Wednesday, December 11, 2013

1 Samuel: David and Goliath!

Hello, hello!

It occurs to me that First Samuel is taking a real long time to get through. This is the sixth post on this book, and we’re only about halfway through. If I want to not spend a dozen posts on it, I’m gonna have to streamline things a bit.

Anyway, when last we left off, Samuel had just informed Saul that God didn’t want him to be king anymore because Saul didn’t slaughter some animals exactly when and where God had wanted him to. We pick up with Samuel moping around mourning for Saul, when God pops by to tell him to stop sniveling because he’s picked a new king and needs Samuel to go anoint him.

It’s worth noting, by the way, that while God may say that Saul isn’t king, and Samuel may agree with him, everyone else in Israel thinks he still is.

Anyhow, Samuel goes to visit this guy Jesse, and on God’s orders has each of the guy’s sons paraded in front of him so God can tell him whether or not they’re the chosen king (I guess God couldn’t give a clear indication like just telling Samuel the name of the guy he was looking for). And after rejecting all of the older brothers in turn, the youngest David is brought in front of Samuel and God gives him his seal of approval.

Mind you, God had also approved Saul, and even “gave him a new heart,” to make him a better servant, and we saw how that turned out. So why Samuel should trust God’s judgment any more on David is kind of a mystery.

Anyhow, Samuel takes his holy oil and anoints David. So he’s the new king now, right?

Well… no. For some reason God is unable or unwilling to just tell the Israelites that Saul’s a fuckup in his eyes, so now David is going to be king. Instead there must still be years of drama that look suspiciously like court politics leading to a guerilla rebellion against a king who’s slowly going batshit crazy before God’s chosen king can assume his throne. So to get that all started…

1 Sam 16:14 Now the Spirit of Yahweh departed from Saul, and a harmful spirit from Yahweh tormented him.”

So here’s the mysterious Spirit of Yahweh thing turning up again, which is never adequately described nor the supposed effects of having it (other than that having it rush upon Samson seemed to generally drive him into a superhuman killing frenzy). But whatever it is, it has now left Saul and been replaced with a spirit that tortures him. As the story goes on, it becomes clear that the effects of this harmful spirit manifest in psychotic outbursts, melancholy, and raging paranoia, so basically this passage is telling us that God is driving Saul slowly insane.

Anyhow, Saul’s servants recommend that he find himself a good musician to soothe him when the harmful spirit is affecting him.

1 Sam 16:17 So Saul said to his servants, ‘Provide for me a man who can play well and bring him to me.’ 18 One of the young men answered , ‘Behold, I have seen a son of Jesse the Bethlehemite, who is skillful in playing, a man of valor, a man of war, prudent in speech, and a man of good presence, and Yahweh is with him.’”

The man he’s speaking of is, of course, David. Saul sends to David’s father Jesse to have the young man sent to him. So David comes to court to play his lyre whenever the harmful spirit is tormenting the king; he immediately becomes one of Saul’s favorites and is made his armor-bearer.

Some time after this, the Philistines once again march into Judah, and Saul takes his army out to oppose them. Among the Philistines is a giant of a warrior named Goliath, who is described as being six cubits and a span (nearly ten feet) tall. And Goliath makes it his habit to step out of the Philistine lines and challenge the Israelites to send a champion to face him in single combat to decide the battle. But the Israelites are all afraid to face him, so the two armies face off for forty days over this bullshit.

One day David’s father sends him to deliver some supplies to his three older brothers who are with Saul’s army, and while he’s there he hears about Goliath’s challenge. He also hears that Saul has offered his daughter in marriage to whoever defeats Goliath. So David goes to Saul and offers to slay Goliath for him. Saul initially objects on the basis that David is just a little shepherd boy. In fact, much is made throughout this part of the story of how David is just a youth and a shepherd, despite the fact that we were told in the previous chapter that he was a mighty man of war and Saul’s personal armor-bearer. But whatever.

David argues that as a shepherd he’s had to kill lions and bears that were trying to eat his sheep, so killing Goliath should be no different. Saul relents, and offers his armor. David tries it on and discovers it fits him so poorly that he can hardly move (I guess being Saul’s personal armor-bearer granted him no actual familiarity with Saul’s armor). So he heads out to challenge Goliath with no armor at all, carrying only his shepherd’s staff and a sling.

Of course most of you know the story. Goliath taunts David for his apparent lack of preparedness, David taunts back that he has God on his side. Then Goliath rushes at David, and David plonks him in the head with a stone from his sling. Goliath collapses, and David marches over and uses Goliath’s own sword to cut the giant’s head off.

Now, the text takes great pains to point out that David didn’t defeat Goliath with a “real” weapon. David, in taunting his foe, claimed that his victory would prove that Israel had a real god, because he would be saved without the use of sword or spear, and the text points out that when David defeated Goliath he “had no sword in his hand.”

What the author seems to be ignorant of (or hopes his audience is ignorant of), is that a sling is a real fucking weapon!

Slings in skilled hands are deadly and accurate weapons. People hunted with slings. People killed each other with slings. Slingers have been used to great effect in armies since time immemorial and many commanders considered them more effective than archers. Aztec warriors are recorded killing goddamn horses with a single slung stone!

You know that scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark where Indiana Jones runs into the swordsman in the bazaar? The guy goes through a series of flourishes to demonstrate his skill with a sword, then flashes Indy a grin that clearly states how he anticipates carving off a nice piece of Indiana flank steak. So our hero draws a gun and shoots him in the face. The David and Goliath scene is exactly like that! Yeah, it’s kinda clever and kinda badass, but it most definitely does not require the intervention of the omnipotent creator of the universe.

Goliath lost because he failed to anticipate his opponent’s weapon, not because an unarmed man faced him with only the power of a god on his side.

As an aside, if you read only the portion of the text telling the story of David and Goliath, it tries very hard to create the impression that David was just a shepherd boy. But if you read the entire Book of Samuel (bearing in mind that David has been described as a “man of valor, a man of war” before this battle ever took place), you realize that David was “just a shepherd” in exactly the same way that Indiana Jones is “just an archeologist.”

Anyway, with their champion defeated, the Philistines completely lose their shit and start running away. The Israelites set about chasing them down and killing them, while David takes Goliath’s head back to Saul. In the meantime, Saul had been asking his commander who David’s father was, and the commander didn’t know. So Saul asks David when he gets back. Throughout the scene in which nobody seemed to know who David’s father was, Saul only referred to David as “this youth,” and “young man,” as if somehow the identity and provenance of someone we were told earlier was a court favorite has somehow slipped the mind of everyone who should have known him.

At any rate, Saul now decides that David will be a permanent fixture at court and no longer return home to help out with the sheep. Then…

1 Sam 18:1 As soon as he had finished speaking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul. 2 And Saul took him that day and would not let him return to his father’s house. 3 Then Jonathan made a covenant with David because he loved him as his own soul. 4 And Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that was on him and gave it to David, and his armor, and even his sword and his bow and his belt.”

Aww… isn’t that sweet? Love at first sight!

Much has been theorized about whether Jonathan and David had a homosexual relationship. I don’t know, nor do I particularly care – if they did, it’s never explicitly said. But whether there was sex or not, it’s certainly true that the bromance between these two would profoundly affect the future course of the Israelite royal succession. But we’ll find out more about that another time, since I think we’ve reached a pretty good stopping point for today.

Until next time, you all take care!

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