The Men Who Killed Goliath: Unraveling the Layers of Tradition behind a Timeless Tale of Heroism

Orazio Gentileschi, David and Goliath, c.1605-1607

There might be no Old Testament story more popular or seared more deeply into Western consciousness than the legend of David and Goliath. It is surprising, then, how few people (aside from scholars) have read the story carefully enough to notice its many oddities and contradictions. The Goliath narrative in 1 Samuel 16–18 is, in fact, two different stories spliced together, and there is yet another brief account in 2 Samuel 21. These three versions of the iconic tale show the interesting ways in which Biblical authors utilized and revised their source materials.

A Summary of 1 Samuel 16–18 and Its Problems

The story in question actually involves much more than the duel between David and the Giant. It tells the reader David’s origins, how he became part of Saul’s household, how he became a military leader, and how he married Saul’s daughter. The problems with the text extend to all these items. A summary of the story is as follows.

  • David is introduced to Samuel (and the reader). He is anointed as a future king in front of his seven brothers, the eldest three of whom are named. (16:1–13)
  • Saul is tormented by an evil spirit from Yahweh. He hears of David’s skill with the lyre and sends for him. David leaves home and enters the service of Saul, becoming his armour-bearer and personal musician. (16:14–23)
  • The Philistines and the Israelites under Saul have mustered their armies at the Valley of Elah and are preparing for battle. A Philistine champion, Goliath of Gath, is introduced. He challenges the Israelites to decide the battle through single combat. (17:1–11)
  • David is introduced again as the youngest son of Jesse with three older brothers who following Saul into battle. His father tells him to visit his brothers and take them food. (17:12–18) Jesse, David, and David’s brothers are introduced here as if the text had not yet mentioned them in the previous chapter.
  • We are again told that the Philistines and the Israelites are fighting in the Valley of Elah. They are preparing for battle as David arrives. (17:19–22) Before leaving, David entrusts his sheep to a keeper, implying he is still a shepherd in Bethlehem and not part of Saul’s court.
  • The Philistine champion is introduced again and called “Goliath by name”, as if the reader didn’t already know. Goliath gives his challenge again. (17:23) Like David, Goliath is introduced to the reader twice.
  • The Israelites are afraid and say the king will give his daughter to whomever kills the champion. David has them repeat the offer. David’s oldest brother, Eliab, gets angry at David’s questions and presence at the battle. (17:24–29) Eliab is treating David as a mere shepherd, seemingly oblivious of the fact that David has been anointed future king and has become a personal assistant to King Saul.
  • Saul hears about the commotion involving David and sends for him. (17:30–31)
  • David tells Saul he will fight the Philistine. He tells Saul of his exploits back when he “used to keep sheep for his father”. (17:32–37) David’s conversation with Saul implies that David is no longer a shepherd.
  • David tries on Saul’s armour, but finds it too heavy. Instead, he gathers five stones in his pouch, readies his sling, and approaches the Philistine. (17:38–40)
  • The Philistine approaches David with his shield-bearer. (17:41)
  • The Philistine and David exchange barbs. David threatens to cut off the Philistine’s head. (17:42–47)
  • The Philistine comes to meet David. David runs to meet the Philistine. David takes out a stone, slings it, and hurls it at the Philistine, hitting him in the forehead and knocking him down. (17:48–49) Twice, David is said to approach the Philistine, and twice, the Philistine is said to approach David. The account of the fight has some redundant phrasing.
  • The text tells us David has killed the Philistine with a sling and stone, and without the use of any sword. (17:50)
  • David runs over to the Philistine, draws his sword, and kills the Philistine. Then David beheads him. (17:51a) Yes, David is twice said to kill Goliath—once with a sling and no sword, and once with a sword.
  • The Philistines flee and are pursued by the troops of Israel and Judah. (17:51b–53)
  • David takes the head of the Philistine to Jerusalem. (17:54) This is an odd anachronism, since Jerusalem is not yet the capital of Israel or associated in any way with David.
  • Saul does not know who David is. Abner, commander of the army, does not know either. David is brought to Saul and introduces himself. (17:55–58) This is probably the most blatant incongruity in the story, since David has been Saul’s personal musician and armour-bearer for some time.
  • Jonathan loves David at first sight and gives him his armour. David is made a commander of Saul’s army. (18:1–5)
  • When David and Saul return home, Saul becomes jealous of the praise heaped upon David. (18:6–9)
  • An evil spirit sent from God drives Saul mad, and he tries killing David with a spear. (18:10–11) This is the second time an evil spirit has been sent by God, and it seems to affect Saul differently here.
  • Saul no longer wants David around, so he makes him a military commander and sends him out on campaigns. (18:12–16) This is the second time in chapter 18 David is promoted to commander in Saul’s army. Again, it is implied that David is a member of Saul’s court and not a shepherd living in Bethlehem.
  • Saul offers his daughter Merab to be David’s wife, in exchange for David’s services as a soldier. David declines the honour, saying he is not fit to be the king’s son-in-law. (18:17–19) But hasn’t Saul already sent David off to be his commander? Or is David still at home? The story is somewhat disjointed.
  • Saul’s daughter Michal loves David, so Saul hatches a plan to offer Michal to whoever brings him 100 Philistine foreskins, hoping David will attempt the feat and be killed. Instead, David succeeds and is happy to become Saul’s son-in-law. (18:20–29) David seems to be eager to join Saul’s family, despite his refusal when Merab was offered to him.

I’ve noted some of the problems in italics. Often, scholars use such inconsistencies to identify multiple sources or layers of redaction in the text. Usually, such analysis is conjectural and cannot be proven. However, in the case of 1 Samuel 16–18, we are fortunate to possess an earlier edition of the text — the Septuagint (LXX) of 1 Samuel, which must have been translated into Greek from an earlier version of the Hebrew book.

You’ll notice I’ve marked several parts of the story with a red asterisk. These sections, amounting to 44% of the text, are completely absent from the LXX (and, by extension, the Bible still used today by Eastern Orthodox Christians). It is almost certain that the translator of 1 Samuel, who used an excessively literal and exacting approach when translating from Hebrew, did not have these portions in his copy of 1 Samuel. If these portions are removed and reassembled on their own, we end up with two complete, coherent versions of the story — the one found in the LXX (“story 1”), and one that was apparently interpolated into Hebrew 1 Samuel at a later date (“story 2”). Taken on their own, the two stories have few, if any, internal contradictions or inconsistencies. They have much in common, but they also differ in significant ways.

The two stories can be summarized separately as follows:

Story 1 (MT and LXX)

  • David is introduced as the youngest son of Jesse. Samuel anoints him as king in front of his brothers.
  • Saul is tormented by an evil spirit from Yahweh. David, previously a shepherd, comes to serve as Saul’s personal musician and armour-bearer.
  • The Philistines and Israelites are preparing for battle. The Philistine champion, introduced as Goliath of Gath, challenges the Israelites to single combat.
  • Goliath’s armour and weaponry are described in detail.
  • David offers to fight the Philistine. He declines the offer to wear Saul’s armour.
  • Despite the Philistine being armed with three weapons, David stuns him with a stone from his sling, and then delivers the killing blow with the Philistine’s own sword.
  • David receives praise upon his return to the capital. Saul grows jealous, so he makes David a commander to get rid of him.
  • Michal loves David, so Saul uses her as bait to send David on a quest to kill 100 Philistines. David succeeds and marries Michal.
Story 2 (MT only)

  • David is introduced as the youngest son of Jesse.
  • David’s job is to tend the sheep, but his father sends him to take food to his brothers in the army.
  • David arrives at the battlefield and hears the taunts of the Philistine champion, who is introduced here as “Goliath by name”.
  • David repeatedly asks about the reward of Saul’s daughter offered to whoever kills the champion.
  • Saul hears David is interested in fighting the Philistine, so he sends for him.
  • David takes on the Philistine in single combat and kills him with a sling and a stone, using not even a sword.
  • This being the first time they have seen David, neither Saul nor Abner know who he is. David introduces himself to Saul.
  • Jonathan takes a liking to David.
  • Saul makes David a commander because he is successful wherever Saul sends him.
  • God sends an evil spirit upon Saul, driving him mad. He tries killing David with a spear.
  • Saul offers David his daughter Merab. David declines, thinking himself unworthy to be Saul’s son-in-law.

It should be clear that both these stories are literary creations, as is the final composite text. What, if any, history they contain is impossible to ascertain. Story 2, despite telling a fairly complete story, has a few rough spots where some material has probably been left out — Goliath’s initial taunt, for example. Perhaps some details were left out when the stories were merged.

To see these two stories separated and placed side-by-side, download this PDF.

The Triumph of David by Matteo Rosselli (1630)

The Triumph of David by Matteo Rosselli (1630)

Additional Evidence

The Septuagint isn’t the only evidence that the canonical Hebrew text is a composite. Josephus relates the story of David and Goliath in Antiquities of the Jews (written near the end of the first century CE). Josephus offers an embellished version of the biblical account, with some harmonizing details mixed in. He follows the LXX closely for the most part, and includes some details that appear in the MT but not the LXX, like Goliath issuing his challenge for 40 days (1Sam 17:16).
However, Josephus makes no mention of other details from Story 2, like Jonathan’s affection for David, the attempted spearing of David by Saul, or the proposed marriage to Merab — despite a highly detailed and embellished summary of every detail from chapter 18 that appears in the LXX (Story 1). He also affirms the means of death given in Story 1 — that Goliath was only stunned by the stone but killed by beheading.

Another early reference to the David and Goliath story is Psalm 151. Part of the Christian deuterocanon, Psalm 151 was once thought to have been a Greek composition, but an early Hebrew version has since been found at Qumran. (In fact, it appears that two separate Hebrew psalms used by the Qumran community were combined to make Psalm 151.) This psalm shows familiarity with Story 1 and recounts David killing the Philistine with his own sword. (The sling is not even mentioned.)

Excursus on Saul’s Daughters

The David-and-Goliath story intersects another difficulty in 1 and 2 Samuel. In 1Sam 18:17–19 (i.e. Story 2), Merab is given to one “Adriel the Meholathite” after David turns down marriage to her. David ends up marrying Michal instead.

Further on, in 2 Samuel 6:16–23, the text declares that Michal had no children to the day of her death. (Was she infertile? Did she stop sleeping with David? The text does not explain.)

Then, 2 Samuel 21:8, the Hebrew text says that Michal bore five sons to one Adriel son of Barzillai the Meholathite. This presents us with two contradictions: which daughter of Saul married Adriel, and whether Michal had children or not.

Most scholars fix the problem by asserting that “Michal” in 2Sam 21:8 must be a scribal error, and that it originally named Merab as the wife of Adriel in agreement with 1Sam 18:17–19. There are problems with this explanation, however. (1) We have already shown that the mention of Merab marrying Adriel in 1Sam 18 is a separate tradition and a later addition to 1 Samuel. It is difficult to assume “Merab” is the correct reading once we realize that the earlier reference to Merab’s marriage — the very passage scholars would like to harmonize 2Sam 21 with — is a later insertion. (2) The LXX confirms the reading of “Michal” in 2Sam 21:8, which means that if there was such an error, it was very widespread, and it happened before the LXX was produced. (3) Josephus, Pseudo-Jerome, and rabbinic sources confirm the reading of “Michal” and propose harmonizations. (4) Targum Jonathan appears to have been based on a vorlage that reads “Michal”, and it solves the problem by asserting that Michal simply raised the children on behalf of Merab.

Unfortunately, nearly all modern English Bible translations aside from those based on the KJV (like the ASV and WEB) change “Michal” to read “Merab” in 2Sam 21:8.

Michal Despises David, by James Tissot, c. 1898

Michal Despises David, by James Tissot, c. 1898

An Even Earlier Goliath Tradition

The two stories of David and Goliath in 1Sam 17–18 are not the oldest such traditions in the Bible. A seemingly older one appears in an obscure passage in 2 Samuel.

2Sam 21:15–22 tells of several battles between the Philistines and Israel, and how the sons of Raphah, the ancestor of the giants, fight for the Philistines. However, David is told to stay home so that he does not die and “quench the lamp of Israel”, leaving his warriors to take care of the giants. Abishai kills one named Ishbi-benob; Sibbecai kills one named Saph; and then Elhanan the Bethlehemite kills Goliath of Gath, “the shaft of whose spear was like a weaver’s beam” (exactly the comparison made in 1Sam 17). Another unnamed giant taunts Israel, only to be killed by Jonathan, the son of David’s brother Shimei.

It is commonly thought by scholars that this was the original Goliath legend, for various reasons. In the earliest folktales, it was the champion Elhanan who slew Goliath when Israel was threatened by an ancient race of giants. Elhanan, Abishai, and Jonathan were all members of the Shalishim (the “Thirty”), a group of elite warriors who are listed in 2Sam 23. (Sibbecai is also included in the parallel list in 1 Chr 11:10–47.) Later on, as the figure of David the warrior king became more important to Jews and the other characters more obscure, the story of Goliath was retold with David as the hero instead.

Putting these passages from 1 and 2 Samuel side by side, we can see numerous common or similar elements that provide hints as to how these stories developed and grew over time.

  • 2Sam 23: The Thirty are introduced during a battle at the Valley of Rephaim (“Valley of Giants”). They include Abishai, Elhanan the Bethlehemite, Shammah the Hararite, and Jonathan son of Shammah.
  • 2Sam 21: Abishai, Elhanan, and Jonathan son of Shimei David’s brother kill several giants, the descendants of Raphah (the eponymous ancestor of the Rephaim). One is Goliath of Gath, with a spear like a weaver’s beam. Another taunts the army of Israel. Michal also appears in this chapter as the wife of Adriel.
  • 1Sam 16–18 (Story 1): David has a brother named Shammah. He kills Goliath of Gath, a Philistine champion with a spear like a weaver’s beam who has been taunting the army of Israel. He goes on to marry Michal.
  • 1Sam 16–18 (Story 2): David has a brother named Shammah in the army. He kills Goliath of Gath, a Philistine champion who has been taunting the army of Israel. He declines marriage to Merab, who then becomes the wife of Adriel.

Perhaps my attentive readers can point out if I have missed any other interesting connections.

(And in case anyone is wondering, it is trivial to show that the reference in 1Chr 20 to the “brother of Goliath” is a deliberate corruption of the Hebrew text in 2Sam 21.)

Goliath the Homeric Warrior

The detailed description of Goliath’s armour and weaponry is unique in the Bible. Historians have noted that Goliath’s description does not match anything that would have been worn by a Philistine or any other ANE warrior during the time of David; rather, his martial getup is very much like that of a Greek hoplite mercenary of the 7th–5th centuries (including the two spears and a sword — see Finkelstein 2002), and his description suggests a Homeric warrior like the heroes of the Iliad. The idea of single combat between two champions to determine the outcome of larger conflict also finds parallels in the Iliad: the duels between Paris and Menelaus, Hector and Ajax, and Nestor and the giant Ereuthalion. (Close similarities between 1Sam 17 and the Iliad are pointed out in West 214, 370, and 376.) This makes it further unlikely that the story is anything beyond a creative tale of heroism ascribed to David many, many centuries after he might have lived.

Goliath’s height, as you may know, was not the nine feet as you were taught in Sunday school. Although the MT gives it as “six cubits and a span”, it is only “four cubits and a span” in the LXX and other early manuscripts. That’s around 6 foot 9 inches — tall, but not freakishly so. King Saul, who was head and shoulders taller than everyone else (1Sam 9:2), would have been about the same height.

4th century hoplite, illustration by Johnny Shumate

4th century hoplite, illustration by Johnny Shumate

Conclusion

That the tale of David and Goliath is a folktale with accreted tradition rather than a historical event should not prevent us from enjoying the story or appreciating its reliance on other mythical motifs from both the Hebrew and Greek cultural spheres. The power of its message is one that has resounded throughout the ages and holds a special place people’s hearts even today, thousands of years later.

For those of us interested in critical study of the Bible, the story provides a good example of how texts and traditions could be edited, reinvented, and reinserted to tell new stories or supplement existing ones. It also has implications for the dating of 1–2 Samuel, since the text had not yet reached its final form when the Greek version was translated c. 200 BCE.

For those with a devotional interest in the Bible, the story demonstrates that ancient scribes and religious devotees had no problem filling their scriptures with folktales, myths, and hagiographic legends. It is the modern reader, not the ancient one, who insists that for a book to be sacred, it must be divinely inspired and contain only sober historical facts.

Bibliography

  • Carl S. Ehrlich, “Goliath”, Anchor Bible Dictionary.
  • Israel Finkelstein, “The Philistines in the Bible: A Late-Monarchic Perspective”, JSOT 2002 27:2, pp. 131–167.
  • Niels Peter Lemche, “David’s Rise”, JSOT 1979 4:9.
  • Emanuel Tov, “The Composition of 1 Samuel 16–18 in Light of the Septuagint”, The Greek and Hebrew Bible: Collected Essays on the Septuagint, Volume 72, 1999, pp. 333–362.
  • Emanuel Tov, Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible, Second Revised Edition, 1992, pp. 334–336.
  • M.L. West, The East Face of Helicon: West Asiatic Elements in Greek Poetry and Myth, 1997.
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12 thoughts on “The Men Who Killed Goliath: Unraveling the Layers of Tradition behind a Timeless Tale of Heroism

  1. I vaguely remember an article that discussed the possibility of a translation error and that the stone instead lodged in the greaves, causing Goliath to stumble, whereupon his head was removed. I, of course, cannot now find the source – have you run across this theory? Any validity to it?

    • Ahh, found at least a partial reference. Apparently the idea was forwarded or promulgated by rabbi Jonathan Magonet in his book, Biblical Lives. I have yet to confirm this.

      • R Vogel, I haven’t heard that theory. There is a discrepancy, however, behind the kind of helmet the authors of the MT (Hebrew) and LXX (Greek) text envision. In the former case, it seems to be a helmet with nothing protecting the forehead – the only chink in Goliath’s armour, which David cleverly aims for. Like Smaug’s missing scale in The Hobbit.

        The Greek translator had a different style in mind, one that covers the forehead, so he added a phrase to explain that the stone went “through the helmet” into Goliath’s forehead. (David must have full-metal-jacket stones or something!)

    • Thanks Karen. I’ve watched a lot of TED talks but never seen that one.

      Edit: Just watched it. The first half on the deadliness of slings was great stuff. I’m pretty skeptical, however, about modern attempts to medically or psychiatrically diagnose characters in ancient literature. I don’t see the textual evidence that Gladwell claims in support of his conclusion either; Goliath is accompanied by a shield-bearer, not “led by an attendant”, to give one example.

      • A good analogy to D&G is that scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark where Indy is being chased through a town and comes into a plaza. In the plaza is a big guy dressed in black and waving a big sword. Indy rolls his eyes, pulls out his pistol, and shoot the guy with the sword. Goliath stood as much a chance against David as the sword guy did against Indy.

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