David and Goliath retold…
When does the underdog win?
I have just finished reading The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks. It sets out in Brooks’ beautiful style the story of King David. Here is a man on which the ancient texts provide some insight. Brooks, thanks to her research and some literary licence has woven a tale of glory and defeat, hubris and failure, strength and weakness… and all in one man.
We all remember David for his legendary victory in the Valley of Elah against an intimidating opponent. In reading Brooks’ tale I was reminded of a blog on this subject I published last year (on my old website). As many of you may not have read it, I set it out below as an updated version.
I am currently reading Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath. In his book, Gladwell explores the world of the underdog. What better place to start than this epic tale of the little guy triumphing over a giant.
I have read one other Gladwell book Blink and while I find him thought-provoking I am never sure about the accuracy of his assertions. Nonetheless it is a very interesting read.
The story of David and Goliath is found in the book of Samuel in the Old Testament. To understand the power of Gladwell’s message it is necessary to return to the original text. Permit me to quote from the Book of Samuel.
“ 17.1 The Philistines mustered their troops for war; they assembled at Socoh in Judah and pitched camp between Socoh and Azekah, in Ephes-Dammim.
17:2 Saul and the Israelites also mustered, pitching camp in the Valley of the Terebinth, and drew up their battle-line opposite the Philistines.
17:4 A champion stepped out from the Philistine ranks; his name was Goliath, from Gath; he was six cubits and one span tall.
17:5 On his head was a bronze helmet and he wore a breastplate of scale-armour; the breastplate weighed five thousand shekels of bronze.
17:6 He had bronze greaves on his legs and a bronze scimitar slung across his shoulders.
17:7 The shaft of his spear was like a weaver’s beam, and the head of his spear weighed six hundred shekels of iron. A shield-bearer walked in front of him.
17:8 Taking position in front of the Israelite lines, he shouted, ‘Why have you come out to range yourselves for battle? Am I not a Philistine and are you not Saul’s lackeys? Choose a man and let him come down to me.
17:9 If he can fight it out with me and kill me, we will be your servants; but if I can beat him and kill him, you become our servants and serve us
17:32 David said to Saul, ‘Let no one be discouraged on his account; your servant will go and fight this Philistine.’
17:33 Saul said to David, ‘You cannot go and fight the Philistine; you are only a boy and he has been a warrior since his youth.’
17:34 David said to Saul, ‘Your servant used to look after the sheep for his father and whenever a lion or a bear came and took a sheep from the flock,
17:36 Your servant has killed both lion and bear, and this uncircumcised Philistine will end up like one of them for having challenged the armies of the living God.’
17:38 Saul dressed David in his own armour; he put a bronze helmet on his head, dressed him in a breastplate
17:39 and buckled his own sword over David’s armour. David tried to walk but, not being used to them, said to Saul, ‘I cannot walk in these; I am not used to them.’ So they took them off again.
17:40 He took his stick in his hand, selected five smooth stones from the river bed and put them in his shepherd’s bag, in his pouch; then, sling in hand, he walked towards the Philistine.
17:41 The Philistine, preceded by his shield-bearer, came nearer and nearer to David.
17:43 The Philistine said to David, ‘Am I a dog for you to come after me with sticks?’ And the Philistine cursed David by his gods.
17:48 No sooner had the Philistine started forward to confront David than David darted out of the lines and ran to meet the Philistine.
17:49 Putting his hand in his bag, he took out a stone, slung it and struck the Philistine on the forehead; the stone penetrated his forehead and he fell face downwards on the ground.
17:50 Thus David triumphed over the Philistine with a sling and a stone; he hit the Philistine and killed him, though he had no sword in his hand.
17:51 David ran and stood over the Philistine, seized his sword, pulled it from the scabbard, despatched him and cut off his head. When the Philistines saw that their champion was dead, they fled.
We all know the story or think we know the story. Let’s look at it more closely. Goliath was obviously quite confronting. In modern measurements he stood 6foot 9inches tall. He was covered in armour. His breastplate weighed 45 kg.
The first anomaly is that he had a shield bearer accompany him to the fighting ground. Why? Archers who have their hands busy with bow and arrow normally required a shield bearer to protect them. But an infantry man would normally carry his own shield.
Second anomaly. Goliath on seeing the young and unsoldierlike David says “Am I a dog for you to come after me with sticks”. Why does Goliath see sticks (plural) when David was only carrying one stick?
Third point of interest is that Goliath then invites David to “…come over here”. He obviously wants to engage in hand-to-hand combat where Goliath has the distinct advantage. But it is suggested there may be another reason for this invitation.
We have all heard of gigantism in children. It is caused by a tumour in the vicinity of the pituitary gland causing the overproduction of growth hormone. In adults this condition is called acromegaly. The symptoms of acromegaly are not only large hands and feet and significant height. In some cases the tumour also compresses the nerves between the eyes and the brain causing blurred and double vision.
Commentators believe that Goliath suffered from acromegaly with reduced eyesight. His poor eyesight explains the need for a shield bearer to walk in front of him. This was not so much to protect him but to show him the way. He sees sticks in David’s hand because of his double vision. He beckons David to come closer not only to fight him at close quarters but to see him better.
So we have an intimidating soldier of superhuman proportions. He is carrying heavy armour and is visually impaired.
He is confronted by a stone slinger who is light and moves quickly and freely across the field of battle. Stone slingers in those times were quite lethal. Their accuracy was frightening. The speed they generated before launching their projectile was staggering. Writers at that time tell us that once stones were embedded in a victim’s skull they could not be easily removed. The Romans developed a tool resembling steel tongs that were used to remove such projectiles.
Remember David had slain bears and lions to protect his sheep.
Another important factor is that David was not prepared to fight Goliath on his terms. He was a shepherd not a soldier. He rejected the armour and weaponry provided by Saul. He was a member of the artillery brigade not an infantryman.
So in effect the story is about the slow and visually impaired soldier confronting a young and agile shepherd carrying the equivalent of a 45 Colt pistol.
So when we compare the two who was the underdog?
When we look closely at the circumstances David had all the advantages. His disadvantages were his advantages. Goliath’s advantages were his disadvantages.
Gladwell uses the story to drive home an important point. Studies show that underdogs rarely win when they fight on the terms that are confronting them. However, when they change the terms and surprise their opponent their chances improve by a staggering amount!!!