August 3, 2014
The truth is that there is a little more to the story than what I shared with the children. After David knocks Goliath out with a stone to the forehead, he walks over and decapitates Goliath, eventually taking his head to Jerusalem.
It’s an interesting piece of the story, and interesting to think about why this part of the story is left out of the official lectionary readings and usually left out of the Sunday School material. I could talk about the troubling aspects of this act of ritualized violence and the way it is presented as sacred. I could go there. But here is the truth. It turns out that a lot of these Sunday School stories we’ve been looking at are pretty heavy. There is a lot of violence and a lot of human misery to wade through. And I need a break. Maybe you need a break too.
So I’m not going to talk about the horror and violence of this narrative. I’m just going to talk about the part of the story we know and love: the little shepherd boy overcoming the mighty giant.
The fact is that it’s not just Sunday School-goers who know and love this story. Even people who have never set foot in a church or opened the pages of a Bible likely know about David and Goliath. The pair has become a metaphor for the small and weak overcoming the big and strong.
I’ve heard this metaphor invoked when workers take on corporations, when citizens go up against the government, even when people fight a powerful disease such as cancer. There is something very appealing to us in this story about a simple shepherd boy defeating a 9 foot tall giant with a smooth stone from the stream.
In fact, it seems that this story of giant-killing was very popular in ancient Israel as well. Joshua, after all, was willing to take on the giants of Canaan. And in 1 Chronicles (20:5-8) we read about two other Israelites who kill two other giants–one of whom is Goliath’s brother. In 2 Samuel 21, David is commander of the Israelite army and four of David’s men kill four different giants–one of whom is poor Goliath, who is killed this time by Elhanan.
Some biblical scholars would argue that David probably did not kill Goliath at all, but that he eventually got placed in the role of giant-slayer as his national legend developed.
It’s hard to know what actually happened, but a close reading of the biblical story of David easily reveals a number of factual problems and contradictions. For example, in this story of David and Goliath, David is a mere shepherd boy whom King Saul doesn’t seem to know. In the previous chapter, David is a musician and “a man of valor, a warrior” who comes into the service of Saul as his armor-bearer and court musician. How can David be an armor bearer in one chapter and an unknown shepherd in the next? The biblical narrative of David is not linear for sure, and it is likely not completely historically factual. But there is truth in these stories–truth about David himself, and also about how David’s people wanted him to be viewed.
This story of David and Goliath might well be like the story of George Washington chopping down the cherry tree. Did it really happen? Possibly not. Was Washington really an honest man? Was David really more powerful than he appeared to be? That is what the legend-makers want us to understand.
David is a hero despite his small stature; despite his lack of armor; despite his civilian status. And I am somewhat fascinated by the ways that all of these “despites” get interpreted differently in secular and religious circles.
In secular circles, the narrative is all about the underdog. I think of Margaret Mead’s quote and popular Lawrence bumper sticker: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” I think of all of those heartfelt Hollywood movies where the ragtag athletes win against the polished champions. (I grew up on Karate Kid.)
Malcom Gladwell published a book last year called David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants. In the book, Gladwell argues that Goliath, as an infantryman who likely had a medical condition that caused his large stature and partial blindness, was at a severe disadvantage in this battle with an accomplished slinger like David. Gladwell tells various stories of people like David who have used their “underdog” status to their advantage in going up against seemingly more powerful forces.
He talks about how the Civil Rights movement employed the “trickster” motif as a way of understanding how someone with less power could still manage to get the upper hand over someone with more power. You’ve probably heard those Bre’r rabbit tales. Rabbit says, “Please don’t throw me in the briar patch,” when the briar patch is exactly where he wants to be. One of Martin Luther King’s associates, Wyatt Walker, pulled a bit of the briar patch business with Bull Connor in Birmingham. Connor thought that the last thing the civil rights protesters wanted was for him to use the fire hoses and police dogs on them. In reality, Walker knew that news coverage of hoses and dogs being used on peaceful protestors would go a long way in galvanizing sympathy for the movement across the country.
Finally, Connor threw them in the briar patch. He commanded that the hoses be turned on and the dogs be brought out. The next day, a photo was published in nearly every major newspaper in the country: A vicious German Shepherd, its leash held by a police officer in sunglasses, lunges at the gut of a black teenage boy. The boy stands calmly, arms hanging at his sides, almost seeming to lean in to the attack. One year after that picture ran, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed. Walker had managed to get Bull Connor to use his own power against himself.
Whether in the newspapers or on the movie screen, we love to see the underdog win. We love to see power turned on its head. From a secular perspective, we love the story of David and Goliath because it shows that apparent strengths–like height and armor and spears–can actually hinder people or groups, whereas apparent weaknesses–like lack of bulk, lack of armor and simple weapons–can prove to be an advantage. Great size increases strength but slows down movement; armor is protective, but limiting; sophisticated weaponry lacks the versatility of more simple approaches.
The secular world tells the story of David and Goliath in quite a compelling way. In a way that can, I think, be helpful to a certain extent. As Mennonites, we can certainly support the assertion that sometimes less is indeed more.
While you sometimes hear this secular interpretation of the story within the context of church–especially in the case of Sunday School lessons where teachers like to point out that even small people can do great things for God–this “less is more” version is not, I would argue, the most basic religious interpretation of the story.
From a religious perspective, David’s inferiority to Goliath is not presented for the sake of revealing the superiority of inferiority. No. David’s inferiority to Goliath is presented for the sake of revealing the power of God.
The same reason that God insisted Joshua whittle down his army to just a few randomly selected soldiers–so that everyone would know that it was God, not Joshua’s army, that won the battle. The same reason that Elijah covered the altar to Yahweh with buckets and buckets of water–so that the Baal worshipers would have no doubts about God’s power when God managed to light the sodden offering on fire. The same reason the storyteller insists that Nebuchadnezzar made the fiery furnace so hot that the men stoking the fire were disintegrated from the heat.
That’s why Goliath is 9 feet tall and David is a puny youngest brother. Because the storyteller wants the hearers and readers to understand that these great and powerful acts are works of God–not mere human accomplishments.
In David’s day, it was common for opposing parties to give speeches before battle. Often those speeches were designed to glorify the warrior and intimidate the opponent. David’s speech does a bit of that, but it focuses on Yahweh’s role in the upcoming confrontation:
“You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the Lord Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This day the Lord will deliver you into my hands, . . . All those gathered here will know that it is not by sword or spear that the Lord saves; for the battle is the Lord’s, and he will give all of you into our hands.”
Clearly, this is supposed to be a story that gives glory to God. . . . Except that somewhere along the line someone (maybe David himself) was interested in bringing glory to David as well. Because if it was really just about God, we would be talking about the story of Elhanan and Goliath this morning–a no name nobody who managed to defeat this giant of a warrior.
Because no matter how much the story tries to paint David as a defenseless shepherd boy, all of the listeners and readers already know shepherd boy David as King David–mighty military hero of Israel. In the story, David says “the battle is the Lord’s” because that is what an Israelite military hero is supposed to say. But you get the feeling that David would like a little credit for himself as well.
It reminds me of celebrities who “give glory to God” when they have just led their team to an impressive victory or won a prestigious award. I mean, sure, it’s nice of them to mention God, but we all know who threw the winning three-pointer; we all know whose face is on the movie screen. We all know who flung that infamous stone out of the sling shot.
This is an interesting tension in the story of David and Goliath and in many of our contemporary stories as well: Who gets the credit? God? The person? Both?
When the congregation bought this building several years ago, I sometimes told people that I knew for sure God was responsible for the move, because as a brand new pastor I had no idea what I was doing. And it is certainly true that I was in over my head. It is also true that there were others in the congregation who were quite skilled at leading consensus meetings and other things that were needed to make the move possible.
Some of the credit for that move goes to the congregation. And I believe some of the credit goes to God; I think we were open to the leading of the Holy Spirit in that move–as I hope we are now in our considerations of how to have enough space for the ministry God calls us to do.
Many of you know that looking for space is frustrating–when you don’t have enough money to purchase available properties. And I will admit that there are times my prayer dissolves into frustration and I just pray that someone will give us a building–or that Doug and Nadine will buy a winning lottery ticket. And either of those things would be nice. And either of those things would allow us to tell the religious version of the David and Goliath story–that God swoops in and makes everything right and helps out the underdog. And I have heard those stories before; sometimes it happens that way.
But often there is a bit of the secular interpretation of David and Goliath thrown in the mix when individuals or groups seem to defy the odds. There is a lot of work–maybe some slingshot target practice–that goes on behind the scenes. There are factors at play–like Goliath’s partial blindness–that are not readily evident.
There are qualities of the individual or community that work together with the power of God to bring success to a venture.
Sometimes we tell the stories in ways that glorify our human heroes. And sometimes we tell the stories in ways that glorify God. And the truth is usually a messy mix of the two.
So may we continue our faithful work to the best of our human abilities. And may we pray for the grace and power of God to also be at work within us and among us. Amen.