Steve Rogers has got a problem. He’s short, scrawny, and has a host of childhood diseases and ailments: all factors that prevent him from joining the U.S. Army and fighting in World War II. When he is given the opportunity to audition for a special government soldier program, then, he jumps at the chance, even though he sticks out like a sore thumb. He’s still the smallest and weakest, and his fellow soldiers tease him mercilessly. Despite his small size, however, Steve is self-sacrificing and courageous, and his supervisors take note:
And of course, if you know the name Steve Rogers, you probably know the story of Captain America, who transforms from scrawny army reject to superhuman patriotic hero. Most of the time, fans focus on post-transformation Steve, with his shield-slinging, Nazi punching, and chiseled jawline. It’s important, however, that we see Steve before his transformation, because then we’re rooting for the scrappy kid from Brooklyn who happens to have superpowers now. He’s an underdog, and there are few things that people like more than an underdog.
Pop culture is filled with underdogs. There’s Spiderman, who loses as often as he wins. There’s Katniss Everdeen, who comes from impoverished District 12 and rises to victory. Frodo Baggins is a little hobbit who goes up against the Dark Lord Sauron and wins, and Luke Skywalker joins a ragtag group of rebels to take on the evil Galactic Empire.
Considering that the Bible features an all-powerful God, it may come as a surprise that story after story supports the little guy, the long odds, and the ragtag band of misfits. “As I read the birth stories about Jesus,” writes Philip Yancey, “I cannot help but conclude that though the world may be tilted towards the rich and powerful, God is tilted towards the underdog.” Jesus is born into a nation under Roman rule. Moses is shy and has a stutter. Mary Magdalene has a bad reputation and no social power. When the word “underdog” comes up, however, there’s only one character whose name has become a synonym for winning against overwhelming odds: David, and his famous fight against the giant Goliath.
In 1 Samuel 17, we find a familiar scene: the Israelites and Philistines are at war, as usual. No doubt compensating for years of being humiliated by Israelite judges, the Philistines have broad their own super-soldier: Goliath, a giant who towers over nine feet tall and mocks the Israelites and their God. He presents the Israelites with a challenge: champion vs. champion, to determine the outcome of the battle.
One of the first things we are told about Goliath is actually a description of his armor. He has a helmet, a chainmail coat, leg plates, and javelin made of bronze, and a spear with an iron tip (1 Samuel 17:5-7). To us, these seem like primitive weapons, but for the Israelites these would have seemed like new, cutting-edge technologies that put them at a military disadvantage. The Philistines had better weapons. The story of David and Goliath tells us about the fear a nation feels when they are at a technological disadvantage.
For days, Goliath walks to the front lines, mocks the Israelites and their God, and challenges them to fight him. For days, the soldiers run away in terror. Then David appears. He’s not even a soldier – he’s just bringing some food to his brothers in the army. When David hears the things that Goliath is saying, though, he’s indignant. “Who is this uncircumcised Philistine,” he asks, “that he should defy the armies of the living God?”
David – little, sheep-herding David – volunteers to fight Goliath where none of the trained soldiers will. He refuses King Saul’s offer of armor, and forgoes a sword in favor of his sling and five stones from the river. Then he goes out to meet Goliath. “Am I a dog,” Goliath sneers, “that you come at me with sticks?” “You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, “replies David, “but I come against you in the name of the Lord Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied.” Before Goliath can reach him to fight, David slings a stone towards him, hits him square in the forehead, and knocks him out. Then he grabs Goliath’s own sword, cuts off the giant’s head, and presents it to King Saul.
Of course, as we go forward, we’ll discover that David becomes less and less an underdog, accumulating strength and power and followers until he eventually becomes King of Israel. As we read those stories, however, it’s vital that we not forget the similarity between David and Steve Rogers’ origins: just a couple of underdogs whose courage outweighed their strength.
Related texts or passages to consider: Matthew 5:5; Mark 10:31
• Read 1 Samuel 17:34-35. Do you think David was qualified by experience to take on Goliath?
• Why do you think we tend to side with the underdog? What is it about these kinds of stories that make us appreciate the apparently weaker person?
• Read 1 Sam 17:36-40. Do you think David's speech inspired Saul to have true faith in God? Or was Saul just taking a chance? Do you think Saul wanted David to get hurt when he let him fight Goliath? Why or why not? What does this exchange tell us about Saul?
• Read 1 Sam 17:45-47. This is David's "trash talk" against Goliath, his taunt. David makes some very aggressive and gory threats against Goliath. David has expressed his faith in God by bravely going out to fight this battle. But David also cuts off Goliath's head and carries it like a trophy. How do you come to terms with violence in the Bible?
• Go back to 1 Samuel chapters 4 and 5. The Philistines have already been harassing Israel in their recent history. In fact, antagonism from the Philistines goes all the way back to Genesis 26. Abraham had lived at peace with the Philistines (Gen 21) but Isaac had some problems with the Philistines in his day (Gen 26). Eventually, Isaac and the Philistine leader Abimelech make a covenant (agreement) to not bother or harm each other. How does the story of David sound in light of this previous agreement between the forefathers of Israel and the Philistines? Is there a way forward from the violence and fighting?