Tuesday, September 30, 2008

I Samuel 17

I Samuel 17: David and Goliath


This is one of the more famous stories in the Bible—at least, the highlights of it—but some of the details may not be so well known. So, as with any passage that I blog about, if you’re reading this (and you’re not me), read the passage first, before you even bother reading this blog post.

The Philistines and Israelites gather together their forces for war. They each occupy one hill, with a valley in between them. But they don’t just start fighting; instead, there is a man from the Philistine camp, named Goliath, who comes out every morning, and challenges the Israelites. If the Israelites choose a man to come and fight Goliath, then it will be a winner-take-all battle: If the Israelite wins, the Philistines will be subject to the Israelites, but if Goliath wins, then the Israelites will be subject to the Philistines.

However, the Israelites are hesitating to send someone to fight Goliath, and with good reason.

A champion named Goliath, who was from Gath, came out of the Philistine camp. He was over [three metres] tall. He had a bronze helmet on his head and wore a coat of scale armor of bronze weighing [fifty-seven kilograms]; on his legs he wore bronze greaves, and a bronze javelin was slung on his back. His spear shaft was like a weaver’s rod, and its iron point weighed [seven kilograms]. His shield bearer went ahead of him. (verses 4–7—I’ve replaced the measurements from the text with metric measurements (from the NIV footnotes)

This terrifies the Israelites. And every day, for forty days, Goliath steps out and issues his challenge to the Israelites.

While this is happening, David is still serving Saul, and David’s three older brothers (Eliab, Abinadab, and Shammah) are in Saul’s army. But David isn’t serving Saul full time; he’s actually going back and forth between serving Saul and tending to his father’s sheep. One day—presumably the fortieth or forty-first day of Goliath’s challenge—David comes back to the Israelite camp, and goes to meet his brothers, but as he’s talking with them, Goliath comes out to issue his usual challenge. When this happens, all of the Israelites run from him in fear.

David talks to some of the Israelites, and is told that if an Israelite defeats Goliath, King Saul will give him wealth, exempt his father’s household from taxes, and give him his daughter in marriage. But Eliab isn’t happy to hear that David is talking with the men:

When Eliab, David’s oldest brother, heard him speaking with the men, he burned with anger at him and asked, “Why have you come down here? And with whom did you leave those few sheep in the desert? I know how conceited you are and how wicked your heart is; you came down only to watch the battle.”

“Now what have I done?” said David. “Can’t I even speak?” He then turned away to someone else and brought up the same matter, and the men answered him as before.

(verses 28–30)

Word of David’s conversation gets back to Saul, and Saul sends for him. And David tells Saul not to lose heart: David will go and fight Goliath. Not surprisingly, Saul isn’t that relieved; David is only a boy, whereas Goliath is a soldier, and has been a “fighting man” since his youth (verse 33). But David is able to convince him:

But David said to Saul, “Your servant has been keeping his father’s sheep. When a lion or a bear came and carried off a sheep from the flock, I went after it, struck it and rescued the sheep from its mouth. When it turned on me, I seized it by its hair, struck it and killed it. Your servant has killed both the lion and the bear; this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them, because he has defied the armies of the living God. The LORD who delivered me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine.”

Saul said to David, “Go, and the LORD be with you.”

(verses 34–37)

So, to prepare David for his battle, they dress him in Saul’s tunic, some armour, and strap a sword on him. But when he tries walking around, he realizes that he’s just not used to it all, so he takes it off. He grabs his staff, five smooth stones from a stream, and approaches Goliath.

Meanwhile, the Philistine, with his shield bearer in front of him, kept coming closer to David. He looked David over and saw that he was only a boy, ruddy and handsome, and he despised him. He said to David, “Am I a dog, that you come at me with sticks?” And the Philistine cursed David by his gods. “Come here,” he said, “and I’ll give your flesh to the birds of the air and the beasts of the field!”

David said to the Philistine, “You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the LORD Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This day the LORD will hand you over to me, and I’ll strike you down and cut off your head. Today I will give the carcasses of the Philistine army to the birds of the air and the beasts of the earth, and the whole world will know that there is a God in Israel. All those gathered here will know that it is not by sword or spear that the LORD saves; for the battle is the LORD’s, and he will give all of you into our hands.”

(verses 41–47)

As Saul watches David approaching Goliath, he turns to Abner, and asks him who David’s father is, but Abner doesn’t know. He promises to find out, although, as we’ll see later, he doesn’t have to.

We all know what happens next: As Goliath moves forward, David rushes toward him and slings a stone at him, which sinks right into his forehead. Goliath falls faced0wn, and David comes and cuts his head off with Goliath’s own sword. When the Philistines see what has happened, they turn and run, and the Israelites pursue them. They then return and plunder the Philistine camp. David takes Goliath’s head and brings it to Jerusalem, and he brings Goliath’s weapons to his own tent.

After all of the action, Abner brings David before Saul, and Saul asks David who is father is. David tells Saul that he’s Jesse’s son.


The idea of having two men fight out the battle, instead of the whole armies, was not unheard of in that day and time. The idea is that the men are really just proxies for the battle between the gods of the two nations; if the Philistine won, it would mean that the god of the Philistines was more powerful than the god of the other nation, and vice versa. Which works out very nicely in this particular instance, because obviously the LORD God Almighty is all-powerful, and the god(s) of the Philistines were no gods at all.

I’m not sure why Saul has to ask David who his father is; I’m especially confused because Saul should already know—he asked Jesse in the last passage for permission to keep David in his service. It may be that there are so many people in Saul’s service that Saul can’t keep track of them all, even David. Or it may be that the seeds of Saul’s jealousy of David are already forming. But we’ll read more about that in the next passage.

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