Rembrandt, David with the Head of Goliath before Saul, 1627, Kunstmuseum Basel, in the public domain.

We all know the story of David and Goliath. Even if we don’t know the details of the story we’re familiar with the reference to an underdog overpowering a vastly stronger opponent, in this case a boy downing a giant with a slingshot and a single stone. We may not associate King Saul with the story however, except for his secondary role as the leader of the army who was unprepared to take on the challenge but became jealous of David’s ensuing fame when the young man took on Goliath and won. I’ve written before about some oddities in the story and the likelihood that the original hero of the story was someone from David’s hometown named Elhanan, but that the names were changed to make David the hero instead. There’s very good biblical evidence for that, so you may want to read that post (David and Goliath: history or legend?) before continuing on. One of my conclusions there was that the story of David and Goliath in 1 Samuel 17 is actually the result of two different stories being merged, and we get some evidence of this in the two accounts of David’s introduction to Saul. In the first account David was already in Saul’s service as his armour-bearer and personal musician when this incident took place, while in the second account David meets Saul for the first time.

Unrelated to the sources of the story or how two (or more) accounts came together, some scholars have noted that there are some remarkable similarities in the story between the characters Goliath and Saul. I won’t list them all because there are too many (but if you’re interested I’ve noted two scholarly works below which have all the details). I’ll just mention a handful which to me are particularly impressive.

First, both Goliath and Saul are noted for their height. In 1 Samuel 17:4 we are intoduced to “a champion named Goliath, of Gath, whose height was six cubits and a span.” When we are introduced to Saul (1 Samuel 9:2) we are told he was “a handsome young man. There was not a man among the people of Israel more handsome than he; he stood head and shoulders above everyone else.” Saul’s height was apparently impressive because we are later told again (10:23) that “when he took his stand among the people, he was head and shoulders taller than any of them.” The only other person whose height is noted in the Book of Samuel is David’s brother Eliab, and there Samuel was specifically told by God “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him” (16:7). From a literary point of view it looks like the writer(s) of this story wants us to note that Saul – the tallest man in Israel – and David’s tall brother Eliab were both at the battlefield when the gigantic Goliath was taunting Israel. The literary effect might be to simply point out that the Philistine towered over Israel’s tallest men, yet the further similarities between Goliath and Saul make me think something more than that is going on here.

Second, Goliath’s main weapon was his spear. It is mentioned four times and we are even given a description of it. The only other person in the Book of Samuel to be associated with a spear is Saul, and the next chapter describes how he used it in an attempt to kill David (18:10-11). Saul also has an armour-bearer in front of him, and you will recall that I’ve noted that one of the two accounts of this story has already described David as Saul’s armour-bearer. It wouldn’t have been uncommon for ancient warriors to have armour-bearers, it’s just uncommon for the Bible to mention them, so when it does I think it may be significant. So in this confrontation on one side is Goliath and his armour-bearer, while on the other is Saul’s armour-bearer alone. Saul is conspicuously absent.

Third, in the version of the story where David is introduced to Saul, Saul describes him as “just a lad” (17:33). Similarly, when Goliath meets him on the battlefield he “looked and saw David, he disdained him, for he was only a lad” using the same Hebrew word (נַעַר). The writer(s) may be making the point that David was totally unprepared, inexperienced, and unsuited for battle, but also that both Goliath and Saul have formed similar opinions about him. The Hebrew word translated here as “he looked” (נָבַט) when describing Goliath’s disdainful look at David, is an uncommon word in the Hebrew Bible generally and rare in the Book of Samuel, but the same word is also used to describe how Saul looked at David in 1 Samuel 25:3. Goliath looked on the boyish David disdainfully, and the writer(s) may be hinting that so did Saul, or at least that he would come to look at David this way.

Fourth, both Goliath and Saul had their heads cut off after they were killed, and they are the only two characters to be decapitated in the Book of Samuel. Another similarity is that the heads of both Goliath and Saul were taken away and their bodies disposed of separately, and in both cases their armour was kept in a shrine or temple.

Finally, in his article about these similarities Matthew Michael lists many examples of words and phrases, some of them uncommon, which occur in the Book of Samuel in relation to both Goliath and Saul. The preponderance of this recurring phraseology suggests that the writer(s) or editor(s) of the Book of Samuel was/were making a deliberate connection between the two men. It was not enough to say Saul was weak and unable or unwilling to stand up against Goliath, the way the story is told suggests that the writer(s) thought Saul was actually like Goliath.

So what is the point of this? I’ve already noted in my earlier post that the re-telling of the Elhanan and Goliath story to turn it into the David and Goliath legend was possibly done to heroise David. However, in view of Green and Michael’s works I now think it was possibly more than this: the encounter between Goliath and David becomes a kind of parable to illustrate the conflict which, by the time of writing, has historically taken place between Saul and David and their respective dynasties. The writer has taken a story about Elhanan and Goliath and turned it into metaphorical legend about Saul and David. In the legend David was a giant-slayer, and this typifies the victory of David over Saul. Saul is villainised by the pro-Davidic writers/editors for political propaganda purposes. It was not enough to say David was a good king, or even a better king than Saul; Saul had to be painted as Goliath-like, the enemy of Israel, who had to be taken down. To legitimise the Davidic dynasty they also needed to de-legitimise the Saulide dynasty.

I like the way Michael put this:

Within the premise of this thinking, the narrator adopted the story of Elhanan and now reworked this story in order to make David the hero of his story. In this new role for his story, the exploits of Elhanan is adapted for polemic intent with the story of Goliath against David now extended in order to preview the subsequent conflict between the houses of David and Saul. Armed with this new version of David-Goliath story, the narrator also reworked the subsequent stories of Saul to cohere with subtle motifs from the Goliath/David story. The new use of the Goliath’s story assumes perhaps an ideological importance because it moves the story from its original setting to a polemic space which seeks to intentionally demonize and dethrone Saul by connecting him to a notorious villain Goliath. Like modern photo-shopping of pictures to fulfill the interest of the photo-shopper, the story of Goliath is hereby photo-shopped and re-designed to carry out the polemic agenda of a pro-Davidic narrator.

Michael, Matthew. “Is Saul the Second Goliath of 1 Samuel?” 243

Next: Michal and the end of Saul’s line

For further reading about the similarities between Saul and Goliath I recommend these two works:

Green, Barbara, How Are the Mighty Fallen: A Dialogical Study of King Saul in 1 Samuel. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2003.

Michael, Matthew. “Is Saul the Second Goliath of 1 Samuel? The Rhetoric & Polemics of the David/Goliath Story in 1 Samuel.” Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament 34, no. 2 (2020): 221-244.