David and Goliath

According to I Samuel 17, it was David's victory over the Philistine warrior Goliath that drew King Saul's attention to him (although according to 1 Samuel 16, David was brought to his court to raise the king's spirit through his musical abilities.) The following is the tale of David and Goliath as expanded and embellished by the midrash.

David and Goliath were cousins. David's great-grandmother was Ruth the Moabite, and Goliath's was Orpah, Ruth's sister and sister-in-law. Both women were daughters of Eglon, King of Moab.

Because Orpah shed four tears when she parted from her mother-in-law Naomi, she was granted the privilege of giving birth to four giants. Goliath was the strongest and the greatest of these. And because she walked forty steps with Naomi before turning back to Moab, Goliath was permitted to show off his great strength and skill to the Israelites for forty days before being killed by David.

David's three older brothers joined Saul's army to fight the Philistines. One day Jesse gave David some parched corn and bread and said to him, "Bring this food to your brothers in the valley of Elah and see how they are doing. When you are there, try to summon up the courage to fight this giant Goliath, for it is your duty as a member of Judah to protect the Benjaminite Saul, just as the first Judah once watched out for his youngest brother."

So David came to Elah and brought food to his brothers. When he saw the nine-foot champion of the Philistines standing in the valley below, he decided to fight him. It was evening when David arrived at Saul's camp. And he heard Goliath fling his challenge at the Israelite soldiers as he had done every night and morning for forty days: "Send a man out to fight me. If he kills me, the Philistines shall become your slaves. But if I kill him, you shall be our slaves." And as always, Goliath timed his challenge to coincide with the Israelites' reciting of the Sh'ma, for he took special pleasure in frustrating their devotion to God.

When Saul heard that David wished to fight Goliath, he gave the young shepherd his royal armor, which was twice David's size, but astonishingly it fit David perfectly. Then Saul knew that this young Bethlehemite had been anointed to be his successor, for holy oil has the power to transform a person's stature.

To allay Saul's jealousy, David returned the king's armor and went forth to meet Goliath dressed as a simple shepherd, armed only with a slingshot and his staff. Five smooth pebbles flew into David's hand of their own will and fused there into one stone. Just so, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Aaron and God fuse their wills together to safeguard Israel.

David marched out to meet Goliath. As he neared him, David cast his evil eye upon the giant, and Goliath became rooted to the ground and stricken with leprosy. Then Goliath cursed David, "Am I a dog that you come to fight me with a stick? I will feed your carcass to the sheep!"

Then David knew that Goliath was doomed, for his mind was so confused that he thought that sheep could eat meat. And he shouted back at the giant, "And I will feed your carcass to the birds!"

When he heard that, Goliath looked up to see if there were any birds flying overhead. As he did so, David shot his stone through the space in the armor and hit Goliath right between the eyes. The giant began to fall backward, but an angel descended and pushed him forward so that he landed on the mouth that had so long cursed God.

Goliath was wearing several layers of armor, and David did not know how to remove it to cut off the giant's head. Then Uriah the Hittite stepped forward and told David that he knew how to take off the armor, but he would only tell him if David promised to find him an Israelite wife. David accepted, and Uriah showed him that the suits of armor were all fastened at Goliath's heels. Then David removed the armor and cut off Goliath's head. And soon after, Bathsheba became Uriah's wife.

When the Philistines saw that their champion was dead, they fled in panic. The Israelites pursued them and looted their camp. Then David brought Goliath's head to Saul, and the king took David into his service. And the people loved David even more than Saul.

American poet Charles Reznikoff (1894-1976)[*] has this to say in Autobiography, New York:

I do not believe that David killed Goliath.
It must have been —
you will find the name in the list of David's captains.
But, whoever it was, he was no fool
when he took off the helmet
and put down the sword and the spear and the shield
and said, The weapons you have given me are good,
but they are not mine;
I will fight in my own way
with a couple of pebbles and a sling.

[*] Charles Reznikoff's poem appears in Modern Poems on the Bible: An Anthology, Ed. David Curzon. 1994, published by JPS.

Babylonian Talmud Sotah 42b; Midrash Ruth Rabbah 1:4, 14; MIdrash Shmuel 20:106-108, 21:109-109; Tanhuma V, 1:207-208; Tanhuma Emor 4; Zohar III, 272a; Midrash Vayikra Rabbah 10:7, 21:2; English language sources: Louis Ginsburg, Legends of the Jews IV, 85-89.

Retold in The Classic Tales: 4,000 Years of Jewish Lore, Ed. Ellen Frankel. Copyright 1995, published by Jason Aronson.

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