Smooth Stones

Smooth Stones August 3, 2016

David meets Goliath with a stick, a sling and five stones. We’re told that the stones are “smooth” and that he took them from the brook (1 Samuel 17:40). Why are we told this?

When Israel first entered the land, they set stones in the midst of the Jordan and on the western bank as memorials. The stones on the bank are a conversation-starter for later generations of Israel, but the stones in the river are invisible to humans and serve as a covenant reminder to God (like the rainbow of Genesis 9). Both sets of stones are associated with Israel’s entry into the land and the conquest. In Saul’s day, the Philistines occupy a portion of the land and so have reversed the conquest. David uses stones from a brook to defeat Goliath and re-conquer the land.

Stoning is explicitly prescribed for only a handful of crimes in the Torah – giving seed to Molech (Leviticus 20:2), practicing spiritism or consulting the dead (20:27), certain forms of Sabbath breaking (Numbers 15:35-36). The man who blasphemes the name in the camp is stoned (Leviticus 24:14-23), and so is Aachan for stealing God’s plunder (Joshua 7:25). Stoning is a communal form of execution (sometimes a mob action, cf. Ezekiel 16:40; 23:47). When a criminal is stoned, it leaves a permanent memorial, a cautionary deterrent to others. The land rebels against the criminal and he is buried under the land, leaving a mark on the landscape. David “stones” Goliath because Goliath has blasphemed. Representing Israel, David is an agent of the land who rises against the Philistine hero who has committed a sacrilege against the holy name.

As usual, a creation motif stands in the deep background. On Day 3 of creation week, God parts the waters on earth so that dry land appears; after Day 3, land rises from the water, and becomes fruitful with grain and fruit trees. When David draws stones from water, it’s a sign that he is renewing the creation that is Israel. Because he sparks a victory over Philistia, the land will again be a land of milk and honey for Israel. Throughout the Bible, land-sea signifies Gentiles-Israel, and in that respect too David’s gesture is appropriate: He draws stones from the brook as he brings Israel up from beneath the flood of Philistines.

(Some of the ideas here were suggested by my children during an after-sermon discussion a few weeks ago.)

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