Then Saul dressed David in his own tunic. He put a coat of armor on him and a bronze helmet on his head. David fastened on his sword over the tunic and tried walking around, because he was not used to them
“I cannot go in these,” he said to Saul, “because I am not used to them.” So he took them off. Then he took his staff in his hand, chose five smooth stones from the stream, put them in the pouch of his shepherd’s bag and, with his sling in his hand, approached the Philistine.
1 Samuel 17:38-40 (NIV)
I recently listened to Malcolm Gladwell’s book David and Goliath. It’s a fascinating conversation about the assumptions we often make in life about the best choice for college, how to reduce crime in crime-ridden neighborhoods, or how to improve educational outcomes. In short, Gladwell’s book reveals that our basic assumptions are often completely wrong. And he begins his treatise with one of the most famous stories in all of human history.
Today’s chapter is the story most all of us learned as children. The story of a shepherd boy named David who defeats a giant warrior named Goliath. To this day, we use the term “David and Goliath” metaphorically to describe an improbable victory that defies the odds. A careful evaluation of the circumstances, however, reveals that David was a sure bet. That is Gladwell’s point.
Despite it being a popular children’s story, the actual account in today’s chapter drips with historical accuracy. In ancient times, warring tribes sometimes decided battles by “champion.” Each would put forward their best champion to duel one-on-one, winner takes all. This was not uncommon. The Philistines were a sea-faring people who emigrated into the region with the knowledge of how to smith iron into tools and weapons. This gave them a huge technological advantage over Saul and the Hebrew army. There were good reasons that the Hebrews were reticent to fight the Philistines.
What everyone assumed, however, was that a Hebrew champion would emerge in his armor and battle Goliath in hand-to-hand combat. It was a safe assumption that Goliath had the advantage. He was tall with tremendous arm length. He was well clad and equipped with armor and weapons made using cutting age-technology. No one on the Hebrew side of the battle lines could even come close to being an even match.
What the shepherd boy David knew was that everyone’s assumptions on that battlefield were wrong. His entire young life, David had honed the skill of using a simple sling. Slings were easy to make and were dangerous weapons. When David said he’d killed bears and lions, he wasn’t exaggerating. That’s why shepherds used slings because they could scare, incapacitate, or kill a deadly animal at a distance. History records that some ancient armies had entire companies of warriors using slings. When skillfully wielded, they are both accurate and deadly. Americans cans typically imagine how deadly a 95 m.p.h. fastball could be, like when Randy Johnson happened to hit a poor bird that flew in the way of his pitch.
Imagine a stone being hurled at 150 m.p.h. with even greater precision than a Randy Johnson fastball.
When Saul tries to clothe young David with his own armor, the King assumes that he was helping David. David knew the opposite. A bunch of heavy armor would only slow him down just like Goliath. When David looked at Goliath standing out in the Valley Elah, he saw a huge target whose mobility would be diminished by his heavy armor and weapons. With mobility and speed, David could stand at a safe distance and plant a three-inch stone square in the giant’s forehead and Goliath will never see it coming.
In the quiet this morning, I can’t help but think of this familiar story in the context of Gladwell’s book. How often do I make false assumptions because they are common assumptions? How often do I do the same things over and over despite the fact that they don’t yield great results?
Along my life journey, I’ve continually challenged some long-held assumptions of the institutional church. Ministry is not solely a professional vocation, but the calling of every individual who is a follower of Jesus. Spiritual gifts are given to all believers no matter one’s age, gender, education, social standing, human weaknesses, or past failures. The church was never meant to be a bricks-and-mortar building, but a flesh-and-blood, spiritual organism. Long ago, the institutional churches suppressed these spiritual realities in order to consolidate their earthly power and influence. Generations of institutional church members assumed that their leaders were right. They weren’t. In my lifetime, I’ve witnessed church institutions implode as the institutional “Christianity” of these organizations has been summarily dismissed by the world as impotent and out-of-touch. Many Christians are in a panic about this like the Hebrew army hiding in their trenches at the Valley of Elah.
I don’t fear this in the least.
David reminds us, that sometimes you have to challenge the widely held assumptions.
If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.