David V. Goliath (1 Samuel 17): What Is the Author Doing with What He Is Saying?

By Kuruvilla, Abraham | Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, September 2015 | Go to article overview

David V. Goliath (1 Samuel 17): What Is the Author Doing with What He Is Saying?


Kuruvilla, Abraham, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society


When Tom Sawyer, the indefatigable and timeless young creation of Mark Twain, was pressed in Sunday School to identify the first two disciples of Jesus, he burst out exuberantly: "David and Goliath!"1 Thus it was implicitly declared that the battle between these two biblical characters was the best-known story in the Bible, one that even Tom Sawyer had heard about.

Best known it might be, but not exactly the easiest one to unravel for its theological thrust, what with text-critical problems casting long shadows upon the narrative, eager preachers making analogies of Goliath to the terrorizing giants of daily life, and ambitious theologians extrapolating from David to Christ who conquers all his enemies. What is the interpreter to do, particularly the one desiring to move from the sacred page to a sermon that respects the nuances, details, and intricacies of the text?

First Samuel 17 is part of a larger portion of text, 1 Sam 16:14-2 Samuel 5, that depicts the rise of David-how and why he became the legitimate successor to Saul.2 By the end of 1 Samuel 15, we discover that Saul has been rejected by God from being king; immediately thereafter, in 1 Samuel 16, his successor, David, is anointed by the prophet Samuel, and the Spirit of Yahweh comes mightily upon this young man (16:13). But why was he chosen? God obviously saw something man did not; he, looking at David's heart, seems to have observed David's qualifications (16:7). What were they? What was in David's curriculum vitae that fitted him for the task of being the regent of a nation under God? That is what 1 Samuel 17 is all about and, by extension, as we explore the theological thrust of this chapter, we will discover what it means for all of God's people to have a heart that God looks upon with approval.

Despite all the battle cries uttered and gauntlets cast, all the fearing and fleeing, all the interludes and turns in the story, all the taunting and defying, not to mention the description and use of impressive soldierly weapons and meager "shepherdly" contraptions, the actual battle-action is reported in a mere three verses (17:48-49, 51). But the narrative of 1 Samuel 17 takes all of fifty-eight verses in the MT (thirty-one in the LXX) to tell us one thing: David killed Goliath. There is no doubt that this dilatation is with purpose. The author is doing something with all that he is saying, as is always the case with any narrative. Declared Tzvetan Todorov, the philosopher and literary critic: "No narrative is natural; a choice and a construction will always preside over its appearance; narrative is a discourse, not a series of events."3 Any biblical narrator has the freedom to prioritize, schematize, synthesize, and organize his raw material for his express theological purpose; the author/redactor of 1 Samuel 17 is no exception.4 Not everything about each character is portrayed; not everything that was said or done on any particular occasion is described; not everything that happened is revealed. Some things are expanded upon; some are artfully rearranged; some seemingly innocuous incidents are recounted. The author's theological agenda determined the choice of what was included and excluded in the narrative. And that theological agenda, portrayed in, with, and through the text, must be discovered by those who would preach Scripture for life change. Interpreters are therefore called to discern not only what the author was saying, but also what he was doing with what he was saying in any given pericope.5 "History is therefore never history, but history-for."6 The writers of biblical narratives had ideological and theological purposes, primarily that of changing the lives of their readers. Thus, information was not the only goal of these authors; transformation was an essential aim of their writings. Block therefore calls for a "careful attention to the words employed and the syntax exploited to tell the story" and "a cautious and disciplined reading between the lines, for what is leftunstated also reflects an ideological perspective. …

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