When the battle goes downhill, a good friend can save your life
By Mark Buchanan
David fighting Goliath is iconic—a celebrated and universal symbol of undaunted courage.
David fighting Ishbi-Benob is stigmatic —an embarrassing and forgotten tale of failing virility.
The David and Goliath story is placed at the epicentre of David’s entire career. It’s front-page news. It’s shouted from rooftops.
The David and Ishbi-Benob story is banished to the ragged edge of his life’s account. It’s hidden in the footnotes. It’s barely whispered in the ear.
The first story is told in 1 Samuel 17 – it takes up an entire lengthy chapter; the second is told in 2 Samuel 21—it comprises a tiny fragment. Since the Ishbi-Benob story is little known, and very brief, let me cite in full:
Once again there was a battle between the Philistines and Israel. David went down with his men to fight against the Philistines, and he became exhausted. And Ishbi-Benob, one of the descendants of Rapha, whose bronze spearhead weighed three hundred shekels and who was armed with a new sword, said he would kill David. But Abishai son of Zeruiah came to David’s rescue; he struck the Philistine down and killed him. Then David’s men swore to him, saying, “Never again will you go out with us to battle, so that the lamp of Israel will not be extinguished” (2 Samuel 21:15-17).
Both are giants, Goliath and Ishbi-Benob—indeed, a Jewish legend has them as brothers—though Ishbi-Benob is a runtish giant (his bronze spearhead is exactly half the weight of Goliath’s). Both taunt David, threaten to kill him, though Ishbi-Benob without the vulgar flamboyance of Goliath.
After that, similarities give way to contrasts: David the plucky, fleet-footed youth versus David the panting, staggering, middle-aged man; David the untried fighter who nonetheless wins decisively versus David the seasoned warrior who nonetheless comes within a razor’s edge of losing. David the lightening- quick lethal weapon versus David the soft, wide sitting target.
And this: with Goliath, David needs no one’s help; with Ishbi-Benob, David needs a friend to come to his rescue. How ironic, that the legendary rescuer now requires rescuing; that the erstwhile deliverer finds himself in desperate need of deliverance.
And then the story takes another twist. Since all the tables seem to be turning, the king’s men dare to give the king an order: “Never again will you go out with us to battle, so that the lamp of Israel will not be extinguished.” The commander is now being commanded.
Never again will you go out with us to battle. That’s our clue about where to place this story chronologically: just before David commits adultery with Bathsheba. That story begins, “In the spring, at the time kings go off to war, David sent Joab…” (2 Sam. 11:1).
David stays home, as his men commanded him to do. The aging warrior is housebound, his hands no longer trained for war. The giant-slayer now mopes and pads around the palace. Braveheart takes up needlepoint, watches reruns, eats too many doughnuts.
It must be humiliating. It must sting with shame. How did it come to this? He longs to feel young again. He wants to prove his manliness once more. He needs something to conquer.
And there she is, a beautiful woman bathing on a rooftop. I can conquer that, he thinks. That’s easy. All the while, he fails to see who’s the one being conquered.
And this time, he has no friend nearby to rescue him.
A question: why have we made the first giant story iconic and the second stigmatic? Why does even the most biblically illiterate person generally know about David and Goliath, but even the most devout Bible student generally draw a blank about David and Ishbi-Benob? Why have we enshrined the one and buried the other?
My guess is that David needing a rescuer embarrasses us as much as it embarrassed him. Look at us: we’ve all been reared on stories from way back and deep down that men must stand on their own two feet, fight their own battles, conquer their own giants. When we become exhausted—well, just don’t go there. When we need someone to rush in to keep us from falling—well, if it happens, let’s just not tell anyone. Let’s keep it our little secret.
The cost of this is devastating. How many men are losing battles right now—with pornography, with drink, with money, in their marriages, with their kids—because we still think we have go it all alone? Because we still buy the myth that solo ventures are heroic, but rescue missions (if we’re the object) are for losers?
And so man after man goes down at the hands of lesser giants, and few call out for a friend to come to their rescue.
For my money, I’d like to flip the two giant stories. I’d like to make the second one iconic, and the first, not stigmatic, but at least anomalous. David and Goliath is a freak incident, so famous because it’s so rare. How many Goliath stories does any man have in his lifetime? David had precisely one. Most men don’t get even that.
And the other story, with Ishbi-Benob? For most men, this is the new normal.
I often wonder how differently David’s later life might have played out had his friend Jonathan not died. Jonathan was the one man in David’s life to whom he confided all, and from whom he was not ashamed to seek help. When David was afraid, overwhelmed, confused, hurt, he turned to Jonathan, and Jonathan “helped him find strength in God” (1 Sam. 23:16).
If Jonathan had not died—if he had grown old with David, and each continued to help the other find strength in God— would David have called Jonathan to come to his rescue the day he glimpsed Bathsheba? Buddy, I need you. As in right this moment. I’m about to do something really stupid. I’m falling hard. Please come now?
But it didn’t work out that way. Jonathan was long gone, and David hadn’t found another friend. More and more he lived under the shadow of his former glory days, wanting to recapture them. More and more he believed that real men don’t need help, never ask for it. And so, friendless, David fell without a fight.
The Swahili word for friend is Rafiki. That’s the name of the blue-faced baboon—a mandrill—in that great theological masterpiece, The Lion King. Rafiki is the one who calls the lion king Simba to his true kingliness. He’s the one who helps Simba see that “you are more than what you have become.” He is the one who helps Simba see the image of his Father reflected in his own face.
A friend does all that, and more.
Maybe you’re still young enough, tough enough, agile enough, that you can kill your own giants.
But likely, not. Likely you’re getting to the age, or have been there a while, that unless someone fights with you, you’re not going to survive this.
You probably know who your Ishbi-Benob is.
The real question: Who’s your Rafiki?
MARK BUCHANAN is an associate professor of pastoral theology at Ambrose Seminary in Calgary, and is the author of Your Church is Too Safe.
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