The Goliath Trilogy
Going by the first words that Goliath spoke to David, you knew it wouldn’t take a ‘David’ to knock Goliath out. Anyone could have taken him down. He was not all he was made out to be. He was a mere windbag, a divine prop to glorify God’s chosen one. It was forgivable that Israel could not tell from a distance that Goliath was not a problem but an opportunity. But the Philistines should have known better. Yet they chose to hang their destinies on a walking shadow.
The scene was set as ever a stage for one of the great stories ever told. When David left Saul, he had a staff, a shepherd’s bag and a sling. But for his purposes, the staff would be a liability because he needed one hand to get the stones in the bag and another for the sling. So by the time he went for Goliath, he had a shepherd’s bag bearing five stones and a sling. However, when Goliath looked at him, he didn’t see the sling in his hand nor the bag on his shoulder. He saw a young handsome boy holding sticks!
Never mind Goliath’s fascination with David’s looks. Given what stared him in the face, that shouldn’t even figure in his concern. In ancient near eastern warfare, slingers were equivalent of today’s snipers and slings were as effective as .44 magnum. A sling stone could reach speeds of up to 100 mph (160 km/h), and, depending on the size of the stone, could take off a person’s head. In the book of Judges, the tribe of Benjamin were able to resist the remaining tribes combined because they had slingers. In the words of the holy book:
“Out of all these people were seven hundred choice left-handed men; each one could sling stones at [a target no wider than] a hair and not miss.” 1Judges 20:18-26
With the slingers in their army, the tribe of Benjamin twice brought the remaining tribes to tears of defeat. It took prayers, fasting and lots of burnt offerings and peace offerings for the remaining tribes to overcome Benjamin. Yet within that epoch the head of the Philistine army saw an adversary with a sling in his hand before him and he had time to drool over his looks! If Goliath wasn’t as blind as a bat, I don’t know what else.
Is this to say it wasn’t God giving victory to the little guy? No. As noted earlier, Goliath was a divine prop. There are several lessons to this story.
First let’s deal with the science on Goliath.
Excessive physical growth occurs when a hormonal disorder develops. The pituitary gland produces too much growth hormone. In children it is called gigantism. In adults it is called acromegaly. Symptoms of this disorder include impaired vision.
So although he feared for his size, Goliath was disabled. With this disadvantage Goliath needed to have David draw closer to him if he were to have any chance of engaging the young enemy. So he called out “Come here,” he said, “and I’ll give your flesh to the birds and the wild animals!” David obliged and the rest, as they say, is history.
Who were the Philistines and why did they invest their trust in a person with such obvious disability?
The scribal records in the Hebrew scriptures portrayed them as the enemy of the people of God. But that’s not a full picture. The Philistines once had a close relationship with the God of Israel. In fact Jehovah was the architect of their destiny and providence until they fell by the way. 2Amos 9:7 Between Baal, Astarte, Dagon and Goliath, they made for themselves gods and put their trust in something or someone with an appearance of power or leverage. When covenant nations lack loyalty, things go bad for them. Ultimately, they were absorbed by bigger empires and disappeared off the face of the earth as a distinct people.
‘Why put Goliath in the same bracket as idols of the Philistines?’ you might ask. Let’s get a cultural perspective on this.
The Canaanite word for God is El. It is the word for God that Semitic peoples including the Hebrew, Moabites, Phoenicians and Punic used. However the concrete meaning of El is the strong and mighty one and it is used in the Hebrew language for anything or anyone who meets that characterisation. That is the reason that trust in idols and trust in human attract similar invectives from God.
For instance, Asa, King of Judah, lost 10 years of peace in his realm when he enlisted the help of the king of Syria in his war against the king of Israel. God said to him:
“Because you relied on the king of Syria, and did not rely on the Lord your God, the army of the king of Syria has escaped you…. You have done foolishly in this, for from now on you will have wars.”
As scripture says:
“Thus says the Lord: ‘Cursed is the man who trusts in man and makes flesh his strength, whose heart turns away from the Lord’” 3Jeremiah 17:5
How do people journey from a relationship with God to idolatry? In other words, what turns a person of God into a Philistine? The answer, ironically, is Philistinism – a materialistic attitude bereft of a consciousness of cultural, or in this instance, covenantal values.
The tendency to Philistinism takes various forms. But at the root of it is the failure to sanctify a missional covenant in pursuit of temporal desires.
God blesses. God protects. God heals and God saves. But much of what God does are aspects of his obligations under covenants into which he brings us, for he is a covenant making and keeping God. 4Genesis 17:1-9 These covenants are his way of committing us to build for him a world that conforms to his vision of mercy and equity for all. 5Genesis 18:19 Therefore, just as the fulfilment of his promises to Abraham were contingent upon Abraham’s children doing their bit to make the world a better place, our lives and our relationship with God are missional; and whatsoever we hope to experience of God are bound up with that mission.
Our Lord Jesus Christ best demonstrated this during the temptation in the wilderness. In Daniel 7:13-18, Daniel saw the Lord brought before the ancient of days and glory and honour was bestowed on him and all were commanded to worship him, to the end that the world might be possessed for God. Missional. Jesus also knew that to get to the promise in the book of Daniel, he had a difficult mission to undertake for God, for that had been foretold in Isaiah 53:1-12.
Along comes Satan who offers all that God had offered, but without any mission attached.
“Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.” 6Matthew 4:8-9
But most humans and nations fall in the face of such temptation. The desire for glory for the sake of glory, power for the sake of power and wealth for the sake of wealth is the path to Philistinism. They lead many to swallow the devil’s porridge and exchange the truth of God for a lie 7Romans 1:25 Goliath was a lie, the idol with eyes that could not see. 8Psalm 135:15-18 But so are a host of things we humans exchange God for.
Philistinism causes a fall from grace perhaps because it upends God’s desire to infuse our lives with visions and purposes beyond ourselves. It places no demands on our better angels. It turns a faith community into a trade community where folks barter covenant for a contract and conflate gain with godliness. 91Timothy 6:5
Philistinism is modelled in a tendency to ingratiate ourselves with something or someone so that we might meet personal needs, fulfil personal visions or self-preserve. It’s all about the self. It does not challenge to love our neighbours as ourselves, to show empathy to widows and orphans, to love strangers or to commit to a value system that redeems the earth.
That is what Goliath offered the Philistines. That is the kernel of Philistinism. It is the opium of the idolatrous.
That said, Goliath and the Philistines were just one part of this saga. Saul and the people of Israel saw a problem where David saw an opportunity. They fled at the sound of a fallen leaf. Why?
We’ll discuss this in the second instalment.