Giant Slayer, a Partnership
1 Samuel 17:32-49 | June 13, 2021
One of the great smaller museums in the world is the Borghese Gallery in Rome. The gallery is housed in what used to be the home of Cardinal Borghese, who lived in the early 17th century. The painting, David with the Head of Goliath, was, by best estimates, a commission by Cardinal Borghese for Caravaggio. For those of you who are art lovers, you will remember that Caravaggio is the master for paintings that utilize light and shadows, giving deeper dimension and detail. In this painting, David, who has just slain the giant Goliath, looks to be torn between disgust and pity. When scholars of the painting look closely at words engraved on the sword, they likely translate “Humility conquers pride.” That is not a bad summary of one of the spiritual lessons of this story.
Caravaggio was a man torn between his lustful, even murderous, nature and painting masterpieces that have the power to lift us into a higher spiritual realm, although this painting might leave us nauseous. For a nice psychological twist to the history of this painting, the model of the severed head of Goliath is none other than Caravaggio himself, suggesting that the painting was an act of confession for Caravaggio. More recently, some have suggested that David might also be a younger version of Caravaggio, making this a double self-portrait. You can try to work out the psychological dimension of why he might do such a thing, but I am not touching that one with a ten-foot pole.
This has been one of the favorite Old Testament stories for children. With this image from Caravaggio, we might question the appropriateness of this story having such a dominant place in the imagination of our children. But the image of a shepherd boy fighting a giant of a man and bringing him down is not so different from watching Harry Potter taking on “he who shall not be named” in the Harry Potter series of books and movies. There is joy in believing in our childlike imagination that we are capable of standing against such an overwhelmingly powerful enemy and against all the odds bringing him down to size. That is, after all, the point of the story, isn’t it? Against all odds, we can overcome the giants in our life that threaten to destroy us, and all that is required is courage and faith? I have certainly preached the story that way.
But not everyone sees it that way. There is a TED talk by a man named Malcolm Gladwell, who believes we have misunderstood the real point of the story. It is not a story about the little guy bringing down the big guy. In a secularized reconsideration of the story, he argues that it was not really a fair fight from the very beginning.
David had the upper hand, and Goliath was virtually doomed from the beginning. He points out that David had the advantage in part because of the weapon he used against Goliath. A sling is not the same thing as a child’s slingshot. Malcolm claims that it was the most powerful weapon in armed warfare in ancient times. It can launch a stone and land it up to 200 yards away, and David was much closer. The stones he used from that area might have twice the density as typical stones, and with his weapon, he could have had the velocity of a 45 caliber handgun. Add to his technological advantage that David also was smarter and the advantage goes to David. He did not allow himself to be drawn into close battle with the Giant, but defied the Giant’s command to come close, and took him out at a safe distance away.
Also, Goliath was a disadvantaged warrior. His size and the weight of his armor and weapons may have intimidated all of the Israelite army, but those same factors made Goliath slow and clumsy. Furthermore, Malcolm claims that, medically, Goliath may well have been handicapped. He likely suffered from gigantism and many with that disorder had damage eyesight. So when David approaches Goliath with only a staff, Goliath sees the staff double and calls the sticks. He was so disadvantaged that he had to have an assistant get him out on the field.
The bottom line, according to Mr. Gladwell, is that Goliath never really had a chance. The real lesson from this story is that “Giants are not as powerful as they seem and sometimes a shepherd boy has a sling in his pocket.”*
As in most TED talks, the presenter makes a fascinating argument that is well thought through and brilliantly presented. He gives us a meaningful and helpful message.
• Sometimes the problems we face in this world are not as daunting as we believe and we make the mistake of cowering in fear.
• Furthermore, if we use our minds and our personal resources, there is a way we can overcome whatever we face in this world.
There are times in my life when I need to hear the truth of this. I am betting the same is true for you. Maybe that is a point for you to take into your life today. What you face may not be as daunting as you believe and you have resources greater than you imagine. Helpful psychology for us all.
The only problem is that the presenter has managed to overlook something absolutely critical in this ancient story. Does anyone want to take a guess at what he misses? He misses the central character in the background of this story. Who is missing? God. This is narrative theology written by a faith community. It is not a secular story about how we, with intelligence and technology, have the power to overcome our foes and our problems. Interesting how the presenter manages to deconstruct this story and insert our Western way of thinking into it and overlooks the deeper spiritual elements of the story that people of religious faith value.
It is true that David plays a critical role. As one writer says, “David’s skills were not insignificant—and it’s not as though Goliath collapsed from some divine-induced cerebral stroke of some kind—but the whole point of David’s confidence was not his talents but the presence and work of Yahweh, the God of Israel.”** In the end it was the work of God in ways invisible to our eyes that won the day. As David himself says, “All those gathered here will know that it is not by sword or spear that the LORD saves; for the battle is the LORD’s, and He will give all of you into our hands.”
It is also true that it was never a fair fight. The deck was stacked against poor Goliath from the beginning. He was destined to meet his match. Not because of David’s technological advantages or Goliath’s physical deficits, but because the fight was Goliath versus God. Goliath ran up against the truth that strength and size are not an advantage when you are standing against a force for ultimate good. That is God.
Decades ago I doubt any of you ever heard of “Dark Matter.” Now scientists have deduced, not from direct evidence but mathematics, that this universe we live in is 80% made up of something we cannot see and do not understand what it is. It is a force in nature we might never absolutely prove, but is a reality at work in the universes.
In the same way, we dare to believe that God is present and at work in ways we can never fully understand or explain, many people see religion as irrational and they are correct. Religions are filled with irrational, unbelievable elements. You will never prove that God exists or that supernatural forces are at work in the world. But the power of religious faith is that it creates a comprehensive system of stories, beliefs, practices, a community of people, and meanings that enable us to function in a confusing world of conflicts, challenges, and human suffering. The fact that religious faith developed all over the world is a testimony that religious faith serves a necessary purpose throughout history. I look to the experience and history of the black church and how it empowered people under unbearable persistent suffering to survive and to overcome.
One other point ought to be made when studying stories like this. We should not over-read this story as a guarantee that our faith in God will, in every instance, mean “all is well that ends well.” Suffering and pain, failure and defeat, are fundamental elements of the creation, not to be erased by religious faith. Just because we follow a spiritual path, we do not claim that those who have faith will never suffer pain or defeat. Bad things do happen to good and faithful people and maybe even because they are basically good and faithful. Just look to the life of the twelve disciples of Jesus after the resurrection of Jesus. Eleven of them died in serving God and only one managed to die of old age. Our faith is not that in every instance will we overcome threats to our well-being, but, that in the creation, the arch of justice and goodness are being worked out. For the faithful, we trust that God will keep God’s promises and that the power of resurrection and new life overcomes death in ways that are often a mystery.
But what is our part in God’s work? What can David teach us? I believe it was Eugene Peterson who draws our attention to the scene in this story where David is at a creek and gathering five perfect stones to go to battle against Goliath. It may seem an insignificant scene, but in this scene, we see our own challenge. David was bound on one side by a bullying and arrogant nation of Philistines and on the other side, he was bound by an anxious and demoralized people of Israel. David stands between the two in a stream of water gathering stones. He does not allow what bullies him and threatens him to overcome him, and he does not collapse into fear and despair as King Saul and the nation have done. David stands in the flow of God’s love when he stands in that stream. He is gathering from it what he needs to meet the challenge of that day.
Can you hear a message for you and for our church in this story? We do not let the threat of powers greater than ourselves or of our community intimidate us and silence us into despair and debilitating fear. We reach down into the flowing cooling waters of our faith and allow the flow of God’s love to provide what we need for the time we are in. This is what it means to be fully human: to live within the realities of this world but draw our strength from a resource beyond us but always present with us. I was correct in my love for this story when I was a child: We are giant slayers in a partnership with God.
*Malcolm Gladwell, “The Unheard Story of David and Goliath,” TED Talk Podcast, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ziGD7vQOwl8, Sep 30, 2013
**Scott Hoezee, I Samuel 17, June 15, 2015, Proper 7B, Center for Excellence in Preaching website, Calvary Seminary.