1 Samuel 17 & Mark 4:35-41
This week’s passages tell the tale of two times that other-than-human evil attempted to assault and insult the people of God. One instance was in a military confrontation, and another was in a an attack involving the weather. I want to say from the outset that I believe very strongly that God has nothing to do with almost all violent conflict and equally almost nothing to do with so-called “acts of God” such as floods and storms. But once in a very great while, scripture argues that God is involved in such acts, as a means to overcome evil with good.
The first story of David and Goliath is direct in describing the conflict between those who would injure the chosen people and defame God on the one side, and God and God’s people on the other. Goliath from Gath came out daily to taunt the Israelites for forty days, and requested single representative combat rather than an all-out war between the two sides. When David came to deliver foodstuffs to his three older brothers in Saul’s army, he understood what was truly at stake: God’s honor.
“You [Goliath] come against me [David] 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. This day the Lord will deliver you into my hands, and I’ll strike you down and cut off your head… and the whole world will know that there is a God in Israel. 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.” (1 Samuel 17:45-47) [emphasis added].
David rejected not only Goliath’s insults against God and God’s community, but also his idea of representative combat. David wanted to fight all the Philistines, and we will see why and how.
Two quick historic notes: 1) modern Palestinians are not Philistines, not genetically and not in terms of community coherence across history. Romans renamed the province of Judea as Syria Palaestina (reviving a term earlier used by Herodotus) and merged it with Roman Syria in 135 CE after Hadrian put down the Bar Kockba Revolt. This renaming of the Roman state of Judea was specifically a way of insulting the Jews who remained in the area. The remaining Jews were prohibited on pain of death from living in Jerusalem, which was renamed as Aelia Capitalonia. The mix of Jews, Greeks, Arabs, Turks, Syrians, Egyptians, Europeans and their offspring in the area thousands of years later are Palestinians today. So we should not think that the Philistines that David faced are the same as Palestinians today. There is no direct continuity between the two groups.
2) According to most scholars, the Philistines that David faced were a seafaring, invading group from islands in the Mediterranean, who settled in coastal cities. The Israelite experience sojourning in Canaanite territory during the period of the patriarchs, according to scriptures, gives them a much earlier connection to the land than the recently arrived Philistines, who nevertheless, were able to establish a strong presence in the coastal areas because of their superior metallurgy and horse husbandry (1 Samuel 13:19-22).
It is in the context of a narrative of a race between the Philistines and Israelites for hegemony over the promised land that David answers Goliath’s challenge to God’s people. David’s preparation’s point to an understanding that David saw this battle as primarily spiritual. He prepared not just to face a giant. Rather, he was facing down a long-standing challenge to God’s plan for the world, not just the chosen community.
David’s selection of five rocks is particularly important. David was prepared to face Goliath and all the remaining members of a group whose very DNA contained resistance to God. Stay with me, because this was probably not covered in Sunday school and it’s going to get weird.
One of the main reasons for the sending of the flood in Genesis 6 was the cohabitation of heavenly beings (sons of God) with human women. Their descendants were called Nephilim (literally, “fallen/cast down ones.”) Somehow, they survived the flood and had descendants who were distinct from ordinary humans because of their giant size. These are some of the giants that the Israelite spies encountered in the land (Numbers 13:31-33). Eventually Joshua and his army kill or drive out all of the giants from the hill country and the only ones left are to be found in the Philistine cities of Gath and Ashkelon (Joshua 11:21-22), which is precisely where Goliath was from. These other-than-human beings were the descendants of rebellious, fallen-beings whose very existence were an insult to God. They had caused God such anguish that God sought to undo creation by releasing the contained and separated waters of Genesis 1.
David knew that there were only five of these monsters left, and so he collected five stones to finish the job. He killed Goliath on that day, but he and his men eventually killed Goliath’s four other relatives (2 Samuel 21:15-22). This was intentional speciecide on David’s part, because the existence of the last of the Nephilim, as we see from Goliath’s taunts, was an ongoing insult to God. This may seem weird, but different Biblical authors from different time periods all address the problem of Nephilim and the quest to exterminate them.
I went through that long explanation in order to say this: it is important that we see David’s conflict as primarily a battle against the forces of evil rather than as an ethnic conflict. David had no problem later living with the Philistines, even in Gath (1 Sameul 27:1-4). David took up arms against those who insulted God. His battle with Goliath was against an other-than-human being who was from a long line of spiritual enemies of God, and those who aligned themselves with the enemy of God. David was victorious.
Jesus’ response to the storm that threatened to sink him and the disciples is to be seen in the same light. In Mark’s gospel, Jesus rebuked (ἐπετίμησεν) the storm and told the waters to be silent (πεφίμωσο) (Mark 4:39). Rebuking and silencing are the exact same actions that Jesus took with an evil spirit earlier in Mark (1:25). This was not one of the natural storms which sweep into the hills surrounding the Sea of Galilee regularly, but a spiritual attack on the person and peace of Jesus. Professor Samuel Lachs argued that this is a clear indication that Jesus was not contending with the weather, but with a שר של ימ (a “prince of the sea”).* Remember, that the sea was the principle adversary against God’s creation, and Biblical poetry goes to great length to show God’s victory over the sea, especially the Sea of Reeds/Red Sea through which the Israelites were redeemed to God. Jesus, who was tired and overwhelmed by crowds and just wanted a little rest and solitude, did not merely calm the weather. He rebuked and silenced a demonic attempt on his life and those of his followers.
Jesus and David both defended themselves and God’s honor from a spiritual being that attacked them. Not all trials that we face are spiritual (Luke 13:4). Sometimes bad stuff just happens. But sometimes the forces of evil are aligned against us. We know we are right to fight back, however, precisely when it is God’s honor and the beloved community which is under attack, and not just us. We should be very careful to not imagine that just because we feel under siege there is a spiritual attack. But when someone attacks God’s honor by threatening God’s beloved, especially the poor, widows, orphans and foreigners who God cares about particularly, we should investigate and be prepared to cast out in Jesus’ name the evil that is being done.
* Lachs, Samuel. 1987. A Rabbinic Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. (Hoboken, NJ: Ktav). 161. See also y. Sanhedrin 40b in which Rabbi Yehoshua ben Hananiah urges the “Prince of the Sea” of Tiberias/Galilee to drown someone.