Safe on the other side of the impossible

Malcolm Gladwell, author of David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, retold the story of David and Goliath for a TED talk in 2013. He told his audience that over the course of writing his book he learned “that everything I thought I knew about that story turned out to be wrong.”

Gladwell sets the stage by explaining the geography of the battle between the ancient Israelites and their adversaries to the west, the Philistines. The opposing armies met in the Shephelah, a region of interconnected valleys and ridges that connect the high country of the Israelites in the east to the coastal region of the Philistines in the west.

Whichever army marched down into the valley first would lose the high ground and be vulnerable, which neither was willing to do. So the Philistines proposed a single combat, winner-take-all solution to the deadlock. They sent their most fearsome soldier, Goliath, a man who was head and shoulders (and more) taller than anyone else. He was like a tree.

The Israelites quailed. No one would volunteer to face that monster of a man, until young David offered himself. David was not even in the army. He was a non-combatant; a shepherd, not a warrior. The Israelite commander initially rejected the idea, but later changed his mind. Who else could he send? So he offered the young hero his own armor and weapons, but David refused. “I’m not used to this stuff,” he said. He had a very different strategy in mind.

He went to the riverbed and picked up five smooth stones. The stones of that region are composed of barium sulfate and are twice as hard as an average stone. The sling David carried was no toy – it was an ancient artillery weapon, capable of launching a projectile at a speed of about 80 miles per hour.

Ancient slingers were accurate up to a range of 200 yards, could knock birds out of mid-air, and “sling a stone at a hair and not miss” (Judges 16:20). When David approached Goliath, he had no intention of engaging in hand-to-hand combat with him. He planned to stand out of reach and put a “bullet” right between the big man’s eyes.

Goliath himself, Gladwell suggests, was probably afflicted with acromegaly, a type of giantism that is caused by a tumor on the pituitary gland. Side effects include a progressive loss of vision or an increasing degree of double vision. That might explain why Goliath says that David was coming at him with sticks when, in fact, he had only one stick – a staff.

Goliath’s slow approach, the fact that his attendant led, rather than followed him, and his complete failure to grasp David’s strategy, all suggest to Gladwell that Goliath was visually impaired. As Gladwell portrays it, this was a fight David was bound to win.

Whether or not Gladwell’s depiction of the battle is correct, there is a theme in the David and Goliath story that runs through other biblical stories. At the beginning of his career, a person is sent on a dangerous – and seemingly impossible – mission with an apparent lack of resources. David approaches Goliath with a staff. Moses faces off with the world’s most powerful man, with nothing but a staff. Jesus sends his disciples into the world like sheep among wolves, and orders them to take nothing for their trip but a staff; no money, no extra clothes – just a staff.

It’s as if God trains his people by throwing them into an impossible situation without any of the resources commonly deemed necessary. This experience, repeated frequently in the life of biblical characters (think of Jacob, Elijah, the Apostle Paul, and others) is not intended to teach a person to “dig deep” and trust himself, but to look up and trust God.

A person needs to discover for himself that God is there and can be depended upon, no matter what the situation. Once he has emerged – safe and sound – on the other side of the impossible, he is ready to become God’s agent of change in the world.

But first he has to meet his Goliath.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, May 23, 2015

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