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First Impressions: 1 Samuel 17

June 15, 2009

This week I will continue to follow the story of young David, this time as he tackles his most memorable foe, Goliath.  I will be using stories from the David narrative through most of the summer.

My first impression of this week’s text is that the lectionary gives us an unwieldy selection of verses.  This has always bothered me for several reasons.  Practically, it gives the reader in worship a major headache.  In our case the liturgist is one of several lay people who come more or less prepared, but often less.  Also, it makes it more difficult for those in pews who are following along in their own Bibles.

As the lectionary drops verses, it is already beginning to interpret the text for us.  This isn’t always helpful.  I am inclined to put back some of the missing verses to restore depth to the story.  I believe it is especially important to do this with 1 Samuel 17.  There is so much in this chapter that looks ahead to the future.  It may be worthwhile to read a little more this week.

Among the deleted scenes, I will seriously consider including one or both of the following:

17:12-18 These verses help to set the scene, describing David and his family.  As we saw last week, David isn’t initially present, but is an afterthought.  It also sets up a future, deeper (and more confused) relationship David will have with Saul through his daughter.  I will probably include 12-18 only if I also decide to use verses 24-30.

17:24-30 This is an intriguing scene that fleshes out the characters.  These verses transform a Sunday School standby into true drama.  Oldest brother Eliab berates David for coming to see the battle and speaking to the other soldiers.  The dialogue adds to the image of David as insignificant in the eyes of others, and may help us understand his psychology as the story unfolds in the coming weeks.

Ironically, when the reading ends at verse 49, Goliath is not yet dead.  The giant has only been knocked down—perhaps out—by the stone.  In verse 51, David kills Goliath with Saul’s sword and then cuts off Goliath’s head.  This may be a little gruesome for polite company, and may be the reason the lectionary passage stops at 49.  What follows the death of Goliath is even more slaughter as the Philistines run away, pursued by the Israelites.

17:55-58 If you will be using the Old Testament lessons throughout the summer, you may wish to add verses 55-58.  The paragraph provides a chilling foreshadowing of the conflicted relationship between David and Saul.  “‘Whose son are you, young man?’  And David answered, ‘I am the son of your servant Jesse the Bethlehemite’” (verse 58).

Due to time constraints, of course, it will be impossible to use the entire chapter.  I have sometimes broken long readings in half, reading part before a hymn or anthem, and reading the second part after the musical interlude.  I am not yet sure which verses I will include.

I will probably spend time describing David’s smallness in the context of the grand events of which he is a part.  As I wrote above, he isn’t even present at the beginning of the scene.  He is off tending the sheep (14-15).  Later we discover that he can’t wear Saul’s armor or wield the king’s sword (38-39).  When David finally comes into his own as king, his bold and careless use of his power will cause us to forget this brash little kid ever existed.

The story also reminds us why God was sorry Saul ever became king in the first place (15:35).  “Saul and all Israel” are “dismayed and greatly afraid” as Goliath and the army of the Philistines gather on Judean soil (17:11).  The terrified king is willing to put the destiny of his people into the hands of a shepherd boy.  It is a foolish act of a desperate man.

I am not sure where to go with this text.  It seems a little too obvious to preach reliance on God’s strength in the face of overwhelming odds.  I want to take a more subtle approach, perhaps comparing Saul and David as God is using them, and giving hints to their relationship to come.

The key question is “what is God doing?”  God is saving the people of Israel.  But for what?  And why in this fashion?  Where are you headed as you prepare to preach?

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