By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
The story of David and Goliath is one of the most iconic and celebrated tales from the Old Testament. Virtually everyone vaguely acquainted with Bible stories knows that David, as a young boy, slew the giant Goliath. The story is an inspiring example of how the plucky underdog could defeat someone much bigger than him, against the odds.
Except, there are two problems with this story, a story that virtually everyone ‘knows’. First, was it actually David who slew Goliath? And second, and perhaps even more intriguingly: was David really the underdog in that fight?
Let’s delve deeper into what the Bible actually says about the David and Goliath encounter, and offer an analysis of its meaning. But first, here’s a brief summary of the story, as it’s commonly told.
David and Goliath: summary
The account of David’s fight with Goliath is found in 1 Samuel 17. The Israelites were getting ready for a battle against the Philistines, a valley separating the two armies, each of which stood ready on a mountain. Goliath, the champion of the Philistines, was a giant of over nine feet in height, wearing armour and carrying a huge spear.
Every day he walked out to the Israelite army and challenged them to send forward one Israelite to fight him in single combat, to settle the issue and decide the winner. If Goliath beat the Israelite, the Philistines would win, but if the Israelite champion was victorious, the Israelites would win.
The Israelites feared this mighty warrior; even Saul, their king, was apprehensive. But the young shepherd-boy David accepted the challenge, stepping out to face Goliath armed only with his staff, a sling, and five smooth stones he took from the nearby brook, placing them in his shepherd’s bag.
Goliath cursed David, calling up his gods against the boy, but David replied that his God, the Lord, would support David in striking Goliath down and delivering a victory to the Israelites over the Philistines. These words made Goliath angry, so he rushed towards the young boy.
At that moment, David used his sling to hurl a stone at his opponent. The stone struck Goliath in his forehead, and the Philistine fell face-down, to the ground, stone dead (as it were). David then cut off his head. The Philistines fled the battle, while David took Goliath’s armour before transporting the head to Jerusalem.
Saul summoned the boy David to him. The king asked who he was, and David answered, ‘I am the son of your servant Jesse the Bethlehemite.’ David was rewarded with a place at Saul’s court.
David and Goliath: analysis
The story of David overcoming Goliath is told in 1 Samuel chapter 17. And yet if we turn to 2 Samuel 21:19, we find something to surprise us: there it is told how Elhanan the son of Jaareoregim, a Bethlehemite, slew Goliath the Gittite. Yes, you read that right: in the first Book of Samuel, David slew Goliath, but in the second Book of Samuel, we are told that a man named Elhanan slew Goliath. So, which of them did it?
Scholars believe that, although we first encounter Goliath in 1 Samuel when he is killed by David, the original killer of Goliath was actually Elhanan: the authors altered the original text to credit the victory to David, so he was associated with the heroic deed. (After all, who knows Elhanan’s name? Whereas David is one of the most famous characters in the whole of the Old Testament.)
The (later) Hebrew book of Chronicles resolves this inconsistency by changing ‘Goliath’ to ‘the brother of Goliath’, and giving this phantom brother the name Lahmi. But as Kristin Swenson observes in her wonderfully informative A Most Peculiar Book: The Inherent Strangeness of the Bible, the ‘primary goal’ of Chronicles is ‘to lionize David’, so it’s hardly surprising that the author sought to differentiate between David’s supposed feat against Goliath and Elhanan’s against some obscure brother of the Philistine.
The King James version of the Bible follows this helpful textual emendation. But it really won’t do: the original Hebrew text does not name a brother at all, but Goliath himself. (You can see a range of translations of the relevant verse from 2 Samuel here. As you will see, most translations do not follow the King James version in making Goliath ‘the brother of Goliath’, instead choosing to retain the inconsistency.)
So, David became such a legendary hero and leader of his people that Elhanan’s victory over Goliath was later attributed to him, even though he apparently had nothing to do with it. But that’s not all that we tend to get wrong about the David and Goliath story. Even the idea that David (or Elhanan) was the ‘underdog’ is not quite as straightforward as it seems.
True, Goliath is a giant of a man, ‘six cubits and a span’ in height, armed with a spear, and David – if we follow the version of the story from 1 Samuel 17 – is but a young shepherd-boy armed with a sling.
But a ‘sling’ is, as Malcolm Gladwell pointed out in his David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants, hardly a ‘child’s toy’: it was a highly dangerous military weapon which enabled the wielder to kill an opponent from a distance (so they couldn’t get within slashing distance of you with their sword, for instance), often with just one shot to the head. Forget the difference in size between the two opponents: it’s the weapons that matter, and David was the one with the clear advantage.
But as Swenson also observes, the story of David defeating Goliath is still a powerful tale. The message it imparts to readers is nevertheless valuable because, even if David wasn’t quite the underdog he’s usually taken to be, he demonstrates a keen understanding of military tactics in order to defeat a much larger, brutish foe. He is willing to step forward, even as a youngster, and face a physically overpowering enemy alone.
And these are the qualities one would want in a future king: bravery, a strategic mind, and a willingness to lead from the front and set an example.