It’s an unusual person who doesn’t have a soft spot for the underdog. A football team with a series of losing seasons suddenly finds itself winning, and the fans begin to show up again. A horse without much pedigree and little name recognition wins a major thoroughbred race, and we’re on our feet even watching from our homes. A tennis champion runs into real competition from a newcomer, and we talk about it all week with friends and co-workers.
Most of us are drawn into stories highlighting the unexpected victories of those seemingly without power or prestige or good looks. No wonder the story of David and Goliath was preserved by the Hebrew writers and remains popular even now. It was probably told around campfires for generations before being captured in print (see 1 Samuel 17), told as a vivid reminder of how the seemingly insignificant Israel experienced God’s intervention on their behalf.
Let’s set the scene. Israel has settled in the land of Canaan and, after a few generations as a loose tribal federation, has now come together united under their first king, Saul. Even in imitating the nations of the region by electing a king and putting together an army to protect its borders, Israel is still seen as a minor player in the Mediterranean region.
Among the most hardened warriors in the area are the Philistines. They occupied the southern coastal region of Canaan and were known to be desirous of taking the land that Israel now claimed as their own. What made them particularly effective in battle, and feared by other nation-states, was their early ability to forge iron. Their chariot wheels and their weapons were state-of-the-art in their time.
When Israel readies itself for battle against the Philistines in the Valley of Elah, they are surprised by a new tactic: a champion fighter, Goliath, offers to fight one of King Saul’s men rather than having both sides suffer more bloodshed. The loser’s side would become a vassal state to the winner. It sounds like a good deal, but Goliath is an imposing figure and experienced warrior, exceedingly tall, clad in bronze armor and carrying an iron javelin.
David, the youngest son of Jesse, is present at the scene because his father had sent him there with food supplies for his warrior brothers. He becomes interested in the battle and defending God’s honor (though his brothers think he is more interested in the favor he will gain from King Saul). He lists his qualifications and his ability as a shepherd to protect the sheep in his care from lions and bears.
And so, the scene unfolds with a young shepherd carrying a staff and a slingshot coming through the valley to stand against a burly warrior. Goliath is smug and confident of victory until the young David’s slingshot is used to bury a stone in his forehead. The battle is won, and the underdog is victorious.
While the unfolding scenes of violence against the Philistines are distasteful to many modern readers and those committed to non-violence, the central story remains timeless. Israel experiences God’s presence and protection in the defeat of its enemies. Though small in stature among the nations, Israel is precious in the sight of God.
Catherine Upchurch is the general editor of the Little Rock Catholic Study Bible and contributes to several biblical publications. She writes from Fort Smith.
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