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MISINTERPRETING DAVID’S “You come to me with a sword, with a spear, and with a javelin. But I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts.”

January 6, 2018

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Coptic mural at the Monastery of Apollo in Bawit, north of Asyut (6/7th century), showing David clothed by King Saul in the king’s armour, including his coat of mail, a bronze helmet, and his sword. As the story goes, David found those cumbersome, and took them off, and abandoned the sword.

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Coptic mural at the Monastery of Apollo in Bawit, north of Asyut (6/7th century), showing David facing up to Goliath: David wearing a simple tunic and a sandal; the tunic girdle is tied up in the shape of a cross, as one end goes up over the left shoulder; in his left hand he carries a staff, and on his right hands he holds his sling with one stone in it, while the shepherd back is hung from his left upper arm. Goliath is shown here in all his heavy bronze gear: a helmet, coat of mail, armour on legs, and a shield. Goliath carries a spear and a sword. The Copts have never liked bloody or cruel scenes or scenes of torture, and therefore the spectacle of Goliath’s death or his cut head is not painted.

As the attacks on the Copts by the Islamists, and the persecution by successive governments of Egypt, mount, the Copts, in their helplessness to defend themselves against these attacks or reverse the persecution they are exposed to, find themselves fond of quoting 1 Samuel 17:45: “You come to me with a sword, with a spear, and with a javelin. But I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts.[1] The quotation is often given truncated, and the rest of the verse “…, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied”; is often omitted. The omission is understandable but the purpose for which the verse is often invoked is not.

You will realise that the verse, which represents a speech by David the Israelite to Goliath the Philistine, forms part of the story of the war between the Israelites and Philistines recorded in Chapter 17 of the Book of 1 Samuel in the Old Testament. The story runs as follows:

Now the Philistines gathered their armies together to battle, and were gathered at Sochoh[2], which belongs to Judah; they encamped between Sochoh and Azekah, in Ephes Dammim. And Saul and the men of Israel were gathered together, and they encamped in the Valley of Elah, and drew up in battle array against the Philistines. The Philistines stood on a mountain on one side, and Israel stood on a mountain on the other side, with a valley between them.

And a champion went out from the camp of the Philistines, named Goliath, from Gath, whose height was six cubits and a span.[3] He had a bronze helmet on his head, and he was armed with a coat of mail, and the weight of the coat was five thousand shekels[4] of bronze. And he had bronze armor on his legs and a bronze javelin between his shoulders. Now the staff of his spear was like a weaver’s beam, and his iron spearhead weighed six hundred shekels; and a shield-bearer went before him. Then he stood and cried out to the armies of Israel, and said to them, “Why have you come out to line up for battle? Am I not a Philistine, and you the servants of Saul? Choose a man for yourselves, and let him come down to me. If he is able to fight with me and kill me, then we will be your servants. But if I prevail against him and kill him, then you shall be our servants and serve us.” And the Philistine said, “I defy the armies of Israel this day; give me a man, that we may fight together.” When Saul and all Israel heard these words of the Philistine, they were dismayed and greatly afraid.[5]

David – the later King David – was youngest of eight sons of one Jesse from Bethlehem. Three older brothers of his were recruits in the army of Saul. David stayed behind with his father to shepherd his sheep. At some point, Jesse sent David with some food rations to take to his soldier brothers. When David arrived there, he found that the two warring sides had drawn up in battle array, army against army. Having heard Goliath’s defiance of the Israelites, David volunteered to challenge him. Goliath was a giant of a man – he was little under three meters tall[6] – who was battle hardened and well armed. David, however, was only a boy, a shepherd by profession, and inexperienced in wars. Even David’s own side had doubts on his fighting ability to stand up for Goliath:

Now when the words which David spoke were heard,[7] they reported them to Saul; and he sent for him. Then David said to Saul, “Let no man’s heart fail because of him; your servant will go and fight with this Philistine.”

And Saul said to David, “You are not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him; for you are a youth, and he a man of war from his youth.”

But David said to Saul, “Your servant used to keep his father’s sheep, and when a lion or a bear came and took a lamb out of the flock, I went out after it and struck it, and delivered the lamb from its mouth; and when it arose against me, I caught it by its beard, and struck and killed it. Your servant has killed both lion and bear; and this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them, seeing he has defied the armies of the living God.” Moreover David said, “The Lord, who delivered me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, He will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine.”

And Saul said to David, “Go, and the Lord be with you!”

So Saul clothed David with his armor, and he put a bronze helmet on his head; he also clothed him with a coat of mail. David fastened his sword to his armor and tried to walk, for he had not tested them. And David said to Saul, “I cannot walk with these, for I have not tested them.” So David took them off. Then he took his staff in his hand; and he chose for himself five smooth stones from the brook, and put them in a shepherd’s bag, in a pouch which he had, and his sling was in his hand.[8]

The contrast in the physical strength, combat experience and might of armour and weaponry between the two could not be greater. David, however, had the courage, confidence in himself and faith in his God; and went ahead to challenge Goliath the Philistine:

And he [David] drew near to the Philistine. So the Philistine came, and began drawing near to David, and the man who bore the shield went before him. And when the Philistine looked about and saw David, he disdained him; for he was only a youth, ruddy and good-looking.So the Philistine said to David, “Am I a dog, that you come to me with sticks?” And the Philistine cursed David by his gods. And the Philistine said to David, “Come to me, and I will give your flesh to the birds of the air and the beasts of the field!”

Then David said to the Philistine, “You come to me with a sword, with a spear, and with a javelin. But I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This day the Lord will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you and take your head from you. And this day I will give the carcasses of the camp of the Philistines to the birds of the air and the wild beasts of the earth, that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel. Then all this assembly shall know that the Lord does not save with sword and spear; for the battle is the Lord’s, and He will give you into our hands.”

So it was, when the Philistine arose and came and drew near to meet David, that David hurried and ran toward the army to meet the Philistine. Then David put his hand in his bag and took out a stone; and he slung it and struck the Philistine in his forehead, so that the stone sank into his forehead, and he fell on his face to the earth. So David prevailed over the Philistine with a sling and a stone, and struck the Philistine and killed him. But there was no sword in the hand of David. Therefore David ran and stood over the Philistine, took his sword and drew it out of its sheath and killed him, and cut off his head with it.[9]

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David and Goliath by the French artist Gustave Doré (1832 – 18833), engraved by N. Monvoisin, 1866. Here, David raises the cut head of the dead Goliath; and while the Israelites shout in joy, the Philistines retreat in fear and desperation.

Seeing their gigantic hero defeated and his head cut off, the Philistines lost courage and fled; while the Israelites chased them up and defeated them. David’s daring duel with Goliath thus marked the beginning of the victory of Israelites over the Philistines.

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This is undoubtedly a beautiful story of bravery, confidence and faith. However, it is not a story of pacifism, non-violence or passivity. Doing nothing and praying only in the hope that God will fight his war, was not what David did. David rose up to the challenge and did fight despite all the odds. He prevailed over the Philistine with a sling and a stone, as the Bible says; and the stone struck Goliath on the forehead, punctured it and resulted in his death. The stone and sling were indeed weapons –weaker weapon than Goliath’s sword, spear and javelin surely, but, still, potentially deadly. David was not passive; his action was not non-violent; and he was not a pacifist. Although the defeat of Goliath and the Philistines was attributed mainly to God’s intervention, the contribution of David and the Israelites in killing Goliath, chasing up the Philistines and vanquishing them, cannot be ignored. One wonders if the Israelites would have won the battle had David and Saul’s army done nothing and satisfied themselves with prayer alone, refusing to do their duty to fight back and defend themselves and the Israelites.

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Now, the story of David’s fight with Goliath – a more powerful foe – equipped with simple weaponry but strong faith in God is presented in the Old Testament as an historical event; but the Church has almost always ignored its literal meaning and interpreted it allegorically. The Church looked at the whole story as a shadow of the spiritual fight between Christ and Satan. David was the type of Christ, while Goliath was a type of the devil. Practically everything in the story has a spiritual meaning, not just David and Goliath, but also the lion and bear, their killing by David, the two armies, the valley, the duration of the standoff,[10] the staff, the stone, the strike on the forehead, etc. Saint Augustine of Hippo, for instance, gives the following interpretation:

Having been anointed by the blessed Samuel,[11] before coming here, he [David] killed a lion and a bear with no weapon, as he himself told King Saul. The lion and bear both refer to the devil, who dared to attack some of David’s sheep; to get strangled by him. What we are reading, dear brethren, is allegoric: What is symbolised by David, has been realised in our Lord Jesus Christ, who has strangled the lion and the bear, when he descended into Hades to liberate all the saints from their claws. Listen to the supplication of the prophet to the Person of our Lord: ‘Deliver me from the sword, my precious life from the power of the dog. Save me from the lion’s mouth.’[12]

As the strength of the bear in its claws, and that of the lion in its teeth, so the devil is symbolized by these two beasts. That is why it is said of the Person of Christ, that He saves His Church from the hand; namely, from the strength and mouth of the devil.

David came to find the Jewish armies camping in the Terebinth valley[13] to fight against the Philistines; as Christ – the true David – had to come to lift mankind up from the valley of sin and tears. They stood in the valley confronting the Philistines. They were in a valley, because the weight of their sins brought them down. Anyway, they stood there, not daring to fight against the enemy. Why didn’t they dare to do that? Because David, the symbol of Christ, had not yet come. That is true, dear brethren. Who dares to fight against the enemy, before our Lord Jesus Christ sets mankind free from its authority? Now, the word ‘David’ means ‘strong hand’. Who is stronger, brethren, than Him, who has overcome the whole world, armoured with the cross, and not with a sword?!

The children of Israel stood for 40 days before the enemy. Those 40 days refer to the present life, during which Christians do not stop fighting against Goliath and his army; namely, against the devil and his angels…

David came to find the people preparing for battle against the Philistines; yet nobody dared to enter alone into the battle. The symbol of Christ (David) went to battle, carrying only a staff in his hand against Goliath. By that he positively refers to what was realized in our Lord Jesus Christ – the true David – who came and carried His cross to fight the spiritual Goliath; namely, the devil…

It is true that Goliath having been hit in his forehead, and not in any other place, symbolizes something that happens to us. As the one baptized is marked with the sign of the cross on his forehead, that would be a hit against the spiritual Goliath, a defeat to the devil.[14]

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As we have seen, the story of David and Goliath, taken literally, cannot support passivity and pacifism; or that God will fight for one while he apathetically or cowardly decides not to defend his family against attacks by the Islamists. Divorced from its historical setting, and interpreted allegorically, the story can be used in a spiritual sense to describe the fight between Christ and the devil. Both methods of interpretation have their place: the allegorical interpretation can be used in spiritual matters; and the literal interpretation can be used in temporal matters. The two methods are different and complementary in the interpretation of this story; and it has never been claimed by the allegorists that David’s action in combatting Goliath, as history, was wrong. In fact, his fortitude – that is his calmness and courage with which he faced Goliath – and his presentation of himself to danger for the sake of his people were found praiseworthy. Saint Ambrose of Milan writes about David’s admired qualities:

David never waged war unless he was driven to it. Thus prudence was combined in him with fortitude in the battle. For even when about to fight single-handed against Goliath, the enormous giant, he rejected the armour with which he was laden. His strength depended more on his own arm than on the weapons of others. Then, at a distance, to get a stronger throw, with one cast of stone, he slew his enemy. After that he never entered on a war without seeking counsel of the Lord. Thus he was victorious in all wars, and even to his last years was ready to fight. And when war arose with the Philistines, he joined battle with their fierce troops, being desirous of winning renown, whilst careless of his own safety.[15]

It is clear that the two methods of interpretation, the allegorical and the literal, complement each other, particularly in this story of David and Goliath, and no one of them can be used to undermine the other. The fortitudinous act of David, his will to sacrifice himself for his people, defending them against the aggressive Philistines, and his faith in God, all instruct us to do the same when our people are exposed to a similar circumstance.  Using, “You come to me with a sword, with a spear, and with a javelin. But I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts,” to justify passivity or pacifism, and claiming that we ought to do nothing when our families are attacked by the Islamists for God will fight for and instead of us, is a misinterpretation of the verse as much as a misunderstanding of the whole story of David and Goliath.

As Saint Ambrose says in his The Duties of the Clergy, fortitude cannot be a virtue unless combined with two other virtues, justice and prudence.[16] I am not calling you for fortitude to fight back when your families and people are attacked without any qualifications: you must exercise justice and prudence. In the case of an Islamist attacking your business or home and intending on slaughtering you or your family, I can see all justification for resistance. That would be fortitudinous, just and prudent thing to do.

We must stop using biblical texts to justify our passivity and cowardice; or interpreting them wrongly.

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[1] NKJV.

[2] All geographical locations mentioned here now fall in Israel.

[3] See endnote 6.

[4] A biblical shekel weighs now 14.1g.

[5] 1 Samuel 17: 1-11. I have taken the verse numbers out.

[6] The Hebrew cubit is said to be about one and a half foot; so Goliath was about 9 ¾ foot tall = 292.5 cm.

[7] David was asking of the price for challenging Goliath.

[8] 1 Samuel 17: 31-40.

[9] 1 Samuel 17: 40-51.

[10] The two armies stood against each other for forty days, with Goliath taunting the Israelites for a duel, before David challenged him.

[11] See previous chapters of 1 Samuel.

[12] Psalm 22: 20, 21.

[13] The Valley of Elah.

[14] St. Augustine as quoted by Fr. Tadros Y. Malaty in First Samuel; translated by George Botros (Coptic Orthodox Christian Center, Orange, California, 2004); pp. 91-92.

[15] See: Chapter 35, On Fortitude in The Duties of the Clergy by Saint Ambrose of Milan; included in Volume 10: St. Ambrose, Selected Works and Letters in Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series; p. 108.

[16] Ibid.

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