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Then Saul's anger was kindled against Jonathan, and 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 on the earth, neither you nor your kingdom shall be established. Therefore send and bring him to me, for he shall surely die.”—1st Samuel 20:30-31 (ESV)

One the one hand, Saul insults Jonathan's mother:

  • "You son of a perverse, rebellious woman"

and on the other he says that Jonathan shames her:

  • "you have chosen the son of Jesse to your own shame, and to the shame of your mother's nakedness"

It seems to me that the insult is incoherent. Is this a literary device intended to show Saul's fury or is this some sort of standard trope in Saul's culture? It seems closely related to the modern maternal insult joke where the truth of the claim is irrelevant and can even harm the effectiveness of the insult. Would this be the way the ancient Hebrews would have understood Saul's words?

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"Jonathan, you are shaming your own mother (i.e. violating commandment 5 of the decalogue), not that I think that she is anything but a perverse and rebellious woman (who would produce a child like you)."

That is, when stating "to the shame of your mother's nakedness" Saul is speaking to Jonathan in Jonathan's frame of reference of a child to his mother, i.e. you are doing something contradictory to your own obligations of respect. When Saul says "perverse, rebellious woman" Saul is speaking in his own frame of reference towards his wife.

This shows Saul's estrangement from both wife and son, who he sees as perfidious. He is "losing it", becoming paranoid. The verse is poignant, tragic.

As an aside, there is an additional layer of meaning in the verse that relates to the view of kingship at the time. The prevailing opinion in the tribal confederacy was that the kingship should be based on charismatic leadership, not on lineage. Kingship by lineage was what the non-Israelites did and was deprecated. This attitude, represented in this verse by Jonathan, persisted in the northern tribal confederacy after the split of the two kingdoms with disastrous results for political stability. It could be that Saul foresaw this outcome, but tragically could not see that he was not the right king to found the dynasty.

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