And there came out from the camp of the Philistines a champion named Goliath of Gath, whose height was six cubits and a span. – 1 Samuel 17:4 (ESV)
It is one of the most striking scenes in the Bible. The champion of Israel’s archenemies, the Philistines, strides to the front of the battle lines shouting curses at the Israelites and their God. He is a battle-hardened giant named Goliath, and when he repeatedly calls out for someone to meet him in one-on-one combat, none are brave enough to answer the challenges. David, a youth visiting his brothers in Israel’s camp, hears the blasphemous roaring and goes forward with providence, but without armor or sword, to defend the name of his God and his people. He picks up five smooth stones and with his shepherd’s sling brings down Goliath with a single throw.
In the eyes of most mainstream scholars, the Bible’s account of David defeating Goliath is either complete fiction or an embellished legend based on faded memories not written down until several centuries after the event. After all, with the passing of 3,000 years, what physical evidence would still exist that could support the authenticity of such a confrontation?
Actually, there may be more evidence than one would expect, including a possible first-hand report of the incident.
In a Haaretz magazine article last week titled “Huge if True: The Archaeological Case for Goliath,” Philippe Bohstrom profiled several archaeological discoveries that may make skeptics of the David and Goliath story take notice.
One factor supporting the historical nature of the account is the prolific evidence that Bronze Age armies commonly used single combats to determine the outcome of battles. According to the article, war by proxy spared bloody casualties and relied on the belief that each side’s god would fight on their behalf to determine the outcome that would have resulted anyway. Examples include the Egyptian account of Sinuhe, the Babylonian Epic Enuma Elish, and the famous duel between Paris and Menelaus in Homer´s Iliad (3.340-382)
“Alexandrous [Paris] and Menelaus are to fight for Helen in single combat, that she and all her wealth may go with him who is the victor… If Paris kills Menelaus, let him keep Helen and all her wealth, while we sail home with our ships; but if Menelaus kills Paris, let the Trojans give back Helen and all that she has; let them moreover pay such fine to the Achaeans as shall be agreed upon, in testimony among those that shall be born hereafter.”
This idea is clearly echoed in the words of Goliath as he challenged the Israelites:
He stood and shouted to the ranks of Israel, “Why have you come out to draw up for battle? Am I not a Philistine, and are you not servants of Saul? Choose a man for yourselves, and let him come down to me. If he is able to fight with me and kill me, then we will be your servants. But if I prevail against him and kill him, then you shall be our servants and serve us.” And the Philistine said, “I defy the ranks of Israel this day. Give me a man, that we may fight together.” When Saul and all Israel heard these words of the Philistine, they were dismayed and greatly afraid. – 1 Samuel 17:8-11 (ESV)
“But the most crucial argument is that the biblical description of Goliath’s armor fits archaeological discoveries from his very era. And now new archaeological evidence from Philistine Gath obliquely supports the case that the biblical narrative reflects historical realities, albeit through a prism, and was not pure 7th century B.C.E. wishful thinking,” Bohstrom writes.
An examination of the evidence shows that it does, indeed, support the accuracy of the biblical text, which gives a lot of detail about Goliath’s weapons and armor.
He had a helmet of bronze on his head, and he was armed with a coat of mail, and the weight of the coat was five thousand shekels of bronze. And he had bronze armor on his legs, and a javelin of bronze slung between his shoulders. – 1 Samuel 17:5-6 (ESV)
Not only do Goliath’s challenges fit the practice of Bronze Age warriors, so does his armor. The Haaretz article points out that warriors similarly outfitted were called champions, and they went in front of the ranks, often leading the attack. Homer calls them promachoi, meaning first-men. Leg armor was used by Mycenaean warriors from the 13th century BC onward and can be seen depicted on their pottery. Bronze leggings also have been found in tombs in Cyprus.
“However, the shirt of scale armor that Goliath was purported to have was not thought to be within the Mycenaean panoply. Their soldiers were wrapped in wide bronze bands connected by hinges, protecting their bodies from neck to groin… Scale armor had been thought to have gone out of use before the Mycenaean heyday, around 1400 B.C.E. But in 2006, bronze scale armor was discovered in a Mycenaean palace on the island of Salamis,”Bohstrom writes. ”Now, if the story had been 7th or 6th century B.C.E. fiction, written hundreds of years after the event, the author would have had no idea how warriors had been garbed in the earlier Bronze Age.”
Bohstrom also points out that those who are skeptical of the account often argue that the story dresses Goliath like Greek “hoplite,” soldiers from the 7th to 5th century BC. However, hoplites did not use scale armor or shield bearers, as Goliath did. So this alleged time-marker for the original composition of the story does not have merit.
His view that the biblical account was told “through a prism,” seems to be based on the apparent inconsistencies of the descriptions of Goliath’s gear matching a Bronze Age warrior, yet the Bible’s account placing him at the time of David and King Saul in the 11th century BC. According to standard dating, the Late Bronze Age in the Mediterranean world ended by around 1200 BC, when the Sea Peoples created chaos in the region by overthrowing the established powers such as the Hittites, and even weakening Egypt.
In the standard view, the Bible places the battle between David and Goliath nearly two centuries after the Mycenaean era and the end of the Bronze Age. Was Goliath merely choosing to emulate the style from a more ancient time, or is this another piece of evidence showing that the standard dates for the Mycenaeans and the Bronze Age are off by centuries because of their reliance on links to Egypt’s overinflated history? More evidence supporting the idea of shifting the early history of Israel into more ancient settings can be seen in the feature documentary film, Patterns of Evidence: The Exodus.
One other criticism against the idea of the validity of the Goliath account, is the lack of evidence of Hebrew inscriptions or any scribes in Jerusalem until the final phase of Judah’s history in the 7th and 6th centuries BC. So in their view, this would have been the earliest opportunity for passages of the Bible, including the Goliath story, to be written down (about 400 years after the event).
However, as will be seen in the upcoming film Patterns of Evidence: The Moses Controversy, there is dramatic evidence for Semitic writing far earlier than the time of David and Goliath, and there was a genuine opportunity for the account to be written in real time, and not centuries later.
Oldest References to David and Goliath
Since 2005, excavations at Goliath’s home city of Gath have also produced inscriptions on pottery shards with ancient Semitic writing that include name forms similar to the name “Goliath.” They were dubbed the “Goliath sherds” and dated to the 9th century (800s) BC, at a minimum showing that people with names very similar to Goliath lived in Gath at the time.
The Tel-Dan Stele (c. 870-750 BC) contains the oldest widely accepted reference to David. (Wikimedia Commons)
Until now, there have been only two inscriptions from the time of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah thought to contain the name of Israel’s King “David” – both coming from about 2 centuries after he lived. The Tel Dan Stele was discovered in 1993–94 during excavations at Tel Dan in northern Israel. Written in Aramaic, the inscription appears to be a proclamation of victory by Hazael, the king of Syria, over Israel. Several kings of Israel/Judah may be mentioned, but the reconstruction of the fragments, and thus the identification of two of the kings, is disputed among scholars. In an unbroken section, the phrase “House of David” (highlighted above) is mentioned in relation to one of the defeated kings. Dated by most scholars anywhere between 870 and 750 BC, it has been considered the oldest widely accepted reference to David, the founder of the House of David that continuously ruled over the southern kingdom of Judah until it ended with the Babylonian captivity in 587/586 BC.
A second ancient reference to the House of David comes from the Mesha Stele (c. 840 BC), which was made King Mesha of Moab (in modern Jordan). It tells how the lands of Moab had been recovered from Israel, and its report generally matches the account found in 2 Kings 3:4–8. It bears the earliest certain extra-biblical reference to the Israelite God YHWH, and possibly a reference to the “House of David.” However, one of the letters is damaged causing the interpretation of this phrase to be more disputed than the Tel Dan Stele.
First-hand Report of David Slaying Goliath?
However, could there be an inscription contemporary with the time of David that not only names him, but documents the epic battle he fought with Goliath? This is the tentative conclusion drawn by Brian E. Colless, an Honorary Research Associate in the School of Humanities at Massey University in Australia, who is a recognized expert on ancient scripts in the Northwest Semitic family.
The find comes from the site of Khirbet Qeiyafa, the site of an ancient fortress city overlooking the Elah Valley of Israel, about 20 miles southwest of Jerusalem and 7 miles from Goliath’s hometown of Gath. The Elah Valley is where the Bible says the David vs. Goliath conflict took place:
And Saul and the men of Israel were gathered, and encamped in the Valley of Elah, and drew up in line of battle against the Philistines. – 1 Samuel 17:2 (ESV)
Since 2007, excavations by Yosef Garfinkel of The Hebrew University and Saar Ganor of the Israel Antiquities Authority, have uncovered a wealth of remarkable finds at Qeiyafa. A 2-part Thinker (Read Here: Part 1 and Part 2) from February of 2017 titled “Valley of David and Goliath?” highlights some of the finds at Khirbet Qeiyafa, including a jar with the name “Eshbaal” on it – Eshbaal was one of the sons of Saul.
Garfinkel proposes an Iron Age date for the fortification and uses the evidence at Khirbet Qeiyafa to argue for a greater centralized government and a more powerful kingdom under David and Solomon like the Bible describes. Most mainstream archaeologists challenge the Bible’s description of this reality today. Because of the apparent lack of evidence, they view David and Solomon’s kingdom as no more than a small and rustic tribal entity. The excavators also came to the realization that the city had two gates. This has caused them to propose that the site was biblical Shaaraim, which means “two gates” in Hebrew and this settlement/fortress is also mentioned as being near the site of the David vs. Goliath confrontation in the Bible’s account:
And the men of Israel and Judah rose with a shout and pursued the Philistines as far as Gath and the gates of Ekron, so that the wounded Philistines fell on the way from Shaaraim as far as Gath and Ekron. – 1 Samuel 17:52 (ESV)
In 2008, a potsherd was uncovered at Qeiyafa that contained some of the oldest Semitic writing ever found in Israel. Known as the Qeiyafa Ostracon, it contained five lines of fairly legible writing with some faded areas. Attempts by various scholars to decipher the inscription yielded different interpretations, most including the words for God, judge, servant or slave, and king or kingdom.
A press release by Haifa University stated: “This text is a social statement, relating to slaves, widows and orphans. It uses verbs that were characteristic of Hebrew, such as `asah (“did”) and `avad (“worked”), which were rarely used in other regional languages. Particular words that appear in the text, such as almanah (“widow”) are specific to Hebrew and are written differently in other local languages…”
Infrared photo of the Qeiyafa Ostracon. (credit: Clara Amit, Israel Antiquities Authority)
A tentative drawing of the Qeiyafa Ostracon (credit: Brian Colless).
Brian Colless has come up with a tantalizing alternate interpretation of the inscription using his identification for some of the letters that are disputed among scholars. In Colless’ article on the David and Goliath Ostracon at his website, he stresses the following cautions:
“We need to remember the problems that confront us in approaching such ancient texts:
- The aging and fading of the writing over 3,000 years;
- The idiosyncratic handwriting styles of the scribes;
- The lack of spaces or points to separate the words;
- The absence of signs for vowels (usually only consonants are shown);
- The intended meaning of the text is known only to its author.
After an extensive explanation of the issues involved with some of the different letter possibilities, and trying numerous possibilities for each of the five lines, Colless gives the following tentative sketch for what he sees in the inscription:
- Anak, you have cursed against the servant of God;
- The servant of God has judged you with judgments of Yahu
- Goliath, you are dead; David is master forever;
- I arise and we raise up the foundation of my kingdom;
- I raise up the people of my servant for his virtuous acts.
Colless writes, “An inscription from the time of King Saul mentioning Goliath and David side by side? Fantastic I say, and you can take that word in whichever direction you wish.” He cautions, again, about the “the unseemly amount of guesswork” needed in the process of arriving at this or any interpretation of the inscription.
The name “Anak” and the Anakim were related to the giants found in Canaan:
“And there we saw the Nephilim (the sons of Anak, who come from the Nephilim), and we seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.” – Numbers 33:18 (ESV)
Colless compares the last line to the structure seen in this affirmation from 2 Samuel:
“The LORD rewarded me according to my righteousness” – 2 Samuel 22:21 (KJV)
Colless continues, “It is a pleasant surprise to see in this inscription two characters who are known in the Bible doing what they did in the Bible story, at the very place where it is said they did it, and at the very time in history when it happened, during the reign of King Saul near the end of the 11th century BCE. it must have been Saul who built the fortress at Sha’arayirm (Khirbet Qeiyafa). The headlines we have been seeing about this inscription are wrong. This is not about the kingdoms of David and Solomon, and the tribe of Judah, but about the reign of King Saul of the tribe of Benjamin.”
Brian Colless. (credit: Brian E. Colless)
The Eshbaal inscription would seem to support Colless’ perspective. He continues about the ostracon, “This is a primary source… It is an eyewitness account from a prophet, a response delivered in the form of an oracle of Yahu Elohim, and recorded in writing immediately after the event. It is not a forgery, but a genuine testimony that has been waiting 3,000 years to be discovered and deciphered.”
According to Colless, this could be a form of execration text, as seen in Egyptian artifacts of the time, where a pronouncement of curse is made against an enemy recorded on clay bowls, blocks or statues that is then smashed and buried as a way of ritually affecting history and cursing or defeating the enemies listed in the text.
The interpretation is far from certain, but If this bears out, it would perhaps be the most remarkable biblical discovery ever made. Certainly there is supporting evidence for one-on-one battles between champions instead of armies in the Bronze Age, Evidence matching unique aspects of Goliath’s armor in that same period. Ancient inscriptions bearing the name of David and perhaps Goliath from the areas they were from. There is the name of Saul’s son found at a fortification in the valley where Saul’s forces faced off against the Philistines. These form a pattern of evidence that appears to be more than mere coincidence. Keep Thinking!