David may not have killed Goliath


There are more than a half dozen indications that seem to suggest that the story of David killing Goliath that is narrated in I Samuel 17 never occurred, another man killed the powerful giant, and the chapter describing David killing Goliath was a popular legend to glorify the famed king that was inserted in the middle of the biblical narrative about him. Chapter 17 does not fit into the narrative preceding and following the chapter and attempts to harmonize 17 with the rest of the book of Samuel failed.

(1) I Samuel 16 is the first notice of David’s existence. The opening of the chapter tells readers nothing more than that he was ruddy in appearance (having red hair), with beautiful eyes, goodly to look upon, and that Samuel anointed him surreptitiously as Israel’s future king.  Later in the chapter, when Saul suffered from an “evil spirit,” David is introduced to him to play music to sooth the king. The chapter then offers a larger portrayal of David as a man of war and armor-bearer who Saul loved. But chapter 17 has a totally different description of David. In 17, he is a shepherd who comes to the Israelite camp to bring food to his brothers who are in the Israelite army. He is a boy who is unfamiliar with armor and who neither Saul nor his officials know. This striking difference indicates that one of these two versions is a second version of the introduction of David to Saul in the book of Samuel.

(2) The fact that chapter 18 follows chapter 16 as if chapter 17 did not exist, speaking of David, as in chapter 16, as a man of war, shows that it is chapter 17 which is not the original version.

(3) A verse seems to have been added in chapter 17 to resolve the conflict between the two chapters, but only resolves one of many discrepancies. Chapter 16 states that Saul requested David’s father to allow David to remain with him, but in 17, David is at home, not with Saul, and his father sends him with food to his bothers. This parenthetical insertion states: “Now David went to and fro from Saul to feed his father’s sheep at Bethlehem.” This passage may explain why David was home, but it does not explain why David is portrayed as a boy who was not a warrior as he is in chapter 16 and why Saul and his captain do not recognize him.

(4) Like the attempt to resolve the conflicts between the two chapters by inserting a verse, the Greek translation called Septuagint deletes 17:12-31 and 17:55-18:5 in its attempt to seek harmony between the two chapters.[1]

(5) II Samuel 21:19 does not seem to know that chapter 17 states that David killed Goliath. It names another person who killed Goliath, “Elhanan the son of Jaare-oregin of Bethlehem slew Goliath the Gittite.”

(6) Recognizing the conflict between II and I Samuel, the later biblical book I Chronicles 20:5 states, “Elhanan the son of Jair slew Lahmi the brother of Goliath the Gittite.”

(7) In chapter 18, Saul offers David first his daughter Merab (17-19) and then, after she marries another, his daughter Michal (20-27), apparently long after the battle with Goliath after David showed that he was victorious in various conflicts with the Philistines. No mention is made in chapter 18 of Saul’s promise in chapter 17 to give his daughter to the man who fights Goliath along with riches. Chapter18 seems to know nothing about Saul’s promise in chapter 17, as if chapter 17 did not exist and David never killed the giant. The text states that Saul made the offer of his daughter to David in 18 in the hope that David would go out and fight the Philistines and be killed by them, not as fulfilment of his promise. Additionally, despite Saul’s promise of “great riches” in 17:25 to the man who defeats Goliath, David states in 18:23 that he cannot marry the king’s daughter because “I am a poor man.” In short, chapter 18 shows no familiarity with the story of Goliath in chapter 17.


More details in chapter 16

Chapter 16 narrates that after Saul became the first king of the Israelites and after he had a couple of adverse encounters with the prophet Samuel who criticized him on two occasions[2] for disobedience, “the spirit of the Lord departed from Saul. And an evil spirit from the Lord terrified him.”[3] This could mean that he suffered a severe depression after he heard from the prophet Samuel, whom he respected, that God rejected him, his dynasty would not endure, and God selected another man to succeed his (although Samuel did not identify the man).

Saul’s servants suggested to him that music may help his mood and told him that they knew that David was “skillful in playing [the harp], and a mighty man of valor, and a man of war, and prudent in affairs, and a comely person, and the Lord is with him.”[4] Saul accepted the suggestion. “Wherefore Saul sent messengers to Jesse [David’s father], and said ‘Send me your son.’”

David came, played for Saul, who “loved him greatly; and he [David] became his armor-bearer.” Saul recontacted Jesse, told him that he likes David, and wants him to stay with him. David did so, and when the evil spirit afflicted Saul, David played the harp, “and the evil spirit departed from him.”[5]

This chapter describes David as a man who King Saul came to like very much, he “loved him greatly,” and kept him by his side to play the harp whenever he became depressed. He knew about David’s father and contacted him on at least two occasions. Besides being a good musician, David is described as a warrior: “a mighty man, and a man of war,” and he became Saul’s “armor-bearer.”[6] Chapter 17 which contains the Goliath tale is radically different.


More details in chapter 17

Rather than a man of war who is loved by Saul, who sees David often, and knows about David’s father, the portrait of David in chapter 17 describes David as a boy without any military experience, whom Saul does not know, and whose father he does not know. Even David’s brother treats him as a busy-body youngster who should not be on the battle-field.

There is a fourth war between the Israelites and the Philistines.[7] The giant Philistine Goliath challenges the Israelites to send out a man to do single combat with him rather than sacrificing many lives in a huge battle.[8] He taunts the Israelites twice a day for forty days, but no one wants to fight the giant.

David’s three older brothers are part of the military force facing the Philistines. David is home caring for the sheep. His father sends him to the battle field to give his brothers food. David hears that Saul offered his daughter to the man who would defeat Goliath as well as other financial incentives. He is interested. His brother hears that he is asking about the reward, seems to know nothing about David being an armor-bearer of the king, becomes angry, and asks him with whom has he left the sheep. “I know your presumptuousness, and the naughtiness of your heart, you came to see the battle.”

Saul hears that David wants to fight Goliath and also apparently not knowing he is a “man of war” and an “armor-bearer,” says to David that he is unable to fight Goliath because “you are only a youth.”[9] David responds that he saved his father’s sheep from a bear and a lion, which he killed, and God will aid him in doing the same with Goliath. Saul agrees and offers David his armor, apparently the best armor, but David states he cannot use armor because he had not previously worn armor. Instead he took his staff, his sling, and five stones which he put in his shepherd’s bag, and approached the giant.

Not seeing the sling or stones, Goliath taunted David: did you come to beat me like a dog. When Goliath approached David, he reached into his bag, took out a stone and slung it. Goliath fell, David ran to him, grabbed the giant’s sword, and cut off his head. Seeing their warrior dead, the Philistines fled.

When David went out against Goliath, Saul asked the captain of his forces, “Whose son is this young man?”[10] The captain swore that he had no idea.[11] Saul instructed him, “Ask whose son the stripling is.”[12] After killing Goliath, the captain brought David to the king who asked, “Whose son are you young man,” and David replied, “I am the son of your servant Jesse of Bethlehem.”

In summary, David is not described as a man of war who Saul loved as in chapter 16, but the king repeatedly describes David as a young man he did not know who was unaccustomed to war and even the use of armor.[13]


Chapter 18

While chapter 17 interrupts the tale of chapter 16 with another version of David’s initial meeting with King Saul, chapter 18 continues 16 as if 17 did not exist. Chapter 16 ends with David being Saul’s armor-bearer, and chapter 18 continues by stating that “David went out [to war with fellow soldiers] wherever Saul sent him, and he had great success. And Saul set him over the men of war, and the people liked it, as did Saul’s servants.”[14]


Why didn’t Saul or his son Jonathan engage Goliath?

While chapter 14 narrates how Saul’s son Jonathan with only his armor-bearer at his side single-handedly and fearlessly slew about twenty Philistine soldiers and caused the Philistine army to retreat,[15] neither he nor his father the king showed any thought of combating Goliath. Why? Is it possible that this fact supports the view that chapter 17 is a legend that is designed to extoll David, showing that only he considered it possible to overcome the giant? However, S. Goldman suggests that it would have been “beneath the dignity of Saul or any member of the royal house to accept the offer of a duel with this vulgar braggart.”[16]


Suggested resolutions

Many ideas have been offered to address the problems presented by chapters 16 and 17. The following are some of them.


Accepting both 16 and 17 as original texts

  • Goldman sees no problem. The descriptions of David’s prowess in chapter 16, such as “a man of war,” are typical biblical exaggerations and “armor-bearer” means a menial personal attendant. While Saul in chapter 16 wanted David by him, he allowed him to go home from time to time, and in 17 he was returning from one of his visits home. Saul did not recognize David because he was in the midst of one of his depressions. David’s brother criticized David for coming to the battle field, not because he was not part of the king’s military forces, but because of jealousy. Many Israelites were expert with slings. Judges 20:16 states that 700 men from the tribe of Benjamin could sling stones at a hairbreadth and not miss.
  • Kil suggests[17] that it is possible to understand that when David refused to marry Merab in 18:18, he relinquished the wealth Saul promised him if he fought Goliath. Gersonides, without any scriptural support, suggests that David was reluctant to marry into the royal family because he was a descendant of the Moabite Ruth. It is curious that in the rather long story of David, in I and II Samuel as well as I and II Kings, no mention is made of Ruth. Does this indicate that the authors of these books knew nothing about Ruth, or that she was David’s ancestress?
  • Abarbanel also attempted to resolve the apparent discrepancy between the two chapters.[18] He wrote that David’s pedigree is not repeated in 17:12 because chapter 17 originally was a document unrelated to chapter 16 but it is characteristic of scripture to repeat information about a person when it begins a new account of that person. Saul was not asking his captain who David was. He was wondering if David had good antecedents of warriors since he saw him acting without fear. Or, when he asked who David’s father was he forgot who he was because of his mental condition.
  • Abarbanel adds an interesting observation: the concept of single combat is based on the notion that God is involved in human affairs and is able to reveal truth to people. The winner of single combat won because God helped him to win to show who was right.
  • David may not have cared for the sheep, but was an overseer. He was just one of many armor-bearers of Saul and according to Josephus was sent home when the war broke out, Saul agreed to allow David to fight Goliath when David spoke of aid from God.[19]
  • It is possible that Saul’s captain said he did not know who David was, even though David was constantly in the court to help Saul when he became depressed, so as not to embarrass the king who was depressed and confused at that time. It is also possible that both Saul and his captain knew who David was, but could not recall who his father was.[20]
  • Saul suffered “a beginning loss of memory… or even the gradual onset of madness.” He rambles. His question about David “is expressed not just once but three times in…four verses.” David’s act in chapter 17 fits with 14. He plays the same role in 17 as Saul’s son Jonathan did in 14, both save Israel when Saul is passive and overwrought.[21]
  • Saul asked about David’s father even though he knew who David was but wanted to know if he got his strength from his ancestors.[22]
  • He asked about David’s father since he was giving him his daughter in marriage. [23]


Chapters 16 and 17 are two conflicting versions

  • In contrast, Caro states it is impossible to resolve the conflict between chapters 16 and 17 without referring to imaginative midrashim.[24]
  • David never killed Goliath, as indicated in II Samuel 21:19, with I Chronicles 20:15 trying to resolve the conflict between I and II Samuel. It is likely that after Saul made David an armor-bearer, as indicated in chapter 16, David fought Philistines and was successful, as indicated in chapter 18, and in one battle overwhelmed a Philistine superior warrior. The details of this latter victory were forgotten and the legend arose that it was Goliath that he killed. This legend became a tradition that was so beautiful that the editor of Samuel placed it in the book. Verses 17:12-31 and 55-18:5 were in the legend, but the editor deleted them so as not to conflict with chapter 16. The version in the Septuagint is based on this initial version in Samuel. Later, someone placed the omitted parts of the legend on the side margin of the manuscript, which were still later inserted into the current Masoretic text.[25]
  • It is clear that chapters 16 and 17 were by different authors. The style of the narrative in both chapters is different. Originally there was “a brief account of David’s prowess against Philistines. The was later replaced [by the Goliath story].” “The picture of two armies going through this parade forty days in succession, only to hear the swelling words of Goliath is ludicrous” and is consistent with legendary tales.[26]
  • “It is clear that if David was Saul’s armor-bearer from the day that [David’s] father sent him to him, Saul would know who he is.” Once David heard in chapter 17 of all the honors that would be heaped upon the man who would slay Goliath, he volunteered, showing his character. In Homer’s Iliad, to kill an enemy with stealth is improper. Not so with Israelites, as shown by the stealth used by Joshua, Gideon, and here by David.[27]
  • Altschuler states that David took his staff with him in his battle with Goliath to deceive Goliath to make him think that he, David, needed to approach the giant to fight him. Goliath had to approach David to kill him with his sword, but David could sling his pebble from a far distance.[28]


Imaginative generally unrealistic interpretations

None of the following ideas is in the book of Samuel.

God awarded Orpah the sister-in-law of Ruth with giants as descendants because of the forty steps with which she accompanied her mother-in-law Naomi when Naomi returned to Judea from Moab. There four brothers and Goliath was one of them. He merited the ability to show his strength to the Israelites during the days of Saul for forty days, the number of steps.[29]

David’s father encouraged David to help Saul, a Benjamite, because David was a descendant of Judah, son of the patriarch Jacob, and in Genesis Judah tried to protect Saul’s ancestor Benjamin, so a descendant of Judah should do it again.[30]

David did not pick up the five pebbles, they came to him. The five joined together and became one. When Goliath saw David, he was so impressed that he became leprous.[31]

Saul was afraid to fight Goliath because God took the divine spirit from him. Goliath came and threatened the Israelites in the morning and evening when the prayer shema was usually recited to confuse them and stop them from reciting it, so that God would not help them. Goliath was the son of one woman and a hundred lovers; she was a prostitute. Orpah merited to have giants because she cried when she left Naomi.[32]

Goliath frightened the Israelites when he said, don’t be amazed at my height; all Philistines are as tall as me.[33]

David was 28 years old when he fought Goliath. Goliath did not fall back when struck with the stone. God told an angel to push goliath forward so that the righteous David would not have to walk far. David took Goliath’s head on a tour of Israel to show the nation what God helped him do.[34]



[1] L. C. L. Brenton, The Septuagint with Apocrypha, Hendrickson Publishers, 1851. There are also some other small changes and deletions.

[2] Just as chapters 16 and 17 contain two divergent narratives, it is likely that Samuel’s announcement in 13:14 that Saul’s kingdom would not continue because Saul offered a sacrifice before Samuel came to him and in 15:23 that God rejected Saul because he saved the cattle of Amalek to offer as sacrifices are two versions of why Saul was rejected, because in 15:1 Samuel does not seem to know that Saul had been rejected.

[3] 16:14.

[4] 16:18.

[5] 16:21-23.

[6] Gersonides comments: there were certainly other men who could lay music as well as David, but he was chosen because he was also a man of war and armor-bearer.

[7] 14:52 states that war between Israel and Philistia was fierce during Saul’s entire life.

[8] Goliath’s challenge for single combat was similar to Menelaus’ challenge during the Trojan War in the Iliad and was the custom of Bedouin Arabs.

[9] 17:33.

[10] The phrase “whose son is this?” could be understood literally as an enquiry about the father of the young man, or an idiomatic way of saying “who are you?” Either way, it is clear that despite chapter 16, Saul had no idea who David was.

[11] 17:55.

[12] 17:56.

[13] While, as will be seen, the generally accepted view is that chapter 17 was not part of the original story of David, there are references to Goliath in 19:5, 21:10, 22:10, 13. These, like chapter 17, were most likely later additions or refer to another Israelite warrior.

[14] 18:5.

[15] 14:14-16.

[16] Samuel, Soncino Books of the Bible, The Soncino Press, 1951, page 100.

[17] Daat MikraMosad Harav Kook, 1981, page 193.

[18] Abarbanel, Nevi’im Rishonim, Torah Vada’at, 5715.

[19] Y. Kil. Josephus, Wars 6.

[20] Olam Hatanakh, Shmuel aleph, Keter, 2002. This latter view is based on the literal wording “Whose son is this,” but the words are usually understood as an idiomatic phrase for “Who is this.”

[21] Robert Polzin, Samuel and the Deuteronomist, First Indiana University Press, 1989, page 162f.

[22] Radak.

[23] Peirushei Ralbag, Nevi’im Rishonim, Mosad Harav Kook, 2008.

[24] Joseph Caro quoted by Y. Kil.

[25] M. T. Segal, Sifrei Shmuel, Kiryat Sefer, 1976. P. K. McCarter, Jr., I Samuel, The Anchor Bible, Doubleday and Company, 1980, is similar, as is Julius Wellhausen, Prolegomena to the History of Ancient Israel, Meridian Books, 1957, pages 262-266; as is S. R. Driver, An Introduction to the Literature of the Old Testament, T and T Clark, 1891; and many others.

[26] H. P. Smith, Samuel, The International critical commentary, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1902.

[27] Arnold B. Ehrlich, Mikra ki-Pheschuto, Ktav Publishing House, 1969, page 141.

[28] Malcolm Gladwell, David and Goliath, Little, Brown and Company, 2013.

[29] Louis Ginzberg, The Legends of the Jews, Jewish Publication Society, 1954.

[30] Ginzberg.

[31] Ginzberg.

[32] Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 42a.

[33] Rashi.

[34] ArtScroll.