Work Can Win the War

Greater than Guilt/10 - The humble tools that add pages to the book of history

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 25/03/2018

Piu grandi della colpa 10 rid«…they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.”»

Isaia 2,4

In the book of history that tells us about strong and overbearing winners and the weak and poor who succumb, we also find some different pages. That’s where the natural order is overturned, the humble are raised and the proud are defeated. It’s a few pages only, but their dazzling light illuminates the entire book, transforming it, changing its meaning and making the difference. These are other, different stories that reveal a second law of motion for humanity. That of Ann’s and Mary’s Magnificat, the prophecy of Emmanuel, the discarded stone, the suffering-but-glorified servant, the crucified-and-risen one, Rosa Park and those cooperative organizations and trade unions that have freed and liberated the victims from empires and pharaohs. Pages that tell us that the natural hierarchical order is not the only possibility, that anything can always happen, and that we are given a last chance even when everything and everyone says that it is impossible. It is this same fragile and tenacious law that explains why it is that in the cacophony of strong and powerful voices we sometimes manage to hear a little, different voice and we follow it. It explains why we were once able to believe more in just one little reason to go ahead and not in the hundred really strong reasons telling us to give up; or why we did not take the path of success and power at that crucial crossroads but the one we knew would make us littler and more vulnerable. Other pages, another history, a different law. Another road that we take because, perhaps, we see it as the only possibility of a more real salvation because it is narrower; or, perhaps, because we have meekly let our heart lead us to do so.

“Now the Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and a harmful spirit from the Lord tormented him” (1 Samuel 16:14). After the splendid scene of David's election and anointing by Samuel, the story takes us into the palace of Saul, the first king of Israel repudiated by YHWH. We find him at the mercy of a bad spirit who, the text says, had come “from God”. Another biblical constant can be found here. In Saul there had been a substitution of spirits: the good one had been withdrawn and its place was taken by a bad spirit that tormented him. The blessings and curses of the protagonists of salvation history are never only natural matters (illnesses, depressions...), they always contain a higher message. In the Bible YHWH is the source of good and bad spirits. There we do not find the struggle between the god of Good and the god of Evil, between light and shadow, as was common in the dualistic theodicies of the Middle East. If YHWH is the only true God, then he must also be responsible for the presence of evil spirits on earth. But to attribute evil spirits to the same God, too, means to make YHWH responsible also for the evilness and for the pain of the world - not guilty, but responsible, because one must try to give an answer to the most difficult and uncomfortable questions that rise from his wounded creatures, in the scriptures or through the prophets.

Such a responsibility is generally frightening to the Bible (and to us), but sometimes its bravest pages challenge and overcome this fear, giving us spiritual and anthropological masterpieces. Because a God who was the source of only the beautiful and good things of the world would not be up to the most real pages of the Bible, where we see such a high idea of God that it does not confine him to the good and beautiful side of life. The biblical God is not a trivial god because he must tell us where the 'evil spirits' that torment our children come from - this is also the message of Job's great song, where Satan is one of the angels at the court of God-Elohim (after Job and thanks to Job, the biblical God has become more responsible for the evil in the world).

Saul’s servants tell him, “Behold now, a harmful spirit from God is tormenting you. ... (We shall) seek out a man who is skilful in playing the lyre, and when the harmful spirit from God is upon you, he will play it, and you will be well” (16:15-16). One of his servants says, “Behold, I have seen a son of Jesse the Bethlehemite, who is skilful in playing” (16:18). Saul sent a message to Jesse to send his son to him, the one “who is with the sheep” (16:19). The young man arrived in the royal court, and that’s the point where his name appears in the story: “And Saul sent to Jesse, saying, “Let David remain in my service, for he has found favour in my sight” (16:22). And so, “whenever the harmful spirit from God was upon Saul, David took the lyre and played it with his hand. So Saul was refreshed and was well, and the harmful spirit departed from him” (16:23). Tradition will show us David as the great creator and singer of wonderful psalms - so it is very nice to see him entering the scene for the first time with the lyre to sing a song for the suffering Saul. His first biblical tunes are for a king repudiated and abandoned by the spirit of God. His first song is the song of gratuitousness. Among other things, this episode makes us sense what music was in the biblical and ancient world. It helped to liven up the feasts, it accompanied the liturgies and the dances of praise, and it kept evil spirits at a distance. It is an extraordinary and supernatural power, and in the Bible it allows artists to 'command' even the spirit of God. Music (and all art) is also this dialogue with the spirits of the world, the mysterious midwife of the daimon.  

While we are still enchanted by the charm of David's lyre, the narration leads us into one of the most popular scenes of ancient literature. We are introduced to the battlefield, the Israelites lined up against the Philistines. A warrior, Goliath, comes out of the Philistine camp. He is such a tall, armed and imposing champion as to terrorize his enemies. For forty days Goliath shouted against the people and the God of Israel, saying, “Give me a man, that we may fight together” (17:10). In the middle of this war scene David shows up, and he arrives as if he were still unfamiliar to us - different traditions are intertwined in the final edition. His father Jesse had sent him to his three brothers who were in Saul’s army: “Take for your brothers an ephah of this parched grain, and these ten loaves, and carry them quickly to the camp to your brothers. ... See if your brothers are well, and bring some token from them” (17:17-18). David, the youngest, is sent to his brothers to supply them with goods, to bring back their war wages and to inquire about their 'health', their shalom. Another boy, the penultimate son, was also sent to verify the shalom of the brothers (Genesis 37:14). This other boy was Joseph, another 'little one', discarded and sold, who later became the salvation of his brothers and the people. David is also reproached and accused by his brothers: “Now Eliab's anger was kindled against David, and he said, »Why have you come down? And with whom have you left those few sheep in the wilderness? I know your presumption and the evil of your heart«” (17:28).

David sees Goliath, hears his words and threats. He is called by Saul, and David tells him, “Your servant will go and fight with this Philistine” (17:32). Saul hesitates because of David's young age and lack of experience. David tries to convince him by citing his ability as a shepherd: “...when there came a lion, or a bear, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after him and struck him and delivered it out of his mouth. And if he arose against me, I caught him by his beard and struck him and killed him” (17:34-35). Saul believes David and gives him his blessing: “Go, and the Lord be with you!” (17:37). Another 'good look' taken by the text on Saul. Even a man from whom the spirit of God has withdrawn can recognize the presence of the good spirit in another man, and bless him. Even when we know that the 'Lord' is no longer with us, we can always say to another person, "The Lord be with you" - the world is moving forward also because there are people who are able to bless others in the name of a God or an ideal that they themselves have lost.

The legendary duel between David and Goliath is not an account of military action. It is much more than that. It is a theological struggle, another narration of David's call, another theophany. Goliath is also the image of the idol, a new Dagon, who again falls 'face to face' on the ground in contact with the Ark of the true God (5:3). Saul lends David his heavy armour so as to face the fight better, but David says, “I cannot go with these, for I have not tested them” (17:39). He then heads naked towards Goliath, carrying only his shepherd's staff and a sling. He picks up five pebbles polished by the stream, and puts them in his bag. Goliath screamed at him, “Am I a dog, that you come to me with sticks?” (17:43). And then he “cursed David by his gods.” But as soon as he drew near to David, he “put his hand in his bag and took out a stone and slung it and struck the Philistine on his forehead. The stone sank into his forehead, and he fell on his face to the ground” (17:48-49). The staff and the sling can win the spear and the pole; nudity defeated the strong armour. David's victory was great, the greatest of all, because it was the victory of the naked shepherd not the victory of the warrior - as Michelangelo, Donatello and Cellini ingeniously sensed it, too.

David fought with Goliath not as a warrior but as a shepherd. He defeated the powerful Goliath with the shepherd's ordinary work tools. The craft of arms did not defeat the craft of the shepherd. David obtained permission from Saul to challenge Goliath in the name of his expertise in the art of work, not in the art of war.

Even today, while the powerful and the overbearing continue to practice the art of war and terrorize the world with their swords and screams, others simply continue the practising of the arts and crafts. Sometimes they manage to win war and death with their work, with their humble work tools. And they add a new, different page to the book of history. David, the good shepherd, is born again and lives again, as a naked winner, with his stick and crook.

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