I'm no SuperheroReimagining the story of David & Goliath
I’m no superhero.
Reimagining the story of David & Goliath
Here is one of the most well-known stories from the Bible, the definitive underdog story:
A young boy with a sling and five stones takes on a huge warrior armed with sword, spear and javelin. Against all the odds, the young boy wins.
Just like when I watch a superhero film or read a novel, I imagine myself in the story. I’m the person at the centre: the hero with the cape, or the knight who fights off the dragon and wins the woman’s heart. When I read David & Goliath, it’s natural for me to imagine that I’m David. The odds aren’t always in my favour, so it gives me hope when, against all the odds, David wins the fight. I think that — maybe — if I just believe enough, if I’m just confident enough, I can take on the giant and win. I probably won’t face Goliath himself when I get out of bed in the morning, but think about those big obstacles in our lives: all our fears, the things we struggle with, illness, famine, inequality, injustice… Just believe.
We can win our battles if we believe in ourselves.
I wonder — if we sit down and think about it properly — would we say it is an honest story? By that, I mean: does it ring true with our experience of life in this world? Do we just need to believe in ourselves a little bit more?
My optimistic side wants to say ‘yes’, but no, it’s not always true.
Our standard moral lesson from this story is not always true and deep down we know it. Battles are not decided by who’s got the most self-belief. Yes — confidence can go a long way — but it’s only one of the scores on your top trump card.
It seems to me that there’s a dark twist to the way we normally tell the story. When it’s all about self-belief, it all depends on us. Think about that for a moment.
That means if you do end up winning, you can congratulate yourself! (Well done, you!) But what about those more difficult battles? What if there is a battle you cannot win by yourself?
Maybe I’m alone in this, but I’ve noticed that — more often than not — I’m not handsome, dashing, or heroic enough to win whatever I’m fighting for. And having enough faith, self-belief, courage, or whatever does not guarantee that I’m going to win despite my weakness. Maybe I will, maybe I won’t.
I think we reach this problem when we imagine ourselves at the centre of the David & Goliath story.
So what happens if we don’t imagine ourselves at the centre of the story? What if we step a little to the left?
What if we give up both the praise and pressure of being the hero and imagine ourselves as a normal person in the story? Not an uninteresting person, but a real person, with a real family, with real struggles, with real strengths. A person with real things to lose if this all goes pear-shaped. A person whose life and future is bound up in the outcome of the battle.
Imagine standing and looking fearfully across the valley to Goliath and the army behind him.
You hear his taunting every day. This army has come to either enslave you or annihilate you. Your whole life, your future, your family, your home — everything you hold dear — is under threat. Goliath demands that one man steps forward to take him on in a duel to decide the outcome of the battle, so you don’t actually have to fight yourself. Your mighty king isn’t prepared to go, even though he’s one of your strongest, most experienced warriors and one of only a few select people with swords. But he does offer a handsome reward to anyone who takes on and defeats Goliath.
How do you feel after a whole week of nobody coming forward to take Goliath on?
How do you feel after a full fortnight of running away in fear every time Goliath appears?
Even after three weeks of holding your position, nobody is willing to represent your side in the duel. And you dare not fight. This Goliath is huge, mighty. Covered in bronze, he looks like a living, walking, talking, breathing god.
You won’t win the reward if you go to fight him. Because any self-belief would just be self-delusion. You would die and Goliath would claim the victory.
There’s a bit of you that starts to wish you were on Goliath’s side.
Fear festers in your camp for forty days and then a young shepherd appears, bringing supplies for the army.
A shepherd who brings some food might seem like an irrelevant detail, but he quickly finds out what’s going on and ends up having a chat with the king. And — to cut a short story a little shorter — he is sent to represent the people by fighting Goliath…
So how do you feel when you see this small boy running down to fight Goliath? Are you admiring his bravery? Accepting defeat? Wondering what on earth your king has done? Are you appalled that this young boy has been sent to certain death? Are you already running for your life?
Can you bear to watch, or are you covering your eyes?
I encourage you to take a peak through your fingers. You’ll notice that Goliath doesn’t get to land a single blow with his supersized-weaponry. Instead, the shepherd picks up a stone and hurls it at the warrior’s head. Goliath topples forward, face down on the ground at David’s feet. David takes Goliath’s sword and chops off his head.
How do you feel now? Has anything changed?
Maybe you could have been the champion if you had spent more time practicing with your slingshot, if you just had believed in yourself a bit more…
I don’t think you could. I don’t think any of us could, because we are not meant to be at the centre of this story. No matter how much we love hearing underdog stories, I don’t think we would ever like being in them. We like winning (or at least surviving), we don’t like the prospect of losing everything and dying.
When we feel we want Goliath fighting for us, or hope for someone even stronger, with mightier weapons, we are trusting in our own strength, we are looking at the world and this story from a human point of view.
Here is some good news: Goliath is only a pretender.
Goliath looks like a living, walking, talking, breathing god, but that’s only in the world’s eyes. When we trust in him, either by shouting his name or cowering in fear, we worship human strength — we proclaim that the physical strength we see in him is what wins in the end.
David has little strength of his own. Yes, he is brave, but not because he believes in himself: David believes in a God who is no pretender at all. He says in his conversation with the king that he has survived fights with lions and bears in the past, but only because God rescued him.
This young shepherd, who is used to caring for his Father’s sheep, says that he, in turn, is cared for by a greater shepherd.
Often, when we tell underdog stories, there is a twist of hidden brilliance in the weaker side, or a secret weakness in the stronger side. I’ve read lots of people trying to understand this story (or make it feel more real), by diagnosing Goliath with near-blindness or other crippling maladies. Are these true underdog stories? Or do they just have the appearance of an underdog story?
The story of David slaying Goliath is only a true underdog story, because David is most certainly going to die.
I am no superhero. Neither is Goliath. We spent 40 days wanting him, or praying for someone even stronger to fight on our behalf, when the hero we really needed was a shepherd who cared, who believed in God and was willing to die.
Here is my big question from the story:
In what kind of world does someone who is certainly going to die, actually not die? In what story are people repeatedly saved from death and given new life?
In a kind of world where God is in control and where even death submits to his life-giving words. It’s a story that says that this world is a world with a real, living, breathing God who cares for his own people and has all events under His control.
It’s a story to reassure us that He will send someone to save His people, even from certain death. Someone like a shepherd, who is even willing to lay his own life down for his people.
This is a draft article for an ongoing project exploring how we engage with the story of the battle between David & Goliath. Feedback appreciated! http://plungepool.co.uk/theshepherdsfight/
Read the original story in the book of 1 Samuel, chapter 17.