Storytellers love stories of the stark clear-cut one-on-one showdown between the forces of light and the forces of darkness. The story we hear most now is the one between David and Goliath. While Putin and Zelensky will not meet physically in such a confrontation, they did meet cosmically on May 9, 2022 in the celebration of the victory of evil decades ago. The words and images also were weapons in the current war which convulses the land and wreaks havoc throughout the world. The current confrontation provides insight into the story that was told millennia ago and which is still relevant today.
1 Samuel 17:1 Now the Russians gathered their armies for battle; 3 And the Russians stood on the mountain on one side of the border, and the Ukrainians stood on the mountain on the other side of the border, with a border between them.
4 And there came out from the camp of the Russians a champion named Putin, of Moscow, whose height was six cubits and a span and who rode horses bare-chested. 5 He had a helmet of bronze on his head, and he was armed with a coat of mail, and the weight of the coat was five thousand shekels of bronze. 6 And he had greaves of bronze upon his legs, and a javelin of bronze slung between his shoulders. 7 And the shaft of his spear was like a weaver’s beam, and his spear’s head weighed six hundred shekels of iron; and his shield-bearer went before him. 8 He stood and shouted to the ranks of the Ukrainians, “Why have you come out to draw up for battle? Am I not a Russian, and are you not servants of me? Choose a man for yourselves, and let him come down to me. 9 If he is able to fight with me and kill me, then we will be your servants; but if I prevail against him and kill him, then you shall be our servants and serve us.” 10 And the Russian, “I defy the ranks of the Ukrainians this day; give me a man, that we may fight together.”
21 And the Ukrainians and the Russians drew up for battle, army against army. 23 As David talked with his brothers, behold, the champion, the Russian of Moscow, Putin by name, came up out of the ranks of the Philistines, and spoke the same words as before. And David heard him. 32 And Zelensky said, “Let no man’s heart fail because of Putin; I will go and fight with this Russian.”
33 And Trump said to Zelesnsky, “You are not able to go against this Russian to fight with him; for you are but a loser, and Putin has been a man of war from his youth and he is a savvy genius.” 37 And Zelensky said, “Yahweh who delivered the Ukrainians me from the paw of the Nazis and from the paw of the Communists, will deliver me from the hand of this Russian.” 38 Then Biden clothed Zelesnky with his armor; he put a helmet of bronze on his head, and clothed him with a coat of mail.
40 Then David took his staff in his hand, and chose five Javelin smooth stones from the brook, and put them in his shepherd’s bag or wallet; his sling was in his hand, and he drew near to the Russian. 41 And the Russian came on and drew near to Zelensky with his shield-bearer in front of him. 42 And when Putin looked, and saw Zelensky, he disdained him; for he was weak and small.
43 And Putin said to Zelensky, “Am I a dog that you come to me with sticks?” And Putin cursed Zelensky his gods. 44 Putin said to Zelensky, “Come to me, and I will give your flesh to the birds of the air and to the beasts of the field.” 45 Then Zelensky said to Putin, “You come to me with a sword and with a spear and with a convoy of tanks; but I come to you in the name of freedom, Yahweh, the God whom you have defied. 46 This day Yahweh will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you down, and cut off your head and your generals; and I will give the dead bodies of the host of the Russians this day to the birds of the air and to the wild beasts of the earth; that all the earth may know that there is a God in the Ukraine, 47 and that all this assembly may know that Yahweh saves not with sword and spear; for the battle is Yahweh’s and he will give you into our hand.” 48 When Putin arose and came and drew near to meet Zelensky, Zelensky ran quickly toward the battle line to meet the Russian. 49 And Zelesnky put his hand in his bag and took out his drones, his Javelins, his Stingers, and slung them, and struck Putin on his forehead; the stone sank into his forehead, and he fell on his face to the ground.
50 So Zelensky prevailed over Putin with a sling and with a stone, and struck the Russian, and killed him. 51 Then Zelensky ran and stood over the Russian army, and took his sword and drew it out of its sheath, and destroyed it, and cut off generals. When the Russian people finally saw that their army was defeated was dead, they rioted.
It is surprising how little the wording needed to be changed to tell this 21st-century version of the story.
Right now Putin does not know what to do.
The Ukrainian people did not welcome him.
He failed to take the capital.
His is failing to take the east.
His pride-and-joy ship sank.
He is depleting the Russian military so much that soon Poland and the Baltic States will be able to invade Russia instead of fearing an invasion by Russia.
He has strengthened NATO.
He has awakened the “arsenal of democracy” just as Japan did at Pearl Harbor.
His future is one of more and more pounding as the American arsenal becomes the Ukrainian arsenal.
At some point, even his generals will be able to read the handwriting on the wall.
He has no idea how to get out of the hole he has dug for himself so he just keeps digging.
It’s time for Joe Biden to send a special emissary to Moscow to find out what it will take to end this madness. It is time to send the Russian asset, the only American Putin trusts because he can dominate him. It is time to send Donald Trump to the Kremlin.
We are a storytelling species. Since a picture is worth a thousand words and a meme can move political mountains, people have been trying out various words to depict the current invasion by Russia of the Ukraine.
DAVID and GOLIATH – By far the most frequent symbol used to describe the war has been the traditional biblical one of David and Goliath. This one routinely is used in a variety of encounters with one particular trait. It refers to a confrontation between two entities where one is very large and the other is very small. Typical examples have included start-up companies doing battle with Microsoft, Apple, and Google. Its use in legal and/or political battles is standard operating procedure.
In a David and Goliath struggle, which one would you rather be? Naturally, the answer should be David. After all, he wins. He wins rather decisively.
1 Samuel 17:48 When the Philistine arose and came and drew near to meet David, David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet the Philistine. 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. 51 Then David ran and stood over the Philistine, and took his sword and drew it out of its sheath, and killed him, and cut off his head with it. When the Philistines saw that their champion was dead, they fled.
As victories go, there is little room for doubt as to who emerged victorious.
One should note that David’s triumph was not that of one involving two sport’s teams. There is no returning to the battlefield for round two. In the battle against the unnamed Philistine warrior [for those interested in biblical exegesis], David’s victory means never again will the Philistine warrior threaten David or anyone else again. The significance of this result often is overlooked.
In a David and Goliath fight, not only do you want to be David, the final outcome really is a final outcome. In the current situation, this means that not only does the Ukraine successfully defend itself against Russia but that never again can Putin threaten its neighbor or any other neighbor. In human terms, this means Zelensky remains in power and Putin is removed from power. Whether Putin ends up dead like the Philistine warrior or simply imprisoned is secondary. The point is in a true David and Goliath confrontation, it is a fight to death where the larger one, meaning Putin, loses. Putin probably knows this which is why he will never stop on his own and will have to be stopped by others.
LEONIDAS AND XERXES
A similar scenario with a different ending appears in the Leonidas-Xerxes confrontation. On March 1, 2022, I asked, “Suppose Zelensky ends up being Leonidas and not David? (The State of the Putin Union: The Dr. Strangelove Scenario). My reference was to the famous story of Three Hundred Spartans versus Persia at Thermopylae. The story has been made into a couple of movies. Its counterparts in American cultural mythology have been Davy Crockett at the Alamo and George Custer at Little Bighorn. In Jewish tradition, it is Rome at Masada which has became a foundation story for the new Israeli nation in the 20th century. These battles share in common the concept of valiant heroic death by the few in face of a much more numerous enemy. It does make for great storytelling in its own right.
So here we have these two contrasting big versus small war stories. In one, the little guy wins and the big guy is vanquished. In the other, the reverse occurs, but the dead little guy still remains the hero for the courageous fight against insurmountable odds. On March 3, Zelensky provided his own take:
I don’t want Ukraine’s history to be a legend about 300 Spartans. I want peace.
Jewish Zelensky apparently prefers David to these other options.
Marina Ovsyannikova out of nowhere has become a worldwide phenomenon. She appeared unannounced and uninvited on the Russian counterpart to the American Foxhub cable network. As everyone including Putin now know, she stood behind an oblivious news announcer with a handmade sign. Her message was a direct repudiation of Putin’s war and Putin himself. Given that such public declarations are illegal and punishable by up to 15 years in prison, her action truly was brave.
Regardless of what ultimately happens to her, one suggestion is that she speaks for many others in Russia, perhaps millions who do not have the opportunity to be as brave as she was. In fact one American commentator compared her to the “I’m Spartacus” moment from Hollywood Spartacus, not historical Spartacus. Perhaps now others will stand with her. It is too early to tell if that analysis proves to be correct. It does highlight how we seek historical symbols to understand events in the present.
The term “rope-a-dope” originated due to a boxing strategy employed by Muhammad Ali in his Rumble in the Jungle fight in Kinshasa, Zaire, on October 29, 1974, against George Foreman, the heavyweight champion. In this boxing match, the more massive Foreman was the “Goliath” against the less powerful-looking challenger Ali better known for his dancing and poetry skills than sheer raw TKO power. In presidential terms, it looked like the earlier showdown between the experienced Nikita Khrushchev and the young inexperienced John Fitzgerald Kennedy or the later Mikhail Gorbachev versus the enfeebled Ronald Reagan.
The technique Ali employed has had more legs than David’s slingshot victory. It demands a practitioner to withstand a pounding by the more powerful combatant until at last, the hulking puncher tires himself and is himself beaten. The final result may seem shocking. How could the obviously-more-powerful figure collapses in exhaustion?
The parallel with the current war in the Ukraine is limited. Yes, Russia is the larger one. Yes, it is pounding the Ukraine while the latter is unable to attack Russia itself. The world watches in awe and horror as Russia pounds away at the smaller country. The difference is that Foreman played by the rules while Putin does not. Foreman did not hit below the belt; Putin targets civilians. He targets the very exemplars of a civilized world. He targets electricity, water, food, hospitals, and everything that enables people to function as a 21st-century country. So heroic as the Ukraine is in taking the pounding, there are legitimate concerns about how long Ukraine can withstand such a pounding. Muhammad Ali would not have last long if Foreman cheats the way Putin does now.
I have no comforting words with which to conclude this post. The story is still unfolding. We don’t know what the outcome will be. We really don’t know what is going on in Putin’s mind beyond that is evil and uncaring. We don’t know what the Russian people really want or can do about it. We don’t know how the soldiers on the field of battle feel about the “training maneuvers” actually be invaders against their Slavic brothers and sisters. At some point we will and my preference is that the David and Goliath relationship prevails.
This blog is part of a series of posts about the ASOR and SBL conferences in November, 2018. They can be accessed at the IHARE website and will be posted to academia.edu.
One of the developments in the ASOR and SBL conferences was the increased archaeological data from the 11th and early 10th centuries BCE (Where Is the Tenth Century BCE?: The ASOR and SBL Conferences and The Tenth Century BCE and the SBL Conference). This development occurred even without any sessions on Khirbet Qeiyafa. One logical consequence to this development is the meaning for the biblical stories set in that exact time period. As previously reported, Mahri Leonard-Fleckman, begins her ASOR abstract “A Fresh Biblical Lens on the Iron Age Shephelah: Social Ambiguity versus Order in Judges-Samuel” with:
Textual studies of the Shephelah have yet to catch up with the archaeological portrait of identity ambiguity or “entanglement” in this Iron Age landscape of ancient Israel.
In her SBL presentation, (“Boundary Crossing and Boundary Blurring in the Bible’s Tales of David and Gath,” S19-117 Historiography and the Hebrew Bible), she suggests the book Memory in a Time of Prose: Studies in Epistemology, Hebrew Scribalism, and the Biblical Past by Daniel Pioske (Oxford University Press, 2018) is of value in understanding this subject. I downloaded, printed, and read the book. Chapter 2: Gath of the Philistines (85-133) and Chapter 4: A Past No Longer Remembered: The Hebrew Bible and the Question of Absence (182-191 on Khirbet Qeiyafa) directly relate to the question raised here. What follows is a review of these two sections and some thoughts of my own on the topic.
Based on his presentations in the preceding chapters, Pioske begins here by stating that Gath flourished prior to the emergence of a mature Hebrew prose. The result of this interpretation is the need to bridge the gap between these two time periods: the 11th-10th and the 8th BCE.
He begins his analysis with a reference to the Epic of Gilgamesh. At the beginning of the Epic and at the end of Tablet XI, Gilgamesh walks the walls of Uruk. He deems these lines as part of a sophisticated framing technique drawing on the images of Uruk’s monumental fortifications. The physical presence of the walls became part of the process through which the story of Gilgamesh was remembered. As he puts it:
…the historian must be sensitive to the possibility that memories from former times endured alongside the places to which they referred… (90).
Turning to the site in question here, Pioske observes:
There are nearly double the biblical references to this Philistine site, in fact, than to other settlements identified within the so-called Philistine pentapolis,,, (90).
These references to Gath in the Hebrew Bible are not mere data points or part of lists. Quite the contrary, the Gath occurrences are at key moments and play a significant role in the unfolding narrative. Pioske asserts that:
…it is unlikely that the scribes who made reference to Gath within their stories would have had access to first-hand, eyewitness information about the famed Philistine city…(91).
He concludes that:
…the biblical writers possessed knowledge about Gath that was reflective of the location’s early Iron Age past (91).
This observation leads Pioske to the crux of his investigation: how did scribes have access to material from decades if not centuries prior to the composition of the Gath stories.
To resolve this question, Pioske reviews the textual and archaeological information.
Philistine Gath in the Hebrew Bible (91-102)
What strikes Pioske’s attention is the military-basis for the Gath biblical mentions. Its battles occur in the heart of Benjamin/Judah/Israel. The Gittites are warriors. They are descendants of the Raphah which he compares to the Rephaim. In other words, the Gittites are part of a warrior cult of distinct martial abilities who are remembered for their prowess. David defeats them, is a vassal to them, and they serve as his mercenaries, quite a range of relationships one might add. Yet the reason for David’s attraction westward to Gath is never explained by the storyteller (97). Pioske concludes that “Gath likely functioned as a crucial gateway into the highland regions and the capital of Jerusalem” (101). Most important for the storytelling, there may even have been a time when Gath became part of Judah in the 8th century BCE just as Hebrew prose writing began to flourish (102).
Philistine Gath: The Archaeological Evidence (103-117)
In this section, Pioske describes the Gath landscape. He then turns to the Bronze Age archaeology noting Canaanite Gath’s contacts with Egypt such as in the Amarna letters. Next he notes the arrival of the Philistines in Iron I. He posits that native Canaanite population from the rural areas of the Shephelah came to be relocated in the Philistine-controlled cities (109). Pioske has no explanation for how and why Gath developed as it did during this time.
Shortly afterwards, nearby Judean cities begin to be built/rebuilt as well. He specifically notes the border town of Beth-Shemesh. Pioske is struck by the rebuilt and refortified Judean town of Lachish in the early ninth century BCE given its Late Bronze Age rivalry with Gath. These constructions plus the evidence of trade leads Pioske to conclude that relationships between Gath and its eastern highland neighbors in the tenth and ninth centuries BCE was peaceful.
Gath and the Resilience of a Remembered Past (117-131)
Pioske begins by asserting that “biblical scribes had access to information that could have only descended from the early Iron Age period… (118). Furthermore, Gath is always regarded as a foreign city even though Judah temporarily had some sort of control over it during part of the eight century BCE. The geographical setting also dates to the Iron I period due to the presence of Ekron as a significant city.
…in the thousand years that passed from the Middle Bronze Age to the end of the Iron Age, there was one and only one moment when both locations were of some size and status at the same time: the Iron I period, or the era in which the biblical writings indicate the importance of both (119).
There is no biblical account of Gath having been conquered by Israel or Judah. In addition its rise in Iron IIA coincides with the founding and growth of the House of David (123). All these developments are not by happenstance or coincidental.
Pioske now has to explain how this happened. He does not exclude the possibility of some older documents which mentioned Gath. He sees oral story-telling as being crucial to the maintenance of these memories. Nonetheless he is forced to conclude that “how and why this Philistine city was remembered with such tenacity remains something of a mystery” (125). He refers to other biblical examples of such memories at Shiloh, Bethel, and Tirzah. He notes non-biblical examples such as Troy, Icelandic sagas, and Beowulf enduring for centuries before being written.
His overall conclusion is:
…a remembered past endures more readily when it is tethered to the physical environs of a place (131).
For a short time, Judah controlled Gath. The visible remains endured.
…old memories of the Philistine center may have found their way into Hebrew texts because traces of this remembered past were still preserved in the ruins familiar to those who began to write these stories down (131).
Gath was a “place of memory.” Due to its sheer size it left an impression on the local inhabitants. And just as the Epic of Gilgamesh begins and ends in Tablet XI with the walls of the immense city of Uruk, so Pioske begins and end his chapter on Gath with references to Gilgamesh at Uruk.
Khirbet Qeiyafa (182-191)
Pioske’s analysis of this site is quite different from that of Gath – it’s all archaeology, there are no texts. He describes the site through its uniqueness.
Indeed, at a time when the eastern Shephelah and highland regions consisted of mostly small, unwalled villages and a limited population, the fortifications of Kh. Qeiyafa offer an unanticipated testament to political will and human capital at this point along the Elah Valley. The sophisticated casemate wall construction of the settlement and its two monumental gates would have been a tremendous undertakings for this period in time…(186).
Nonetheless, this extraordinary site garners no biblical mention.
The lack of reference to this location is all the more mystifying considering that a number of events within Kh. Qeiyafa’s vicinity are recounted in the biblical narrative and are said to have occurred at that moment in the early Iron Age when Kh. Qeiyafa was most likely populated and functioning… (191).
How Come Gath Is in the Hebrew Bible and Khirbet Qeiyafa Is Not?
My explanation for this discrepancy is human agency, specifically that of Abiathar. To repeat the approach I have taken in Jerusalem Throne Games and in these blogs
1. Abiathar is the father of the alphabet prose narrative.
2. Saul’s desire to become king was the catalyst for his writing.
3. All his writing was political: not historical, not theological, not as literature.
4. He wrote throughout his life from the time of Saul to Solomon.
5. To identify and date his writings permits a better reconstruction of Israelite history and the development of the Hebrew Bible.
6. He had rivals, a successor, and a student.
So now let’s apply the Abiathar template to the question of Gath and Khirbet Qeiyafa using the story of David and the Philistine warrior written in the time of Ishbaal and now in I Sam. 17.
1. The story originated as a standalone story. In the early part of his career, Abiathar had not yet mastered the skill to write continuous prose narratives.
2. Abiathar employed nameless individuals to represent a people. These anonymous people may be considered a diagnostic for his prose. In this case the Philistine warrior represents the Philistine people especially those warriors Pioske referred to.
3. Since the Philistine warrior is a symbol the story should not be taken as a physically literal encounter. Think of the story of “Ronnie and the Bear.” Ronnie goes hunting for a bear and at the end of story either is rocking on his bear skin rug and/or is sitting under his stuffed bear trophy. Older people will know that Ronald Reagan was a real person, the Soviet Union was real, and that “Ronnie and Bear” is about the United States winning the Cold War. They will not try to analyze the weapon Ronnie used or identify the species of bear he hunted. Younger people might be clueless and condemn Ronnie for killing an endangered species. “David and the Philistine Warrior” is not about a literal encounter; it is a political polemic by Abiathar about who has the right stuff to go into the arena and defeat the enemy.
4. Long before Thucydides put words in the mouth of Pericles, Abiathar put words in the mouth of David.
5. Khirbet Qeiyafa is not the only thing missing in the story, so are Jonathan and Ishbaal. Even if Saul did not confront the Philistine warrior, how come neither Jonathan nor Ishbaal did either? Abiathar is going for the kill. Saul, Jonathan, and Ishbaal all lacked the right stuff. At this time, Saul and Jonathan were dead and Ishbaal was weak. The story is an all-out humiliation of Benjamin and its leaders by the Philistines.
6. As I was thinking these points through, it suddenly occurred to me to ask where did Saul and Jonathan really die? The idea that the Philistines and Benjaminites squared off far to the north of where they both were located seems a little strange. It makes much more sense that the fight to the death occurred right where the two peoples faced in other: in the Elah Valley. Khirbet Qeiyafa was Saul’s pride and joy. The Philistines defeated Saul and destroyed his fortification. In other words, Abiathar located his political allegory at the site of Benjamin’s greatest humiliation.
When this thought flashed through my mind, it stunned me. To substantiate it will require analysis of other stories especially involving Jabesh-Gilead in Judges and Samuel. Still given the premise that stories are political allegories and not history, the showdown battle in the Elah Valley makes a lot of sense.
7. As much as Abiathar enjoyed mocking the Benjaminite warrior prowess, David was a wiser politician. He knew he could not have a kingdom with a hole in middle. He knew that Benjamin had to accept being part of the kingdom of Israel under the rule of David if it was going to work. It was probably at that point that Abiathar developed the David and Jonathan episodes. He now had learned how to write a continuous narrative of multiple episodes.
8. Biblical scholars have observed the similarities between the stories of Hector and Achilles and David and the Philistine warrior. They are deliberate. Why assume Israelites were the only intended audience? Abiathar’s story was for the Philistines too. When they heard the story they expected to be the winner. After all, they were like the Mycenaeans from across the waters and they had defeated the Benjaminites at Khirbet Qeiyafa. Naturally they would have expected the Achilles figure to be triumphant in Abiathar’s story.
Abiathar apparently deployed an old Israelite motif: take the defining story of you enemy and reverse it. In the Song of the Sea, the gift of the Nile is defeated by flooding waters. In the Song of Deborah, the wilderness woman smites Pharaoh Se-se III, a reversal of Pharaoh smites the male enemy. Now Abiathar had used the same technique against the Philistines.
This realization means the Philistines probably brought the story of Hector and Achilles with them when they arrived in Canaan after 1177 BCE. So how did Abiathar learn it? Obviously he did not go to Philistine scribal school. The most reasonable answer is through, Anson Rainey forgive me, the tribe of Dan. Dan was the first Sea People to arrive. It joined the Israelite-led anti-Egyptian NATO alliance (see Deborah at the SBL Conference). It was inducted into the Israelite community. And it had stories of Hector, Achilles, and then Samson. Imagine that. The Hebrew Bible helps prove antiquity of portions of what became the Iliad! That will drive the minimalists crazy.
The application of the Abiathar template provides a richer, fuller, more coherent account of early Israelite history and the development of the Hebrew Bible than possible with the present paradigms. Plus it is a lot of fun. Abiathar’s first stories will be the subject of my presentation at the upcoming Mid-Atlantic SBL conference.
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 21:19And 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 17:49And 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 17:45Then 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.