28 October 2008

David & Goliath: A Cautionary Tale; Do Not Try This At Home

The Old Testament [modern Jews call it something else] depicts the Jews experiencing odd and/or supernatural things involving pillars of salt, trumpets, walls collapsing on their own as guys march around them, sheeps’ blood warding off evil, faux sacrifices, holy arks (supposed to be some sort of capacitors by modern authors who have read too many comic books - sorry, “graphic novels”), and which also show a great deal of bad judgment. (Here, I refer to things like David wooing Bathsheba, getting her pregnant, and arranging the death of her husband, Uriah, to cover his tracks - see the post of a couple of weeks ago, “Who Speaks for Uriah.”)

And so we come today to the story of David and Goliath. This is a central story in our culture, or a central theme, and teaches that that Good will prevail over Evil even when the wicked is bigger, stronger and meaner, because Good is, well, good. This theme introduces a moral exception to the conclusions available from the experiential observations from which we conclude that God is, indeed, on the side of the big battalions. This Good-wins theme is critical to our species and that is an acute distinction with less sentient species. Life since Humanity began (in the Garden, in Oldevai Gorge, wherever) has been about power and the conflicts of power. That happens in the physical world, the social world, the intellectual world, the spiritual world, and some of the greatest (and also some of the least successful) human achievements have been about transcending constant competition and conflict. But even in our own churches, we freely acknowledge power and conflict, even in trivial matters. One way that immediately comes to mind is good friend Pastor Josh’s genuinely humorous comment at the end of some sermons about our communal desire to get out of church and beat the Baptists to Bob Evans for lunch. Think about it – when you are in a commercial establishment, a restaurant wanting seated or at a grocery store wanting to check out, do you look for the shortest line, the quickest way in and out, the advantage that will advance your interests over those of others? Welcome to the world of conflict, competition and power. Even when I’m slouching through the grocery store line and let someone (usually an older person or a lady) in front of me, I’m aware that I have given up some sort of right, that I have the power, but I’m voluntarily relinquishing it, just to be a nice fellow and maybe gain a few points in Heaven or notch up a Boy Scout Good Turn.

The David & Goliath tale as told to little kids is somewhat sanitized. Let’s look at it in a really modern translation (the translation called The Message, available on bible.com, which is probably as far from the KJV as the KJV is from the Greek): (This is from I Samuel 17.)

A giant nearly ten feet tall stepped out from the Philistine line into the open, Goliath. He had a bronze helmet on his head and was dressed in armor——126 pounds of it! [No, that unit of measure hadn't been invented. I don't know where this translator gets that.] He wore bronze shin guards and carried a bronze sword. His spear was like a fence rail——the spear tip alone weighed over fifteen pounds. . . .

Goliath stood there and called out to the Israelite troops, "Why bother using your whole army? . . . So pick your best fighter and pit him against me. If he kills me, we’ll all become your slaves. But if I kill him, you'll all become our slaves. Give me a man. Let us fight it out together!" When Saul and his troops heard the Philistine's challenge, they were terrified and lost all hope. Enter David. . . . Goliath stepped out from the front lines of the Philistines, and gave his usual challenge. David heard him. . . . David asked, "What's in it for the man who kills that Philistine and gets rid of this ugly blot on Israel's honor?"

. . .

The things David was saying were . . . reported to [King] Saul. Saul sent for him. "Master," said David, "don't give up hope. I'm ready to go and fight this Philistine." Saul answered David, "You can't go and fight this Philistine. You're too young and inexperienced——and he's been at this fighting business since before you were born." David said, "I've been a shepherd, tending sheep for my father. Whenever a lion or bear came and took a lamb from the flock, I'd go after it, knock it down, and rescue the lamb. If it turned on me, I'd grab it by the throat, wring its neck, and kill it. Lion or bear, it made no difference——I killed it. And I'll do the same to this Philistine pig who is taunting the troops of God. God, who delivered me from the teeth of the lion and the claws of the bear, will deliver me from this Philistine." Saul said, "Go. And God help you!" [I don't know if that's a prayer or given in the modern sense, which is a sort of kiss-off.]

. . . Then David took his shepherd's staff, selected five smooth stones from the brook, and put them in the pocket of his shepherd's pack, and with his sling in his hand approached Goliath.

As the Philistine paced back and forth, his shield bearer in front of him, he noticed David. He took one look down on him and sneered——a mere youngster, apple-cheeked and peach-fuzzed. . . . "Come on," said the Philistine. "I'll make roadkill of you for the buzzards. I'll turn you into a tasty morsel for the field mice." David answered, "You come at me with sword and spear and battle-ax. I come at you in the name of God, whom you curse and mock. This very day God is handing you over to me. I'm about to kill you, cut off your head, and serve up your body and the bodies of your Philistine buddies to the crows and coyotes. The whole earth will know that there's an extraordinary God in Israel. And everyone gathered here will learn that God doesn't save by means of sword or spear. The battle belongs to God——he's handing you to us on a platter!"

That roused the Philistine, and he started toward David. David took off from the front line, running toward the Philistine. David reached into his pocket for a stone, slung it, and hit the Philistine hard in the forehead, embedding the stone deeply. The Philistine crashed, facedown in the dirt. . . . Then David ran up to the Philistine and stood over him, pulled the giant's sword from its sheath, and finished the job by cutting off his head. When the Philistines saw that their great champion was dead, they scattered, running for their lives.

OK, I think that even this humble scribe as the Chair of our Church Board of Heresy can find the Moral: Armed with the power of the living God, the Weak have a weapon that the Mighty cannot match, and God’s People will prevail. (Here, my mind's gospel group is singing that energetic verse, "There is power, power, wonder working power, in the blood of the lamb . . ."

There are two broad ways to look at the lessons from the David & Goliath tale. First, whether it is literal or some inspirational fable [no, I’m not going there], if David’s stone was powered by and guided by God personally and not by God’s laws (angular momentum, aerodynamics, kinetic energy, etc.), it’s a pretty good story, although I assume there’s an implied lesson that God doesn’t always (doesn’t even frequently, in my observation) interfere that directly in human affairs. However, if the point is that David’s faith made the difference, and that he accomplished this feat without direct, present supernatural assistance, then the story teaches lessons that are seldom discussed:

1. King Saul is a moron. Lucky, but a moron. He nearly got David killed.

2. David is either a lucky genius (the Palestine version of J.B. Hickok) who defied God's laws of physics or a little psychotic or, more probably, both.

3. The putative lesson, that you can do anything, even that which is seemingly impossible in the physical world if you just have enough faith (and the corollary that if you attempt something and it doesn’t work, you’re the one who failed because you didn’t have faith) is cocky, anthropocentric and contrary to species and civilization advance and survival, because it mocks both courage and intelligence.

The greatest reality in our physical lives is power – who has it, who uses it, who is affected by it, how it changes, and how we (usually ineffectively) try to avoid it and produce a just society based on reason and love (which coincide closely a lot of the time.)

For a primer on power in our lives, look at two relatively recent books, The 48 Laws of Power and The 33 Strategies of War, both by Robert Greene. I do NOT recommend these books in the same way that I recommend, say, Handling Sin or Red Helmet or Plato and a Platypus Walk Into A Bar. Greene has not produced something beautiful and stirring and uplifting. These remind me of an episode from the original Star Trek series where a planet was operated on the basis of a book about Prohibition-era-Gangland-Chicago, and carrying a Tommy gun with a drum magazine was the zenith of culture. Greene paints an accurate, smelly, colorful picture of the sewage pit that is much of our social structure, and does so in a vain and cynical manner. That doesn’t mean he’s wrong, just that I wouldn’t want to hoist a brew with him.

It is not impossible for a small, unarmed person of great faith and virtue to prevail in physical battle over an evil, armed, ruthless opponent, but that’s not the way to bet. Perhaps the real heroes of the David & Goliath story are (1) God, not for being right there and orchestrating the fight, but for creating mass, inertia and angular momentum and (2) the guy who invented the slingshot. It was noted (at least by legend) in the Old American West that God made All Men but Colonel Colt made All Men Equal. The force multiplier of a slingshot, David’s ability to use it, and his willingness to do so under stressful conditions theoretically made the victory possible. However, against an armored opponent, the target for this primitive weapon was small, and the odds weren’t with David.

According to the story, David put the stone exactly in the unarmored spot on Goliath’s forehead with enough force to embed the stone. This just isn’t likely. There is a limit to how fast anyone can twirl a sling. Aiming a sling is necessarily imprecise. With a firearm, you are looking down the barrel, along the axis that the bullet will follow. By definition, with the sling, you are the sling has to be 90 degrees off target when you release it. (Actually, a touch more than 90 degrees to give the pouch time to disengage from the projectile.) Then the projectile leaves the pouch at a not-amazing velocity. Even if the slingster is experienced, s/he cannot account for the vagaries of physics. David used a river rock, that is, a smooth rock. It was still unbalanced, it was not spin-stabilized, and so it was not terribly aerodynamic. Early fluctuations in its course became greater and greater, so no matter how good a slingster David was, the equipment is limited and physics defies pinpoint accuracy.

In sum, generally, God is on the side of the big batallions and the quality weapons.

This is not to say that it is always wrong to take on a more powerful opponent. (Although, it is still always stupid to do so unknowingly.) Germany was going to overrun Poland in 1939. Poland knew that. Poland’s army included no-kidding horse cavalry and fabric-covered biplanes. If they didn’t resist, Germany was going to invade, crush Poland and kill lots of people. If they did resist, Germany was going to invade, crush Poland and kill lots of people. Resistance was honorable and reasonable. Germany moved on Paris, but was not bent on destroying the city. The French declared Paris an open city and evacuated the military. Cowardly? Up for debate. Wise? I think so.

These are hard and even evil ways to look at life. When the old and weak springbok is taken down by the predators, no doubt his last thoughts are something like, “Boy, this sucks,” but they are still his last thoughts.

When the underdog wins, there’s usually a reason. Leonidas and the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae faced 300,000 plus Persians around 480 BC, and held the Persians at the pass called the “Hot Gate.” This is frequently cited as an example of those armed with goodness and faith prevailing over impossible odds. Well, this was not a David vs. Goliath situation. Consider:

1 - The 300 were elite soldiers facing relatively poorly trained conscripts.

2 - The Spartans were defending a narrow pass where the Persians could not bring their numerical superiority to bear.

3 - The Spartans knew that they were all going to die, they were willing to die, and they did die.

4 - The Spartans had a limited goal, delaying the Persians. They did not have to defeat 300,000 enemies.

Looking dispassionately does not diminish the courage and honor of the participants in any conflict, nor the disapprobation deserved by some of the participants. But looking only through the emotional lens is still stupid.

So, do you carry away the right lesson from David and Goliath? Here is a test: I recently read in a newsletter a blurb where a guy was essentially bragging that he saw a “bad guy” outside his house hotwiring his motorcycle. So, he concludes, he was on the side of good and right when he grabbed his pistol, went outside, got very close to the bad guy, missed the fact that there were two other bad guys present, and let the bad guy get within 5 feet of him. Now, here is the question, what did you think of first? (a) Good will win out, and we need to stand up to evil. (b) Going after someone for a property crime is immoral. (b) Getting into an armed confrontation unnecessarily is stupid.

If you answered “(a),” and are still in your fecund years, that is good, because evolution is about to work it’s magic. If you answered “(b),” stick to well-lighted, gated communities. If you answered “(c),” you got the true point of David & Goliath.

God has worked, can work and does work miracles. One of the less flashy and most important is the development of the human brain and this intangible thing called Good Judgment. Perhaps the College of Hard Knocks is really a Jesuit school.

Note: A special tip of the ol' chapeau to Friend Rosa, who pointed out that I'd slipped and used "Trojans" three times in place of "Spartans." Rosa also declines to start the discussion of "justice," and let me assure you, dearest Rosa, that post is a-borning.
Pippa passes.



Bertram000 said...

You forgot, "Attitude is Everything!"

Not being prone to belief in the intercession of a Higher Power, I've come to view the OT as propaganda.

I do have a very strong belief in the power of coincidence. But most people don't want to think that something they just did that was way out of the ordinary is simply an instance of the Bell Curve having it's way with them.

Regarding 'power'... Sometimes I'm beguiled by what I think I could do with more power. Other times I think I'd be happier as a hermit.

rosa said...

pssst Spartans not Trojans.

Don't forget the winners wrote that history. For all we really know, Goliath was basically some dude who was normally tall, but blown out of proportion to make David look better.

I don't even want to get into the concept of justice--and good and evil.