Blind Goliaths & Women’s Ordination
By Debbie Hooper Cosier | 30 July 2021 |
There’s some debate about Goliath, the Philistine champion who terrorized the Israelites day and night in the Valley of Elah. According to unreliable conversions from ancient units of measurement, his height at ‘six cubits and a span’ was about ten feet. But Dead Sea Scrolls scholars say that a bored scribe inserted a little hyperbole to beef up Goliath’s dimensions. Today Goliath would probably be rejected as an NBA player at “only” 6 feet 9 inches—less impressive to us, perhaps, but still gigantic back then when people averaged about five feet.
Our protagonist, a teenage boy, comes down to the valley where the Israelites and Philistines are drawn in battle lines on opposite hills. He didn’t come to fight but to bring lunch to his brothers. Due to ancient custom and an accident of birth order, David had been pigeonholed—destined, it would seem, to be the family shepherd.
Unbeknownst to many, and perhaps even completely forgotten by his own family, David had been anointed as God’s chosen one by Samuel the Prophet in a private ceremony while he was still a boy.
And he had something to prove.
The Bible story doesn’t reveal David’s thoughts but, in my imagination, he realizes that something must be done. If not him, then who? I picture him dropping to one knee to retie a sandal, while casually reconning the scene, assessing the body language and mindset of the Israelite soldiers. He is strong and fit from years of sheep herding and he makes sure to flex his biceps and the latissimus dorsi across the span of his back, and the impressive row of external obliques running down the side of his torso—an important entré into the world of soldiering.
Approaching a small group, he begins asking what they’ve observed about the giant’s habits.
“Well, he sleeps most of the day in that large tent over there. Every few hours he comes roaring out, knocking over people and tent poles. Then he stands there, challenging and threatening us… I can usually hear it from my hiding—I mean, the bathroom.” (“Whenever the Israelites saw the man, they all fled from him in great fear”—1 Sam 17:24).
David can’t understand their reticence to stand up to this bully. He recounts the story of his recent contest-to-the-death with a lion that would have killed his sheep, miming the lengthwise evisceration of the wild creature with his bare hands. “And then there was this one time with a bear…”
Our David is small, but he is mighty in courage and stories.
We all know how events play out. King Saul, hearing reports of David’s feats of strength, asks to see the young upstart. No one else has come forward to claim the reward he offers, including marriage to his daughter—cultural sexism if ever we’ve seen it.
Impressively tall himself—at least a head taller than everyone else, Saul is the one who should fight the giant; however, it becomes clear throughout the book of Samuel that Saul’s character is deficient.
The best assistance Saul can offer David is his own suit of armor. David opts out. It’s an impediment, several sizes too large, but the offer gives us some insight into Saul’s thoughts on the likely outcome.
So David goes out to meet Goliath in his own humble shepherd’s clothing.
Onlookers may well have groaned at the sight. There’s Goliath—toweringly tall at his vantage point on the hilltop. And here’s David—at 17 and closer to five feet tall, standing in the dry creek bed, the lowest point in the valley.
Still, David is straight and calm, silently observing the giant as he rants and mocks the Israelites and their God. Finally, the young shepherd picks up some smooth river stones and draws a leather sling from his pocket. The rest happens in fragments, like a stop-motion movie: the leather strip arcs, the stone splits the air on its journey towards Goliath’s forehead, the giant crumples slowly to the ground, not even knowing what hit him, David rises to finish the job with Goliath’s own sword.
David is now on a new trajectory. He becomes the national hero. Ultimately, God replaces Saul with David as king of Israel. Good triumphs over evil, the little guy over the big guy.
David, mighty in faith.
Blind spots and slingers
Those of us who’ve heard the story may make the mistake of downplaying David’s skill in this. We like to think of him as having a certain naiveté. His strengths are not that obvious because we, too, have him pigeonholed. We tell our children a fairy tale version: a pink-cheeked boy sitting on a rock, playing sets on a harp and singing lead vocals to aid in the digestive endeavors of his fluffy white sheep eating succulent meadow grasses in an idyllic pastoral setting.
As a shepherd, David had to be tough. He was a keen observer, provider, and protector. He’d spent many a solitary hour making smart, quick-thinking decisions for the good of his sheep. He had the ingredients to be a good leader.
I recently discovered from author Malcolm Gladwell that David may have known something the Biblical author didn’t. In his research for a book called David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants, where Gladwell asserts that the little guy is often perfectly positioned to defeat giants, he suggests that Goliath could have been vision-impaired.
There are hints in the story if we look closely enough. Endocrinologists say that a common side effect of excessive human growth hormone is double vision. With Goliath disabled, large and clumsy in a small-person world, and David lethally accurate as a “slinger” from way back, it was the underdog who had the advantage.
The lessons we overlook in this story? The strong can be surprisingly weak—and those perceived as weak can be surprisingly strong. Goliaths have blind spots—often for the very reasons that they are powerful in the first place. And davids? Well, they may have significant strengths.
Are churches blind?
I want to superimpose the story of David and Goliath onto an aspect of Seventh-day Adventism; specifically, on the actions of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the matter of women’s ordination.
It’s not the perfect analogy, but stories don’t have to perfectly align to be instructive. David, pigeonholed by his family, is a surrogate for women, pigeonholed by the church.
And the goliath in this case? The General Conference (GC) is blind to the fact that a cultural issue should never have been taken to a vote by people from all cultures. Doubling down, the compliance document attempts to enforce “holy misogyny” (a phrase from S.M. Kidd’s The Dance of the Dissident Daughter) across the entire Adventist world.
Excluding, silencing, devaluing women (and minorities) in religious contexts is and always has been—including in Bible times—cultural. Shockingly, the very problem that gospels confront and Adventist doctrines acknowledge are the traits displayed in decisions made at the 2015 and 2018 General Conference councils. Adventists must open their eyes to this attack from within. It is, and always was, avoidable.
Here’s how Adventists have been blind, like a goliath:
- Those who staged the GC vote against Women’s Ordination lacked discernment about who women are and can be. They are blind to the fact that there are women who are just as well suited to leadership as the men who have been elected to it.
- The Compliance Document is nearsighted, reckless about what it’s asking of Church employers in many countries where equity of employment (opportunity) is expected and/or legislated.
- The GC is foolishly forcing people to act against their conscience, and what they know and experience about the leadership of women. They expect people to ignore their moral dissonance.
- The GC action is imperceptive of the stunning irony that a church founded by a female end-time prophet and leader is now blocking other females from taking church leadership roles unless they are Female2Female or Female2Child roles.
- The GC is oblivious to the fact that women are called to ministry in the same ways and with the same conviction that men are called.
- The GC does not recognize that forcing ‘compliance’ and ‘unity’ is no different, in this case, from ‘suppression’ and ‘submission.’
- They’re myopic when it comes to seeing their own holy (or more likely, unholy) misogyny.
Facing our fears
Often, fear exaggerates obstacles when facing down giants, and we tend to give them way more credit than they’re due. Furthermore, some ‘facts’ presented to us—like Goliath’s height in modern Bible translations—are exaggerated, while other facts—like Goliath’s vision impairment—are overlooked.
This is damaging to women, to the reputation of Adventism worldwide, and children as they grow up in a religious culture that seems parochial and irrelevant. Yet many of us stand around like Saul and his warriors, running off to the bathroom when things heat up, and hoping against hope that someone else will put their hand up to ‘fight the giant.’ Very soon, our inaction and the General Conference’s intention to step up compliance (which amounts to a bullying campaign) may defeat us entirely.
Are we any better than Saul’s empty suit of armor crumpled on the floor if we run when the giant is blind?
- Dear Conference, Union, and Division leaders who are not taking an active stance,
I have some sympathy for you. You no doubt know sincere people who believe in Male Headship and are probably experiencing backlash from both sides of this debate. However, you are the leaders and if you believe Male Headship is invalid as an interpretation of scripture, then you should take an active stance against the GC ruling as others have done and are doing. Using kind words to pacify female ministers and concerned congregants is not enough. Furthermore, overprotecting female pastors whom you’re afraid could experience crippling misogyny in churches (potentially increased due to what some people see as implicit permission) is not what female pastors need. Please deal with the discrimination and misogyny at the local level because female ministers do not need ‘penning’ in special enclosures like sheep. Consider whether your efforts to award females a consolation prize are working for or against female ministers: could you be drawing negative attention to them and reinforcing the belief that women are less capable and benefit from unfair, special privileges?
- Dear male ministers,
Speak up if you value the contribution made by female colleagues you attended seminary with, if you recognize that females work just as hard as males, and if you know that the sex of a person does not guarantee their eligibility/ineligibility for a role. Make sure that your conference leaders and congregants know you support the role of females in ministry and that women deserve equal acknowledgment and equal opportunity for equal work in the form of ordination and leadership opportunity. Speak often and speak in numbers.
- Dear female ministers,
Please know this: goliaths have blindnesses and davids are always underestimated. As a david, you must adapt, you must use your God-given talents and turn your competencies (sometimes undervalued by others) into strengths. Speak of Women’s Ordination publicly, relate what led you to this calling, be vocal and confident about the value you bring to your role, and mostly, be everything God created you to be. Take care of your mental health. And this: remember that the biggest improvements in equality in many countries come about because women were willing to take a stand: think Rosa Parks, think Suffragettes… even think professional female surfers! The truth is, it may not happen if you rely on men to do it.
- Dear children’s/youth/adult Sabbath School teachers, potluck and communion organizers, library workers and cleaners, parents, grandparents, elders, deacons, male and female believers who occupy the pews,
Raise the topic with those around you, with your elders and ministers, with your Conference, Union, and Division presidents. Write letters and emails showing how the ministry in your church has improved with the inclusion of female ministers (if you want a template, contact me via my website). Show how research demonstrates that, on average, female leaders have a greater tendency to lead democratically, be transformational, be role models, listen to others, develop the potential of others, and score high on measures of effective leadership. Show up. Speak up. It is both more humane and more Christlike.
And so, it turns out that the story ‘David and Goliath’ is not such a simple one after all. Neither is the story ‘Women’s Ordination,’ mainly because Adventists find themselves in the uncomfortable position of confronting discrimination and falsehood in their own ranks. This is no reason to be complacent, to freeze, or to flee. Change will not come on its own.
Debbie Hooper Cosier is a former teacher, now a writer, who lives in northern New South Wales, Australia. Her website is freshwriting.com.au.