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Biblical Archaeology and Literature

Historical David and Goliath: Lessons from the Utah Senate Race

David Slaying Goliath by Peter Paul Rubens (The Norton Simon Foundation )

What can we learn about the story of David and Goliath from the Utah Senate race? Since the original story was political in nature, biblical scholars should not limit themselves to archaeology or literature when investigating the story but should examine the application of the story in the political arena as well. As it turns out recent events in the Utah Senate race shed light on the purposes of the composition of the original story of David and Goliath in the first place.

The incident occurred on April 21, 2018, at the Republican state convention. The purpose of the convention was to select a nominee to replace retiring Senator Orin Hatch. Under the rules, a candidate needed to secure 60% of the vote to eliminate the need for a primary. The prohibitive favorite was former presidential candidate Mitt Romney, a savior of the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics in Utah.

In the first round, none of the 12 candidates received the necessary 60%. In the second round, two candidates exceeded the lower 40& threshold. Romney received 49.12% of the vote. But he trailed Congressional Representative Mike Kennedy who emerged in the lead with 50.88%. As a result there will be a primary on June 26.

Kennedy has framed the race as a David vs. Goliath contest. He is familiar enough with the story to know that in a David and Goliath contest it is better to be David than Goliath. It is interesting to observe how often users of the metaphor view themselves as losers to the big guy, not realizing that Goliath had his head handed to him.

Both candidates referred to the David and Goliath metaphor. As reported in the New York Times:

Romney rejected the notion that he was Goliath. “I’m not Goliath, Washington DC is Goliath,” Romney said, introducing himself to the 4,000 delegates as a “neighbor,” a person of faith, and someone who helped rescue the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympic Games.

Kennedy, who also is a physician and an attorney, also invoked David and Goliath in his nominating speech. “I started with David and Goliath, but not for the reason you might think,” he said, alluding to Romney. “In this battle you are David, firm in your fight for liberty. Goliath is Washington DC — intimidating but beatable. And I, I am your stone ready to be flung at the foes of liberty who seek to oppress us,” he said, to cheers. “Working together we will defeat the Goliaths in Washington and restore our government where it belongs.”

I am not sure if anyone ever identified with the stone before. Regardless, both contestants used the David and Goliath metaphor in their political battle for power.

Putting aside the merit of these claims, I suggest the usage today exactly matches that of the original story three thousand years ago. “David and Goliath” in its inception was not meant as literal history. Nor was it derived from folk or mythic traditions. Instead it was written as a political story where there were two contestants in the battle for power and only one would emerge victorious.

Who were the contestants? What was the battle? And who composed the story?

To begin with, the story is not about biological and historical Goliath. That individual had been killed by one of David’s men.

2 Samuel 21:19 And there was again war with the Philistines at Gob; and Elhanan the son of Jaareoregim, the Bethlehemite, slew Goliath the Gittite, the shaft of whose spear was like a weaver’s beam.

Even though Dwight D. Eisenhower did not kill any Nazis on D-Day, American historians recognize that he was the commanding officer and he gets overall credit. Similarly, in ancient times, David garnered the credit for triumphs over Philistine warriors even when one of his warriors did the actual killing.

Furthermore, it seems unlikely that Goliath was even mentioned by name in the original story. He appears only two times in that story: I Sam. 17:4 and 23. He also is mentioned by name in connection with the sword war trophy in a later incident: I Sam. 21:9 and 22:10. By contrast on 17 occasions, the narrator, David, and Saul in I Sam. 17 refer to David’s opponent as the/this Philistine sometimes with the added the pejorative “uncircumcised.” It is reasonable to conclude that the unnamed Philistine warrior was named in some editorial process and originally he was unnamed.

I suggest that this unnamed figure is due to the metaphorical use of the character. Such unnamed figures appear periodically in biblical stories like Jephthah’s daughter (Judges 11), the Bethlehemite concubine (Judges 19), and Poipthar’s or the master’s wife (Genesis 39). These characters both male and female should be viewed symbolically. They are not historical individuals but are representatives of a people much like Uncle Sam and Lady Liberty. So whereas these modern figures represent We the People, in ancient Israelite storytelling they might represent the Israelite people themselves or a foreign foe like the Philistines. The story of David and Goliath is not about a specific battle, it is about David’s prowess as a warrior against the Philistines…in contrast to whom?

The storyteller reveals his hand in the very choice of David as the champion of Israel against the Philistines. Couldn’t a story have been told about Saul as the hero? Not if he already had died during a battle against the Philistines at Mount Gilboa (I Sam. 31:6). Couldn’t a story have been told about Jonathan as the hero against the Philistines as he had been in the story of the battle at Michmash (I Sam. 14)? Not if he already had died along with his father in the same battle (I Sam. 31:2). Couldn’t a story have been told about Ishbaal/Ishbosheth, the surviving son of Saul, as the hero? That would be as believable as a story of Lot triumphing over the kings from East instead of the warrior of Hebron being the one who triumphed.

The author discloses his anti-Benjaminite bias in other ways. For example, David famously dispatches the Philistine warrior with his sling and some smooth stones.

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

According to the author, David’s prowess was with a weapon attributed to the tribe of Benjamin.

1 Chronicles 12:2 They were bowmen, and could shoot arrows and sling stones with either the right or the left hand; they were Benjaminites, Saul’s kinsmen.

Judges 20:14 And the Benjaminites came together out of the cities to Gibeah, to go out to battle against the people of Israel. 15 And the Benjaminites mustered out of their cities on that day twenty-six thousand men that drew the sword, besides the inhabitants of Gibeah, who mustered seven hundred picked men. 16 Among all these were seven hundred picked men who were left-handed; every one could sling a stone at a hair, and not miss.

So not only was a Benjaminite not the hero against the Philistines while Saul the Benjaminite was king, the hero appropriated a Benjaminite weapon to affect his victory. While today we focus on the iconic theme of the young lad vanquishing his larger-than-life and heavily armored foe with mere stones and his faith in the Lord, we overlook that he is doing what a Benjaminite warrior should have been doing and doing so with Benjaminite weapon. Were there really no Benjaminites present who knew how to use the sling? The story is doubly insulting to Benjamin.  Plus the storyteller in the name of David gets to proclaim before his audience:

1 Samuel 17:45 Then David said to the Philistine, “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.

This story is great theater.

The anti-Benjamin bias isn’t done yet. The story is set a site that should be a symbol of Benjamin excellence and success. The story occurs in the Valley of Elah. A recent archaeological discovery has revealed a massive and short-lived fortification at precisely that location dated to precisely the time of the Saul/David transition. The site of Khirbet Qeiyafa even has an inscription with the name Ishbaal, the rival of David who ended up being murdered in his sleep but still was alternate choice to David at the time of this story.

The exact date and builder of Khirbet Qeiyafa remains disputed. The original story of David and Goliath contributes to the discussion to determine the chronology. The deliberate omission in the story of the fortification at the site where the story takes place is a deliberate slight to Saul and its Benjaminite builders and Ishbaal. The audience knew what was missing from the story: a Benjaminite hero at a Benjaminite fortress deploying a Benjaminite weapon. The audience knew what message the author delivered. Long before the phrases of having the right stuff to go into the arena had become part of the American cultural heritage, a political storyteller had employed those exact images to assert that one person, David, had the right stuff to go into the arena and be commander in chief of the covenant people. The story is true in that the author genuinely believed its message. The story is true in that David was superior to choice to Ishbaal. And the story delivered the same message to the Philistines as to its Israelite audience that is was morning in Israel. A new day had dawned.

For readers of the previous posts, it should be no surprise that massacre-survivor Abiathar now was having his revenge on the Saulides and the Benjaminites in the composition and proclaiming of this story throughout the land. The father of the alphabet prose narrative expertly wielded this new weapon in the battle for power after the Philistine victory at Mount Gilboa. Three thousand years before the Utah Senate hopefuls deployed the David and Goliath imagery in their quest for power, Abiathar had done so in behalf of David’s rise to power. Turns out, he was a pretty good storyteller.

The J Documentary Hypothesis offers another interpretation of Israelite history and the composition of the Hebrew Bible than do the Documentary Hypothesis and the scribal school Persian-fixated interpretations. It provides a fuller historical reconstruction than do the other approaches, one that is more accurate, more vibrant, more accessible, more relevant, more entertaining, and more exciting. Tenth century BCE Israel is the best documented century of the ancient Near East for the quantity of writing, quality of writing, and diversity of views. David and Goliath is another example of that writing.


Massacre Survivor David Hogg and the Origin of Biblical Prose Narrative Writing

Archaeologists Confirm Ancient Famine: Déjà Vu Joseph All Over Again

Were the Levites Hyksos? – No! That Would Mean Having to Take the Exodus Seriously as a Secular Event in History

5 thoughts on “Historical David and Goliath: Lessons from the Utah Senate Race

  1. Very very good. David was indeed real. The myths about him? We live with myths that we believe are true. Washington chopped down the cherry tree? Did Parson Weems stand at Sinai? (Did Mosh Rabamu and Am Yisrael?) When David slew Galyat David was still a kid…His brothers were in the army. David just happened to be there delivering raisins. What we learn from the story is exemplified by the tomb stone in the wild west ; Here lies Joe Becler. Commited suicide opening fire with a pistol at a man with a rifle a hundred yards away. The stories in Hebrew or even King James are great literature, The tribe of Benjamin and poor tragic Saul and the sad fate of him and his sons: Ish Boshet Ish Baal….was that their REAL names? Or what people called them in derision or what an anti Benjamin author called them to deride poor Saul. Just as Saul’s daughter was sort of “put down”. What do YOU think ?

    At the foot of Har Gilboa is a little village called GIdona. There is a creek where Gideon chose his soldiers by the way they drank from the creek that runs through the village. The village memorial for the fallen IDF is inscibed with David’s eulogy for Saul and Jonathan

    1. One of the big differences between us and them is that we expect our histories to be literally true as an academic exercise whereas they were telling stories to debate political issues. Sometimes it’s like comparing apples and oranges even though they both look like histories.

  2. I still think most Israelites who heard some version of this story realized that David had it all over Goliath. Classic asymmetric fight. Heavily armed warrior designed for close-up set piece battles vs. a lightly armed guerilla fighter who refuses to close the distance. No way Goliath could win this battle. Modern interpreters just don’t get the actual dynamics of the fight.

    1. Exactly but my point is that Abiathar wrote the story to proclaim David’s superiority to Ishbaal for being the commander in chief against the Philistines.

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