1 Chronicles 19-20: The Case of the Missing Wife

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Chapter 19 parallels 2 Samuel 10, skipping the story of David finding Mephibosheth, Jonathan’s son. The author of Samuel seemed to be trying to lessen the perception of David as a usurper by emphasizing his positive relationship with Saul’s heir, his rival. And so the love David and Jonathan shared is emphasized, and David is shown to extend great kindness to Jonathan’s son (even though Mephibosheth, and his descendants, could easily become David’s rivals – whether or not Mephibosheth was being kept in David’s court as a prisoner/hostage is a different discussion).

The Chronicler, however, simply is not interested in Saul’s failed dynasty. As far as he is concerned, it was a false start, lacking in the legitimacy of David’s true dynasty. Given this, portraying David’s relationships with his rival Saulides becomes unimportant, and the Chronicler merely skips over those details.

At War Again

King Nahash of the Ammonites has died, and is succeeded by his son, Hanun. As in 2 Sam. 10, the text tells us that Nahash had been good to David, so David wishes to be good to his son in return. Though both versions of the story mention this, Nahash’s actual faithful dealings are not recorded. All we hear about him prior to this episode is that he was harassing the citizens of Jabesh-gilead in 1 Sam. 11. This provides an opportunity for Saul to achieve his first military victory.

In any case, David decides to send messengers to console Hanun in his mourning. At least, that’s what the text tells us. Hanun and his court immediately suspect that the messengers are actually spies, scouting out their lands in preparation for an invasion. This isn’t an unreasonable assumption, given all the aggressive wars David has been fighting in the last few chapters. And since we have no record of Nahash’s faithful dealings with David, only his history of antagonism toward Israel under Saul, it’s hard not to side with the new king.

Hanun mistreats David's messengers, from 'Speculum humanae salvationis', c.1450

Hanun mistreats David’s messengers, from ‘Speculum humanae salvationis’, c.1450

There is a further strike against David’s story: Deut. 23:3-6 forbids such kindnesses toward the Ammonites (and Moabites). James Pate discusses some possible loopholes, and of course we can always argue that this story comes from a different tradition than the prohibition in Deuteronomy and therefore cannot legitimately be applied. Still, I’m siding with Hanun’s suspicion on this one.

Unfortunately, Hanun’s retaliation seems rather ill-considered, as he shaves and partially disrobes the messengers before sending them back to David. The men are so humiliated that David tells them to stay in Jericho until their bears have grown back in (in many cultures, particularly around the middle east, facial hair is seen as a sign of adulthood – often not allowed to grow in until a man is married; in shaving the messengers’ beards, Hanun was emasculating them, symbolically removing their status as the patriarchs of their families).

The text tells us that the Ammonites quickly realize their mistake, that they’ve made an enemy out of a potential friend, and that it is for this reason that they gather up an army. It seems more likely, however, than the shaving of the messengers was, in itself, a declaration of war. I realize that Hanun was new to his crown, and that new kings can sometimes be a little overzealous in trying to establish their power (and with good reason, since factions often use the occasion of a new and inexperienced king to reshuffle power structures), yet the act seems far too pointed and hostile to be explained as a simple miscalculation.

In any case, they spend 1,000 talents of silver on mercenary chariots (32,000 of them) and horsemen from Mesopotamia, Aramaacah, and Zobah. For comparison, Amaziah will later hire 100,000 men for a mere 100 talents in 2 Chron. 25:6. The numbers are a little different in 2 Sam. 10:6, however, where the Ammonites hire 20,000 infantry, plus 1,000 men with the king of Maacah, and 12,000 men of Tob (suggesting that the figure for the number of chariots in this chapter is the sum of the total number of men – charioteers or no – listed in 2 Sam. 10; the king of Maacah, and presumably his 1,000 men, are listed separately in 1 Chron. 19:7).

When David learns that the Ammonites are mustering, he sends Joab out to deal with them.

The battle doesn’t go well for Joab, however, and he is surrounded. Thankfully, Joab comes up with the amazing, clever, and totally realistically likely to win strategy of splitting his army in half so he can focus on each front separately. He keeps command of the half fighting the Syrians, while he puts his brother Abishai in charge of fighting the Ammonites. The idea is that they will divide and conquer, helping each other out if either half becomes overwhelmed.

When Joab advances on the Syrians, they flee before him. When the Ammonites see that their allies are fleeing, they, too, flee, and Joab returns to Jerusalem victorious.

Having been defeated, the Syrians send out messengers to the other half of the Syrian army, led by Shophach, which was located on the other side of the Euphrates.

Realizing that the Syrian forces are about to return in force, David gathers up a large army and crosses the Jordan to meet them. The Syrians are routed, and the commander, Shophach, is killed. The Israelites also kill 7,000 charioteers and 40,000 infantry (1 Chron. 19:18), whereas 2 Sam. 10:18 has them kill 700 charioteers and 40,000 horsemen.

In the Spring…

Chapter 20 begins as 2 Samuel 11 did, in the springtime, when kings are wont to make war. As in the case of 2 Samuel 11, it is Joab who leads the army out to harass Ammonites and besiege Rabbah, while David remains in Jerusalem.

The Chronicler keeps the verse, though it reflects poorly on David (kings are meant to go to war in the spring, so what is David doing staying behind?). He does not, however, keep the story that follows. In fact, Bathsheba is mentioned only once in all of Chronicles, and that is as the mother of Solomon in 1 Chron. 3:5, where she is referred to as Bathshua.

And so instead of using the opportunity of his staying behind to rape the wife of Uriah (a loyal member of David’s inner circle) and then cover up the crime by arranging for Uriah to be killed in battle, the Chronicler’s David is merely staying behind in Jerusalem until Joab is victorious.

Skipping forward to 2 Sam. 12:30-21, once Joab takes the city of Rabbah, David comes up to collect its king’s crown – a huge honking thing weighing a whole talent of gold (I am assured that this is a lot, and James Pate discusses some of the theories that have been proposed to allow David to wear such a heavy thing).

In addition to the crown, David returns from the war in which he did not participate with quite a lot of booty, including an enslaved population. It seems that they didn’t stop at Rabbah – though it is the only city mentioned – but instead went on to take the rest of the Ammonite cities before returning to Jerusalem.

Skipping over many of the less utopic episodes of David’s career – including the incestuous rape of his daughter, his son’s rebellion, David’s flight from Jerusalem, the execution of more of Saul’s descendants, and the general disgruntlement of the northern tribes – the Chronicler takes us all the way to 2 Sam. 21:18-22, when the Israelites are again at war with the Philistines.

This time, they are to fight at Gezer (which is God in 2 Sam. 21:18). It is here that Sibbecai the Hushathite slew Sippai (called Saph in 2 Sam. 21:18), who was descended from giants. After that, the Philistines were subdued for a while.

But not a long while. In another war, Elhanan son of Jair slew Lahmi, who was the brother of Goliath. Yes, that Goliath. In the corresponding passage, Elhanan slew Goliath himself, and no mention is made of Lahmi (2 Sam. 21:19 – which the KJV alters to bring into alignment with 1 Chron. 20:5 and to avoid contradiction with 1 Sam. 17:49-51).

In yet another war, there was a tall, six-fingered, six-toed man who was also descended from giants, and who was defeated by Jonathan, David’s nephew through Shimea.

Regarding Goliath, Paul Davidson has a really great deconstruction of the “so who actually killed Goliath?” problem on his blog, Is That In The Bible? Over at Remnants of Giants, Dr. Deane Galbraith looks at efforts to diagnose Goliath’s gigantism and why that may or may not (mostly not) be supportable by the text.

2 Samuel 21: The Giants of Gath

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The remaining chapters of 2 Samuel are considered a sort of Appendix, relaying various bits and bobs that fit, thematically and chronologically, with the preceding book before the narrative continues in 1 Kings 1.

This chapter in particular appears to take place prior to 2 Sam. 9. The theory goes that Samuel initially ended with 2 Sam. 8, with the material of chapters 9-20 “having been suppressed for a time, though finally restored,” according to my study Bible (p.385). Thus, when 2 Sam. 21 was added, it came from different sources and did not fit chronologically with the rest of the book. We’ll notice, for example, that at least one story is a repeat (albeit with a surprising change), and a few details seem to come from a different source than what we’ve been mostly been reading so far.

While the last four chapters of 2 Samuel clearly come from different sources, they do seem to have been arranged with care. My New Bible Commentary notes that “the six sections contained in these four chapters are arranged chiastically: natural disaster, military exploits, poem, poem, military exploits, natural disaster” (p.312).


There was a famine in Israel for three years in a row. The people are suffering and, finally, David calls on God. One might wonder why he let the famine get into its third year before doing this, but I suppose it just takes that long before a palace starts to feel the pinch.

Of course, God shows a bit of his own weird sense of time, because he claims to have sent the famine as punishment for Saul killing the Gibeonites (a story not recorded in our text). Israel had sworn not to kill them (Jos. 9:3-27, albeit through trickery), but Saul had done so anyway “in his zeal” (2 Sam. 21:2). We’ve had hints of this zeal in, for example, the story of the witch of Endor (1 Sam. 28:9). This paints a picture of a Saul who was very concerned with establishing a Yawehist Israelite homogeneity, compared to David’s liberal use of Philistines and other non-Israelites in his personal guard.

Why Israel should be punished now for Saul’s actions is left unexplained. A cynic might wonder if perhaps David wanted to find a reason for the famine that he could bring back to his people, but didn’t want it to be anything that was his fault (particularly if we’re placing this story fairly early on in his rule). In fact, isn’t it convenient that the famine is a punishment against his deposed predecessor? Doesn’t that just every so nicely discourage any lingering support for Saul?


David goes to the Gibeonites and asks them what can be done to appease them. It seems that God’s retributive justice was not initiated by himself, but rather by a Gibeonite curse that either took this long to come into effect, or they’ve been biding their time until the responsible party is dead and his dynasty collapsed.

The Gibeonites claim that they do not want to be repaid in blood or gold, except that they do actually want seven of Saul’s sons to be hanged on the mountain of God at Gibeon – which sounds an awful lot like the blood vengeance they claimed not to be asking for. This only avoids being a contradiction if a) the number seven is a symbolic one, replacing the one-to-one killing of a blood vengeance, or b) the nature of the killing is ritually/legally different from a blood vengeance. In other words, if this is meant to be a human sacrifice to God rather than a tribal justice matter.

David agrees to their terms, though we get a clunky, clearly added later note that he spares Mephibosheth because of his oath to Jonathan. Instead of Mephibosheth, he chooses Armoni and Mephibosheth (a case of name recycling, at one end or another) – the sons of Saul and his concubine Rizpah. It seems that some of Saul’s survived him, though 1 Sam. 31 implied that they all died with him at the battle of Gilboa.

For the other five, he got the five sons of Michal, Saul’s daughter, and Adriel, son of Barzillai the Meholathite. Obviously an issue because it is Merab who married Adriel in 1 Sam. 18:19. Also a problem because we were told in 2 Sam. 6:23 that Michal died childless.

Some theories have been proposed to fix the discrepancy; for example, that Merab’s sons were given to Michal to bring up. Others, such as my RSV, simply change the name to Michal to “fix” the error. According to Paul Davidson of Is That In The Bible?, there are some problems with this bandaid:

(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.

The record is clearly a bit dodgy, however you cut it.

These seven sons and grandsons of Saul are hanged and God is appeased (despite the excuse that God is appeased because the Gibeonites withdraw their curse, this still smells rather strongly of human sacrifice).


So the Gibeonites are happy, but poor Rizpah isn’t. She camps out at the spot where her two sons are left hanging and keeps all the carrion eaters away until the rain comes (it being the sign that the drought-induced famine would soon be over). From context cues, it seems that the bodies were left hanging the entire summer, from late April or May until the Autumn.

Rizpah, by Peter Graham, c.1850

Rizpah, by Peter Graham, c.1850

When David hears of Rizpah’s vigil, we’re told that he fetched Saul and Jonathan’s bones from Jabesh Gilead and buries them along with the bones of the men sacrificed by the Gibeonites in Zela, the tomb of Saul’s father. It is after the funeral that God finally relented and the famine was over.

The text seems to want to tell us that Rizpah’s grief convinced David to bury Saul and Jonathan’s bones, yet he expressed more than enough grief himself to do it way back in 2 Sam. 1. It makes it rather difficult to believe that it had never occurred to David before now to give them a proper burial – particularly Jonathan, whom he claimed to love so much.

It’s difficult not to see the political motivations behind David’s decision to bury them now. It could be that he needed this big show of love for Saul and Saul’s dynasty to avoid repercussions from Saul’s remaining supporters. Or perhaps it was an attempt to show that he didn’t give in to the Gibeonites’ demands too readily.

It could also be to smooth over the fact that David had allowed the men’s bodies to hang, exposed to the elements, for what could be as long as six months – a huge insult, as well as a clear violation of the law (Deut. 21:23).

In fact, the entire Gibeonite desire for revenge (particularly its timing) looks awfully suspicious. A cynic might wonder if David used a natural disaster as an excuse to get rid of a bunch of Saul’s descendents and thereby solidify his own hold to power.

Philistine Aggression

The Philistines are at it again! In this chapter, we hear of four Philistine champions, all descended from giants, and the Israelite heroes who defeated them.

There’s Ishbibenob, whose spear weighed as much as three hundred shekels of bronze. With a new sword in hand, he comes after David, but Abishai steps in (again) and kills the threat. After this, David’s men forbid him from coming out to fight with them, “lest you quench the lamp of Israel” (2 Sam. 21:17). If I were to venture a guess, I’d say it was known that David did not participate in his own military campaigns. Some people, like the author of this passage, tried to excuse his absence. Others, like the author of 2 Samuel 11, clearly did not approve.

The next champion is Saph, dispatched by Sibbecai the Hushathite.

The third might be a little familiar: Goliath the Gittite, once again armed with a spear like a weaver’s beam (2 Sam. 21:19; 1 Sam. 17:7). This time, however, he is defeated by Elhanan, son of Jaareoregim. According to Kenneth C. Davis, “the King James translators of 1611 tried to cover up the discrepancy by inserting the words “brother of” before the second mention of Goliath, but older texts don’t bear that version out” (Don’t Know Much About the Bible, p.177).

Paul Davidson has a discussion of the episode on Is That In The Bible? that I recommend, but here’s an excerpt:

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.

The last Philistine champion is unnamed, but we’re told that he had six fingers on each hand and six toes on each foot, and was slain by Jonathan, the son of Shimei and David’s nephew.

1 Samuel 22: The Nob Slaughter


Having escaped from Gath, David hides himself in a cave near Adulam. He is, apparently, the worst at hiding, because his family hears that he’s there and come out to meet him. As do approximately 400 people in distress, in debt, and in discontent (the three Ds of any rebel army worth its salt). David becomes their leader.

He then makes his way to Mizpeh, in Moabite territory, and asks the king of Moab to look after his parents for a while, at least until David has a chance to figure out where his little rebellion is heading. According to the Book of Ruth, David is related to the Moabites, so he may have been able to claim kinship for the favour.

David leaves Mizpeh when a prophet, named Gad, tells him to. Again, we see that David is positively aligned with religious figures. From there, he then goes to the forest of Hereth, which would place him in the territory belonging to the tribe of Judah.

Saul, in Gibeah, hears about David. Unfortunately, we know he’s in a bad mood because he is described as having “his spear in his hand” (1 Sam. 22:6). He asks his court what they think David will offer them for defecting, since none of them had told him about Jonathan’s alliance to David (though 1 Sam. 20:30 makes it quite clear that he knew).

His speech makes the conflict sound inter-tribal to my eyes. He addresses his court as “Benjaminites” (1 Sam. 22:7), for example. This could simply imply that his close court is comprised of Benjaminites, but David’s position makes it clear that exceptions were made. The fact, also, that Saul is in Gibeah and David in the forest of Hereth suggests a possible border issue (Benjamin and Judah were neighbours). If I go out on a limb, I might wonder if perhaps what we are seeing is a story of tribes competing with each other for supremacy, with Saul declaring himself king of Israel as leader of Benjamin and David declaring himself king of Israel as leader of Judah. This would certainly explain why the Philistines in 1 Sam. 21:11 believed David to be king.

It could also be that the united monarchy was not a single event, one in which loose tribal alliances become a single nation overnight with the popular acclaim of a single leader. Rather, perhaps Saul ruled Benjamin, and perhaps he had a protector/vassal agreement with a few other tribes. It would make the transition more gradual, and help to explain why Saul refers to his entourage as “Benjaminites.”

It’s also worth noting that Saul’s rave paints David as a revolutionary, not as a fugitive. From his perspective, David is raising an army with intent to overthrow him. And it is certainly true that David is raising an army! Only, the authors, who aren’t necessarily trying to paint David as perfect but certainly think he’s a pretty cool dude, have soldiers simply flock to David of their own volition, presumably intending later on to force David’s hand into overthrowing Saul. So far, he has consistently been painted as defensive in his relationship with Saul.

Doeg the Edomite, whom we met in 1 Sam. 21:7, is the only one in Saul’s entourage who speaks up. He says that he saw David at Nob, and that Ahimelech fed him, consulted God for him, and armed him.

The slaughter

Saul is understandably furious. He has just found out that the high priest of his nation has just been helping a traitor and enemy of the state. We might see Ahimelech as a good guy because history remembers David as a good guy, but I think that if the same situation were to play out today, Ahimelech would, at best, be a controversial figure.

Doeg kills Ahimelech, from the Macclesfield Psalter, c.1330

Doeg kills Ahimelech, from the Macclesfield Psalter, c.1330

Of course, none of that excuses what Saul does next.

He summons Ahimelech and asks him why he conspired with David against him. Ahimelech turns it around, arguing: “And who among all your servants is so faithful as David” (1 Sam. 22:14). Not only does this explain his own behaviour (since David is such a loyal servant, how could Ahimelech possibly have known that they had fallen out?), it also argues in David’s favour (if David is faithful, then the responsibility for the rift falls on Saul).

Saul goes straight for the ultra-baddie title and orders his entourage to kill Ahimelech and all the priests. Showing just how tenuous Saul’s grasp on the throne is (or has become), his entourage refuses. This also fits with the portrayal of Saul that we saw, for example, in 1 Sam. 15:24 – a king with very little authority.

Only Doeg the Edomite, Saul’s little Renfield, is willing to raise his hand against the priests. He kills Ahimelech and 84 other priests. Apparently all on his own, he also slaughtered the people of Nob – men, women, children, infants, and even livestock. It’s rather hard to imagine how he would have managed this. Only one man, Ahimelech’s son Abiathar, escapes and flees to David’s side.

When he tells David what happened, David is suitably contrite, realizing that he shares some of the responsibility for what had happened. He invites Abiathar to remain with him and promises him protection.

The slaughter of the priests is apparently a continuance of the prophecy in 1 Sam. 2:31.

As an aside, I’ve noticed that Saul seems always to use “son of” designations, avoiding the use of personal names. He seems to be the only character who does this so consistently, but I don’t know what that means.

1 Samuel 21: David’s escape

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Having escaped, David makes a stop in Nob to visit Ahimelech. Notice how both here and in 1 Sam. 19, he chooses to flee to a figure of religious authority (in that case, he had gone to Samuel). Ahimelech is terrified to see David alone, but no explanation is given for why this would be the case. Perhaps he knows of the animosity between David and Saul and suspects that David is on the run? That’s my best guess, because David reassures him by lying, saying that Saul has sent him – and a group of men waiting for him at “such and such a place” (1 Sam. 21:2) – on a super secret mission (presumably, David’s companions are fictional, meant to convince Ahimelech that David truly is out on official business). He asks Abimelech if he can spare some food.

Ahimelech gives David the sword of Goliath, by Aert de Gelder, c.1680-1690

Ahimelech gives David the sword of Goliath, by Aert de Gelder, c.1680-1690

Unfortunately, Ahimelech only has holy bread. According to a few sources, this would be bread that could only be consumed by members of the priesthood, yet Ahimelech offers it to David. His only condition is that neither David nor his companions have slept with women recently. David explains that he and his men keep their vessels holy on missions, even on common journeys, so that’s not a concern. The argument will later be made (Mk 2:23-28) that this passage allows for flexibility in the cultic rules when they interfere with the wellbeing of people. Even though David isn’t a priest and therefore has no business eating the holy bread, he is allowed to take it because he has need.

David next asks if Ahimelech has any weapons he could have, “for I have brought neither my sword nor my weapons with me, because the king’s business required haste” (1 Sam. 21:8).

This is difficult to reconcile with the story in 1 Sam. 20, where David suspects that Saul might have it in for him and then plans his absence from the court. Rather, it seems better to follow after his flight in 19:11-17, where his wife shoves him out of a window in the middle of the night. This would better explain why David has so little with him.

The only weapon Ahimelech has to give is Goliath’s sword, which he keeps behind the ephod. As in 1 Sam. 14:3, the ephod is here implied to be a box containing sacred objects, not an item of clothing.

In the middle of David’s exchange with Ahimelech, we learn that an Edomite named Doeg, a servant of Saul’s, happens to be in Nod at that time. He was “detained before the Lord” (1 Sam. 21:7), likely meaning that he is ritually impure for some reason and is waiting for his term to end. The detail seems out of place here, but I peeked ahead and it seems that the author/editor was establishing a fact for a later occurrence.

David at King Achish’s court

His old enemy’s sword in hand, David then moves on to the Philistine city of Gath. There seems no reason for this episode, and it certainly turns out to have been a mistake. Highlighting that Saul has very good reason to feel threatened by David, the Philistines recognize David and mistakenly believe that he is Israel’s king, citing the same song that we heard in 1 Sam. 18:7:

Saul has slain his thousands,
and David his ten thousands. (1 Sam. 21:11)

Probably quite wisely, David realizes that this is potentially a very bad situation. If King Achish of Gad believes him to be the king of Israel (or, at least, politically important), might he not read the situation as a very good opportunity to easily get rid of an enemy.

So he decides to play the fool. Literally. He makes marks on the doors of the city gate, and lets spittle run down into his beard. I’m not sure how making marks on city gates is supposed to be an indication of madness, unless it means that he is smearing feces or something.

Anyways, King Achish is fooled, and he asks his servants why they bothered bringing a madman to him. “Do I lack madmen, that you have brought this fellow to play the madman in my presence?” (1 Sam. 21:15). This provides David with a means of escape, of course, but also reads like a joke at Philistia’s expense. Is King Achish’s court so glutted with madmen?

1 Samuel 17: David and Goliath

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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

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.

 The duel

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.