The account of the battle between David and Goliath is given in 1 Samuel 17. According to the narrative, Saul and the Israelites face the Philistines at the Valley of Elah, between Socoh and Azekah. Twice a day for 40 days, Goliath, the champion of the Philistines, challenges the Israelites to send one of their own to fight him in single combat to determine the outcome of the battle. Fearful of the giant, neither King Saul nor any of the other Israelites accept the challenge. David, however, having come to the battle field to bring food to his elder brothers, hears of Saul’s promise to reward any man who defeats Goliath, and volunteers. The king reluctantly agrees and offers his armor, which David declines, choosing instead to fight Goliath with only his sling and five stones taken from a brook.
David and Goliath confront each other, Goliath with his armor and shield, and David with his stones and sling. “The Philistine cursed David by his gods,” (1 Samuel 17:43) but David replies, “This day the LORD will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you down, and cut off your head; and I will give the dead bodies of the host of the Philistines this day to the birds of the air and to the wild beasts of the earth; that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that God saves not with sword and spear; for the battle is God’s, and he will give you into our hand” (1 Samuel 17:46-47).
David hurls a stone from his sling with all his might and hits Goliath in the center of his forehead. The Philistine falls to the ground, and David takes his sword and cuts off his head. The Philistines flee and are pursued by the Israelites “as far as Gath and the gates of Ekron” (1 Samuel 17:52). David takes Goliath’s armor to his own tent and brings the severed head to Jerusalem. There he is summoned by Abner, the king’s general, to the royal court. When Saul asks David whose son he is, David answers, ‘I am the son of your servant, Jesse, the Bethlehemite'” (1 Samuel 17:58).
An Alternative Story
Another description of a battle between Goliath and a different Israelite is incorporated within the list of David’s heroes:
“Again there was fighting with the Philistines at Gob; and Elhanan the son of Ya’are oregim the Bethlehemite, killed Goliath the Gittite, whose spear had a shaft like a weaver’s beam” (2 Samuel 21:19).
Nadav Na’aman has pointed to three elements that connect this short anecdote with the story of the battle of David and Goliath: (a) in both stories the Israelite warrior is described as <Personal Name> son of <Personal Name> the Bethlehemite; (b) in both stories, when the Philistine warrior is introduced he is noted as having come from the city of Gath; (c) in both stories, Goliath’s weapon is described in the same words: his “spear had a shaft like a weaver’s beam”.
Some scholars have thus assumed that Elhanan and David are one and the same. It has been noted that the name David is unique – there is no other person with this name either in the Bible or in any known ancient Near Eastern records. From this, some have concluded that Elhanan was the hero’s proper name and David was either an appellative or title that he adopted at some point in his career. While the idea that David was a title is plausible, his identification with Elhanan is less certain, especially in view of their fathers having had different names. On the other hand, the fact that the author of Samuel was not bothered by these conflicting traditions may support the notion that he considered them the same person. Other scholars have instead chosen to ascribe an earlier date to the verse mentioning Elhanan than to the detailed narrative about David. This is mostly due to the character of the Elhanan anecdote as part of a wider list of heroic deeds, all of which are accounts of battles with Philistine giants (2 Samuel 21:15-22).
The identity of the warrior who killed Goliath is only one of the intriguing questions raised by the story of David and Goliath. For scholars, this episode is by far the most difficult among the narratives making up the larger story of David’s ascension to the throne. First, the end of the story in 1 Samuel 17:55-58 seems to contradict the preceding narrative. It refers to Saul’s inquiry of David’s identity as if Saul had never met David, despite them having been introduced already in 1 Samuel 17:31-38. Second, the story of David and Goliath provides a completely different account of the circumstances under which David entered the court of Saul and came into his service than is seen previously in 1 Samuel 16:14-23. Third, there are remarkable textual differences between the story as it is narrated in the Masoretic Text (the Hebrew Bible) and in the Septuagint (the Old Greek version). Specifically, sections of the Masoretic Text (1 Samuel 17:12-31, 41, 48b, 50, 55-58, 1 Samuel 18:1-5, 10-11, 17-19, 29b-30) are missing entirely from the Codex Vaticanus, the most direct witness to the Old Greek version. Moreover, some notes within the story itself are strange or misplaced. For instance, after slaying Goliath it is stated that “David took the head of the Philistine and brought it to Jerusalem” (1 Samuel 17:54a). This could not be the case, as David only conquers Jerusalem much later in his career, after he is crowned king of Israel and Judah (2 Samuel 5:6-10). And why does David’s brother, Eliab, blame him for being an “evil” man who abandoned his flock so that he could watch the battle (1 Samuel 17:28)?
Scholars have suggested many different solutions to these literary issues, demonstrating the complex compositional history of the David and Goliath story. Although some of these suggestions are hotly debated, it is at least generally agreed that this story underwent gradual change within the compositional development of the Book of Samuel. Consequently, it is clear that 1 Samuel 17 is not a piece of historiography meant to document actual events as they occurred. Rather, at its core, it is a folktale about how, in spite of their disparity in size, military experience and weaponry, a mere shepherd boy was able to overcome a powerful foreign champion and become a national hero and future king. These kinds of folktales are known in many cultures around the world and are not unique in ancient Israel’s literature. What makes this story historically compelling is its setting in the Valley of Elah between Socoh and Azekah. This area, and the entirety of the Judaean lowlands, was a border zone in which different cultures and emerging polities intermingled during the early Iron Age (11th–9th centuries BCE). Cultural and political encounters thus provided the source material for many tales of heroism, including the story of David and Goliath.