugarit 3200 years ago.
King Saul had his problems with young David, but this did not prevent an unusually close relationship from developing between David and Saul’s son Jonathan. Indeed, the Bible reports that Jonathan “made a covenant with David, because he loved him as dearly as himself. Jonathan stripped off the cloak that he was wearing and gave it to David, together with his armor—even his sword, his bow and his belt” (1 Samuel 18:3–4). What was this covenant? Why did Jonathan give David his clothes? The passage has long been a puzzlement to scholars. Clearly, there must be more to the […]