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Biblical Archaeology Review 2:2, June 1976

Clothes Maketh the Man—An Insight from Ancient Ugarit

By Stan Rummel

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.

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