This portion of the Book of Joel is quoted in the passage from Acts we hear read on Pentecost Sunday. It contains the hopeful reminder that the Spirit of God is active around us, and even within us, guiding us along the way, with signs in nature, with visions, and with dreams.
Joel 2:28-32 (The Message)
“And that’s just the beginning: After that— “I will pour out my Spirit on every kind of people: Your sons will prophesy, also your daughters. Your old men will dream, your young men will see visions. I’ll even pour out my Spirit on the servants, men and women both. I’ll set wonders in the sky above and signs on the earth below: Blood and fire and billowing smoke, the sun turning black and the moon blood-red, Before the Judgment Day of God, the Day tremendous and awesome. Whoever calls, ‘Help, God!’ gets help. On Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there will be a great rescue—just as God said. Included in the survivors are those that God calls.”
Learning Time: “A David and Goliath Story”
The Bible story we are working with today is about David and Goliath. It is one of those stories that almost everybody knows, even if they have never sat down and read it. How many times have we heard it mentioned in a sportscast? It is an instantly recognizable way to talk about the victory of the underdog, when someone says, “It was a David and Goliath story. “ We know immediately what they are talking about.
More than a decade ago I enrolled in a two year program to learn about Christian Spirituality, and to become a spiritual director. Spiritual direction is a specialized ministry that grew out of an ancient tradition of helping people to become more aware of the presence, and the work, and the leading of God in their lives. We begin with the basic idea that God is real, and that God has hopes and dreams for each of us, for what happens in each of our lives, and what choices we make. We can help each other listen for God, and become more aware of who God is calling us to be, and what we are meant to do.
When I read the story of David and Goliath, I see the character of David acting on his belief that God is with him, and that God has work for him to do. I deliberately referred to David as a character, a dramatic figure, because I don’t necessarily read the story as being literally true.
One of the things I learned, in my spiritual direction training, was to pay attention to my own dreams, and to listen carefully when other people want to talk about their dreams. If God can show us things, and guide us, and point us in the right direction in our waking life, perhaps God can also be at work in our dreams.
People who analyze dreams often begin with the premise that everything in the dream, all the characters, the mood, the furniture, the weather, the plot, and the dialogue, all come from deep inside of us. It is as if the dream is made up of pieces gathered from our conscious and unconscious memories, from things we are aware of in our day to day life, and things we may not have thought about for some time. These elements are all woven together in a production at least as interesting as any play or movie we might watch, or story we might read. The dream may use all these images from our own depths to get our attention, and tell us something.
Around the world there are certain images, plot-lines, human characters, and even animals that show up repeatedly in folk-stories, fairy tales, and dreams. Thinkers like Carl Jung used the term “archetype” to talk about these seemingly universal figures that carry meaning in many different cultures. Not surprisingly, the Bible is full of these kind of archetypal characters, like wise old men, and angels, and children who must be protected from harm, and kings, and warriors, monsters, giants, and heroes.
If we were to listen to the David and Goliath story as if it were David’s dream, it might tell us a lot, about the character of David, and about the way God works. Here is how the story begins:
1 Now the Philistines gathered their forces for war and assembled at Socoh in Judah. 3 The Philistines occupied one hill and the Israelites another, with the valley between them.
Even this description seems dream-like and symbolic. Opposing forces staring at each other across a divide- perhaps like warring parts of a personality, weighing the pros and cons of a decision.
4 A champion named Goliath, who was from Gath, came out of the Philistine camp. He was over nine feet tall.
Giants are literally larger than life characters. Sometimes in our dreams we are confronted with symbols of the things that we fear, like change, or loss, or death. I would take the presence a nine foot giant as a sign that this story is not meant to be read literally. Maybe Goliath represents some big thing that David feels he must conquer, or some huge fear that he has to face. Everyone of us, if we live long enough, has faced, or will face some challenge or problem that seems gigantic.
8 Goliath stood and shouted to the ranks of Israel, “Why do you come out and line up for battle? Am I not a Philistine, and are you not the servants of Saul? Choose a man and have him come down to me. 9 If he is able to fight and kill me, we will become your subjects; but if I overcome him and kill him, you will become our subjects and serve us.” 10 Then the Philistine said, “This day I defy the ranks of Israel! Give me a man and let us fight each other.” 11 On hearing the Philistine’s words, Saul and all the Israelites were dismayed and terrified.
This part leaves me feeling that this story was passed down from generation to generation for a long time before it was preserved in writing. The story teller tells us how King Saul and all the Israelites felt. How could anyone really know how the whole army felt? It is a kind of shorthand, that is there to set the stage for David’s entrance into the drama.
I don’t know if there was ever a time in human history when wars were fought the way the story describes, with one champion from each side representing their king, in a winner takes all fight. I find it harder to believe than the 9 foot giant!
But if this was how wars were fought in our time, there might be a lot less bloodshed. What if each time a country wanted to go to war, they sent one champion, perhaps their prime minister, or president, instead of plane loads of 20 year olds?
We better get back to the story, because here comes the hero:
12 Now David was the son of an Ephrathite named Jesse, who was from Bethlehem in Judah. Jesse had eight sons, and in Saul’s time he was old and well advanced in years. 13 Jesse’s three oldest sons had followed Saul to the war: The firstborn was Eliab; the second, Abinadab; and the third, Shammah. 14 David was the youngest. The three oldest followed Saul, 15 but David went back and forth from Saul to tend his father’s sheep at Bethlehem.
16 For forty days the Philistine came forward every morning and evening and took his stand.
When we hear about shepherds and Bethlehem we immediately think of Jesus. When we hear the number 40, we remember other uses of that number. Noah and the Ark, and forty days of rain. When Moses takes the Israelites across the desert, it is a 40 year journey. When Jesus goes out into the desert to fast, it is for forty days. The number 40 is a biblical symbol for a long time. This is what it’s like in our dreams- elements from old familiar stories all fall in the pot, and make a strange new soup.
But back to David:
17 Now Jesse said to his son David, “Take this ephah of roasted grain and these ten loaves of bread for your brothers and hurry to their camp. 18 Take along these ten cheeses to the commander of their unit. See how your brothers are and bring back some assurance from them. 19 They are with Saul and all the men of Israel in the Valley of Elah, fighting against the Philistines.”
David’s Father Jesse is worried for the well-being of his elder sons. He sends basic food for them, and a tribute, almost a bribe, to their commander.
20 Early in the morning David left the flock with a shepherd, loaded up and set out, as Jesse had directed. He reached the camp as the army was going out to its battle positions, shouting the war cry. 21 Israel and the Philistines were drawing up their lines facing each other. 22 David left his things with the keeper of supplies, ran to the battle lines and greeted his brothers. 23 As he was talking with them, Goliath, the Philistine champion from Gath, stepped out from his lines and shouted his usual defiance, and David heard it. 24 When the Israelites saw the man, they all ran from him in great fear. 25 Now the Israelites had been saying, “Do you see how this man keeps coming out? He comes out to defy Israel. The king will give great wealth to the man who kills him. He will also give him his daughter in marriage and will exempt his father’s family from taxes in Israel.”
26 David asked the men standing near him, “What will be done for the man who kills this Philistine and removes this disgrace from Israel? Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?”
27 They repeated to him what they had been saying and told him, “This is what will be done for the man who kills him.”
28 When Eliab, David’s oldest brother, heard him speaking with the men, he burned with anger at him and asked, “Why have you come down here? And with whom did you leave those few sheep in the desert? I know how conceited you are and how wicked your heart is; you came down only to watch the battle.”
Even before David can get to the part where he would fight the giant Goliath, he has to deal with the anger of his oldest brother, who clearly has no confidence in him, and is actually angry that David might involve himself in the battle. Does Eliab’s voice represent that part of David that is filled with self-doubt and self-loathing, and that believes that he could never do anything right or good?
David sounds like every little brother or sister everywhere when he begins to stand up for himself:
29 “Now what have I done?” said David. “Can’t I even speak?” 30 He then turned away to someone else and brought up the same matter, and the men answered him as before. 31 What David said was overheard and reported to Saul, and Saul sent for him.
32 David said to Saul, “Let no one lose heart on account of this Philistine; your servant will go and fight him.”
33 Saul replied, “You are not able to go out against this Philistine and fight him; you are only a boy, and he has been a fighting man from his youth.”
David faced down his big brother, and now he has to argue with the King. In many mythic tales, the hero has to face preliminary challenges and tests, almost like practice or warm-up fights, before the big scene in which they save the day.
34 But David said to Saul, “Your servant has been keeping his father’s sheep. When a lion or a bear came and carried off a sheep from the flock, 35 I went after it, struck it and rescued the sheep from its mouth. When it turned on me, I seized it by its hair, struck it and killed it. 36 Your servant has killed both the lion and the bear; this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them, because he has defied the armies of the living God. 37 The LORD who delivered me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine.”
Saul said to David, “Go, and the LORD be with you.”
I can remember learning this story in Sunday School with the little flannel graph figures. Even then I found it hard to believe that David would actually have grabbed a lion or a bear by its hair, struck it, and killed it. This sounds to me like a symbolic way of saying that David has faced his fears, and placed his trust in God, and is ready for his big challenge.
I have doubts about God taking sides in any war. Martin Niemoller, a German pastor who was sent to Dachau prison for challenging Hitler’s treatment of the Jews once said, “It took me a long time to learn that God is not the enemy of my enemies. He is not even the enemy of his enemies.”
American writer Anne Lamott puts it this way, “ When God hates all the same people that you hate, you can be absolutely certain that you have created him in your own image.”
I interpret David’s story as being about having the courage to be who God calls you to be, even though there will be both internal and external barriers in your way. Each of us face times of test and trial in our lives- times when we have to decide whether we will go along with what the world is telling us, or will we do what we believe to be right and good.
38 Then Saul dressed David in his own tunic. He put a coat of armor on him and a bronze helmet on his head. 39 David fastened on his sword over the tunic and tried walking around, because he was not used to them.
“I cannot go in these,” he said to Saul, “because I am not used to them.” So he took them off. 40 Then he took his staff in his hand, chose five smooth stones from the stream, put them in the pouch of his shepherd’s bag and, with his sling in his hand, approached the Philistine.
I love the image of David rejecting the armour and weapons of the King, and going back to his shepherd’s tunic and his sling. He faced down the temptation to look and act like somebody he was not. This makes me think about people who have lived their lives I fear of revealing to people who they really are, for fear of rejection or persecution.
I think of all those people who’ve had to pass for white, or pass for straight, in order to survive, and simply live their lives. I think of all the amazing stories of women who were forced to dress and act as men, in order to do the work they were called by God to do.
41 Meanwhile, the Philistine, with his shield bearer in front of him, kept coming closer to David. 42 He looked David over and saw that he was only a boy, ruddy and handsome, and he despised him. 43 He said to David, “Am I a dog, that you come at me with sticks?” And the Philistine cursed David by his gods. 44 “Come here,” he said, “and I’ll give your flesh to the birds of the air and the beasts of the field!”
45 David said to the Philistine, “You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the LORD Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. 46 This day the LORD will hand you over to me, and I’ll strike you down and cut off your head. Today I will give the carcasses of the Philistine army to the birds of the air and the beasts of the earth, and the whole world will know that there is a God in Israel. 47 All those gathered here will know that it is not by sword or spear that the LORD saves; for the battle is the LORD’s, and he will give all of you into our hands.”
48 As the Philistine moved closer to attack him, David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet him. 49 Reaching into his bag and taking out a stone, he slung it and struck the Philistine on the forehead. The stone sank into his forehead, and he fell facedown on the ground.
50 So David triumphed over the Philistine with a sling and a stone; without a sword in his hand he struck down the Philistine and killed him.
51 David ran and stood over him. He took hold of the Philistine’s sword and drew it from the scabbard. After he killed him, he cut off his head with the sword.
When the Philistines saw that their hero was dead, they turned and ran.
When we were taught this lesson in Sunday School, they left off the part about David cutting off the giant’s head. It is a gruesome image, especially if we read it literally. I was looking this week at a detail from a Caravaggio painting of David holding up the freshly severed head of Goliath, and it was horrifying. We can’t use this story to glorify or justify violence, even for a cause we believe in.
But if we read this as David’s dream, we can share in David’s joy as he has faced down his big fears, stood up for who he really is, and survived, to tell the story. Amen