Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Just Shoot Him!

I came across this cartoon yesterday. It illustrates a question I’ve had for a long time now about the David and Goliath story.

When I was a little kid, I learned the story of how David, a boy with no military experience, went up against Goliath, a giant warrior. David hit Goliath with a stone from his “slingshot,” which miraculously hit the giant Philistine in a vulnerable place right between his eyes and killed him.

The picture I formed was of a Dennis-the-menace like kid with a toy slingshot going up against an ogre. For the kid to win was certainly a miracle!

The actual story as related in nach is somewhat different.

David was a young man, not a little boy, and he used a sling, not a slingshot. I suppose my first-grade rebbe can be excused for not knowing much about obsolete weaponry, but the difference between a slingshot and a sling is enormous. Even a real slingshot (as opposed to a toy made with a forked twig and a rubber band) propels a projectile with about the same force as a BB gun. A sling, on the other hand, is a deadly weapon. From Wikipedia:

A sling is a projectile weapon typically used to throw a blunt projectile such as a stone. It is also known as the shepherd's sling.

A sling has a small cradle or pouch in the middle of two lengths of cord. The sling stone is placed in the pouch. Both cords are held in the hand, then the sling is swung and one of the two cords is released. This frees the projectile to fly on a tangent to the circle made by the pouch's rotation. The sling derives its effectiveness by essentially extending the length of a human arm, thus allowing stones to be thrown several times farther than they could be by hand.

The sling is very inexpensive, and easy to build. It has historically been used for hunting game and in combat.

Until the invention of firearms slingers were used in combat in the same way as archers. Unlike a bow, though, slings were easy to make and fired stones or cheap lead bullets instead of expensive arrows. This was not a toy. As a shepherd, David would have had experience using a sling to defend his sheep from predators. In the hands of an expert, a sling was as deadly as a pistol.

The encounter, then, was not a little kid with a toy challenging the Philistine champion. It’s more like the scene from Indiana Jones where Indy, confronted by a large man who is clearly an expert swordsman, pulls out a revolver and shoots him. All of a warrior’s skill counts for nothing if the other guy has a gun – or a sling.

So why is the incident treated as a miracle?

One reason might be that, until very recently, it was assumed that the outcome of combat depended, not on the skill of the soldiers and generals, but on the will of God. As recently as the American Civil War, General Robert E. Lee, after ordering an assault on the center of the Union line at Gettysburg (despite the protests of his subordinates), said that the result was “In God’s hands.” Lee, a master tactician, felt that tactics mattered for nothing when compared to God’s will. This sentiment was even stronger in the ancient world. Thus the outcome of a battle was seen as nothing less than the manifestation of God’s will – a miracle. The unusual circumstances of a shepherd defeating a seasoned warrior (and the shepherd boy going on to become king) are what made this particular encounter memorable.

Another possibility is that the unusual aspects of the encounter are themselves the reason the incident is considered miraculous. Even today, someone who survives a situation where he might have been killed often calls his survival a “miracle” even if there was nothing supernatural about it. Even though there was nothing supernatural about David shooting Goliath in the head, the fact that David came through the encounter in one piece might itself be reason enough to call the incident a miracle.

So, would we consider it a miracle today? If a teenaged farm boy armed with the pistol he uses to shoot at coyotes faced off against a master swordsman in single combat and won by shooting the swordsman between the eyes from twenty feet away, would that be a miracle?


  1. I don't think the Biblical account calls it as a miracle.

    Yes, David invokes God's name and everything and says "now everyone will know there is a God in Israel"

    but I don't think anywhere in the story is it called a miracle.

    If by a miracle you mean "God's intervention" then yeah that's what they thought

    but the word miracle as in a suspension of nature no.

    Really just semantics

  2. "It’s more like the scene from Indiana Jones where Indy, confronted by a large man who is clearly an expert swordsman, pulls out a revolver and shoots him."

    You must read Baruch Halpern's David's Secret Demons. The first chapter makes that point in exquisite detail.

  3. I think that the miraculous part of the story is that a young man was willing to take the challenge when older and more experienced men feared it. His confidence was in God rather than his own skills.

  4. Marie, while highlighting David's confidence in God might well be a vailid reading of the story, I don't see how this in any way can be considered a miracle.