[30] The Beginning of the Month and I Samuel 20

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I Samuel 20 is very instructive to show how the biblical month began during the time of Samuel the prophet when King Saul reigned. It will be shown from the wording of this chapter that no calculated calendar could have been used at this time in Israel's history.

At this time of David's young adulthood, he has already experienced attempts by King Saul to kill him (I Sam 18:10-11; 19:9-10), but his very close friend Jonathan, the king's son, has great difficulty believing that his father wants to kill David. In order to convince Jonathan that Saul wants to kill David, David devises a plan to cause Saul to reveal his attitude toward David in the presence of Jonathan. Notice that this plan involves a day count of three from the following literal parts of verses.

I Sam 20:5, “until the third evening”.
I Sam 20:12, “about [this] time the third morrow”.
I Sam 20:19, “and [on the] third [day]”.

This shows their advance confidence that it would probably take two successive days for Saul’s actions to bring to light his attitude toward David. They expected that Jonathan would witness two consecutive days of Saul's behavior. The context assumes that the reader will automatically understand this without any explanation. We need to carefully examine the context to note what the writer of the text expected the reader to know.

I Sam 20:5, “And David said to Jonathan, Behold, tomorrow [is a] newmoon, and I should sit with the king to eat ...”.
I Sam 20:18, “And Jonathan said to him, Tomorrow [is a] new-moon, and you will be missed because your seat will be empty”.

In these verses the word “tomorrow” is translated from the Hebrew word machar, Strong's number 4279. This word refers to the next daytime, which begins in the morning rather than sundown.

According to the choice of Hebrew words in these verses, the beginning of the festivity relating to the new moon is in the morning rather than at sundown. In these verses there is no reference to the standard Hebrew word for day, which is yohm, Strong’s number 3117. The use of the Hebrew word for new moon in these verses is not referring to a 24-hour day, but instead it refers to the time of festivity.

These two verses show that it was considered important for David to be present at a banquet hosted by the king due to a “new moon”, and there was a seat reserved for David. There is nothing in the context to suggest that this was the beginning of the seventh month and that a holy convocation was to take place. Indeed, if this had been the beginning of the seventh month, verses 5 and 18 would have more to say about why David would be missed!

The reason given is the new moon, nothing more.

The Hebrew syntax in verses 27 and 34 is the same for one phrase hat is not like any place in the Hebrew Scriptures where a numbered day of the month is mentioned. The Hebrew word order is “the chodesh the second”, which occurs that way four times in the Hebrew Bible: I Sam 20:27, 34; I Ki 6:1; I Chr 27:4. In the latter two places it means “the second month”. This expression “the chodesh the second” does not have the Hebrew word yom for “day”, does not have a preposition attached to the beginning of the number, and has the number after the word chodesh. These three factors do not occur in any place where a numbered day of the month is mentioned in the Tanak. A Hebrew expression for a numbered day of the month occurs 98 times in the Bible. In 92 of these cases the Hebrew preposition bh (meaning “in” or “on”) precedes the number. In two of these cases the Hebrew preposition ad (meaning “until”) precedes the number. In 39 of these cases the Hebrew word yom (meaning “day”) occurs at the number. While there are a total of four cases (Ezra 3:6; 10:17; Est 9:19, 21) in the Tanak where a numbered day of the month is mentioned and no preposition is prefixed to the number, all of these cases do have the Hebrew word yom, and none of these four cases have the number after the word chodesh. There is no example in Scripture with the syntax as in I Sam 20:27, 34 to indicate that is could mean a numbered day of the month.

The Hebrew word chodesh sometimes means “new-moon” and sometimes means “month”, but because the syntax of this phrase in these two verses is never used for a day of the month, and because its meaning as “new moon” here gives a satisfying explanation to the context including the planned meeting of Jonathan and David on the third day from their initial meeting, chodesh will be translated “new-moon” below.

I Sam 20:27 literally states, “And it happened on the morrow of the newmoon the second, [the] place of David was empty. Then Saul said to Jonathan his son, Why didn't the son of Jesse come either yesterday or today to the meal?”

When the NASB is used, items in square brackets will show where the NASB has italics, indicating that no Hebrew word occurs for the italics. It may sometimes be useful to consider omitting the words in square brackets in the NASB because they are not based on words in the Hebrew text.

I Sam 20:27 [NASB], “And it came about the next day, the second [day of] the new moon that David's place was empty ...”

Thus there was something special about that meal on two successive days that made David's presence expected at both meals. In verses 28 through 33 Saul and Jonathan dialogue with one another so that Jonathan becomes convinced that Saul wants to kill David.

I Sam 20:34 literally states, “And Jonathan arose from the table in fierce anger, and did not eat food on [the] day of the new-moon the second because he was grieved for David, for his father had dishonored him.”
I Sam 20:34 [NASB], “Then Jonathan arose from the table in fierce anger, and did not eat food on the second day of the new moon, for he was grieved over David because his father had dishonored him.”
I Sam 20:35 literally states, “And it happened in [the] morning that Jonathan went out [into] the field at [the] time appointed [with] David, and a little boy [was] with him.”

The morning in verse 35 is within the third day that David and Jonathan had planned to meet. The special meal at the king's table on two successive days during which the presence of David, a national hero, was expected, shows that both meals were to commemorate the start of the month. The need existed to have two days of commemorative meals because they did not know in advance which of the two days would in fact begin the new month. From I Sam 20:27 we can say that David and Jonathan did not know in advance which of two successive days would officially be declared the new moon day, because otherwise there would not have been a need for two successive days of a festive meal during which David was expected to appear. The phrase in I Sam 20:5, 18 that “tomorrow is a new-moon” is literally misleading because it can be expected to cause the reader to think that they knew in advance that tomorrow would in fact actually be the first day of the new month. It should be translated “tomorrow is the new moon [festivity]”.

I Sam 20:5, 18 was applied to the first day to come, and the designation of “new-moon the second” was given to the second day to come. The need to have a second day of commemoration indicates that on the first of the two days, the new moon was not officially declared by the Levitical priesthood to be the start of a new month by the blowing of two silver trumpets in accordance with Num 10:10.

The average length of a month is close to 29.5 days, and most of the time there is an alternation of 29 and 30-day months, although there certainly are exceptions. At the time that David and Jonathan first met, one would surmise that the previous month had 29 days, so that it was most likely that the current month that was nearly over would have 30 days. Thus, when David and Jonathan first met, they planned for the current month to be a 30-day month so that their next meeting would be on the third day rather than on the second day. They believed it was most likely that a second festive meal day would be needed due to an expected 30-day month. Therefore, when I Sam 20:5 and 18 speak of “tomorrow [is the] new-moon”, that refers to the festive national holiday (not holy day) on the first of two successive days during which the new month might begin. The author of I Samuel 20 expected the reader to understand that there was to be at least one, and possibly two, successive days of festive meals at the king's table at the start of each month.

The start of a month is used to determine festivals, so by Gen 1:14, the light of a heavenly body must determine the start of a month. The first light of the moon would not anciently be known until it was seen. I Sam 20 is evidence that the day of the new moon was not pre-calculated, because otherwise there would not have been a need to plan for two successive days of festive meals. A pre-calculation would have been calculated to precisely one day rather than a choice of two days.

I Sam 20:5 and 18 should be understood to mean “tomorrow [is the] newmoon [festivity]” rather than the officially declared new moon. In other words, David and Jonathan did not really know that “tomorrow” would actually be the first day of the new month. In fact they expected that “tomorrow” would not be the first day of the new month!

When reading Josephus, one must be on guard for any reason that Josephus might have for distortion in his account of an event. In his description of I Sam 20 it is difficult to see any reason why he might deliberately distort any technicalities of the story. This chapter should not have been a controversy among Jews in the time of Josephus. He was certainly living at a time when Hebrew was still spoken among the upper class in Jerusalem where he was reared in the first century. Josephus was born in the year 37, so he was 32 or 33 years old when the Temple was destroyed in 70. Josephus corroborates the translation of second new-moon in his paraphrase of I Sam 20:27. On pages 283 and 285 of Josephus_5, Ant 6:236, we read, “But when, on the second day of the feast of the new moon, David again did not appear, he asked his son Jonathan why, both on the past day and on this, the son of Jesse had been absent from the festive meal.”

The Greek word that Josephus uses for “new moon” in the above translation is noumeenia (Strong's number 3561), not the Greek word meen (Strong’s number 3376), which means “month”. Thus the NASB, taking the Hebrew syntax as it is, translates it so as to agree with Josephus who chose the Greek word for “new moon” rather than the Greek word for “month”. The William Whiston translation is very poor here because he translates it as though Josephus used the other Greek word (meen).

Page 861 of the chapter by Moshe David Herr translates I Sam 20:27 “But on the morrow of the second new moon ...”, and translates I Sam 20:34 “...and he ate no food the second new moon day”. According to pages 84-85 of the book by Cahn, the Karaite Benjamin Nahawendi c. 825 CE understood I Sam 20:27, 34 similarly. The German interlinear translation by Rita Steurer also translated these verses using the German translation equivalent to “second new moon” rather than “second day of the month”. The German word for new moon is different from the German word for month.

On page 36 of the book by Solomon Gandz he wrote, “There can be no doubt that ‘on the morrow of the second new moon’ [in verse 27] has the same meaning as ‘on day of the second new moon’ [in verse 34] and that both phrases refer to the second day of the new moon festival, on which a festive meal was given at the King’s table and in which David was supposed to take part.” The very title of the chapter by Gandz is “The Origin of the Two New Moon Days”, and his analysis is consistent with the analysis given here, although his arrangement of the explanation is different and he does not use all of the logic presented here.

Within the above quote from Gandz, I have added the items in square brackets, and the two expressions enclosed within apostrophes have, in Gandz' work, the Hebrew words rather than the literal translation that I have substituted. Gandz discusses this chapter and Jewish commentaries upon it during the past 1700 years.

Horace was a Roman poet and satirist who wrote in Latin and lived from 65 BCE to 8 BCE. On page 20 of the book by Horace, Satire 1.9.67-70 states:

“’Surely you wanted to tell me something, something confidential?’ ‘Oh, yes, but I'll choose a better time. Today is the thirtieth Sabbath. Why offend the circumcised Jews?’ ‘I don't care about religion’, I moan”.

Here the expression “thirtieth Sabbath” is a literal translation of Horace's Latin expression tricesima Sabbata. On page 375 of the book by Louis Feldman we find the following comment on this expression as found in the satire, “In summary, Horace's allusion in tricesima Sabbata is more effective if it refers not to some meaningless nonsense but rather to the thirtieth, a Sabbath, that is, the New Moon, so prominently celebrated in Horace's time.” Here it must be understood that the Jews desired to have a holiday (not holy day) on the new moon days. The Romans understood that the word Sabbath to a Jew meant a day on which he did not work at his ordinary job.

It was easier for the Jews to tell the Romans that the new moon day that was the thirtieth of each month was always a Sabbath (called the thirtieth Sabbath) than to use other more accurate words from the biblical viewpoint. Biblically the new moon was not a Sabbath, but the Jews called it a Sabbath to simplify the implications of not working to the Romans.

The first of the two possible days of sighting the new crescent would place the first day of the month on the 30th day of the old month. Hence in Jewish practice of that time the 30th would be a holiday or a vacation day, and by loose extension (not technically correct), called a Sabbath. Since Horace expected his readers to understand him, this new moon holiday, called the “thirtieth Sabbath” was well known in Rome in the late second century BCE.
It was common knowledge in the Roman Empire during Horace's adulthood that Jews refrained from work on the first of the two possible days on which the new month might begin. This harmonizes perfectly with the implications from the Hebrew in I Sam 20:27, 34 and the whole chapter. The paraphrase by Josephus also agrees with this.

If Israelite society at the time of King Saul, when the prophet Samuel was still alive, was using a calculation to determine the start of the next month, there would have been no point in having two successive days of festive meals associated with the new moon, which shows an uncertainty of which day among two successive days that would start the month. Thus no calculated calendar could have been used at this time of Israel's history.

Ancient Israel did not employ predictive astronomy for their calendar.