About that violence in David and Goliath

June 11, 2012

Lithograph of David hoisting Goliath’s severed head, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

At the risk of sounding conceited, I loved my sermon yesterday on David and Goliath. Don’t get me wrong: I usually really like my sermons. If I draft a sermon that I don’t like (as is often the case), I keep working on it until I do. At the very least, you can be sure that I get something out of my sermon each week, even if no one else does!

But I thought yesterday’s was extra special, in part because I’ve never preached the text before—it was an unplowed field. One problem with preaching the text is that it’s long. The story takes up all of 1 Samuel 17, without an obvious way to shorten it. I suppose some talented preacher could spend weeks on it, going through it verse by verse, but I’m not one of those preachers. I would use up all my good ideas in the first sermon and have nothing left to say.

Originally, I selected for my text verses 32-49, which I listed in the bulletin. These verses, in my opinion, get to the theological heart of the story, which includes the two speeches David gives, first to Saul and then to Goliath. As I was glancing at the passage before the sermon yesterday, I noticed that I omitted the gruesome detail that follows in verse 51—the beheading of Goliath. If I were a child listening to the story, having already fallen in love with The Savage Sword of Conan, that would probably have been my favorite part!

I imagine, in fact, that for ancient Israel, the beheading of Goliath was also a favorite part. I love the irony of David’s having to use Goliath’s sword to finish the job, since, as we know, David didn’t have one. The new Common English Bible translation of verses 50-51 nicely captures the enthusiasm of David’s (and God’s) victory:

And that’s how David triumphed over the Philistine with just a sling and a stone, striking the Philistine down and killing him—and David didn’t even have a sword! Then David ran and stood over the Philistine. He grabbed the Philistine’s sword, drew it from its sheath, and finished him off. Then David cut off the Philistine’s head with the sword.

When the Philistines saw that their hero was dead, they fled.

The Bible isn’t squeamish about violence the way we moderns or post-moderns want it to be. Is that a problem for us when we hear stories like this one?

If so, I wonder if we’re victims of our time and place. For example, when we read stories like David and Goliath, don’t we Americans too easily make the leap from ancient Israel to present-day U.S.—so that we’re no longer reading about ancient Israel fighting the Philistines, but the U.S. fighting Iraq or the Taliban or the Viet Cong?

These parallels from recent history are unhelpful, to say the least. The U.S. is not a theocracy or theocratic monarchy, whose government is intended, however imperfectly, to act on God’s behalf. The U.S. can be more or less righteous in the world, but our goals will never align perfectly with those of God’s kingdom (to say the least). Bitter experience teaches us that the most well-intentioned military action can often have disastrous consequences. Even when we “win,” the victory is rarely as sweet as promised.

So we project our contemporary experience of war back on ancient Israel: Why should war would work out any better for them? Surely, we imagine, God could find another way to get things done in the ancient world.

One important difference, however, is that, unlike the U.S., the battles that ancient Israel fought were Yahweh’s battles. David understood this when he said, in verse 47, “The Lord owns this war, and he will hand all of you over to us.” Goliath and the Philistines understood this. They all understood that this battle was a contest, not merely between human warriors, but also between Israel’s God, Yahweh, on the one hand, and the Philistines’ gods on the other. Whose god would prevail?

Besides, we have the luxury of reading about this violence from a safe distance. Unlike ancient Israel, our lives and the lives of our children aren’t being threatened. Our livelihoods aren’t being threatened. Our existence as a nation isn’t being threatened. The closest most of us have come to feeling so threatened was on the morning of 9/11. I’m about as chicken as they come, but if my country had called on me to fight, I would have fought. “Just give me a gun, Mr. President, and show me where to point it.” Didn’t you feel that way?

And I certainly didn’t shed a tear when I got word that Bin Laden was dead. Who am I to judge the Israelites for celebrating the death of the Philistines’ champion?

Finally, I wonder if our discomfort with violence in stories like David and Goliath isn’t related to our discomfort with God’s judgment of sin? Just as the story demonstrates that the Philistines’ sin deserved to be judged and punished by God, so our sin deserves to be judged and punished. That deadly stone hurled squarely at Goliath’s forehead would be headed toward ours, if not for God’s atoning work on the cross.

Do we look at Goliath and think, “There but for the grace of God go I”? Maybe we should.

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