Christians read the Hebrew Scriptures somewhat differently than do their Jewish friends. Christians read those writings to find Jesus Christ there. We read the sacred text and learn not only of the historical events themselves, but also their hidden prophetic meaning. The narratives thus contain not only history, but typology. That is because the God who manifested Himself through Israel’s sacred history and whose Spirit inspired the Hebrew writers of the Scriptures also manifested Himself through Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus’ life was the true and hidden goal to which all that Hebrew history was leading, so it is not surprising if God dropped some clues along the way.
The story of the contest of David with Goliath contains one such type. The narrative can be read on several levels. At its first and most basic level, it is the story of a huge seasoned Philistine soldier coming onto the field of battle to psyche out the opposing Israelite army with what today we could call “trash talk”. The talk worked, and the Israelite army trembled behind the lines not wanting to rush into battle. Then came David, a young shepherd boy, fresh from guarding his father’s flock and having no battle experience whatever. He was filled with holy indignation at how the “uncircumcised Philistine” dared to defy the armies of the living God, and was prepared to do something about it. The Israelite king Saul thought the contest was ludicrously and suicidally one-sided, but he had nothing better to offer, and so he allowed David to try. He dressed David up in the best armour, only to find that David was not used to such weaponry and could not move in it properly. David went out to meet the Philistine in one-to-one combat armed only with his shepherd’s staff and his sling—and with five little stones.
The giant Philistine Goliath was less than impressed. “Am I a dog that you come out to meet me with sticks?” he roared. “Come closer, little boy,” (I paraphrase), “and I will give your body to the birds of the air and to the beasts of the field.” David was unbowed and unafraid and did the giant one better: “You come to me decked out with sword and spear and javelin, but I come to you in the Name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This day the Lord will deliver you to me and I will cut off your head and give all the bodies of your whole army to the birds of the air and the beasts of the field!” The fight was on.
Every Sunday school child knows the rest. David took one stone from the five in his shepherd’s bag, put it into his sling and landed the stone squarely in the forehead of his foe. Goliath fell to the ground, David took the Philistine’s own sword and with it cut off his head. When the Philistine army saw this, they were the ones who were psyched out. They fled, and Israel pursued.
When an ancient Israelite read that story, he read not just about how David proved stronger than Goliath. He also read about how the army of the little nation of Israel could prove stronger than the many huge and mighty nations surrounding them, if only Israel would trust in the Lord as David did. Goliath, for the first Israelite readers, was an image of the towering foreign enemy, and David was an image of Israel.
When we Christians read the story, we find a different and deeper meaning. The Church is not a nation; it is transnational—and eschatological. That is, it does not belong to this age with its tribalisms and nations and boundaries. It belongs to the Kingdom of God and the age to come. Accordingly we have no national enemies as Christians. As St. Paul said, our struggle is not against flesh and blood, not against people, but against the demons, the spiritual armies of wickedness in the heavenlies (Ephesians 6:12). For us, Goliath is not a foreign foe; he is an image of Satan and sin and death. And David in this narrative is not an image of Israel, but of Jesus, the Messianic Son of David. Christ slew Satan and sin and death with one blow—one single death on the cross. After the defeat of our spiritual foe, victory was assured for the People of God.
And what about those five smooth stones? Why does the sacred text specify that “David chose five smooth stones from the brook and put them in his shepherd’s bag” (1 Samuel 17:40)? After all, he only needed and only used one stone. Reading the text with Hebrew eyes gives us no clue; it seems like a meaningless detail. But Christian eyes can see why that detail is mentioned. Look at an icon of Christ on the Cross. Count the wounds. How many are there? They pierced His hands and His feet, and a soldier pieced His side with a spear: five wounds. Five small wounds, like five smooth stones. Christ slew our foe with a single death on the Cross, but that single death contained five wounds. Christians read the Hebrew Scriptures somewhat differently than do their Jewish friends. And in those Scriptures, we find the saving victory of Christ our God.