David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell, was Goliath a blind, lumbering underdog

A 2013 hit TED Talk by Malcolm Gladwell is based on his best selling book "David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants". Malcolm is a journalist who began with the Washington Post and is now with the New Yorker magazine. He in an advocate of same sex marriage, and has a popular podcast called "Revisionist History". He says:

...people in power use history to keep people from minorities or outside groups down ... we have so much to learn by revisiting our conclusions about the past ... history is written by the victors.... (source)

The Bible was hardly written by the "victors" in power. Most scholars say the Old Testament was transcribed from oral tradition by the Israelites around the time of their exile in Babylon, after their defeat. The New Testament was written by a fledgling Christian community around 100 A.D while they were persecuted by a powerful surrounding pagan Roman Empire. It is ironic that Malcolm claims to represent the underdog, while he is an affluent, influencial, white author for one of the most powerful media conglomerates, while the authors of the Bible died penniless, often under threat of death.

Let's examine Malcolm's assertions about David and Goliath:

Was Goliath a sitting duck?

Historical data shows slingers could mame or kill targets at up to 200 yards. Medieval tapestries show slingers could hit birds in flight, incredibly accurate. David has every expectation of being able to hit Goliath and the vulnerable spot between his eyes. If you go back over ancient warfare you will find time and time again the slingers were the decisive factor against infantry. Goliath is heavy infantry and expected to fight another heavy infantry.

David was too young to be in the army and he had never trained for battle (1 Sam 17:38-40). He was not a part of any "slinger brigade". There are very few depictions of slingers compared to archers in ancient art. If slingshots were so amazing, they would be the prominent weapon. A rock from a sling could not penetrate armor.

Here's a demonstration and an international competition with the best slingers in the world using a sling similar to a shepherd's slingshot that David would have used. David hit a target 1 inch square, which is 300 times smaller than the 3 foot target that the best slingers in the world often miss.

Goliath says “come to me” expecting hand to hand fight. David has no expectation [of an armed conflict], he’s not going to fight him that way. David is against a “lumbering giant weighed down by a hundred pounds of armor” useful only in short range combat … Goliath is a sitting duck.

Goliath was carrying a spear and a javelin, both are used for throwing. (1 Sam 17:45) Javelins can be thrown 100 meters. Goliath's shield bearer was there to defend against projectiles and Goliath's armor would stop slinger stones. Goliath was prepared for a sling.

David tried on the king's armor before reverting to his slingshot. (1 Sam 17:38) He did not know how he was going to fight the giant. He only knew that God was going to deliver him.

Was Goliath blind or vision impaired?

Goliath was “Led onto the valley floor by an attendant”, why is he being led by the hand. How long it take Goliath to react to sight of David, and why doesn’t he react to the fact that David is not prepared for hand to hand combat. “Am I a dog that you should come to me with sticks” means he’s seeing double. David only has one stick. There has been a great deal of speculation over the years about whether there is something fundamentally wrong with Goliath. The 1960 Indiana Medical journal which started a chain of speculation for Goliath’s height. He had a condition known as acromegaly, caused by a benign tumor on the pituitary gland which causes unusual grown and compresses visual causing double vision or profound near sightedness. Robert Wodlow, tallest person of all time, Andre the Giant, had this disease. The phrase “come to me” is a hint of his vulnerability, because “I can’t see you”.

Actually, the Bible says nothing about Goliath being "led by the hand". It only said the shield bearer was in front of him, which makes sense since shield bearers protect the person they are guarding from being shot by an archer, or a sling. Its pretty hard to protect someone when walking behind them. If Goliath had low vision or double vision the shield bearer would have warned Goliath. But there is no such warning by the shield bearer, because

  1. Goliath was not blind
  2. the chances of David making a successful hit were very slim
  3. Goliath had a spear and javelin he could throw, and he was much stronger
  4. The shield bearer was there to defend against such projectiles, and Goliath's armor could not be penetrated by a stone.

The text says: "...the Philistine looked and saw David." (1 Sam 17:42) So Goliath wasn't blind. The Hebrew word for "sticks" is not singular or plural. Hebrew doesn't work that way. Some English translations say "sticks", because that is how the sentence works best in English. French translations use the singular "stick". It's a figure of speech, not a sign Goliath was cross eyed and seeing double.

The phrase "come to me" is a follow up to the language of the original challenge. "Choose a man for yourselves, and let him come down to me." (1 Sam 17:8)

Neither of the two people with acromegaly/hyperplasia Malcolm presents, had vision trouble, Andre the Giant and Robert Wadlow. Eye trouble is not mentioned as a common symptom of acromegaly and hyperplasia.

There are currently no fighters in any professional fighting sport who have low vision. It's really hard to fight without vision.

We tried to find the 1960 Indiana Medical Journal article, and the "chain of speculation" that Mr. Gladwell discusses, but the only mention of it on the Internet is in references to Mr. Gladwell's Ted talk. Most of those references also refute Gladwell's thesis.

Was Goliath slow, spastic or lumbering

David is against a lumbering giant...the Bible makes special note of how Goliath moves.

There is no indication in the biblical text of the story that Goliath was slow or lumbering. The only mention of the way he moved was "The Philistine came on and drew near to David" (1 Sam 17:41).

The Bible says "A champion named Goliath ... came out of the Philistine camp" (1 Sam 17:4). One cannot be a champion unless they have had multiple competitions, and beat those they competed against.

Goliath said "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.” (1 Sam 17:9)

It's bizarre to propose that Goliath would bet his life on this battle against the best fighter of the Israelites if Goliath knew he was blind, lumbering and spastic. People tend to have more self preservation than that.

The Philistines bet their freedom on their "champion" Goliath

The Philistines put Goliath forth as their best warrior in an army of over 30,000 and initiated the challenge that would subject them to slavery if they lost. It doesn't make sense that they would send out a blind lumbering spastic giant. He was their "champion". (1 Samuel 17:4)

The Bible is quick to provide David's faults and mistakes

The Bible documented how David lied to Abimelech (1 Samuel 21:1 – 22:23), and what it cost and his regret. It also describes how in his lust for a woman, he sent the husband to the front lines to his death so he could have her. It documents his repentence in the famous Psalm 51. It doesn't appear that the Bible is trying to enhance his reputation or make him more than he is. He is presented as a flawed but faithful man. There is no reason to assume the Bible made David any more than himselft in the Goliath story.

Victory over Goliath was the first step towards an anointed reign for David

  • He escaped Saul while in residence where he was a sitting duck. (1 Sam 19)
  • His small band of men escaped Saul's huge army in the wilderness.
  • He miraculously survived exile in Gath, the land of the Philistines, where he was recognized. (1 Samuel 21:10-15)
  • He was the greatest king of Israel, united the kingdom, and was one of 8 faithful kings out of 39.
  • He repented when he made mistakes, and was a humble leader.
  • He had amazing military victories.
  • He survived numerous battles where he actively fought.
  • He reigned for 40 years as one of the longest reigning kings.

Conclusion about the David and Goliath history revision

Malcolm Gladwell made up facts out of thin air for his audience (i.e., Goliath was lead out by the hand) and his proposition is buried under multiple layers of speculation:

  1. Goliath had a rare disease, acromegaly, 3000 years ago.
  2. Goliath had a subset of side effects of this disease, such as immobility and blindness which are not common side effects of acromegaly.
  3. That the Philistines bet the freedom of their entire nation on a lumbering blind giant in "man to man" combat, while the Bible called him their "champion".
  4. That any competition slinger had the accuracy of a modern day expert sharp shooter, and could hit a 1 inch target when the best slingers in the world today often miss a 3 foot target from that distance.
  5. That there was nothing special, courageous or anointed about David, who proved to be the most important King in Jewish history.
  6. That God is not particularly interested in miracles to encourage his people.

The "champion" Goliath was more likely a tall, agile and strong athlete with great eyesight, like a professional basketball player today, who had proved himself in competitions and in battles, and impressed the Philistine leadership so much that they bet their freedom on him. Why not just read the text the way it is written?

Malcolm Gladwell has made a journalistic career out of conjuring up quirky sensational theories about history, which appear to advance a mostly socialist and anti-biblical world view. This particular thesis falls apart under scrutiny. It doesn't even qualify as speculative theology.

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