Saturday, 16 February 2013

Who killed Goliath? (Part 2)

I've received some constructive criticism that I should be clearer on this blog about what I am trying to do. For the time being I'll restrict myself to explaining what I'm trying to set out in this Goliath mini-series of posts (for the first post see here). But I think later on I might devote a whole post to the purpose of this blog as I see it at the moment.

Different traditions about Goliath
Most readers of the bible miss that there are a number of divergent stories about Goliath. All these stories have links to each other, but I find it fascinating to consider how each one came into existence, how they came to be included in the bible and what connections they have with each other. To summarize so far:

1) David killed Goliath (1Samuel 17).
2) Elhanan killed Goliath (2Samuel 21).
3) Elhanan killed Lahmi, Goliath's brother (1Chronicles 20).

The fact that these 3 stories are intimately linked is evident, amongst other things, from the fact that they all share verbatim a short phrase about the victim:

וְעֵץ חֲנִיתוֹ כִּמְנוֹר אֹרְגִים
The shaft of his spear was like a weaver's beam

Thus there must be some common history to the transmission of these stories. Indeed I've already pointed out that the Chronicler's version is an attempt to harmonize the 2 accounts in the books of Samuel.

Those who read the Old Greek (OG) translation of the Hebrew bible usually have something else to contend with; I've called this the "third-and-a-half version", because it is really a variant of the 1Samuel 17 story. But it's quite dissimilar to the Hebrew text, and so there also arises the question of why it is so dissimilar, and what does this dissimilarity mean for the evolution of the 3½ stories.

And that's what this mini series is about. I'm not really trying to prove anything, just explore some of the variations in the the story of Goliath's death.

The Old Greek (aka the Septuagint - but I'm trying to avoid that term)
The first thing to point out is the Old Greek agrees that the victim's spear had a "shaft like a weaver's beam" in all three full versions of the story. This snippet is translated slightly differently each time, but the differences in translation are small, and thus the vorlage of the OG must have contained these words.
καὶ ὁ κοντὸς τοῦ δόρατος αὐτοῦ ὡσεὶ μέσακλον ὑφαινόντων (1Sam 17:7)
καὶ τὸ ξύλον τοῦ δόρατος αὐτοῦ ὡς ἀντίον ὑφαινόντων (2Sam 21:19)
καὶ ξύλον δόρατος αὐτοῦ ὡς ἀντίον ὑφαινόντων (1Chr 20:5)

So far so good! So what are the differences in the 1Sam 17 OG version from the Hebrew version that we now have?

Well overall the OG version is much shorter than the Hebrew version although, set against this, there are some small details that are only found in the OG version. It's the shortness of the OG version that I want to look at first, and this shortness is the overriding characteristic of the OG in this passage. In fact the shortness is a characteristic that is found in the proceeding and succeeding chapters as well i.e. all of 1Sam 16 - 18 is shorter in the Greek than in the Hebrew. Reading the OG of these chapters really does give quite a different flavour to the whole story.

I'll give a small example of the shortness of the OG text, but first a vocabulary question:

What does "to smite" mean?
"Smite" is not a word we use often these days. Those brought up on old English translations of the bible, like the KJV, will undoubtedly have heard it many times, and perhaps they know exactly what it means, but equally perhaps they think they know what it means. So here's a little test:

If Amos, say, smote Benjamin, say, is Benjamin now:
a) dead, or
b) grievously wounded?

Well the answer is that it varies according to the context. The KJV translators (and presumably those before them on whom they relied, but I haven't checked) tended to translate the verb נָכָה as "smite". And נָכָה varies in the Hebrew text as to just how "done in" the smitten individual is. Such texts can be quite ambiguous; I don't know if the English verb "smite" was ambiguous before it was used in bible translations in this way, but it has to be now.

That said, here's another question:

In what specific verse in 1Sam 17 does Goliath actually die?
Before you read on here on this blog, go back to the text and answer for yourself the question above.

Okay, for those reading in Hebrew we have an instance of נָכָה. Here's verse 49:

וַיִּשְׁלַח דָּוִד אֶת־יָדוֹ אֶל־הַכֶּלִי וַיִּקַּח מִשָּׁם אֶבֶן וַיְקַלַּע וַיַּךְ אֶת־הַפְּלִשְׁתִּי אֶל־מִצְחוֹ וַתִּטְבַּע הָאֶבֶן בְּמִצְחוֹ וַיִּפֹּל עַל־פָּנָיו אָרְצָה׃

So, not wishing to sound cruel, is Goliath dead yet? Hmm... will he was smitten with the stone deep into his forehead and he has fallen on his face to the ground. Remember, "to smite" is ambiguous, but that's not all there is here. One could argue that he was seriously wounded, yet still alive; however in the Hebrew, verse 50 makes it clear he was dead:

וַיֶּחֱזַק דָּוִד מִן־הַפְּלִשְׁתִּי בַּקֶּלַע וּבָאֶבֶן וַיַּךְ אֶת־הַפְּלִשְׁתִּי וַיְמִיתֵהוּ וְחֶרֶב אֵין בְּיַד־דָּוִד׃
David was stronger than the Philistine with the sling and with the stone, and he smote the Philistine and killed him, yet there was no sword in his hand.

Quite clearly he's dead. But there are a couple of curious things here:
i) the OG doesn't have verse 50 in most of the manuscripts, and
ii) he dies again in verse 51.

Here's the first part of verse 51:

וַיָּרָץ דָּוִד וַיַּעֲמֹד אֶל־הַפְּלִשְׁתִּי וַיִּקַּח אֶת־חַרְבּוֹ וַיִּשְׁלְפָהּ מִתַּעְרָהּ וַיְמֹתְתֵהוּ וַיִּכְרָת־בָּהּ אֶת־רֹאשׁוֹ
And David ran and stood near the Philistine and took his sword; he drew it from its sheath and killed him, and cut off with it [the sword] his head.

Well that's odd isn't it!? Yet it's not odd in the OG. If you look at the sequence of action, the Hebrew doesn't make much sense:
1) David kills Goliath (verse 49),
2) David had certainly killed Goliath and there wasn't even a sword in his hand (verse 50),
3) David kills Goliath again, this time with a sword (verse 51).

But the sequence in the OG makes much more sense:
1) David grievously wounds Goliath with sling and stone (verse 49),
2) David  kills an already grievously wounded Goliath with a sword (verse 51).

Because the OG doesn't have verse 50, the sequence here actually makes much more sense than the Hebrew.

Attention to detail
I mentioned above that although the OG text is much shorter in these chapters than the Hebrew text, occasionally the OG does give a detail which is missing from the Hebrew. One such instance occurs here. In verse 49, when David's stone strikes Goliath on the forehead the OG describes it thus:

...καὶ διέδυ ὁ λίθος διὰ τῆς περικεφαλαίας εἰς τὸ μέτωπον αὐτοῦ...
...and the stone slipped through the helmet to his forehead...

The Hebrew text has the forehead but nothing about the helmet here. The Greek text has remembered that Goliath wore a helmet (it's back in verse 5) and has dealt with the fact.

So all in all we have a very coherent Greek text and a rather less than coherent Hebrew text here. When situations like this arise I always like to ask myself which version is likely to be earlier and which later? Is one text directly dependent on the other? Has one text sought to "correct" the other. Has there been a degree of independence in the evolution of the two texts?

I hope to do some more posts looking at this issue. There are an awful lot of different readings between the Hebrew and Greek texts of the Goliath story. In the meantime you might like to check out a 2012 thesis at Durham University by Benjamin J.M. Johnson entitled "A Reading of the David and Goliath Narrative in Greek and Hebrew". It's available online here and whilst I wouldn't agree with everything he says, it is certainly quite thorough.


  1. I can't read either the Hebrew or the Greek (and I haven't read Part III yet) but in the English translation I Googled, I don't see the problem you've pointed out here.

    Yes, the sequence is a little different, but in Hebrew version (as in the English version I read) there's nothing saying that Goliath is killed twice. He is smote with the stone and either dies or doesn't. A stone going "deep into his forehead" was probably a lethal wound, but that doesn't mean death was instant. Moreover, cutting his head off doesn't have to mean killing him; during the exchange of boasts, curses, and prayers, David has boasted that he will cut off Goliath's head after he's dead. The head was to come off whether that was necessary to kill Goliath or not; I read it more as the taking of a trophy. He's collecting the head of his vanquished foe, not delivering the coup de grace.
    However, it certainly wouldn't hurt to make certain. Many big-game hunters who hunt dangerous, tough game in Africa--game like Cape Buffalo, Elephant, and Lion--swear by "insurance shots." That means that if they drop an animal and are quite sure it's dead, they approach it cautiously and fire a final shot at close range anyway, both to watch for a reaction and to make quite sure the animal is quite dead. Probably a good idea to make sure with giants, too.

    Here's my question, though: what the hell was Saul thinking? David must have been awfully persuasive. The deal was that if Goliath defeated the Israelite champion, the Israelites would be enslaved by the Philistines, yes? So the Israelite soldiers who were certain that they couldn't defeat Goliath were not merely cowards; they were also unwilling to be the one who failed and committed their people to slavery.
    When this kid convinces Saul to let him go out and fight, he's not just being personally brave, but risking everyone.

    Actually, I have one more bone to pick. David would have been very clever to use his sling, but ancient armies knew what slings were and some employed slingers--there were apparently local slingers along with Xenophon on the march of the 10,000. This is really more like the scene where Indiana Jones is confronted by a whirling dervish of a swordsman and casually shoots him with a pistol from outside his range. The story is written as if it's awe-inspiring that David was able to defeat a man armed only with a sword and spear, despite the fact that he had "only" a sling and five rocks. But does that make any sense at all? What if he'd "only" had a bow and five arrows? Still a miracle?

    Thanks for the thought-provoking writing.

  2. Don, many thanks for your comments.

    I agree that, according to the story, the risk Saul takes is enormous. That might well have been in the mind of a redactor/author here, because it enhances the heroic nature of David. It also makes Saul a little more crazy, but the story is already making Saul out to be losing his grasp, so this also might serve the author/redactor well. It seems an unlikely military scenario though, and if the writers were concerned about realism, they don’t really show it here.

    You make a very interesting point about the sling; I’m no expert in ancient warfare and weaponry (perhaps I need to learn about this area) so I was very interested in what you said. The Hebrew text (vs 50 – absent in Greek) might be trying to make a point about the way in which David killed him the first time (I’ll come back to the point about the double death below) – that it was extraordinary because it was done without a sword. But this comment could be a sign of something else, an explanation of which I’m storing up for a future post. I might refer back to your suggestion, because it would help support this second reason.

    As for the multiple deaths, I wonder if there is a problem in reading in translation here – I’m always a bit nervous that people reading English translations may unwittingly be victims of certain harmonisations that some translators do – even the KJV engages in a harmonisation about who killed Goliath, and modern day evangelical ones sometimes do as well. The Hebrew is quite clear that Goliath is killed twice, although the first time is subject to a clarification in the Hebrew text; verse 50 clarifies that David “smote and killed” him (actually having done so in verse 49) without a sword in his hand. And then in verse 51 David drew his (presumably Goliath’s) sword “and killed him” (again) and then cut off is head. So he David kills him “swordlessly” and then again with a sword.

    I’ve translated (painfully) literally in my post to try to make it clear. If you don’t like my translation (and I concede literal translations are not always the best!) I suggest you try a couple of different publically available translations, making sure at least one is outside the evangelical camp, and you may see the difficulty.

    There is an interesting point about the verb that is used in Hebrew for “kill” – it’s the same verb in both verses, but in different forms (i.e. “binyanim” for those who know Hebrew). There might be a clue hidden in these different forms about how the text evolved, but I’m now getting very technical, so I think I’ll hold off. The important point is these forms still mean the same thing – David killed him, and did so twice.

    Your point about Goliath’s head being a trophy is certainly correct. In fact here the writer(s) get so excited about this they have the head being displayed in Jerusalem, having forgotten that the Israelites haven’t captured Jerusalem yet – David doesn’t capture it until he has been king for 7½ years (2Sam 5:5-9). That little anachronism merits at least an “oops”! Or is something else going on here? To be continued…

  3. This is a very in depth and diligent post. When a small passage like this is so complex, and takes so much homework to understand, it causes one to question their understanding of other parts of the bible.

  4. It was certainly an eye-opener for me when I came across biblical criticism, with its very thorough examination of the texts.