In ancient Palestine was a region known as the Shfela. It is a series of ridges and valleys connecting the Judean Mountains to the east with the wide, flat expanse of the Mediterranean plain. It is covered with vineyards, wheat fields and forests.
It is of great strategic importance in war. Over the centuries, numerous battles have been fought for control of the region it provides a clear path to the cities like of Hebron and Jerusalem.
The Israelites were clustered in the mountains, under the leadership of King Saul. During this time the Philistines began moving east. Their goal was to capture the area after attacking Saul’s kingdom. The Philistines were battle-tested and dangerous, and the sworn enemies of the Israelites. Alarmed, Saul gathered his men and hastened down from the mountains to confront them.
The Philistines set up camp along the southern ridge of the valley of Elah. The Israelites pitched their tents on the other side, along the northern ridge, which left the two armies looking across the ravine at each other. Neither dared to move. To attack meant descending down the hill and then making a suicidal climb up the enemy’s ridge on the other side.
Finally, the Philistines had enough. They sent their greatest warrior down into the valley to resolve the deadlock one on one. He was a giant, six foot nine at least, wearing a bronze helmet and full body armor. He carried a javelin, a spear, and a sword. An attendant preceded him, carrying a large shield. His name was Goliath.
Goliath faced the Israelites and shouted out: “Choose you a man and let him come down to me! If he prevail in battle against me and strike me down, we shall be slaves to you. But if I prevail and strike him down, you will be slaves to us and serve us.”
In the Israelite camp, no one moved. Who could win against such a terrifying opponent? Then, a shepherd boy named David who had come to bring food to his brothers stepped forward and volunteered.
Saul objected, “You cannot go against this Philistine, for you are a lad and he is a man of war from his youth.” But the shepherd was adamant. He had faced more ferocious opponents than this, he argued. “When the lion or the bear would come and carry off a sheep from the herd,” he told Saul, “I would go after him and strike him down and rescue it from his clutches.” Saul had no other options. He relented and let the boy go to the fight.
The shepherd boy ran down the hill toward the Goliath standing in the valley. “Come to me, that I may give your flesh to the birds of the heavens and the beasts of the field,” the giant cried out when he saw his opponent approach.
The Preparation for the Fight
When Goliath shouted out to the Israelites, he was asking for what was known as single combat. This was a common practice in the ancient world. Two sides in a conflict would seek to avoid the heavy bloodshed of open battle by choosing one warrior to represent each in a duel.
This is what Goliath was expecting, a warrior like himself to come forward for hand to hand combat. It never occurred to him that the battle would be fought on anything other than those terms, and he prepared accordingly.
To protect himself against blows to the body, he wore an elaborate tunic made up of hundreds of overlapping bronze fishlike scales. It covered his arms and reached to his knees and probably weighed more than a hundred pounds. He had bronze shin guards protecting his legs, with attached bronze plates covering his feet. He wore a heavy metal helmet. He had three separate weapons, all optimized for close combat. He held a thrusting javelin made entirely of bronze, which was capable of penetrating a shield or even armor. He had a sword on his hip. And as his primary option, he carried a special kind of short-range spear which can be released with extraordinary force and accuracy.
Then David appears. Saul tries to give him his own sword and armor so at least he’ll have a fighting chance. David refuses. “I cannot walk in these,” he says, “for I am unused to it.” Instead he searches and picks up five smooth stones, and puts them in a shoulder bag.
The Death of Goliath
Then he descends into the valley, carrying his shepherd’s staff. Goliath looks at the boy coming toward him and is insulted. He was expecting to do battle with a seasoned warrior. Instead he sees a shepherd boy who seems to want to use his shepherd’s staff as a cudgel against Goliath’s sword. “Am I a dog,” Goliath says, gesturing at the staff, “that you should come to me with sticks?”
“You come against me with sword and spear and javelin,” David said to Goliath, “but I come against you in the name of the Lord Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This day the Lord will deliver you into my hands, and I’ll strike you down and cut off your head.… All those gathered here will know that it is not by sword or spear that the Lord saves; for the battle is the Lord, and he will give all of you into our hands.”
David puts one of his stones into the leather pouch of a sling, and he fires at Goliath’s exposed forehead. Goliath falls, stunned. David runs toward him, seizes the giant’s sword, and cuts off his head. The Philistines saw that their warrior was dead and they fled.
How did David win?
Part one – Techniques used
Ancient armies had three kinds of warriors.
1. Cavalry – armed men on horseback or in chariots
2. Infantry – foot soldiers wearing armor and carrying swords and shields.
3. Projectile warriors – archers and slingers
Slingers had a leather pouch attached on two sides by a long strand of rope. They would put a rock or a lead ball into the pouch, swing it around in increasingly wider and faster circles, and then release one end of the rope, hurling the rock forward. Slinging took an extraordinary amount of skill and practice. But in experienced hands, the sling was a devastating weapon.
It can be argued that in ancient warfare that the three kinds of warriors balanced one another, like each gesture in the game of rock, paper, scissors.
With their long pikes and armor, infantry could stand up to cavalry. Cavalry could, in turn, defeat projectile warriors, because the horses moved too quickly for artillery to take proper aim. And projectile warriors were deadly against infantry, because a big lumbering soldier, weighed down with armor, was a sitting duck for a slinger who was launching projectiles from a hundred yards away.
Goliath is heavy infantry. He thinks that he is going to be engaged in a duel with another heavy infantryman. When he says, “Come to me, that I may give your flesh to the birds of the heavens and the beasts of the field,” the key phrase is “come to me.” He means come right up to me so that we can fight at close quarters. When Saul tries to dress David in armor and give him a sword, he is operating under the same assumption. He assumes David is going to fight Goliath hand to hand. David, however, has no intention of honoring the rituals of single combat. When he tells Saul that he has killed bears and lions as a shepherd, he does so not just as testimony to his courage but to make another point as well: that he intends to fight Goliath the same way he has learned to fight wild animals, as a projectile warrior.
He runs toward Goliath, because without armor he has speed and maneuverability. He puts a rock into his sling, and whips it around and around, faster and faster at six or seven revolutions per second, aiming his projectile at Goliath’s forehead, the giant’s only point of vulnerability.
A typical-size stone hurled by an expert slinger at a distance of thirty-five meters would have hit Goliath’s head with a velocity of thirty-four meters per second, more than enough to penetrate his skull and render him unconscious or dead. In terms of stopping power, that is equivalent to a fair-size modern handgun. We find that David could have slung and hit Goliath in little more than one second, a time so brief that Goliath would not have been able to protect himself and during which he would be stationary for all practical purposes.
What could Goliath do? He was carrying over a hundred pounds of armor. He was prepared for a battle at close range, where he could stand, immobile, warding off blows with his armor and delivering a mighty thrust of his spear. He watched David approach, first with scorn, then with surprise, and then with what can only have been horror—as it dawned on him that the battle he was expecting had suddenly changed shape.
Then he reaches into his shepherd’s bag for a stone, and at that point no one watching from the ridges on either side of the valley would have considered David’s victory improbable.
David was a slinger, and slingers beat infantry, hands down.
Part two – Goliath’s eyes
Goliath is supposed to be a mighty warrior. But he’s not acting like one. He comes down to the valley floor accompanied by a servant walking before him, carrying a shield. Shield bearers in ancient times often accompanied archers into battle because a soldier using a bow and arrow had no free hand to carry any kind of protection on his own.
But why does Goliath, a man calling for sword-on-sword single combat, need to be assisted by a third party carrying an archer’s shield?
The biblical account emphasizes how slowly Goliath moves, which is an odd thing to say about someone who is alleged to be a battle hero of infinite strength.
There is a strange comment after he finally spots David with his shepherd’s staff: “Am I a dog that you should come to me with sticks?” Sticks plural? But David is holding only one stick.
What many medical experts now believe is that Goliath had a serious medical condition. He looks and sounds like someone suffering from what is called acromegaly, a disease caused by a tumor of the pituitary gland. The tumor causes an overproduction of human growth hormone, which would explain Goliath’s extraordinary size.
And furthermore, one of the common side effects of acromegaly is vision problems. Pituitary tumors can grow to the point where they compress the nerves leading to the eyes, with the result that people with acromegaly often suffer from severely restricted sight and diplopia, or double vision.
Why was Goliath led onto the valley floor by an attendant?
Because the attendant was his visual guide.
Why does he move so slowly?
Because the world around him is a blur.
Why does it take him so long to understand that David has changed the rules?
Because he doesn’t see David until David is up close.