A Prince and a Pauper

There is no such thing as a level playing field in the real world. Some of us win what I call the ovarian lottery when it comes to health, others when it comes to place of birth. Some of us have genes wired for height and attractiveness, while other babies might enter the world with outstanding artistic talent lurking in their chromosomes. Newborns do not choose their parents, yet our lives are tremendously influenced by those who conceived us.

The Bible usually provides meticulous detail about family. For example, when the twelve spies are sent to explore the land of Canaan, each is identified with his father’s name. (Numbers 11: 1-16) When Betzalel is designated to be the Tabernacle’s craftsman, not only are we told who his father is but, in a way that is extremely common, also his grandfather. (Exodus 31:2)

This makes it all the odder that when we first meet King Saul’s son Jonathan, we’re not told who he is.

Saul picked 3,000 Israelites, of whom 2,000 were with Saul in Michmas and in the hill country of Bethel, and 1,000 with Jonathan in Gibeah of Benjamin;
the rest of the troops he sent back to their homes.
(I Samuel 13:2)

Only after King Saul has disobeyed the prophet Samuel and imperiled his kingdom, does Scripture inform us that Jonathan is the son of King Saul.

Saul and his son Jonathan, and the troops who remained with them, stayed in Geba of Benjamin, while the Philistines were encamped at Michmas.
(I Samuel 13:16)

Shortly after that, Jonathan performs an act of both wisdom and courage (I Samuel 14: 1-14), leading to terror and confusion in the Philistine ranks. As a result of Jonathan’s actions, we read:

Saul and the troops with him assembled and rushed into battle; they found [the Philistines] in very great confusion, every man’s sword turned against his fellow. *
(I Samuel 14:20)

This is one of only two instances in all of Scripture where the phrase, “every man’s sword against his fellow” is used.

We have seen the other appearance earlier, here:

For when the three hundred horns were sounded, the LORD turned every man’s sword against his fellow…*
(Judges 7:22)

When we are initially introduced to the hero of this incident, Gideon, we are told about his family. The contrast to a royal prince could hardly be more striking. Gideon’s father is the most impoverished in his tribe, and Gideon himself is the youngest of the sons. (Judges 6:15)

Why are these two men, seemingly so different, united by a rare Biblical phrase?

In the 2nd act of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, his character, Malvolio proclaims this memorable truth: “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.”

Gideon, plucked from obscurity by God, had no reason to expect to be great. In contrast, Jonathan was the heir apparent to the throne of Israel.

Both these men stepped on the ladder of greatness by sowing internal discord in the ranks of their enemies. Although outnumbered and outflanked by their nation’s enemy, they both had complete faith in the rightness of their cause and their ability, with God’s help, to overcome their limitations. This moral spine of steel overwhelmed the opposition, leading the Midianites (Gideon) and Philistines (Jonathan) to turn upon and destroy themselves.

By virtue of his birth, Gideon had an excuse to expect little from himself, yet he achieved greatness. Jonathan’s royal parentage is omitted from when we first encounter him to indicate that, although “born great,” his distinction was not a result of being born the son of the king but was of his own doing.

What a message to us! Each one of us must strive for greatness whether our backgrounds seem to predispose us to such or not. In our roles as parents, employers, citizens, or friends, once we determine the right path, we should march ahead with steadfast determination. We mustn’t crumble or cower beneath opposition, and we must never use the excuse of who our parents are to justify our being anything less than we can be.

Family matters greatly. But your own actions matter even more.

*If you would like to see the phrases in the Hebrew using Rabbi Lapin’s recommended Bible: חרב איש ברעהו

Judges 7:22 – p. 762. Words 8, 9, and 10 in verse 22.
I Samuel 14:20 – p. 860. Words 12, 13, and 14, in verse 20.

חרב = sword
איש = man
ברעהו = against his fellow

This Thought Tool is dedicated in memory of Maya ben David, age 48. Maya and her family were visiting her in-laws on Kibbutz Aza on October 7, 2023. She was killed by a bullet shot into the room where the family was hiding. Survived by her husband and two children, Maya was an enthusiast of natural healing and had been a social coordinator for an organization that helped children with learning disabilities.

And with prayers for the safe release of those hostages who remain alive, and among them we pray will be Hanan Yablonka, age 42. Hanan is assumed captive as his body has not been found among those of his friends massacred at the Supernova music festival. Along with the rest of his family, his children ages 12 and 19 are futilely waiting to get any information from those who seem consumed with humanitarian concern for everyone except the hostages.

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