What do we do with some of these Bible stories? If you happen to be at a place in life where you are looking for kid’s toys, you have probably seen about a hundred different versions of Noah’s ark. All the sets are brightly colored. They have fun little boats and all sorts of wonky animals. Yet if you’ve ever actually sat down and played with one of these with a child, you’ve probably found yourself in an awkward situation. Maybe you were pushing the boat across the carpet in the living room and narrating the story in a funny voice . . . and then you suddenly realized what an awful story it is. The narrative involves all of humanity, except for one family, being drowned! Almost all the animals drown. You close the cute little door on the ark with all the animals on board, Noah’s family is peaking out a portal—and the rest of humanity is screaming in terror. Most of us skip that last part. Yet for some reason the story of Noah’s ark persists in being one of the first that we tell to children: “Welcome little one to the beloved community, let me tell you about the time God killed everyone.” And we wonder why some kids hate taking baths.
One of the other stories we get children into early is the one the lectionary assigned us today, the story of David and Goliath. It sounds nice enough when you say it that way—“David and Goliath.” It sounds like they might have been buddies. Or maybe like Goliath was David’s pet dog. It sounds like maybe the full title of the story should be “David and Goliath Plan a Birthday Party” or “David and Goliath Camp Out in the Backyard.” But that isn’t really what’s going on is it? A better title would be “David and Goliath . . . Disagree about the Ontological Status of their Respective Deities” or “David and Goliath Illustrate a Terrible Way to Solve Conflict” or maybe “David and Goliath Try to Feed Each Other to Wild Animals” or “David and Goliath Fight to the Death.”
I’m not trying to be critical of the Bible here. It was written thousands of years ago in a set of very different situations. Being critical of its stories is easy and relatively meaningless. What’s worth working at is the other side of the issue. How can stories like these still be meaningful? How does wisdom shine through the blood? How do we learn something about God in the mayhem?
If the story of David were to take place today, we would call him a child soldier. Our congregation has heard from a couple of former child soldiers over the past few years. If you haven’t had the opportunity to hear from someone like this in person, you might be familiar with Ishmael Beah’s memoir Long Way Gone. His story received a lot of attention a few years ago. Beah grew up in Sierra Leone during the country’s civil way in the 1990s. When he was 12 years old his village was attacked by rebels. He fled, and in the chaos he was separated from his family. Wandering the countryside without them, Beah was forced to join a military unit. He was then made to wield a weapon and take part in horrific violence. He tells us that this lasted for several years. The tide of the war eventually changed, and UNICEF took in Beah and put him through a rehabilitation program. He was then able to finally attend school.
The story of David and Goliath doesn’t match up exactly, but there are interesting comparisons. David grew up in what was essentially a civil war between tribal groups on the eastern edge of the Mediterranean Basin. The distinction between the tribes of ancient Israel and others in the area was probably not a clear as we tend to think. Their territory overlapped. Most likely their ancestry did too. Some people went back and forth. The Bible makes it clear that even their religious practices were not always entirely different. Yet the relationship was antagonistic.
David’s youth was spent in a chaotic and violent setting. We read I Samuel 17:32-49. Our story picks up when David’s father, Jesse, sends him to the frontline to deliver food to his brothers. We can imagine that avid, like many kids, was pretty confident that his people were in the right and that God was on their side. The description of God that emerges from the story reflects this stark us/them and good/bad thinking.
When David reaches the front he finds his brothers a less self-assured than he is. Yet nobody stands in the way of his naive confidence. The king is happy to send the kid off to challenge the Philistine champion. And so the young David walks into a confrontation that the seasoned soldiers are avoiding. This happens sometimes, even today. When things are dangerous despots send in whomever they can push around. David isn’t even strong enough to handle the usual weapons.
Malcolm Gladwell has made much of this battle between David and Goliath. He suggests that David actually had the advantage. His sling was a superior technology to Goliath’s sword. And Gladwell also thinks Goliath had poor vision. He thinks this why the big man asked David to come closer to him. For Gladwell, then, the lesson is about the power of apparent underdogs.
Gladwell’s reading of the story is certainly possible, but it isn’t the point that the biblical writer is trying to make. The biblical writer is telling readers about David’s character and God’s power. What we don’t always realize is that the gruesome nature of the story wouldn’t have registered for him. It wouldn’t have seemed controversial in the slightest. It was simply a part of the world he knew. It was wallpaper. And so when the story ends with the child soldier not only killing Goliath but decapitating him, but biblical writer isn’t trying to make a statement about violence as such.
Part of our challenge in reading a story like this, that is pre-Jesus Bible story, is that we want it to be mostly about us. We lots of literature this way. We watch movies from this perspective too. We think of ourselves in the shoes of the protagonist. So when we read the story of David and Goliath we look for wisdom by putting ourselves in David’s place. When we do that we take the meaning of the story as either: (a) be courageous, (b) fight for the right things or (c) violence is often the only way forward.
These aren’t all terrible lessons to learn. However, they don’t give us much room to help our children find better solutions to conflict than violence. To put it another way, when we put ourselves in the role of the protagonist it’s hard to still be followers of Jesus.
I want to share with you an approach that I think might be more helpful. I am convinced that Christians need to continue listening to the Old Testament (Hebrew Scriptures). This part of the Bible has things we need to hear. It’s foreign in a wonderful way. The Old Testament contains some of the most inspiring literature in the whole Bible. It might not all be child-appropriate, but we can’t junk it.
So here are Anthony’s five little rules for reading the Bible’s bloody bits without losing your cool (maybe I’ll release them on a bookmark in the fall).
- Start with the center. When it comes to teaching the Bible to children or introducing people new to the faith, we need to start with the heart of the story, that’s the life of Jesus. Just as we would be cautious about the context in which we told young children stories of child soldiers, genocide or other traumatic narratives, we need to make sure they understand that Jesus is our moral example. Terrible things happen in our world, just like in David’s. Yet to read the Bible as a Christian is to read with the assumption that the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is God’s self-portrait.
- Theology is contextual. All of our thinking about God is shaped by our context. When someone says they don’t think anyone should share their faith, it’s not a timeless statement form nowhere. It’s shaped by a particular cultural moment. The Israelite understanding of God is similarly shaped by its hyper-violent context. David’s time was one where whole tribes existed on the brink of extinction. One of the ways we see divine revelation in these settings is when cultural forms are challenged. So one important thing the story of David and Goliath does say is that it wasn’t the guy with the most brute power that won. What won, was trust in God.
- Lay off the moralizing. We should be willing to read the Bible without thinking that every story must be distilled into a neat little moral lesson. Here is where I find ancient interpreters so interesting. The ancient Christian readers of scripture were convinced that these old stories had layers of meaning. The story of David and Goliath, they believed, wasn’t merely a moral lesson. It was most importantly a depiction of God’s victory over the forces of evil and death. The picture of David venturing off into the field of battle, cutting off the head of his enemy, achieving a surprising victory—that was an image of God’s victory over evil. Death and violence look fearsome, but God has defeated them, and defeated them in God’s own way.
- It’s a long story. This little story of David and Goliath is a chapter in the backstory of Jesus. Remember how at Christmas we talk about Jesus being from the line of Jesse and about Jesus having David’s thrown? In literary terms, David is a type of savior. Jesus, then, shows us what it’s like when God embodies this type. So when we read these Old Testament stories we should have an eye to how they help us see Jesus anew. The Bible isn’t a list of timeless facts. It’s a story about God, a story in which we find ourselves and a story where new chapters redefine earlier ones.
- Welcome to the conversation. At some point we need to introduce children and those new to the faith to the idea that the link between scripture and our lives is an ongoing dialogue. It’s a live connection. New situations reveal new things in scripture. With the Spirit’s help, we continue the work of discernment.
Let me conclude with this: imagine that you were in this story of David and Goliath. You are not either of the two stars. But let’s say you were, loosely at least, on David’s side. Maybe you were an average soldier, drug from your farm to the front. Maybe you were a resident from somewhere nearby. Maybe you were a mother or a sister come to visit a loved-one. You watched the standoff. You knew your side was going to lose. The invaders were too powerful. You were essentially powerless. Though your king wouldn’t admit it, you knew that the invaders would overwhelm your side. In all likelihood you would be taken captive. There was nothing you could do.
And then, from some obscure place, someone stepped up represent you side. The one who stepped up didn’t look powerful. This one didn’t give evidence of any particular military skill. But this one was brave, humble and confident. There was something in him more powerful than swords and spears. This one changed everything. The opposing forces, the threat of destruction and chaos, were no match.
This really is our story. It is the human story. Every time someone is forced to grovel at the threat of violence we are reminded of this story. Every time someone dies too early we are reminded of it too.
In our story it often looks like there is no answer to death and chaos.
But the story of David shows us that death and chaos don’t win. The humble figure wins. Love and justice win. The one who loves the world to the point of self-sacrifice wins. And the victory doesn’t come through superior fire power, but through God’s power. As later chapters in the story tell us, this power is so revolutionary that it can even turn enemies into friends.