The victory of David over Goliath is one of the most memorable scenes in the Bible. Its reflections, like ripples in a pond, have been mirrored in art and literature and in the language and comparisons of Kings and in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In a number of ways it closely resembles the mythic duels between Greek and Trojan heroes, and it causes one to wonder why the story of David and Goliath has become such a powerful influence in the western world? Did it really happen? What really happened and what are the messages that it seeks to tell?
One could say – that if Goliath had beaten and killed David, that the history of Israel and the Jewish people would never have occurred. There wouldn’t be a holy city, and our hopes for a messiah would never have developed.
According to the Bible, the incident of David and Goliath took place sometime around the year 950 B.C.E. But the story is more than a story; it is core myth, part of a major saga which shaped the western world.
Listen to what and how the first book of Samuel Chapter 17: 1-51 shares its story, but first a little background.
The Philistines are main protagonists in the books of Judges and Samuel. A number of other encounters between the children of Israel and the Philistines occurred prior to David’s meeting with Goliath. They were routed by Saul’s son Jonathan at Michmesh and they captured the Ark of the Covenant and defeated King Saul at the battle of Aphek. Following that, they were once again defeated at Ebenezer. David’s story begins following their defeat and prior to the battle at Mount Gilboa where Saul and his sons were killed.
Saul and the men of Israel massed and encamped in the valley of Elah. The valley of Elah is approximately 45 minutes southwest of Jerusalem and today is the rising star of Israel’s wine industry. They drew up their lines of battle against the Philistines. The Philistines stationed themselves on one hill and Israel stationed itself on the one opposite.
A champion of the Philistine forces named Goliath of Gath stepped forward. Apparently Gath, which was one of the five major Philistine cities, produced tall men, because Goliath wasn’t the only Philistine giant described in the books of Samuel.
We are told that
Ishbi-benob, one of the descendants of the giants, whose spear weighed three hundred shekels of bronze and who was girded with a new sword, sought to kill David, but Abishai son of Zeruiah came to his aid and attacked the Philistine and killed him. 2 Samuel 21:16-17
And there was a man of great stature who had six fingers on each hand, and six toes on each foot, twenty-four in number; and he was also descended from the giants. And when he taunted Israel, Jonathan the son of Shimei, David’s brother slew him. 2 Samuel 21:20-21.
And finally and most problematically “there was again a war with the Philistines at Gob and Elhanan the son of Jaare-oregim, the Bethlehemite, slew Goliath of Gath, the shaft of whose spear was like a weaver’s beam.” 2 Samuel 21:19.
Was this a coincidence that a man with a different name from the same birthplace as David slew a giant named Goliath? Did a tradition of a man killing a giant exist prior to our story’s being recorded? It doesn’t matter, because the story was written to be told.
Goliath was six cubits and a span, almost 9 feet tall. Josephus and the Dead Sea scrolls recorded a different tradition which claimed he was only four cubits and a bit, which would make him about 6 feet 9 inches, but hey, that’s still a pretty big guy when the average height of man who lived three thousand years ago, couldn’t have been more than five feet.
Goliath wore a bronze helmet and a breastplate of scale armor, weighing five thousand shekels, approximately 155 pounds. He had bronze greaves on his legs and a bronze javelin strung across his shoulders. The shaft of his spear was like a weaver’s bar, and the iron head of his spear weighed six hundred shekels; around 18 pounds.
Hmm, this was not 10th-century Philistine armor; on the contrary it was armor which reflected the Greek culture of the sixth century. Why would the author or authors of this story tell the story utilizing the language and culture of a people who lived four hundred years after the incident allegedly took place?
Goliath stepped forward so all the Israelites could see him and he called out to the ranks of Israel, “Why should you come out to engage in battle? I am the Philistine (champion) and you are Saul’s servants. Choose one of your men and let him come against me. If he beats me in combat and kills me, we will become your slaves, but if I best him and kill him, you shall be our slaves and serve us.”
I defy you Israel, get me a man and let’s fight it out.
When Saul and all Israel heard these words they were terror stricken and every morning and evening for forty days Goliath challenged the army of Israel.
One could surmise the Philistines didn’t want to attack because they didn’t want to relinquish their strategic location on the mountain or they were unsure themselves because Saul’s son, Jonathan had defeated them when they last met.
One could also surmise the Israelites didn’t want to relinquish their strategic advantage and they were afraid of this giant of a man! Saul must have been plotzing!
Enter David, the son of a certain Ephrathite of Bethlehem in Judah whose name was Jesse. Jesse had eight sons, the three oldest had gone to fight in the war with Saul. David was the youngest, and as the youngest his job was to go back and forth between Saul and his father and to serve as a shepherd for his father’s flock.
One day, Jesse told David to “Take an ephah of parched corn and carry it quickly to your brothers in camp. And take these ten cheeses to the captain of their thousand. Find out how your brothers are doing and bring me back something of that belongs to them so I know that they have not come to harm.”
Early the next morning, David put someone in charge of the flock, took the grain and cheese as his father had instructed him. He reached the barricade as the army was going out to the battle lines shouting the war cry. David watched Israel and the Philistines draw up their battle lines one opposite the other and then he saw one of his brothers. He left his baggage with the man in charge of baggage and ran toward the battle line to greet his brothers.
While he was talking to them, the champion Goliath, the Philistine of Gath, stepped forward and repeated the same challenge that he had been doing morning and night. When the men of Israel saw him they fled in terror.
David turned to one of the men standing near him and asked, “Who is that uncircumcised Philistine that dares defy the ranks of the living God, and what reward will the man who slays him receive?”
The man told him that Saul will reward whoever kills Goliath with great riches, his daughter in marriage and tax exemption for his father’s house.
At this point, Eliab, David’s oldest brother overheard this conversation and became angry with David and said, “Why did you come down here, and with whom did you leave those few sheep in the wilderness? I know your impudence and your impertinence; you came here to watch the fighting!
And David replied, “What have I done now? I was only asking!” He turned away from his brother and asked the same questions to others. Each time he asked he received the same answer as before.
After a while word of this questioning boy was reported to Saul and Saul sent for him. The text doesn’t tell us if any small talk occurred; all it says is that David said to Saul, “Let no man’s courage fail him. I will fight that Philistine.” And Saul replied, “You can’t go and fight him, you are just a boy and Goliath is a giant who has been a warrior from his youth.
David replied with strong words to the King. He said, “I have been tending my father’s sheep, and if a lion or a bear carried off an animal from the flock, I would go after it and fight and rescue it from its mouth. And if it attacked me, I would seize it by the beard and strike it down and kill it. I have killed lions and bears and that uncircumcised Philistine shall end up like one of them, for he has defied the ranks of the living God. The Lord, who saved me from lion and bear, will also save me from that Philistine.”
Could it be that the skills David learned as a shepherd fighting lions and bears had prepared him to fight Goliath? It’s true he has learned how to kill and most likely used some sort of weapon, which might have been more than some of the men in Saul’s volunteer army, but could he kill a giant?
Saul must have been having a bad day, or he evinced but another sign of his inability to lead, because he permits David to represent his army, his nation.
Shouldn’t he have considered the consequences? What would have happened if David had lost? “Then Saul said to David “go and may the Lord be with you.”
Imagine how humiliated or terror stricken Saul must have been. For forty days and forty nights he failed to act and instead lived in fear, and now a young confident man approaches him and offers to perform an unimaginable act and he acquiesces.
He clothed David with his own garments. He placed his bronze helmet on his head and fastened a breastplate on him. He gave David his sword. And it was too much!
David tried to walk but could barely move. Not being used to wearing any armor – let alone a full suit of armor – he could barely stand. Finally, he said to Saul, I am not used to wearing armor and can barely walk. So he took them off and took his stick and picked a few smooth stones from the wadi, placed them in the pocket of his shepherd’s bag and, sling in hand, he went to meet Goliath.
Meanwhile, Goliath and his shield-bearer began to approach David. When he finally saw him, he looked at this handsome and ruddy boy and scornfully called out to David, “Am I a dog that you come against me with sticks? He cursed David by his Gods, and said, “All right boy, come here and I will give your flesh to the birds of the sky and the beasts of the field.”
And David replied, “You come against me with a sword, spear and a javelin; but I approach you in the name of the Lord of Hosts, the God of the ranks of Israel, whom you have defied. This very day the Lord will deliver you into my hands. I will kill you and cut off your head; and I will give “the carcasses” of the Philistine camp to the birds of the sky and the beasts of the earth. All the earth shall know that there is a God in Israel. And the whole assembly shall know that the Lord can give victory without sword or spear. For the battle is the Lord’s, and He will deliver you into our hands.”
Goliath drew closer to him and David turned to face him. He put his hand into the bag; took out a stone and slung it. It struck and sank into Goliath’s forehead, and he fell face down on the ground. David approached him, stood over him and grasped Goliath’s sword and pulled it from its sheath. And then he cut off his head. David took Goliath’s head and brought it to Jerusalem.
And thus David bested the Philistines with sling and stone and killed him without a sword.
Jerusalem, his destined city. Imagine, prior to establishing Jerusalem as his capital, David carries Goliath’s head with him to show its inhabitants. It could have been a the head of a bear or a lion that had stolen his sheep. But our authors have him bring the head of his enemy to his destined city to demonstrate that he would protect his people like a shepherd protected his flock.
The story of the rise of a young hero, a warrior and a man of confidence and faith who replaces a failed leader and over time became the embodiment of his people’s hopes and dreams is one of the classic myths of the western world. David and his son Solomon are revered as the greatest leaders of God’s chosen kingdom. They were the recipients of a divine promise that Israel would become a great nation, a promise that ensured the survival and eventual redemption of the Jewish people.
After the people of Israel achieved independence under the guidance of Joshua, and the land had been apportioned to the tribes, the land of Canaan, or Israel, which is how we will refer to it in this tale, was governed for nearly two hundred years by a tribal confederacy that was sworn to come to the aid of another tribe if needed. When hostile tribes or nations attacked, specific tribal charismatic figures would suddenly appear and would rally the tribe or tribes and spur them on to victory. These charismatic figures were considered to be instruments of God’s judgment. They were referred to as Judges. Samuel, the last of the Judges was also a prophet, priest, and kingmaker.
When the Philistines attacked the highland villages of the North, the people pleaded with him to create a more effective form of government, one which would defend them more readily. Following God’s instructions, in spite of his own misgivings, Samuel anointed Saul as king. Saul was a tall, handsome man from the tribe of Benjamin. Benjamin’s land allocation was in the Northern highlands.
Unfortunately, Saul was temperamental and ultimately unreliable. He ignored Samuel’s instructions (which we can interpret to mean God’s instructions) and in retaliation Samuel revoked Saul’s kingship and transferred it to David. Imagine that?
Imagine how Saul must have felt when he learned that his kingship had been rescinded?
After killing Goliath, David becomes a national hero and Saul becomes insurmountably jealous of David’s success. David, fearing for his life, flees to an area south of Jerusalem which is referred to as the “wilderness” – a wilderness with which he was familiar since it was close to the place he had been raised.
He attracted a band of men to his side – men who weren’t the noblest of sorts. The book of Samuel informs us they were the poor, the discontented, and those who had been cast out. All of a sudden, or so it seems, David had his own private army and Saul had reason to be fearful. David was an adept leader. As chief of a local band of men he fended off enemy attacks, settled disagreements, and distributed captured plunder to the poor and oppressed.
At first he attracted forty men. Over time and as a result of his successful activities his band grew to two hundred, then from two hundred to four hundred and from four hundred to six hundred.
He was the original Robin Hood, or so the story goes, and over time, the people began to tell stories about his victories. Perhaps they embellished them a little bit. Eventually these stories and heroic tales were transmuted into songs. Over time, lots of time, those songs spawned legends.
The story of the youth who killed the giant blossomed. He gathered an army, became king, expanded his nation from the Egyptian border to the Euphrates and over time morphed into an image of the ideal king, poet, man of action and man of faith. As the story grew, David emerged as the one whom God loved the most; he was the recipient of the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham and the progenitor of the Messiah.
But David was not blameless. Can one, perhaps, hear a bit of arrogance in his voice prior to the battle with Goliath, or was it perhaps just the confidence of a man with a mission. Sometimes one just hears an inner voice and knows what has to be done.
Unfortunately, David’s success brought with it, as it does with each of us, a host of complications. The more we engage with others, especially if we are placed in positions of authority, the more complicated our lives become.
During the period of his life when he was fleeing from Saul, he was forced to collaborate with the Philistines. And if he aided villages under attack and or distributed items of value that he had gained from plundering caravans, he actively undermined Saul’s authority!
David’s confidence and skill might have led him to reach for the golden ring, and become King. But once that goal had been achieved it was fraught with danger. Was it the power of kingship that overshadowed and conquered the belief and strength of the boy who had once heard God’s voice and conquered a giant?
Was it a coincidence that almost all of Saul’s family and closest associates were assassinated as soon as David became King?
Of course David immediately disavowed any responsibility but as soon as he consolidated his power he became infatuated with Bathsheba and deliberately arranged her husband’s death.
Perhaps David only heard and listened to his inner voice that one time.
As he aged he became increasingly powerless and failed to address the rivalry amongst his children. At the end of his life, he is pictured as an impotent old man, unable to address the needs of the time and constantly being manipulated by his family.
The message of this story exists on a number of levels. For the individual it encourages us to be a people who believe that giants can be conquered. For a nation that existed in the 6th century B.C.E., a nation conquered by a giant of Babylonian stature, it offered hope that just as an ancient hero of old overcame tremendous obstacles and triumphed because of his faith that Israel could once again hear God’s voice and be re-established once again.