The armies line up, facing each other on the battlefield. Pick your dramatic movie scene, from Braveheart to Gladiator, from Glory to Troy. Our author locates the nearest towns, ten says, "The Philistines stood on the mountain on one side, and Israel stood on the mountain on the other side, with a valley between them."
Out walks Goliath. Six cubits and a span makes him about 9 feet 7 inches, though other manuscripts have him closer to 6’8". He was bigger than anyone, even at 6’8" 14 inches taller than the average man at the time, enormous, Walter Brueggemann writes, "whose physical appearance sends shock waves through Israel."1 But more than his size was his way of being -a helmet, a coat of armor that most men would have crumbled underneath, a massive spear. But he is more than just a man, he is fear embodied, representative, one scholar notes, "of all-powerful and oppressive forces that appear impossible to overcome."2 What are you most afraid of? What terror hangs over our world, from Syria to Charleston? That’s Goliath. And he shouts, "Choose a man for yourselves, and let him come down to me. If (you can feel his laughter here), IF he is able to fight with me and kill me, then we will be your servants; but if I prevail …then you shall be our servants." The Israelites are paralyzed.
The text then introduces David as if he is unknown – like he would have been to almost everyone on the battlefield. But WE know a different story. We know from previous chapters about the people’s desire for a king, for Saul’s reign that is rocky, ending in rejection. WE know, but THEY don’t, of David’s unlikely anointing – so unlikely that his father left him out tending the sheep. WE know, from that moment on, that David’s anointing means he will never be the same, that he is claimed by God, that God will never let him go. Maybe in a way not too different from the ways we think about baptism – like with Rivers, or anytime we baptize a baby, or a child, or a youth, or an adult. That baptism changes who you are, God’s claim on you forever.
But the narrative steps back, tells us that three of David’s older brothers were out there, and David still helped with the sheep, as the armies encamped, as Goliath came out every morning for FORTY DAYS, with his same bluster, making the same offer. David heads out one day to take food to his brothers, comes upon a skirmish, sees him, hears his terrible offer. The Israelite soldiers flee, yet as they pass this boy wonders about who might slay the giant who is making us all look like fools? But it’s his next question changes things: "For who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?" David knows already that this is more than a military battle, it is a theological one. The Philistines’ presence, David notes, is not just a threat to the people, it is a threat to God. If the ‘uncircumcised Philistines,’ people who lack the sign of the covenant with the one, true God, can dominate over God’s chosen people, what does that say about who this God is?
Here’s where the text gets serious. This is not a text about the power of the people, but about the power of God. David’s question is first dismissed, as a young boy trying to lecture hardened soldiers, but he repeats it to others, and word of the question finds its way to the king. The present king, Saul, doesn’t yet understand his days are numbered, is troubled, and confronts this young boy who is both already and not quite yet his successor. David’s words here strike me as astoundingly naïve: I’ll go. Saul tells him he is ridiculous and David replies: No, it’s okay. I used to keep sheep for my dad, and I’d protect them. I beat back lions or bears when they’d come after those sheep, I’d catch and kill them. This seems silly, pitiful, even, until David looks Saul in the eye and says, "The LORD, who saved me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, WILL SAVE ME from the hand of this Philistine."
Saul offers his armor. We have a bit of a comedic interlude when David puts on all this stuff – to remind us again how young, how small he must have been – it’s too heavy, he can’t walk. He takes it off, picks his staff and five smooth stones. He grabs his slingshot, and walks into the valley. Goliath immediately disdained him, the texts says, because he was a cute little boy; he felt insulted. He cursed David, and David’s God, he taunts. David replies with lines that are at the heart of this story, of the people, of their faithfulness against all odds. "You come to me with sword and spear and javelin; but I come to you in the name of the LORD of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel." David says that he will strike him down and then, in a passage that foreshadows the bold and brutal and complex character David is becoming, says he will cut off his head and that will lead to the death of all of their armies, so that, ALL the earth may know there is a God in Israel. Then, in an instant, the giant rushes David, he picks up a stone, slings it with precision and force, it hits Goliath in the face, and the giant FALLS.
One way to understand this story its importance in context. At a critical juncture in the people’s history they won a mighty battle and – whether all of this happened in this exact way or not, we simply can’t know – the people understood this victory as a sign of God’s blessing, a step forward in their journey into living into being a true covenant community, claimed by God. This is a foundational part of the narrative of David, a king who, despite all of his weaknesses that will be on full display in the coming weeks, was beloved of God, and led the people in extraordinary ways for so many years. There is something here about the God who is on the side of the meek and powerless over the mighty and powerful, too. Earlier in the week I was going to play a little bit with the idea of the God who calls us to things that don’t make sense. How God calls us to illogical, sometimes counterintuitive things. I had a great story, perfect for this Father’s Day, about a family in Colorado that rigged up a wheelchair and how a team of 11 – 3 sons and 8 grandsons aged 9-19, trained for 4 months to get their father and grandfather down the rim of the Grand Canyon, then carrying him back up again. Powerful, overwhelming love. I was going to talk about the meeting of Durham Congregations in Action that we hosted on Tuesday and some amazing folks from Project TURN who take fancy Duke Divinity students to take classes in prisons in the triangle, a transformative learning community. Caring for prisoners, society’s cast-offs, doesn’t make sense.
But then, on Wednesday night in the mother Emmanuel AME church in Charleston, South Carolina about 15 folks gathered for a bible study. A young white man walked into this historic African American congregation, was welcomed, invited to sit in a chair beside the pastor. He almost didn’t go through with it, he told investigators in Friday, because everyone was so nice to him. He sat with them for an hour, then got up and started shooting, spewing vile, racist, hatred. This is something that in one way doesn’t make any sense at all, this apparently random act of violence out of nowhere. But in other ways it makes all too much sense, at the intersection of the shooting rampages we have seen too much of, from Virginia Tech to Fort Hood to Tucson to Aurora, Colorado to Newtown, and the racial conflict that has been bubbling over throughout our cities, from Ferguson to Staten Island to Baltimore. It makes too much sense because we still can’t find decent ways to speak together about race. It makes too much sense because the politics of any aspect of it – certainly guns, but mental health support and the justice system – seem intractable. It makes too much sense because we are still too broken, too caught up in our own busyness and first world problems, lacking the courage and commitment – and I confess I do too poor a job at this myself – to reach out to those around me, especially those I don’t know, especially those who are different.
And so while we must recommit ourselves to doing our part, we also pray, with as much boldness as we can muster, that the God who led the people out of Egypt, who inspired the judges, who called the prophet Samuel to anoint a king, the God who empowered David to walk out with only a slingshot and take down a giant. We pray that same God will hold those dear families, that church who is worshipping right now, that community. And that in it God will plant seeds of hope, of redemption, of resurrection. Hope for a better day, a stronger community, a day when violence and hatred are banished from the earth. And we watch them hold hands in Charleston on Thursday night in a packed church, holding hands and singing We SHALL overcome. And we see the families at the preliminary hearing on Friday, grief still so fresh, look the young man who killed their loved ones in the face and say, ‘We forgive you. We pray for you.’ And we give thanks that our God is a God who can make a way when there isn’t one, who is powerful and loving enough to overcome all fears, all the strong and terrifying and terrorizing forces of this world. Who sees things that don’t make a bit of sense of us, that make us want to give up. But who doesn’t give up on us and our world, full of so much love and so much brokenness. Who sees things like a little boy facing a giant, or a deeply wounded community, and holds us in our pain, and is already, already, about the work of justice and redemption in these days.
All praise be to God, who wades into our broken world, filled with love. Amen.
1. Walter Brueggemann, Interpretation: I and II Samuel, (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990), p 127.
2. The Discipleship Study Bible, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2008), p 396. Notes on First and Second Samuel by Bruce C. Birch.