David vs. Goliath: A Just War?

Proper 7B/Ordinary 12B/Pentecost 4
June 24, 2012

1 Samuel 17: 1-49

Psalm 9

Mark 4:35-41

The metaphor of “David and Goliath” is so commonplace that even the Biblically illiterate are familiar with it.  The battle of the young shepherd hero of the Israelites (David) against the fearsome warrior champion of the Philistines

“David Kills Goliath,” Isabella Colette

(Goliath of Gath) has served as the symbol for every lopsided battle ever since battles have been reported on.  The image of the plucky shepherd youth felling the heavily-armed Philistine with one skillful hurl of his slingshot has fired the morale of underdogs for centuries.  The story, however, can also raise thorny questions for us on the subject of religion and violence: Is violence or war justified when the odds are against us?  Is it ever justifiable?

First, a word of caution is necessary about using the Bible to justify warfare.  The Hebrew Bible is filled with stories of incidents that would (and should) certainly be condemned under the Geneva Conventions today.  Moses’ use of ethnic cleansing and mass rape against the Midianites (Numbers

Nicholas Poussin. “Victory of Joshua over the Amalekites.”

31), Joshua’s extermination of non-Israelite populations in Palestine (Joshua 10) – these and other stories have all too easily been used in the past as “texts of terror” (see Trible, Phyllis.  1984.  Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives.  Philadelphia: Fortress Press) to justify acts of aggression of the worst and most reprehensible kind against populations such as the Native Americans.

However, the story of David and Goliath shows us some principles that at least illuminate what should not be regarded as just and ethical warfare – and these principles have some interesting implications for how (and if) we conduct war today.  To begin with, the Israelites and the Philistines began their battle in clear sight of each other, on opposite hills across a central valley.  Their war was openly declared, with the armies on both sides meeting face-to-face on the field of battle.

Anti-Sandinista Contra rebels in Nicaragua, covertly funded and armed by the US. 1987.

Unethical warfare is that which is undeclared by the leaders of the nations involved, and/or which takes place in secret.  While there is a great amount of violence in the Hebrew Bible, I cannot think of any examples of state-sponsored covert warfare, “dirty wars”, or “proxy wars”.  (Yes, there was the woman Jael who killed the general Sisera in her tent with a tent-peg through the temple (Judges 4).  However, she was not acting as a paid agent of the state.)

Another feature of the David and Goliath battle was that – by using the convention of having two champions fight on behalf of the two sides – casualties on both sides were kept

Mustard gas victim, World War I

to an absolute minimum.  Granted that, in the story, this was most likely a literary convention to highlight David’s status as chosen king.  However, the use of champions  (or “trial by combat”) has been documented all the way up to the 15th Century.  Consequently, if there has to be war, the goal should be to minimize bloodshed, rather than to spread “shock and awe” as widely as possible through use of weapons of mass destruction.  The 20th and 21st Centuries have witnessed the use of horrific chemical and biological agents in the field, killing not only combatants but civilians as well, and leaving the environment tainted in the aftermath.

Finally, in the battle of David and Goliath, both parties were armed (if unequally) and entered the battle voluntarily.  Both parties stood a chance of being killed in the conflict.  Weapons that enable destruction by remote-control, then (such as remote-piloted predator drones or Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles), are patently unethical.  They enable wars that we are glibly willing to kill for, but not to die for.

My father, right, in Germany during World War II

My father is a World War II Veteran.  He fought in the Battle of the Bulge under Patton.  He has been a man of peace ever since that war, believing fervently that it should have been humanity’s last.  He knows better than any armchair-general the truism that “war is hell”.   However, he also firmly believes (as do I) that World War II had to be fought.  A world ruled by the Axis powers was too horrible to even contemplate.

Truly “just wars” are extremely rare – particularly in the Postmodern Era where push-button technology and political rationalization have spread warfare like a cancer to the most remote regions of the globe.  When considering whether or not to wage war – and how we do so – let us at least exhaust every single peaceable option first, using war only as a means of self-defense (or in defense of helpless others), declaring it openly and conducting it in the open battlefield (rather than by secretly-paid CIA assets and contractors), and using every means possible to keep casualties to a minimum.  And let us remember that even where war is just and inevitable, it is still a sin.

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