The Philistines assembled their troops for war at Socoh of Judah. A champion named Goliath from Gath came out from the Philistine camp. He was more than nine feet tall. He had a bronze helmet on his head and wore bronze scale-armor weighing one hundred twenty-five pounds. He had bronze plates on his shins, and a bronze scimitar hung on his back. His spear shaft was as strong as the bar on a weaver’s loom, and its iron head weighed fifteen pounds. His shield-bearer walked in front of him.
He stopped and shouted to the Israelite troops, “Why have you come and taken up battle formations? I am the Philistine champion, and you are Saul’s servants. Isn’t that right? Select one of your men, and let him come down against me. If he is able to fight me and kill me, then we will become your slaves, but if I overcome him and kill him, then you will become our slaves and you will serve us. I insult Israel’s troops today!” the Philistine continued, “Give me an opponent, and we’ll fight!” When Saul and all Israel heard what the Philistine said, they were distressed and terrified.
So David got up early in the morning, left someone in charge of the flock, and loaded up and left, just as his father Jesse had instructed him. He reached the camp right when the army was taking up their battle formations and shouting the war cry. Israel and the Philistines took up their battle formations opposite each other. David left his things with an attendant and ran to the front line. When he arrived, he asked how his brothers were doing. Right when David was speaking with them, Goliath, the Philistine champion from Gath, came forward from the Philistine ranks and said the same things he had said before. David listened.
“Don’t let anyone lose courage because of this Philistine!” David told Saul. “I, your servant, will go out and fight him!”
“You can’t go out and fight this Philistine,” Saul answered David. “You are still a boy. But he’s been a warrior since he was a boy!”
“Your servant has kept his father’s sheep,” David replied to Saul, “and if ever a lion or a bear came and carried off one of the flock, I would go after it, strike it, and rescue the animal from its mouth. If it turned on me, I would grab it at its jaw, strike it, and kill it. Your servant has fought both lions and bears. This uncircumcised Philistine will be just like one of them because he has insulted the army of the living God.
“The LORD,” David added, “who rescued me from the power of both lions and bears, will rescue me from the power of this Philistine.”
“Go!” Saul replied to David. “And may the LORD be with you!”
Then Saul dressed David in his own gear, putting a coat of armor on him and a bronze helmet on his head. David strapped his sword on over the armor, but he couldn’t walk around well because he’d never tried it before. “I can’t walk in this,” David told Saul, “because I’ve never tried it before.” So he took them off. He then grabbed his staff and chose five smooth stones from the streambed. He put them in the pocket of his shepherd’s bag and with sling in hand went out to the Philistine.
The Philistine got closer and closer to David, and his shield-bearer was in front of him. When the Philistine looked David over, he sneered at David because he was just a boy; reddish brown and good-looking.
The Philistine asked David, “Am I some sort of dog that you come at me with sticks?” And he cursed David by his gods. “Come here,” he said to David, “and I’ll feed your flesh to the wild birds and the wild animals!”
But David told the Philistine, “You are coming against me with sword, spear, and scimitar, but I come against you in the name of the LORD of heavenly forces, the God of Israel’s army, the one you’ve insulted. Today the LORD will hand you over to me. I will strike you down and cut off your head! Today I will feed your dead body and the dead bodies of the entire Philistine camp to the wild birds and the wild animals. Then the whole world will know that there is a God on Israel’s side. And all those gathered here will know that the LORD doesn’t save by means of sword and spear. The LORD owns this war, and he will hand all of you over to us.”
The Philistine got up and moved closer to attack David, and David ran quickly to the front line to face him. David put his hand in his bag and took out a stone. He slung it, and it hit the Philistine on his forehead. The stone penetrated his forehead, and he fell facedown on the ground.
1 Samuel 17:1a, 4-11, 20-23, 32-49, Common English Bible
Later that day, when evening came, Jesus said to them, “Let’s cross over to the other side of the lake.” They left the crowd and took him in the boat just as he was. Other boats followed along.
Gale-force winds arose, and waves crashed against the boat so that the boat was swamped. But Jesus was in the rear of the boat, sleeping on a pillow. They woke him up and said, “Teacher, don’t you care that we’re drowning?”
He got up and gave orders to the wind, and he said to the lake, “Silence! Be still!” The wind settled down and there was a great calm. Jesus asked them, “Why are you frightened? Don’t you have faith yet?”
Overcome with awe, they said to each other, “Who then is this? Even the wind and the sea obey him!” Mark 4:35-41, Common English Bible
Two stories today of battling against what seems to be certain defeat – David goes up against the armoured giant Goliath, with just a slingshot and stones, and Jesus and his friends are in a small boat caught in a storm on the lake. Many of us who have been out on the river or on a lake in a boat can identify with this story about Jesus. It’s pretty scary when the wind comes up and the waves get higher and you’re out, far from the shore. One time we were fishing on Black Donald Lake, near Calabogie, and went way down the lake to find a walleye hole we’d been told about, and it started getting dark and windy and choppy so we decided to head back. And the boat’s motor wouldn’t start. So we had to row all the way back to the camp, as it got darker and windier and rougher.
The early church understood this story as not just about a storm on the lake. For them a storm and great waves were images of the evil forces in the world, and the story showed that Jesus had divine power to save us from with these forces, no matter how powerful they seem to be.
And the story of David and Goliath is also a story about dealing with powerful forces. It’s an underdog story, so much so that we compare any situation in which a small, feisty entity opposes a large, strong one to David and Goliath. And David’s victory gives us hope when we’re confronted with a situation that seems impossible to overcome. It’s often seen as the story of standing up to a bully. Goliath has all the trash talk, taunting the Israelites, he has the height and weight and armour and can take anyone. The Israelites run away from him in fear. Goliath makes fun of David. But David knocks him down with the simplest of weapons, a stone, and then takes Goliath’s own sword and cuts off his head.
David cuts off the head of Goliath. That’s actually left out of the part of the story to be read in churches today. It makes us recoil. It has uncomfortable associations for us. Terrible crimes we read about seem that much more horrific when there is a beheading, as in the murder on a Greyhound bus in Manitoba, the videotaped killing in Montreal, terrorist executions of hostages overseas.
And then the Israelite army chases the Philistines, and the Bible says that “the dead Philistines were littered along the Shaarim road all the way to Gath and Ekron.” Goliath’s head cut off. The corpses of the enemy left along the road. This story is part of a very violent part of the Bible, the books of Joshua, Judges, and First Samuel, the story of the Israelites taking the Promised Land by force from the people who were living there and then fighting to keep it. Look at some of the things that happen in these books:
When the walls of Jericho fall, Joshua leads the Israelites into the city, where they kill all the men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep and donkeys.
The Israelites burn the city of Ai, and slaughter its people, 12,000 of them, so that no one survives. Joshua executes the king of Ai by hanging.
And it goes on for pages, the cities of Canaan besieged and destroyed, the kings executed, the population killed.
God commands King Saul of Israel to kill every Amalekite, man, woman, and child, and their livestock, but Saul spares the Amalekite King Agag and the best of the cattle and sheep. Samuel cuts Agag into pieces himself.
We can say, that’s how things worked at the time, which is true. It was the way things worked when it happened to Israel itself in a few hundred years, when the Assyrians and Babylonians came and killed and burned and sent people into exile as refugees. It has been common throughout history, this kind of Game of Thrones world of constant violence. I’m sure that my ancestors in England and France suffered, and maybe participated in, raids and invasions and wars. These are the stories we tell, in the Bible and in our literature and songs and movies. In July Kirsty and I are going to see Shakespeare in the park, and the play is Henry V, with lots of stylized violence as Shakespeare tells the story of a war between France and England, and King Henry stirs up his troops and the audience with speeches like “Once more into the breach, dear friends” and:
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers, for he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother, be he ne’er so vile this day shall gentle his condition. And gentlemen in England now abed shall think themselves accursed they were not here, and hold their manhood cheap whilst any speaks that fought with me upon St. Crispin’s Day.
But violence is not a play. There is real blood, and real death, and real families left in grief.
The Israelites have God’s command and protection as they conquer these people who worship other gods. David tells Goliath, “I come against you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel’s army.” When we read in the Bible about the conquest of the Promised Land, we naturally identify with the Israelites who wrote this story from their perspective, and we cheer them on. But today this should remind us of another story about a people who had been living in a land for a long time, for millennia, and a foreign people came. And the invaders said that God had given them this Promised Land and the people already there had no right to it as they were uncivilized and did not worship God. So they killed many of the people who were already there and drove them out and took the land for themselves. This isn’t the story of the Canaanites and the Israelites. This is the story of the First Nations of the Americas, and the Christian Europeans who conquered them in God’s name, just as the Israelites took over Canaan.
The United Church of Canada’s General Council will vote this summer on disowning the Doctrine of Discovery. This is the basis of the claims of European empires to owning parts of the New World, so for instance Portugal took Brazil and Spain got the rest of South America. All without asking the people living there already, who were seen either as a resource to enslave and exploit or as just being in the way. And missionaries came with the slavers and the soldiers to justify this and to tell the native peoples that their traditional beliefs were meaningless. All this sounds a lot like the Israelites in Canaan. And it lasted well into the last century in Indian residential schools, operated for the government of Canada by our church and others, where aboriginal students were forbidden to speak their own languages.
You know, when I was a kid and watching Westerns, I always thought it was unfair that the Indians were depicted as so menacing. I could sympathize both with the terrified settlers on the wagon train under attack and the native warriors who were protecting their land and way of life. And, you know, we learn about the European conquest and the deaths of millions of indigenous people from disease and violence, and we can sympathize with the aboriginal peoples as victims of injustice. Yet our ancestors came here as immigrants, and settled on land that was taken from First Nations either by force or by treaty. Our ancestors made sacrifices and worked hard to make this country what it is today, and we can be proud of that. Most of them had nothing to do with how the land they settled was obtained by the Crown. But if we are not aboriginal, we have benefited from injustice. I said that we identify with the Israelites of the Bible, and we are indeed like the Israelites, living in a land conquered in God’s name.
Goliath the Philistine is a bully. But who is the bully in this overall story of violence in this part of the Bible? Canada’s aboriginal peoples may come up with their own answer when they hear the Bible’s story of conquest.
The United Church of Canada apologized in 1986 for the times in which the church believed that we must link sharing our faith in the good news of Jesus to accepting European culture and suppressing First Nations values. We apologized in 1998 for our role in the suffering caused by Indian residential schools. Some have said that we can now put this behind us, but there is a long way to go. The church has acknowledged our wrongdoing, but now we have to act in a manner that shows that our apologies are not one-time gestures but living acts that we must honour and sustain. We can’t turn back the clock to the 15th century before the Europeans came. We can’t uproot everyone whose ancestors came since then and send them back to the old countries. We can’t abandon our own roots. But we can live in a way that demonstrates that we are committed to right relationships with First Nations as we live together on this continent.
In the Biblical books like Joshua and Judges and First Samuel, the Israelites look to God to kill off their enemies. Their descendants a thousand years later assumed this too, that God would send a warrior king to defeat the Roman Empire and re-establish Israel. The crowds following Jesus and even his friends think that he will be this kind of ruler. It wasn’t until after all the events of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus that his friends finally get it. Jesus is the Christ, the anointed one sent by God, but their expectations of him are all wrong. He tells the Roman governor, “If my kingdom were like those you see around you, my followers would fight to keep me from being handed over. But I’m not the world’s kind of king.”
Jesus is put to death in a horrible act of violence. But he doesn’t retaliate. He doesn’t call up an army to rescue him and kill his enemies. He asks for forgiveness for them. And he is raised from death. Just as in that boat tossed in a storm on the lake, Jesus stands against all the powers of evil and he prevails.
The resurrection of Jesus after his violent death shows that if conquest ever was God’s will, it isn’t any more. What conquest means is transformed. What death means is transformed. The military and political and economic and social power of empires may still seem mighty, but can never be absolute against Jesus Christ, who cannot be defeated by evil.
Jesus is not about slaughtering the inhabitants of a conquered city. Jesus is not about hanging captured kings. Jesus is not about genocide. What Jesus is about is shown in the story of his arrest, when one of his friends strikes with a sword and wounds one of the men in the group coming to take Jesus. And Jesus heals the wounded man. What Jesus is about is shown on the cross, when he forgives those putting him to death. What Jesus is about is shown in his death, hung on a tree as Joshua and Samuel hung the indigenous leaders they had taken prisoner.
Jesus is about right relationships between neighbours. So we are called to follow him and his example, learning the long, heartbreaking history of First Nations in Canada, and doing the hard work of justice and reconciliation today so that in the future this land can be healed and all of God’s children, aboriginal and non-aboriginal, can have the fullness of life Jesus promises. There will be storms and bullies and difficulties on the way, but Jesus will bring us peace and courage and hope so that we can live in right relations. Non kwe shon ha. Amen.