Foundry United Methodist Church

Rev. Dean Snyder, Senior Minister



Facing Our Goliaths

Sunday, August 2, 2009



I Samuel 17: 1-11



Rev. Dean Snyder


In the Mediterranean world the Late Bronze Age, roughly 1550–1200 BCE, was “a brilliant, sophisticated, cosmopolitan era,” says Carol Redmount, professor of Near Eastern Studies at the University of Chicago .


It was a time of “great wealth and unprecedented international contacts and exchange” throughout the eastern Mediterranean. “People, goods, and ideas flowed freely, by sea and by land, to an extent unparalleled in earlier times.”


“The Late Bronze Age,” she says, “was also an age of empire…superpower politics, and an international way of life.”[i]


It was an era of palace economies. In palace economies wealth is controlled by a king or a pharaoh, a sacred ruler. Wealth flows into the palace and then is redistributed to the people, often through large public work projects like building palaces, temples and pyramids. Palace economies support art and beauty.


The greatest palace economy of the Late Bronze Age was Egypt and the Egyptian Empire, which had spread throughout the eastern Mediterranean.


It was toward the end of the Late Bronze Age that the Egyptian Empire began to weaken. An early sign of its diminishing power, perhaps, was when a group of slaves in Egypt managed to escape and make their way just outside the territory controlled by Egypt into the hills of Canaan.


As the Egyptian Empire continued to decline, a new coalition of peoples emerged called “the Sea Peoples.” Historians are not sure who they were or precisely where they were from. They seem to have been somehow connected to Greece and Crete and Aegean culture. Archeological studies of their pottery suggest this.


The Sea Peoples travelled in ships. They were militaristic. They were at the forefront of the development of the weaponry of their time. And they were ruthless.


When they conquered a territory they destroyed the cities they found there…crushed them and burned them to the ground. Then they brought their own people to the territory, shipload after shipload after shipload. Then they built new cities on top of the ruins of the cities they had destroyed – totally new cities many times larger than the cities they had demolished.


They were good urban planners, designing their new cities to be both commercially viable and livable. They were good at agricultural development, planting whatever commercial crops the lands they conquered were best suited for. They fished. They raised cattle, sheep, and goats, but they specialized in hog farming. They loved pork. It was their favorite dish. And they were great exporters and importers, using their ships for trading.


Theirs was not a palace economy like the superpowers of the Late Bronze Age but more a market economy. Their goal was not to leave temples and monuments and pyramids behind. They did not invest in great art and beauty. Their goal was to make money and to live well, to eat and drink well, and to conquer new lands.   


The Sea Peoples were not able to defeat Egypt in Egypt, though they tried, but they did manage to take over many territories that had formerly been controlled by Egypt…to chip away at the empire. In the territories they conquered, they built their new cities and farms and wine and oil presses and metal foundries and forges and textile looms, and they became rich in things. 


One group within the coalition of Sea Peoples was called Philistines. The Philistines conquered 1000 square kilometers, 386 square miles, of territory on the western shore of the Mediterranean formerly controlled by Egypt just east of Canaan. They destroyed the cities there and replaced them with five new carefully designed urban centers – Gaza, Askkelon, Askdod, Ekron and Gath.  "This wholesale takeover must have resulted in the death or displacement of much of the Late Bronze Age population," Lawrence Stager says.[ii]


The Philistine city of Gaza is the same Gaza we read about in the newspapers today and the name Philistine is the root of the name Palestine.


Settling in this territory made the Philistines the nearest neighbors of the former slaves from Egypt who had migrated a generation or two earlier to the foothills of Canaan – the Israelites


The Philistines developed the sandy soil of their new territory into great agricultural and industrial endeavors, growing grapes and olives and manufacturing wine and olive oil. They fished. They built hog farms. They loved pork. Archeologists are still digging up the pig bones. Some scholars believe the reason the Israelites had a taboo against eating pork is because they did not want to be like the Philistines.


The Israelites distained and feared the Philistines, although they sometimes fraternized and loved their women – Samson and Delilah. Philistine expansion forced one of Israel’s tribes, the tribe of Dan, to relocate from the territory they had originally settled to a less fertile, hillier area farther north. The book of Judges is about the constant conflicts and battles between the Philistines and the Israelites during the end of the Late Bronze Age and the beginning of the Early Iron Age.


Because of the way the Bible portrays the Philistines, the word Philistine is still used today to refer to someone who is devoted to material prosperity at the expense of intellectual and artistic awareness.


It was because the Israelites wanted a stronger army to defend themselves against the Philistines that they decided to have a centralized government and a king. Up until then Israel had been a loose confederation of tribes who only came together when they needed to do so in order to defend themselves. They had no standing federal government and no standing military.


According to the book of First Samuel, God did not want Israel to have a king. Through Samuel, the last of the judges, God warned them that if they had a king, they would surely eventually have income taxes and a military draft and a federal bureaucracy. (I Sam. 8: 10-18) (Samuel was sort of the Ron Paul of his day.)  But the people insisted and God said, “OK, learn for yourselves the hard way.” And we have. 


Israel selected as their first king a man named Saul. They selected him because he was very tall and good looking and his father was wealthy. (I Sam. 9: 1-2)


I Samuel 9: 2 says about Saul: “There was not a man among the people of Israel more handsome than he; he stood head and shoulder above everybody else.”


They selected him because he was tall and handsome.


He led Israel’s army in some successful battles against the Philistines, but the Bible does not remember Saul fondly. The Bible portrays him as becoming increasingly power hungry, paranoid, indecisive and cowardly, and disobedient to God.


The second king Israel selected was David, who was not tall or especially impressive looking.


All this is the context of the story of David and Goliath, which we are talking about during the month of August.


The story of David and Goliath was not originally about David. It was told about another Israelite named Elhanan.[iii] It was originally the story of Elhanan and Goliath. But the Israelites so loved the story and they so loved David that as the legend of David grew the story was adapted and rewritten and expanded and became part of the legend of David.


If you read First Samuel up to chapter 17 where the story of David and Goliath is told and then you continue reading First Samuel after chapter 17, you will see that the story of David and Goliath does not fit into the flow of the rest of the story in any way. 


But the Israelites loved the story and they loved David, so we have the story of David and Goliath.


The stories a people love tell us a lot about them. The jokes a people laugh at tell us a lot about who they are, and this story has lots of humor that would have made the Israelites laugh


The Israelites loved the story of David and Goliath.


The story begins with the Philistine army invading Israel’s territory. They are on one side of the Valley of Elah. The Israelite army is on the other side of the valley. The Philistine soldier Goliath of Gath would challenge and taunt the Israelites to send out a man to fight him.


Goliath, it says, was six cubits and a span. That would be 9 feet 6 inches, almost 10 feet tall. An earlier version of the story found in the Dead Sea scrolls said Goliath was four cubits and a span. That would be 6 feet 7 inches tall. This just goes to show that the Israelites were no different from us. The more they told the story, the taller Goliath got.


But even 6 feet 7 inches would have been tall in a culture where, according to archeological digs, most men were less than 5 feet 6 inches tall.


Goliath has all the latest military equipment. A helmet of bronze, a coat of mail (a coat of armor) that weighs 5,000 shekels or 126 pounds, greaves of bronze on his legs. He is armed with a javelin of bronze, the javelin had a point, a head, made of iron that weighed 600 shekels or 15 pounds. The head of the javelins used in the Olympics weight less than 2 pounds.


According to First Samuel the Philistines had a monopoly on the production of iron. First Samuel 13: 19f says: “Now there was no smith to be found throughout all the land of Israel; for the Philistines said, ‘The Hebrews must not make swords or spears for themselves,” so all the Israelites went down top the Philistines to sharpen their plowshares, mattocks, axes and sickles….So on the day of the battle neither sword nor spear was to be found in the possession of any of the people with Saul and [his son] Jonathon, but Saul and his son Jonathon had them.”


So here is Goliath the Philistine at least a foot taller than the tallest men in the region at the time, maybe four feet taller. Who is the tallest Israelite? Remember? Saul.


Goliath has a bronze spear with an iron head. Who was the only Israelite with weapons made of iron? Saul and his son Jonathon.


Saul should have been the one to face Goliath, but he knew he could not win. When he saw and heard Goliath he became dismayed and greatly afraid, and accordingly, when their king became dismayed and greatly afraid, all of Israel’s troops became dismayed and greatly afraid and disheartened.


Goliath was the Philistine’s shock and awe, and it worked. Saul knew he could not win.


The story of David and Goliath is about what you do when you know you are facing an enemy, an obstacle, an issue, a problem, that you can not defeat.


You are the tallest person in Israel, but your tallness, which has always worked for you before, will not help you now. You are the best looking person in Israel and your looks have always worked for you before but they will not help you now. You have the best armor and the weapons in Israel and they have always worked for you before, but you know they will not help you now. You have the highest position and the most power of anybody in Israel and power and position have always worked for you before but they will not help you now.


Goliath is an economy that has tanked and landed on top of you. Goliath is a phone call from your doctor saying that there are some tests she wants you to take today. Goliath is an addiction you used to be able to manage when you were younger. Goliath is a love that you can not win. Goliath is a relationship you can not fix. Goliath is a project you can not finish. Goliath is a skill you can not learn. Goliath is an emotion you can not suppress anymore.


You used to be able to get by on your tallness or your looks, your armor or your weaponry, your power or your position. But those things won’t work this time.


The story of David and Goliath is about when the Late Bronze Age ends and the Early Iron Age begins in your life and mine. Everything changes. Nothing works the same way it used to work. We just figured out how to survive the Egyptians in the Late Bronze Age but now the Early Iron Age has come and brought the Philistines with it. We can’t win.


When we are facing an enemy, an obstacle, an issue, a problem, and we know we can not win, the story of David and Goliath believes that there are other resources to which we can turn. There is a David in us.


But we can not hold on to our tallness and good looks; we cannot hold onto our armor and weapons; we can not hold onto our power and position and win. We’ve got to give up every thing that has made us successful in the past.


Ronald Heifetz teaches leadership at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He is very practical, very much aware of what life is like in the real world. But he ends his book Leadership on the Line by saying that there are three virtues of leadership that are more important than all the skills and abilities and determination that leaders need. He is Jewish but he says he sees these three virtues in Christ. Reb Jesus, he calls him.


The first of the three virtues is innocence. He defines innocence as “the capacity to entertain silly ideas, think unusual and perhaps ingenious thoughts, be playful in your life and work, even to be strange to your organization or community.”


The second virtue is curiosity…the realization you don’t know all the answers, maintaining a sense of the mystery of it all, learning all the time.


The third virtue is compassion or caring…. To keep feeling the joys and pains of life rather than becoming numb or calloused.[iv]


Innocence, curiosity, caring…that is the David in you and me and when the Late Bronze Age ends and there is an enemy we know we can not defeat, those are the only things that will save us. Innocence, curiosity, caring.


Martin Linksy, who co-authored Leadership on the Line with Ronald Heifitz has written about his father’s last week of life. Everybody knew it was his father’s last week of life. His father arranged for private conversations with each of his four grandchildren, exploring with them their values and sharing his values based on his almost 80 years of living. He gave his granddaughter a rousing pep talk before she retook her driver’s test. He met alone with his former daughter-in-law to tell her he was grateful for the way she raised his grandchildren and to tell her he loved her.


Finally, an hour before his death, he asked his son to get him a beer. “What kind?” his son asked.


“Bud,” his father said.


“Light or regular?” his son asked.


“Light’s fine,” his father said.


Tears running down his face, Martin Linksy ran to a store across the street from the hospital, brought back a six pack of Bud Light, ran back to the hospital room, poured his father and himself a beer. They clinked glasses, and soon his father died.


What Martin Linsky says he learned is that even in the face of the final enemy it is possible to win…so long as we remain innocent, curious and caring. Even in the face of the final enemy it is possible to win if we remain innocent, curious and caring.


This is the David within us. Even more, this is great David’s greater Son, Reb Jesus.[v]








[i] Carol A. Redmount, "Chapter Two Israel in and Out of Egypt," The Oxford History of the Biblical World, ed. Michael D. Coogan (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001) 79.

[ii] Lawrence E. Stager, "Chapter Three The Emergence of Ancient Israel," The Oxford History of the Biblical World, ed. Michael D. Coogan (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001) 120.


[iii] Stanley Isser, The Sword of Goliath: David in Heroic Literature (Boston: Brill, 2003) 34.


[iv] Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky, Leadership on the Line (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 20002), 225-236.


[v] Heiftiz and Linsky, 235-6.