Fri 2 Jan 2009
Lithograph letter illustrating The Child’s Bible Illustrated from a 19th century serial publication.
When the once holy land of Biblical proportions is the issue on the front page of every newspaper, politics must make way for metaphor. The Israeli plan to bring down Hamas echoes with Samson bringing down the temple on the Philistines. Lots of Philistines were killed that memorable day, but only with a martyr’s mentality. Plug in “Gazans” or “Israelis” for “Philistines,’ and the martydom makes both scenarios equally mad. Moving forward in Biblical time, the Philistines did not disappear as a thorn in the side of Israel. Today, well beyond the world of the prophets, the jet fighters and tanks of the IDF have replaced David’s sling, but search as the military scanners may there is no Goliath in modern Gaza. Was Sophocles still writing for the stage, the ongoing Israel/Palestine tragedy would make Oedipus Rex look like Twelfth Night. How unbiblical a thought.
I grew up hearing brimstone laden sermons that brought patriarchs and prophets of ancient Israel to the pulpit. When I close my eyes, that rhetoric seeps back, too long hidden in the crevices of childhood memories. When I open my eyes, the heroes of my youth turn to dust. They became mere fables many years ago, but historical truth is no measure of rhetorical power. Imagine, as so many Jews and Christians have over the centuries, the gladiatorial battle described in the KJV rendition of I Samuel 17:
4 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.
5 And he had an helmet of brass upon his head, and he was armed with a coat of mail; and the weight of the coat was five thousand shekels of brass.
6 And he had greaves of brass upon his legs, and a target of brass between his shoulders.
7 And the staff of his spear was like a weaver’s beam; and his spear’s head weighed six hundred shekels of iron: and one bearing a shield went before him.
8 And he stood and cried unto the armies of Israel, and said unto them, Why are ye come out to set your battle in array? am not I a Philistine, and ye servants to Saul? choose you a man for you, and let him come down to me.
9 If he be able to fight with me, and to kill me, then will we be your servants: but if I prevail against him, and kill him, then shall ye be our servants, and serve us.
10 And the Philistine said, I defy the armies of Israel this day; give me a man, that we may fight together.
11 When Saul and all Israel heard those words of the Philistine, they were dismayed, and greatly afraid.
44 And the Philistine said to David, Come to me, and I will give thy flesh unto the fowls of the air, and to the beasts of the field.
45 Then said David to the Philistine, Thou comest to me with a sword, and with a spear, and with a shield: but I come to thee in the name of the LORD of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom thou hast defied.
46 This day will the LORD deliver thee into mine hand; and I will smite thee, and take thine head from thee; and I will give the carcases of the host of the Philistines this day unto the fowls of the air, and to the wild beasts of the earth; that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel.
47 And all this assembly shall know that the LORD saveth not with sword and spear: for the battle is the LORD’s, and he will give you into our hands.
48 And it came to pass, when the Philistine arose, and came, and drew nigh to meet David, that David hastened, and ran toward the army to meet the Philistine.
49 And David put his hand in his bag, and took thence a stone, and slang it, and smote the Philistine in his forehead, that the stone sunk into his forehead; and he fell upon his face to the earth.
50 So David prevailed over the Philistine with a sling and with a stone, and smote the Philistine, and slew him; but there was no sword in the hand of David.
51 Therefore David ran, and stood upon the Philistine, and took his sword, and drew it out of the sheath thereof, and slew him, and cut off his head therewith. And when the Philistines saw their champion was dead, they fled.
52 And the men of Israel and of Judah arose, and shouted, and pursued the Philistines, until thou come to the valley, and to the gates of Ekron. And the wounded of the Philistines fell down by the way to Shaaraim, even unto Gath, and unto Ekron.
53 And the children of Israel returned from chasing after the Philistines, and they spoiled their tents.
54 And David took the head of the Philistine, and brought it to Jerusalem; but he put his armour in his tent.
History may seem to repeat itself, so in this sense Falastine/Philistine Hamas is no match for the IDF. But myth read as history is inevitably the stuff of painful irony. In the story above the Israelite army and their king are cowards, afraid that the superior size of the enemy will lead to their defeat. So it takes a simple shepherd boy with a slingshot to save the day. The moral of the story, one that is told over and over again by the prophets, is that God does not use human military might to work his mysteries. This was no doubt comforting for the priestly scribal writers sitting in Babylonian exile and revising the sacred texts, but the logic is not lost in contemporary Machiavellian time on recruiters for young Palestinian suicide bombers.
The ultimate irony, not to belittle the range of lesser ironic twists in the story, is that the characters are reversed today. The IDF boasts one of the most sophisticated military machines in the world; it is the Goliath on this battlefield. The puny and largely ineffective rocket launchers of the Gazans are little more than stones slung haphazardly towards Israel. In a military sense, barring a miracle or two of Biblical or Quranic proportions, Gaza is toast. Quite literally “toast” as the images beaming over the internet suggest. The Gazan David is not likely to gloat over the hulk of IDF armor. But neither is the military Goliath of modern Israel assured anything that secularly oriented people might call a victory.
Remember the battle cry that rocked the succession of the Kingdom of Israel. Saul hath slain his thousands, David his ten thousands. In the end, with Assyrians and Babylonians dragging down the walls, it morphed metaphorically into a Biblically Phyrric victory. I am not a prophet and I certainly have no new solution to propose to the tragedy of Gaza. But when I close my eyes to fight back the tears, the rhetoric of distant sermons erodes even more the hope needed to survive to the hindsight of future historians.
Daniel Martin Varisco
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