The story of King David is an epic narrative following God’s chosen man as he ascends the Israelite throne and struggles with the temptations brought by political power. He provides a steady hand for the Hebrew nation in a period of transition from a tribally-based government to a typical ancient Near Eastern monarchy. A singularly gifted warrior, poet, and ruler, David’s story is one known to everyone with even a passing familiarity with the Bible.
One of David’s earliest achievements is his victory over Goliath (1 Sm 17). Books for all ages, from adult studies down to children’s literature, frequently portray David as an inexperienced shepherd boy. Great European artists often depicted him similarly. Even today, we use the phrase “David and Goliath” when describing two very unevenly matched competitors.
Due to the depiction of David as an inexperienced youth, many people—including some scholars—view David’s victory over Goliath as unbelievable. Thomas Thompson paints the scene negatively when he says, “Little David, of course, cannot move in Saul’s armor or fight with Saul’s sword.”1 Other writers describe David as “a beautiful lad with no military experience, no armor and no weapons to speak of,”2 a “mere youth” and a “delicate little amateur,”3 and a “lowly youth who makes an ideal fairy-tale hero.”4 The next logical step is to dismiss the encounter as pure fiction.
Shepherd Boy or Soldier?
The perception of David as a young boy seems to be influenced by two items mentioned in the book of 1 Samuel. The first occurs when Jesse introduces David’s brothers to the prophet Samuel. The eldest brother Eliab was apparently quite tall—the text states that Samuel finds him impressive. This leads to a reminder that the “LORD looks at the heart” (1 Sm 16:7), not physical stature. Furthermore, the text identifies David as the youngest of the eight, which may leave some readers with the impression that David must have been quite young (but notice Jesse’s age, 1 Sm 17:12). The second item appears when Saul attempts to dissuade David from fighting the Philistine warrior. The king states that David is merely a “youth” or “boy,” while Goliath is an experienced warrior (1 Sm 17:33). We will examine each one in turn.
By the time David arrives on the battlefield, the text indicates that he has already served in the employment of King Saul. When Saul is plagued by an “evil spirit” (1 Sm 16:14), one of the royal servants suggests that David be brought in as a harpist. The servant’s evaluation of David is impressive. He states that David “knows how to play the lyre. He is a brave man (Heb. gibbor, “hero”) and a warrior. He speaks well and is a fine-looking man. And the Lord is with him” (1 Sm 16:18). The author of 1 Samuel previously indicated that Saul wisely sought talented men to serve on his staff (1 Sm 14:52)—specifically those who were strong or valiant men. The description of David seems to match the type of person the king valued and routinely added to his service. Clearly, it would be unthinkable for Saul to add a boy to his staff to serve as a warrior.
The text indicates that David had been serving in Saul’s court as a royal armor-bearer prior to his encounter with Goliath (1 Sm 16:21). An armor-bearer may have been similar to a medieval squire, a knight-in-training of high social standing tasked with carrying a knight’s shield and equipment.5 The Bible indicates that an armor-bearer was a soldier who served on the battlefield (1 Sm 31:4–5) and who could be a dangerous opponent (1 Sm 14:1–15). This detail seems to go overlooked by those who believe that David began his career as a mere youth.
The text indicates on a later occasion that David took food to his brothers on the battlefield (1 Sm 17:17). Some take this to mean that David only served for a short while at the royal court, but spent most of his time as a shepherd. A close reading of the text indicates that the opposite is likely true. David’s service at court was briefly interrupted by periodically returning to his father (1 Sm 17:15), which was then disallowed by Saul later (1 Sm 18:2).
The second item to consider is Saul’s reference to David as a “boy.” This translation is found in virtually all English versions, but it obscures the Hebrew text and leaves an impression contrary to what the author of 1 Samuel no doubt intended. The term translated “boy” is the Hebrew word na`ar (pl. ne`arim), which is often rendered in English translations as “boy,” “lad,” or “youth.” An examination of the contexts in which this term appears quickly reveals that this translation is insufficient. The term may be used of those who are young adults, but is often applied to those who are much older. Men identified as ne`arim include Joseph at age twenty-eight (Gn 41:46), Benjamin when he is approximately thirty and has ten sons (Gn 43:8), Absalom when he is in his mid-thirties (2 Sm 14:21; 18:5), and Ziba when he is likely in his fifties and has 15 sons (2 Sm 9:10). In military contexts in the Hebrew Bible, it is used of armor-bearers in the army (1 Sm 14:6; 2 Sm 18:15), spies (see Jos 6:22–23, where the two spies are called anashim, “men,” as well as ne`arim), and for those serving as executioners (2 Sm 1:15; 4:15).
David the Na`ar
Outside the Bible, the word na`ar often describes a professional soldier. The word appears as a Semitic loanword in Egyptian starting in the New Kingdom period, occurring in the record of the Battle of Kadesh in 1274 BC.6 The text identifies ne`arin (Hebrew ne`arim) as troops who provided vital assistance to Ramesses II on the battlefield.7 The ne`arin prevented the Egyptian army from being overrun and destroyed by their Hittite opponents. Clearly, they could not have been a contingent of teenagers. These men were soldiers serving on foreign soil. It is this term that Saul uses of David prior to the latter’s duel with Goliath.
A significant problem is why Saul would have given David his armor in the first place. It would be foolish for an unusually tall man like Saul (1 Sm 9:2; 10:23) to offer his royal armor to a youngster. Equally telling is the fact that David does not object because the armor does not fit, but rather he has not “tested” it (Heb. nasa; 1 Sm 17:39). David had not practiced with the armor, which required training in order to be used effectively. The fact that Saul even offers the armor to David suggests that he may have been tall enough (and therefore old enough) to use it, but David refused because he did not have adequate training in order to do so.
When read and interpreted properly, the text indicates that David is a grown man and soldier (1 Sm 16:21), which helps to remove his encounter with Goliath from the realm of legend or myth. The Bible indicates that men serving in the Israelite military had to be at least 20 years old (Nm 1:3, 45; 26:2), establishing a terminus a quo for David’s age. He could not have been a teenager and should have been in his twenties at the earliest. But one final question remains: even if David is older and has military experience, what kind of chance would he have stood against a fighter with more experience, superior weaponry, and better armor?
Contrary to what many may assume, David’s victory over Goliath is far from a surprise. The description of the two warriors makes this clear. David has a sling and no armor, but the text implies that this is an advantage rather than a liability. He is depicted as mobile and armed with an incredibly powerful ballistic weapon (not a “slingshot” as it is sometimes described). The sling was a missile weapon used by ancient armies, notably the Assyrians (cf. Jgs 20:15–16; 2 Kgs 3:25; 1 Chr 12:2). A sling stone could be as large as a baseball and weigh well over a pound. As it could be thrown at speeds in excess of 60 miles per hour, a single stone made for a lethal weapon.
Ancient slingers were praised for their accuracy. The Bible mentions that the tribe of Benjamin had seven hundred left-handed slingers who could throw a stone at a hair’s breadth and not miss (Jgs 20:16). This is hardly an exaggerated compliment. The Roman historian Livy referred to ancient slingers from the Peloponnese (southernmost Greece) as extremely skilled. He states, “Having been trained to shoot through rings of moderate circumference from long distances, they would wound not merely the heads of their enemies but any part of the face at which they might have aimed” (History of Rome 38.29.7).
Even if a sling stone struck an opponent’s armor, it still did so with enough force to cause devastating internal damage. The Roman writer Vegetius describes the blunt force trauma that a sling stone could inflict: “smooth stones shot with a sling…are more dangerous than any arrows, since while leaving the limbs intact they inflict a wound that is still lethal, and the enemy dies from the blow of the stone without loss of blood” (Epitoma Rei Militaris 1.16). The ancient physician Celsus noted that sling stones and smaller lead sling bullets could pierce the skin and offered surgical advice for their removal. He described the sling stone or sling bullet as a “weapon that sometimes needs to be removed, a leaden bullet or rock or something similar, which breaking through the skin lodges inside in one piece. In all of these cases, the wound needs to be opened a bit wider, and what is inside must be extracted with pincers along the same pathway by which it entered” (On Medicine 7.5).
Goliath’s depiction is impressive. The biblical author emphasizes the weight of the Philistine’s equipment, which is a key component of his downfall. This description suggests that Goliath is encumbered by the weight of his gear, in contrast to the more agile David. It is unlikely that Goliath possessed any ranged weapons. The word translated “javelin” is a difficult one, and some have proposed this weapon should be understood as a second sword based on an ancient Egyptian depiction of Philistine warriors.8 Unlike David, Goliath’s movement was heavily restricted, and his ability to strike at a distance was limited at best.
The portrait painted by the author of 1 Samuel is of combat between an extremely mobile fighter with ranged weaponry and a second participant with serious limitations with regard to both arms and armament. David did not fight Goliath on the latter’s terms; instead, he possessed the distinct advantages of agility and the ability to strike from a distance. He had no need to engage Goliath in close-quarters combat, where the Philistine would have had an obvious advantage. David almost certainly would have failed had he fought a typical duel as was expected. Instead, he proves himself a skillful and improvisational combatant by fighting “from outside the ring.”9
The battle between David and Goliath is neither myth nor fiction. The account does not include any details that suggest it should be interpreted as such. When all of the data is taken into account, we see that David did not face impossible odds; in fact, he was much more evenly matched with Goliath than many assume. David was already serving as a royal armor-bearer, making him an experienced soldier. His selection of weapons was unconventional, but this alone is not enough to suggest that the account of the battle should be dismissed as a fairy tale or legend. Indeed, in addition to demonstrating his great faith in God, it is an indication of his strength as a tactician, which would later serve him well as a military commander, guerilla fighter, and king.
1 Thomas Thompson, The Messiah Myth: The Near Eastern Roots of Jesus and David (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2005), 304.
2 Azzan Yadin, “Goliath’s Armor and Israelite Collective Memory,” in Vetus Testamentum 53 (2004), 394.
3 Baruch Halpern, David’s Secret Demons: Messiah, Murderer, Traitor, King (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010), 10.
4 Alexander Rofé, “The Battle of David and Goliath: Folklore, Theology, Eschatology,” in Judaic Perspectives on Ancient Israel, ed. Jacob Neuser, Baruch A. Levine, and Ernest S.Frerichs (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1987), 117.
5 John Macdonald, “The Status and Role of the Na`ar in Israelite Society,” in Journal of Near Eastern Studies 35 (1976), 169–70.
6 Kenneth Kitchen, “The Battle of Qadesh—The Poem, or Literary Record (2.5a),” in The Context of Scripture, Volume II: Monumental Inscriptions from the Biblical World of the CoS, series ed. William W. Hallo and K. Lawson Younger (Leiden: Brill, 2000), 32–38.
7 Immanuel Velikovsky, Ages in Chaos: Vol. II: Rameses II and His Time (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1978), 43.
8 Jeffrey Zorn, “Reconsidering Goliath: An Iron Age I Philistine Chariot Warrior,” in Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 360 (2010), 10.
9 Halpern, 2010, pp. 12–13.
This article was originally published in the Fall 2019 issue of Bible and Spade magazine.
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