David: The Man, The Myths … The Truth

Reading Time: 9 minutes

If you went to church as a child, you’ve probably heard the traditional Sunday School version of David and Goliath. If not, it goes something like this…

The Israelite army was being challenged by a giant named Goliath. All of the soldiers were terrified of Goliath and no one would step up to fight him. Then, David, a young boy around 12 years old came to visit his brothers, heard about Goliath and got mad! David volunteered to fight the giant and everyone thought he was crazy! Saul finally agreed and offered David his armor, which was much too big for the boy. David looked like a little boy wearing his Dad’s t-shirt. So, he took the armor off and went to face the giant with his little slingshot and miraculously hit Goliath between his eyes and killed him. The moral of the story? You are never too small to be used by God!

It’s a great story, but is it really what the Bible describes? Well, not quite. Unfortunately, the Sunday School version, as well as the story that is portrayed on many children’s cartoons, takes a lot of poetic license. 

Anointed to be King

The first time David enters Israel’s story is in 1 Samuel 16. In this chapter, the prophet Samuel has followed God’s instructions and traveled to Bethlehem to anoint one of Jesse’s sons to be the next king. God told Samuel to set up a sacrifice so that he would not have to tell the people the primary reason for his visit. Jesse and his sons are consecrated and invited to attend the sacrifice and, upon their arrival, Samuel assumes that David’s oldest brother is God’s chosen one. He is rebuked by God for looking only at Eliab’s appearance. One by one, Jesse’s sons pass by Samuel and one by one, God says, “No.” This is where we pick the story up.

Thus Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel. And Samuel said to Jesse, “The Lord has not chosen these.” And Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all the young men here?” Then he said, “There remains yet the youngest, and there he is, keeping the sheep.”

And Samuel said to Jesse, “Send and bring him. For we will not sit down till he comes here.” So he sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, with bright eyes, and good-looking. And the Lord said, “Arise, anoint him; for this is the one!” Then Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the midst of his brothers; and the Spirit of the Lord came upon David from that day forward. So Samuel arose and went to Ramah. (1 Samuel 16:10-13)

Many people point to God’s words regarding Eliab, “Do not look at his appearance or at his physical stature…” along with the fact that David was the youngest and was not called to join them with the prophet and assume that David must have been a young boy – too young to be considered. That, however, is just not in this text. There could have been a reason why David may have had to remain with the sheep or David might have been a bit neglected by his family and forgotten about. Similarly, Eliab’s stature does not imply that David – or any of his other brothers – was small. Eliab may have just been the tallest and most impressive of the brothers, the golden child so to speak.

Mighty Man of Valor, A Man of War

Right after this event, the Bible tells us that the Spirit of the Lord left King Saul and that a distressing spirit troubled him. Saul’s servants wanted to help and offered a suggestion…

Let our master now command your servants, who are before you, to seek out a man who is a skillful player on the harp. And it shall be that he will play it with his hand when the distressing spirit from God is upon you, and you shall be well.” So Saul said to his servants, “Provide me now a man who can play well, and bring him to me.” Then one of the servants answered and said, “Look, I have seen a son of Jesse the Bethlehemite, who is skillful in playing, a mighty man of valor, a man of war, prudent in speech, and a handsome person; and the Lord is with him. (1 Samuel 16:16-18)

 

Image courtesy flanagan.wikia.com.

Saul’s servants referred to David as a “mighty man of valor, a man of war, prudent in speech, and a handsome person.”  These are hardly words that would be used to describe a child, or even a young teenage boy. Some respond to this by saying that the events were not written in chronological order and that this really happened after David fought Goliath. However, there is not only a lack of evidence for this argument, there are some indications that it could not be true. Tim Chaffey explains

First and foremost, 1 Samuel 17:15 states, “But David occasionally went and returned from Saul to feed his father’s sheep at Bethlehem.” So David regularly served Saul before his encounter with Goliath. Also, 1 Samuel 18:2, which immediately followed the battle with Goliath, states, “Saul took him [David] that day, and would not let him go home to his father’s house anymore.” Finally, chapter 16 shows that Saul and David were introduced to each other and that David became his armor bearer (v. 21), whereas chapter 17 shows no such introduction, indicating they knew already knew each other.

David Leaves Home

Subsequently, King Saul sent for David and, “… David came to Saul and stood before him. And he loved him greatly, and he became his armorbearer. Then Saul sent to Jesse, saying, “Please let David stand before me, for he has found favor in my sight.” And so it was, whenever the spirit from God was upon Saul, that David would take a harp and play it with his hand. Then Saul would become refreshed and well, and the distressing spirit would depart from him.” (1 Samuel 16:21-23) We know 2 things from this passage. (1) David became Saul’s armorbearer. (2) Whenever the distressing spirit came upon Saul, David would take a harp and play it. Both bring us to an easy conclusion that David moved into the palace and was required to be in the presence of Saul at all times. 1 Samuel 17:15 confirms that, “… David occasionally went and returned from Saul to feed his father’s sheep at Bethlehem.

Too Young to Fight?

Next, we come to the story of David and Goliath. Israel’s army is gathered in the Valley of Elah, terrified by the Philistine giant, who twice a day issued this challenge…

 

The Valley of Elah, Wikimedia Commons, public domain

Choose a man for yourselves, and let him come down to me. If he is able to fight with me and kill me, then we will be your servants. But if I prevail against him and kill him, then you shall be our servants and serve us … I defy the armies of Israel this day; give me a man, that we may fight together. (1 Samuel 17:8b-10)

This had gone on for 40 days when David entered the camp to bring his brothers provisions from their elderly father. Here is where we find one of the most common misconceptions about David. Because only the 3 oldest brothers were with Saul, it is assumed that the other 5 brothers, including David, were all under the age of 20 (the age that men in Israel were required to enter military service). This theory makes sense until you look at all of the exemptions to military service that are provided in the Torah. Deuteronomy 20 lists the following reasons why a man who was over the age of 20 would be allowed to stay home from battle.

  • He bought a new house and had not dedicated it.
  • He planted a vineyard and had not eaten from it.
  • He was betrothed to a woman and not yet married.
  • He was fearful and fainthearted.

Deuteronomy 24:5 also instructs Israel that a man is exempt from service for 1 year following his wedding. It is apparent that David did not qualify for any of these exemptions, so it is safe to say that he was almost certainly under the age of 20. However, we should not read more into the text than what is written. We have no reason to presume that the rest of David’s brothers were too young to be at war. One or all could have simply been fearful or fainthearted. They were, after all, facing a giant that was terrorizing them. It is also quite likely when you are talking about a group of young men that at least 1 would have just built a new house that was not yet dedicated, planted a vineyard that he had not eaten of or become betrothed or recently married. It is certainly within the realm of possibility that David could have been as old as 19 years old – even right up to the day before his 20th birthday, which would better fit the description of David in 1 Samuel 16.

Untested Armor

But, doesn’t the Bible say that Saul’s armor much too big for David? This is really just another unfortunate myth portrayed in many Sunday school lessons. Let’s look at the relevant verses in 1 Samuel 17:38-39.

So Saul clothed David with his armor, and he put a bronze helmet on his head; he also clothed him with a coat of mail. David fastened his sword to his armor and tried to walk, for he had not tested them. And David said to Saul, “I cannot walk with these, for I have not tested them.” So David took them off.

David simply stated that he could not walk with the armor because he had not tested it. In the KJV, David’s words are translated this way, “I cannot go with these; for I have not proved them.” Testing or proving armor means to test it for defensive ability. David’s statement could actually indicate that he had some experience in battle.

Not a Boy

A second misunderstanding of this conversation comes from Saul’s words of caution to David, “You are not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him; for you are a youth, and he a man of war from his youth.” Some versions of the Bible use the word “boy” in Saul’s description of David, but that is not an accurate translation and creates even more confusion. The Hebrew word that is translated “youth” here can also be translated servant and can be used to describe a child, teenager or even a younger adult man, as was the case when it was used to describe Absalom in 2 Samuel 18:29 right after he was killed for attempting to take the throne from his father, David. At the time of Absalom’s death, most scholars believe that he was somewhere around 30 years old, give or take a couple of years.

Ancient Slingers

Image courtesy of www.ancient.eu.

In our day, slingshots are commonly marketed as children’s toys and that is how most in America view them.  However, that was not always the case. In ancient times, slingers were skilled, deadly warriors who were employed by the Roman, Assyrian, Egyptian and Israelite armies (among others).  Stones flung from their slings rivaled the velocity and precision of a handgun today. Most had been trained since childhood and had finely tuned their skill.  In his book, Babylon: Mesopotamia and the Birth of Civilization, Paul Kriwaczek explains how and why a sling worked so well. (emphasis added)

 

A sling works by increasing the effective length of a stone-thrower’s arm. Modern cricket bowlers or baseball pitchers can achieve maximum ball velocities of over 150 kilometres per hour. A slingshot as long again as the thrower’s arm will double the projectile’s speed, making the velocity of the bullet when it leaves the sling nearly 100 metres per second. This is already considerably greater than that of a longbow arrow, at only about 60 mps. Intensively trained from childhood onward, there is no reason to believe that a professional slinger could not beat 100 mps (meters per second) fairly easily and perhaps even begin to approach the muzzle velocity of a .45 calibre pistol round: about 150 mps. What is more, a smooth slingshot projectile has a far greater range than an arrow, as much as half a kilometre, because an arrow’s flight feather’s produce so much drag. The modern world-record distance for a stone cast with a sling was achieved by Larry Bray in 1981, who managed 437 metres, and thought in retrospect that he could surpass the 600-metre mark with a better sling and lead projectiles.

Conclusion

Without the myths, David’s victory over Goliath is a powerful testimony of God’s hand in Israel’s history. While faith is our primary goal when reading Scripture, we should not shy away from reason, logic and historical context. David was a mighty man of valor who had likely been trained in the use of a sling from the time he was a child. By faith, David surrendered his skills to God and was used mightily to defeat a man whose intention was to thwart God’s plan for Israel.

 


* All scriptures are quoted from the New King James Version of the Bible unless otherwise noted.

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