How David Killed Goliath: Are You Sure?
One of the most popular biblical subjects for artists is the story of David and Goliath. In fact, many paintings (or drawings) focus in on the moment of how David killed Goliath. These renderings of this popular event either zoom in on the moment that David slings the stone in Goliath’s direction, or the moment when David stands over Goliath to remove his head. While we have to allow art to be art and recognize that not every artist is going for a literal representation of the actual story, I am often struck by how many artistic renderings get the basic facts wrong. Based on your recollection of the David and Goliath story, can you tell what is wrong with the paintings on the right?
I would argue that these paintings get at least 3 things wrong. First, they either portray Goliath carrying his own shield and omit his armor-bearer (picture 1) who is said to be carrying his shield (1 Sam. 17:41) or they show no shield and armor-bearer at all (picture 2). Second, they show Goliath falling backwards, when the biblical narrator tells us that Goliath fell face down (1 Sam. 17:49). It’s actually surprising how many pictures show Goliath falling backwards when the story clearly says he fell face down! (Check it out on google.) I’ll talk more about this in a moment. Third, and here is where I expect to lose you…the pictures show Goliath being hit in the forehead instead of where David’s stone probably hit him. At this point you’re probably doing one of three things: You are either rereading my last statement to make sure you read it correctly; scrambling for your Bible to look up the verse that says Goliath was struck in the forehead (I’ll save you the trouble, it’s 1 Sam. 17:49–in fact, it says it twice!); or simply thinking that I’m crazy because you KNOW that the Bible says he was struck in the FOREHEAD. My real interest here is not simply to be controversial or to pose as an art critic, for which I am ill qualified, but to use these artistic renderings as a way of raising the important question of how David killed Goliath. Everyone who’s heard this story thinks they know. It’s quite simple right? David’s stone hit Goliath in the forehead which knocked him unconscious. David proceeded to hurry over and finish the task by cutting off Goliath’s head with his own sword (we know the stone didn’t kill him because 1 Sam. 17:51 says David killed Goliath by cutting off his head).
Although this most popular of Bible stories is always told this way, and even reads this way in our English translations, I want to introduce you to a position advocated by several biblical scholars that diverts from the norm. My interest in doing this is not simply to put forward some wild theory by a few “eccentric” scholars, but because I think this version of how David killed Goliath more accurately reflects the original text, and has a very significant theological point to make. So, if I haven’t lost you yet, please read the following arguments and then judge for yourself how you think David killed Goliath.
A Description of Goliath and His Armor ( 1 Sam. 17:4-7)
The story of David and Goliath begins in a somewhat unusual way. The biblical narrator spends a great deal of time describing Goliath’s appearance. This is rare in biblical narrative. Just think about it. How many indepth descriptions do we have of Abraham, David, Hannah, Mary, Jesus, or Paul (to name only a few)? In spite of the fact that Goliath only appears in one chapter in 1&2 Samuel, 4 verses are dedicated to describing his appearance. One reason for this is to impress the reader with how intimidating Goliath looked. This description helps us to understand why Saul and the rest of the Israelite army responded in fear (1 Sam. 17:11). Besides Goliath’s height (9’9″ according to the Hebrew text; 6’9″ according to the Septuagint), the writer describes 3 pieces of his armor. Goliath wore a helmet of bronze, a coat of mail weighing 126 pounds (57.15 kg.), and bronze greaves on his legs. Two of the weapons he carried are also mentioned. These weapons included a bronze javelin (some would say that “scimitar” is a better translation), and a large spear with a shaft the size of a “weaver’s beam,” that included an iron tipped head weighing 15.1 pounds (6.85 kg.)!
Although Goliath’s height is impressive, as is the weight of his armor and spear tip, most people read over these verses and don’t think much more about them. However, the list of Goliath’s armor and weaponry plays a very significant part in the story that follows. In fact, 4 of the 5 items in 1 Samuel 17:5-7 are mentioned later and shown to be ineffective. For example, once Saul agreed to allow David to fight Goliath, we are told that he clothed him in his armor and gave him a bronze helmet (1 Sam. 17:38). These are the same items found in the description of Goliath’s armor (same Hebrew words). David rejected the armor and helmet because “he was not used to them” (NIV–1 Sam. 17:39). David’s rejection of Saul’s armor is significant for a number of reasons. First, it suggests that Saul, like Goliath, trusts in his weaponry and armor rather than in the Lord. Second, the brief glimpse of David in the king’s armor prefigures his royal destiny. Third, David’s rejection of Saul’s armor is evidence that his trust lies elsewhere. As far as the spear and javelin (scimitar) go, David also dismisses these items of Goliath’s arsenal as inconsequential (1 Sam. 17:45-47).
In a very insightful study entitled: “A Farewell to Arms: Goliath’s Death as Rhetoric Against Faith in Arms (Bulletin for Biblical Research 23.1 (2013) 43-55), Gregory T. K. Wong points out that since 4 of the 5 items mentioned as part of Goliath’s arms are mentioned later in the story, one would expect that the fifth item might also be mentioned. The fifth item are the greaves (leg protectors). Can we find a passage in 1 Samuel 17 that also demonstrates the ineffectiveness of the greaves? Many years ago the daugther of an American Rabbi named Ariella Deem wrote an article entitled: “… And the Stone Sank into His Forehead”: A Note on 1 SAMUEL XVII 49 (Vetus testamentum, 28 no 3 Jl 1978, p 349-351). In this article Deem argues that the Hebrew word for “greaves” in 1 Samuel 17:6 is the same as the word for “forehead” in 1 Samuel 17:49. I can confirm that, except for a feminine ending in 1 Samuel 17:6, the words do look identical. This interpretation, then, suggests that David’s stone did not hit Goliath in the forehead, but in the greave, or knee area!
While some would argue that the word (greave) in verse 6 comes from a different Hebrew root that doesn’t occur anywhere else in the Old Testament, there are a number of reasons why Deem’s argument is persuasive. First, as she points out, the story specifically states that Goliath wore a bronze helmet. We have pictures from antiquity of what Philistine helmets looked like and they cover the forehead (see the photo to the right). Some would argue that since the story says Goliath wore a bronze helmet that this would have been different from the typical Philistine headgear. Since the Philistines were a Greek people, it’s possible that Goliath’s helmet had a construction similar to that worn by ancient Greek peoples. If you google “greek helmets” as I have, you will be even more impressed with the protection offered to the wearer of one of these! Most of them, not only cover the forehead, but the nose as well. While a stone to this area might still knock a warrior unconscious, I don’t see anyway that the stone could become embedded in the forehead as v. 49 states. Second, recalling our pictures above, why is Goliath frequently shown falling backwards in artistic renditions of this story? It’s quite simple: if you got hit in the forehead with a stone travelling with great velocity, which direction would you fall? There are various estimates at the speed a stone will travel when released from a sling. Googling articles on using a sling suggested anywhere from 60 mph (97 km/h) to 100 mph (160 km.h) for the speed of a stone (click here for one example). If we take the low estimate one would still expect that being hit in the forehead by a stone at 60 mph would send a person reeling backwards. It’s difficult to believe they would fall “face down” as the biblical text states (v. 49). This observation has caused scholar J. P. Fokkelman to write, “We have all been brought up on the idea that Goliath was hit in the forehead. This, however, is unlikely. In the first place it is strange that he does not collapse, or fall backwards as a result of the impact of the projectile” (Fokkelman, Reading Biblical Narrative, p. 32). Fokkelman continues by citing his agreement with Deem’s article.
But how can a “greave” be a “forehead”? Deem argues that the ancient Israelites had no word for “greave.” She reasons that since the curved shape of a greave had a similar shape to the helmet, that the Israelites simply adopted the word used for forehead. Fokkelman argues that “This Hebrew word means ‘front’ and thus is less specific than ‘forehead'” (p. 32). The point is that the biblical author carefully chose each word to describe Goliath’s armor and weapons, in order to demonstrate the ineffectiveness of each later in the story. What was perceived to be Goliath’s greatest strengths turned out to be his greatest weaknesses. The very armor that should have protected him, made him vulnerable! This contributes to the theological theme of the story so eloquently expressed by David when he states, “Then all this assembly shall know that the Lord does not save with sword and spear; for the battle is the Lord’s, and He will give you into our hands” (NKJV–1 Sam. 17:47).
How David Killed Goliath
So how exactly did David kill Goliath? As Goliath approached wearing his heavy armor, David recognized a vulnerable place in the big man’s attire. Greaves must leave a space for the knee to bend in order for the wearer to walk. David carefully aimed his stone at the knee of Goliath. Here is the rest of what happened in Deem’s own words: “Thus the stone would hit the upper shin or knee and fall into the space which must be left to allow the knee to bend and enable the warrior to walk. It is exactly at this vulnerable space that David deliberately aims, thereby causing the stone to ‘sink’ into the greave, that is between the greave and the knee, so that the Philistine—who at the moment is awkwardly making his way towards David—will stumble forward and fall, ‘on his face'” (p. 350). While some scholars do not think that hitting Goliath in the knee would incapacitate him, I must disagree for two reasons. First, consider the weight of Goliath’s armor. Once on the ground, it would be very difficult to get back up with 126 pounds of armor weighing you down. Second, and most important, imagine a stone flying at your knee at 60 mph and embedding itself in your knee. I don’t think anyone is going anywhere if that happens! Goliath would be totally helpless, as the biblical narrative depicts him to be. This allows David the time to come over, pick up Goliath’s sword and cut his head off.
There is one more piece of evidence that further backs this interpretation. Deem’s and Wong have both written about an incident recorded in the ancient Jewish writing “The Testament of Judah.” The Testament of Judah is part of a book called “Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs,” and is among what is known as the Pseudepigraphal writings (see link for definition). In this (fictional) story, Judah the son of Jacob kills a heavily armored Canaanite king by striking him in the greave (chopping off his feet is another translation). The point, as Wong shows (“Goliath’s Death and the Testament of Judah,” Biblica, 91 no 3 2010, p 425-432), is that this story has many similarities and clearly alludes to David’s killing of Goliath. Therefore, this suggests that there was an ancient Jewish tradition that David had struck Goliath in the greave. If this is so, it is further evidence that David killed Goliath by striking him in the knee with a stone and finished the job by cutting off his head. (click here for Goliath’s Death Part 2)
Note: Unfortunately, I was unable to find a copy of Deem’s or Wong’s articles available on the internet. Anyone who has access to professional journals through a library can look these articles up.