A couple of weeks ago I went with my son to see the new Stephen Spielberg movie, “The BFG,” which is based upon the classic children’s book by Roald Dahl about a big, friendly giant (BFG). The BFG kidnaps a small orphaned girl named Sophie for self-protective reasons; but instead of being afraid of him, she befriends him. As a result, she is ultimately able to save him and the Earth from being tormented by a band of destructive, human-eating giants by enlisting the help of the Queen of England. The movie was highly entertaining and beautifully created, as one would expect from any Spielberg film. But what I didn’t fully appreciate until I saw it, (since I had not read the book), was how much the story is a parable for our day. We are living in a time when it feels as though life-threatening, destructive giants are endangering our nation and the world. The problems we are facing are so massive—the extreme political polarization of the US, the rise in racism, gun violence and terrorism, the refugee crisis, the Zika crisis, the economic inequity crisis, to name only a few— that it’s hard to read or listen to the news without feeling as though the ground is already shaking from giant footfalls. You can almost smell in the air the rank breath of unwashed, towering terrors, who think of people as Pringles, and are feeling increasingly peckish day by day.
Given that most of us have learned since our Jack-and-the-Beanstalk years that giants are terrifying monsters, it is not surprising that so many people feel very fearful these days. We feel vulnerable and threatened, and as a result are lashing out at each other in fight or flight mode more than ever. But as The BFG teaches, not all giants are the same, and fear is never the best way to defeat them. If anything, it makes things worse. The Bible teaches us the same lesson. There are three kinds of giants mentioned in the Bible: the giants called the Nephilim, which Genesis says lived on earth before the flood and were considered heroes; (Gen. 6:4), the Anakim, who are seen in the Promised Land by spies sent by Moses to do reconnaissance, (Num. 13:28); and the Philistine “giant” Goliath, whose encounter with a young David is the stuff of legend. (1 Sam. 17). Since the Nephilim disappear right after they are mentioned, we cannot learn much from them. But by comparing the other two stories, we can learn a thing or two about how we see giants and how we should best respond.
According to Numbers, when the Hebrew people were on the edge of the Promised Land, shortly after their exodus, Moses sent spies to check out their new home. They came back with a very mixed report. The land was rich and fruitful, but it was also the home of the Anakim, descendants of the Nephilim, who made the spies feel like grasshoppers. Their report so frightened the people that they refused to move into the land as God commanded. This made God furious, and as a result, the people ended up wandering in the wilderness for a generation before finally entering the land another way.
As far as historians are concerned, the Anakim never really existed outside of the minds of the people who reported seeing them. Therefore they have come to stand symbolically as the biblical equivalent of “boogie men.” The Hebrew people were never in real danger. But they chose near-death in the wilderness for decades because they were afraid of the future, the unknowns and changes that awaited them, and did not trust that God would be with them.
The giant described in 1 Samuel by contrast, is a giant lots of people saw. He may just have been a basketball player-sized man, but Goliath was still a big enough soldier to intimidate all of Saul’s army. He looked unbeatable. David, who was a young shepherd boy, was not intimidated, however. “Did you forget God is on our side?” he asked Saul with disgust in his voice, before going out to confront the giant himself. Then with very little fanfare, he felled the warrior, not with sword or arrows or any of the traditional tools of war, but by using the shepherding gifts God had given him. He knocked him out with a single stone.
These two stories have much to teach us about giants. The Numbers story illustrates how the giants we imagine, can often do more damage to us individually and as a community than the ones that are real because they magnify our fears. So it is critical that we take the time to discern exactly what kind of giant is scaring us. Right now a lot of the volatility and violence in our world is being generated by fears of the Anakim. The world is changing, the future is unknown, and we all are being asked to leave older ways of doing things behind, to embrace strangers and share resources and opportunities in new ways. The people most afraid are digging their heels into the desert sand and saying, “I’m not going to a place where I feel like a grasshopper. I’m staying right here.” But do we really want to lose a generation to the harshness of wilderness living because of such fears?
As far as the real giants go, David’s story teaches us that even real, seemingly undefeatable giants can be felled remarkably easily when we hold onto our faith more tightly than our fears, and when we use the tools and gifts that God has given us for good, instead of running away or fighting on the giant’s terms. In “The BFG,” Sophie’s gifts are courage and compassion, but she doesn’t use them alone. She gets the Queen’s help to bring all nations together for the common purpose of rendering harmless the dangerous giants which threaten the whole world. Likewise, if we stop turning on each other, and turn our energies instead toward tackling the real problems that threaten us, the problems of racism, sexism, xenophobia, poverty, homelessness, violence and disease, then with God’s help, these giants can also be rendered harmless.
In another engaging children’s book called The Book of Giant Stories by David L. Harrison, a little boy is stopped by a giant on his way home from school. The giant says, “What are you doing here, boy? Don’t you know whose woods these are?”[i] The boy explains that he is on his way home to tell his mother a secret. When he refuses to tell the secret to the giant, the giant captures him and takes him back to meet one of his brothers, an even bigger giant. Then that brother takes him to an even bigger giant. The danger escalates page by page as the giants get bigger and bigger, but the boy never seems afraid for some reason. Only when the giants threaten to eat the boy does he agree to share his secret. As soon as he does, the first giant runs away screaming, then the medium sized one, then the largest of all. Finally, at the end of the story, the reader learns why. The boy’s secret was that he had the measles.
We can scare away the giants that threaten us, and we don’t even need the measles to do it. All we need to do is remember that we have something the dark forces of the world should themselves fear because it is quite contagious. We have the love and grace of God. When we stand our ground and share compassion and kindness, when we use our gifts to unite and heal instead of divide and destroy, when we put our trust in God’s way more than in our own fears, the giants of this world won’t stand a chance. Don’t let your fears manufacture monsters that don’t exist; and don’t allow the fears of the community make us lose a whole generation to the dangerous life of living in the wilderness. It’s time to come together, so that we all can move into the Promised Land.
[i] Harrison, David L., The Book of Giant Stories (Canada: McGraw-Hill Co. of Canada, Ltd., 1972), 9. [Illustrations by Philippe Fix.]