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David and Goliath

We began our reading of this famous story with a brief overview of the geography of the battle. Tran (2023) explains how the location of the battle is important to understanding that this conflict was presenting an existential threat to the tribes of Israel. The site in-between Azekah and Socoh was on Judean land and at the end of the valuable Elah Valley. To lose this fight would leave the Israelites open to further invasion and economically worse off. Moreover, we also re-visited some earlier parts of 1 Samuel to understand how the role of the King had been depicted. Saul was expected to lead the army into battles and successfully defend the tribes. He had even been physically described as taller than other men. This context allowed the plot of 1 Samuel 17 to have more meaning, especially in the way David’s triumph subverts the standard which Saul should have been keeping.


In the first half of the chapter (1 Sam. 1-34) our discussion was drawn to David’s depiction as a ‘servant’ and ‘rescuer’ and the intricate description of Goliath’s armour.


Nathan was sensitive to David’s presentation of himself to Saul: “Let no one lose heart on account of this Philistine; your servant will go and fight him” (v.32). The Christological echoing of the ‘Servant King’ was noted while Nathan explained how David was seemingly turning the idea of kingship “on its head”. I also thought the theme of service was prominent earlier in the passage when Goliath addresses the soldiers of Israel as “the servants of Saul” and suggests that, if he were to win the duel, the Israelites would “become our subjects and serve us” (v.8-9). First, the use of ‘service’ in verse 9 is controversial as it would undermine the Abrahamic covenant in which the Jewish people were only expected to show obedience to God. Second, the implication that the soldiers are merely the servants of Saul in verse 8 seems to fulfill the desire of the Israelites to “be like all the other nations” (1 Sam. 8:20); service to an earthly king appears to numb their true nature as servants to “the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt” (Exodus 20:2). Getting the act of service right, therefore, appears to be of significance to the author.


Israel’s attention to David’s depiction as a ‘rescuer’ helped flesh out what the action of a servant should be. David’s testimony to Saul about defeating the lion and bear while working as a shepherd represented his trust in God. Notably he states that: “the LORD who rescued me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will rescue me from the hand of this Philistine” (v.37). Despite it being Daivd who has performed the works of protection and survival they are nonetheless attributed to God. This humility depicts service in a concentric structure in which Daivd is first serving his sheep, then Saul and, ultimately, God. Maybe, for this reason, Bronwen’s choice of ‘living’ stands out, as it is only David who boldly describes the Israelite soldiers as the “armies of the living God” (v.26). God is a living thing for David who allows its power to inform his actions.


The description of Goliath in verse 4 to 7 concludes our initial discussion. Caroline had picked out ‘armour’ and drew our attention to the way the text makes Goliath appear to be wholly made out of external garments. Images of fantastical warriors being assembled bit by bit came to mind; Bronwen suggested the author could be using it as motif for showboating; and Nathan contrasted it to the spiritual armour of God that Paul often references in his letters. The ‘scales’ of armour certainly makes Goliath appear monstrous and potentially in league with other leviathans God has had to wrestle in order to create order out of chaos (Job 41:1).


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The second half of the chapter (v.38-58) presented us with a complicated tale of violence and liberation. The details of David’s slaying of Goliath went far beyond our Sunday school memories. Decapitation and the plundering of enemy camps were not mentioned as much as the slingshot and pebbles. The use of the word ‘sword’ resembled this distinction between the types of violence. In the first place the author explicitly has David renounce the power of the sword: “All those gathered here will know that it is not by sword or spear that the LORD saves” (v.47). Again, this lack of military equipment is emphasised after the killing: “So David triumphed over the Philistine with a sling and a stone; without a sword in his hand, he struck down the Philistine” (v.50). However, in the very next verse this tone is transformed as David ‘took hold of the Philistine’s sword [and] cut off [Goliath’s] head with the sword’ (v.51). What are we to make of this transition? After the decapitation the Philistines flee and are chased by the soldiers of Israel and Judah. After the pursuit they return to ‘plunder’ the camps. Contemporary notions of war crimes, just war and the current conflict in Gaza floated amidst our study. Respectfully we did not attempt to draw any comparisons but rather come to a stable place of questioning where our understanding of history and Jesus could help us gain a grip on the text.


Bronwen interestingly led us into viewing the passage as a combination of the human capacity for good and evil. Despite initially defending themselves with proportionate force the Israelite army cannot help but succumb to the desire for destruction. The renunciation and adoption of the sword represents our natural struggle between desires for fairness and revenge. This duality to the reading spoke of an incarnational theology which could be read into the text. In the same way that Jesus is both divine and human, the slaying of Goliath has both its purity and murkiness.


Israel also noted how our modern notions of just war could not be fully read back into an ancient context. We agreed that when encountering these types of stories, we are projecting back values which were not present at the time. Indeed, historians like Tom Holland (2019) have made recent arguments that highlight the West’s indebtedness to Christian ethics in spreading the supposedly ‘secular’ human rights which we uncritically ascribe to today. Is one of the issues with the violence of the Old Testament that it cannot be measured against Jesus’ proclamation to bless the peacemakers? Clearly this over simplifies the messiness of war ethics after the New Testament (if Jesus preached peace why have so many Christians killed others too?), but in the setting of a simple Bible study it is a relevant point to raise.


No real conclusion was reached but the second half of 1 Samuel 17 certainly made us see the story of David and Goliath in a new light.


References


Holland, Tom, Dominion (Little, Brown and Company, 2019).


Tran, Peter, 'Keeping Covenant: The Story and Scholarly Scrutiny of David and Goliath', Obsculta, 16:1 (2023), pp.100-110.

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