THE GOLIATH OBSESSION
The Leviticus:8 Project
Five of you shall give chase to a hundred, and a hundred of you shall give chase to ten thousand; your enemies shall fall before you by the sword. Leviticus 26:8
It’s the plot of every underdog film. The ragtag band of misfits is charged with the defeat of the highly-trained and heavily-armed army of bad guys. That’s the fantasy, right? Since little David dinged Goliath between the eyes and brought down the entire Philistine shock-force, it’s what we always want to see and always hope will happen.
Look at the world today and you can see it playing out. On the global stage, Kim Jong-un’s obsession with the United States has persuaded him his missiles could defeat us. In Las Vegas, everyone with a system believes they can beat the house. And the current President of the United States has behaved like a beleaguered loner while encouraging those who identify with him to resist the juggernauts of the press, the Democrats and, well, anyone who disagrees with him.
But the fact of the matter is that almost all of the time the lesser combatant loses. There may be some short-term promise, but ultimately, North Korea doesn’t stand a chance, the casino has the odds and Donald Trump’s administration will end and he will return to private life somewhere.
I can’t fault the fantasy. In a lot of ways, it is encouraged by faith traditions, including my own, that promise that brute force is not the ultimate determinant of dominance. In the end, faith suggests, there is a higher power rooted in the object of faith. Access what you worship, and that power will serve you against all foes.
I am by far not the first person to call out this misconception. In the United States, toward the end of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln famously said, of the two cohorts of combatants, “Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other.” The North prevailed because of superior resources and strategy, not because God was on their side.
So, am I suggesting that the Bible presents a falsehood in this assurance that faithfulness is the superpower of the believer? Only if you choose to take this assurance literally.
Anecdotally, there are certainly cases where David beats Goliath. What makes those anecdotes remarkable is that they are unusual and unexpected. To consider them a reward for diligence or observance is to deny the way of the world. Even without our contemporary knowledge of physics and chemistry, the Bible affirms the dependability of the ways of the world – cycles of the sun, of the moon, of the years, of life. To rely on miracles is to deny the creative powers that formed the world.
Instead, we are admonished individually and collectively to do what is right and good, physically and spiritually, so that we will be prepared to face the challenges of the thousands and ten-thousands when they arise. In the physical world, neglecting to anticipate and prepare for aggression from hostile nations or from the inevitable “natural disasters” means that lives and comfort will be lost. Spiritually (or, if you prefer, ethically or philosophically), a failure to reflect on what is right and good and to cultivate individual and societal standards of righteousness that respects all people and celebrates the diversity of our world means that those with malice in their hearts and the power of words will triumph in their attempts to oppress and repress.
I recently returned from a visit to Alabama where I was reminded of the accomplishments of the civil rights leadership – the people who assumed Lincoln’s unfinished business. The marchers in Selma did not dispatch the state troopers at the foot of the Edmund Pettus bridge. Goliath was ready for David in 1965. The battles were won because the hearts of Americans were urged to live up to the values we professed by leaders who deployed the language of righteousness and the songs of freedom.
That’s what is missing in our society at the moment. Our superior firepower – assuming it is yet superior – will protect us against foreign adversaries who are foolhardy enough to believe their own hype. But our country needs to aspire to more than the accumulation of physical power. We are in desperate need of leaders who will appeal to our better angels and arm us with dedication to do more than just to win, to make a beneficial deal, to collect the most money, toys or votes. A wall may or may not prevent people from crossing a border, but it will most certainly not inspire wise and effective and compassionate treatment of people on either side.
The will to do good makes the five hundred powerful enough to disarm the thousand with the will to do wrong by persuading them otherwise.
David took five stones when he went out to meet Goliath. Only needed one because he was prepared and because his aim was true. And not just the aim of his sling.