The story of David and Goliath is perhaps somewhat familiar even in our post-Christian world of diminished biblical literacy. It is commonly treated as an image and metaphor for the underdog especially in the sports world but sometimes spills over into politics and international affairs. Already we see the way it is used in terms of the Russian invasion of Ukraine; the big guy, Russia, over and against the little guy, Ukraine. But then those polarities get reversed by those who view things from the perspective of Russia, the little guy against the big Western world under American domination. Yet in all of these conflicting viewpoints, the image of David and Goliath always functions in terms of what is big and physically imposing against what is viewed as small and weak. And while there may be discrepancies of power, it is not always the case that things can be measured simply in such terms.
I am struck by how much the story is almost completely misread. It really follows directly upon what we saw last week about the anointing of David where the strong point is made that “the Lord sees not as man sees; man looks on the outward appearance”, upon matters of strength and number, but “the Lord looks on the heart”. The story of David and Goliath makes exactly the same point.
In the context of a struggle between the Philistines and the Israelites, the giant Goliath challenges the armies of the Lord. He is a giant figure, to be sure, but what is greater than his bulk and strength, we might say, is his ego and arrogance, his presumption and boastfulness. It is not really about the underdog taking on the top dog. It is more about a clash of principles. What defines you? The braggadocio of a Goliath beating his chest or the Lord God of all reality who sees into your heart? The story is not simply about the little guy who takes down the big guy. It is about the spirit of the Lord in the heart of David. He has a hold of something far greater than himself.
The story is not without its amusement, especially with David putting on the armour of Saul and then not being able to move! Instead, he takes up his slingshot along with five smooth stones. What moves him is at once a kind of courage born of his life as a shepherd protecting the sheep from bear and lion and of a confidence in the truth of God which Goliath has mocked and derided. David goes out against Goliath not “with a spear and a sword and a javelin” but, as he says, “in the name of the Lord of hosts.” He is armed from within. It is a contest of principles.
This is not unlike Homer’s Iliad which pitted the Achaeans against the Trojans, Greeks against the cultures of Asia Minor. The Greeks have given us the term ‘barbarians’ just as the Hebrews have given us the term ‘philistines’ both as references for what is uncivilized and uncultured; in short, undisciplined, unlearned. Of course, such terms get turned around by the ‘elites’ of our world for whom anyone who disagrees with them are seen as philistines or barbarians; in short, ‘deplorables’, a way of demonizing those whose opinions are deemed unacceptable. In the biblical story, and certainly this is not without a host of moral echoes down throughout the centuries, the mighty fall mightily especially in their pride and boastfulness. So too with Goliath. Yet it is a long way from Goliath to Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant who learns to be caring, considerate, and compassionate; in short, unselfish and a friend to the little ones.
Others, like Malcolm Gladwell, have tried to re-interpret this story to suggest another kind of naturalistic explanation, albeit contrary to the underdog myth. Poor old Goliath had serious health problems, a diagnosis and a vulnerability which David inadvertently exploited, but this too misses out on the key points of the dialogue and exchange which lies at the heart of the story.
It is really a question of character, about what defines you inwardly and truly in the face of whatever challenges and obstacles that present themselves to you outwardly. How do we face the gargantuan challenges of our own world and day ranging from the Goliaths of the corporate world to the Goliaths of political regimes who seek to control us all, let alone our own complicity in such things? To what extent do we acquiesce to the Goliaths of our culture and world? To what extent do we surrender our own accountability and agency? To what extent do we ignore the needs and concerns of one another in our indifference or in our complicity with tyranny?
These are not easy questions, and they have no easy answers. Chapel, at the very least, endeavours to provide a theological, reflective and prayerful way of trying to wrestle with these things through the lens of the Scriptures and the ethical teachings that belong to philosophical thought. It is about more than the big versus the small, the strong against the weak; it is about what moves in the heart.
(Rev’d) David Curry
Chaplain, English & ToK teacher
Chair of the Department of Religion and Philosophy