YEAR B: SEASON OF PENTECOST
(Sunday between June 19 and June 25, if after Trinity Sunday)
1 Samuel 17:(1a, 4-11, 19-23) 32-49
The war between Israel and the Philistines continues and Saul personally struggles to meet the challenge to his people. The narrator more than hints that something is drastically wrong with the reign of Saul. We, as readers, already know what that is (1 Sam. 16:14).
Some further background to today’s reading is necessary. First, we need to look back to the end of chapter 16. In last week’s reading (1 Sam 15:34-16:13) we met David for the first time. He had secretly been anointed king in place of Saul. In the immediate aftermath of that story, Saul was ‘tormented’ in some way, and David was hired as a musician to help him in his troubled times. Saul’s problem was put down to an ‘evil spirit’ which tormented him from the moment God’s spirit was taken from him (16:14-23).
Secondly, we need to look at the verses of 1 Samuel 17 which are in brackets in our reading. They give the immediate context to the story of David’s battle with Goliath. The two armies oppose each other across the valley of Elah (v. 2). The Philistines have a champion, a giant of a man, equipped with the latest in battle technology (vv. 4-7). Israel does not have an answer to Goliath’s challenge. ‘All Israel’ was ‘greatly afraid’ (v. 11).
Into this setting comes David, again described as the youngest brother of a family of boys (vv. 12-14). The eldest three brothers serve in Saul’s army. David runs errands between his father’s house and the battlefront, supplying the brothers’ needs and bringing news of them to their father. It is as if we as readers have met David before nor does Saul, in the story, seem to know him (vv. 31-37).
There is clearly a complex history of traditions behind these chapters. Apparently, several stories introducing David or telling how he came into Saul’s court have been combined into one tale. The repetition indicates that we are not dealing with historical narratives alone, but traditions that make strong theological and literary points. One such point is seen in the fact that in each account, David is the least likely candidate for the task, or at least unknown to the main characters (16:11, 19; 17:33). Moreover, he is not one to put himself forward. Others recognise the gifts he has (16:12, 18; 17:31). Each ‘introduction’ to David underlines the point that ‘success’ in Israel’s struggle with the Philistines, as in all its struggles, is not guaranteed by power, might, technology, or other clever strategies, as measured in human terms.
The story makes this same point in yet two other ways. When young David arrives at the camp and hears of Goliath’s challenge (17:23) he asks ‘only a question’ (v. 29), but one that gets right to the heart of the matter: ‘who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should deny the armies of God?’ This exposes the shortcomings of the Israelite soldiers including his brothers. Ultimately it shows that the spirit of God is not with them, i.e. with Saul their leader, but, as we have already learned, is with David. To underline the point David is offered Saul’s armour to protect him as he faces Goliath. In a comical scene he tries it on but finds it is too big for him (vv. 38-39). Saul, too, had been a tall man (1 Sam. 8:2). It seems that God’s ‘champions’ are always a size too small when subject to human assessment.
David takes with him five small stones and his sling (v. 40), but these are the only weapons he requires. He has already explained to Saul that he has killed bears and lions with little aid (17:34-36) and one unnamed person earlier described David as not only a skilled musician but ‘a man of valour, a warrior’ (16:18). Even so this story is not just about David’s skill and gifts. He is one with whom the Lord is present (16:18). Moreover, Saul mentions that it has been the Lord who actually has saved David, and will again (17:37). This is the point of the story.
In 1 Samuel 17 we are not, in one way, in the realm of fairy-tale giants as in such stories as ‘Jack and the beanstalk’ or ‘Jack, the giant killer’. Goliath is presented simply as a large warrior, well over 2 meters tall. His armour and weapons are likewise impressive. All this emphasises his strength and power. But the description of his armour serves as much to remind us of this warrior’s vulnerability, as to portray the threat he represents and the difficulty of overcoming him. He is flesh and blood under and behind all that metal, leather and lance. In a negative way we are reminded of who calls us to be his people in spite of our weakness, our seeming ill-preparedness, and our lack of confidence in ourselves. We are reminded that whatever we do as the Lord’s people is only by virtue of his presence with us. All true assessment of strength, value, and of what or who is right, is not measured by the standards of this world, its structures, and its ways, but rather by what pertains to God.
On the other hand, 1 Samuel 17 does have something in common with the fairy-tales about giants and such stories as ‘Odysseus and Cyclops’. The nature of the giants in these stories hints at a struggle against ‘supernatural’ forces that would overwhelm us as humankind. The story of Jesus stilling the storm in today’s Gospel (Mark 4:35-41) is similar. The storm in ancient literature represented such forces and power. In that story Jesus both demonstrates an attitude of confident faith to his disciples (v. 40) and shows his own power over forces beyond their control (‘Peace! be still!’ v. 39). The former is grounded in the latter. The same is true of the David and Goliath story. In David, we see a faithful, trusting servant whose struggle is part of a much larger conflict, but whose part is played with confidence in the God who is present with him. This is not a call for a foolhardy confidence that can be reduced simply to putting the Lord to the test. God does not play cheap games. Rather it is a call for faith in the God whose power and presence undergirds all of life and who undercuts false assessments of security and strength.
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