The Sword, the Sling, and the One True King

The Israelites and Technology

The Sword, the Sling, and the One True King

by Brendan Blowers, Per (S.N.)

When we go to the Bible looking for wisdom on the topic of technology, we first have to redefine our ideas of “technology” to fit the time of the Israelites. We have to roll back our ideas of “technology” about 2500 years, and realize we aren’t talking about iPads, iPods, flat screens, cloud computing, netbooks, fiber optics, frequent flier miles, or search engine optomization. No, the latest fad was not if your plow had 3G technology or not, but whether it had an iron tip. We’re talking iron-age here, people. People were just beginning to realize they could shape and sharpen the elements to create better and more efficient tools. The Israelites, after 40 years of wandering in the desert, had finally settled in the promised land and were beginning to realized that where they lived today… would still be there tomorrow! They didn’t have to live day-to-day any longer! The gift of manna for the day had now been replaced by the gift of a land to call their own, for generations. Now, a people strengthened physically by years of hard living and strengthened spiritually by years of reliance and trust in nothing else but the One True God could now establish homes, farms, and a kingdom.

But… there’s a problem. This trendy new technology – iron – isn’t distributed equally. The Israelites are at a disadvantage… and it’s no accident. There’s a group of people who don’t want the Israelites to learn the mystical science of forging iron tools. Because tools aren’t the only thing you can make. You can make swords.

1 Samuel 13

The Message

There wasn’t a blacksmith to be found anywhere in Israel. The Philistines made sure of that – “Lest those Hebrews start making swords and spears.” That meant that the Israelites had to go down among the Philistines to keep their farm tools – plowshares and mattocks, axes and sickles – sharp and in good repair. They charged a sliver coin for the plowshares and mattocks, and half that for the rest. So when the battle of Micmash was joined, there wasn’t a sword or spear to be found anywhere in Israel – except for Saul and his son Jonathan; they were well-armed.

The Israelites have no blacksmith. They don’t have the training or the place to go to sharpen their own farming tools. They can’t arm or defend themselves. They get charged by foreigners who have a monopoly on iron smelting. They’re dependent on the Philistines, they have to pay them whatever they ask, and they can’t create weapons to protect themselves.

So what do they do with the only weapons they have? Well, in the next passage we see Jonathan go on a Rambo-style killing rampage, single-handedly killing 20 Philistines in a wild, impulsive killing spree. From Israel’s perspective, the insuing chaos showed them God had saved the day.

A few things to note. Did the Philistines have good reason to fear the Israelites getting swords? Looks like their fears were justified, from what Jonathan did. “But if we give them technology, they will use it for bad purposes” the Philistines likely cautioned. Should we be worried that Jonathan went crazy and massacred the Philistines? The writers of Israel’s history like this outcome. But we can be critical of historical mistakes made by the Israelites – was it right for them to use this new technology for warfare rather than to work the land? Were they craving more instead of caring for what God gave them? Or, was Jonathan right in using the technical advantage – the sword – to level the inequity the Philistines had created? Really, that is the heart of the problem… the technological gap was no accident. It was described not as a result of differing development trajectories. No, it was a strategic inequality designed by paranoid, fearful, dominating enemies of the people of God. The Philistines created, and perpetuated this inequality because it served their own interests. They had a monopoly on technology creation and maintenance, making the Israelites dependent on them. They could charge whatever they wanted for the Israelites to sharpen their tools. And they could make sure these new technologies were never turned as a weapon toward them. Why all this trouble to keep the Israelites oppressed? They were afraid. Afraid the Israelites would make weapons. They were likely afraid of aggression that was created by bitter feelings arising from the oppressive stance the Philistines used. If I have a sword and I overcharge you to sharpen your farming tools, I have no reason to worry… until YOU get a sword. Now my edge over you is gone.

So, is technology in the hands of the Israelites the ultimate solution? As Saul and his band of men take on bigger and better armies, it looks like the sword is the newest and best thing around. It’s helping them gain a foothold and proving that God is with the Israelites.

But, is it really God that is with the Israelites, or the sword?

Part II

Is technology in the hands of the Israelites the ultimate solution? Is that the defining factor that will save them?

To answer this, we have to go forward to a reminder David gives us. We’re skipping over the part where Saul disobeys God’s orders and God rejects him as king. We come to the story of David and Goliath in chapter 17. David is sick of Goliath’s taunts and the weak cowardness of the ranks of Israel’s army. So he asks to fight Goliath.

There is no ambiguity in where David’s strength is from. “The Lord who delivered me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine.” (v 37, NIV). Nevertheless, Saul wants to offer the best weapons the army has. He suits David up in his own armor and puts the Sword in his hand. Is this about desperately hoping something he has to offer is relevant and important in David’s situation? Is it about “credit” or branding – will people ascribe some power or significance to the fact that David wears the king’s own tunic and fought with his sword? Will the story become “David killed the giant with King Saul’s very own armor and sword!” instead of “God used a young shepherd boy to defy the enemies of his people!”?

But the armor and heavy weapons are not suited for David’s needs. They are inappropriate technologies for him – he is not used to them and they are cumbersome and confining. We already know the story, and it is quite likely that using the king’s armor would have prevented him from fighting and winning the way he did. He takes off the armor and sword, and instead goes armed with his staff, 5 smooth stones, and his sling. Not impressed with the spectacle of modern warfare strategies, David goes with what he is familiar with and a relentless faith in God as the determiner of the final victor. His message is clear.. “the whole world will know that there is a God in Israel,” (vs 46) and “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” (vs 47).

We all know what happens next… David runs forward to meet Goliath head-on and nails him in the noggin with a rock slung from his sling.

The author of this event records the army’s proccupation with David’s youth and inexperience. Yet, the writer repeats another important truth, articulated in David’s statement… “it is not by sword or spear that the Lord saves; for the battle is the Lord’s” (vs 47). And again, we are reminded… “So David triumphed over the Philistine with a sling and a stone; without a sword in his hand he struck down the Philistine and killed him” (vs 50). Perhaps the writer emphasizes this repeatedly because God as the ultimate victor and determiner of the battle is an idea that extends beyond David and Goliath and covers the whole of Israel. The establishment of the nation of Israel upon the land is put in perspective in Psalm 44 – “It was not by their sword that they won the land, nor did their arm bring them victory; it was your right hand, your arm, and the light of your face, for you loved them” (Psalm 44:3). It is not by Sword that the victory is won, but by God’s love.

Something to note… Goliath’s sword is, in fact, finally used by David to cut off Goliath’s own head. Goliath’s sword shows up again, when David eats the consecrated bread in the temple, deceives the priests and the Philistines, and desperately pleads for a sword or spear. He is given Goliath’s old sword (1 Samuel 21). What might that mean?

Part III

Is the tendency any different today, to ascribe the victory to something other than the one true God? Do we attribute to technology, smarts, some clever business model, a specific missions strategy, the latest developmental trend, money, our government, the military… whatever… do we attribute to these things the source of victory, when God was the ultimate victor? God is pretty clear about how he feels about praise he deserves being given to other gods.

Do we come against the Goliath problems we face in the world today – poverty, sickness, natural disasters, human disasters, immorality, sin, defiance of God… do we come against these giants armed with the latest, greatest, and best the world has to offer? Or do we come armed with a relentless faith in God the Creator and appropriate technology that we are familiar and comfortable using?

And, perhaps, do we sometimes attribute to God a victory that was in fact a victory he takes no claim in – one that a false god made possible? Do we attribute a successful project to God, when in fact it was a project not ordained by him but forced into being by our clever technologies and missions strategies?

We should be aware of this technology gap when we see it, and we should denouce the human element that makes structural inequity like that possible. We should advocate for accessible, natively designed, sustainable uses and designs of technology, that do not subject or enslave certain groups who do not have these technologies themselves. Computers should be designed robustly for environments that are not dust-free, cool, and climate-controlled. If we follow the Philistine strategy of using progressive technologies as tools of enslavement and oppression, we can expect to receive the violent backlash they experienced when the Israelites finally started using the Sword.

And above all, we should attribute the victory to God, not whatever product, brand, denomination, or sponsor organization we’re toting. The battle belongs to the Lord, and it is so the world will come to know the one true loving God of us all that the victory over these giants is won.

We should use the solution that fits the context, and draw from the diverse strengths that are brought to the table. We should be careful not to dress shepherds up in cumbersome, restrictive armor and put a sword in their hands to show off the greatest technology has to offer. We should learn from the shepherd how to launch stones from afar, we should learn what strategies have worked for him and use those as a starting point for new solutions. All he needs, after all, is a slingshot, five smooth stones, and the blessing of God to take on the giants.

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