Mar 16

Killing a Giant

Last time, I discussed a well known story from the Christian New Testament. This time, I’d like to kick it old school.

First of all, I can’t believe I even have to make this argument. This story should be discounted on its own merits alone. It is as silly, and obviously made up, as any other classic hero-as-a-child story. Does no one read Joseph Campbell? Anyway, here we go.

Today, I want to discuss the man who, according to the bible, killed Goliath. His name was Elhanan. But what about David and Goliath? Elhanan and Goliath doesn’t have the same ring to it! Spoiler alert: the bible contradicts itself many times and this is one of them. This is another of those items it’s just easier to never cover on Sunday mornings. We probably all know the story of young David, only 12 years old when he used a sling and stone to kill the well-armored giant, Goliath of Gath.

Elhanan, on the other hand, was a member of King David’s elite fighting force called, “The Thirty”. The story of Elhanan killing Goliath is part of a set of four short stories about members of The Thirty killing giants. A story about killing Goliath certainly fits that motif, so it makes sense in that context.

I don’t want to make all the necessary arguments to hammer the David version of the story’s inauthenticity home because it would take forever, so here are the highlights and I can give you a reference if you want to dig deeper:

  • The Hebrew Bible attributes Goliath’s killing to Elhanan in 2 Samuel 21:19. If you read that verse today, it will probably say he killed the brother of Goliath (unless you have a good translation like NRSV). That is because scribes intentionally changed the passage. It can be assumed this was changed to avoid conflict with the beloved story of David. A well-known warrior already seems more believable than a 12-year-old boy, but I’ll continue.
  • In the David version, Saul asks Abner “Whose son is this youth?” after Goliath is dead. Abner replies, “As thy soul liveth, O king, I cannot tell.” That’s funny because by this time David was already a favorite of the Royal Court. Saul would surely have known David.
  • In the David version, David supposedly brought Goliath’s head to Jerusalem after slaying him, but Jerusalem was under control of the Jebusites. It didn’t come under Israelite control until after David was king.
  • The David version usually just speaks of “the Philistine” when referencing the man who was killed. Goliath’s name is randomly placed here and there and seems likely to have been a later addition.

Whew! That’s a lot of bible study. I hope you didn’t get bored. I promise it will be short, sweet, and powerful next time. Check out 101 Myths of the Bible by Gary Greenburg if you want to read more.

It seems totally believable when Caravaggio paints it.

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  1. Mike McCready

    The story of David and Goliath feels like it was written by Walt Disney. Are we sure Emilio Estevez wasn’t on the sidelines, saying “Quack – Quack – Quack – Quack” as David cast the stone that slayed the mighty beast – It’s the ultimate underdog story. Looking at that picture you included, I can almost hear Al Michaels say “Do you believe in miracles?! Yes!”

  2. Anonymous Moose

    Carvaggio is pretty hardcore. I think you are missing the point of the story of david and Goliath. So maybe David didn’t actually kill Goliath per se, the point is that because of is faith he totally could have if he had the opportunity. Let’s not forget that David was a total badass.

  3. Anonymously Dan C. Ayres Jr.

    Does the bible condone Performance Enhancing Drugs? If a small child is believed to topple a “giant” without any help from the boys down at the chem lab, then I’m not so sure I can vouch for the validity of the story.
    And just how big is “giant” anyway? I mean I’m only 6’1″ and I’m pretty sure I could take a stone to the face. I’m not saying it would feel good or anything and I would probably cry but I’m sure it wouldn’t be the death of me. Hell, I bet I wouldn’t even miss a days work. I’ll be the first to admit my bible story knowledge is pedestrian at best but did the pebble get lodged in his throat or something? I could see how you could choke but even with a slingshot, surely a giant could withstand a rock to the face.
    And how did he chop his head off? He had to have had a knife or something. Why wouldn’t you throw that instead of a rock? The knife would be my first choice because it’s sharp. Sharp things have a better chance of ripping flesh and doing some damage, if it didn’t work you always the trusty old rocks on which to fall back. I’m just saying, some aspects of the story don’t match up.

  4. john

    I assume you did your research thoroughly and determine there was only one Philistine name Goliath?

  5. Mike

    Of course not, nor is there a way to research that reliably. What a silly question. More importantly, you completely missed the point. If you read the earlier post about Jesus and the prostitute, you will recognize these are posts about changes made to the bible to suit peoples desires. Whether there were two goliaths is irrelevant. Early scribes changed the text, plain and simple. They must have understood it as the same person referenced or they would not have felt compelled to change it.

  6. Tanakher

    To be the Devil’s Advocate, postulate this: What if this isn’t ‘oh hurr, the bible is inconsistent therefore wrong’ but what if it wan’t David that actually killed goliath, what if it was simply David’s scribes that put the story in place to make David look good? (As Mike says) And when in the process of assembling the Tanakh (the 5 books + prophets and other books) entries got put together so both versions were included.

    As a note, I found this particular webpage from google, and I shall be using this argument in my Hebrew High School Graduation speech on how to be effectively immortal. Thank you.

    Let the flaming commence, and have an excellent day.

  7. Jimmy John

    1 Chron 20:5.

  8. Mike

    Jimmy John,

    The claim about the brother in that verse is the same issue mentioned in my first bullet point. That verse is an example of a doublet. Several times in the Hebrew Bible, stories and verses are repeated. The strange thing is when they are retold in differing or even contradictory ways.

    As far as 1 Chronicles goes, we either have a contradiction or we admit that someone changed the verse.

  9. Jason

    I also like Malcolm Gladwell’s explanation. In ancient times stone slingers were highly skilled at whipping stones with deadly speed and accuracy. They also had the advantage of maintaining a safe distance from sword welding ‘giants’. Additionally, Goliath had to be led to the battlefield insinuating his eyesight was poor due to disease and/or disorder. David would hardly be an underdog given these circumstances.

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