Commentary on 1 Samuel 17:[1a, 4-11, 19-23] 32-49
The story of David slaying Goliath, violent though it is, has been used for generations to open the imagination of children to the LORD’s power.
At the heart of the story is the dramatic moment when young David “in the name of the LORD of hosts” defeats gigantic, menacing Goliath, who has “defied” the LORD’s name.1 It is a momentous encounter, and there is wisdom in the catechetical movement toward the imagination. At the same time, this story is anything but child’s play, especially when reduced to morals and values.2
Rather, this dramatic moment in David’s story and in the story of Israel’s monarchy is an integral part of the story of the LORD’s defeat of evil on the earth. Hold on for a moment while we get there.
While the young psalmist’s musical gifts have the power to sooth even the evil spirit sent by the LORD upon Saul,3 a sign that the LORD’s blessing can trump the LORD’s curse, it is in the engagement between the armies of the Philistines and the Israelites that we are given an unlikely glimpse of God’s topsy-turvy power that desires order and life rather than destruction and death. In order to get at this infrequently accented cosmic overtone of this story, we need to look more closely at Goliath, the giant of the Philistines, the ancient equivalent of the weapon of mass destruction.
By the time of David rolls around, Goliath is one of four remaining descendants of the Nephilim,4 who appear in Genesis 6:1-4:
When people began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that they were fair; and they took wives for themselves of all that they chose. Then the LORD said, “My spirit shall not abide in mortals forever, for they are flesh; their days shall be one hundred twenty years.” The Nephilim were on the earth in those days — and also afterward — when the sons of God went in to the daughters of humans, who bore children to them. These were the heroes [LXX translation is “giants”] that were of old, warriors of renown.5
This rather threadbare story is an alternative or complementary story of the fall6 — the advent of sin and death in the world. When the sons of God (rebellious angels in 1 Enoch), upon seeing the beauty of the daughters of men, take wives for themselves, they rupture the fabric of creation. While the LORD does limit the lifespan of mortals on this account (Genesis 6:3), Genesis does not resolve the continued presence of the Nephilim, the giants “of old, the warriors of renown.”
A more fulsome version of the story in the Book of the Watchers, 1 Enoch 1-36,7 helps us imagine the gravity of the situation. In addition to teaching their wives the dark arts, among which are sorcery and weaponry, the gigantic offspring of these unholy unions fill the earth with violence, blood, oppression, and death. While rebellion against God is located in the succumbing to the temptation of the fruit in Genesis 2 and the advent of sin is associated with Adam and Eve, in the story of the Nephilim it is the rebellious angels who succumb to temptation and thereby introduce sin and death into the world.
To up the drama and draw us closer to Goliath, the giants somehow survive the flood (a not-so-subtle contradiction within scripture), for in Numbers 13:33, “There we saw the Nephilim (the Anakites come from the Nephilim); and to ourselves we seemed like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.” The descendants of the Nephilim were known for the gigantic size and their prowess as warriors.8
We now shift ahead in the narrative past the encounter with Goliath to 2 Samuel 21:15-22, wherein there is yet another account of the Philistines warring against Israel. David is now old and growing weak. His final combat is with Ishbi-benob, “one of the descendants of the giants.”9 While one of David’s soldiers kills this descendant of the giants, it does not seem accidental that David’s combat begins with Goliath and ends with Ishbi-benod. Three other descendants of giants later, it is recalled,
These four were descended from the giants in Gath; they fell by the hands of David and his servants. [And!] David spoke to the LORD the words of this song on the day when the LORD delivered him from the hands of all his enemies, and from the hand of Saul.10 And David begins singing, “The LORD is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer…”11 David, the royal agent of God’s sovereignty and prefiguration of the Messiah, defeats the menacing remnants from of old.
Putting the story of David and Goliath in its larger context can help rescue this story from generational flattening and provide opportunity for the preacher to delve into the story with a wider view of God’s salvation of the cosmos. Not to downplay the many layers of the story of David’s encounter with Goliath, especially the wild dynamics of God’s blessing of David and cursing of Saul,12 which play themselves out both in and around 1 Samuel 17, locating this story in the LORD’s ultimate victory over the powers of sin and death is helpful.
Such a textual and theological horizon that situates this young shepherd boy’s victory over the champion of the Philistines within God’s battle with and ultimate victory over the powers that destroy life allows the Christian preacher to consider this victory within the Christological scope of God’s victory over sin and death. With David as a figure of the Messiah, the preacher can see in some sense with Augustine’s eyes, gruesome though the image may be, where David offing of Goliath’s head figures Christ’s defeat of the Devil. “Then, having smitten and overthrown [Goliath], [David] took the enemy’s sword, and with it cut off his head. This our David also did, He overthrew the devil with his own weapons: and when his great ones, whom he had in his power, by means of whom he slew other souls, believe, they turn their tongues against the devil, and so Goliath’s head is cut off with his own sword.”13
As I mentioned above, this is no child’s play.
11 Samuel 17:45
2Though no aficionado of “Davey and Goliath,” the reinvigorated animated series about of “morals and faith-based values” (cf. http://www.daveyandgoliath.org/ ) sponsored by my own denomination, the story of David’s defeat of Goliath ought not to be reduced to value lessons, important though they are.
31 Samuel 16:15-23
4While there are some textual speed bumps in this journey between Genesis and 1 Samuel, we’re going to barrel over them. Buckle-up!
7Especially 1 Enoch 6-11. As with the chicken and the egg, it is difficult to know the complicated relationship of the accounts in Genesis and 1 Enoch. See also, Jubilees 5.
8While not invincible, these descendants of the Nephilim are formidable enemies, cf. Deuteronomy 1:28, 2:10-11, 9:2, Joshua 11:21-22, 14:12-15.
92 Samuel 21:16
102 Samuel 21:22-22.1. The NRSV does not translate the waw at the beginning of 22:1.
11David’s song in 2 Samuel 22:2-51 appears nearly verbatim as Psalm 18. While not the appointed Psalm for this particular Sunday, Psalm 18 would be an appropriate substitution, especially if preaching on 1 Samuel 17. Another interesting possibility would be Psalm 144, which is inscribed in the LXX, “For David, against Goliath,” and begins, “Blessed by the LORD, my rock…”
121 Samuel 16:13-14
13Augustine, “Expositions on the Psalms” [Psalm 144], NPNF1 8.655