REVISITING DAVID AND GOLIATH
We make lazy assumptions about the giant being too big and strong for others, so what do we learn from David's tactics?
Classical stories are often re-invented in garish, modern idioms that bear little resemblance to their sources. Disney bears some responsibility for this: most children grow up thinking The Jungle Book is an original screenplay rather than a decidedly loose interpretation of Rudyard Kipling’s classic. Disney has largely steered away from plundering biblical sources and as fewer people grow up familiar with scripture, there is a marked ignorance surrounding the stories that have provided rich inspiration for music, art and literature. Without a grasp of this canon, it is hard to interpret European culture and history.
The tale of David and Goliath has more traction than most because of its simplicity and applicability. Defeating giants is the stuff of story telling and has wide resonance, for the strong are never as strong as they appear, nor the weak as weak. Yet the story of David and Goliath is really the story of David and Saul; it is impossible to make sense of the act of giant-killing without this context.
Saul was the first king of Israel; before him, the people were enjoined to see God as their one true King. Whenever Israel fell on hard times, they would pray to God for him to raise up a trouble-shooter to sort them out. Not surprisingly, Israel grew weary of this ad hoc formula and jealous of the nations who had enduring, visible figureheads around whom to rally. They lobbied Samuel, their religious leader, to appoint a king and, after some blunt warnings about the way a king would centralise power and wealth, Samuel gave in to people power.
In appointing Saul, God himself appears to have fallen prey to the image makers, for Saul was tall, dark and handsome; the perfect figure for those international summit meetings where he could be pictured looking down the nose at Israel’s shifty enemies. He even made a dream start, but the concept of the political honeymoon period is not a modern one and before long Saul had revealed his true colours as a twisted, insecure and jealous man. Eventually, Samuel repudiated Saul and made clear his desire to find a successor. This rejection plunged Saul into depression and inertia and he was still brooding on his misfortune while Goliath was strutting his stuff a short distance away.The idea that the two armies should dispense with the formalities of war, leaving it to two men to decide a larger outcome was ingenious and yet quite common at the time, being the ancient world’s answer to the penalty shoot-out. But where was Israel’s soldier? There was a collective failure of nerve which spread from the man who was sulking in a tent on the hillside. Saul was a skilled and otherwise brave soldier; it would have been the perfect way to regain the confidence of his people and to back Samuel into a corner. But Saul had lost his poise and a paralysing far spread through the army.
And then up steps David. He was too young to be conscripted into the army and had come to the battle field to bring his brothers some provisions from home. When he learns of the challenge, he offers himself as a candidate. Caricaturing David as a starry-eyed, rosy-cheeked young shepherd boy is the first category mistake we make in our assumptions around this story. His easily irked brothers suggest underlying family tension surrounding David’s pretensions, implying cunning opportunism on his part. David expresses moral outrage at Goliath’s defiance, but he is also careful to check out the socially mobile rewards on offer: money and marriage to the King’s daughter. If David had fought Goliath today, he would probably have copyrighted his image, taken out a sponsorship deal and sold exclusive TV rights to Sky Sports. We all approach the work of God from mixed motives, some of which we are not entirely aware of and this story shows that God can use people powerfully and in spite of some of their underlying motives.
The second category error we make over David’s fight is that it was an unexpected underdog’s triumph. We make lazy assumptions about the giant being too big and strong for the young shepherd but this would only have had traction if David defeated Goliath in hand to hand combat. David has no intention of getting anywhere near Goliath. There were plenty of trained fighters who could wield a slingshot with pinpoint accuracy; they could expect to kill Goliath from a distance, the stone hitting the head with the velocity of a bullet. Either they were immobile with the fear that emanated from Saul’s tent or they lacked David’s imagination. Goliath was compelling his opponent to fight him on his own, lumbering terms; David refused this premise, knowing he could kill from a distance with a steady hand. Once Goliath realised David’s tactic, there must have been a moment of pure fear as he perceived his own vulnerability to a different way of fighting.
The velocity of the stone meant Goliath could see it coming but was unable to take evasive action in time. There are some credible medical articles that suggest Goliath was suffering from a form of gigantism that gives people blurred vision and impairs swift movement and there are teasing hints in the text to confirm this. If Goliath was ill in this way, his posturing was nothing more than the vain and misguided confidence of an ageing heavyweight boxer who comes out of retirement, unable to grasp how much quicker his younger opponents would be. David’s was an early form of asymmetric warfare, where the lightly armed overcome the highly-powered by using the terrain and the element of surprise to their advantage, a tactic used by insurgents the world over in the last decade.
We all face giants at some time or other, even if we do not name them as such. David may have had tactical skill and an eye for the main chance, but he also trusted in the God who made Goliath and who permitted his heart to beat. The giant assumes a phantom form for those who dwell on it, exerting a hypnotic effect so strong that they are pulled into battle with it on its terms alone. David’s story asks us to take a step back and survey the scene. Where is God in this? How do we use the power he has given us, in our weakness, to engage the giant? Sometimes refusing the parameters we have been set by that which opposes us is the first step towards defeating it. Goliath’s armour glinted in the sun, transfixing the Israelite army and burnishing his reputation. David was drawn to the small patch of glistening skin between it. Toppling the giant asks us to look it at from a new angle, to keep a steady hand and an even steadier faith in the God whose power is made perfect in human weakness.
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