David and Goliath – Setting the Stage
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In 1 Samuel 17, we find the age-old story of David defeating Goliath. However, it is important to understand the geographical setting of this story to gain the full impact of the biblical events.
Geographically, the Elah Valley was where the armies of the Philistines and Israel were encamped. The Philistines were located between Soccoh and Azekah on the southern portion of the valley. Soccoh was a conquered Israelite city and served as the Philistines staging ground. The armies of Israel were camped on the northern hill area of the valley in the location of the later city of Sha’arym. The brook that cuts through the valley served as the demilitarized zone.
Though many have known the story since childhood, too often important details that appear mundane are key to understanding the point of the narrative told by the author of 1 Samuel.
What was happening in the area prior to David entering the scene? Yes, Goliath is mentioned as the Philistines champion, but who is the counteracting champion on the side of Israel? Some minds will jump to David as the “champion” of Israel, as they know the end of the story. However, in 1 Samuel 9:1-2 there is a description of a man who fits the description of Israel’s champion, as he, like Goliath, was the largest by stature in the nation’s ranks.
“There was a man of Benjamin whose name was Kish, the son of Abiel, son of Zeror, son of Becorath, son of Aphiah, a Benjaminite, a man of wealth. And he had a son whose name was Saul, a handsome young man. There was not a man among the people of Israel more handsome than he. From his shoulders upward he was taller than any of the people.”
Realizing that Saul fits the description of one who should stand toe to toe with Goliath, it is interesting to recall Judges 20, that the men of the tribe of Benjamin (of which Saul was a part) were especially skilled with a stone and a sling.
In 2013, tests were conducted at the university of Nebraska as to the effectiveness of the sling throughout history. When using a leather or cloth sling with a sling stone that matched the archaeological record for Iron Age (the date of the story of David and Goliath), it resulted in a velocity of the stone reaching between 50-55 m/s (roughly 120-125 mph) with a range of accuracy at 65 yards (195 feet). This data appears to support the idea that in the days of Israel’s early monarch, the sling outranged the bows of its day. Due to the training needed to obtain true accuracy, its use was limited to those, like the Benjaminites, who were especially skilled with the sling shot.
Knowing the facts, one can ascertain that the champion Goliath was calling out was the champion of Israel. His name was Saul, the king, and the most skilled warrior for the job. Yet, Saul’s fear caught hold of him. If Saul was too fearful to stand up against Goliath, who would? The answer is a little more obvious than one might think: it is someone who has everything to lose if Israel fails — a young man from Bethlehem.
Reviewing the geography of the valley, it is evident that Gath is on the western end of the valley where it opens into the coastal plains. Yet looking toward the east of the valley, the road that exits the valley finds its way to the Judean hill country, directly to Bethlehem. With Gath at one end and Bethlehem at the other, both David and Goliath have everything to lose in this battle.
David is at the camp in the Elah Valley by the order of his father Jesse, to bring food to his brothers and the commander of the armies. He is also to return to Jesse with some news. Why? Jesse is invested in this fight because his sons are in the ranks of Saul’s army and he is fearful of what may happen if Israel loses. When David arrives at the camp, the text tells us that he became enraged. How could an uncircumcised Philistine taunt the men of Israel day after day?
David volunteered to fight the Philistine. When the introduction is given for Goliath in 1 Samuel 17, we find the mention of various weights that are given with his immense collection of armor, a detail that should not be ignored. The weight of this armor is important to note. It served to “protect” Goliath, but it also slowed him down. This is part of the reason why we see Goliath having a shield bearer, a position found in the ranks of Israel’s army, but is uncharacteristic for Philistine armies. His armor was simply too heavy.
When David rejected Saul’s armor, it is commonly assumed that Saul’s armor was too large to fit David. However, a careful reading of the text tells us that David is uncomfortable in the armor and has never used armor in “battle” while fighting against the beasts of the field.
A lack of armor was not uncommon based on several ancient art depictions of slingers and archers in the ancient Near East — they needed to be fast and agile. On the field of battle, although David was unarmed physically and smaller in stature, Goliath was weighed down by his armor and slow, rendering him unable to dodge even one of the five stone projectiles — a size roughly of a modern-day baseball — heading toward him at an incredible speed.
This was a battle that should have been fought by Saul, Israel’s “champion,” yet due to his inability to act, it was fought by the only one willing to take a stand and fight for his home.
The stage has been set.