It’s one of the most famous stories in the Bible. It’s a Sunday School favourite and it’s a metaphor-stroke-cliche. Two armies face each other across a valley, but the whole confrontation boils down to just two champions – one a boy with a slingshot; the other… The other is a giant.
But here’s the thing. The story links to some of the Old Testament’s stranger corners, and perhaps becomes the climax of a national phobia that has persisted for centuries. Because Goliath isn’t the only giant in the Bible, and therefore this famous story plays in to some primal fears that haunted the birth of Israel itself, and shows why David, not Saul, is destined to be the country’s greatest king.
The books of Exodus, Numbers and Deuteronomy tell of what happens to the Hebrews after God breaks them out of slavery in Egypt. During their forty years wandering in the wilderness, they prepare to move into the Promised Land, which is already inhabited. Which fits into a conquest narrative quite nicely, except for one thing – some of those inhabitants are giants.
Well, maybe not giants in the Hagrid sense, but certainly men of great stature. This is flagged up when Moses sends twelve spies into the Promised Land to see how the land lies. Two of the spies, Joshua and Caleb, reckon they can take it; the others spread the idea that the place is a deathtrap, at least partly because it’s full of giants and men of great power. And then they say something that must have chilled their audience to the bone.
“We saw the Nephilim there.”
This is something frightening. This is something primal. Because back in the days just before the Flood, the Nephilim walked the earth, heroes and giants and men of great and terrible reputation. Their origins were murky, perhaps even supernatural, and were part of a wickedness so great that it took a Flood to end it. Even now, as Israel looked set to enter the land, their spectre still stalked the land.
There were the Anakites, descendants of the fearsome Anak and Arba. There were the Emites, strong and numerous. There were the Rephaites, who had been defeated by Israel’s cousins the Ammonites, and there was Og, king of Bashan and his 14 foot bed. There were the Amorites, tall as cedar trees..
And so the people are terrified of facing them, which would be understandable if it weren’t for the fact that they’ve already seen God smash Egypt, the most powerful empire of the time. Their paralysing fear of these giants is less understandable self-preservation and more a symptom of their lack of trust in God. Ultimately, of course, Israel would overcome their fear – Caleb would go on to defeat the sons of Anak (which is fair enough, as he was one of the two spies who said this could be done in the first place); Moses would defeat King Og. The land would be conquered, but only when a generation had arisen that believed in God more than they believed in Egypt and giants.
And so now, hundreds of years later, Goliath faces off against the whole Israelite army and he has them terrified. And maybe that’s because he’s another of these giants, tapping into fears that were present even back in the time of Moses; Noah even. Even Israel’s own man of great stature, King Saul, seems powerless in the face of Goliath.
And yet along comes David, the youngest son of Jesse, a lowly shepherd boy, who takes his slingshot and fearlessly confronts Goliath. And thus the giant is slain. It’s a moment that confirms that God is with David, and that David trusts in God, in ways that Saul can only dream of. Because David is a man of faith, a young man willing to battle giants because he knows that God is with him. It’s that faith that sets David apart from Saul; the same willingness that set Caleb and Joshua apart from the other spies.
And they become heroes, not because of their size, not because of their military prowess, but because of their faith. And because, despite the history and the stories and the primal fears, God is still bigger than any giant.
(There’s a follow-up post to this here.)