I was reading an article previewing this year’s NBA finals where the match up between Stephen Curry and LeBron James was described as a David and Goliath affair. David and Goliath is seen as the quintessential underdog story. I remember as a child hearing that story and it capturing my imagination. You read a children’s Bible and you see a handsome, tanned, white kid taking on a scary, super-sized, bearded, middle-eastern looking man. Defeating this fearsome foe with only a slingshot all made for a great story as a kid. As we know and I have already mentioned, popular conceptions of things in the Bible can sometimes be badly skewed to fit our cultural biases and contemporary expectations. Let’s go beyond the Sunday school imagery and gain a better understanding of what really went on.
The first issue I wish to address is height. There are some textual issues between the Septuagint (the ancient Greek Old Testament) and the Masoretic Text (the Hebrew Old Testament of Rabbinic Judaism.) There are variations between the texts regarding Goliath’s height (1 Samuel 17:4) and translation difficulties as to even who defeated him (2 Samuel 2:15-22.) These challenges will not affect our discussion. With the height I will side with textual critics who favour the Septuagint’s record of his height which is about 2.06 metres (6 feet 9 inches) give or take. Now it was said in the Bible that Goliath and his brothers were descended from giants. Of course the Bible did not mean Jack and the Bean Stalk or The BFG sized creatures. Even by today’s standards Goliath was exceptionally tall and above the average height of NBA players which is 2.01 meters (6 feet 7 inches.) He was admittedly very tall the yet Bible’s description of his kind, associating him with giants, gives us the impression there was something monstrous about them. To appreciate this we need to look at the stature of his adversaries, the Israelites.
Much is made of Goliath’s height but little is said of David’s. The obvious reason is that the account is written from an Israelite perspective. As far as they were concerned they were the norm. It means David himself was also average since there was nothing remarkable about him except his youth and not being battle worn. Archaeological remains firmly put the average male Semite height at 1.55 metres (5 feet 1 inch.) Even today Jewish people are not generally known for their height with some notable exceptions.
With these heights in mind you can imagine why Goliath was such a fearsome opponent. For basketball fans setting Curry on James to guard him is an obvious mismatch. Now imagine giving the job to someone probably smaller than Muggsy Bogues. Below is a picture to show the kind of scale we are dealing with popular comedian Kevin Hart and one of the NBAs greatest players LeBron James. It is no surprise that the Israelite army was terrified of this extraordinarily large elite warrior.
Knowing these facts about height in that period also helps us understand other references to height in the Bible. Zacchaeus climbing a Sycamore tree to see Jesus probably meant he was shorter than the average population. (I imagine someone the size of Danny DeVito here.) When it comes to Jesus himself since we know there was nothing particularly remarkable about his appearance we can assume he was about average. (Given his profession he might have been bulkier than the average person.) There is a popular song of praise in Ghana in Akan which has the following line,
Yesu ee anka metumi a mɛma wo so oo
It roughly means if the worshipper had the opportunity they would hoist Jesus up in profound gratitude and raucous celebration. The song goes with a signature dance move which involves imitating carrying someone on your back. Given the average height and also the average weight which was just under 50 kilogrammes (110 pounds) I find it amusing that we could literally carry Jesus. What a contradiction to the common “white Jesus” who often looks like a Scandinavian. Jesus the size of comic book Wolverine and not movie Wolverine, Hugh Jackman, just does not appeal to our sensibilities.
Stature is obviously an issue in warfare since a more physically imposing opponent is harder to defeat. Even in modern day boxing there are weight classes. When the Israelites sent spies in to Canaanite land in that infamous incident, they reported they were like grasshoppers before the natives (Numbers 13.) The biblical record associates Goliath and his brothers with those earlier “giants.” Even though it is popular sermon trope to not see yourself as the grasshopper, contextually it is beside the point. They were giving a military reconnaissance report. The enemy was physically superior and had important strategic advantages.
Like his ancestors Goliath had a unique physique and no Israelite dared imagine they could defeat him in single combat, except David. David had strong theological reasons why he thought he could defeat him but those are to be discussed in another post (1 Samuel 17.) When he had convinced King Saul to let him do battle he lent him his armour. The scriptures tell us David was not comfortable in them. We must remember that Saul was described as “head and shoulders” taller than anyone else. This would put him at about a good 30 centimetres taller than the average person putting him at about 6 feet 1 inch. (To think I am about the same height as Saul is nice.) Yet the king of Israel was still no physical match for the Philistine and David could certainly not fit in the king’s oversized armour.
David’s weapon of choice was the sling. Sometimes artists imagine it as a little catapult like device. I found it truly fantastic how he could have won with such a dinky little weapon against Goliath’s arsenal. The Philistine champion was not amused by it as well. Why did David choose such a weapon?
On Game of Thrones there is a fight between Oberyn Martell and Gregor “the Mountain” Clegane. The actor who plays the Mountain (an apt nickname I might add), Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson, is actually the same height as Goliath, weighing in at 180 kilogrammes (about 400 pounds) and is an elite world strongman competitor. The character as he is portrayed on the hit show is a very good approximation of Goliath and that’s absolutely terrifying! For reference the actor who plays Oberyn Martell is 1.80 metres tall which is about 5 feet 11 inches. He uses a long spear because the reach of his opponent, who also carried a very large heavy broad sword, was far greater than his. The spear is also a much lighter weapon which would enable him to move quickly in battling a larger opponent. The same reasoning applies to the sling.
Now the sling was a popular weapon used in ancient warfare up to the 17th century. It was a lightweight weight that was easy to construct. Even in David’s time it was accurate within ranges of 250 metres (about 273 yards.) In fact there was a lethal sling shot corps in biblical times who had sniper like accuracy (Judges 20:16; 1 Chronicles 12:1.) What happened with David was not a “lucky shot” or somehow the wind of the Spirit helped it on its way. It was a specialty weapon that involved high levels of skill to master. The sling is also used as a wilderness survival tool. It is no surprise, given David’s occupation as a shepherd in the wilderness, that he was very comfortable with the weapon and it is plausible that he was able to defeat large wild predators with it.
There is more to the story of David than meets the 21st century eye. This piece again demonstrates that we need to make sure we understand the text in its proper historical setting. Our study of scripture needs to be sophisticated enough to draw on all the considerable resources we have today to better understand the word of God. Most importantly it will help us ensure we do not conform the Bible to our world but rather have our imaginations transformed by his word.