Notes on 1 Sam 17:1-16: David and Goliath

Notes from the UCLA’s Hirshleifer Tanakh study group.

The UCLA Faculty Tanakh Study group, now named in honor of the late lamented Jack Hirshleifer, continues to work its way through the Books of Samuel, translated by Robert Alter as The David Story.

Jack had been our note-taker; when he got sick, I took over from him. I was posting the notes in this space fairly regularly, but got out of the habit. By popular demand (well, one email, anyway) I’m re-starting from where I left off, with the battle between David and Goliath. I’ll try to post fairly often until the notes here have caught up with the group, which is now on Chapter 5 of Second Samuel.

According to a tradition set by Jack, each week’s summary comes with a Jew-joke. (I’m running out, so I’m looking for contributions.)

Notes and joke at the jump.

[Text in English and Hebrew here.]

Goliath is described as a giant, with semi-comic exaggeration reminiscent of the Táin Bo Cuailgne or the Paul Bunyan stories, and with, as Alter notes, a most un-Biblical degree of detail. Goliath stands (depending on the value of a “cubit”) somewhere between eight-and-a-half and nine-and-a-half feet tall, and his mail coat alone weighs 125 pounds.

On the other hand, the description of the opposing armies is unusually sketchy, omitting the numbers of troops on the two sides. The description of the geography of the battle suggests a situation &#8212 two armies on hilltops or ridges with a valley between &#8212 that would create a major disadvantage for whichever side attacked the other.

Perhaps in response to that standoff, Goliath offers a challenge to single combat, of the sort familiar in Homer. The idea seems to be that bloodshed could be spared by having two men fight, rather than two armies. The problem, of course, is that the side that wins the single combat, unlike the side that wins a battle, has no means of enforcing the terms of the bargain. In this case, Goliath proposes that if he wins the Israelites should serve the Philistines, and vice versa if the Israelite champion is victorious, but that bargain is not kept.

Goliath says, “Why should you deploy for battle? Am I not the Philistine, and are you not the servants of Saul?”

Alter takes “the Philistine” to reflect an earlier tradition in which David’s victim was anonymous. But we thought that “the Philistine” in this context might simply mean “the Philistine champion.” One commenter claims that his “are you not the servants of Saul?” is an insult to the Israelites based on their having erected a monarchy, by contrast to the republican structure of Philistine government. One of us suggested that Goliath was implying that the Israelites had little to fear from his victory, since being servants to the Philistines was no worse than being servants to Saul. (Cf. The Prince, Ch. 5):

And whoever becomes master of a city that has been accustomed to liberty, and does not destroy it, must himself expect to be destroyed by it. For they will always resort to rebellion in the name of liberty and their ancient institutions, which will never be effaced from their memory, either by the lapse of time, or by benefits bestowed by the new master. No matter what he may do, or what precautions he may take, if he does not separate and disperse the inhabitants, they will on the first occasion invoke the name of liberty and the memory of their ancient institutions…But it is very different with states that have been accustomed to live under a prince. When the line of the prince is once extinguished, the inhabitants, being on the one hand accustomed to obey, and on the other having lost their ancient sovereign, can neither agree to create a new one from amongst themselves, nor do they know how to live in liberty; and thus they will be less prompt to take up arms, and the new prince will readily be able to gain their good will and to assure himself of them. But republics have more vitality, a greater spirit of resentment and desire of revenge, for the memory of their ancient liberty neither can nor will permit them to remain quiet.

But if that is indeed Goliath’s meaning, nothing in the rest of the chapter seems to expand on it. His use of avodim to refer to the Israelites seemed to most of us deliberately insulting, though the same term is used for Saul’s court attendants.

Alter reads verse 10 as “I have insulted the armies of Israel;” i.e., he takes Goliath to be, in basketball terms, “talking trash.” But translators make Goliath’s speech a formal defiance: “I hereby challenge the armies of Israel.” That seems to fit better with the rest of the verse.

Goliath repeats his challenge morning and evening for forty days. Is he, or the narrator, referring to the forty days at Sinai? Or does “forty” simply mean “many,” (cf. “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,” “forty days and forty nights”) as “five” (in “five smooth stones from the book”) seems to mean merely “a few”?

The chapter’s account of David is grossly inconsistent with the account in Chapter 16. (It seems that much of it is omitted in the Septuagint, though included in the Masoretic text. Alter, normally voluble about differences between the versions, is silent on this one, so we don’t know what the Qumran texts say.)

Previously we had heard that Saul loved David greatly, that he had asked Jesse to release David from keeping sheep to join his court, that David was Saul’s armor-bearer, and that David was responsible for curing Saul’s fits of madness or melancholy with his harp. Now we find the putative armor-bearer nowhere near the king when the king goes to war, are told that David moved back and forth between the court and the sheepfold, which hardly seems consistent with his therapeutic duties.

Moreover, when Jesse sends David to check on his brothers, Jesse doesn’t seem to assume that his youngest is a royal favorite; he sends ten cheeses as a present (bribe?) to the commander of the unit of a thousand in which his three eldest sons are serving. In any case, David comes into the camp, with food for this brothers and a present for their captain.

Here’s the weekly joke. This one is a modernized form of the Talmudic tale of the dispute over the Oven of Aknai (Baba Metzia 59a).

Four rabbis had a series of halakhic arguments. Three were always in accord against the fourth, and insisted that the decision of the majority must be taken as authoritative.

One day, the odd rabbi out, after being told once more that the decision was against him by 3 to 1, decided to appeal to a higher authority.

“Oh, God!” he cried. “I know in my heart that I am right and they are wrong! Please give me a sign to prove it to them!”

It was a beautiful, sunny day. As soon as the rabbi finished his prayer, a storm cloud moved across the sky above the four. It rumbled once and dissolved.

“A sign from God! See, I’m right, I knew it!”

But the other three disagreed, pointing out that storm clouds form on hot days. “It’s still three to one,” they said. So the rabbi prayed again: “Oh, God, I need a bigger sign to show that I am right and they are wrong. So please, God, a bigger sign!”

This time four storm clouds appeared, rushed toward each other to form one big cloud, and a bolt of lightning slammed into a tree on a nearby hill.

“I told you I was right!” cried the rabbi, but his friends insisted that nothing had happened that could not be explained by natural causes. “It’s still three to one,” they said.

The rabbi was getting ready to ask for a very big sign, but just as he said, “Oh God…,” the sky turned pitch black, the earth shook, and a deep, booming voice intoned, “He’s right!”

The rabbi put his hands on his hips, turned to the other three, and said, “Okay?”

“Okay,” said one of his companions. “So now it’s 3 to 2.”

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: