Who killed Goliath? CSI in Jerusalem

Who really killed Goliath? Of course, this is the most stupid question possible. After all, this is one of the most advertised killings in the history of the world, its record read by millions of admiring people, glorifying in the victory of the brave and smart reddish boy over the Big Ugly Brute. Add the pious invocation of Jahweh throughout the battle, and one has the making of an inspiring heroic story, and that is precisely how it functions in the Old Testament. All the kids in Primary know exactly who killed Goliath, and can explain in detail how he did it, with his sling and a few pebbles.

David with Goliath's head, by Caravaggio

David with Goliath’s head, by Caravaggio

Reading the story in I Samuel as a military history one can understand how David came to be a great army leader, for the chapter defines him as a smart soldier. Goliath is the quintessential massive warrior, “whose height was six cubits and a span” (1 Sam 17:4) (KJV); 6 cubits and a span would put him at 2.85 meter (yes, we all are metric by now). Well, most measures, figures and numbers in the Old Testament cannot be trusted, but Goliath surely was huge. The Dead Sea Scroll text, probably earlier than the Masoretic text, puts him at “4 cubit and a span,” just over 2 meter; more probable, yet still large at those times. So in the re-telling at the campfires he grew two cubits. And was he heavy. 1 Samuel 17 continues:
5 And he had an helmet of brass upon his head, and he was armed with a coat of mail; and the weight of the coat was five thousand shekels of brass.… 7 And the staff of his spear was like a weaver’s beam; and his spear’s head weighed six hundred shekels of iron: and one bearing a shield went before him. (KJV)
The man was a bloody tank (5000 shekel would be between 70 and 100 kilo). A spearhead of some 6 kilos, how far and accurate can one throw that? It is just for stabbing. Again, figures and numbers are usually inflated in the re-telling, but the man was a tank with a major flaw: no real gun. As the story goes, David refused the armor of Saul, just took his sling and a few pebbles, kept out the tank’s range and became an artillerist. Calling Goliath all the bad names in the book, he at least had his attention, so could aim at an unprotected forehead, and stunned him with a good shot. Then he cut of his head, using Goliath’s own sword; no use carrying a heavy weapon to the battlefield when one is a fleet footed artillerist. Good thinking, smart warrior, good start for David’s military career.
David and Goliath's head, by Donatello, Florence

David and Goliath’s head, by Donatello, Florence

What then is wrong with the story? Why should CSI Jerusalem swing into action on this famous, but extremely cold case? There are some valid reasons. First, the story is almost straight out of Homer’s Ilias (Nestor’s exploit’s) and the armor described is more 6th century Greek than 10th century Palestinian. OK, the Bible was not written at the spot, as we know by now, but during and after the Babylonian exile, so that can be understood. But there is more.
The story itself is warbled. In 1 Samuel 17:55-58 Saul seems never to have met David, while in 16:14-24 David played the harp for the king to smooth his temper. A possibly earlier manuscript (Codex Vaticanus Graecus) seems to remedy this, leaving out the scene of David bringing food to his brothers; there David is already on the battlefield, as companion of king Saul. Again, if we leave things out of the Bible, the story may work.
Donatello's David: detail of Goliath's head

Donatello’s David: detail of Goliath’s head

However, there is still more, and here CSI Jerusalem be called into the case: there is another suspect! According to a material witness, 2 Samuel 21:19, another guy slew the giant:
“Then there was another battle with the Philistines at Gob; and Elhanan son of Jaare-oregim, the Bethlehemite, killed Goliath the Gittite, the shaft of whose spear was like a weaver’s beam.” (New Revised Standard Version)
The spear is clearly the identifying feature of the enemy, so someone else killed Goliath here.
However, in a later retelling the evidence becomes blurred again, 1 Chronicles 21:5:
“Again there was war with the Philistines; and Elhanan son of Jair killed Lahmi the brother of Goliath the Gittite, the shaft of whose spear was like a weaver’s beam.” (NRSV)
Now Elhanan kills the brother of Goliath, with again the weaver’s beam as a marker.
Now, who really killed Goliath? Who killed his brother? And where does that brother suddenly comes from?
We have, then, three scenarios for CSI to investigate:
1. David killed Goliath (after weeding out the brotherly food aid).
2. Elhanan killed Goliath, (part of encounters with more weird giants).
3. Elhanan killed the brother of Goliath (I Chronicles, the one with the same spear).
The only option not mentioned is that David killed the brother of Goliath.

How to solve the quandary? Philip Roth, the Egyptologist, thinks that Elhanan is the original name of David, the latter being his throne name, but that is hard to maintain: there is no mention anywhere in the Bible of specific throne names, and the father’s name is different as well. So we do have two possible culprits. CSI Jerusalem would try to get to the hard evidence, the sword of Goliath; after all, it was preserved by David. In Samuel 21:10 and 22:10 we see David take Goliath’s sword from the shrine in Nob, because his own weapon is not available. He should have left it there, then CSI could have checked it for DNA …
In the Bible all three options coexist, but all three of them cannot be true at the same time: 1 and 3 may go together, but not with option 2. This, as we have seen time and again, is the mark of real Scripture: full of contradictions, unadressed and unsolved.

English mosaic with David showing Saul the head of Goliath

English mosaic with David showing Saul the head of Goliath

If David killed Goliath (nr.1), why attribute it elsewhere to someone else, who then would steal the king’s thunder. That is not very plausible, unless it would be part of a strategy to undermine David’s reputation in favor of Elhanan. But Elhanan is a historical non-person, while David is the king of kings in Israelite history.
The reverse scenario is much more plausible: Elhanan killed the giant enemy, and the mighty deed was later attributed to the hero-king and retrofitted into his life story. So from an anthropological standpoint option 2 is the most plausible one. For me, accustomed as I am to oral transmission of tales, the contradiction plus the very embellishments of the story – Goliath growing almost three feet, his overgrown armor, the details of the battle, and the invocations of piety – cry out the rewriting of oral history, the process we know so well from Africa. All heroic deeds are almost routinely attributed to the king, especially in his youth, with beautiful words of high wisdom and deep piety put in his mouth. That would also explain the narrative misfit where David suddenly seems to be a newcomer in Saul’s court.
So between 1 and 2 the choice is easy. Now option 3, the brother. We saw the brother mentioned in Chronicles, a much later retelling of Israelite history. The priest (probably one author) who wrote Chronicles probably noticed the contradiction, and may have tried to solve it by inserting a brother for Goliath. For him, writing, say, between 350–300 BC, David (and Goliath) had been dead for six centuries already, so why not? However, the epitheton ornans, the fixed descriptive detail identifying the protagonist, in true 6th century Greek fashion gives the game away: the spear “like a weaver’s beam” tells us it is the same person. The name Lahmi seems easily explained as a derivation of Bethlehem. The most plausible explanation for CSI Jerusalem, thus, is an editorial insertion: by the invention of Goliath’s brother the heroic story remained part of king David’s legacy. And David’s legitimate reign is one major focus of the author of Chronicles. Out of respect he edited lightly, leaving the city and the weaver’s beam intact.
A very Italian David showing off Goliath's head

A very Italian David showing off Goliath’s head

One minor problem remains: one witnesses appearing before CSI has become confused. When this was discussed in my Sunday school class, the Americans present had no idea what the problem was: in their bible Elhanan killed the brother of Goliath. For 2 Samuel 21:19 in the King James Version runs differently from the newer translation:
19And there was again a battle in Gob with the Philistines, where Elhanan the son of Jaareoregim, a Bethlehemite, slew the brother of Goliath the Gittite, the staff of whose spear was like a weaver’s beam. (KJV; italics from the KJV source)
But the ‘brother’ is definitely not in the Hebrew text of 1 Samuel, not in the one the KJ translators used (the Textus Receptus) nor in any other. So the KJ translators must have spotted the contradiction, and viewing the ‘solution’ of Chronicles, decided that Goliath’s brother was missing from the original text and put him in, without his name. So this sentence they did not translate, they wrote a new version. That they overstepped their boundaries as translators in doing so is for another blog, but here CSI Jerusalem has sorted out the muddle: the ‘court interpreter’ gave a partisan translation, and David can be exonerated: he did not kill Goliath, Elhanan did.
So CSI acquitted David, but in this case the accused did not seek acquittal, but glory. And so did the authors of the biblical books, heaping glory upon their model king. Samuel and even stronger Chronicles, testify to the glory of David, over Saul, over his enemies and supremely over Goliath. The Goliath story has become the story of the king’s actual calling, the vindication of his earlier anointment, proof of the deep theological foundation of his dynasty. CSI Jerusalem shows us that we all are recruited for a huge, historical ‘David fan-club’.
Again, a critical reading of the scriptures gives a different slant to the OT stories. The guiding question behind my OT blogs is whether this detracts from their inspirational value. It does not, in fact. We see Israel’s hero-king slightly less heroic, being attributed undeserved glory. But that makes him part of normal history, as these attributions happen all the time, since heroes get all the glory, not just a part of it. It makes David as a hero more amenable, closer to us, and definitely more human. We do need heroes, all of us, but we want heroes within our reach. And David, who is already quite a human hero in Samuel, is rendered even more human by this unraveling of the Goliath tale. Much of the stories on David are written as pure laudations, and the further removed from his life the authors are, the more heroic David becomes. So CSI Jerusalem has put David with his feet on the ground again, where he should be. After all, as LDS we seldom realize how revolutionary the indictment is that the Restoration has given on David; when D&C 132 tells us that David will have a restricted glory after this life, that runs counter to most of Christendom, and surely to the eulogies of the biblical authors, in whose eyes David can do no wrong, at least always is fully forgiven. So CSI Jerusalem gives us a realistic hero, one we can relate to: someone who loves the Lord with all his might, a poet and musician, a warrior and king, but also a hero with major flaws, such as a clear weakness for women, a dysfunctional family and who did not all the great deeds ascribed to him. That is a David one could hold dear, human like us, fully dedicated to the Lord, but struggling, and no longer larger than life.
The painter himself as Goliath

The painter himself as Goliath

Without the story we would have missed out on a lot of great art, too. The top one is from Caravaggio, easily the most famous painting of David and Goliath. This depicts a strange, intimate relationship between the two, in the thoughtful, introvert gaze of David who almost absentmindedly dangles Goliath’s bleeding head. Caravaggio had almost an obsession with this theme, but this one is considered his masterpiece, with a hidden layer: the head is the painter’s, is in fact Caravaggio himself: We all aim to be a David, but may end up as Goliath instead.

19 comments for “Who killed Goliath? CSI in Jerusalem

  1. December 27, 2014 at 11:49 am

    I remember reading through the ‘Saul had not met David, yet he had requested for David to play in his court’ part of the Old Testament and got really confused. I ended up circling a bunch of verses, and used arrows to place them where I thought they should be.
    I figured that a page/scroll got mis-shuffled at some critical point, and I was just correcting it.
    Very interesting read.

  2. Wilfried
    December 27, 2014 at 2:38 pm

    Thanks, Walter, for the fascinating investigation. Heroism in bigger-than-life figures often has a downside from which we can learn more than from the upside.

  3. December 28, 2014 at 11:39 am

    Interesting! CSI Jerusalem will be busy with all these OT cold cases….

  4. Cameron N.
    December 29, 2014 at 1:17 am


    Luckily the Book of Mormon leaves us plenty of heroes to match the glory of Goliath’s challenger.

    Is a cubit a firm measurement? It would be amusing if the variation was caused by several contemporaneous accounts of people of different stature.

  5. Walter van Beek
    December 29, 2014 at 6:47 am

    Thanks for the comments. Yes, (3) CSI still has a lot to do, but this was the easily most famous case. In a TV series in such a case the director would come in with a very serious face, and tell all detectives that this is a very political case, so thread carefully. A detective worth his salt would then immediately go out and confront the highest unsub he could find. Which I will do in the next blog.
    (1) the difference between chapter 16 and 17, not having met David before the battle, has also been noted by Skousen in his Third Thoudand volume. His solution was a rescheduling of the calendar of events, he ignoring 2 Samuel and Chronicles. But then, he did not have the whole critical Bible school at his disposal.
    Wilfried (2), I think you and I stem from a less heroic culture than our USA fellow members, so this gentle derobing of the hero might fit in better with our background than with Deseret.
    The measure of the cubit (4), a very apt remark. David’s elbow length would definitely be smaller than Goliath’s, and there is variation in cubit length. However, they seem to be relatively standardized per region and era. In Egypt it was 522 – 529 mm, in Sumer 518 mm, and in Biblical times between around 450 mm. Here my source is Wikipedia. The Goliath story is set in the 10th century BC, but written down in Babylon, Which one is used I do not know, honestly, so somewhere between 450-520 would be reasonable. The text with 4 cubits would be the more plausible one with any definition of the cubit.

  6. Cameron N.
    December 29, 2014 at 12:09 pm

    Perhaps future generations will mock the ‘foot’ as a similar poorly chosen word. =)

  7. FarSide
    December 29, 2014 at 3:11 pm

    Last year I read good book by Joel Baden, called “The Historical David,” which effectively debunks the myth that David slew Goliath and also makes a compelling case that the OT’s account of David’s life is hagiographic in the extreme—written by sympathetic spin doctors whose sole objective was to burnish the image of their subject. But since the vast majority of LDS still embrace scriptural inerrancy and the dubious notion that the scriptures are an accurate historical record, the myth of David and Goliath will live on in our gospel doctrine classes.

  8. Cameron N.
    December 29, 2014 at 3:19 pm

    Well FarSide, there are multiple layers to the myth that likely will never be definitively answered. If someone still slew Goliath, the story remains equally impressive.

  9. December 29, 2014 at 5:20 pm

    #4 – in standard/”real” measure, a cubit is in the neighborhood of 18 inches (Wilfred’s average is in that ballpark). That would make a 4 cubit man about 6 feet tall – Joseph Smith’s size, more or less, a fairly tall guy in early 21st century America, but a large man indeed in the ancient Near East. A “giant” indeed.

    Maybe largeness ran in the family; if Goliath had a brother, he might also have been a big fella. However, it seems likely that David didn’t whack him any more than Washington chopped down the legendary cherry tree.

  10. Walter van Beek
    December 30, 2014 at 4:50 am

    Thanks, Farside for the info on the historical David book. Yes, the OT for a large part is a David fanclub recruitment text,,an aspect that has been known by Bible scholars for some time. If you compare the treatment Saul gets with that of David, the bias towards David is glaringly evident. And yes, it will take some time before the GD class will officially be informed that way. Bible inerrancy is a little bit heavy in the LDS case, I think, viewing the ‘if translated correctly’ clause in the AoF, (BoM inerrancy is more evident) but, yes, the jump from history to myth is still a long one to make.

    The point for me is not to do away with myths, since I do think we need myths, i.e. religious truths in the form of a story. It would just mean a lot if we would be able to see the difference between myth and history, and consider myth meaningful without being necessarily historical. I can learn a lot from the flood story, even if it is evidently fully mythical. Or from the Garden story, for that matter.
    And also histroic or nonhistoric is not a dichotomy. David is a fully historical figure, around whom legends are woven, and probably Goliath is historical as well, once shrunk a few feet.

    Cameron: The cubit, the foot, the span, the mile, all old measurements were based upon the human body. It is a way to scale the world down to our own size, not a bad idea in the history of thought, but not very efficient for a global system of measurement.
    So, America: shape up and become fully metric! Meters, not feet, Celsius, not Fahrenheit!

  11. December 30, 2014 at 10:48 am

    Meters, not feet, Celsius, not Fahrenheit!

    Never! You can have my rods and furlongs when you pry them from my cold dead hands! :)

  12. Craig H.
    December 30, 2014 at 11:05 am

    Thanks Walter, very interesting. I’m always trying to get my students to understand the meaning and value of “myth” but I’m afraid those puny efforts aren’t enough to overturn the popular connotation of “myth” as “lie,” which is how it’s so frequently used in American English. No, it will require a widespread grassroots campaign, with posters and protests and news coverage and excellent posts like yours.

  13. December 30, 2014 at 4:00 pm

    I don’t really have a dog in the fight. I’m not worried about whether David was the one killing Goliath or not. And I’ll readily agree that the story line in 1 Sam. 16-17 is full of holes.

    On the other hand, I’m not so convinced that the text of 2 Sam should be believed over the Chronicles account. The larger context of each of the chapters suggest a separate occasion than the battle with Saul.

    Additionally, the nature of the Hebrew grammar in each text makes me more likely to believe that the translation error was on the Hebrew side of 2 Samuel. http://www.biblestudymagazine.com/extras-1/2014/10/31/clash-of-the-manuscripts-goliath-the-hebrew-text-of-the-old-testament

  14. FarSide
    December 30, 2014 at 10:54 pm

    Walter, I agree wholeheartedly with your assessment regarding the enduring value of the myths contained in the Old Testament. Aesop’s Fables are no less valuable even though they are also fictitious.

    The authors of the OT did not write history, at least not history as we understand the term. Lot did not engage in incest with his daughters, but if you were to challenge the author of that story, noting its factual inaccuracy, he would tell you that you’re missing the point—the descendants of those fabricated, illicit unions were the Moabites and the Ammonites, two perennial enemies of Israel. THAT was the point of his story: incest produces nasty people.

    When we accept the OT stories on the terms their authors intended and stop trying to read them through the prism of Mormonism, we come much closer to the truth. But CES has such a vested interest in scriptural literalism—and why not? it’s so simple and requires very little thinking—change will be slow in coming.

    By the way, Baden’s textual analysis in his book about the historical David is quite compelling, but he makes a similar mistake by evaluating Chronicles and Samuels using the yardstick of modern historiography. Nevertheless, I enjoyed his book.

  15. larryco_
    December 31, 2014 at 3:43 am

    My personal conclusion was that Goliath was killed by Colonel Mustard, in the library, with the candle holder. I don’t think it was by David, although it must be added that a careful reading of the OT does show that people who displeased or got in the way of David invariably ended up killed.

  16. Walter van Beek
    December 31, 2014 at 11:31 am

    Thanks, again, all of you
    Yes, #15, people opposing David end up badly, an important observation: the text is partisan towards David, and not just in these chapters. See the lousy way Saul is dealt with (and Jonathan especially), a king who has done almost nothing wrong except refraining from genocide.
    #14 Indeed, CES is literalist, and literalism means you are missing out on important messages and crucial symbolism. But here in Europe I encounter quite a few CES employees who are far less literal-minded than the manuals are. How is that at the Wasatch Front? Actually we as a church seem to be gradually leaning more to Bible inerrancy. I wonder what would happen if Thomas Monson would change some bible texts, like Joseph did. Are we gliding towards Evangelicals in this matter?
    Kevin (#13) That is an interesting Hebrew text analysis you refer to. Definitely a possibility, but also one requiring quite some additional assumptions. And it does not explain the misfit of the story of Sam 17 after Sam 16. It is the combination of misfit, text details and oral history reverberations that lead me to a retrofitted story; it still seems the theory that meets Occam’s razor best..
    #12 The recognition of myth as a crucial story is important. Maybe the word “myth” itself is too loaded. The French use the word “discours”: we live by the story, and find meaning in stories. As Julie Smith remarked in another blog, the buzz word in the 21st century is no longer the truth of an institution, but its capacity to generate meaning.
    #11 It were the darned French, as an occupational force overwhelming the Netherlands, that forced metrics on us at the start of the 19th century, Napoleon and his cronies. Without that interference, we would still have our feet, spans, thumbs, And look at us now trying to convert those who were never occupied! :-)

  17. Kristine
    December 31, 2014 at 2:16 pm

    This is not great art, exactly, but has always been one of my favorite interpretations…


  18. Walter van Beek
    January 1, 2015 at 7:53 am

    Well, Kristine, the difference between art and great art is in the eye of the beholder. I think both Caravaggio’s painting and Donatello’s sculpture fall in the second category, and surely both are famous. About the other two I am not so sure. But as an anthropologist I have to relativize that immediately, as anthropology has always had a problem defining “art” anyway, as it entails such a clear value judgment, something that is anathema in the disciplne. But notwithstanding that, I do concur with the general appreciation of Caravaggio and Donatello in art history.

  19. January 8, 2015 at 5:20 pm

    Hahaha Kristine!!

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