Mysteries of the Bible

"Unanswered Questions of the Bible"

Not With Sword And Spear

Posted by foryourfaith on May 14, 2011

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Saul, the first king of Israel, governed a still-loose confederacy of tribes. David, his successor, was the builder of a nation. The rise of David and the establishment of the Davidic dynasty in Israel was a crucial event in the nation’s history. David’s circuitous path to the throne is recounted, in abundant detail, in the two books of Samuel.

The stories of David, beginning in the 16th chapter of 1 Samuel, contain the seeds of the different traditions that developed around this hero. There are in fact three apparently independent stories about David, each of which introduces him to the reader in a different way.

In the first of the stories (1 Samuel 16:1-13), Samuel anoints David. This shapes the next 20 chapters of the narrative. For though David would not become king of Israel until many years later, when he was anointed by the elders of Israel, this first gesture by Samuel makes David’s kingship inevitable. Indeed, it was God who looked into the heart of the boy David and chose him as king in the place of Saul, whom he had rejected. With such an introduction to David’s story, we read all that follows not so much with a sense of suspense as with a sense of wonder at how god brought him through his adventures and battles, to the fulfillment of his original anointing.

The next two stories give an account of how David became known to Saul and prominent in the royal court. The first of these (1 Samuel 16:14-23) is a continuation of the story that begins with God’s rejection of Saul. Now “an evil spirit from the Lord” tormented the king. Saul’s courtiers suggested hiring a musician to play the lyre to soothe him, and it was David who was recommended. When David entered Saul’s service, the king loved him and made him both his armor bearer in war and his personal musician at home.



The second story is one of the best known in all the Bible – that of David and Goliath. Although it is placed after David has already been introduced as Saul’s musician, the narratives themselves demonstrate that events are not being recounted in sequence. Whereas at the end of the first story Saul has appointed David as his personal attendant, at the end of the second story, Saul doesn’t even recognize him. Yet there is an explanation for this apparent contradiction: the narrators of 1 Samuel knew of two distinct traditions about how David became known to Saul, and they included them both. Not only did they make no attempt to smooth out all the differences between the two, but also they included yet another version, attributing the killing of Goliath not to David but to another man entirely, a Bethlehemite by the name of Elhanan (2 Samuel 21:19).

The story of David defeating Goliath throws light on David’s essential nature, highlighting those characteristics that made him an ideal king. David is a mere youth – the youngest of many brothers – who manifests great personal bravery and valor in the face of overwhelming odds. His bravery, however, is based entirely on trust not in himself and his weapons but in Yahweh, “God of the armies of Israel,” who “saves not with sword an spear.”

In contrast to David, Goliath is an archetypical villain. He embodies the vaulting self-trust and bravado of the warrior. Encased in his 150 pounds of bronze armor, carrying a massive spear, “with javelin of bronze slung between his shoulders” (1 Samuel 17:6), Goliath defies the entire army of Israel and disdains the sticks and stones that David brings against him.

As for Goliath’s famous height, two traditions exist. One, represented by the ancient Greek translation of the Bible and by the Jewish historian Josephus, makes Goliath merely a very tall warrior, 4 cubits and a span – about 6 feet 8 inches. The other, older tradition, makes Goliath truly superhuman. He was 6 cubits and a span, nearly 10 feet tall.



No matter what his exact height, Goliath was such a remarkable figure that numerous legends developed around him. One of them makes an interesting connection back to Naomi and her two Moabite daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah. Ruth, though from the land of Moab, stayed faithfully with Naomi and chose to worship the God o Israel. She became the great-grandmother of David. But what of Orpah who went back to Moab? Legend had it that God rewarded her tears at parting from Naomi by granting that she should be the mother of four giant sons, one of whom was Goliath (2 Samuel 21:15-22). When she returned to Moab, however, she became such a harlot that her son was jeered at as “the son of a hundred fathers and one mother.” Thus David met Goliath, the offspring of the two daughters-in-law stood face to face.

The confrontation is narrated with great dramatic power. Goliath, champion of the Philistines, demanded single combat against a champion of Israel. The enslavement of thousands of Israelites hung in the balance. And David was not even old enough for military service, as emphasized by the fact that he was the youngest of eight brothers, of whom only the three eldest were fighting in the army of Saul. Neither they nor any soldier of Israel dared to meet the challenge, but instead, quaked with fear when they heard Goliath’s taunting roar.

For 40 days the armies remained immobile while the shame of Israel before these unmet challenges grew, until at last the shepherd David, bringing bread and cheese to his brothers in the ranks of Israel, volunteered to meet the giant.

The physical contrast between David and Goliath is as complete and dramatic as possible – a gigantic, armored, professional warrior against a shepherd youth armed with nothing but a sling and five smooth stones. But it is the words that the two exchange before the climactic moment that reveal the meaning of the whole story. While Goliath ridiculed David, with powerful solemnity David proclaimed that the triumph of the God of Israel would arise from David’s triumph, “that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that the Lord saves not with sword and spear; for the battle is the Lord’s and he will give you into our hand” (1 Samuel 17:46-47).

Moments later, David was the victor. His smooth stone was embedded in Goliath’s forehead, and he used Goliath’s own sword to behead the villain.


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