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David and Goliath | 1 Samuel 17:1-58

They were Dismayed and Greatly Afraid

The story of a small shepherd boy from Bethlehem facing up to the mighty and terrifying Philistine, Goliath of Gath, is without a shadow of doubt one of the most magnificent tales of the Hebrew Bible. So exquisite is this David versus Goliath story that it has long since leapt from the pages of the Bible to inform everything in our culture from sport to art to theatre and film. This is a story that truly speaks to us. We love the story of David and Goliath.

And there came out from the camp of the Philistines a champion named Goliath, of Gath, whose height was six cubits and a span. He had a helmet of bronze on his head, and he was armed with a coat of mail; the weight of the coat was five thousand shekels of bronze. He had greaves of bronze on his legs and a javelin of bronze slung between his shoulders. The shaft of his spear was like a weaver’s beam, and his spear’s head weighed six hundred shekels of iron; and his shield-bearer went before him.
1 Samuel 17:4–7

Anyone familiar with The Iliad of Homer will immediately recognise the scene set by the biblical author at the Valley of Elah; this is a Greek heroic contest where each army would send out a champion to fight to the death to determine the outcome of the battle. This trial by combat was a sacred rite in the warfare of the Greeks, and so it is entirely fitting here in 1 Samuel in a depiction of a battle between the Philistines and the Israelites. The Philistines were one of the Sea Peoples who arrived from the Aegean into the Levant at the end of the Bronze Age. These were carriers of Mycenaean culture, and so it should not surprise us that this episode right from the pages of a Greek epic appears in the biblical narrative. But the parallels don’t end here, and neither do the complexities.

This is not the only time Goliath — who is killed by David here — fights and is killed by an Israelite. In fact there are four more Goliath-type traditions preserved in the same chapter of 2 Samuel:

They fought against the Philistines, and David grew weary. Ishbi-benob, one of the descendants of the giants, whose spear weighed three hundred shekels of bronze, and who was fitted out with new weapons, said he would kill David. But Abishai son of Zeruiah came to his aid, and attacked the Philistine and killed him.
2 Samuel 21:15–17

After this a battle took place with the Philistines, at Gob; then Sibbecai the Hushathite killed Saph, who was one of the descendants of the giants.
2 Samuel 21:18

Then there was another battle with the Philistines at Gob; and Elhanan son of Jaare-oregim, the Bethlehemite, killed Goliath the Gittite, the shaft of whose spear was like a weaver’s beam.
2 Samuel 21:19

There was again war at Gath, where there was a man of great size, who had six fingers on each hand, and six toes on each foot, twenty-four in number; he too was descended from the giants. When he taunted Israel, Jonathan son of David’s brother Shimei, killed him.
2 Samuel 21:20–21

It would appear to be the case that this champion contest against a giant is a fractured tradition, a memory — perhaps of a historical event — which has come to the biblical corpus from different sources. But it is more likely to have been the case that this heroic contest is a literary device the biblical authors have employed; a convention of battle narration they have picked up from the Greeks. We have good reason to believe this because of the tale of Nestor in The Iliad:

Would, by father Zeus, Athena, and Apollo, that I were still young and strong as when the Pylians and Arcadians were gathered in fight by the rapid river Celadon under the walls of Pheia, and round about the waters of the river Iardanos. …wearing his armor [of Arēithoös], he [Ereuthalion] was challenging all the best to fight him. But they were all afraid and trembling: no one undertook to do it. I was the only one, driven to fight by my heart [thūmos] which was ready to undertake much, with all its boldness, even though I was the youngest of them all. I fought him, and Athena gave me fame. For I killed the biggest and the best man: he sprawled in his great bulk from here to here. If only I were that young! If only my biē had remained as it was! For the son of Priam would then soon find one who would face him. But you, foremost among the whole army of warriors though you be, have none of you any stomach for fighting Hector.
The Iliad, VII. 120-160

According to old Nestor this famous fight took place ‘round about the waters of the river Iardanos,’ a tantalisingly similar name to the Ἰορδάνης — the river Jordan. It is very possible that Nestor’s tale and the story of David and Goliath have a common ancestor; an ancient legend or ur-story of a contest between a giant and a lad in Canaan (somewhere close to the Jordan).

In any event, the biblical authors have used this story  — probably some time in the eighth century BCE (at about the same time Homer was writing The Iliad) — in order to unite the monarchic traditions of Israel and Judah. King Saul was likely the king of a modest Israelite kingdom in the highlands of the southern Levant and the neighbour of an even more modest petty kingdom in Judah where David established the Davidic dynasty. These two small Hebrew kingdoms lived side-by-side until the Assyrian crisis when Samaria was destroyed and Israel sent into exile. Refugees from the northern kingdom of Israel then went to Jerusalem. It is at this time Judah, as the only surviving Hebrew kingdom, begins to weave together the traditions of Israel and Judah into a single historical narrative. In the re-imagining of their earliest history, the Israelite and Judahite scribes in Jerusalem sought to connect David and Saul; ultimately presenting David as a hero who succeeded Saul as king of a united monarchy of Israel and Judah.

But how can we know this was not a real event? Well, fashion is the big giveaway. 1 Samuel 17 provides an extremely detailed description of Goliath’s armour, and this was not the armour of tenth century Philistia. Goliath is dressed like a Greek hoplite of the eighth and seventh centuries, hoplites the people of Judah would have been familiar with in the form of Greek mercenaries stationed in Gaza by the Egyptians. The authors of 1 Samuel, clearly impressed by these giants, appear to have simply grafted them into a well-known heroic story. But Goliath was real enough. After the destruction of Israel in the late eighth century, the tiny kingdom of Judah was living under the shadow of a giant empire in Babylon with which it would soon do battle.


Published by Jason Michael

Scottish journalist and blogger living in Dublin, Ireland. Postgraduate in Sociology, Academic Fellowship (History of World War I) and lecturer in Biblical Studies.

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