The Goliath Episode Examined

Posted on July 9, 2022


By David Ettinger

An Odd Scenario
As I recently read the account of Goliath in 1 Samuel Chapter 17, something struck me as odd. According to the text, the Israelite and Philistine armies met in the Valley of Elah and camped on opposite sides.

Neither side engaged in battle, rather: “A champion named Goliath, who was from Gath, came out of the Philistine camp” (v. 4). We read that he was “six cubits and a span,” approximately 9 feet, 9 inches. We further read:

Goliath stood and shouted to the ranks of Israel, “Why do you come out and line up for battle? Am I not a Philistine, and are you not the servants of Saul? Choose a man and have him come down to me. If he is able to fight and kill me, we will become your subjects; but if I overcome him and kill him, you will become our subjects and serve us” (vv. 8-9).

What Struck Me as Odd
As I read this, I said to myself: “Wait a minute. Why do the Philistines get to dictate how this war will be fought? If I’m Saul, I’m telling General Abner to choose 40 archers, get within firing distance of Goliath, and bring him down!”

Of course I realize there were rules of engagement being adhered to, so I looked into it.

The Valley of Elah

The Research
According to my brief research, oftentimes armies – desiring to limit bloodshed – would predetermine to have their two champions fight it out, the winner claiming the victory for the entire army. This is why Goliath says: “If he is able to fight and kill me, we will become your subjects; but if I overcome him and kill him, you will become our subjects and serve us.”

So yes, this was a practice of the day. However, this scenario did not seem to be mutually agreed to in this case. For one thing, if Israel knew who the Philistine champion was, it never would have agreed to such terms.

For another thing, Israel didn’t seem to know who its own champion was, since it had no one to send out to fight Goliath. Technically, Saul – at 6-foot-5 (the average Israelite of the day stood at 5-foot-6) – should have fought, though he was about 47 at the time. If not him, perhaps Abner should have engaged Goliath.

Also: Proof this arrangement was never agreed upon is that when Goliath was defeated, the Philistines didn’t comply with the terms he dictated, that the losing side would surrender. Instead, the Philistines turned and ran (v. 51). Israel let itself be dictated to by heathens.

The Sad, Key Point
The sad, key point is that, as David later noted, Israel was “the [army] of the living God” (v. 26). Israel was God’s representative nation on Earth, but acted the coward. Upon hearing the words of Goliath, “Saul and all the Israelites were dismayed and terrified” (v. 11).

I cannot picture this happening under Joshua’s leadership. He no doubt would have dispensed with Goliath’s bluster, prayed to God for strength, and sent Israel’s army into battle!

Saul, however, was not made of the same spiritual “stuff” as Joshua, or of the eventual champion, David. Though Saul fought bravely most of his reign (1 Samuel 14:47), he was spiritually deficient, having no heart or capacity to worship the God of Israel.

David, on the other hand, was a “man after [God’s] own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14). Whereas Saul saw a mere mortal (though a massive one) and melted away, David saw a mere mortal and knew he was no match for the Lord Almighty and the people He had chosen to do His bidding.

A Brief Application
As a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ, you belong to the King, and are His representative on Earth. You are to conduct yourself as a spiritual warrior, engaging in the battles He lays before you, knowing He will “equip you with everything good for doing his will” (Hebrews 13:21)!