David’s battle with Goliath is among the Hebrew Bible’s best known stories. Even in 21st-century America, where biblical references no longer inform much speech or writing, the image of the scrappy young shepherd defeating the lumbering Philistine giant has not lost its grip—perhaps because of the deep-seated American fondness for underdogs.
But this biblical episode, which occurs about midway through the first book of Samuel, is more than an exciting tale. It marks the first public appearance of David, founder of the dynasty that will rule Judea until its destruction and one of ancient literature’s most complex and fascinating characters. By reading the story in its context, we can better grasp the message it conveys. Among other distinctions, that message is intriguingly different from the one in the book of Exodus, now being read as part of the annual Torah cycle in synagogues around the world. It also has nothing to do with David-as-underdog, let alone with the inverse, anti-Israel message being purveyed by supporters of the Middle East’s latest claimants to that title.
The story of David and Goliath, one element in a larger narrative about David and his predecessor, King Saul, marks the climax of David’s transition from youthful shepherd to valiant warrior and eventual claimant of the throne. The narrative begins with the Israelite people’s approach to the aging Samuel, who has served as prophet and judge of Israel for most of his life, demanding that he appoint a king to rule over them. Reluctantly acquiescing, Samuel chooses Saul, who appears from the get-go to possess all of the appropriate qualities: the son of “a mighty man of valor, . . . the most handsome of the children of Israel, taller than those around him from his shoulder and upward” (I Samuel 9:1–2). At a public assembly, his majesty visible to all, the people happily accept him as their ruler.
Yet Saul, whose very selection has been a concession to an insecure populace, proves more attentive to the people who demanded a king than to divine commands. Twice he defies God’s will in response to Israelite pressure. Finally Samuel tells Saul that he has been rejected and that God “hath sought a man after His own heart” to replace him. Thus begins a period of ambiguity, with Saul continuing to act as king even as another will secretly enjoy the status of God’s anointed one.
In the next chapter, God tells Samuel to go “to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided Me a king among his sons.” There are seven of them, the text declares. Immediately after laying eyes on the eldest, Eliav, Samuel declares him God’s anointed, only for God to correct him: “Look not on his countenance, or on the height of his stature; because I have rejected him; for it is not as man seeth: for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart” (16:7).
The same occurs with the next six sons, none of whom is confirmed by God. Realizing that something is amiss, Samuel asks if there are no others present. At last the eighth, not important enough in the eyes of his relatives to be mentioned until now, enters the scene. As in the case of Saul, we receive a physical description, but this one is different. Nothing is said about David’s height. (His father describes him as “little,” but the term probably refers to his age.) Instead, we are told he is ruddy, an adjective associated with Esau, the rejected son of Isaac, and that he has beautiful eyes and a pleasant appearance, characteristics usually reserved in the Bible for women and effeminate men.
Nevertheless, God informs Samuel that this one will be king. Why, we are not told—yet, as soon as he is anointed, God’s spirit rest upon him and departs from Saul (16:13–14). And this signals a major reversal with regard to the monarchy, whose legitimacy till now has stemmed from the people’s demand for a king. Now it stems from God’s selection of a man “after His own heart”: a change not just of ruler, but of regime.
Already in this brief backstory we’ve received many essential clues to the deeper meaning of David’s selection. Key episodes in the unfolding narrative, especially the early encounter with Goliath, will fill out the picture with regard to his essential character and God’s purpose in choosing him.
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Soon after his anointing, the Philistines mass for war against the Israelites. With the opposing armies encamped face to face, the Philistine champion Goliath presents a challenge: let one Israelite step forward and engage him in single combat, and the winner’s side can claim victory. No Israelite is brave enough to accept. Forty days go by; Goliath’s challenge is repeated daily, and each day it goes unanswered.
Little wonder. In our first encounter with Goliath, we are apprised of his great height and given an exceptionally long and detailed account of his arms and armor. Instead of an ordinary shield, he is protected by a gigantic one, taller than a man and so heavy as to require an attendant to carry it. As for his armaments—bronze helmet, breastplate, greaves, sword, and javelin—they are reminiscent of nothing so much as the equipment worn by the champions of Greek epic, who (like Paris and Hector in the Iliad) are also given to issuing ferocious challenges to their trembling foes. Goliath’s appearance alone—think of a Bronze Age tank—is sufficient to paralyze Saul and the Israelite forces.
And now David arrives at the Israelite camp bringing a care-package from his father to his three eldest brothers. Here is the scene that greets him:
As he talked with [his brothers], behold, there came up the champion, the Philistine of Gath, Goliath by name, out of the armies of the Philistines, and spake according to the same words [as on previous days], and David heard them. And all the men of Israel, when they saw the man, fled from him, and were sore afraid. And the men of Israel said, “Have ye seen this man that is come up?” (17:23-25)
Note that the men of Israel flee when they see the Philistine, but what David hears are Goliath’s insults. Learning of the prize that Saul has placed on Goliath’s head, he responds with a rhetorical counterattack, trying to boost Israelite morale. “What shall be done,” he asks the men around him, “to the man that killeth this Philistine, and taketh away the taunt from Israel? For who is this uncircumcised Philistine, that he should have taunted the armies of the living God?” (17:26).
“This Philistine,” “that uncircumcised Philistine”: the words ring with contempt. Where Goliath had earlier mocked the Israelites as “slaves to Saul,” David reminds them that they are instead “the armies of the living God.” By allowing this heathen of no consequence to humiliate them, they are shaming God Himself.
David immediately volunteers to fight Goliath. But Saul takes one look at the inexperienced young shepherd standing before him, concludes that he cannot possibly prevail against the fearsome giant, and rejects his proposal out of hand. David, unable for reasons of prudence to divulge the true source of his confidence—namely, that God has chosen him to succeed Saul—attempts to rebut the king’s arguments.
To the charge that he is too young, David replies that he indeed has had battle experience: he killed a lion and a bear that threatened his flock. This may also bring to mind the tales of classical Greek heroes—in this case Hercules, who vanquished the Nemean lion and wore its hide as a sign of his triumph. But David’s fight with the lion and bear occurs only, as it were, offstage and on his own report; nor has he appeared on the battlefield draped in the spoils. Instead of flaunting his prowess visually, he shows his cards verbally and only when necessary, reiterating that, however formidable Goliath seems to Saul and the others, the Philistine’s declaration of war against God must not go unheeded.
Eliciting no response from the king, David presses his trump card: “The Lord that delivered me out of the paw of the lion, and out of the paw of the bear, He will deliver me out of the hand of this Philistine.” The invocation of God’s name finally persuades Saul that the boy is acting out of the right motives and may even have a chance of winning. He equips David with his own armor and weaponry, which are strikingly similar to Goliath’s: bronze helmet, body armor, and sword. (Divine assistance or not, Saul evidently puts a high premium on personal protection.) But David soon discovers that they are too heavy, and removes them. Significantly, the Hebrew verb describing this action shares the same root as the verb describing the departure of God’s spirit from Saul.
Instead of Saul’s regalia, David arms himself with a shepherd’s accoutrements: smooth stones, a sling, and a stave. He conceals the stones in a bag and carries the sling, a mere leather strap, inconspicuously in his hand. Only the stave is in plain view. Thus equipped with the flimsiest of weapons, he goes out to battle Goliath’s mobile fortress.
Under ordinary circumstances, Goliath would no doubt have conducted the battle in a Greek-like manner: first throwing the javelin from behind the shelter of his shield, then approaching David carefully with sword at the ready. In order to render the giant vulnerable, David must turn his own weaknesses into strengths by neutralizing those two main advantages while positioning himself within his sling’s ideal striking distance. This he effectuates by deception.
First, by keeping the stones hidden and displaying the stave prominently, he causes Goliath to assume that the latter is his primary weapon. Next, he responds to Goliath’s pre-battle harangue with a speech giving the impression that he relies mainly on supernatural assistance, thereby tempting the giant into laying aside both javelin and shield in favor of hand-to-hand combat. While moving toward his opponent, Goliath is left exposed, and at this moment David pulls out a stone and slings it into Goliath’s forehead. The stone stuns the giant; David runs up, dispatches him with his own sword, and cuts off his head. David’s heroism is plain for all to see.
This is not merely a story of the triumph of smarts over brute strength; it is a story about two basically different worldviews. Goliath, whose main asset is his fearsome appearance, is not one to look beyond the obvious. Saul, who himself benefits from his looks, sees things similarly, and so do the Israelites. David, by contrast, is accustomed to being underestimated—by his father, by his brothers, by Samuel, and by the king—and perhaps for that reason is able to see beyond appearances. And now he also knows that God has chosen him. Rather than being intimidated into submission by Goliath, he coolly analyzes the giant’s defenses, ascertains his weaknesses, and, presenting himself as a harmless shepherd boy, turns Goliath’s misperception to his advantage.
This tension between appearance and reality lies at the heart of the entire story. Here are the words with which Samuel had earlier introduced Saul to the people: “See ye whom the Lord has chosen, that there is none like him among all the people” (10:24). Saul looks fit to be a king, just as Goliath looks like a mighty warrior. But for Saul, as for Goliath, what you see is what you get, and all you get. Indeed, the verb see is used again and again throughout the narrative to highlight a superseded worldview.
David—the young, pretty shepherd—looks like neither king nor warrior, but turns out to be both. Here, once more, is God’s caution to Samuel after the prophet mistakenly attempts to anoint the royal-looking Eliav:
Look not on his countenance, or on the height of his stature; because I have rejected him; for it is not as man seeth: for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart.
Not only does the Lord “look on the heart” of a man, but, as Samuel informs the rejected Saul, He has “sought a man after His own heart.” That is David, who from his very first step onto the battlefield “hears” what others only “see” and knows how to get beyond appearances to the real. David perceives the war as not merely, or even primarily, taking place on the manifest level of reality—Israelites versus Philistine giant—but rather on a plane where the armies of Israel are the armies of the living God. While he may at first come across as cocky, it soon becomes clear that his is a confidence born of deep insight, combined with deep trust. He is not merely looking past the obvious, but looking past it to see the will of God, and acting accordingly.
David’s victory is thus due to his faith in God. But God here is no deus ex machina who steps in from time to time to manipulate the course of history. Unlike in Joshua’s battle with the Amorites, the sun does not stand still to extend David’s victory. Nor are there outward signs of divine aid as in the deliverance of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt or as when, later in the book of Exodus, Moses at God’s command raises his hands to ensure Israelite victory in the battle with the Amalekites. Nor does David pray to God for help before the duel.
In this story, God is a constant, unseen presence, and faith in Him is a matter not so much of revelation and miraculous intervention than of proper conduct in circumstances where there is no manifest proof of God’s will. Armed with that view, David succeeds.
When thinking about world conditions today, and in particular about the real sources of Israel’s strength as a nation, careful readers of the David and Goliath story might do well to bear in mind its central message: things are not always as they are seen, or as others wish us to see them.