CHAPTER ONE ~ THE BOOK OF ELAH

 

And there went out a champion out of the camp of the Philistines, named Goliath, of Gath, whose height was six cubits and a span.

1 Samuel 17:4

 

 

“GOD, DO you believe in me?” David whispered his prayer softly.

The Elah Valley echoed with the call of the Philistine trumpets. His blood ran as cold as spring water. The warm sun of summer morning filtered through the myrtle leaves in the bushes where he hid.

The trumpet call again split the air.

He knew what would follow the braying. He had witnessed it for the first time only the day before. King Saul himself told David that it had been the same for forty days. Day forty-one would begin no differently, David knew. How it would end, only God knew.

Alone, he hid in the brush on the north side of the valley, nearest the massive Israelite army encampment. In the hills south of the valley, so near David could easily have walked to them before his shadow grew shorter by half, camped King Achish with thousands upon thousands of Philistine men-at-arms. Their fearsome iron machines of war sat gleaming in the sun, waiting to cut him and all the men of the tribes of Israel to tripe for the carrion birds that swam in the drafts overhead.

“I believe in you, God,” David sang softly under his breath as he waited for the inevitable. “How could I not? One has only to look into the sky at night or witness the birth of a new lamb or be lost in a storm to feel your presence. What would you have of me? I have followed you to this place, and I will follow you as far as you will lead me. If this be the end of my journey or my own folly, then I pray that you will know I came here this day seeking your glory, not my own. I seek only favor in your eyes and in the eyes of those whose faith in me I would restore.”

The shouts of the Israelites aroused him from his psalm.

Day forty-one had begun.

He dared a look through the leaves of the myrtle thicket where he hid to gain a view of the Philistines’ ultimate weapon. David’s heart danced with fear.

The warrior was called Goliath. A man, and not a man, the Philistine was larger than life. His height cut a shadow that stretched too far into the morning sun. Even the day before when David, safe amid the army of Israel on the ridge above, first beheld Goliath, the scale of the man had struck David cold with fear. Viewed from David’s hiding place upon the plain, he was still more fearsome to behold.

Swathed in gleaming bronze, Goliath towered over the flat grassland around him. Though he had heard it said that the Philistine champion was a man of the tribes of Moab and hence a distant kinsman of David’s, the resemblance ended there. Six cubits and a span from sandals to his brow, what parts of the man that weren’t sheathed in armor showed Goliath to be swarthy, dark, and dusted with black hair. David, fair, smooth-skinned and golden-haired, could only have met his opponent eye to eye were he seated on horseback.

The two could not have been more opposite. Though David had faced down wild beasts of prey, Goliath was the more terrifying for possessing animal prowess and the wits of a man. His size spoke but half his malice. Every span and cubit of the giant bore witness to the ill he represented to all the tribes of Israel. Still, the lofty peak of Goliath’s helmet did not reach by half the height of the threat intended by the vast Philistine army he stood before.

Higher still were the stakes David faced. He had come to defend the honor of his God and his country before an audience that numbered in the tens of thousands, kings and princes counted among them. Above these lofty goals, still higher were the yearnings of David’s own heart: to be a man in the eyes of his brother and to win favor before the one he loved most.

David’s only protection that morning were the deep green leaves and crisp white blossoms of the myrtle bushes that surrounded him. The king’s armor, so generously offered, had been so generous, in fact, it had swallowed David whole and so it had been left behind more of necessity than valor.

He watched Goliath move onto the plain, his every stride three or more of David’s own.

David felt naked in his slight linen tunic. Anxious, he slipped his hand into the pouch of the small shepherd’s scrip that hung at his side. He fingered the five smooth stones selected from the nearby brook when the sun was new in that morning’s sky. These, and his faith in the God of his fathers, were the only weapons he carried that morning.

The sun glinted in David’s eyes from the fine polished armor of the massive warrior, as Goliath took his place just out of range of King Saul’s archers. He stood alone in his arrogance, his head bare, his helmet and his shield well back with his armor carrier.

“Cowards of Israel.” The giant’s voice traveled farther than the arrows of the ten tribes and reached easily into the hills above David’s head. “I come to you again today. My offer stands as true as I do, here before you. If any man among you can defeat me, the great army of the Philistines will lay down their arms and swear themselves your slaves. But if I prevail, then you will submit to us and be the slaves that you were born to be.”

The valley then shook with the roars of the armies on both sides of the gulf above them. David could feel the voices of fifty thousand men raised in oaths to and against gods. It swelled within him. It gave him courage. It terrified him. He saw the enormity of what he knew he must do for his God, for his family, for his king and, most of all, to prove himself to his prince.

“Is your one puny god too weak to prevail here?” Goliath taunted. He strutted up and down in the dirt. Clouds of dust rose at his massive feet. “If you are afraid of us, why have you bothered to come all this way? Is there not a man among you?”

Taunts and curses answered. The Philistines began to drift back into their own camp, bored with the daily spectacle. The answers, shouts, and shield-pounding stayed strong along with the numbers on the side of Israel.

“The battle is yours, Lord,” David said softy. He moved, as boldly as he could manage, onto the field of combat. “It is already won. We are only here to reveal your will in this and discover who you have already chosen as the victor.”

As he made his way onto the plain, David was so small that at first no one on the Philistine side, including Goliath, took note.

David drew nearer to the giant of a man than any in the army of Israel. Cold stabs of fear pierced his chest. Goliath was made more fearsome still by the unequaled iron weapons that he and the Philistines alone possessed. Had David the king’s own sword, it would truly be as a willow wand compared to the giant’s iron blade.

“What is this?” the Philistine’s voice boomed out as he, at length, realized David’s approach. His laughter echoed scorn off the hillsides around them. “Am I a dog that you come at me with sticks?”

David clutched at the water-polished stones. Goliath seemed to rise up from the plane as David drew nearer. Still he advanced toward his foe.

“Is this the best that the army of Israel can do? Is this who you send to fight?” Goliath mocked. “I thought we faced an army of men, but I see I am mistaken. Do your mothers know you boys are this far from home?”

David, clad only in the brief robes of youth, looked small and fragile from where circumstance alone forced Prince Jonathan to watch. David’s legs were as bare as his head of coppery golden curls that flashed in the sun more brightly than the most highly polished helmet. The Prince’s heart stopped as he watched David make his way awkwardly through the weeds and brush that populated the valley floor. Transfixed and powerless to help, Jonathan bargained silently with the god of men’s fate. He wished with all he had to offer in exchange that his final words to David had spoken his true feelings instead of the hurtful sentiments he’d pretended.

“Come here, little boy, and I will make your pleasing flesh into food for vultures and jackals,” Goliath challenged David.

David stopped. He held his ground. His gaze fell on the javelin strapped to the behemoth’s back. He knew he must get no closer until he had separated man from spear.

“Let me have one more chance,” Jonathan pleaded softly as he watched. His words were lost in the angry shouts of those around him as they answered the giant’s jeers.

David took a deep breath. It was time to seek the inspiration he had prayed for in the darkness of his tent the night before.

He ran straight at the giant.

A cheer went up on both sides. Goliath reached to draw his spear. Before the weapon was at hand, David turned and dashed back a safe distance away. He bounded atop a rock outcropping to bring himself nearer eye to eye with his adversary. Stillness fell over the crowds. The two—warrior-giant and boy—regarded one another.

“All is at the ready, Your Majesty,” the general said to King Saul. “The army of Israel awaits the signal.”

“Ah, Abner, it is a shame that one so brave and so fair of visage and heart must die to give us this victory,” Saul said, shaking his head sadly as he watched the spectacle unfold.

Goliath grasped the spear from his back and hefted it. He tested the weight as he judged the distance to this boy who dared challenge him.

David tried to breathe. He fought against his fear to keep his balance atop the boulder where he stood. Searching the crowds above, he spotted the prince’s standard and found the strength to speak on behalf of all he loved.

“You come against me with sword and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the God of Abraham and of the armies of Israel, whom you have insulted and defied,” David called back in answer to all Goliath’s rebukes. “This day the Lord will deliver you to me. Today I will give the carcasses of you and all the Philistine army to the vultures and the jackals, and the whole world will know that there is a God in Israel. All those gathered here will know that it is not by sword or spear that the Lord saves; for the battle is the Lord’s, and he will give all of you into our hands.”

The roar vibrated the valley like rolling thunder. Israel spoke with one voice. They cheered David’s words and bravery, answering Goliath, at last, as they all would wish.

“He speaks well,” Abner said as David’s words still rang in the valley.

“He roused me from death with that voice and those words.” Saul spoke with a fatherly pride, as though he’d expected such eloquence once the boy faced his mortal task.

The tumult caught the usually tepid interest on the other side of the valley.

The Philistines had fallen into the habit of ignoring the ritual bullying. This new challenge seemed to promise a morning’s brief sport. They began to take up places to finish their meals, view the outcome, and witness the death of Goliath’s first challenger. They roared with anticipation as David dashed down from his perch and were answered in kind.

Spurred on by the courage he gained from the cries of support, David again ran toward the giant. Then, just as before, he reversed course. He paused just beyond the javelin’s range.

Goliath waited, the hunter poised, amused by what he thought the boy’s fear and timidity.

David judged his opponent’s intent. He balanced himself, taut as bowstring, ready.

Goliath shifted his weight onto his right foot. He tensed to charge the boy and bring an end to it.

Sensing, David ran down toward and to the left of his towering enemy. Again he froze, still just beyond the javelin’s reach.

Goliath turn, pursued, and again drew within range.

David awaited Goliath’s approach. Once more he ran toward and to the side, forcing the great tower of a man to redirect the momentum of his massive frame.

Goliath stumbled back, found the boy in his sight, and poised to pierce David with his spear. His arm tensed. He drew back.

David’s heart beat like hooves on cobbles, his intuition raised by the hot blood in his veins. He could feel the giant’s moves in the air as one feels a coming storm. Not a breath before it was too late, David doubled back. He darted in front of his deadly adversary, across Goliath’s path to the far side.

The Philistine grunted in frustration. He pivoted, shifted his weight back onto his mighty calf to put all his heft behind a powerful launch of his spear, anticipating David’s next move. David changed his course and moved out of Goliath’s range. Goliath roared with anger. Subtly, David took command of the field as his tactics nettled the giant into action.

“Are you afraid to fight me?” Goliath taunted in response. “Does your God of cowardice instruct you to run?”

David laughed as he made sport of the great ox. He was the youngest and smallest of eight brothers, and so undaunted in response to the bully’s words. His throat was dry, more from fear than exertion. His mirthless laughter was strangled, but he knew that, however forced and joyless, it would provoke anger in his rival—and with the anger, carelessness. Again and again he dashed across Goliath’s path. He laughed louder, taunting as Goliath struggled to keep pace with the erratic course. He passed within range and temptation as the Moabite drew back and then hesitated again and again.

The crowd joined in the laughter at the big man’s expense, provoking and enraging Goliath further.

Eliab took no joy in the spectacle. Those around him cheered as David made a fool of their hated tormentor. He found no cause for laughter, though it filled the air around him. All Eliab could see was his youngest brother literally flirting with death on the field below. All he could hear were the words of blame he had heaped on David, echoing in his head. On their last meeting, Eliab had accused David of hurting his military career. The great general, Abner, had that morning assured Eliab that his move to a field command was a promotion earned from respect for Eliab’s abilities as a lieutenant. Like Jonathan, Eliab too longed to take back his words to David for fear they would be his last.

David kept up the torment of his oversized adversary. The response grew on both sides.

The Philistines shouted words of encouragement to Goliath. They called for him to use the spear and finish the boy. Goliath only just managed to keep his head and his own counsel. Though he seethed with anger, he was a serious and battle-forged soldier. He knew that to attempt to hit a moving target at such a range would only waste the spear, for which he had no replacement near at hand. He cursed himself and his complacency. In truth, he had only worn the javelin down to the field for show. For forty days he had come down to the plain. For forty days there had been no sign of challenge from Israel. There had been no reason to believe that morning would be different. One spear and one sword were all he’d brought. So confident was Goliath that he’d even left his helmet with his shield carrier.

Rather than waste the spear, Goliath waited and focused. He was still and alert as David’s taunting sprints drew within range.

Nearer and nearer David teased Goliath like a dog on a tether. Goliath bided his time. With each pass David came closer to the Moabite, who tracked his prey with practiced persistence. On one such pass from David, Goliath turned and pursued. David led him on a mad and circuitous dash through the brush, wheeling, turning, and doubling back. Once in the chase, Goliath, unaware, was caught by his prey. His lumbering pursuit earned him more laughter. Goliath tried repeatedly and unsuccessfully to close the distance. His attempts to take aim at a full gallop were futile.

Frustrated and tiring, Goliath shouldered his spear. Leaning into it, he fell to his knee to add momentum to the mighty vault. David was near enough to hear Goliath’s grunt of effort. A gasp went up. The spear was airborne.

To the horror of those in his camp, David froze beneath the projectile as if waiting to be skewered. Only at the last did David step aside. The deadly iron tip of the beam-sized spear buried itself harmlessly in the firm valley earth only a few paces away. Running back, David plucked the spear from the ground. Struggling with the weight of the massive shaft, he took aim at Goliath with the Moabite’s own weapon.

Cheers accompanied David as he upended the odds. Carefully he sighted his target. Running to add as much force as his small frame could compound, he hurled the spear with all his might. The acclaim of the crowd turned to derision and laughter. The spear not only missed Goliath, it so overshot the mark as to be lost in the tangle of trees and brush in the foothills far beyond the reach of either combatant.

“I am a tall man and in need of a shave,” Goliath bellowed, joining the laughter on both sides at David’s seeming incompetence. “But I am not Mount Seir,” he laughed, playing to the crowd. The ruddy ridge of mountains that earned Edom its name was often jokingly called “Mount Hairy” for its dark, stubbly tree line. “How tall do I look from down there, little boy?”

Jonathan’s heart broke with despair. He lost all hope for David’s life and his own happiness. He fought his own heart, longing to hide his face away from the inevitable tragedy upon the field. Unable to bear to see what surely must be. Unable to resist his last glimpses of David, no matter how bleak. At last his heart gave him courage to turn and face the truth.

“I am mistaken,” Goliath bellowed. “I took you for a beautiful youth. I see from your skill with a spear that you must be a girl child. Come, allow me closer, the better to take in your beauty and your charms.”

Goliath called out the compliments a suitor might pay in court to a woman as he drew his sword and resumed the chase. David only smiled at such mocking as he was used to from even his mother and his sisters. He remained focused and sure as he led Goliath on an erratic chase.

Believing David’s fate sealed, all on both sides watched in growing quiet, waiting only for the giant to cut him down and end the valiant and laughable tragedy. For his part, David gave the Philistines a bit of their own. They laughed as Goliath slid and stumbled. He struggled to keep up the dizzying pace as its course twisted across the valley floor like the trail of a desert adder in the sand. First this way and then another, then turning at full speed and doubling back, David offered up their tormentor as a morning’s entertainment of a different sort. Goliath fell behind briefly following each change in course, then closed the distance between them until David reversed directions and the process began anew.

The race might have gone longer, though the larger combatant was clearly tiring from the exertion. Fit though he was, Goliath was a massive man in full armor, and they had been running all morning. Then, in one false step, David was down, clutching his ankle and writhing on the ground.

With pride and finality, accompanied by the moans and cheers of both sides, Goliath stalked deliberately and in no great haste toward his fallen prey. He withheld his final act of victory, wresting from it all he could, confident of what all had known from the start would end this tragic morning.

The Israelites braced for the loss of one so brave as the Philistines cheered for the petty victory, their abandoned morning meals grown cold. The scene before them seemed decided to all. David remained on the ground, unmoving save for his lame thrashings even as Goliath, sword drawn, slowly approached.

Jonathan froze, unable to look away from the inevitable. He cried out, finding his voice and his grief as Goliath closed the distance grandly.

David was oblivious to the cries and noise of the armies. The crowds could only see the valley below them. David saw the ridge above the Wadi Asad, at the boundary of his father’s grazing land. He reached into his tunic and clutched the sling that hung around his neck. He fingered the lion’s tooth that adorned the lanyard. The tooth had been plucked from the mouth of the very lion whose fate had inspired David that morning. He had made the sling for Micah, who inspired him in everything else.

“Micah,” David said quietly. “It’s the camels all over again.”

He saw Micah’s face as clearly as he’d seen it that first morning when they were both but boys, playing in the streets of Bethlehem.