I Samuel 17: David Slays Goliath
The Adult Bible Classof Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast June 15, 2008
Craig D. Atwood
Introduction Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class. I hope it was a good week for you. We had an active week with the beginning of swimming lessons and the admission of a new kitten into the family. Her name is Annabelle. It is fun watching her explore her new home, but it was a challenge writing the lesson while she attacked the computer wires. Our old cat hisses at the kitten, but the kitten keeps stalking her around the house. I want to give a shout out to Lynda Alexander, our music director, who celebrated a major birthday this past week. Today is Father’s Day, and so a special word goes to Albert Atwood who lives on Atwood Road in Atwood Acres. By the way, if you get a magazine named Country, look for an article by my dad about building a replica of the original gemeinhaus at Hope Moravian Church.
This week we are turning our attention to one of the most famous stories in the Old Testament: David and Goliath. It is a story that tells us that even a great warrior can lose his head if gets stoned! This is a story that has become such a part of our cultural lexicon that even atheists will use it to describe contemporary events, such as when the US hockey team defeated the Russians in 1980. There is more to the story than simply an underdog defeating a champion. Keep in mind that this story encourages Davids, but it should also warn the Goliaths of the world, includng the superpowers. It is a very long story, and I am going to deviate from my usual practice of reading and then commenting. Instead, I will give some introductory remarks and then do a running commentary without reading the story out loud. You might want to get your Bibles to follow along.
Notes on the Text Before we launch into the text, there are a few notes that might be of interest to you. This is such a well-crafted and complex story that it was probably written as a piece of literature rather than being handed down through oral tradition or copied from a royal chronicle. It includes long speeches that were the writer’s reconstruction of what David and company said. It is interesting that the ancient Greek version of this story made by rabbis in Egypt (the Septuagint or LXX) is shorter than the official Hebrew version. Since the Greek version of the Old Testament tends to expand on the Hebrew rather than deleting material, it is likely that the scholars in Egypt were using an older form of the story. In other words, it appears that someone added to the Hebrew version, which tells us is that the story of David and Goliath grew over the years. That is what we would expect of a great story.
Goliath of Gath is mentioned several times in the Bible, and his death was important for Israelite history. It is an iconic story, like Washington crossing the Delaware. It is curious that at the end of II Samuel there is a chronicle of the heroic deeds of David’s warriors. One of them was Elhanan son of Jaareoregim of Bethlehem who killed Goliath the Gittite, whose spear was described just like the giant David killed. What’s going on? We know Goliath was killed, but who killed him? Some have claimed that there were two giants named Goliath, but it seems unlikely. When the Book of Chronicles was written many years later that I Samuel, the author tried to solve this discrepancy by identifying the man killed by Elhanan as the brother of Goliath, claiming there was, in fact, a whole family of giants in Gath at the time (I Chron. 20:5). By trying to correct the record, I Chronicles merely highlights the fact that there is a problem in I Samuel.
It is easy to see how the story of a man from Bethlehem killing a very large Philistine warrior could become the story of the famous king from Bethlehem who had killed many large Philistines in his rise to power. There is a tendency to attach good stories to famous people. For years people thought that Martin Luther had written the anonymous Christmas carol Away in a Manger. Yogi Berra once complained about the tendency of people to ascribe amusing quotes to him, claiming “I didn’t say half of what I said.” Historical sites tend to do something similar by connecting relics with famous people regardless of the facts.
Chapter 17 of I Samuel was probably not written by an eye-witness. It was probably written many years after the events it describes. The author knew David was a shepherd who became a famous king. The author probably did not know the story we discussed last week. You may remember that in that story young David entered Saul’s inner circle as a musician and became Saul’s armor-bearer. In chapter 17, Saul has never met David and does not know who his family is. I’m not telling you all this to ruin a great story, but to let you know that there is no point trying to make all of this fit together. Rather than wasting time creating elaborate explanations for these discrepancies, it is better simply to acknowledge the problems and then focus on the story itself and learn from it. Though it might not meet modern criteria for historicity, chapter 17 is a story that reveals many good things about David and the life of faith. It should be taken seriously.
Read 17:1-11 Goliath’s Taunt The story opens with the Philistines and Israelites in encamped on opposite sides of a valley preparing for battle. War, it has been said, is days of tedium punctuated by moments of terror. A lot of time is spent in camp waiting for the commanders to give the command to attack. While the commanders are checking each other out, the Philistines used a tactic common in Greece in those days. They sent out their strongest warrior, their version of Achilles, to step forward and challenge the enemy. The literal meaning of the Hebrew word translated as champion is “one who stands between the lines.” In other words, Goliath is the one willing to expose himself to the enemy and issue a challenge to single combat.
We get a detailed description of his armor. Some biblical scholars speculate that the author could go to such detail because the armor was still on display at one of the shrines of Israel. Another reason for all this detail is to let us know that the impoverished Israelites were amazed at the man’s armor. They had nothing to match it. In modern terms, Goliath came forward like a Tiger tank facing the Polish cavalry or a modern soldier in Kevlar body armor facing men in robes. He appeared invincible in his layers of gleaming bronze. A third reason for telling us the weight of the armor is emphasize the strength of the giant.
I should say something about Goliath’s size. The Hebrew text says he was six cubits and a span. A cubit is the distance from your elbow to the tip of your fingers and a span is the width of your hand. These are very precise measurements, as you know. If a cubit was 18 inches long, then Goliath was nearly 10 feet tall. The Hebrew cubit may have been a bit shorter, though, making Goliath closer to 8 feet tall. The Greek version of the story, which many scholars think may actually be older, says that Goliath was 4 cubits tall, which would make him over 6 feet tall, a more reasonable claim. I think we are safe in assuming that Goliath was like some of our giants today, but he would have seemed even bigger to the ancient Israelites, who were rather short. In World War II, Japanese soldiers considered American soldiers giants. Over the years, there has been a tendency to make this story miraculous by making Goliath impossibly large, but this isn’t about miracles. It is about courage and faith.
The Philistine giant strides forward and challenges the servants of Saul. Notice that Goliath does not call them Israelites or even Hebrews. The Philistines viewed this as a battle against a renegade warlord, not a struggle between two nations. Goliath claims that if any single Israelite can defeat him, then the Philistines will surrender. As we know from history, it never happened that way in war. Single combat was more a matter of psychology than politics. In the Iliad, if Hector had defeated the mighty Achilles one on one, it would have given the Trojans courage and confidence, but it would not have ended the war. Single combat was also a way to entertain the troops until the real battle began and was a way to test the opponent. Who is their best fighter?
At this point in the story Goliath is winning the psychological battle. Picture the sun reflecting off all that polished bronze as the giant struts in the battle zone. Think how his voice would have echoed off the mountains. And then imagine what it would be like to be one of the poorly equipped Israelites facing an army with men like this in it. No wonder they were dismayed. The text says this went on for forty days, but keep in mind that in the Old Testament, forty days is a round number for a long time. We might say this went on for umpteen days.
Read 17:12-18 Meanwhile, back at Jesse’s Ranch We have a sudden shift of scene away from the impending battle back to rustic Bethlehem where Jesse is talking to David. This is a portion of the story that is not in the Greek version, by the way. The text says that Jesse is very old, and that three of his sons have gone to war with Saul. It doesn’t say what happened the other four beside David. In fact, for the rest of the story, it sounds like Jesse had four sons, with David as the youngest. The key point of this story, of course, is that David is too young to go to war. He is tending his father’s flocks.
We get a nice perspective on ancient war in this story. Wars today are fought mainly by the poorer people in a country. The phrase “rich man’s war; poor man’s fight” was how many Confederate soldiers correctly interpreted the Civil War. Today we have professional soldiers who receive regular paychecks, food, clothing, medical benefits, and all of their equipment. It was different in ancient times. Warriors had to provide their own weapons, armor, and tents. The aristocracy was the warrior class, and kings had to prove themselves as generals. Saul’s army was even more primitive than most since the soldiers were responsible for providing their own food from their private lands or through pillaging. The storyteller knows that it would have been normal for a youngest son like David to take food to his brothers and provide a little extra as a gift to their captain. It never hurts to have the captain look on you favorably. David probably brought food to his brothers in battle many times before he played the lyre for Saul.
Read 17:19-30 David at the Battle David reached the encampment and ran to greet his brothers as the war cry went up. This part of the story sounds like the two armies were engaged in battle and no one could stand up to Goliath, which is a different picture than earlier. It is possible that two or more versions of the story have been imperfectly blended here. The key point is that all of the Israelites fled from Goliath, but the word went through the ranks that the king would richly reward the man who could defeat the giant. Notice that Saul does not actually promise the rewards; that was just scuttlebutt. But it would have been enough to attract the attention of an ambitious young man tired of herding sheep and bringing food to his brothers.
When he heard Goliath’s taunts, David responded with the anger of youth. “Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?” David’s oldest brother responded the way we expect older brothers to respond. It was very much the way my older brother used to respond when I would get a little too competitive playing football or too sensitive to taunts. He tried to throw cold water on David’s enthusiasm before the boy insulted everyone or simply got himself killed. We can picture Eliab shaking David by the shoulders and accusing him of wanting to see the battle instead of doing his chores. David’s response sounds just like a surly teen-ager. “I was just asking a question” Gee whiz, Eliab.
Read 17:31-40 Standing before Saul What Eliab feared came to pass. David’s words spread through the camp, and eventually the king was told about the young man’s bravado. We do not know if Saul was impressed or concerned, but David did not back down before the king. Saul tried to dismiss the boy. He knows it would be murder to send him out against a warrior like Goliath. David tells the king that shepherds are brave, and he claims that he has killed lions and bears! We don’t know if David already has a plan in mind for facing the fearsome foe, but it is reasonable to assume that the shepherd boy had killed those beasts with his slingshot, not by ripping their jaws apart like Samson. David is brave and pious, but he is no fool. He is telling Saul that even a country boy knows something about facing danger and prevailing.
Then he appeals to Saul’s piety and tells him that if God preserved him from wild beasts he will preserve him against the giant. It is interesting that no mention is made of David having been anointed by the prophet or being filled with the spirit of the Lord. None of Saul’s men come forward and say that David is a man of war like in the previous chapter. What the story stresses is that David’s faith made him bold, and that is something we should pay attention to. Faith should give you courage.
There is something about David’s demeanor that eventually commands Saul’s respect. Perhaps it was his trust in God or simply his confidence. Often overlooked is the fact that King Saul was wise enough to take young David seriously. Too many leaders today scoff at the young and inexperienced. They look at the Davids of today and say, go home until you are ready. We forget that people rise to challenges and become greater than they were. David became the king he was because Saul gave permission for him to take risks and approach old problems with new solutions. That is something we need to learn today.
Saul’s Armor One of my favorite parts of the story is that Saul gives David his own armor. It is unrealistic to think Saul took off his armor to give to David since the armor of a defeated enemy belonged to the victor. Saul would not risk his personal armor, but it is possible that Saul used some of his old armor for David. The symbolism of the action is beautiful. Saul feels guilty for letting the boy fight, and he tries to protect him like any father would. He assumes that David is going to face this challenge the same way Saul would, so he gave David the same tools he would use. That is just what parents, teachers, and other authorities continue to do. We try to protect the rising generation from the dangers we faced without realizing that they will need to find new solutions.
The king’s armor is too heavy, and David cannot even walk in it. David is not ready to take Saul’s place, even if he is the anointed. David is not ready to assume all of the burdens of office. He is still young; still learning; still growing. He also is wise enough to recognize that the armor cannot save him from the force of Goliath’s blows or turn aside his massive spear. All the armor will do is slow him down. In trying to imitate his enemy, he will make himself vulnerable to his enemy. We tend to assume that we should use our enemy’s weapons and tactics, and so we get caught up pointless arms races. David shows us a different approach. Don’t let your opponent drag you into his type of battle. Take the armor off and use your head.
The shepherd relied on what he had learned in the field, literally. He took five stones and put them in his pouch. He knew he could launch five stones before Goliath could even use his spear. David was brave and trusted in God, but he was no fool. He trusted in God, but he was ready with a slingshot. That is a variation on my favorite proverb. Trust God, but tie your camel.
Read 17:41-51 Talking Trash and Taking Heads Now we come to the dramatic heart of the story. This is the part we all remember and still draw strength from. David, wearing nothing but his traveling tunic, steps out in front the Israelite army. Goliath sees this young fellow, and is not impressed by his good looks. He thinks the Israelites are mocking him, and probably assumed David was some half-wit being sent to his certain death. He taunts David, which is what we call “talking smack” today. He sounds like a professional wrestler urging David to attack. David responds with some of his own trash talk, but his trash talk is pious. He gives a speech warning the Philistine that he is a soldier for God who does not need even a sword or shield.
By defeating Goliath, David will show everyone that the God of Israel is stronger than the mighty Philistines. This was the kind of faith Samuel was looking for in a king originally. Ultimately it is not swords and spears that save the nation; it is faith and courage. The future king warned the mighty Philistines that nations should not pride themselves on the size of their weapons or numbers of their soldiers. We Americans need to keep in mind that God is on the side of the oppressed Israelites here, not the arrogant Philistines. Christians in every age, including our own, tend to make the mistake of believing their own nation is always Israel rather than making sure we are not the Philistines.
David’s faith gave him confidence, and he bravely ran toward Goliath who did not have a clue what David would do. Before he was in range of the giant’s spear, David slung a stone. It worked just the way David planned. The stone hit Goliath on his unprotected forehead, and he fell. The text is a little ambiguous and shows signs of later editing, but presumably Goliath was not killed by the stone alone. David grabbed the giant’s own sword and removed his head.
Read: 17:52-58 The Philistines were stunned the way any army is stunned when its invincible weapons are shown to be vulnerable. Rather than simply killing little David, they panicked and ran. If the smallest Israelite could do this, what could the rest of Saul’s men do? When the Philistines turned their backs, the men of Judah and Israel pursued them all the way back to their fortified cities, slaughtering them as they fled.
For his part, David kept Goliath’s head and armor. The text says he put the armor in his tent, but that makes no sense because David did not have a tent. Most likely, the text was corrupted and David put the armor in a tent at one of the shrines, perhaps Nob (I Sam. 21). There is a bigger problem with the claim that David brought Goliath’s head to Jerusalem, since Jerusalem at that time belonged to the Jebusites. It was much later that it became the city of David. It was probably after David became king that he had the head of the giant brought into the city where it was put on display. This is a reminder that things could be gruesome in days of yore.
The story ends with David meeting Saul and his general Abner. Abner was an important figure that we will meet again, but neither he nor Saul knows who David is. The king asks him who his father is, and David replies that he is the son of Jesse of Bethlehem. No mention is made of the other sons of Jesse who are serving Saul. Like Joseph’s older brothers, they have to deal with the fact that the brother they had scorned is standing in honor before the king.
Conclusion There is certainly much more to be said about this story, but the main point shines through all of the layers of scholarly debate and interpretation. Aside from its more gruesome aspects, this is a story that is great for children and adults. It is a tale of a brave youth who stands up for what he thinks is right in the face of opposition from adults. It is about a wise older man giving him a chance to excel. And it is about the arrogance of power that forgets that God is on the side of the oppressed. Have faith and be of good courage as you confront Goliaths of this age.