Among numerous familiar stories from the Judeo-Christian tradition, perhaps none is quite so well-known as that of David and Goliath (Noah and his ark might beg to differ, but you get the idea).
I haven’t given much thought to this story over the years. It’s kind of a grade school story, right? The kind of story they teach you songs about in Sunday School because it has a tendency to captivate people like 10-year-olds. Not a whole lot there for adults, it would seem.
I’m sure there are plenty of ministers who would disagree with that sentiment, and I have no doubt they are right. A few possible sermon titles come to mind: “Overcoming Obstacles;” “Facing Impossible Odds;” and “Believing in Yourself.”
What I want to talk about here is a bit more textually-based, addressing some of the interesting problems with the text itself.
One of the most recognizable facts of the story is that Goliath was exceptionally tall. His very name has fallen into the general lexicon to refer to something extremely large. The text of 1 Samuel calls his height “six cubits and a span.” A cubit was roughly 18 inches and a span was about 6 inches. Thus, “six cubits and a span” is exactly nine feet, six inches. Goliath was a true giant.
I’m not here to discuss, on faith, whether Goliath really was that tall. It certainly seems far-fetched. But interestingly enough, there is some evidence to suggest that the original story might not have made any such suggestion.
This requires a bit of background about the various textual traditions of the Old Testament. Stick with me here, because this will inform several other points later. I’ll try to make it as short and sweet and easy to digest as possible.
The Old Testament was originally written, quite obviously, in Hebrew, the languages of the ancient Jews. By late antiquity, however, there were a lot of Jews who still practiced the Jewish faith, but did not live in the Jewish homeland. They were spread throughout the Mediterranean basin. Because of the conquests of Alexander the Great in the 300’s B.C.E., these Jews came to be Greek-speaking Jews.
Because of this, a new form of the Old Testament fell into common usage among Jews outside the Jewish homeland. Called the Septuagint, it was a Greek translation of the Jewish scriptures. This Greek Septuagint is the version known and used by the writers of the New Testament.
The Septuagint began to fall out of use by the 3rd and 4th centuries, C.E. By that time, Jews began returning to Hebrew versions of their scripture. This re-emergence of the Hebrew Old Testament culminated, over several hundred years, into a textual tradition that is known as the Masoretic Text. While the earliest copy of the Masoretic Text dates only to about the 10th century C.E., scholars know that it is fairly accurate to the Hebrew version of scripture used as far back as the 1st century. They know this thanks to the Dead Sea Scrolls, which date to around the time of Jesus.
The problem, however, is that the Masoretic Text differs dramatically in many places from the Septuagint. Why are these two texts so different? The Septuagint is a Greek translation of the original Hebrew, and the Masoretic is purportedly a direct descendent of the original Hebrew. They should be very similar, but they’re not.
Scholars have theorized and debated about the possible reasons, with the general consensus being that the Septuagint was clearly translated from a different strain of textual tradition than that used by the compilers of the Masoretic Text. This indicates that instead of just one “version” of Hebrew scripture coming down through the centuries, many different versions abounded, thanks to scribal additions, omissions, and errors, which includes not just slips of the pen, but also conflating multiple accounts into one story, rewording stories, writing a story differently based on oral transmission, and so on and so forth.
In this extremely oversimplified chart (yes, I did it myself), the black dot on the left represents the original text. The lines represent textual traditions diverging from the original over time. As the decades and centuries of scribal hand-copying go by, the lines grow farther apart, meaning the texts diverge more and more from each other and from the original.----
So if we accept that two different textual traditions of the same Jewish scriptures produced the Septuagint and the Masoretic Text, which one do we take as authoritative? Some might say the Masoretic is primary because it purports to maintain the original tradition in Hebrew. Many Christians, on the other hand, might say the Septuagint deserves primacy because that is the tradition considered authoritative by the writers of the New Testament.
Regardless of one’s own personal opinion, modern English translations rely almost exclusively on the Masoretic Text. The Septuagint’s version of events is relegated, at best, to an occasional footnote.
So how does this relate to the story of David and Goliath? Well, primarily, where the Masoretic Text tells us Goliath was “six cubits and a span” in height (9 feet, 6 inches), the Septuagint says that Goliath was only “four cubits and a span” – 6 feet, 6 inches.
Which one is correct? Was Goliath the tallest person known in human history, or only about the size of an NBA guard? And more importantly, which version accurately reflects what the original story told?
The answer to those questions, of course, is that no one knows. I would be inclined to say the Septuagint is probably more accurate to the original and here’s why: to assert that the Masoretic is the correct version is to say that the tradition that produced the Septuagint shrunk Goliath by three feet. It seems more likely that as his legend built, Goliath would increase in height by three feet, rather than decrease in height by three feet. But that, of course, is just my opinion based on how stories, myths, and legends evolve. In the end, no one can say for sure. It is noteworthy to point out, however, that later versions of the Septuagint change the wording to “six cubits and a span.” This, again, seems to suggest that the larger number is a later tradition not an earlier tradition.
There are other reasons, however, to believe that the Septuagint more accurately retains the original elements of the story. The story of David and Goliath comes to us in 1 Samuel 17. In the story, the shepherd-boy David hears Goliath taunting the Israelites and decides that he can defeat him. When King Saul hears of this, he calls David to him and David convinces the king to let him go fight Goliath. After David kills Goliath, Saul starts checking into his past and asks his advisors who David’s father is (in its Jewish context, this is essentially a way of saying that Saul was trying to find out who David was). After learning who David is, Saul invites him to serve in his royal court.
The problem here is that if you read the previous chapter – 1 Samuel 16 – David and Saul had already met, with David being introduced to Saul as the son of Jesse. David plays the harp for Saul and soothes him during a time of distress. Saul is so pleased that he makes David part of his own retinue – an armor-bearer who doubles as Saul’s personal harpist. There’s no question that Saul already knew who David was, so his actions at the end of chapter 17, after David kills Goliath, are puzzling.
When we turn to the Septuagint, the problem goes away. In the Septuagint’s David and Goliath story, there is nothing about Saul asking for David’s background, finding out who he is, then inviting him to serve in his court. Instead, David simply comes to Saul (as his already-established armor-bearer and harpist), asks to fight Goliath, and Saul agrees. End of story.
Consider another small oddity from the story, 1 Samuel 17:50-51:
(50) So David prevailed over the Philistine with a sling and a stone, striking down the Philistine and killing him; there was no sword in David’s hand. (51) Then David ran and stood over the Philistine; he grasped his sword, drew it out of its sheath, and killed him; then he cut off his head with it.David kills Goliath twice. He “kills” Goliath with the stone, then he “kills” him with a sword before finishing it up by lopping off his head.
Again, this is a problem in the Masoretic Text but not in the Septuagint. The Septuagint does not include verse 50 – the verse saying that David killed Goliath with the stone. In the Septuagint, David knocks Goliath into next week with the stone, but Goliath is presumably still alive. Then David runs up to him, grabs Goliath’s own sword, and kills him with it before lopping off his head. Not only does the Septuagint’s version make more sense, but it also is more dramatic and less barbaric. David doesn’t just stand back and fire a fatal missile from afar, then mutilate the corpse in a barbaric frenzy. In the Septuagint, the stone only disables the Philistine; David must then run up to this still living warrior, take the warrior’s own sword, and kill him with it.
It certainly seems to me that the Septuagint, at least in regards to the story of David and Goliath, is more reliable than the Masoretic Text. In any case, it has a much clearer and unified story line. Scholars have suggested that the apparent corruption in the Masoretic version of this story comes from different transmissions of the story being fused together. Thus, in what we might call Version 1, David was already known to be Saul’s harpist, thus there is no story about Saul seeking David’s identity after defeating Goliath. In Version 2, there was no story of David being Saul’s harpist, so after the fight with Goliath, Saul seeks out David’s identity and invites him to serve in his retinue. The Septuagint gives us Version 1. The Masoretic Text (as found in the Old Testament) gives us a conflation of Versions 1 and 2.
There is one other interesting aspect to this story. Many readers may not realize that Goliath actually turns up again in two other Old Testament books.
The first is in 2 Samuel, which continues the story of David. In chapter 21, there is a list of exploits achieved by David’s army (David has by now replaced Saul as Israel’s king). Verse 19 tell us: “Then there was another battle with the Philistines at Gob; and Elhanan son of Jaare-oregim, the Bethlehemite, killed Goliath the Gittite, the shaft of whose spear was like a weaver’s beam.”
Odd, no? Consider what the story of David and Goliath tells us: “And there came out from the camp of the Philistines a champion named Goliath of Gath [i.e., a Gittite]…The shaft of his spear was like a weaver’s beam…”
In one story, David – of Bethlehem – kills Goliath of Gath, whose spear was like a weaver’s beam. In another story, one of David’s warriors, also from Bethlehem, kills Goliath of Gath, whose spear was like a weaver’s beam.
What the heck is going on?
Then consider 1 Chronicles 20:5, which is a later version of David’s story: “Again there was war with the Philistines; and Elhanan son of Jair killed Lahmi the brother of Goliath the Gittite, the shaft of whose spear was like a weaver’s beam.”
So did Elhanan kill Goliath or Goliath’s brother Lahmi? Is this the same Goliath David killed?
I don’t have a whole lot of insights to provide here (the issue between Septuagint and Masoretic Text doesn’t help on this one as far as I know). The one thing I can give is something I read in a commentary on this issue. Baruch Halpern, an archaeologist and the chair of Jewish Studies at Penn State, has argued that in the story of David and Goliath, the Philistine originally had no name. He wasn’t Goliath, he was just “the Philistine.” Later, this anonymous Philistine came to be called Goliath, based on the similarity with story of Elhanan. Finally, the writer of 1 Chronicles, writing much later and drawing on these stories that were already well-established, changed Elhanan’s victim to be the brother of Goliath, thus reconciling the problem. This brother’s name – Lahmi – was created simply by using the last few letters of the Hebrew word “Bethlehemite” (“beit-ha’lahmi”), which is found in the earlier Elhanan story from 2 Samuel.
In the end, my dear reader, you may not find all this stuff nearly as fascinating as I do. But I hope, at the very least, it makes you think about things, namely the textual tradition Jewish and Christian scripture comes from. I don’t know about you, but I know I’ll never think of David and Goliath in quite the same way again.