The story of David and Goliath has been recently retold in an interesting essay by Malcolm Gladwell. It is still a tale of bravery, of heroic faith, of the small defeating the large against what appears to be insurmountable odds. But there are a couple of under-appreciated aspects to the story.
In the 11th century BCE, the people of Israel under King Saul were struggling for survival against the dread Philistines. These marauders from the sea had conquered their way along the Valley of Elah, and were on the verge of dividing Israel in two. David was a mere shepherd boy, bringing food to his brothers, and was not even officially in the army. Goliath was a giant who had been taunting the Israelites to send a champion to fight him. David, hearing the taunts, and seeing no one rise to the occasion, begged King Saul to allow him to fight Goliath. Even in the secular culture, the outcome of this contest is widely known.
And the Philistine said to David, “Am I a dog, that you come to me with sticks?” And the Philistine cursed David by his gods. The Philistine said to David, “Come to me, and I will give your flesh to the birds of the air and to the beasts of the field.” Then David said to the Philistine, “You come to me with a sword and with a spear and with a javelin, but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This day the Lord will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you down and cut off your head. And I will give the dead bodies of the host of the Philistines this day to the birds of the air and to the wild beasts of the earth, 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.”
When the Philistine arose and came and drew near to meet David, David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet the Philistine. And David put his hand in his bag and took out a stone and slung it and struck the Philistine on his forehead. The stone sank into his forehead, and he fell on his face to the ground. (from 1 Samuel 17, Holy Bible, English Standard Version)
Traditionally this has seemed almost like a suicide mission. David looks crazy for wanting to do this, and Saul looks even crazier for entrusting the fate of his country to a crazy boy. However, a couple of interesting features are often overlooked.
1. Goliath was weaker than he appeared.
Though he was enormous, and therefore intimidating, certain features of the story indicate that this warrior had acromegaly, a medical problem brought on by a pituitary gland tumor that secretes excessive growth hormone. The pituitary gland sits in the base of the brain, right at the optic chiasm, where nerves from the eyes cross each other on their way to the vision centers at the back of the brain. A tumor here can cause vision loss and double vision. Other symptoms of acromegaly include headaches, weakness, and joint pains.
Goliath was slow, and apparently could not see well. Terrible vision would be an explanation for why he had an armor bearer with him, to lead him around. It explains why he insisted that the opponent come closer. And it might be why he said “why do you come at me with sticks“, when David had only one stick. A pituitary tumor, again, could cause diplopia, or double vision.
As Gladwell observes,
What the Israelites saw, from high on the ridge, was an intimidating giant. In reality, the very thing that gave the giant his size was also the source of his greatest weakness. There is an important lesson in that for battles with all kinds of giants. The powerful and the strong are not always what they seem. (Gladwell, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants. Boston: Little, Brown & Co, 2013)
2. Bringing a gun to a knife fight
Assyrian Slingers at Lachish, from a relief at the British Museum. Photograph by Mike Peel (www.mikepeel.net). Used under Creative Commons 4.0 license.
If Goliath could see better, he might have been a bit more nervous when David approached. Perhaps he would have protested the unfairness of doing battle against a projectile warrior; to twist a line from the old musical “West Side Story”: “Who brings a gun to a knife fight?”
The second major point to consider is to realize that we aren’t talking about a children’s slingshot toy. In fact, the sling David used was a deadly projectile weapon. Sling projectiles could find their target from a distance of 400 meters or more, and strike their target with the force of a bullet. Several ancient sources praise slings and their users for their accuracy and strategic importance.
For example, slingers in the army of Artaxerxes II were crucial in beating back a Greek force in 401 BC:
“we were not a whit more able to injure the enemy, while we had considerable difficulty in beating a retreat ourselves. Thank heaven they did not come upon us in any great force, but were only a handful of men; so that the injury they did us was not large, as it might have been; and at least it has served to show us what we need. At present the enemy shoot and sling beyond our range, so that our Cretan archers are no match for them; our hand-throwers cannot reach as far; and when we pursue, it is not possible to push the pursuit to any great distance from the main body, and within the short distance no foot-soldier, however fleet of foot, could overtake another foot-soldier who has a bow-shot the start of him. If, then, we are to exclude them from all possibility of injuring us as we march, we must get slingers as soon as possible and cavalry. I am told there are in the army some Rhodians, most of whom, they say, know how to sling, and their missile will reach even twice as far as the Persian slings (which, on account of their being loaded with stones as big as one’s fist, have a comparatively short range; but the Rhodians are skilled in the use of leaden bullets)”(Xenophon, Anabasis, book III)
Back to young David, it still required a lot of courage and faith to take on the giant. However, the courage wasn’t idiotic, nor the faith blind. This isn’t a crazy loon getting lucky. David’s faith was informed by reason, even cunning. Our faith similarly should be informed by–not divorced from–reason.
As salesman and motivational speaker Zig Ziglar once put it: “They looked at Goliath, you know, and figured he was too big to hit. David looked at him and knew he was too big to miss. It’s the way you look at things.” (From Zig Ziglar’s Life Story)