On David and Goliath

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In the narrative of the story, David gets on with whatever the next project is. He doesn’t invoke victimhood or being small as something that he lives by.

Robert Pinsky

Sifting through the details of a bloody six days in yesterday’s story meeting, from Haifa to Nasrallah, Katyushas to Syria, we eventually drifted far afield and found ourselves talking about bar fights (via Global Voices) and biblical stories and, specifically, the lasting power of David and Goliath.

Which is not to say that we’re not interested in the details of the current situation. We have been, and will continue to be. But this seems like as good a time as any to take a big, biblical step back away from the details of an entrenched conflict and toward the reverberations of a story that never grows old.

David and Goliath

Jean shorts were Goliath’s first mistake. [Lone Primate / Flickr]

And then there’s the story itself, which is stranger and more complex than the newspaper headline (“Boy slays giant with slingshot”) would have suggested. If you haven’t just brushed up on 1 Samuel. 17, for example, you might have forgotten David’s careful self-regard:”What will be done for the man who kills this Philistine and frees Israel of the disgrace?” he asks.

Or his devotion: “Who is this uncircumcised Philistine in any case, that he should insult the armies of the living God?”

Or his swagger: “You come against me with sword and spear and scimitar,” he warns Goliath, “but I come against you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel that you have insulted. Today the Lord shall deliver you into my hand; I will strike you down and cut off your head. This very day I will leave your corpse and the corpses of the Philistine army for the birds of the air and the beasts of the field; thus the whole land shall learn that Israel has a God.”

Or that later, in exhange for King Saul’s daughter’s hand in marriage, he slays 200 more Philistines… then brings back 100 foreskins. For some reason they didn’t emphasize that part in my Hebrew School.

We’re asking: what is it about this story that has captured our imaginations and our self-conceptions — those of so many different peoples and nations — for so long? Is it just that everyone likes an underdog? (And what kind of an underdog has God on his side? Or cuts off the head of his vanquished foe, just to prove a point?) What are its historical resonances? Its psychological dynamics? Why is it that Goliaths always want to be — or, even, think of themselves as — Davids, and Davids Goliaths?

Let’s talk folklore and mythology. Or sociology, anthropology, psychology, and psychiatry. But let’s try to stay away from Haifa and katyushas for a night.

Robert Pinsky

US Poet Laureate, 1997 to 2000

Professor, Boston University

Author of The Life of David and six books of poetry, including First Things to Hand

Thanks to Jenny Attiyeh for the suggestion.

Chris Hedges

Author, War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning

Former war correspondent, The New York Times

Samuel Pauker

Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Weill Medical College of Cornell University

Member, Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research, Columbia University

Chairman, The Rado Advanced Psychoanalytic Study Group on Pyschoanalytic Perspectives on the Bible

Extra-Credit Reading List

Vladimir Berginer, MD PhD, Neurological Aspects of the David-Goliath Battle: Restriction in the Giant’s Visual Field, IMAJ, Vol 2, p 725, September 2000

Sarah Wilson-Jones, David and Goliath, Superbarista Blog, July 7, 2006

Robert Pinsky, The Life of David, Schocken Books, September 2005

Follower of Basho, They Call it “The David Syndrome”, The Blue Rider Blog: Art Talk, April 2, 2006

Perfect David ‘a physical wreck’, BBC news, September 8, 2004

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