Sunday, October 16, 2016

Know Your Bible: David and Goliath

Whether it is a sports team playing an opponent ranked dramatically ahead of them, or a single citizen going against the power of a multi-national corporation, we use the phrase "David and Goliath" to describe any overwhelmingly unbalanced confrontation.

In this post, I will outline the key things one should know about the original "David and Goliath" story, including the fact that, in retrospect, it wasn't a miracle and no one should have been surprised by the outcome.

The Original Story

In Chapter 17 of 1st Samuel (ca. 1000 BCE), Saul, King of Israel, is facing a challenge from the Philistine army. The Philistines are a possible Greek-speaking people who had settled on the Mediterranean shore in the region roughly equivalent to modern day Gaza. 

A champion from among the Philistine ranks, Goliath of Gath, offered the challenge that if anyone could beat him, the Philistines would become vassals of Israel, but if he won, Israel would surrender to them (1 Sam 17:9). No Israelite felt up to this challenge.

How Tall was Goliath?

This is hard to determine. The Hebrew text (1 Sam 17:4) states that he was "six cubits and a span tall" (גבהו שש אמות וזרת).

A cubit was about 1.5 feet, a span roughly nine inches. That would make him more than nine feet tall. The Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, the Septuagint, says he was four (τεσσαρων) cubits and span. A fragment of the Hebrew text from Qumran also has the number four, meaning Goliath was likely a more reasonable 6 and a half feet tall, still really tall for that age, when people were generally shorter.

The Fight is On

When the boy David arrived on the scene, he told King Saul that he would accept the challenge (1 Sam 17:32). 

David went against Goliath with nothing but five smooth stones gathered from a nearby wadi and a sling (1 Sam 17:40). As the opponents drew close to fight, David hurled a stone with his sling, embedding it in the forehead of the giant, who fell dead to the ground. David drew out the Philistine's own sword and cut off Goliath's head (1 Sam 49-51).

Goliath Never Stood a Chance

While some modern readers may see David's victory as "miraculous," original hearers of the story had a different experience. They knew that shepherds like David were extraordinarily proficient with a sling and stone. In Judges 20:16 we read that an army included 700 picked men and "everyone could sling a stone at a hair and not miss (כל־זה קלע באבן אל־השערה ולא יחטא)."

This is not a story of a miracle, it is a story of hubris. Goliath saw a little boy, but did not realize just how dangerous that boy could be.

Cultural and Historical Connections

The story of David and Goliath is nicely paralleled in the account of the battle between the Horatii and Curiatii in Livy, Ab Urbe Condita 1.24-26. Two sets of triplets are to fight as proxy on behalf of Rome (Horatii) and the city of Alba Longa (Curiatii). When two of the Horatii fall in the initial clash, the surviving triplet is indeed David facing Goliath. He manages to claw victory from the jaws of defeat by running around in such a way that he separated the three opponents and took care of them one at a time.

The concept is also nicely expressed in the movie Hoosiers, which tells the true story of a basketball team from a small town in Indiana which ends up facing a team from a considerably larger school in the State Finals.

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