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The Rev. Irina Dubinski

Guillaume Courtois, "David and Goliath," 1650-1660.

David and Goliath

Today we read about the victory of David over Goliath that decided the course of a battle between the Israelites and Philistines. Equally iconic in popular culture (illustrating the power of the underdog) and Christianity (hinting at God-ordained kingship of David); but is there more to this Sunday-school narrative than meets the eye? Well, let’s see!

The Philistines were of unclear genetic origin, and lived as of the 12th century BC in 5 coastal cities in the South of Canaan (Gaza, Ashdod, Ashkelon, Ekron and Gath). Since the time that Israel entered Canaan, they posed the greatest threat to her commercial routes and overall safety. But by the early 900s BC, king David had dealt a fatal blow to the Philistine presence in the area, and within 300 years, they became assimilated into Assyria and Babylon -- ironically, much like Israel herself. Since then, the Philistines disappeared from historical and archaeological records, and today we remember them mostly as the arch-enemy of the Israelites as recorded in the historical texts of the Bible.

These texts, however, do not present a linear view of history. They are heavily edited, biased, repetitive and self-contradicting. We already saw two accounts of the origin of the monarchy and selection of Saul; there are also two accounts of his rejection, and two of David’s introduction to Saul. The scholarly position accepted since the 1950s, with some questioning and refinement as of the 90s, was that independent narratives of varying lengths were written at different times prior to 7th century BC, compiled at that time, and revised during and after the exile (6th century BC). The editors were very skillful and intentional about choosing and arranging the materials to hold in dramatic tension two theological concepts: 1) the monarchy in Israel was at the root of her disastrous history; yet 2) David’s dynasty was God-ordained, albeit unfaithful to him.

Re. the slaying of Goliath, there are also two accounts. The Sunday school and today’s version features David (1 Sam. 17); but, in the version we never read, the hero is Elhanan (2 Sam. 21). 1 Chronicles 20 (4th century BC) explains this by saying that Elhanan "slew the brother of Goliath". More likely, the earlier writings contained a story in which Elhanan did kill Goliath, but when David became the focus of the overarching narrative, the text was revised, and later embellished with more details, post-exile.

Thus, the base narrative is as follows. The Israelites and Philistines faced each other, the 6’9” Goliath paced the frontline over 40 days (that special number), David stepped up despite being disparaged by his brothers, rejected Saul’s armour, selected the stones for his sling, defeated Goliath, and the Philistines retreated (breaking Goliath’s promise to submit to the Israelites in the event of his defeat). All this to show that Saul, who stood over 6’, failed to do something that the smaller (though equally handsome) youngster managed to do, with God’s help. The rest are later additions (e.g. David arrives on the battlefield with food). This is also how certain contradictions emerged: Saul asked who David was at the end, having already offered him the armour; and David took Goliath's head to Jerusalem - the city that David only captured later, as king.

Interestingly, both the description of Goliath’s armour and concept of victory by single combat have a distinctly Greek flavour. In Iliad (760-10 BC), Nestor (similarly the youngest of many brothers) slays Ereuthalion (similarly gigantic, club-wielding and armour-clad), whereas the older warriors are afraid, yet disparage his intentions. Nestor gets the chariot, David takes Goliath’s sword, and both receive boy-hero worship. We don’t mention these textual problems too often; and most certainly, we don’t tell our kids the ending to this story...

You see, Saul promised a reward to the one who kills the giant: great wealth, a daughter in marriage, and tax exemption. I don’t think the money ever entered the picture, but Saul's younger daughter Michal, who actually loved David (1 Sam. 18), was indeed offered to him -- but, he was still expected to pay the bride price, which he couldn’t afford. So, Saul demanded the foreskins of 100 Philistines instead, hoping to get his rival killed. David brought 200 of these, and so Saul resorted to ambushing him in his daughter’s room. Michal saved David by risking her life and letting him down from the window. Did she get a “thank you” from David? No, but she was given to another man, and David took other wives from each tribe of Israel as his unification strategy -- still to demand the return of Michal later on! Her opinion of him had obviously plummeted, and she dared to mock his exuberant dancing. In retaliation, he cursed/ensured that she never had a child. What a story... is this truly the best God could do in choosing a king for Israel? The episode with Goliath is intended to make it seem so. But from the vantage point of 3000 years, we can see that the story is not really about the most suitable early Israelite ruler, and certainly, much more than just an illustration of another underdog who succeeded against all odds.

Instead, let this Sunday school classic be to us another reminder of the power of God’s grace “working in us, doing infinitely more than we can ask or imagine” - but, in collaboration with us. We are coworkers with Christ, as St Paul said, and the parables about which I spoke to you last week revealed. David fought to bring both glory of God and victory to his people. His impulse to rise to the occasion was, perhaps, from God - but to win, he utilized his own skill and intelligence. He saw that the giant was possibly half-blind due to his acromegaly, weighed down by his armor, and had to coordinate with a shield bearer. All David had to do was stay out of the range of the iron-tipped javelin, but within that of the sling. His sling was not a child’s toy at all, but a devastating weapon equivalent to a handgun, used to protect the herds from wild animals.

So, in our own struggles against the evil of this world and the giants of our own psyche, we, too, are similarly well prepared to defeat them by the grace of God and by our own efforts. Like David, we recognize our skills and talents, approaches to spirituality and types of worship that we should bring to the battlefield, as opposed to the ones that might be perfectly fine for someone else, but too cumbersome for us. Tempting as it might be, we don’t get too close to evil; but we defeat it from a distance with our well-aimed shots -- with the words of prayer, and acts of kindness. God teaches us how to use these and gives us the impulses and courage to do so, but it’s our own eyes and minds that aim the shots, and our own hands that hurls the stone. Amen.

Bernini, David, 1623-24.