Does Mephibosheth Betray David?

The Books of Samuel are compelling because they devote time to character motivations and development.  One of the most interesting of these is the tale of Mephibosheth, the crippled son of Jonathan.

Early in II Samuel, as David is wrapping up his war against the House of Saul, we are introduced to Mephibosheth.  His appearance is completely out of place in the story at that point, a “We interrupt this broadcast…” moment, and the information we get is pretty basic—when his father died on Mt. Gilboa at the end of I Samuel, Mephibosheth’s nurse dropped him while fleeing.  Because of this he was lame for the rest of his life.

That’s it!  No other details.  Quelle bizarre.

Four chapters later he becomes important to David’s story.  The war over and his power consolidated, David seeks a way to honor his oath to Saul and his friendship with Jonathan.  He learns that Mephibosheth is alive in exile and decides to restore him to his father’s house—indeed, to make him rule over the remnants of the house of Saul.

But again, weirdly and pointedly, the narrator reminds us that Mephibosheth is lame in both his feet.  It has a little more to do with the story at this point, since it explains why Mephibosheth is not already ruling over his father’s house, but the narrator repeats it throughout the chapter.

I force my students to note and track this odd narration as a lesson in foreshadowing.  This is the Old Testament equivalent to the horror movie in which, every time someone drives over the rickety country bridge, the camera zooms in and we see the bolts rattling loose.  You may not know exactly what will happen—playing with expectations is part of what movies do—but you know that something is going to happen to that bridge at a critical moment in the movie.  If not, it’s either a terrible movie or a meta-joke.

So we know that somehow Mephibosheth’s awkwardly-called-out lameness is going to factor into the story.  How?  Keep reading.

Now in the restoration of Mephibosheth, David is exceedingly generous.  He finds the House of Saul ruled by Saul’s steward, Ziba.  If you immediately think “Steward of Gondor” from LotR you will know exactly what’s about to happen.  Ziba as chief steward enjoys all the privileges of royal authority so long as the king is away—the idea of the post is that the king continues to govern his house even while he is off doing king-stuff—and Saul has been away for a long time.  He ain’t never coming back!  Ziba gets to be de facto ruler of the House of Saul.

Except King David makes clear his intention to find Mephibosheth and restore him to his place.  For Denethor Ziba and his sons, this is a painful demotion.  They return to their role as servants and Mephibosheth is invited to sup at the king’s table.  Not wanting to cross David but surely not thrilled about the change, Ziba and his family acquiesce.

That’s the setup.  Then come all of David’s sins and the curse of Nathan, as discussed previously.  After David flees the city from his rebel son, brought to the lowest time in his life but beginning to see the light and try to fight his way back up, he is greeted by a tearful Ziba.  Ziba has brought David supplies and aid for his escape and eventual return to power.  But Mephibosheth, relates Ziba, has betrayed David.  He has thrown in his lot with Absalom, seeing a chance to have his father’s house returned to glory.

It’s a devastating turn of events, even after all the other blows David has received.  Caring for Mephibosheth was the last noble thing David had done before the melt-down.  His betrayal is another nail in the coffin of the old life David used to live, and maybe the most painful.

Wait, wasn’t there something about Mephibosheth being lame and incapable of acting on his own that we needed to worry about?  Hmm…

David weeps over Ziba’s tale, thanks him, and moves off into exile.  Over the next few chapters David defeats the army of Absalom and regains the throne.  His son dies, he mourns openly at the city gates, and he pardons all who opposed him.  David emerges from the sad ordeal older, but certainly wiser and loving of peace.

And now Mephibosheth shows up riding a donkey.  A wreck blubbering with grief and relief, he throws himself at David’s feet and praises God for David’s victory.  When David challenges him on not coming to help with Ziba, Mephibosheth relates a very different tale than that of his steward.

It was Mephibosheth, not Ziba, who had gathered that aid for David, and he had fully intended to ride out to David himself with it.  But Ziba, seeing a chance to restore his own fortunes, rebelled against Mephibosheth, threw him to the ground, and rode off without him.  He executed a coup in the House of Saul even while Absalom was doing the same in the House of David!  Mephibosheth, since he was lame in both feet, couldn’t do anything about it until now, when he finally convinced a servant to help him saddle up and come here.

I love this story and I love teaching it every year.  Who are we supposed to believe?  Both stories make sense.  Both stories fit the theme of the book very nicely—either David really is betrayed, adding to his many sorrows, or there is a second overthrow of a rightful lord—and both Ziba and Mephibosheth are portrayed as sincere without any comment by the narrator.

Given the emphasis the narrator placed on the foreshadowing intrusions about Mephibosheth being lame, I think it’s pretty obvious that we should take Jonathan’s son at his word and punish Ziba for being a punk.  But David’s reaction to all this makes things even more interesting.  He has come a long, long way since the glory days of ten chapters ago—and in many ways, he’s better and wiser.

Perhaps David is not sure which story to believe, but it ends up not mattering.  David recognizes that this is partly his fault.  Maybe Ziba is a villain, maybe Mephibosheth and Ziba are equally locked in a feud, either way it traces back to David’s dramatic restructuring of the House of Saul.  David did what he could not to destroy that House, just as he had promised Saul before his death, but he had still brought it mighty low.  He had still conducted a war against that House; Abner died in that war; Ishbosheth was murdered in David’s name during that war.

In one of his more Christ-like moments, David at the end of his civil war with Absalom takes upon himself all the sorrows of his people, and all their guilt as well, and discharges the conflict in himself.  He is the peacemaker now, making peace at his own expense.  He splits the estate of Saul between the two men and restores Mephibosheth as a dinner companion at his royal table.

Now that’s a covenant mediator.

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