Commentary on 1 Samuel 17:[1a, 4-11, 19-23] 32-49
David is introduced to the reader in Ruth 4:17.
Mere mention of him as a descendent of Ruth alerts the reader that David is sure to be a force to be reckoned with, someone who stands out in the crowd. Noting that David is the last word in this short book (Ruth 4:22), the astute reader knows to expect great things.
As Israel’s story continues in 1 Samuel, one might expect David to appear early in 1 Samuel. Yet, David remains out of sight until the prophet Samuel secretly anoints him king at a private family gathering (1 Samuel 16:1-13). Was this the writer’s way of adding to the intrigue about this, thus far, illusive character?
Though Saul is still on the throne, David knows that he is Israel’s next king. When summoned to soothe anxious King Saul (1 Samuel 16:14-23), David knows that however many they may be, Saul’s days as king are numbered.
He has no idea what awaits him when, obedient to his father, he sets out to check on his brothers on the battlefield. However, when the opportunity presents itself to improve his family’s financial status and become part of the king’s family, David does not hesitate.
When David arrived, the grapevine was abuzz with the news that Saul was looking for someone to face the Philistine champion, Goliath. The reward would be great. How could anyone pass up wealth, relief from taxes, and marrying the king’s daughter? The job was risky, but the reward was more than worth any potential risk, even death at the hand of the Philistine.
The eldest brother, Eliab, couldn’t hide his jealousy or disdain for the future king. After all, he was the eldest of Jesse’s sons. Shouldn’t he have been anointed king? David had come to the battlefield on behalf of his three elder brothers. Yet, Eliab readily rebuked David when he inquired about the reward for defeating Goliath. David’s response in 1 Samuel 17:29, “What have I done now? It was only a question” makes it clear he has heard this type of insult from his brothers before. Undeterred, David volunteers for the job.
Forty days of Goliath’s taunts had done their work. None of the Israelite fighters wanted to take on Goliath. His mere height along with his battle gear made him a formidable opponent.
Susan Niditch explains that war was not just about troops fighting one another. She writes: “Taunting … [is] a form of combat in various traditional cultures … [with] the goal … to preserve prestige and avoid physical combat.”1 It was hoped that a match between two leaders would settle the matter.
Neither Goliath nor David held back. Like daggers, verbal taunts volleyed between the two. Goliath’s taunts that he “deserves to be met by his equal — a role the inexperienced David does not appear to suit.”2 David counters that he “has killed lions and bears and that Goliath will suffer a similar fate having dared to taunt the ranks of the living God.”3
Even when Goliath says in 1 Samuel 17:43 “Am I a dog, that you come to me with sticks?” David is unnerved. Goliath continues in 1 Samuel 17:44: “Come to me, and I will give your flesh to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the field.”
Goliath’s insults weren’t the blows that Goliath intended. David was used to insults. He heard them regularly from his brothers. David is confident that Goliath is no match for him. Although Goliath didn’t know it, he is a marked man. It simply is no contest. His life would end today.
Quick to reply, David turns Goliath’s words against him. Goliath’s threat to David as an individual becomes David’s threat to Goliath’s entire army in 1 Samuel 17:46-47:
I will give the dead bodies of the Philistine army this very day to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the earth, so that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that the Lord does not save by sword and spear; for the battle is the Lord’s and he will give you into our hand.
One wonders, where did David get his confidence? For sure, it didn’t come from his family. No one, neither father nor brothers, called nor even considered David when Samuel visited his family looking for Israel’s next king. Jealous and ungrateful, his brothers considered him of no account when he brought them provisions.
Like a child who escapes into music and books to escape drama at home, David found solace in his responsibilities as a shepherd, keeper of the family’s sheep. With no companions except God and the sheep, he finds his confidence in God.
This is not just any battle. This is a battle for the life and soul of Israel, an obscure nation, one that was barely on the horizon. When David wins with only a slingshot, it is a victory not just for David, but for the fledging nation as well. It is confirmation that God is David’s silent partner in this fight.
Israel’s story would continue. David’s story would continue. Though there would be many twists and turns, for both David and Israel, the matter is settled. The connection between David and Israel would last for generations. In the biblical narrative, the connection would last through monarchy, Babylonian exile and return, rebuilding and Roman defeat. Even beyond the biblical narrative, the connection would remain.
Not only would the connection last, this story of David and Goliath would become part of the cultural landscape. The world loves the David and Goliath story and any victory when the longshot wins. What an awesome reminder that with God, we can be victorious, even in the most difficult situations.
- Susan Niditch, War in the Hebrew Bible: A study in the Ethics of Violence (New York, Oxford University Press, 1993), 92.
- Niditch, 94.
- Niditch, 94.