I Samuel 17
There is a saying, often attributed to Oscar Wilde that goes like this: “Be yourself because everyone else is already taken.” Good advice, I think. And, I think it would have been good advice for just about everyone in today’s story too.
The inauthenticity of the characters in this story gives rise to a lot of questions. For one thing, if David had been playing the harp for Saul for so long, why didn’t Saul know who he was? Or, was he pretending he didn’t know? Why were David’s brothers so irritated with him, accusing him of pride and of having a wicked heart? Are their accusations a ruse for jealousy or did David really have a naughty heart? And, Why does David speak of his shepherding career as if it were in the past, “I used to keep sheep for my father…” Is he so sure of victory that he already knows he is not going to go back to the sheep fields or is he bluffing? And, since David has already been anointed king why would the reward for killing Goliath matter to him? He was going to be king anyway. These questions point to the very complex relationships between Saul and David, and David and his brothers, and probably within the hearts of each one of them individually. These people need therapy. Really.
But, on to the story. It goes like this:
The Philistines sent their army into an area claimed by the Israelites. Instead of a melee, the Philistines proposed a way of settling their differences in a slightly more civilized way. Thier best fighter would fight the Israelite’s best fighter, and the winner would win on behalf of his entire army. So, for 40 days the Philistines sent their champion Goliath out to challenge the Israelites.
Goliath was one of the giants — Yes, there were real giants in those days! –and he was big. Exactly how big is debatable. The Dead Sea Scrolls, and Josephus, argue for a modest four cubits and a span. That’s against the more gigantic size of six cubits and a span cited by the Masoretic Texts. In any event, we can all agree that Goliath was really big. He had tons of armor too. I mean, this guy was ready! Each day goliath would leave his army’s encampment and go out into the valley and taunt the Israelites by talking about how he had stolen the ark of the covenant. “Come on,” he said, “Choose somebody and send him out to fight me.” Maybe he even added, “na-na, na-na, na-na,” but that’s not in the Bible.
The bad news for the Israelites is that they didn’t have a champion. They were very rightly scared of Goliath and they’d slip back into their tents and hope not to be called up. That’s where David comes in. David’s father had sent him up to the battle with some food for his brothers. When David heard Goliath’s taunts he didn’t hesitate. He volunteered to fight Goliath. Word of this got to the Israelite king, Saul, and Saul sent for David. At first, he tried to dissuade David by telling him that he was too small, too young, and not experienced enough. Then he tried to help David by giving him all of his armor, but that didn’t work for David and David instead chose five smooth stones for his weapons.
David went down into the valley, exchanged some choice words with Goliath and then made his move. The Bible says that David put his hand in his bag and took out a stone, to which I want to shout, “Why didn’t you already have the stone in your hand!” That’s how exciting the story is. If you saw it on television you’d surely be shouting at the screen. Anyway, David probably hit Goliath on the leg, behind his armor, in a way that made it impossible for him to straighten his leg. That’s the only way he could have fallen forward. After Goliath fell, David cut off his head with Goliath’s own magical sword and that brings us to the end of this week’s episode.
One thing that Saul didn’t realize about David is that David had already fought giants. When Saul was tormented by an evil spirit it was David who did battle with his harp and soothed Saul. That was a different kind of giant, but still a giant.
Of course, there are all kinds of giants that loom over us. You may have a giant in your own life. But, the very real giant that we are surely all thinking of this week is the one in the White House. As the most powerful man in the world, he has already proven the ruthless efficacy of his violent power. Like Goliath, he is, as yet, undefeated.
Last week I visited Jerusalem for a few days and, knowing our reading for this week, I asked my driver to take me to The Valley of Elah. He wasn’t sure where it was, but we figured it out and he took me to a hilltop so that I could look down into the valley. It’s an ordinary valley, by the way. But, as I stood there thinking about the Philistines and the Israelites, all of them loved by God and precious, I couldn’t help but reflect on the giants we face today, and the antichrist spirit which has taken over our own government.
It is the duty of all Christian people to persevere in resisting evil, and to strive for justice and peace among all people. Those of us who have entered into baptism have sworn to go down to the Valley of Elah and use whatever weapons God has given us to face down the evil forces of violence which oppress, separate, rape and leave to die.
Here’s what I want to point out about the selection for today: Even though Saul tried to make David over into his own image, giving him his chain mail and armor, David did not prevail by becoming someone else. He had to be himself. Don’t try to be anybody else. To fully live the life that God has given to you, and you alone, is the victory.
Here’s another quote you may have heard: Be the change. It is often attributed to the Mathama Gandhi, but that is not what he really said. One Gandhi quote that comes close is this, “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change.” It’s not that you should change into someone else. Everyone else is already taken, remember. It’s that you should continually become more authentically yourself. That is not only the personal victory, the joy of a single person’s life, it is the way we allow the rest of the world to live into the love of God too.
To fight the current evil we will surely need some heroes who go out in shiny armor. But, really, as Tina Turner has said, we don’t need another hero. We need for ordinary people to rightly discern their own gifts, the weapons they have, and to use them. Let me just help you out by telling you what your gifts are not: Your gift is not to be angry all the time. That is not one of the gifts. Your gift is not to become overwhelmed and sad about the world. It’s understandable if you do, but that’s not a good path. Your gift is not to report the news on Facebook. There are real reporters who do that. It’s their gift. Let them do it. Your gift is not to convince anybody of the rightness of your cause. You won’t succeed anyway. When I see someone upset, or angry, even in a righteous cause, I just think, “Oh, honey… that’s not the change we want.” I have had to say it to myself too.
Writing letters and marching in the streets is kind of like thoughts and prayers. Nothing wrong with it, but it’s not working. So, here’s a list of the best weapons you can use to defeat evil. These are your gifts: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Seriously. For defense use the same old armor that others have used: Truth, righteousness, peace, faith, discernment, and prayer.
There may be a tendency to think we have to fight politics with politics, but that’s just one more eye for another eye. David shows us a different way. He used all the attributes Saul had cited as deficiencies: He used the agility of his youth, the skills he’d already developed as a shepherd, and his small size enabled him to find that soft spot behind Goliath’s knee.
We have to somehow shed the armor of Saul, the baggage of other people’s expectations of us and how we should live in the world, and choose the small round stones right in front of us. God seems to have a way of putting your job right in front of you. You will not have to look far.
The only thing that really helps all of us, the only way to defeat the giant in our midst, is for each one of us to be our authentic selves, using the gifts that we already have, and doing the work that is right in front of us.
Spend a few minutes this week reflecting on the uniqueness of your life, the opportunities that are right in front of you, and the smooth stones that God has placed in your pouch. The world needs you.
Linda McMillan is on an extended holiday in Amman, Jordan.
Image: Pixabay, released under the Creative Commons CC0
Some Notes of Possible Interest
Whether or not it was Oscar Wilde who said, “Be yourself, everyone else is already taken” is a question for better scholars. For our purposes, it is enough to say that it is often attributed to him, but nobody seems to be able to prove it.
Saul seems to not know who David is… I Samuel 17:58… And Saul said to him, Whose son art thou, thou young man? And David answered, I am the son of thy servant Jesse the Bethlehemite.
David’s brothers were irritated with him… I Samuel 17:28… And Eliab his eldest brother heard when he spake unto the men, and Eliab’s anger was kindled against David, and he said, Why camest thou down hither? and with whom hast thou left those few sheep in the wilderness? I know thy pride, and the naughtiness of thine heart; for thou art come down that thou mightest see the battle.
David speaks of his shepherding career in the past tense… I Samuel 17:34… And David said unto Saul, Thy servant kept his father’s sheep, and there came a lion, and a bear, and took a lamb out of the flock…
Interestingly David and Goliath are connected through Naomi, of all people. Naomi, you remember had two daughters-in-law: Ruth and Orpha. Ruth converted to Judaism and became one of the mothers of Israel. Orpha went on to bear a son named… wait for it… Goliath. There are at least two legends about who Goliath’s father might be, one of them is that it was Eglon. Another, from the Babylonian Talmud, is that Orpah got around, so to speak, and that Goliath had over 100 fathers.
Regarding having a single combatant fight on behalf on the whole army, you may remember that in The Illiad Menelaus and Paris fought one another, and later Achilles and Hector went one-on-won. It was like that. How something from The Illiad would make its way into a story about the history of the Hebrew people is a mystery, but it appears that some, ahem, adaptations were made to the story over the years. You may also note that the description of Goliath’s armor, one of the most robust descriptions of a person in all the Tanach, is more like Greek armor which was used a few centuries after Goliath strode into the Valley of Elah. These apparent discrepancies shouldn’t concern us too much. It just indicates that people talked about it and occasionally either made an honest error or a creative adaptation… Doesn’t matter much.
Galations 5:22-23… But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.
Ephesians 6:10-18… Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people.
And, because I know you have the ear worm, here’s Tina Turner singing We Don’t Need Another Hero