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"The Battleground of David and Goliath" 1 Samuel 17, by Dr. Terry Harman

Updated: Mar 1


Old Battles Reemerge

Some troubles have a way of returning despite our best efforts to avoid the "same old, same old." No one willingly wants to return to a place that brings up old memories, especially if those include mistakes, hardships, struggles, and defeat. In this story, Israel has returned to an old battlefield in the Valley of Elah, with an enemy who refuses to drop their arms and live peacefully. What does this region mean to Israel and the Philistines? Why is this place so important for both sides?


The Valley of Elah

The site of this standoff is the Elah Valley. It is approximately twenty miles east of the Mediterranean Sea and fifteen miles west of Bethlehem. The area is on the western side of the Judean foothills of Israel and the West Bank. This region is noted for its lowlands and foothills and is referred to as "Shephelah."


Jonathan Lipnick of the Israel Institute of Biblical Studies states the word "Shephelah (שפלה) comes from the Hebrew root Sh-F-L (שפל) meaning: low, humble, or even humiliated, dejected." (1) The valley and foothills had a long reputation for being a place of strategic battles where the victors humbled and humiliated their dejected foes.

The Valley of Elah, Israel photo by Terry Harman, © 2016

The Land of the Battle

Too often, when reading the Bible, and we come to names of people or towns we awkwardly try to pronounce the name, then quickly move on to the rest of the verse. Let’s slow down this time and investigate why it is important to understand the terrain and the topography of the land. We will learn the land reveals why this site was chosen as the place for both armies to set up battle lines.


Why Israel would risk everything to stand up against the Philistines and return to this valley which was emotionally from the battles of the past? The answer - whoever controls the valley controls the trade and ensures protection and safety for their inhabitants. This small strip of land is key to controlling the entire region and protecting Jerusalem and the Temple from invasion.


1 Samuel 17:1-2 JPS 1917

Now the Philistines gathered together their armies to battle, and they were gathered together at Socoh, which belongeth to Judah, and pitched between Socoh and Azekah, in Ephes-dammin. And Saul and the men of Israel were gathered together, and pitched in the vale of Elah, and set the battle in array against the Philistines.


Used by Permission Ralph F. Wilson © 2012.


In the biblical narrative, Israel is gridlocked with its enemy. No one has taken a stand against the defiler. That is until David enters the fight of his life and the fight of his faith. We will learn that the place of this battle will reveal the purpose of this battle and both the place and purpose of this standoff are just as important as the people of this battle. 


Elah - Where Decision Meet Destiny

In the valley of Elah, decision meets destiny. The valley below is no man’s land. There is little to no coverage. And the creek bed is the line of demarcation. Archers from either army could easily take down anyone attempting to cross the valley.


Nation opposed to the nation, idea versus ideal, sacred counter to the profane, righteousness contrasted with unrighteousness, young compared to old, seasoned in opposition to amateur and champion against a child (1 Samuel 17:33b).


Essentially this battle and this triumph were the ones that put David on the map and caused his destiny to be manifest. Shepard versus the sword, sandals, and a sling.  If David won this one, he would rise to King. All David had to stand on was his testimony of God’s past favor when he conquered the lion and the bear.


A friend of mine pointed out that if the mature lion or a bear defeated by young David stood on its hind feet, the height might be seven to nine feet tall. Both the lion and the bear would have towered over the shepherd boy as would Goliath’s shadow.


Socoh - Memories of Samson's Victory

The battle history associated with the towns mentioned in our story reveals the military importance of maintaining control of the valley of Elah.


The importance of Socoh? 

o   Belongs to the Tribe of Judah

o   16 miles SW of Jerusalem

o   Considerable Natural Strength Position

o   Military Stronghold = Fence or Hedge

o   Control this area you control the route to

Jerusalem.

o   Temporarily occupied by Philistines at the

time of this battle

Socoh the Place of Samson's Well, model and photo by Terry Harman © 2017

Azekah

o   Belongs to Israel

o   Place of Great Victory

  1. Five Amorite Kings Defeated

  2. Re-occupied by Jews returned from captivity.

  3. Joshua gained his reputation as a leader

  4. The name means “Strength of Walls.

  5. Powerful Fortress --- Fortified

  6. Control the Route to the Mediterranean

  7. Control Route to five cities of Philistines.


The Valley of Elah, Israel photo by Terry Harman, © 2016

1 Samuel 17:3 JPS 1917

And the Philistines stood on the mountain on the one side, and Israel stood on the mountain on the other side; and there was a valley between them. 1 Samuel 17:3 JPS 1917


The Philistine battle line was concentrated at Socoh with their camp in the valley between Azekah and Socoh “at Ephes Dammim,” meaning “boundary of blood.” Saul’s army stood firm on the east side opposite the Philistine camp. The Israelite army may have positioned their force near the top of the slope of the hill. This placement would put the Israelites at a strategic advantage while protecting the foot trail that led to Bethlehem.


The Philistines were at a disadvantage because each soldier would have to cross the creek and then climb the slopes of the hill. The Philistines would be vulnerable crossing an open area of the valley and then fighting uphill.


The Israelite and Philistine Camps, model and photo by Terry Harman © 2016.

Painful Memories Encountered

Furthermore, the military history, often bloody, behind each of the towns mentioned in this story brings to light the possible emotional attachment to this unique piece of real estate.  The mere mention of one of these cities or towns would evoke powerful memories.


Militarily, Azekah is in a strategic position because it overlooks the Elah Valley. An Army encamped at the point where the valley wiggles and narrows would control all traffic westward toward Gath and eastward toward the Judean range.


Remember the Victory Behind You

The northern land and Jerusalem that lay behind Israel represented previous battles fought and won – their homeland and Temple. The very ground Israel stood on this day was a reminder of the lives lost and the spilled blood of family and friends in previous battles. This hill represented victory - Land that belonged to Israel.


Stare Down the Defeat Before You

The land that lay on the other side of the valley and creek bed was now occupied by the Philistines. The area where the Philistines are now camped represents a strategic victory. Land that once belonged to Judah was now conquered by the Philistines – a reminder of past failures.

 

This battle brought the people of God emotionally to a valley

where past victories met present failures!

Conclusion

There is the thrill of victory but repeated defeat brings agony. Spiritually there are times we face the same old foe from the past. My first instinct is to run away from the fight. It is difficult for me to enter some battles and remain spiritually intact. I'd rather walk away.


However, there are some battles you have to fight. When we face our giants, our Philistines at Socoh, it is easy to forget the victory of the Azekah that lies just behind you. It is even more emotionally painful when the Socoh before you, was once a place of victory and then lost the battle again.


That foe may be a person who brings strife, a habit that we cannot conquer, an emotion that sneaks up and embarrasses us. Have you ever felt like your back was against the wall and you were between a rock and a hard place? Have you ever felt like the problems you were facing were so insurmountable that no matter what you did in your strength, and no matter who might help you, the outcome would still be defeat? Welcome to your Valley of Elah.


David’s destiny was changed forever because he obeyed his father

and followed through on what appeared to be a simple task.

He did not let the past hurt of being overshadowed and overlooked

by his family when he was not invited to the anointing by the Prophet Samuel.

 

Once again David was dismissed. David was considered too young to join the battle. David’s older brothers were selected for this national emergency. Once again, he was left behind at home to tend to his father’s flock. When he inquired how he might serve the King and his country several people turned against him. His government, his family, and other battle-ready soldiers of Saul took the opportunity to discourage him. Even Goliath from another land and other people saw David’s presence as an opportunity to consider David nothing more than a joke!


Yes, the small-framed David looked foolish when Saul placed adult armor on the shepherd boy. Yes, to his brother and the army of Saul David looked ill-prepared for a fight with a giant. But a conviction deep down inside of David rose forth to decide not to fight the way a king or general or how a battle-hardened soldier would fight.


David came in the name of the Lord.

David may have come to a sword fight with a rock. David may have stepped up with a sling and a rock, but he left with a sword! David had a battle thrust upon him without notice or preparation. But he left this valley of darkness with a life lesson, a story of praise, and a testimony of God’s deliverance.


David came with a sling and left with a sword.

David traveled through to the other side of this valley when others were paralyzed by their fear and the stories told of this giant named Goliath. What was David’s secret? Where did his faith come from? David brought the same God to this valley as he did with the valley of the lion and the valley of the bear.


David came with sneers and left with shouts.

The sword that was supposed to kill David was the same sword that later would remind him of victory.  This would not be David’s last battle. Later, when David was on the run from Saul who wanted to kill him (1 Samuel chapters 21-23).  David saw that sword again. At Shiloh, the priest returned the sword of Goliath to David as a reminder of a battle once fought and the victory won (1 Samuel 21:7-9).


“No weapon formed against you shall succeed. And every tongue that contends with you at law you shall defeat. Such is the lot of the servants of the Lord. Such their triumph through Me – declares the Lord.” Isaiah 54:17 JPS


References

(1) Lipnick, Jonathan. "Why the Valley of Elah?" Israel Biblical Studies, 23 June 2016,



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