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David and Goliath

The story of the fight between David and Goliath is set in the Near East at the very beginning of the Iron Age, about 1000 BCE. Most historians believe that this fight really did happen.

At the time of this story a group of people, who archaeologists call the Sea People but who are called the Philistines in the Bible, were living in the flat coastal plains at the Eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea. Our word Palestine comes from Philistine. One of the main Philistine cities was called Gath, from which we get gauze, a very open-weave type of cloth such as a gauze bandage, and the Gaza Strip. The Israelites were living in the hilly country further inland, but there were lots of border skirmishes between the Philistines and the Israelites.

At this time the Philistines knew how to make iron but the Israelites did not - and the Philistines intended it to stay that way! You can read about this in 1 Sam 13:19. But we know this from other archaeological sources as well, not only from the Bible1.

At many stages in history battles were often decided by a fight between champions. One side could choose just one man, their champion, to fight for them. If the other side also put up a champion the two champions fought until one of them was killed. Otherwise there was an ordinary battle. Even today the Queen chooses a man to be The Queen’s Champion, although I do not think anyone expects him to fight to the death! There is just one problem: you do not have to put up a champion, you can choose to fight an ordinary battle, but if you do choose to put up a champion and he is killed your whole army has to surrender, and at the time of David and Goliath that meant you all became slaves.

Throughout history there has never been any shortage of brave men and women willing to die for their country. In the Book of Maccabees there is a wonderful account of a battle in which one man attacks and kills an elephant single-handed (1 Macc 6:28). But being willing to die was not enough to be chosen as champion: if you were killed everyone from the King downwards had to surrender and become a slave, so no King would let you fight as champion unless he was absolutely certain you would win.

The Philistines put up as their champion a man called Goliath. You can read a description of him in 1 Sam 17:4. We cannot be sure how tall he really was because the word we translate as cubit meant different lengths in different places, as today a US gallon is not the same as a British gallon. So some people think he was nearly three metres tall and others less than two metres. This is actually more likely, because later on (1 Sam 21:9) David takes Goliath’s sword from the tent where it is being kept because he does not have his own sword, and it is hard to imagine a man of normal height choosing to fight with a sword originally made for a man three metres tall!

And this is where so many people, even priests, quite miss the point. This story is set right at the beginning of the Iron Age in the Near East. What was terrifying about Goliath was not that he was big, it was that, although he still had bronze armour and a bronze javelin, he had an iron sword2!

The rest of the story is well-known. David trusts in God and is not afraid of Goliath, but, more importantly, he is able to convince King Saul that he can actually kill Goliath, because he has already killed lions and bears. So King Saul allows him to accept Goliath’s challenge, and of course David kills Goliath by slinging a stone at him and smashing in his skull, and then cutting off his head with his own sword.

Some translations of the Bible, including the Authorised, King James, version say Goliath's armour was made of brass, but this is a mis-translation: brass was not used until nearly a thousand years later, in Roman times. Pictures of Goliath often show him looking like a Roman soldier. But this does not affect the story.

© Barry Gray August 2006 last revised September 2014