The Biblical Account

I use the word “account” as an intentionally neutral one. Hebrew Bible/Old Testament scholars tend to view the biblical record of David killing Goliath with suspicion, typically concluding that it is “legendary” or a literary application of a mythological story to the biblical hero. This is not the place (nor is there space!) to review those arguments or to attempt to rebut them. Nevertheless, a couple of “positioning statements” may help put my view in perspective: Biblical scholarship is a massively complicated field in which theological and literary assumptions play an inordinate role in evaluating “accounts” as either historical or contrived. As a scholarly practice, I strive to separate my theological views from evaluation of biblical (and other) texts. Clues within the accounts themselves can often reveal whether the story is intended to convey historical (actual) data or impart a moral or theological truth.

The case of the David and Goliath story in 1 Samuel 17 is complicated by evidence of multiple sources. Be that as it may, there are a number of elements that suggest at least one was intended as an actual account of events. While that does not mean the account must be literally true in all aspects, it does imply that certain details have interpretive and/or application importance beyond mere drivers of the narrative. So, on to the story . . .

1 Samuel 17 sets up the conflict with a plausible, even likely, scenario. The Philistines were expanding from their cities in the coastal plain into the hill country in a bid to dominate the Israelite tribe of Judah. This was only possible by pushing up the Elah Valley, just as the text describes in geographical detail (1 Sam 17:1-3). The Israelite army was attempting to block the Philistines from moving up the meandering valley towards Bethlehem, the city of David’s family. The geography also makes reasonable the notion that Jesse, David’s father, would dispatch his youngest son to carry food to the older brothers serving at the front line (1 Sam 17:12-17). David would arrive at the Israelite army blocking the Elah Valley without fear of venturing to the wrong camp.

A Google Earth view of the Elah Valley with labels of places mentioned in the text (I’ve used this for years in class and was too lazy to make a special one for this).

The critical setup is that a Philistine champion of large stature, Goliath, singularly issues a challenge for a champion from Israel to a one-on-one battle, with the winner to determine victory for his side (1 Sam 17:4-10). This element indeed seems like a literary trope; but tropes must arise from somewhere. Heroic duel challenges are known from this region in the ancient Egyptian Tale of Sinuhe (where it is reported as a true event) and in the Homeric epics from the Aegean—not insignificantly, the world of Philistine origins.

Today, especially in the Bible-Belt American South, Goliath is popularly remembered as a “giant” against whom battle was futile, and David is imagined a mere boy whose childlike faith in God determined victory. These images are solidified by modern religious art.

View through one of Khirbet Qeiyafa’s two gates (the meaning of Sha’arai’m) SSE to the Elah Valley below (Daniel C Browning Jr, 2012)

How Does David Defeat Goliath?

So how did David kill Goliath? I have posed this question innumerable times to classes and other groups. Everyone knows the answer: David killed Goliath with a “slingshot;” more accurately stated after some interrogation as a “sling and stone.”[1] Indeed, 1 Samuel 17:49 confirms this:

David put his hand in his bag and took out a stone, and slung it, and struck the Philistine on his forehead; the stone sank into his forehead, and then he fell on his face to the ground. So David prevailed over the Philistine with a sling and with a stone, and struck the Philistine, and killed him; there was no sword in the hand of David (1 Samuel 17:49-50, RSV). 

So I invariably ask the follow-up question, “how big was the stone? Show me.” The vast majority will demonstrate with one hand by touching their thumb and forefinger together to indicate a stone of 25-50 mm (ca. 1-2 in), about the size one would pick up to throw at a target. From this, I find it is easy to elicit a conclusion and consensus from “believers” regarding the gist of the story: David’s success was solely dependent on his faith that God would guide this small stone to the appropriate point on Goliath’s forehead. In other words, David’s faith in God is all that mattered (a popular evangelical version of this is, “let go and let God”). This conclusion finds support in David’s repeated statement to Goliath that “the LORD will deliver you into my hand” (1 Sam 17:46, 47; cf. 37). The application then would be something like this: “Davids” can only defeat “Goliaths” if the underdog has sufficient faith and, of course, if God wills it in the first place.

I disagree. And a careful look at the text and archaeological data will make my case.

“David Giving Thanks to God After the Death of Goliath;” 18th century, attributed to Charles Errard the Younger.

First, a reminder that the text of 1 Samuel 17 strongly suggests more than one source combined by an editor. It is quite possible that the final editor was comfortable with the “let go and let God” approach noted above, but elements were retained that belie that conclusion.

When David volunteers to face Goliath, King Saul notes the “David versus Goliath” problem: “you are not able to go against the Philistine to fight with him; for you are but a youth, and he has been a man of war from his youth” (1 Sam 17:33). David’s immediate response does not cite his faith that all would end well, but emphasizes his preparation and ability for the task:

But David said to Saul, “Your servant used to keep sheep for his father; and when there came a lion, or a bear, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after him and smote him and delivered it out of his mouth; and if he arose against me, I caught him by his beard, and smote him and killed him. Your servant has killed both lions and bears; and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them . . .” (1 Samuel 17:34-36).

Only after David provides this resume does the text add the suspiciously editorial-like: “And David said, “The LORD who delivered me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine” (v. 37, RSV). David first emphasizes his training and experience for the moment; i.e., he knew he had the skill to do it.

Then we have a scene in which Saul fits David with his own armor (1 Sam 17:38-39). David rejects and removes it, which is often explained in terms of it being too big. In fact, David explicitly says that he has not “proved” or was not “used to” (RSV) the armor. This becomes more interesting when compared to the initial description of Goliath (vs. 4-7), where his height is mentioned, but there is considerably more emphasis on the weight of his armor, the weight of his spearhead, his javelin, and his cumbersome helmet and grieves. This in addition to his sword which enters the story later. The narrative clearly sets up David’s choice not to fight Goliath’s battle—one of heavily armored and armed lumbering behemoths—in favor of a quick, mobile, distance-strike approach.

Of special interest are details given as David approaches the duel: “Then he took his staff in his hand, and chose five smooth stones from the brook, and put them in his shepherd’s bag or wallet; his sling was in his hand, and he drew near to the Philistine” (v. 40, RSV). At this point I always ask classes or audiences why David picked up 5 stones. With an evangelical audience I very rarely get the seemingly obvious answer:[2] David was prepared to miss a few shots. In that case, why not pick up more than 5 stones? The double reference to David’s “shepherd bag or wallet” (RSV) into which he placed the stones is also tantalizing. By emphasizing the storage the text also suggests a possible limitation.

Gypsum wall panel relief of Assyrian slingers; from the Southwest Palace of Sennacherib at Nineveh, late 8th-early 7th c. BC; © The Trustees of the British Museum

Here it is helpful to revisit the slingstone size question and introduce archaeological evidence. Slingstones are found regularly in excavations of Holy Land sites, especially in contexts relating to the Assyrian and Babylonian conquests of Israel and Judah. I have one, discarded from an excavation in the 1980s at Tel Batash, that I use as a demonstrator. When I produce it for a class, students are surprised at the size! Typical slingstones from the period of the Israelite/Judean kingdoms vary from just smaller than a baseball to about softball in size.[3] Propelled by a slinger, such missiles could easily exceed 38 meters per second and reasonably up to 50 m/s.[4] This translates to a range of 137-180 kph (85-112 mph). My slingstone (average size but not fully intact) weighs 454 grams (1.04 lbs). At those velocities, it packs a kinetic energy of 328-568 Joules; many times the energy required to fracture human skulls![5]  

Slingstone from Tel Batash (biblical Timnah); probably from the 8th-7th c. BC (Daniel C Browning Jr, 2023)

There is more. The text includes the detail that David “took his staff in his hand” (1 Sam 17:40) when he choose the stones which he stashed in his shepherd’s pouch. This might be overlooked by the reader, but it was not by Goliath, who chided David, “am I a dog, that you come to me with sticks?” (v. 43). Some among the “slinger” community (I am not making this up) theorize that David actually employed a “staff sling,” in which the staff extends the sling’s speed, range, and payload weight![6] This is an intriguing possibility, and the staff—whether David employed it in slinging or not—also served as a misdirection of Goliath’s attention. Note that Goliath focuses on the stick and does not seem to realize stones are involved. David “ran quickly to meet the Philistine” (v. 48), quite reasonably to get within easy range and load his stone before Goliath realized what was happening.[7] It was a trick play that worked.  

These facts prompt a reevaluation of the description that David’s “stone sank into [Goliath’s] forehead” (1 Sam 17:49). We should now understand the phrase to mean that his skull was crushed by massive trauma (this bit doesn’t make it into the many artistic depictions). Goliath really did not have a chance . . . but only if David was on his game and executed well.

How “Davids” Beat “Goliaths”

Now for the “takeaways.” First, a brief word for biblical interpretation. The text of 1 Samuel 17, like so much of the Hebrew Bible, has clear evidence for sources and editing. Nevertheless, certain details come through the redaction process with no apparent editorial purpose. These can inform us about the event itself; even if Elhanan was the real victor over Goliath, as 2 Samuel 21:19 suggests.

More important, I think, is application of this passage. As a devotional lesson for believers, does this passage teach one to “let go and let God?” That is a great and important message for situations involving emotions, internal turmoil, and obsessive worry—situations for which one has no real control. But the David and Goliath story is told (as I hope I have demonstrated) in terms of an actual physical situation. Rather than blind faith, David relies on and recounts his preparation and experience for the moment. Was faith involved at all then? Surely so, but in the sense that David was faithful to act when the moment that presented itself to his ability (see James 2:18-26 for a New Testament take). Was David supremely confident? We cannot know for sure, but I suspect he was a combination of confident (he was certainly willing) and realistic about the peril (he picked up extra ammo, after all). Personally, I cannot identify with a David who has a childlike faith and just knows he will prevail. I can, however, identify with a person that spent hours honing skills and knew he could accomplish a difficult task, but only if he accepted great risk by acting.

Even without a faith orientation, application of this story to real life is hardly different. Confidence and success come from knowing one’s abilities and preparation. A corollary is this: prepare yourself for the moment you may not anticipate. Most people know David’s story from the Goliath event onward. But in that account, the hero himself insisted on telling his backstory of preparation. Study, workout, practice, hone skills; like David, only by this can one be ready for the moment.

Which brings us back to . . . football. Can TCU defeat Georgia for the national championship?

Yes! And it will not take a miracle. TCU must rely on their preparation and ability. TCU is as different from UGAg as David from Goliath. The “dawgs” are the seemingly unbeatable giant; big, lumbering, and scary—built to dominate in close combat. TCU plays a more wide-open game on both sides of the ball. As “David,” the “Frogs” must not be tempted to play UGAg’s game where it is not necessary. They cannot “put on Saul’s armor” and expect victory. Speed, unpredictability, distance strikes, and deception, however, can win the day. Will it? I don’t know, but I know it is possible if TCU is on their game.

Full Disclosure

Why do I care? For anyone who does not know, I attended Georgia Tech which makes me a sworn and eternal enemy of UGAg. Also my wife, life partner, and best friend—Ms Ancient Dan—is a graduate of TCU, where I also collected a couple of paychecks. This is a big deal matchup for me. So, from both perspectives . . .

THWG! (look it up)

Riff Ram Bah Zoo!

Fear the Frog!


[1] Occasionally, thoughtful respondents note that the beheading of the Giant with his own sword was the actual death blow.

[2] Some Bible trivia folks will answer that Goliath had 5 brothers, but this is dependent on an assumptive interpretation of 2 Samuel 21:19 where Elhanan is credited with killing Goliath instead of David! 1 Chronicles 20: 5-8 does an awkward rewording in its version of the same information in order to iron out the conflict. Here is that pesky problem of multiple sources again!

[3] You can see a collection in the Israel Museum here: https://www.imj.org.il/en/collections/380226-0. My example is from a similar context not far from Lachish where the pictured examples were found. These are 2 centuries removed from the time of David and mass produced for military campaigns, but the technology had not changed. David would have selected similar stones from the Elah.

[4] See a demo at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fWHV2WYdfTI, and an interesting

[5] Yes, there is a study on this. Human skulls structurally failed at loads ranging from 14.1 to 68.5 J, with a mean failure load of 28.0 J (+/- 5.1); see N. Yoganandan, et al (1995), “Biomechanics of skull fracture.” Journal of neurotrauma, 12(4), 659–668. https://doi.org/10.1089/neu.1995.12.659.

[6] See a basic demo of the staff sling at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zSHD8RG_mSo, and a “contest” with helpful demonstrations at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_bFQYNfJqqY.

[7] See how quickly a stone can be loaded and slung, even casually, here (starting at 3:52): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u4-LpLtrGqs.

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2 thoughts on “How David Defeats Goliath

  1. Dan,
    What a great article!! I agree, this story, and the rest of scripture teaches preparation is a vital aspect of genuine faith. You explain this so well!
    Good luck with the ballgame!
    I’ll be thinking of you!
    Tommy

    Like

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