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Polyfunctional Old Testament Biblical Texts: An Analogy to Molecular Biochemistry of DNA—Part 5

Frederic Leighton, 1st Baron Leighton / Public domain


Part 5: Jonathan and His Arrow Boy

Johnathan and his arrow boy: If Johnathan would do this for his dearly beloved David, why wouldn’t God do it for his Son?


Recap to This Point:

Link to First Article in This Series       Continued from Part 4

What Is Polyfunctional Old Testament Text? (see First Article)

A polyfunctional Old Testament text is any passage that functions in more than one context. Context includes audience, time frame, and referents. To be polyfunctional, a text need have multiples of only one of those items. For example, there may be two distinct audiences for a text in the same time frame, or there may be two referents for the same text in a given point in time. Similar to scientists’ new understanding of polyfunctional nucleotides within a given DNA strand, a polyfunctional biblical text must broaden our biblical understanding away from strict single purpose, single audience, single meaning kinds of interpretation. The same God who created the language of polyfunctional DNA is the same God who wrote Old Testament Scripture. God is the living Word. He designed Scripture with his own audiences, time frames, and referents in mind. Jesus the Son of God, one of the triune God, had to correct even his disciples for their lack of biblical understanding (see especially Luke 24). This author wants to be one of their number.

The Old Testament and Polyfunctional Texts

I. Introduction (Part 1)

II. Authorship of Scripture (Part 2)

III. Who Are God’s Audiences? (Part 3): Some Pertinent Questions

IV. Might Jesus Have Been an Audience? (Did God Write the Old Testament for His Incarnated Son?) (Part 4)

New Material Begins Here:

V. Johnathan and his arrow boy: If Johnathan would do this for his dearly beloved David, why wouldn’t God do it for his Son?

1Samuel 20 is a love story about two brothers. These are soul brothers, not brothers united by parentage. Saul was king, and Jonathan was his son, rightful heir to his father’s throne.  But God had chosen David, a shepherd boy and warrior, to be Israel’s future king. Jonathan loved God, and he loved his friend David. But not more than David loved Jonathan. Jonathan was willing to sacrifice his own future for David, his life friend, whom he loved more than his own soul, and David placed all his trust in Jonathan his friend.

A. But why does Scripture include the rather detailed narrative of Jonathan’s arrow boy?

1Samuel 20:10-40 (1) contains the sequence relating to Johnathan’s arrow boy with specific reference made to him in 1Samuel 20:10, 19-22, and 35-41. In this narrative, the arrow boy is an unwitting tool Jonathan uses to give David a secret message. The arrow boy knows nothing of his being used in such fashion. Yet, the whole scene acted out, including the predetermined words, are a coded message between Jonathan and David. It’s written in an “If this, then that; but if this other, then that other,” format, much like lines of computer code. It’s a very interesting story hidden in plain sight in what appears to be mundane prose of only minor significance. Who is the arrow boy? He’s just an unwary messenger whose own conscious perception would remain flat and unperturbed. And yet the larger story conveys deepest emotions of great significance.

In other words, if the reader of 1 Samuel 20 were to ask the arrow boy what transpired on that particular day, his reply would have missed entirely the heart of the story. The real story was purposefully kept far above the comprehension of the arrow boy/messenger by the two originators of the story, Jonathan as writer and David as intended audience, who collaborated in advance together.

But again, why has Scripture preserved the full details of the entire sequence of events recorded in the 1 Samuel 20 passage? Surely the purpose of this narrative passed away millennia ago? The protagonists and minor actors would have died within 100 years of its happening. What is the main point of the passage? Isn’t it the friendship and loyalty between David and Jonathan? Why do we still read today the exact words of Jonathan to his arrow boy? What significance could that part of the narrative possibly have beyond the original three person context?

B. A Review of the Facts

1. Christ-believers of all ages and places, evangelical Christians included, believe that God is the ultimate source and author of all Scripture.

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, (2Timothy 3:16) 

2. Therefore, God designed and intended the passage about the arrow boy to be part of Scripture.

3. Jonathan’s words or a close variation were spoken twice, “Look the arrows are beyond you,” (vs 22) and “Is not the arrow beyond you?” (vs 37).

a) The first time they were spoken as an historical event, David was the original audience of one.

b) The second time they were spoken as an historical event, David and the arrow boy were two original audiences.

c) But, Scripture tells us that these two original audiences were completely separate, even though they shared roughly the same place, the exact same time, and the identical speaker. David, as the original primary audience for whom the words were intended, knew about the arrow boy, while the arrow boy, original audience two, “knew nothing. Only Jonathan and David knew the matter.” (vs 37)

d) We conclude that in addition to two audiences, the passage reveals two entirely different meanings for the identical set of words, “Is not the arrow beyond you?” For the arrow boy the words simply meant that he should keep running further in order to find the arrow. For David, the identical words at the identical time and place, spoken by the identical speaker, meant that King Saul intended to kill David and that David should run and hide.

C. Meaning as Function

Even though David and Jonathan’s arrow boy shared the identical event, they each received two entirely different messages from the exact same set of words spoken by an identical speaker. While the words contained a literal meaning that never varied–it was the same literal meaning for both David and the arrow boy–more importantly, the words contained a function. And here is where the “meaning” of the identical words differ: the function of the words–a command to do something–was different for David than for the arrow boy. 1) For the arrow boy, the function of the words was a command to keep running in the same direction to retrieve the arrows. 2) For David, the function of the words was a command to begin running away from King Saul, who intended to kill him. The biblical text is polyfunctional.

D. Comparison with Polyfunctional Nucleotides

In 1 Samuel 20:10-40 Scripture provides a clear-cut, up-front, simple example of polyfunctional text, similar to the kind that occurs in a polyfunctional nucleotide in the biological world. In other words, Scripture gives us an example of an encoded message intended to convey two different meanings in two different, but simultaneous, messaging systems. It’s similar to a single letter of a cross-word puzzle, or a single digit in a Sudoku puzzle. It’s the intentional double entendre. The identical encoded communication segment, in this case a human speech segment, functions in two different communication systems: one for David, and one for the arrow boy.

Polyfunctional nucleotides perform functions within the cell. Located in the DNA, they give chemical commands to other parts of the cell. These commands order the intended cellular audience to perform actions, such as building a particular protein. That a single nucleotide can be included in two entirely different messaging systems is amazing–this fact amazes scientists (2).

The words that Jonathan spoke to the arrow boy were polyfunctional. They performed two functions; they gave two commands. One command to perform an action–find the arrow–was purposefully intended for the boy. The other command–run and hide, because the king wants to kill you–was purposefully intended for David. The identical words functioned within two communication networks to effect an intended result–an action.

While biological polyfunctional nucleotides may amaze scientists, this particular biblical polyfunctional text–Jonathan and his arrow boy– may not appear so amazing. It is, after all, a mundane part of the highly passionate drama between Jonathan and his soul brother David. And yet, God chose to preserve all these mundane details for millennia in his Word, the Bible. Why?

E. The passage about Jonathan’s Arrow Boy Reveals God’s Intention to Write Polyfunctional Text

Yes, this author believes that God wrote polyfunctional text. The example of Jonathan, David, and the arrow boy are preserved in Scripture to demonstrate this fact. The word “believes” was used in the opening sentence of this paragraph, because such a statement cannot be proven to the satisfaction of academia. Jesus taught his Emmaus Road disciples to read Old Testament Scripture through the eyes of faith in himself, the crucified and risen Lord. Not meaning to disparage, but how is it that generations and generations of rabbis and their biblical students failed to see the suffering Christ, Messiah, in the words of their Scripture? All Jesus’s disciples had similarly failed, until he opened their eyes after the resurrection.

Academia is constrained to prove. That’s why nothing, to repeat–nothing–anywhere in Scripture is agreed upon by all biblical commentators. For every passage, readers can find two academicians at odds with each other. When it comes to proofs, academia will always argue, because every “proof” has an “anti-proof.”

But God chose faith to be the operating principle for his Word.

And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. (Hebrews 11:6)

F. Jesus and Polyfunctional Scripture: An Important Question

Even though he was a carpenter’s son, Jesus knew that Scripture was written about himself.

You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, (John 5:39)

Here is the question: Why wouldn’t God the loving Father (“This is my beloved Son…”) write a manual to help his divine Son who emptied himself and took on the likeness of sinful flesh? Jesus constrained his own divinity when he became human. If we believe Scripture, then we believe John 5:39 quoted just above. We must conclude that the Old Testament does indeed bear witness about Christ.

Based upon biblical evidence and the immensely capable abilities of God, it is reasonable to conclude that in the eons before the Bible was written, that is, before creation, when the eternal Godhead chose the Son to be the eternal sacrifice, that same Godhead planned and consulted with themself, similar to Jonathan and David, to write a Scripture that would help, lead, and guide the Son throughout the severe trial of his appearance in the weakness of human flesh. In other words, God shot an arrow–the Old Testament–to send a strong message of love and truth to his beloved Son to help him during the time of his incarnation.

During the period of Christ’s incarnation and especially during his passion, Jesus may have been the only living human being on earth who understood the entire meaning of the Old Testament. Paul writes,

7 But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. 8 None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory (1Corinthians 2:7-8)

Are we to conclude that the Word of God was void, because none of the rulers of this age understood it? Certainly not! The one person for whom the Bible was especially written, Jesus Christ the Son, understood Scripture fully and made the best use of its words to accomplish the mission for which God sent him. Isaiah writes,

So shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:11)

Why did Jesus quote Scripture to Satan during his temptation in the desert? Was it a case of his merely being able to pull out cleverly applicable Scriptures while under the severest pressures of hunger, thirst, and temptation? Or, were those particular verses placed there ahead of time for a reason? As Jesus hung on the cross, being slowly suffocated to death, was his human mind able to function in clarity even then and cleverly remember verses from the Psalter that seemed to him appropriate and applicable for that moment? Or, were the psalms of David purposefully placed there by his Father to train Jesus during the years of childhood and preparation, to thoroughly drench him in the certainty of the role and script that he would fulfill? This author believes the latter. How about you?

Next Time: A Practical Application for Christians

Link to Part 6: Polyfunctional Text and Today’s Reader


Link to Part 1: Introduction


1 1 Samuel 20:10-40

10 Then David said to Jonathan, “Who will tell me if your father answers you roughly?”

11 And Jonathan said to David, “Come, let us go out into the field.” So they both went out into the field.

12 And Jonathan said to David, “The LORD, the God of Israel, be witness! When I have sounded out my father, about this time tomorrow, or the third day, behold, if he is well disposed toward David, shall I not then send and disclose it to you?

13 But should it please my father to do you harm, the LORD do so to Jonathan and more also if I do not disclose it to you and send you away, that you may go in safety. May the LORD be with you, as he has been with my father.

14 If I am still alive, show me the steadfast love of the LORD, that I may not die;

15 and do not cut off your steadfast love from my house forever, when the LORD cuts off every one of the enemies of David from the face of the earth.”

16 And Jonathan made a covenant with the house of David, saying, “May the LORD take vengeance on David’s enemies.”

17 And Jonathan made David swear again by his love for him, for he loved him as he loved his own soul.

18 Then Jonathan said to him, “Tomorrow is the new moon, and you will be missed, because your seat will be empty.

19 On the third day go down quickly to the place where you hid yourself when the matter was in hand, and remain beside the stone heap.

20 And I will shoot three arrows to the side of it, as though I shot at a mark.

21 And behold, I will send the boy, saying, ‘Go, find the arrows.’ If I say to the boy, ‘Look, the arrows are on this side of you, take them,’ then you are to come, for, as the LORD lives, it is safe for you and there is no danger.

22 But if I say to the youth, ‘Look, the arrows are beyond you,’ then go, for the LORD has sent you away.

23 And as for the matter of which you and I have spoken, behold, the LORD is between you and me forever.”

24 So David hid himself in the field. And when the new moon came, the king sat down to eat food.

25 The king sat on his seat, as at other times, on the seat by the wall. Jonathan sat opposite, and Abner sat by Saul’s side, but David’s place was empty.

26 Yet Saul did not say anything that day, for he thought, “Something has happened to him. He is not clean; surely he is not clean.”

27 But on the second day, the day after the new moon, David’s place was empty. And Saul said to Jonathan his son, “Why has not the son of Jesse come to the meal, either yesterday or today?”

28 Jonathan answered Saul, “David earnestly asked leave of me to go to Bethlehem.

29 He said, ‘Let me go, for our clan holds a sacrifice in the city, and my brother has commanded me to be there. So now, if I have found favor in your eyes, let me get away and see my brothers.’ For this reason he has not come to the king’s table.”

30 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?

31 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.”

32 Then Jonathan answered Saul his father, “Why should he be put to death? What has he done?”

33 But Saul hurled his spear at him to strike him. So Jonathan knew that his father was determined to put David to death.

34 And Jonathan rose from the table in fierce anger and ate no food the second day of the month, for he was grieved for David, because his father had disgraced him.

35 In the morning Jonathan went out into the field to the appointment with David, and with him a little boy.

36 And he said to his boy, “Run and find the arrows that I shoot.” As the boy ran, he shot an arrow beyond him.

37 And when the boy came to the place of the arrow that Jonathan had shot, Jonathan called after the boy and said, “Is not the arrow beyond you?”

38 And Jonathan called after the boy, “Hurry! Be quick! Do not stay!” So Jonathan’s boy gathered up the arrows and came to his master.

39 But the boy knew nothing. Only Jonathan and David knew the matter.

40 And Jonathan gave his weapons to his boy and said to him, “Go and carry them to the city.”

41 And as soon as the boy had gone, David rose from beside the stone heap and fell on his face to the ground and bowed three times. And they kissed one another and wept with one another, David weeping the most. (1Sa 20:10-41 ESV)

2 “The first evidence of overlapping protein-coding sequences in viruses caused quite a stir, but since then it has become recognized as typical.” And, “The ENCODE project has confirmed that this phenomenon is ubiquitous in higher genomes, wherein a given DNA sequence routinely encodes multiple overlapping messages, meaning that a single nucleotide can contribute to two or more genetic codes. Most recently, Itzkovitz et al. analyzed protein coding regions of 700 species, and showed that virtually all forms of life have extensive overlapping information in their genomes.” George Montañez, Robert J. Marks II, Jorge Fernandez and John C. Sanford. Multiple Overlapping Genetic Codes Profoundly Reduce the Probability of Beneficial Mutation. Available at https://www.worldscientific.com/doi/10.1142/9789814508728_0006. Accessed April 22, 2020.

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