If a person were to ask you what the most widely misunderstood story was in the Bible, what would you say?
The night meeting of Jesus and Nicodemus in John 3?
The creation story of Genesis 1?
The entire book of Revelation?
There’s definitely shortage of competitors when it comes to “commonly misunderstood texts of scripture”, right?
That being what it is, I’d suggest that the most widely known is probably the story of David and Goliath, and that story is always misunderstood…hence the title.
Usually, the story is generally taken as some sort of underdog tale meant to encourage people to tackle impossible odds, or something along those lines.
Sorry. That is not what it’s about.
Part of the confusion about the story is because people assume they know the meaning of the story based on cultural assumptions, but part of that is also from a lack of contextual understanding. We tend to not pay attention to the inter-relationships of the various narratives in Old Testament historical books, and that regularly comes back to bite us. Being familiar with most of the Old Testament stories from our childhood, we often think we know Old Testament stories far better than we actually do.
So what’s the contextual understanding that is commonly lacking?
People rightly recognize how amazing it was that David beat Goliath with a sling and a stone, but one of the important background details is the fact that almost everyone in Israel’s army had sticks and stones too.
Well, if you look back at 1 Samuel 13:19-22, we read the following:
Now there was no blacksmith to be found throughout all the land of Israel, for the Philistines said, “Lest the Hebrews make themselves swords or spears.” But every one of the Israelites went down to the Philistines to sharpen his plowshare, his mattock, his axe, or his sickle, and the charge was two-thirds of a shekel for the plowshares and for the mattocks, and a third of a shekel for sharpening the axes and for setting the goads. So on the day of the battle there was neither sword nor spear found in the hand of any of the people with Saul and Jonathan, but Saul and Jonathan his son had them.
That passage describes the conditions on the battle before David’s battle with Goliath, but that was the general military situation in Israel at the time of Saul. 2 swords for the whole army. The Philistines got a racket going in Israel that left Israel utterly up the creek when the Philistines decided to attack them.
So how in the world did Israel fight with only 2 swords?
That seems a little impossible.
Well, before the battle of David and Goliath, Israel fought a battle that went like this:
– Jonathan and his armor bearer went off to fight a Philistine garrison with 1 sword since “nothing can hinder the Lord from saving by many or by few” (1 Samuel 14:6). In reading that passage, the “by many or by few” most likely is referring to people, but I’d also suggest that it’s alluding to swords as well (both were in short supply that day).
– Jonathan said to his armor bearer “Behold, we will cross over to the men, and we will show ourselves to them. If they say to us, ‘Wait until we come to you,’ then we will stand still in our place, and we will not go up to them. But if they say, ‘Come up to us,’ then we will go up, for the Lord has given them into our hand. And this shall be the sign to us” (1 Samuel 14:8-10).
– The Philistines called them up and they slaughtered 20 Philistines (1 Samuel 14:11-14).
– Then the Lord slaughtered Philistines on his own: “and there was a panic in the camp, in the field, and among all the people. The garrison and even the raiders trembled, the earth quaked, and it became a very great panic.” (1 Samuel 14:15).
– Saul noticed that someone was missing and he called the priest to inquire of God as to what was happening (1 Samuel 14:16-18) but when he heard the ruckus in the Philistine camp (1 Samuel 14:19), he went out “And behold, every Philistine’s sword was against his fellow, and there was very great confusion. Now the Hebrews who had been with the Philistines before that time and who had gone up with them into the camp, even they also turned to be with the Israelites who were with Saul and Jonathan. Likewise, when all the men of Israel who had hidden themselves in the hill country of Ephraim heard that the Philistines were fleeing, they too followed hard after them in the battle. So the Lord saved Israel that day. And the battle passed beyond Beth-aven.” (1 Samuel 14:20-23)
Israel won the same way as they always did; the Lord brought them a victory…and it’s no coincidence that the passage comments how “every Philistine’s sword was against his fellow“.
When the Lord is on your ally your enemies become his weapons.
That lesson was soon forgotten when Goliath showed up a short time later.
He went out every day to call out the Israelites for battle and they kept looking at their hands: the Israelites confused empty hands with empty heavens.
But, the fact that there were limited swords in Israel (I’d guess that a small amount of weapons were plundered in Israel’s previous battle with the Philistines) should give you pause in 1 Samuel 17, lest you too quickly scorn the Israelites and think “if I were there, I would have gone out to fight Goliath”.
I’m guessing that if you were there, you would have seen all Goliath’s armor and weapons, stood with all the other Israelites while they were looking at their hands, and joined them in mumbling a modified nursery rhyme: “sticks and stones may break his bones but swords will cut my head off”. Any soldier who has lived through more than one battle knows that if an enemy drops his sword and you still have yours, his socks are about to get dyed from white to O-Negative.
David was unarmed like all the other Israelites, and he was just a boy. I can actually understand why both the Philistines and the Israelites didn’t take him seriously. They imagined that they knew how it would turn out, for rather obvious reasons.
There was only 3 differences between David and the rest of the Israelites:
a. His memory. He knew that the Lord made a business of bringing miraculous victories, though he didn’t learn this from knowing about Jonathan’s battle with the Philistines (1 Samuel 17:33-37).
b. His age. He was young (young enough that both Saul and Goliath laughed at him), but that only gave the Lord more glory in the battle.
c. His theology. He knew that the mockery of Goliath was against God and God isn’t in the habit of taking insults lying down; he is always zealous to defend his name (1 Samuel 17:26).
So remembering and knowing what he did, David walked out onto the battlefield, full of faith, and spoke as much to Goliath as he did to Israel:
“You come to me with a sword and with a spear and with a javelin, but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This day the Lord will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you down and cut off your head. And I will give the dead bodies of the host of the Philistines this day to the birds of the air and to the wild beasts of the earth, that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that the Lord saves not with sword and spear. For the battle is the Lord‘s, and he will give you into our hand.“
– 1 Sam. 17:45-47
David didn’t need a sword and a spear because Yahweh was going to be the one doing the fighting.
In that scenario, rocks work just fine.
So what’s the story about then?
The story isn’t about a little boy who beats a giant.
The story is about the Lord of Hosts who slays an armed, career-soldier giant with an unarmed, untrained, shepherd boy.
“Thus David prevailed over the Philistine with a sling and a stone, and he struck the Philistine and killed him; but there was no sword in David’s hand.” – 1 Samuel 17:50.
Yahweh is still around, still as powerful, and still in the habit of defending his name.
Stop looking at your hands.