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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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3 Answers

"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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Saul understood that David was being preferred by Israel over himself. He was concerned that he would lose his kingdom to David, which meant that Jonathan, his son, would also lose the kingdom. Jonathan did not care about any of this, since he loved David as deeply as a brother. As a result, Saul became angry with Jonathan. He thought Jonathan should have been tougher and guarded his right to the throne by helping to kill David.

When Saul said “You son of a perverse, rebellious woman," he was simply hurling a generic insult - something like "you son of a whore!"

Then Saul says "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?"

This is incredibly raw language in the Hebrew. Saul is saying something like this "Don't I know you have chosen David to your own downfall and to the disgrace of your mother's vagina?" Saul knew that if he loses the kingdom to David, he would also lose his wives to David. This actually happened. And I think he was referring to this here. It is not that David would have sex with them. Saul thought that the mere fact that he would own Saul's wives was a disgrace to him and to them.

Then he says "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.”

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Citing a credible authority or two would have strengthened your argument, especially since the OP asked if Saul's invective included some common Hebrew tropes. Even if the "only" authority you cite is the Bible itself, so much the better, IMO. A good first attempt. Don –  rhetorician May 15 at 2:57
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Jesus faced the same insult.

John 8:48 (NASB)
48 The Jews answered and said to Him, “Do we not say rightly that You are a Samaritan and have a demon?”

The charge was illegitimacy.

Saul was telling Jonathan that his mother played the harlot (perverse rebellious woman who uncovered her nakedness) and the result was Jonathan, who was an illegitimate son.

In other words, Jonathan's apparent divided loyalty between Saul and David was indicative of an illegitimate son, who (like his mother) is also rebellious and disloyal; therefore he (Jonathan) had no right to any kingdom inheritance from Saul. Jonathan was illegitimate and (like his mother) rebellious and disloyal.

1 Sam 20:31 (NASB)
31 For as long as the son of Jesse lives on the earth, neither you nor your kingdom will be established. Therefore now, send and bring him to me, for he must surely die.”

Any illegitimate son who embraces David will have no kingdom. The kingdom will only come to the legitimate son who, through obedience and loyalty to the patriarch Saul, will eliminate pretenders to the throne like David.

In striking parallel, Jephthah the Gileadite was the son of the patriarch in the tribe of Manasseh, whose name was Gilead (1 Chr 2:21:22), but Jephthah's mother was a harlot (Judg 11:1). The remaining sons of Gilead and the Gileadites drove Jephthah away; as the son of a harlot, he had "no rights to the kingdom" as it were (Judg 11:2). Through steadfast obedience and loyalty to the patriarch and his family, Jephthah received the right to inherit the legacy of leadership (as a Judge of Israel). That is, he killed the pretenders who threatened the House of Israel.

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