More evidence for the Historical Truth of David and Goliath

Even people unschooled in the Bible know the basics of the story of David and Goliath – if for no other reason then the analogy is used whenever something small takes on something large and powerful. Just to prepare to write this blog, I searched for “David and Goliath” on Google News and found stories about residents in a small town in Ireland fighting a large developer, a battle between McDonald’s and a small Irish food chain over the trademark to Big Mac , and the violent stoush resulting when a large galaxy and a small galaxy get too close to each other among other stories. Yes, the story of the future King David, while still too young to join his brothers in a fight for the new kingdom of Israel, against the biggest, baddest Philistine of the time is well-known even to those who have a stunted education of the Bible.


Of course, many will say, the story is nonsense. A 9 foot-tall giant being defeated by a young boy and his sling? There couldn’t be anything to it, right?

As with everything Biblical, the skeptic appears to be a bit too dismissive of the Biblical account as a mere fantasy or fairytale. The archaeological adage, “Lack of evidence is not evidence of lack,” seems to escape people when it comes to fairly judging the Bible. But that’s alright, because later when evidence is uncovered that gives some credence to the Biblical account (as seems to invariably happen), the skeptic is left with just a bit of egg on the face. So it appears to be with the Biblical account of the battle between David and Goliath.

No, they haven’t yet discovered a 9-foot skeleton with a dent in the middle of the forehead – and it is doubtful that such evidence will ever come to light since David separated the head of Goliath from the body and took the head to Jerusalem (1 Samuel 17:54) – but it is certainly possible that the head may one day be discovered. Still, one does not need to discover the body of Goliath or his armor to understand that archaeology can show that the story has ties to historically verifiable facts.

A few years ago (actually, almost 15 years ago already), I blogged on how the discovery of a ceramic shard provided evidence that the name “Goliath” was epigraphically similar to names being used in Gath at the time that the famous battle is believed to have take place. But now, further evidence has been discovered that lends credence to the account.

In an article posted on Haaretz.com, the author (Philippe Bohstrom) points to several lines of evidence that – while not proving the existence of the Biblical Goliath or the battle between the Philistine giant and the shepherd David, shows that the account actually appears to be set in the real world as it existed in the 12th or 11th Century B.C. The article, entitled “Huge if True: The Archaeological Case for Goliath” points to three lines of evidence showing that the account is not as far-fetched as the Biblical skeptic wants us to believe.

The first line of evidence is the discovery of the ceramic shard I discussed at length in my Blog article referenced above, so I won’t repeat the evidence here. I will just make the point that the evidence was good at the time and the weight of that evidence has remained strong despite scrutiny. The second line of evidence is that the armor that the Bible described as being worn by Goliath is consistent with the type of armor that the Philistines would have worn at the time of the battle. Mr. Bohstrom notes:
The biblical description of Goliath's arms and armor is accurate for his time: bronze helmet, a coat of bronze mail, bronze greaves, scimitar (curved sword with convex cutting edge) and a bronze spear.
Now, if one believes the real fantasy that much of the Old Testament wasn’t written until the 7th Century B.C. (as has been speculated by some Biblical doubters), then it would have been quite remarkable that the 7th Century author would have known to be able to describe in reasonably good detail the type of armor being worn 4 to 5 centuries earlier.

A third line of evidence is that archaeologists now know that it was not uncommon at the time for wars to be fought by proxy. In the Biblical account, Goliath yells at the Israelites to send out their champion to fight him. 1 Samuel 17:8-9 reads:
Goliath stood and shouted a taunt across to the Israelites. “Why are you all coming out to fight?” he called. “I am the Philistine champion, but you are only the servants of Saul. Choose one man to come down here and fight me! If he kills me, then we will be your slaves. But if I kill him, you will be our slaves!
According to Mr. Bohstrom’s article, “War by proxy was a common practice in the Bronze Age, to spare the bloody cost of armies clashing. The peoples assumed their gods would intervene on their behalf (and when they didn't, they assumed the gods were peeved at them).” He then proceeds to show examples that firmly establish that war by proxy was common. Mr. Bohstrom concludes:
To sum up, Goliath seems to have worn contemporary Bronze Age gear, scribes did exist shortly after his time and possibly within it, and the biblical descriptions suit other ancient texts referring to armies led by champions, rather than as the impersonal institutions of later texts.

Finally, there is testimony of 12th and 11th century warfare from the ancient Near East itself: battles between champions instead of armies, the mutilation of enemy corpses, shouting matches between warriors, weeping as a sign of manhood – these and many other things are not scribal inventions of the 7th century B.C.E. but well-attested realities of late Bronze Age life.
I would add that the Bible has been shown to be historically accurate so often that the unsupported dismissals of even the most difficult-to-believe accounts is becoming harder and harder to maintain. Just as giants fall in our current world to smaller, swifter and more cunning Davids, so it is not beyond the pale to believe that there may have been a man who was much taller and stronger than the typical person (think Wilt Chamberlain or Shaquille O’Neal) who used his size and strength to be the strongest warrior of the people of Gath. Nor is it impossible to believe that a young man armed with a sling (that can hurl a stone at around 340 m/sec) could take him down if he hit just the right spot – and even less unlikely if you are at least open to the idea that the young man was led by God who guided the stone to the exact right spot to kill the giant. .

Okay, I get it. You have your doubts. Sure, this doesn’t prove that the account of David and Goliath is historical fact. But it does show that the account is, at minimum, consistent with the world in which it is purported to have happened. So, go ahead and doubt if you must. Just don’t mistake your doubts for inviolable historical truth.

Comments

Kristen said…
BK, have you heard of the book "David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants" by Malcom Gladwell? He makes a point that atheists would appreciate: there's a reason why a small, fast combatant with a light weapon might be able to take out a ponderous, moving tower-- and it doesn't even have to be a miracle!

To me there is the issue that 2 Sam 21:19 says another guy, not David, killed Goliath. This is part of why I no longer accept Bible literalism. But though the text of Scripture in its present form probably was written down around 7th Century BCE, it's pretty clear that that text comes from a much more ancient oral tradition that was pretty well preserved, and probably a number of more ancient manuscripts as well. I think it's pretty safe to say that a Philistine named Goliath was killed by a much more lightly armed Isrealite at about the time when David lived.

Either way, the real message of the story holds -- don't trust in human strength, but in God's.

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