Friday, June 19, 2009

David and Goliath Revisited - a textual analysis

And now, for something completely different, I want to highlight an article just published by Mike Heiser at Bible Study Magazine. Clash of the Manuscripts: Goliath & the Hebrew text of the Old Testament looks at the twin issues of Goliath's height, and an apparent textual contradiction in 2 Samuel 21:19 about who actually killed him (see also Mike's blog, The Naked Bible).

I won't bother summarizing the whole article, but those with interest in textual issues and how they might impact a perceived (though IMHO trivial) contradiction in the text, I recommend you wade through it. I did, however, want to highlight a very interesting observation Mike made, which I think adds to the compelling nature of the story itself.

We all know the sunday school story--young teenager visiting his brothers at the battlefield goes up against a 9-foot-plus giant using a slingshot, thereby proving the military truism that long-range weapons beat brute force (am I the only one who wonders if David had a slingshot corps in his army?). But what I didn't know was that the "six cubits and a span" height description comes from the Masoretic text, a Hebrew text that was solidified somewhere around 100AD, while the earlier Greek Septuagint (itself a Greek translation from Hebrew) reports Goliath's height at the far-less-fantastic four cubits and a span, which would put Goliath's height at somewhere between six and seven feet--which is still way taller than the average Hebrew at that time, but within the realm of observed human dimensions.

But the real point (for me) comes in Mike's reminder to us that Saul, too, was a giant, as 1 Samuel 9:2 tells us. Mike points out that by rights, the giant king of the Israelites should have been the one to stand up to a guy who was maybe a bit taller than him, but probably not the towering menace the Masoretic text would suggest. But instead, upstart David, who couldn't handle Saul's outsized armor (at least that's one way to read 1 Samuel 17:39), takes him on under the reasoning that anybody plus God is a winning combination.

No wonder when the people of Israel sang that "Saul has slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands" (1Sam 18:7) Saul got his nose out of joint. He likely already felt the guilt of his own cowardice for not providing "someone his own size" for Goliath to fight.

So to my way of reading it, Mike's textual criticism gives us a story that is more probable, while bringing the conflict between David and Saul into sharper relief than the usual, fantastic version. Interesting how careful study can do that.