It’s so obvious that this chapter offers up a different story for David’s entry into the royal circle from that of the last that even my New Bible Commentary offers up only a half-hearted attempt to explain away the multi-document hypothesis. In the last chapter, we find a shepherd boy David who is brought into the royal court because his music playing helps Saul deal with his tormenting evil spirit. He becomes well-loved and is soon made Saul’s armour-bearer. Here, however, shepherd boy David finds himself on a battlefield and defeats the Big Baddie of the Baddies, thus becoming introduced to Saul.
The strongest argument I can see that these are meant to be part of a single narrative is that we’re dealing with some time-skipping and flashbacks. As evidence, we might cite 1 Sam. 16:18, where David is recommended to Saul as a “man of war,” even though in 1 Sam. 17, he is clearly inexperienced in that area. So the proper narrative chronology may be that David is anointed by Samuel, walks onto the battlefield to slay Goliath, becomes known to Saul as a fighter, then is recommended to Saul as a musician as well, ending up as Saul’s armour-bearer. Will not entirely far-fetched, there’s really no indication in the text that this was the intended narrative.
My New Bible Commentary tries to argue that when Saul asks who the heck that kid who just killed the giant is, what he actually meant was “what’s his last name?” His first name being already known since he is already a musician in Saul’s court.
To further complicate things, even this chapter may not be from a single source. According to Collins:
There are actually two stories here. The first is found in 17:1-11, 32-40, 42-48a, 49, 51-54. The second is in 17:12-31, 41, 48b, 50, 55-58; 18:1-5, 10-11, 17-19, 29b-30. The verses that make up the second story are missing from the Old Greek translation. It is generally agreed that in this case the Greek preserves the older text. (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.120-121)
A valley divides them
The chapter opens with those big bad Philistines amassing near Socoh, in Judah. Saul musters his own army in response, so each side camps atop a mountain, a valley running between them.
Every day – for forty days – a Philistine champion by the name of Goliath of Gath comes out to call for single combat. Whichever champion wins, his side wins the war.
The description we get of Goliath is an imposing one, despite the lack of agreement. According to Deane at Remnant of Giants, there are two major possibilities, depending on the manuscripts one chooses to read:
In some manuscripts of 1 Samuel 17, Goliath is 4½ cubits, which at approximately 18 inches or 45cm per cubit (as general estimates) is 6 feet 8 inches or 2.02 metres. In other textual witnesses, Goliath is 6½ cubits, that is, 9 feet 7 inches or 2.93 metres. Texts in which Goliath’s height is only 4½ cubits are also missing many of the verses found in most modern translations of 1 Samuel 17 (with the notable exception of Codex Alexandrinus) . The missing verses are 1 Samuel 17.12-31 and 55-58, and almost only appear where Goliath’s height is given as 6½ cubits.
A height of 6’8″ is certainly tall, but not what we could consider giant today. However, Deane adds that that “the average height of people in this region in the late centuries B.C. was about 3½ cubits (a little over 5 foot).” At the time, then, even our low option would be fairly impressive (albeit within the range of human possibility).
The assumption, then, is that the figure was impressive to begin with, but apparently not impressive enough for a later editor. If you’re wondering how Goliath stacks up against other giants in the Bible, Deane has another post up comparing both possible heights to an estimated height for King Og of Bashan (based on the size of his bed/coffin described in Deut. 3:11). At an estimated 11’10”, King Og cuts a far more impressive figure than even the tallest Goliath.
(And if you’re interested in how the Bible has influenced later literature, Deane also has a post comparing David and Goliath to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.)
Highlighting Goliath’s impressiveness, we’re given a list of all his armour and weaponry. This seems to be making the Deuteronomist theological point that victory in battle stems form God’s approval, not might or skill.
The shepherd boy
We turn then to David, who is described as “the son of an Ephrathite of Bethlehem in Judah” (1 Sam. 17:12), as though we hadn’t just spent a chapter learning that. He has seven brothers, though the same three are named as in 1 Sam. 16: Eliab, Abinadab, and Shammah. Tradition apparently forgot the names of the other four, or perhaps the number of brothers was rounded up to give David an auspicious number of male siblings.
Goliath’s head, from the Grimani Breviary, 1515-1520
Eliab, Abinadab, and Shammah are all fighting in Saul’s army, while David goes back and forth from battlefield to Bethlehem so that he can feed his father’s sheep. One day, Jesse, David’s father, sends David to the battlefield with food for his brothers and for the commanders of Saul’s army. Apparently concerned about the wellfare of his sons, Jesse asks David to bring back some token from his three brothers, proving, I suppose, that they are well.
David’s timing is impeccable, and he arrives just as the Israelite army is heading into battle. He reaches his brothers and is chatting with them when Goliath steps out from among the Philistines and issues his challenge, yet again. David overhears the terrified Israelites talking about how the one who steps up as Israel’s champion and wins will be rewarded with many riches and Saul’s daughter.
I was a little confused about David’s actions here. It seems that he is going around the camp trying to urge someone to step forward, perhaps doing it in a shaming way. Either way, his brother Eliab stops him. He assumes that David has left the sheep unattended so that he could come out and watch the battle, it being several thousand years before TV. David seems to brush him off, arguing that he was just talking, then resumes his call for a champion. If I’ve interpreted this passage correctly, it seems that the narrator wishes to establish that David has some humility – that he stepped up because no one else would, and only after asking everyone else to do it first. This seems reinforced by having Eliab directly accuse him of being a glory hog, so the narrator can show David being conspicuously not one.
There’s also some mirroring going on. Eliab’s rejection of David seems to recall Joseph’s rejection by his older brothers in Genesis 37. It also mirrors the discounting of David’s older brothers from 1 Sam. 16. There, Samuel initially assumes that Eliab must be the future king, but God tells him not to be fooled by appearances. God, we are told, “sees not as man sees; man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7). We see that played out here were David is the only one from among Jesse’s sons to stand up to Goliath.
Saul hears about David going around camp trying to drum up a champion, and he has David brought to him (though it’s unclear why since it seems like everyone is going around saying similar things). Here, for the first time, David volunteers to slay Goliath.
Saul tries to dissuade him, arguing that David is just a kid (despite his description as a “man of war” in 1 Sam. 16:18), whereas Goliath is a seasoned fighter. But David argues that he has loads of experience fighting lions and bears to defend his father’s flock, even going so far as to grab the predators by the beard.
Given that the deal Goliath proposed would have Israel serve Philistia if their champion loses, it seems rather strange for Saul to go for such a Hail Mary candidate. But whatever his reasoning, he gives his blessing.
Saul tries to equip David as best he can, loading him with armour and a sword. However, David “tried in vain to go, for he was not used to them” (1 Sam. 17:39). It seems that the armour is so heavy that David can’t even walk in it! Instead, he goes out with nothing but his staff, a handful of stones, and his sling.
There’s a theological reason for this, of course – the same one that spent so much ink listing Goliath’s amour and weapons. The Deuteronomist shtick is that battles are not won by superior skill, or numbers, or weaponry. Rather, battles are won (or lost) according solely to the will of God. By pushing an unmatched fight to the extreme, the point is all the more strongly made.
According to Victor Matthews, there could also be a historical underpinning to the dynamic:
Although the Philistines and Canaanites began to experiment with an iron-based military technology in the twelfth and eleventh centuries B.C., the metal of choice throughout this period remained bronze. Israelites also used bronze weapons, but their lack of metallurgical knowledge, and the Philistine monopoly over the tin trade, probably forced many of their soldiers to use slings and farm implements to defend themselves. Some iron weapons were undoubtedly captured during raids by Israelite forces, but without the knowledge of metallurgy to repair and fabricate new weapons out of scrap metal, they would have become useless eventually. This may explain why the forces under Joshua chose to burn the chariots of the northern coalition of Canaanite kings rather than use them themselves (Josh 11:9). The Israelites could not repair the chariots, and they did not want to leave them behind for Canaanites to use against them in the future. Also, the chariots would have been of little use to Israelite bands operating out of the rugged hill country. (Manners & Customs in the Bible, p.59-60)
When they meet, Goliath and David banter a bit. Goliath makes fun of David for being dressed as a shepherd boy, and David responds: “You come to me with a sword and with a spear and with a javelin; but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied (1 Sam. 17:45).
Notice, also, that David’s retort positions him not as the champion of Israel (which is the whole point of the duel – that the battle be resolved by each side providing a champion for single combat), but rather he is the champion of God.
There’s some more posturing, and David’s speech is fairly dripping with Deuteronomistiness: “All this assembly may know that the Lord saves not with sword and spear; for the battle is the Lord’s and he will give you into our hand” (1 Sam. 17:47).
David then draws his sling and smacks Goliath in the forehead with a stone. The Philistine falls, and then David takes his sword and beheads him. It’s unclear from the text whether it was the stone or the beheading that did the actual killing. Or, rather, both are said to. The important point is that David defeated Goliath while “there was no sword in the hand of David” (1 Sam. 17:50).
His job done, David stows Goliath’s armour in his tent – though we may ask which tent given that David had only just arrived from Bethlehem, and it hardly seems that the armour would be of much use to anyone given the size issue. David then takes Goliath’s head to Jerusalem.
When Saul saw David go out against the Philistines, he asked Abner, his general, who the boy is, and Abner doesn’t know. Once Goliath is dead, David tells Saul that he is the son of Jesse.