5. David and Goliath: The Heroic Pattern in 1 Sam 17:1–18:4

If the Red Sea is the most famous battle narrative in the Bible, then the story of David and Goliath must be the second. It follows the traditional heroic pattern with a significant modification. The ideal of the physically strong warrior gives way to an unlikely, weak hero.[1]

5.1. The Beginning: The Enemy’s Threat and the Reaction of Fear: 1 Sam 17:1-11

The story begins with the stock encampment formula (17:1-3). The storyteller does not provide a specific motive for the hostilities between the Philistines and Israel, who are traditional enemies. This lack of specific motive reflects the fundamental conflict of two cultures that permeates the whole narrative.[2]

The enemy’s threat and great strength appear in the person of Goliath. He is huge, gigantic, even monstrous. His height of six cubits and a span, some three meters or ten feet, is the only unrealistic element of the story.[3] This monstrous size helps to link Goliath with other enemies of the mythic mode, such as Ḫumbaba. Even so, Goliath is presented otherwise as a man and not as a mythic monster. Likewise, his weapons and armor, though massive, are also realistic.[4] The Philistine threat, made explicit in his challenge to the Israelite army, is full of irony and bravado and introduces the motif of the enemy’s false confidence (17:8-10). Thus Goliath is pictured as the embodiment of Philistine culture: tremendous in size and strength, technically better prepared for war than Israel (cf. 1 Sam 13:19-22). This point is made by referring to Goliath as “the Philistine,” and lest anyone miss the point, the gentilic occurs twenty-eight times in the story.[5] Goliath thus symbolizes his warrior culture, just as David will symbolize his. Still, as Francesca Aran Murphy points out: “To David’s imagination, Goliath is not a representative of an advanced culture, but just like a wild beast.”[6]

A classic statement of the reaction of helplessness follows in 17:11: “When Saul and all Israel heard these words of the Philistine, they were dismayed and greatly afraid.” Jason interprets the king’s fear as “a symbol of the people’s weakness; the weakness serves to accentuate the hero’s greatness, which overpowers the might of the enemy despite all obstacles.”[7] Without denying this traditional function of the motif, I would point out that Saul himself was once a hero (1 Sam 11; 15), but now he has been reduced to a helpless king, a significant point within the larger chain of stories.

5.2. The Middle: Identification and Commission of the Hero: 1 Sam 17:12-40

The middle section also is shaped by the traditional pattern and may be outlined as follows:

17:12-15 — Description of the hero and his brothers (false heroes).

A: 17:16 — Enemy’s threat: Goliath repeats his challenge without receiving a response for forty days (“our” helplessness).

B: 17:17-18 — Commission of the hero by his father to bring provisions to his brothers and inquire about their safety.

C: 17:19 — Description of the general situation of war.

X: 17:20ab — Hero’s journey: departure and arrival.

C’: 17:20c-21 — Description of the general situation of war at the hero’s arrival.

B’: 17:22 — The father’s commission is fulfilled.

A’: 17:23-24 — Enemy’s threat and “our” helplessness: Goliath’s challenge provokes flight and fear.

17:25-30 — A report of the general call and reward to the hero who reacts with righteous indignation.

17:31-37a — The hero’s call and the commission by an objecting leader with blessing.

17:37b-40 — Preparation for battle and departure.

The adjustments of the traditional pattern have their roots primarily in the hero’s character. Unlike Gilgamesh or Achilles, who represent the perfection of human strength, David is a boy, the youngest son of Jesse (17:12-15). While the youngest is often the hero where brothers figure in the story,[8] the motif also serves as an impediment to David’s action. There is no thought of his following the three older brothers to war; instead, the boy is left to shepherd his flock—though the shepherd is a traditional image for the king.[9] Like Marduk, who is initially overlooked (Ee II), David is an unlikely hero, yet his physical immaturity, in contrast to Goliath’s size, raises the question of appearance and reality in this story. Moreover, the motif of the weak or unlikely hero is a standard feature of biblical narrative because it identifies the Lord as the unseen hero—a pervasive theme in biblical battle narrative.

Jason has identified David’s three brothers as false heroes who go off to war but cannot carry out the hero’s task.[10] As with other classic battle narratives, the failure of the false heroes, whether by their refusal or defeat, is used to deepen the plight of “our” side and to emphasize that only the hero is capable of meeting the match. In this story, not only David’s brothers but all of Israel fall into this category, for no one from the Israelite side answers Goliath’s challenge for forty days (17:16).

One impediment to the hero’s action, his absence from the battlefield, disappears with his father’s commission to carry provisions to the brothers and inquire about their health. The commission is menial, but it underlines David’s insignificance while bringing the hero to the battle. The alternation of events concerning David with motifs of threat and helplessness creates a sense of passing time as it builds tension. The whole section has a concentric construction noted in the outline above.

Major motifs and their repetition shape the larger framework of the story:

  • enemy’s threat: 17:3-10,16,23;
  • “our” helplessness: 17:11,16,24;
  • the emergence of the hero:
  • description of the hero: 17:12-15;
  • his journey: 17:17-22;
  • report to him of the general call: 17:25-30.

The storyteller handles the general call in a novel way. The leader does not announce the general call and reward in an assembly of “our” side. Rather, the hero overhears a report of the king’s call, as if by chance. This emphasizes again that the general call has gone unanswered for forty days.

David then enquires about the reward and adds the hero’s traditional reaction of righteous indignation:[11] “Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy (ḥrp) the armies of the living God” (17:16)? The word “defy” is a keyword for this story. In 17:11, Goliath “defies” the ranks of Israel, and Israel understands the challenge in like manner, as defiance of themselves (17:25). David, however, shifts the focus to “the armies of the living God” (17:26, 37), for he is the only one among the Israelites who understands the true significance of the challenge made by this “uncircumcised Philistine.” As David tells the giant just before the fight, it is “the Lord of Host, the God of the armies of Israel whom you have defied” (17:45). Appearance and reality increasingly become the theme of the story, and David’s brother develops it.

Eliab, the eldest of David’s brothers, belittles David as a shepherd boy and accuses him of having “come down to see a battle.” David cuts off his brother: “What have I done now? Isn’t that the point”?[12] Eliab is trapped by the apparent motives and possibilities of this world, but David sees beyond. After venting his righteous indignation at Eliab, the hero inquires a second time, and the people repeat the general call and reward for a third. The repetition, a common feature of traditional narrative, delays the inevitable and emphasizes once again that no one has answered the call.

In 17:31, the people inform Saul of David’s words, and the king calls the hero. In the meeting between leader and hero, David takes the initiative and calls for the commission from the objecting Saul.[13]

  • hero’s encouragement:
    “Let no one’s heart fail because of him;”
  • call for commission:
    “your servant will go and fight with this Philistine” (17:32).
  • leader’s objection:
    “You are not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him; for you are just a boy, and he has been a warrior from his youth” (17:33).
  • hero’s answer:
    David boasts of his battles against the lion and the bear, concluding: “The Lord, who saved me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, will save me from the hand of this Philistine” (17:34-37a).
  • leader’s commission and blessing:[14]
    And Saul said to David, “Go, and may the Lord be with you” (17:37b).
  • preparation for battle:[15]
    1. by the leader: Saul gives David arms and armor, but David, unable to move, rejects them (17:38-39).
    2. by the hero: David takes his staff and five smooth stones for his sling
  • hero’s journey: and moves toward the Philistine (17:40).

Again the narrative departs from the traditional pattern with the hero rejecting the traditional arms, and the reason lies in the hero’s impediment: The boy is unable to move. As Jason points out, Goliath, rather than David, appears as the traditional hero with his magnificent arms and armor. [16] Some disparity between hero and foe is not altogether unexpected. Except for Achilles, the heroes typically face foes with an air of invincibility, often underlined by false heroes or an initial failure by the hero.[17] This air of invincibility heightens tensions and redounds ultimately to the glory of the hero. Still, the warrior-hero is traditionally at the height of his physical strength, but again David is a boy.

The contrast between the very large and the very small belongs more properly to the world of the fairy tale where the youngest son conquers dragons and giants.[18] These youths inevitably receive marvelous protectors, magic swords, etc. David, however, has no marvelous helpers. His narrative world is this world and not the marvelous, imaginary world of the heroic fairy tale.[19] David, a typical biblical hero, relies not on physical strength but on intelligence and on the Lord. Therefore, he wisely and symbolically rejects the cumbersome, if heroic, arms of Saul in favor of the sling of the shepherd which a boy can wield. Even so, there is no deception, which is the traditional weapon of the unlikely heroes in the Bible. David meets Goliath face to face. The storyteller links David specifically with the warrior-heroes in the boy’s report of his victories over the lion and the bear, traditional images of heroic conquest.[20] Thus David becomes an ironic vision of the powerful warrior-hero.

The story derives its force in large part from the tension of three elements. First, the fairy tale motif of the boy as a giant killer appeals to the audience’s hope in the dream, in the ideal. Second, David’s means are entirely realistic and affirm the possibility of that dream and ideal within this human space and time. Finally, the link to the Old Testament’s unlikely heroes underlines the hand of God making the dream a realistic ideal.

5.3. The End: The Victory and Recognition: 1 Sam 17:41—18:4

5.3.1. Single combat between the Hero and the Enemy: 1 Sam 17:41-52

More than any other in the Old Testament, this story follows the battle tradition of single-combat:

  • the meeting of the warriors: 17:41
  • the verbal exchange:
  • the enemy’s false confidence and insults: 17:42-44.
    Goliath, full of bravado, insults the hero because of his youthful and handsome appearance.
  • the hero’s indictment and prophecy of the outcome: 17:45-47
  • the foe charges the hero: 17:48
  • Hero’s mortal blow with a missile: 17:49a-c: stone from his sling.
  • the enemy’s fall to the ground: 17:49d
  • summary: 17:50[21]
  • the hero’s triumphal stance over the body: 17:51a
  • the mutilation of the enemy corpse with a hand weapon: 17:51b, decapitation
  • the recognition of defeat by the enemy army: 17:51c, flight
  • the recognition of victory by “our” side: 17:52: shout, pursuit and great destruction of the enemy

David carries out the hero’s traditional actions in single-combat, much like Marduk, Sinuhe, and Achilles. The uniqueness of the biblical story is found in the irony of the boy-hero rather than in the displacement of traditional motifs.

When the warriors meet, “the Philistine looked and saw David, and he disdained him; for he was only youth, ruddy and handsome in appearance” (17:42). Beauty is a traditional trait of the hero, and David’s beauty marked him as the hero already in 16:12 and 16:18.[22] As Alonso Schökel notes, the emphasis falls not on physical prowess but upon beauty that mirrors the quality of David’s heart.[23] The foe does not recognize this tradition. Instead, Goliath sees only a boy, the appearance of weakness, and this becomes the focus of Goliath’s taunts and false confidence: “and the Philistine cursed David by his gods.” (1 Sam 17:43).[24]

David’s indictment of Goliath counters these taunts with a definition of apparent and real power: “You come to me with sword and spear and javelin; but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied.” (17:45). As Brueggemann notes, “no one else in the story has named the name of Yahweh.”[25] He is the only one who understands what is truly happening, and this statement sums up that major theme, carefully prepared by the continual contrast of big and small, strong and weak, old and young, apparent and real. The hero’s speech ends with the prophecy of the outcome, a traditional element of the biblical battle tradition, which affirms that the resolution is not happenstance.[26]

The identification of hero and deity is a central theme of the royal battle narratives, and its suggestion here fits David. Already in 1 Sam 16:13, “the spirit of the Lord” comes upon David and claims him for the divine, Then in 16:18, one of Saul’s court states, “The Lord is with him.”[27] This phrase, the assurance of divine presence, is linked mainly with the divine commission of a hero. Significantly, there is no divine commission in 1 Sam 17. The hero does not need it because it has already happened in 16:1-13. Instead, David himself delivers the hand-formula to Goliath, proclaiming that both the Philistine foe and army will be delivered into his hand and the hand of Israel (17:46,47). The hero confronts the foe’s false confidence with his own true and well-placed confidence. Again we have the theme of appearance and reality.

The fight itself moves very quickly. There is no initial failure by the hero which would be inappropriate here. Furthermore, the foe finds no chance to hurl a spear or shoot an arrow; also inappropriate. When Goliath charges, David with the first stone causes the giant to fall to the ground.[28] Then, after taking the triumphal stand over the body, the boy cuts off the Philistine’s head, using the foe’s own sword.[29]

David’s victory is eminently realistic. Although the boy rejects the conventions of warfare, his sling is nonetheless a realistic and deadly weapon. What seemed ridiculous in the eyes of Eliab, Saul and Goliath become in retrospect a most intelligent strategy. The realism and simplicity of the solution are significant. No deity appears in the action either to assist the hero or to strike a first blow, as happens for both Achilles and Gilgamesh. The intervention of the gods for those heroes, as A.B. Lord says, shows them to be human and not divine, dependent upon powers beyond themselves.[30] Here David’s humanity is in no danger of being forgotten because it is blatantly manifest in his youth. However, David does not point to himself or to the intelligent shift in his strategy. The boy makes no distinction between his action and the Lord’s. The two are one. As a result, the triumph becomes a celebration of divine power made real through its human instrument.

This is not a new insight. Michelangelo understood this story’s fundamental metaphor when he turned the boy into a Goliath of a statue embodying the ideal form of physical strength. The sculptor has radically overturned the story’s central metaphor to reimagine David’s stature in this victory. Michelangelo’s ideal form, admittedly a Platonic ideal, reflects in its own terms the human ideal which David becomes for much of the biblical tradition. This youth, innocent of adult fears and conventions, trusts wholly in the Lord of Hosts and triumphs over defiant humanity through the union of the human and the divine.

This interpretation builds on the tradition of the cosmic struggle seen in the Enūma eliš. Goliath, however, is no mythic force of chaos; rather, he represents the tangible chaos of this world, and he is all the more menacing because his blasphemous defiance is part of this world. David meets this chaos within the confines of this world, but the hero’s view of reality does not exclude the Lord of Host. On the contrary, reality is precisely the union of the human and the divine within this world. For David, it is no longer necessary to re-enter the garden to recover the ideal.

5.3.2. Plunder and recognition: 1 Sam 17:53-58, 18:2

After the destruction of the enemy army and the return journey, Israel plunders the Philistine camp: “David took the head of the Philistine and brought it to Jerusalem, but he put the armor in his tent” (17:53-54). The foe’s armor is the battle hero’s traditional share of the plunder.[31] Likewise, the bodies of the slain are trophies of war and are carried back to the hero’s town or camp as a sign of victory.[32] The mention of Jerusalem introduces the theme of David’s kingship, which flows in part from his role as a national hero, yet Jerusalem and the recognition of David as king lie in the future.

The storyteller begins the king’s recognition of the hero with a flashback: as David goes out to meet Goliath, Saul turns to Abner his commander and asks about the identity of the boy’s father.[33] Saul’s ignorance of David’s parentage underlines once again the boy’s insignificance, and this produces the vivid scene in which the boy, “with the head of the Philistine in his hand,” appears before the king and announces, “I am the son of your servant Jesse the Bethlehemite” (17:57).[34] As Jason notes, the dragon-slayers of the heroic fairy tales traditionally bring back the head as a sign of their victory, and here David brings the head of Goliath with him to meet Saul in the scene of recognition.[35] The boy does not receive the rewards promised in 17:25 (riches, princess, and free house); rather, they are held in abeyance for the moment and are used to bind this story with 1 Samuel 18. Instead, Saul makes David a part of his court (18:2), a reward similar to the one that the hero received in 16:21-22.

The recognition of David by Saul (17:55-58; 18:2) alternates with the recognition by Jonathan (18:1,3-4). As B. Fenik, in his analysis of the Iliad, has pointed out, alternation is a traditional technique used to create a sense of simultaneous action.[36] In 17:55 –18:4, the alternation suggests the immediacy of Jonathan’s reaction to the hero’s victory.

From the prince, David receives covenantal love (18:1, 3-4), just as he received Saul’s love in 16:21. As a sign of their covenant, Jonathan gives the hero his armor and robe. Some scholars, noting the connection of robe (mʿyl) with royalty, interpret this divestiture as a symbolic gift of royal succession to the hero.[37] This interpretation fits with the battle tradition in which the hero receives kingship as the reward for his victory. Still, the robe is only a foreshadowing of the future. David is not yet king, and much lies between the portent and its fulfillment. This relationship also fits into the larger tradition of heroic friendship

5.3.3. Heroic friendship: 1 Sam 18:1,3-4.

The storyteller can create the relationship between David and Jonathan with surprisingly few strokes because it evokes the tradition of heroic friendship, represented by Gilgamesh and Enkidu, and by Achilles and Patroclus.[38] The metaphor of heroic friends as brothers conveys the intensity of this bond. As such, the relationship is a variation of the bond between lord and servant (father and son) with the same demands of mutual loyalty and protection.[39] Ninsun, the mother of Gilgamesh, interprets the dream of her son about a rock which fell from heaven and says: “Like a wife you loved it, caressed and embrace it: / a mighty comrade will come to you, and be his friend’s savior.”[40] This theme is prominent in the Iliad as well. When Hector kills Patroclus, Achilles curses himself, “Straightway may I die, seeing I was not to bear aid to my comrade.”[41] Though presented most dramatically in the relationship of Achilles and Patroclus, the theme shapes the relationships of other heroic pairs in the Iliad who attest to the pervasiveness of this code.[42]

Significantly, Hector has no heroic friend. On the battlefield, the Trojan hero is linked continually with Polydamas, the bane of his life. Hector’s primary relationships lie within the city with his wife Andromache and with Priam, his father and king. When Deiphobus appears at Hector’s side in the traditional role of a heroic friend just before the battle with Achilles, the hero praises his friend as the “dearest of my brethren” because he has come to help while the others have taken refuge within the walls (XXII 233-237). The sentiment is touching but deluded. Deiphobus is safe within the walls of Troy, and Pallas Athene has disguised herself as the heroic friend in order to lead Hector into an unequal battle with Achilles. A lone man against unequal odds does not survive on the battlefield, and the heroic friendship is precisely a pact against death, although in Homer death is an ever-present reality.

The heroic friendship between David and Jonathan opens in 1 Sam 18:1 with the sentence: “The soul (nepeš) of Jonathan was knit to the soul (nepeš) of David, and Jonathan loved (ʾhb) him as his own soul (nepeš).” The word Hebrew word nepeš means “life” or “self.” “To love another as one’s own self” expresses the bond between lord and servant, and it dates at least from the period of the Mari letters.[43] Weinfeld has demonstrated that the Akkadian phrase “to love PN as yourself” (râmu kī napšatkuna) becomes a recurrent phrase in the political loyalty oaths and is equivalent to the willingness to die as discussed below.[44] This covenant love binds warriors together so that they may face death, for only together do they stand a chance of surviving. Moreover, having faced death together, this bond becomes indestructible.

The relationship between the two men is formalized in 18:3, where “Jonathan and David cut a covenant (yikrōt berît) because of each loving the other as his own self (nepeš).”[45] Jonathan’s gift of clothes and weapons becomes the concrete sign of covenant.[46] While all of this is traditional, the friendship has a new complexity: Jonathan is the prince while David is the hero destined to become king. Still, the prince neutralizes the inherent conflict from its very outset by recognizing David as the hero. This recognition never wavers and presumes that David will become king according to the battle tradition.

Jonathan fulfills his duties of loyalty and service to David in 19:1-7 by preventing Saul from carrying out the plot to kill David. By this reconciliation, Jonathan has also managed to head off a potential conflict between his loyalty to Saul, king and father, and his loyalty to David, friend and hero. That proves false and allows the storyteller to rebuild the tension to a new and higher pitch. When Jonathan again enters the story in 1 Sam 20, the possibility of reconciliation between leader and hero is fast receding into the past. In the end, David must flee the court. However, Jonathan’s loyalty to his king and father takes precedence over the covenant with his friend. The prince remains and dies with his father. His death, like Hector’s, is a tragic death caused not by some flaw but by loyal love.

The death of the heroic friend is a traditional motif. In the end, the hero must face the final battle alone. Therefore, Enkidu and Patroclus must die so that Gilgamesh and Achilles may prove themselves alone. The psychological implications of this are not difficult to imagine.

This text and others about heroic friendship affirm the love between men. Present concerns with homosexuality have placed this relationship into a new context.[47] As is often the case, the Bible’s concerns and ours do not overlap exactly. Sexuality may be used both literally and metaphorically. The plain meaning of the text does not support a reading of literal sexual relations. To argue for a metaphorical reading, one would need to define homosexuality to ascertain whether there is a relationship of likeness. That would require a definition that is much discussed today.

Much of the discussion has turned on a line from David’s lament where he says of Jonathan: “your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.” (2 Sam 1:26). While some have interpreted this love of men and women as the difference between homosexuality and heterosexuality, the interpretation does not fit its traditional context. Within the battle tradition, this division distinguishes between the loves in war and the loves in peace. The love in war is that love that allows warriors to face death together.[48] As Ittai the Gittite says to David: “As the Lord lives, and as my lord the king lives, wherever my lord the king shall be, whether for death or for life, there also will your servant be” (2 Sam 15:21). Being there for death or for life is the content of covenantal love and faithfulness. Although Ittai’s words make clear the battle context of this love, we find the same sentiment expressed by Ruth to her mother-in-law Naomi as they face the prospect of death:

“Do not press me to leave you
or to turn back from following you!
Where you go, I will go;
where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
and your God my God.
17 Where you die, I will die—
there will I be buried.
May the Lord do thus and so to me,
and more as well,
if even death parts me from you!” (Ruth 1:16-17)

In the Song of Songs 8:6, one of the lovers also speaks of death and the love between a man and a woman:

Set me as a seal upon your heart,
as a seal upon your arm;
for love is strong as death,
passion fierce as the grave.

Its flashes are flashes of fire,
a raging flame.[49]

Though Jonathan will die with his father in battle, David will sing famously of that love—a love that allows both men and women to face death together.

5.4. Footnotes for Chapter 5

[1] Although the text of 1 Sam 17 presents some textual problems, the two major traditions found in LXXB and the MT present coherent stories, and I shall consider the story as it stands in the Hebrew. This opinion is substantiated by Stephen Pisano in his text-critical study which shows that, contrary to the tide of recent scholarship on the Books of Samuel, the recension of LXXB does not necessarily represent the better textual tradition. He concludes: “LXX has sought to lighten what is considered to be an overloaded redundant or contradictory text”; Additions or Omissions in the Books of Samuel: The Significant Pluses and Minuses in the Massoretic, Septuagint, and Qumran Texts (Orbis Biblicus et Orientalis 57; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Rupprecht, 1984). Despite this study, various scholars still hold that the Hebrew text of LXXB was expanded to create the MT; cf. A. Graeme Auld I & II Samuel: A Commentary (Louisville, KY: WJK Press, 2011) 194; also A. Caquot and Philippe de Robert, Les Livres de Samuel (Geneva: Labor et Fides, 1994) 199-201.

[2] For a full discussion of the ways in which David and Goliath embody their cultures, see Mark K. George, “Constructing Identity in 1 Samuel 17,” Biblical Interpretation, 7.4 (1999) 389-412. According to George, David’s identity reflects the needs of the Israelite community in the exilic and post-exilic periods (408).

[3] Jason notes that “a round number plus ‘a little more’ is a standard formula for expressing large amounts and sizes in the ethnopoetry of the Middle East”; “David and Goliath,” 47.

[4] Cf. K. Galling, “Goliat und seine Rustung,” Vetus Testamentum Supplement 15 (1966) 150-169.

[5] 1 Sam 17:8, 10, 11, 16, 23, 262, 32, 33, 36, 37, 40, 41, 42, 432, 44, 45, 482, 49, 502, 51, 54, 55, 572; also in the plural in 17:1, 2, 3, 4, 19, 21, 23, 46, 51, 522, 53.

[6] Francesca Aran Murphy, I Samuel, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2010) 178.

[7] Jason, “David and Goliath,” 46.

[8] Jason, “David and Goliath,” 41. Stith Thompson, The Folktale, 125-130; Motif-Index, L 10. Marduk also is the last of the gods born in the Enūma eliš, I 79-82; IV 73-74. In Esarhaddon, I 8, the hero describes himself as “younger than my older brothers”; this awkward phrase would seem to be an attempt to express the tradition motif since Akkadian has no superlative form; cf. W. von Soden, Grundriß der Akkadischen Grammatik (AnOr 47; Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute: 1969) sect. 68. Also Nestor was the youngest when he slew Ereuthalion “the tallest … and strongest man” whom he ever killed (Iliad VII 150-156).

[9] As is generally recognized, 1 Sam 17:15 is an attempt to harmonize 16:14-21 and 1 Samuel 17, but it fails to neutralize the difference. The image of the shepherd is pervasive throughout the ancient Near East as an image for the king. For examples in the ancient Near East, cf. Ee VI 108; VII 72; Legend of Naram-Sin 91-92; Esarhaddon I 4.

[10] Jason, “David and Goliath,” 41; she also discusses the formulaic numbers in this story.

[11] The hero’s reaction of righteous indignation is the complement of the reaction of helplessness by “our” side. Typically anger, whether overt or implicit, fills the motif. As here, Sinuhe uses rhetorical questions (113-127). For the motif, see §2.4.3.

[12] 1 Sam 17:29; my translation which follows the suggestion of Henry Preserved Smith, in A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Books of Samuel (ICC; NY 1904), ad. loc. and followed by Stoebe, Kommentar, 324, v. 29a. However, this has not been followed by more recent scholars such as Auld, I & II Samuel, 201.

[13] For the hero’s call and the commission by an objecting leader, see §2.4.3.

[14] For the blessing by a human leader, see §2.4.3.

[15] For the preparation for battle, see §2.4.3.

[16] Jason, “David and Goliath,” 49.

[17] False heroes are discussed in §2.4.3, and the hero’s initial failure in §2.5.1.

[18] Jason, Ethnopoetry, 4.2.1, “Heroic Fairy-tale.” Stith Thompson discusses “The Dragon Slayer” in The Folktale, 24-33, Type 300 in A. Aarne and S. Thompson, The Types of the Folktale (Folklore Fellows Communications 184; Helsinki: Academia Scientiarum Fennica, 1962). This is also noted by Alter, The David Story: A Translation with Commentary of 1 and 2 Samuel. (NY: W.W. Norton & Co, 1999) 104. Jason uses the term “mode” rather than “narrative world” which she defines in terms of time and space but also in terms of the power that resolves the tension. The biblical narrative world is this world where divine power is also at work.

[19] Jason, “David and Goliath,” 61-66.

[20] The lion and the bear are linked in other Old Testament passages (sometimes with other wild animals); cf. Isa 11:6-7; Hos 13:7-8; Amos 5:19; Prov 28:15; Lam 3:10. The killing of a lion is associated with other heroes as a sign of heroic strength: Samson in Judg 14:5-6 kills a lion without his parents knowing; Hercules kills a lion on Mount Cithaeron at the age of eighteen, and the lion skin becomes that hero’s iconographic image. The kings of Assyria enjoyed lion hunting as a royal sport as seen in the famous lion hunt reliefs in the British Museum.

[21] This summary provides the narrative space which allows the audience time to assimilate the victory. A restatement of a victory can also be found in Ee IV 123-128 and Exod 14:30.

[22] He is described in 1 Sam 16:12 as “ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome.” In 16:18, David is described as a hero: “who is skillful in playing, a man of valor, a warrior, prudent in speech, and a man of good presence; and the LORD is with him.”

[23] Alonso Schökel, Samuel, 91. Bowra points out that physical beauty is part of the hero’s traditional attributes; Heroic Poetry, 99.

[24] For insults and the enemy’s false confidence, see §2.5.1. Also Niditch, War, 92-94. For the “dog formula,” cf. A. Rainey, “Morphology and the prefix-Tenses of West Semiticized El ‘Amarna Tablets,” Ugarit-Forschungen 7 (1975) 395-426, esp. 408.

[25] Walter Brueggemann, First and Second Samuel, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990) 130.

[26] Deborah foretells that Sisera will die by the hand of a woman, and in 2 Kgs 3, Elisha prophesies the miraculous flood in the desert. Prophecies appear also in the following texts: Exod 14:1‑4,13; Josh 6:5; Judg 4:9; 7:13‑14; 1 Sam 17:46‑47; 28:19; 1 Kgs 22:17; 2 Kgs 3:16‑19; 9:6‑10; 19:6‑7, 32‑34; 2 Chr 20:15‑17. This motif is related to the more general hand‑formula; for that cf. von Rad’s list in Der Heilige Krieg, 7‑9. Compare also Iliad XXII 216‑223.

[27] 1 Sam 16:18 records the assurance of divine presence. Within the larger context, Saul’s blessing in 17:37 strikes a note of dramatic irony because David needs no blessing, “The Lord is with him” (16:18).

[28] The foe is typically killed by this initial blow in the rest of the tradition with the exception of Homer who, as Fenik notes, typically tells of a warrior wounded by “a stone or spear” and then killed by a sword. Homer’s departure from the tradition allows the warriors to engage in a final dialogue (cf. Iliad XVI 830-861; XXII 331-360). Typical Scenes in the Iliad, 64. As Auld notes Goliath falls on his face to the ground as does “Dagon, the Philistine god before the ark in an earlier episode” (1 Sam 5:3-4); I & II Samuel, 212.

[29] In Sinuhe 140, the foe is killed with “his ax”; there “his” must refer to the enemy because the story is told in the first person. Interestingly, the later version in the Ashmolean Ostracon (line 54) reads, “I felled him with my ax.” In my opinion, the later scribe has missed the significance of the traditional motif and, therefore, has given us a more “logical” reading.

[30] A.B. Lord, “Tradition and the Oral Poet,” 18-19. For Hector, see Iliad XVI 712-725, 785-793; for Gilgamesh see the Hittite version of the fight with Ḫuwawa; ANET3, 83. Athena does not strike Hector for Achilles, but she deceives the Trojan hero and returns Achilles’ spear which goes astray in the initial attempt (Iliad XXII 214-231, 271-278).

[31] For armor as the hero’s share of the plunder, see §2.5.3.

[32] Cf. 1 Sam 31:9-10; see Hector’s threat in the Iliad XVI 836; Achilles carries off the body of Hector but returns it to Priam as a sign of his humanity (Iliad XXII, XXIV).

[33] Saul’s ignorance does not square well with his interaction with the hero earlier in the story and has been a source of scholarly wonderment. Robert Alter also suggests that the discrepancy was as clear to the redactor and his audience as it is to us but “these contradictions would have been inconsequential in comparison with the advantage gained in providing a double perspective on David.” Though such contradictions run contrary to modern Western narrative, the Bible places these variants “in a kind of implicit dialogue with one another” as in Genesis; The David Story: A Translation with Commentary of 1 and 2 Samuel (NY: W.W. Norton & Co. 1999), 110

[34] Robert Alter accepts that the presence of two different traditions but says: “What we need to ask, however, is why the redactor set these two stories in immediate sequence, despite the contradictions that must have been as evident to him as to us. A reasonable conclusion is that for the ancient audience, and for the redactor, these contradictions would have been inconsequential in comparison with the advantage gained in providing a double perspective on David; The David Story, 110.

[35] 1 Sam 17:57; the severed head functions as a proof of victory; also in Jdt 13:15-17. As for Saul’s ignorance of David’s parentage, Jason notes that it is typical for the hero in the heroic fairy tale to reach “the father of the king’s daughter unrecognized”; “David and Goliath,” 44-45. An example of this motif can be found in the Egyptian story of “The Doomed Prince,” 6,5-10, translated by Edward F. Wente, Jr. The Literature of Ancient Egypt, ed. William Kelly Simpson (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003) 75-79, esp. 77. There the question also concerns the identity of the hero’s parent, and the motif is crucial for the plot. When the hero is identified as the son of an Egyptian charioteer, the father of the princess goes into a rage, refuses to hand over his daughter in marriage, and orders the hero killed. Eventually, all is set right because the father, on seeing the hero, recognizes that young man’s worth although the hero’s real identity as the son of the pharaoh is never revealed. Before arguing that the motif once had a more prominent role in the tradition of David and Goliath, it is wise to remember that every story does not always develop all the possibilities of a motif.

[36] Fenik lists two typical ways of handling simultaneous action in the Iliad: 1) “the action that is interrupted is resumed at exactly the same point where it left off, without any time having elapsed; cf. V 319-330; XIII 39-136; XV 666-684”; 2) “the action continues to move forward as we proceed from one part of the scene to the other; cf. V 663-698; XIII 402-424 “; Typical Battle Scenes in the Iliad: Studies in Narrative Technique of Homeric Battle Descriptions (Hermes Einzelschriften 21; Wiesbaden: F. Steiner, 1968), 37-38. A good example of the first pattern may be found in 2 Sam 13:37-39. The second type can be seen in the middle section of this story (17:12-24), where scenes about David, Goliath, and the armies alternate in order to suggest simultaneous action taking place in Bethlehem and on the battlefield. The action in 1 Sam 17:55–18:4 conforms basically to the second pattern with the exception of 17:55-56 which provides a flashback to the time before the fight scene with 17:57 picking up the action of 17:54 (37-38). Fenik also describes a third technique in which the time required for one action to be completed is filled by something else that goes on simultaneously (109).

[37] Cf. Mettinger, King and Messiah, 34, 39. McCarter indicates that this has been pointed out by earlier scholars and cites J. Morgenstern, “David and Jonathan,” Journal of Biblical Literature  78 (1959) 322-325, esp. 322.

[38] Mark Smith discusses at length the relationship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu, Achilles and Patroclus, David and Jonathan at some length; Poetic Heroes, 51-67. Wilhelm Schmid and Otto Stahlin, in their Geschichte der griechischen Literature (Handbuch der Altertumswissenschaft 7.1.1; Munich: C.H. Beck, 1929) 63, list the following as examples of Freundespaar, heroic friends: Achilles and Patroclus, Hercules and Iolaus, Theseus and Pirithous, Orestes and Pylades, Herzog Ernst and Werner von Kyburg, Tristan and Kurwenal, Don Carlos and Marquis Posa; in addition to friends, Schmid and Stahlin also cite pairs of fathers and sons, kings and vassals. This list of pairs reflects A. Orliks’s “Law of Twins” in “Epische Gesetze der Volksdichtung,” Zeitschrift fur deutsches Altertum und deutsche Literatur 51 (1909) 1-12. See also Bowra, Heroic Poetry, 65-68; in addition to Achilles and Patroclus, Bowra lists Roland and Oliver, Gilgamesh and Enkidu, the Uzbek Alpamys and Karadzhan, and the Armenian brothers Sanasar and Bagdasar. D.J. McCarthy has discussed the friendship between David and Jonathan as a heroic friendship, and he notes the “imitation” of heroic tradition “in the stories like Fennimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales”; cf. “Berît and Covenant in the Deuteronomistic History,” Vetus Testamentum Supplement 23 (1972) 65-85, esp. 70-71. The tradition of hero and friend continues, if as a shadow, in literature of all kinds and may be found on television today in the adventure stories of cowboys, policemen, etc.

[39] On brothers, cf. McCarthy, Treaty and Covenant2, 189. Kalluveettil, Declaration and Covenant, 99-101 et passim. Cf. also 2 Sam 1:26 and 1 Sam 25:20.

[40] Gilg. I 267-268 with parallels in I 270-71, and in a second dream about an ax, I 284-285, 289-290. The story of Gilgamesh’s dreams and his mother’s interpretation is told to Enkidu by Shamhat the woman who civilizes through sexual union.

[41] Iliad XVIII 98-99.

[42] Sarpedon and Glaucus, cf. esp. Iliad XII 387-399; XVI 461-501. Aias and Teucon, the Aiantes, VIII 266-273; they fight Sarpedon and Glaucus in XII 370-412.

[43] CAD cites under napištu, Jørgen Laessøe, The Shemshara Tablets (Copenhagen: I kommission hos Munksgaard, 1959) 81, SH 812:57-58, “whom his lord loves as his own life” (u <sa-tu> be-el-su ki-ma na-piš-ti-su/ i-ra-mu-su). Also ARM II 72:24 which CAD translates “Do you not know that I love (you like my own) life (<ki>-ma na-piš-tam a-ra-am-mu at-ta u-ul ti-de-e).

[44] Moshe Weinfeld, “The Loyalty Oath in the Ancient Near East,” Ugarit-Forschungen 8 (1976) 379-414, esp. 383-385; cf. “Vassal Treaties of Esarhaddon,” ANET3, 534, lines 266-268: “If you do not love … Ashurbanipal … your lord … as your own lives … .” Cf. also Iliad XVIII 81-82: “Patroclus, whom I honored above all my comrades even as my own self (κεφαλή = head).” As Weinfeld points out the tradition comes to rest in the Šemaʿ (Deut 6:4-5); also in Lev 19:18 which is juxtaposed with the Šemaʿ in Matt 22:36-39 and Luke 10:27.

[45] McCarthy, “Berît and Covenant,” 68, n. 3; he argues that the double subject with a singular verb is “perfectly acceptable grammar” and refers the reader to Gen 9:23 and also to Paul Joüon, Grammaire de l’hébreu biblique (Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1923) 150q. In view of that, perhaps the phrase, “because of his loving him as his own nepeš” should be translated as a reference to both subjects: “because each loved the other as his own nepeš.”

[46] McCarthy discusses the giving of gifts as a symbolic action for sealing a covenant in “Three Covenants in Genesis,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 27 (1964) 179-189, esp. 182-183.

[47] Mark Smith explores the question of homosexuality and heroic friendships concludes with others that the biblical “texts in the first place do not address sex, but love.” He notes that “modern scholarship has expended considerable energy on trying to peek behind the narrative via various tantalizing details,” adding: “As a result, we have perhaps been seduced into an approach that largely opts between maximal and minimal conclusions influenced by modern issues.” ; Poetic Heroes, 82.

[48] Smith, Poetic Heroes, 275. He also notes, “that the male bonding of David and Jonathan may in part emblemize the exclusion of females, reflected in Aqhat’s famous retort to Anat (KTU 1.17 VI 39-41): ‘Bows are …warriors; now shall womanhood go hunting?’ In this statement, Aqhat asserts the gendered understanding of warrior culture”; Poetic Heroes, 274-275.

Though admittedly an ad hominem argument, I would like to point to a story on American veterans of the Vietnam war who gathered for “a twelve year-on reunion organized by CBS News, with Newsweek cooperation…. It was a made-for-television event, but the artifice fell away in the rush of sentiment and the reawakening of that powerful bonding they had known in danger together – love stronger in its way (Donald M.) Stagnaro guessed, than most have felt even for their wives”; “Reunion,” Newsweek 24 (December 14, 1981) 97. This speaks to the universality of this experience.

[49] Mark Smith notes that “flashes of fire” could be understood as “arrows of fire,” and so a military image suggesting that “the romantic love of the man and the women in the Song is stronger than the fierceness of warriors engaged in a life-and-death struggle”; Poetic Heroes, p. 409, n. 72.


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Mighty in Battle by Harry Hagan, OSB, © Saint Meinrad Archabbey, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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