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The Valley of Elah stretches between two opposite mountains, where all those years ago, two armies – Philistine and Israelite – hunkered down and braced for battle. Today it’s a peaceful setting in modern Israel, popular with tourists and pilgrims, many of whom walk the path of a small brook and pick up five smooth stones.
I did that once. I was 12 years old – a 7th grader on a “Holy Land Tour” with my father and a number of older adults from our church. I remember reading this story on the tour bus, my Bible open in my lap, then walking into the valley and just as reflectively as a boy could be, carefully choosing five stones and placing them in my pocket. My father would later say he felt I fell in love with the Bible on that trip, and this was one of those formative moments, because I had a strong sense that the story I read was alive – that it had not only happened, but in some sense it was happening, even in me.
This was probably in part because it was a time in my life when I was feeling small, having started junior high school that year without many familiar friends from elementary years, and having even faced a Goliath of a bully earlier that year. Looking back, the 9th-grader was probably all of 5 feet tall, but he felt like a giant to me. We didn’t meet in a valley but out by the bushes just off the school property, where such “meetings” took place at Lakeland Highland Junior High. And thankfully, before it came to blows or smooth stones or anything like that, a larger, wiser, peacemaker friend of mine intervened and put a stop to the whole thing once and for all. Even still, it was hard to be 12 years old, in junior high or middle school, facing one giant issue after another. So I put those stones in my pocket, and later on my dresser, to remind me of the shepherd boy, who one day took on a giant and won.
We’ve been there. Whether we’ve taken the tour bus to the actual valley or walked its brook-bed of smooth stones, we’ve – all of us – been there.
“Who is this Philistine?” David asks earlier in the story. “Who is this giant?” And we all have our answers. Walter Brueggemann (1), the brilliant biblical scholar, says that Goliath is everything that is fierce and intimidating and frightening. It’s whatever threatens you, whatever makes you feel small and weak and vulnerable. More than anything else it’s whatever immobilizes you and locks you in place, fearful as an ancient army of average-sized Israelites. “Who is this giant?” We all have answers.
The David and Goliath story is iconic. It’s known in the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim scriptures alike, and even beyond its significance for people of faith, this is a story core to our cultural imagination, with its ageless archetypes. Just about all of us know the story, and I would assume that just about all of us have felt like David.
We associate with David.
Consider the top summer blockbuster at the box office this weekend. It’s a story about an unlikely superhero named “Antman.” Hardly the most imposing of Marvel’s heroes, he’s a scientist whose power is his ability to grow smaller, and transform into a smaller being. Moreover, he’s played by Paul Rudd, a great actor and comedian, but not exactly a hulking hero. Yet it outgrossed all other movies this weekend, with a story of the unlikely and underdog.
It’s similar to the top story from the World Cup Quarterfinals this week, as the heavily favored Brazil, with its lineup of champions, was beaten by Belgium, a team that has never advanced to this level and even missed the tournament for a couple rounds. Yet somehow, they hung on through grit, and effort, and an impossible save in stoppage time, with all the casual soccer fans willing them from their seats. They “slayed the giant,” the headlines read.
Which was the storyline celebrated this week on July 4th – the United States’ Independence Day. Last night just after the bedtime rituals, the sky beyond the trees of our Fisher Park backyard lit up with downtown fireworks, rain-delayed from Tuesday. So my daughter and I watched from bed, and it reminded of the effort that was described as a “David and Goliath” conflict by the writers and interpreters of the age. Still today we celebrate not military strategy, or wise alliances, but as though the Continental Army faced the British Empire with but five smooth stones.
We associate with David: movies, sports, mythology, business, politics, popular culture. We want to know that David can beat Goliath. And we want to know how.
David teaches us, if you want to beat Goliath, you have to play by different rules. A few years ago, an essay in the New Yorker outlined “How David Beats Goliath,” and this was the central point: David defied the conventions of warfare. He broke the rules. (2)
The article shared the wonderful story of a 12 and under basketball team in California, coached by a man named Vivek Ranadivé. A software developer who had immigrated from Mumbai, he was just trying to be a good dad, so he signed up to coach. The only thing he really knew about basketball was that his daughter and the rest of her teammates were not very good at it.
But as someone newer to the game, he also had fresh perspective. He wasn’t bound to convention. And he couldn’t understand why, if a basketball court is ninety feet long, the game is played intensely only in about twenty-four feet. The other seventy feet are generally conceded by the defense to the team with the ball. He knew that meant that bigger, better players would simply dribble up the floor and score at will on his undersized team of underdog rec players.
So he decided he could coach and train his team to play intensely for the full the length of the court, all the time. They pressed, they trapped, they challenged every pass, even the inbound pass. And the team began to win. They beat everybody in fact, even making it all the way to a national tournament. And you know what this success did? It absolutely incensed the other coaches – the ones with the bigger, more skilled players. I’d expect it’s doing it to some of you now. Kids leagues often have rules against these things. In our Upward Basketball league, here at First Baptist, you’re not allowed to play full court defense because apparently that’s not the “churchy” way to play basketball.
But if you want to beat Goliath, you defy convention. You play by different rules.
We see it in David.
First, verses 48-49 describe the climactic moment in the story. V. 48:“The Philistine drew nearer, and David ran quickly toward him… And then V. 49: “He took out a stone, slung it, and struck the Philistine on the forehead…” We normally focus on v. 48 with sling and stone finding its mark, but it’s actually verse 49 that beats the giant: “When the giant drew near, David ran at him.” David didn’t approach slowly, carefully, circling, watching. He ran at him.
Which he can do because he breaks a second rule, defies a second convention: David is unencumbered by armor. He’s offered Saul’s armor but he sloughs it off like an 8 yr old taking off church clothes later today. Meanwhile, earlier in chapter 17, we are given a detailed description of Goliath’s armor. We’re told how large it is, how heavy it is: “A helmet of bronze on his head, a coat of mail… a javelin of bronze slung between his shoulders… his spear’s head weighed six hundred shekels of iron.” Goliath is fully outfitted with all the weaponry of the age, but David defies it all, relying instead on instinct, a sling and five stones, and of course a deep and abiding faith.
Which is third way David breaks the rules of warfare, which are so often the rules of life itself: David displays complete trust in God. “Who is this giant to defy the armies of the living God?” David knows the imposing force in front of him, is not ultimate, is not final. The 46th Psalm, traditionally attributed to David, is sometimes tied to David’s battle with Goliath, read as words of comfort for any who faceoff with fearsome powers of this world. “Be still and know that I am God,” David writes. Robert Altar interprets the Hebrew here rather than “Be still” as “Let go.” It’s a word, Altar says, that is sometimes used in reference to soldiers dropping their weapons. “Let go” of all those things you use to protect yourself, to convince yourself you’re in control. David releases not only a stone from a sling, but all of his notions of control. “Let go and know that I am God.” It’s what you do if you want to face the giant.
But do we do that? Do we really?
Sam Wells is a priest in London – a well-known ecumenical leader and preacher – and in a wonderful commentary on this passage he once made the following observation: “We want our movies to be about David, but we spend our lives trying desperately hard to be Goliath.” (3)
We want to tell our stories in a way that defies all the rules. We want our heroes, our self-understanding, our ideals, our choices to be the stuff of David. But we live our lives so conscious of Goliath’s power. So we end up collecting heavy spears, and huge javelins, and all the armor of the age. We trust in our own strength and lean on our own understanding. We rely on the world’s ideals of security and power. And we align with the rules of this world, so often stocking up on all the things Goliath had – which of course, are all the things David didn’t have.
And as Wells points out, it even happens to the shepherd boy. The crowds would soon turn and David would become king, and a “terrible irony” would take shape. David becomes a giant. David becomes a bully, using military strength and imperial command to manipulate things and people. David acts in ways that lead to the death of vulnerable people under his rule and ultimately contribute to his own family’s demise at times. David becomes the thing he fought against.
Which happens to often to us. Success leads to a constant quest for more and more, sometimes changing people.
In sports, when Team “David” wins the championship, the salaries swell!
It’s part of the story of our nation, as the once scrappy band of militia and colonists becomes the Empire, faced with all the burdens of power and the always present temptation to overlook those without it.
It’s even part of our religion. Christianity, once the minority perspective, the persecuted and marginalized, became large and dominant, and can so often be clothed with all the armor that betrays our reliance on ourselves and the patterns of this world.
“Who is this giant?” we cry out with David, but we’re faced with the truth that the answer can be us. Sometimes we become the thing we once resisted. The great challenge of this story may well be how to beat the giant without becoming the giant ourselves.
Our best chance might be to stay for a while with David in the valley, next to the brook, collecting those stones – before the victory, before the acclaim, before his name was shouted in the streets and the parades lifted him up, before the ascension, before the corrupted desires that led him on his own murderous path, when it was a shepherd boy, in a valley, with five smooth stones.
I kept those stones I collected those years ago. For a while. But somewhere along the way I lost them. I supposed I misplaced them in a move here or there, but more likely they were lost to the patterns of my life, that so often find me seeking more armor and more acclaim, valuing more strength, trusting in my own ways, conforming so often to the patterns of this world, and forgetting the Lord God, who invites us all to defy convention to face the things that immobilize us.
One of David’s stones found the head of a giant. But he still had four more. What if he had carried them around, or kept them near? They could have reminded him of the boldness that led him to run with abandon. They could have been a symbol of, the courage that led him to shed the armor of this world, which was never meant to fit him anyway. Each time they caught his eye, or he felt their smooth surface, could have been an echo in his mind “Let go, and know that I am God.” They could have reminded him of the time he put his trust in the Lord. And I suppose those stones could do the same for any one of us this day.
- In Interpretation: 1 & 2 Samuel
- Malcolm Gladwell, “How David Beats Goliath” in New Yorker (May 11, 2009)
- Sam Wells, “Five Smooth Stones” on Faith & Leadership (June 7, 2010)