Is it heresy to take a beloved bible story and re-read it critically? If so (and most of you already know this) I am a heretic. I say this because this week I was led once again to the story of David and Goliath found in 1 Samuel, chapter 17. I will wager that you can recite the story from memory - as told by Sunday school teachers with flannel-graphs, Vacation Bible School, and the many sermons preached in pulpits around the world. This is such a seminal story that all of American society understands it shorthand: an all-powerful giant pitted against an otherwise insignificant opponent.
Yep, everyone knows this story . . . until they read it in context and without the lens of past interpretations. There is much more to this story than initially meets the eye.
Without going into geographic or historical detail,
what we have in this story are two people groups - the Philistines desire to take by force the "land" which was currently occupied by the Israelites. Each had taken up positions on opposing hillsides overlooking Oak Valley prepared to rumble. And yet, to engage the other would require a heroic charge down their respective hills, across the valley, and up towards their enemies. It would have been suicide to engage in this kind of battle, so like 3rd graders, they resorted to hurling insults at each other from the hills. As fruitless as this was (sticks and stones may break my bones . . .) it was obvious to all that massive casualties would result from any full-on assault. So, the Philistines resorted to an ancient pattern where each side would send down a representative to do battle with the result of only one death rather than hundreds. Enter a big old dude named Goliath.
Goliath is described as an incredible hulk of a man,
experienced in battle and possessing an impressive array of weapons. On the surface, he is seemingly unbeatable. And you know about the shepherd boy with a slingshot and staff. The tale of the tape seems to favor the big-guy. But what if everything is not as it appears to be and what we have been taught is not exactly what was going on? Let's find out!
"Am I not Philistine enough for you?" Goliath called out to the Israelites
(1 Sam 17:8)
"Am I not Philistine enough for you?" This question seems innocent enough, until you realize that these fellows we call Philistine are from the Island of Crete - better known as a vacation spot and not the land of the giants. Given the description of this representative of the Philistine army and with no other record of the Philistines being a people of huge stature, could it be that Goliath was not exactly "like" all the others? That is exactly what I suggest and here is why:
As the Philistine paced back and forth, his shield bearer in front of him, he noticed David.
It seems odd when one thinks of the way war was waged and the expectations of each "branch" of the military. There were archers and charioteers and infantrymen - like Goliath. And only one group had shield bearers - the archers. Any infantryman would have been expected to carry his own shield as it was a primary piece of defensive weaponry and would likewise been dishonored to have someone else carry it for him. And what about this unidentified shield-bearer? Earlier we read that "he walked ahead of Goliath." Why would the champion of the Philistine army need a dude to lead the way?
Likewise, it is easy to miss if we are already predisposed to seeing David as the underdog - that Goliath somehow, standing in the valley and shouting up to the Israelites could have possibly missed David making his way down to the battlefield. You can almost hear the murmuring of the Israelites and the chuckles of the Philistine army as this boy came to the valley floor. There is no way the giant, with an unimpeded field of vision could miss his approach. And yet, it was only when David drew very near that Goliath "looked down" and began to curse the young man. If we take all of this together trouble seeing and walking combined with his colossal size, Goliath now looks to be less than his press clippings.
Just like the Wizard of Oz
As first diagnosed in the Indiana Medical Journal in 1960, Goliath (whose name loosely translated means "revealed") is more like the Wizard of Oz than this mythical giant. Yes, he was big but he was also flawed. If we take all of the anomalies of our story regarding his physical being, we find what appears to be a case of acromegaly or giantism caused by a glandular disorder. Despite his intimidating size and array of weaponry, and in spite of the fear that these attributes instilled, he is most vulnerable. He is vulnerable not only to David and his use of unconventional warfare, but also in the pitiable sense that he was vulnerable to being "used" by the Philistines as a simple weapon of war.
The Moral of the Story
Obviously there is much more to this narrative than I can provide in this brief blog, but let me get to the moral of the story - or at least one of the morals: the giants that we face in our lives are not always as powerful or impregnable as we may have been led to believe. Yes, we face formidable challenges in our relationships, our vocations, our health, and our spirituality. And yet, despite the press clippings and mortality charts and the whole host of "experts," we often find that our adversary is not all-powerful.
The irony in the story is in Goliath's name - "revealed" - as David's willingness to trust in God to carry the day and his intuition to confront this threat in unconventional ways (no shield, spear, or armor and no hand-to-hand) revealed that the seemingly insurmountable enemy was - in fact - able to be overcome.
What about you?
What kind of giants are you facing? No matter how strong and no matter how many, God has provided us with the ultimate "weapon" through our faithful trust in the Christ who has overcome every enemy including death and in our practice of being unconventional in dealing with the seemingly insurmountable issues that we face in our world.
There's lots to uncover in this story so stay tuned as you read and re-read this narrative of the boy-king David! (Hint, why five stones, who and what gets revealed in David's life)
As always, I encourage feedback, commentary, and thoughtful conversation with all of you. In the meantime, may God's blessings provide you with the needed strength to face the giants in your life.