How Did Tiny David Defeat Giant Goliath? Part 1

Some critics have questioned how 5 feet tall David could have defeated 7 (or 10) feet tall Goliath. Isn’t this story a little far-fetched? A stone from a sling killing a giant of a man in a single blow? How can this be true?

The text of 1 Samuel 17 indicates that God is with David, but it does not indicate that God supernaturally intervened to perform a “slingshot miracle” to kill Goliath. Although David credits God with his victory, God’s assistance seems more providential than miraculous. God places the right man with the right heart with the right skills at the right place and the right time to do his bidding.

If there is no indication of a miracle, then we are left with the puzzle of how David was able to kill Goliath so easily. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, takes a close look at this famous battle and discovers that David’s victory was not at all a fluke, but something that could have been predicted. Gladwell explains:

Ancient armies had three kinds of warriors. The first was cavalry— armed men on horseback or in chariots. The second was infantry— foot soldiers wearing armor and carrying swords and shields. The third were projectile warriors, or what today would be called artillery: archers and, most important, 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.

Paintings from medieval times show slingers hitting birds in midflight. Irish slingers were said to be able to hit a coin from as far away as they could see it, and in the Old Testament Book of Judges, slingers are described as being accurate within a ‘hair’s breadth.’ An experienced slinger could kill or seriously injure a target at a distance of up to two hundred yards.  The Romans even had a special set of tongs made just to remove stones that had been embedded in some poor soldier’s body by a sling. Imagine standing in front of a Major League Baseball pitcher as he aims a baseball at your head. That’s what facing a slinger was like— only what was being thrown was not a ball of cork and leather but a solid rock.

Gladwell continues:

The historian Baruch Halpern argues that the sling was of such importance 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.

In part 2, we’ll continue with Gladwell’s analysis of this famous Bible narrative.