David and Goliath — how terribly unfair!

By Frederic Friedel

We all know the story from the Jewish Bible, told in 1 Samuel 17 in the Old Testament. The Israelites were facing the Philistines — the bad guys — who kept sending out their fiercest warrior to challenge the enemy to do battle in single combat. Goliath, the Philistine, was a brute of a man: six foot nine inches tall (a later text puts him at nine feet nine inches or 2.97 meters). “He had a bronze helmet on his head;” Samuel 17 tells us, “and wore a coat of scale armor of bronze weighing five thousand shekels; on his legs he wore bronze greaves, and a bronze javelin was slung on his back. His spear shaft was like a weaver’s rod, and its iron point weighed six hundred shekels. His shield bearer went ahead of him.”

Goliath’s challenge was: “Choose a man and have him come down to me. If he is able to fight and kill me, we will become your subjects; but if I overcome him and kill him, you will become our subjects and serve us.” He kept doing this for forty days, and it left the Israelites dismayed and terrified, and full of loathing for this “uncircumcised Philistine”.

Along comes David, a chit of a shepherd boy, charged with delivering some corn and bread to the troops. He hears the roaring challenge of the Philistine giant and volunteers to take him on. The Israelite soldiers can only laugh, but David explains: while tending the sheep he killed both a lion and a bear, and he would do the same for “this uncircumcised Philistine” (yes, it was an obsession at the time). The Israelites relented, and tried dressing David in some armour. But it was too heavy and he was unable to walk properly in it. So he faced Goliath in a loincloth, armed only with a sling and a pouch with a few small stones.

David and Goliath, colour lithograph by Osmar Schindler (c. 1888)

And David won! You can watch the battle, which has become a metaphor for uneven contests and improbably victories, here in this video:

Goliath was killed, the Philistines fled, pursued by the Israelites, who killed as many as they could and then plundered their camp. That is biblical tradition.

For millennia we have cheered this astounding victory of good over evil, but we must ask ourselves: how did he do it? How did the shepherd boy overcome the giant, well-trained and well-armed warrior. The answer is: David had a gun! Or the closest you could get to this at the time.

Now I could tell you how it all happened, and why Goliath was the underdog in this contest, not David. But I will let Malcolm Gladwell do it, seeing I gained most of the insight for the above from the Canadian journalist and New Yorker staff writer. So do not miss his TED talk below, which is thoroughly inspiring and illuminating. It is sixteen minutes well worth investing. If you are pressed for time watch at least the first ten minutes.