Saul’s army cowers in fear before the taunts and insults of the Philistines more specifically a giant named Goliath. Let’s open our Bibles and read chapter 17, which contains one of the most well known and often told stories enjoyed by children and adults. Now I know that this is a very long chapter, but it’s important that we read it from beginning to end to not lose any context.
Depending on which Bible translation you are using, you may find that this chapter does not contain several verses; and as a result, the verse numbers will be different and fewer. I’ll explain that situation right after we read chapter 17.
Read 1 Samuel 17.
This chapter is somewhat controversial, and the nature of the controversy is best demonstrated when we notice that the Greek Septuagint’s version of this chapter lacks nearly half of the verses found in the Hebrew Masoretic Text version. Specifically, the Septuagint does not include verses 12-31, or verses 41, 48, 50, and 55-58. There are many academic speculations on this conundrum.
- One is that the Septuagint is correct, and someone later added verses to the Masoretic Text.
- Another is that the Masoretic Text is correct and several verses were omitted (for some unknown reason) from the Septuagint. Whichever is factual, the REASON for such a discrepancy is also disputed?
- Some say that this story of David and Goliath is a somewhat sloppy blending of two separate traditions about this incident into one.
- Others say that it is not a blending of two cultures, but instead, it is that the Septuagint (that is the oldest extant version of the Holy Scriptures in existence, even older than the Dead Sea Scrolls) and represents one tradition. And the Masoretic Text (the Hebrew Bible from the 9th or 10th centuries A.D.) is a newer and different tradition.
From a theological standpoint, there is no disagreement that the lack of, or addition of these verses causes any problem. Mostly it’s just about some extended details surrounding the confrontation between the Israelites and the Philistines and who was there. When present these verses add to the color of the story; when missing no context or valuable information is lost.
That said, at the end of this story the presence of verses 55-58 are troublesome and seems to be inconsistent with earlier parts of the story. It may merely be a storytelling style that confuses, or it is that some later editor added these verses for some unknown reason. We’ll deal specifically with those verses when we get to them.
The first few verses of chapter 17 set the scene for the battle between David and Goliath. It seems that the ever-present Philistines had again gathered their strength and (probably emboldened by the knowledge that Saul was a king in decline and susceptible to irrational behavior) moved into Israelite territory.
Since their territory was contiguous to the southern and central tribal areas of Canaan, it’s no surprise that we find them setting up battle lines in Judah.
The place the Philistines chose was strategically important. The Valley of Elah (elah means an Oak tree or Terebinth). Now, this was a natural highway through the hill country of Judah, proceeding through the coastal plains of Canaan, the Shephelah, from the Philistine homeland. If the Philistines could control this valley, they could move large amounts of troops and supplies rather quickly (something that Israel just couldn’t allow to happen).
The two cities or villages of Socoh and Azekah were listed in the book of Joshua as being located in the lowlands of Judah, so the modern day village of Khirbet Shuwiekeh is almost certainly the right location. It is a popular tourist destination for pilgrims to Israel. The valley there is broad, flat and almost like a plain between two mountain ranges, with a river bed that flows more or less through its center like a stripe running along the back of a snake.
The valley plain separated the two armies: the Philistines occupying the hills on one side, Saul’s militia army on the other. Each team was sizing up the other, and neither was too sure of what the outcome might be if a battle broke out.
Something needed to happen to break the paralysis of the situation, so suddenly a giant of a man emerges from the Philistine camp, and he begins shouting challenges at the trembling Israelite soldiers. The giant’s name was Golyat (Goliath) who hailed from Gath, one of the famous 5 Philistine stronghold cities together known in scholarly circles as the Pentapolis.
This man was enormously tall. The Hebrew texts say he was six cubits plus a span. A cubit is about 18 inches, and a span about 9 inches (which approximates the distance from the tip of the thumb to the tip of the little finger of a spread hand). Thus if the calculation is correct, Goliath stood 9 feet 9 inches tall.
This height was just too extreme for some early Hebrew scholars in Alexandria, Egypt to accept so they arbitrarily lowered the number to 4 cubits plus a span, which then makes Goliath a more believable (at least to them) 6 feet 9 inches. These were the scholars who (around 250 BC) translated the Hebrew Bible into Greek and created the Septuagint. So if your Bible has the measurement of 4 cubits, then your translation follows the English rendition of the Septuagint.
In an era when the average height of a man hovered around 5 feet, a man almost 7 feet tall indeed was a giant. But there is no reason for us to accept that lower number. There are many reliable historical records of men who grew to Goliath’s height and even a bit more.
Philo and Josephus both have recorded the existence of men in their time that they knew of and were well over 9 feet tall. We have records of a man named John Middleton who lived during the 1600’s near Liverpool, England and he was reported to be about 9 and one-half feet tall, and a German fellow called the uncle of Iren who lived in the middle 1800’s who was said to be slightly over 10 feet tall.
The thing is that the city of Gath was primarily known as a place where remnants of that race of giants called the Anakim lived (not fee-fie-foe-fum giants, merely very tall men who were fierce and fearsome warriors).
NKJV Joshua 11:22
None of the Anakim were left in the land of the children of Israel; they remained only in Gaza, in Gath, and in Ashdod.
In other words, at this time the only known remaining Anakim were living amongst the Philistines, so it would have come as no great surprise to the Israelites to run into one of them here at the Valley of Elah. However, just the sight of this enormous human being kept the Israelite soldiers hiding among the rocks and clinging to them for protection like Geckos.
In order to give us the visual impact that Goliath had on Saul’s soldiers, the Bible says that he wore a bronze helmet on that massive noggin’, and he also wore a particular kind of bronze armor that alone weighed well over 100 pounds. The armor more precisely defined as scale-armor, created like shingles on a roof; individual bronze plates overlapped the ones next to them to keep out arrows and the blows of swords.
Now, this is as opposed to what later came to be called a suit of mail, which was small bronze loops strung tightly together that permitted body armor with more flexibility and considerably less weight. We have a pretty good idea of what Goliath’s scale-armor looked like because we see the Assyrians charioteers wearing the same thing.
His weapons weren’t advanced; they were just scary-huge. The wooden shaft of his spear is said to be the size of a weaver’s beam (a beam used to construct a loom), and the iron spearhead alone weighed 15 pounds. Who could carry such an implement of war, let alone throw it for any distance?
He also wore protective anklets and carried a scimitar slung across his back. A scimitar is a curved sword with the sharp edge located along the outside of the curve. And this in time became a very traditional weapon used in the Orient.
Thus we find that except for his face, Goliath’s entire body protected. The point is that from a purely physical, earthly standpoint some puny 5-foot tall Israelite soldier could not possibly beat this man. He had every advantage, size, strength, iron weapons, and confidence.
So Goliath came out into the valley plain and called up to the shivering Israelites. He asked them (more or less rhetorically) if they WANTED to come out and fight the Philistines. After all, while Goliath is a professional soldier in the professional and experienced Philistine army, he points out that they are just “slaves” of King Saul. In other words, they are not trained warriors, and they are not being paid for their services. They are Hebrew farmers, herdsmen, tradesmen and merchants for the most part.
So Goliath gives them an alternative that was fairly usual (generally since warfare itself has existed). He says why not make it a battle of one Philistine (himself) against one Israelite: a battle of surrogates, their best man against the Hebrews’ best man.
The bargain was that only one soldier need lose his life and the army of the defeated soldier side would voluntarily submit to the winning Champion. Obviously, Goliath was not only somewhat sure that no one would challenge him, but also that if anyone were foolish enough to volunteer the encounter would be a short one.
As verse 11 explains, there were no takers. The mere thought of it frightened the Israelite troops all the more (which was Goliath’s intent). Of course, even if Goliath weren’t there, the Israelites knew they were at a disadvantage because the Philistines were an overwhelming military force with the most advanced iron weaponry and the most significant contingent of Chariots known in that era. From all human aspects, the defeat of Israel was inevitable.
Here at verse 12 begins about 20 consecutive verses that are the bulk of the ones excluded from the Septuagint. We immediately run into a term that we’ve confronted before, “Efrati” (Ephrathite). We’ve seen it in many forms such as, “Efrath of Judah,” and “Ephratah of Bethlehem.”
The term seems to indicate a class of people more than a family or a clan, and they are well to do. Another way to say it is, “the fruitful.” Apparently, this kind of class identification fits Jesse’s family, including David (Jesse’s youngest). Here we again see the issue of how many sons Jesse has popped up, as it says that there were eight but in other passages, it states 7.
Jesse is said to be an old man, which means that his eldest sons were probably in late middle age. Saying Jesse was advanced in years is not just a throwaway statement; its here to explain why he wasn’t present for the battle (he had reached an age whereby he was exempt from military commitments).
So here we find that David’s brothers Eliab, Abinadab, and Shammah were all present to face the Philistines as Jesse’s family contribution to the war effort. We don’t know David’s age at this time, but he was a man and not a child. Likely he was in his late teens. David still seemed to be in charge of his father’s sheep, and so he would tend to the flocks for a time, and then he’d go to King Saul (probably when summoned) to perform his official duties as the court musician.
Verse 16 supplies the information that every day for 40 days Goliath climbed down to the valley between the two forces and shouted his challenge to the non-responsive Israelite soldiers for 40 days.
We should pay attention to the number of days being 40 as the number 40 holds particular significance in the Bible. There are at least ten instances in the Old Testament and New Testament where the number 40 occurs, either in years or days. For example;
- It rained for 40 days and 40 nights.
- Moses was on the mountain for 40 days, and 40 nights,
- The Israelites wandered 40 years.
- Yeshua (Jesus) fasted in the wilderness for 40 days and seen on the earth for 40 days after His crucifixion.
A 40-something time (whether that “something” is days, months, or years) is ALWAYS a period of testing, trial, probation, or chastisement (but not judgment) and ends with a time of transition, restoration, revival or renewal.
The number 40 represents a pattern in the Bible and shows us that God is consistent, so the meaning of a numeral in Genesis remains the same all the way to the book of Revelation. Sometimes the spiritual significance is not revealed directly, but in the case of “40” and its many examples throughout the Bible, we can be confident of its importance and significance, and it’s of course no different in the story of David and Goliath.
We’ll continue with this story in my next blog post.