The story of David, Goliath and Saul
There are few stories more enduring than that of David and Goliath. Many believe that David was as young as fifteen when he struck the giant down with his shepherd’s sling. Such is the ubiquity of the tale that any conflict between a big guy and a little guy is called a David and Goliath battle. Most people can relate the main details fairly consistently. There is a “however” which is that important details have been missed, meaning that the common understanding is based upon some erroneous assumptions.
If you are interested in digging down to the reality, you might be tempted to read on. My research is based upon a rather Catholic view on the story, some simple mathematics, plus some basic logic.
The beginning of the story: The selection of King Saul is a good place to start. “And he [Kish] had a son, whose name was Saul, a choice young man, and a goodly: and there was not among the children of Israel a goodlier person than he: from his shoulders and upward he was higher than any of the people.” (1 Sam. 9:2) We see that Saul is described as a young man (probably in his 20s to early 30s) who was a head taller than his peers. Archaeology demonstrates that the average height of a man around 1000 BCE was less than 5 feet 6 inches, allowing to probability that Saul was over 6 feet tall.
Saul was secretly anointed by the prophet Samuel to be king (1 Sam.10) and we know that his total reign was 40 years (Acts 13:21). Traditional estimates have Saul being publicly crowned some months later, already having a son Jonathan who was in charge of 3,000 men. Here is a difficulty. Saul, “a choice young man” already has a son at the beginning of his reign who had to be more than 20 years old to be of fighting age (Num. 1:45). So, if Saul was in his mid-40s at the beginning of his reign, he had to be mid-80s when he was fighting in the heat of battle prior to killing himself rather than being captured. It would also mean that Jonathan was in his 50s when he befriended the future King David prior to the killing of Goliath while David was supposedly a teenager. The narrative of the friendship of David and Jonathan would indicate that they were of similar age. How is that possible?
An alternative timeline: The secret anointing of Saul and later events allow the probability that the confidence was kept for many years prior to him being chosen by the people. The public portion of his reign was probably only twelve years. 1 Sam. 13:1 has been difficult to translate because of damage to the source manuscript. It says that Saul began to reign at the age of XX 1 and that he reigned for XX 2 years. [The XX refers to missing digits.] It is possible to insert likely figures into those positions to attempt to make sense of it all. If that verse refers to the public portion of Saul’s reign, those figures might be 51 or 61 for his age and 12 for the years of his public reign, the total being 40 years. A few late manuscripts of the Septuagint (Greek) translation of the Old Testament read that Saul was 30 years old when he began to reign, though the earliest MSS fails to list an age. Where the Septuagint deals with Saul’s reign from his anointing, the damaged Masoretic text suggests the details of his public reign.
Samuel 15 recounts how Saul disobeyed God and was rejected as King. Given the 12 year public reign of Saul, his rejection must have taken place within 2 to 3 years of the beginning of that period. Keep in mind that upon Saul’s death, David became king at the age of 30. At the time that Saul was rejected, David was 20 or 21 years old when he was anointed, and probably only a dozen or so years younger than Jonathan. Samuel anointed David as the future King at that time, but his reign was never counted until the death of Saul.
David’s next move: If David was to be the future King, it would have been wise for him to join the army, just as his brothers did. He was talented in the ways of warfare and gained a reputation for himself in battle and for his music. When Saul was oppressed by an evil spirit, Saul called for someone to play the harp in order to soothe his spirit. (1 Kings 16: 15 – 18). “Then answered one of the servants, and said, Behold, I have seen a son of Jesse the Bethlehemite, that is cunning in playing, and a mighty valiant man, and a man of war, and prudent in matters, and a comely person, and the LORD is with him.” There is the proof. David was a man of war, a member of Saul’s army when he began to play the harp for the King. He had recently been anointed as future king, and he was definitely over the age of 20 to be counted as a soldier. Numbers 1:45 is clear that someone must be over the age of 20 to be counted as a member of the army. So close was David to King Saul that David was appointed as the King’s armour bearer.
Now for some controversy: I have been brought up in the Protestant tradition that the King James Version of the Bible is the only one that is authoritative. Many books have been written on the subject, and it seems that to suggest otherwise is tantamount to heresy. At the risk of being labelled a heretic, my position is that I am more interested in finding the truth than I am in following a belief that may be nothing more than tradition. In the KJV, the text that is relied upon is the MT (Masoretic Text) which a Jewish sect called the Masoretes applied themselves to, and completed between 700 – 1100 CE. The oldest manuscripts that are available are nearly 1,000 years older than that and are known as the Septuagint [first translated in the early 3rd century BCE[.
What manuscripts did Jesus, His Disciples, Paul and the church fathers rely on? Research has been done to identify the source of many hundreds of quotes from the Old Testament that are used in the New Testament. Jesus and his Disciples quoted from the Septuagint over 90% of the time, while Paul quoted exclusively from the Septuagint. The Church fathers were openly critical of the Jewish texts, claiming that they had been corrupted. The Catholic Church and many Eastern Orthodox churches rely on translations from the Septuagint. While the differences don’t change doctrine, there are examples where later scholarship has added embellished detail. The story of David and Goliath is one significant example. In the Septuagint, the verses from 1 Samuel 17:12 – 31 are not to be found. Those verses, when included in the MT, have created some anomalous and disturbing scenarios. Gone is the narrative of a young shepherd boy bringing food for his brothers, and of Saul forgetting who David and his family were. In the MT, the story is full of holes and questions. In the Septuagint, the story makes perfect sense.
How big was Goliath? According to the MT, Goliath was 6 cubits and a span (about 9 feet 9 inches), while in the Septuagint, the Dead Sea Scrolls and Josephus, he was 4 cubits and a span (about 6 feet 9 inches). Whatever the actual dimensions, he was a lot bigger than David. If David weighed in at 150 pounds, even the shorter recording of Goliath may have been 500 pounds. He was also incredibly strong as his armour of mail weighed 125 pounds and the iron head of his spear weighed 15 pounds.
The death of Goliath: David, who was perhaps 23 or 24 years old, dispatched Goliath with a stone from a sling. When Goliath saw David, he said “Do you think I’m a dog? … Is that why you’ve come after me with a stick?” (1 Sam. 17:43 ESV) From Goliath’s perspective, David was coming at him with a stick (a staff actually), but we know that Goliath was brought down by a stone from a sling. There is an interesting possibility. David may have been the original inventor of the staff sling. The Romans used it much later and called it a fustibalus. They used to practice for an effective range of about 600 feet with a good degree of accuracy. One end of the sling was attached to the staff. The other end had a loop that hooked over the staff end so that it can release at the correct moment. Such a device can deliver quite a heavy stone with great force and velocity. If David had used a piece of granite the size of a billiard ball, it would have weighed about 11 ounces. That’s twice the weight of a billiard ball or a baseball which are about equal in mass. Baseball players wear helmets to protect from errant near-100 m.p.h. pitches. Now imagine having something solid that is twice as heavy as a baseball hitting a person in the head at a much greater speed. A brass helmet may even have transmitted the energy straight through to the skull, fracturing it.
The paragraph is educated speculation based on Goliath’s testimony of what he saw. It does not rule out the possibility that David used a shepherd’s sling. 1 Sam. 17:40 identifies the weapons that David took with him; a staff, a sling and five smooth stones. In most artistic representations, artists neglect David’s staff. The Bible is specific about these three items. Why would the staff be mentioned if it wasn’t used in some way?
In conclusion: In the search for the truth, it is sometimes necessary to bring into question things that we thought were settled and absolute. This article opens up aspects of a well-known story that most readers have never considered. My hope is that it leads to reasoned debate, resulting in a greater understanding of the how we interpret the events.
There will always be ‘what ifs’ and ‘buts’. For example, I Sam. 17:33 says, “And Saul said to David, Thou art not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him: for thou art but a youth, and he a man of war from his youth.” Taken out of context, this gives the impression that David may have been a teenager, but the word ‘youth’ [Hebrew נְעוּרִים] can mean ‘early life’. What we know is that David was already an accomplished soldier in Saul’s army and had been given the important job as the King’s armour-bearer. Saul, a tall athletic man considered that his personal armour would fit David. If he really had been a little boy, that offer would never have been made. What Saul was saying was, “You are in your early days and are not experienced like Goliath who is battle-hardened since he was young.” This is prudent advice to a young man.
The story has turned out to be much more nuanced than anybody has believed.