On David and Goliath

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In the narrative of the story, David gets on with whatever the next project is. He doesn’t invoke victimhood or being small as something that he lives by.

Robert Pinsky

Sifting through the details of a bloody six days in yesterday’s story meeting, from Haifa to Nasrallah, Katyushas to Syria, we eventually drifted far afield and found ourselves talking about bar fights (via Global Voices) and biblical stories and, specifically, the lasting power of David and Goliath.

Which is not to say that we’re not interested in the details of the current situation. We have been, and will continue to be. But this seems like as good a time as any to take a big, biblical step back away from the details of an entrenched conflict and toward the reverberations of a story that never grows old.

David and Goliath

Jean shorts were Goliath’s first mistake. [Lone Primate / Flickr]

And then there’s the story itself, which is stranger and more complex than the newspaper headline (“Boy slays giant with slingshot”) would have suggested. If you haven’t just brushed up on 1 Samuel. 17, for example, you might have forgotten David’s careful self-regard:”What will be done for the man who kills this Philistine and frees Israel of the disgrace?” he asks.

Or his devotion: “Who is this uncircumcised Philistine in any case, that he should insult the armies of the living God?”

Or his swagger: “You come against me with sword and spear and scimitar,” he warns Goliath, “but I come against you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel that you have insulted. Today the Lord shall deliver you into my hand; I will strike you down and cut off your head. This very day I will leave your corpse and the corpses of the Philistine army for the birds of the air and the beasts of the field; thus the whole land shall learn that Israel has a God.”

Or that later, in exhange for King Saul’s daughter’s hand in marriage, he slays 200 more Philistines… then brings back 100 foreskins. For some reason they didn’t emphasize that part in my Hebrew School.

We’re asking: what is it about this story that has captured our imaginations and our self-conceptions — those of so many different peoples and nations — for so long? Is it just that everyone likes an underdog? (And what kind of an underdog has God on his side? Or cuts off the head of his vanquished foe, just to prove a point?) What are its historical resonances? Its psychological dynamics? Why is it that Goliaths always want to be — or, even, think of themselves as — Davids, and Davids Goliaths?

Let’s talk folklore and mythology. Or sociology, anthropology, psychology, and psychiatry. But let’s try to stay away from Haifa and katyushas for a night.

Robert Pinsky

US Poet Laureate, 1997 to 2000

Professor, Boston University

Author of The Life of David and six books of poetry, including First Things to Hand

Thanks to Jenny Attiyeh for the suggestion.

Chris Hedges

Author, War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning

Former war correspondent, The New York Times

Samuel Pauker

Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Weill Medical College of Cornell University

Member, Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research, Columbia University

Chairman, The Rado Advanced Psychoanalytic Study Group on Pyschoanalytic Perspectives on the Bible

Extra-Credit Reading List

Vladimir Berginer, MD PhD, Neurological Aspects of the David-Goliath Battle: Restriction in the Giant’s Visual Field, IMAJ, Vol 2, p 725, September 2000

Sarah Wilson-Jones, David and Goliath, Superbarista Blog, July 7, 2006

Robert Pinsky, The Life of David, Schocken Books, September 2005

Follower of Basho, They Call it “The David Syndrome”, The Blue Rider Blog: Art Talk, April 2, 2006

Perfect David ‘a physical wreck’, BBC news, September 8, 2004

Related Content

  • bryongw

    I think it will be nice to compare your discussion with the conversation about that Samson story that Bill Moyers and David Grossman had on Moyer’s Faith and Reason series.


  • Ooh, how exciting. I’m so glad I have time to think about this. Self-perceptions. An oppositional framework. Gratuitous violence. Self-righteousness.

    There’s a lot of fodder in this little/humongous tale…..

  • jenattiyeh

    Robert Pinsky has recently written a book called “The Life of David” which tells the story of the legendary example of “asymmetrical warfare” btw David and Goliath in detail. I didn’t know how contradictory a fellow David was. Very wily, very seductive/manipulative, and also of course “beloved of God” — beautiful looking, and charismatic — but hardly a “saint”! He was in fact a murderer, adulterer and in the end, a bitter old man….



  • Three Davids in Bronze and Stone:

    Michelangelo’s David is probably the most well known image of the biblical hero if not the most famous sculpture in the western canon. It was commissioned by the city of Florence in 1501. An earlier bronze David by Donatello 1469, bore an inscription on its base referring to the virtue and valor of the Florentines. It is thought that the earlier work celebrates the victory of Florence over Milanese in 1428 and the Michelangelo David represents the city’s resistance to the powerful Medici in the early 16th century. For the city of Florence David symbolizes a small city ready to defend itself against powerful surrounding forces. Still a later statue of David, 1623, this one in Rome, was carved by Bernini as a commissioned gift for Pope Paul the V’s nephew.

    Each of these three statues was an innovation in its own time. The Donatello was the first free-standing nude bronze figure in Europe after antiquity. Here David has already slain Goliath and rests his foot on the giant’s severed head. The elegant figure and gentle smile reflect its classical influence. Michelangelo’s David is depicted at the moment of decision, stone in hand with a facial expression of psychological force – the eyes, the eyebrows. His physical perfection is heroic if not divine. Benini’s David moves into the Baroque period showing David in action with a concentrated and determined expression, deeply furrowed brow and clenched mouth, torso twisted around fully utilizing the three dimensional space ready to spring forward launching his weapon.

  • And from Music…

    The first time I heard Hallelujah sung by KD Lang on the 49th Parallel Album it astounded me.

    Hallelujah – LEONARD COHEN

    first verse:

    Now I’ve heard there was a secret chord

    That David played, and it pleased the Lord

    But you don’t really care for music, do you?

    It goes like this

    The fourth, the fifth

    The minor fall, the major lift

    The baffled king composing Hallelujah





  • And finally…. DANCE

    If you saw the movie Chicago you have seen Richard Gere dance. In the 1985 movie King David he dances before the Lord with all his might. 2 Samuel 6:14

  • Thanks, bryongw and jenattiyeh, for those great suggestions. I’ll definitely reach out to Pinksy and Grossman. And listen to Jeff Buckley’s version of “Hallelujah” for the umpteenth time…

  • jdyer

    I would like you to interview Robert Altman who retranslated the recently the part of the Bible including the David and Goliath encounter in the his magnificent:

    The David Story: A Translation with Commentary of 1 and 2 Samuel


  • jdyer

    “Or that later, in exhange for King Saul’s daughter’s hand in marriage, he slays 200 more Philistines… then brings back 100 foreskins. For some reason they didn’t emphasize that part in my Hebrew School.”

    That’s how wars were fought once upon a time. No need to be squeamish about it. Don’t know why that should be taught to children, though.

  • rahbuhbuh

    peggysue on Michaelangelo’s David: “His physical perfection is heroic if not divine.”

    But Michaelangelo’s David is mutantly out of proportion… (dare I bring up Barbie comparisons and veer this into something about “perfection” and body image?) Art historians will say it was purposeful, whether to focus attention on his fated hands (action) and face (determination) or as a trick of the eye for perspective’s sake (fighting the foreshortening as you look up at him).

    David as an ideal is intertesting though. My areligeous upbringing was filled with new riffs where the charactuer is a gawky schlub standing up to the pretty and capable bully. Less God’s favorite, more a bookish writer’s revenge with a trophy at the end. Is this an American translation to keep the underdog story relevant? My country has been convincing me it’s the leading superpower since I was born. Does that mean I will not relate to the civic-minded unarmed small, save reminiscing ousting the red coated British giant to gain independence, and therefore reorganize the myth in my head? David’s righteousness becomes social, financial, or romantic to stay relevant? I’m curious how different cultures and nations frame their Goliaths.

  • But Michaelangelo’s David is mutantly out of proportion…

    I go with the foreshortening theory.

    Not having seen the statue in person I didn’t understand how big it was (sort of ironic since Goliath was suppose to be the giant) until I saw a film about the Pueblo sculptor Michael Neranjo. Naranjo was blinded by a grenade in Veitnam. As a sculptor he got special permission from the pope to “veiw” Michelangelo’s David with his hands. Naranjo is a big guy himself but seeing him standing high up on scaffolding touching the David’s face he was dwarfed by the 18 ft. sculpture.

    When creating the David Michelangelo was still in early twentys. He’d already carved the Pieta in Rome but he was still trying to prove himself. And he did. I think he knew exactly what he was doing.

  • Wow! I don’t know how I managed to miss this one all my life. David and Goliath 1961 starring Orson Wells.


  • at the risk of being a thread hog…

    Re: Michelangelo’s David – here is what University of Florence anatomy professor Massimo Gulisano says…

    “Some say the feet, the hands are out of proportion. It’s not true,” Gulisano said by telephone during the final session of a two-day conference in Florence of art historians, restorers and scientists to mark the 500th unveiling of the statue.”


    “There was only one error. There was a hollow where there should have been a muscle on the right side of the back,” Gulisano said.

    But Michelangelo was aware of the flaw, writing in a letter that a defect in the marble block forced him to leave out that muscle, Gulisano said.”


    “Some observers have commented that the genitals that Michelangelo gave David seemed out of proportion, but the professors told the conference that measurements indicated all was normal.

    “Taking in consideration this is a statue of a young man who was thinking about a battle that was about to happen, everything is normal,” Gulisano said in the phone interview.”

    see compltet article…


  • to see Earth First! David refrigerator magnet…


  • loki

    What about Matt A. and the Big Dig?

  • It’s just astounding that we continue to fixate on the fables of one obscure Semitic tribe that happened to live in tbat area thousands of years ago.

    If the Romans hadn’t decided to crucify Jesus, and thus give a boost to his particular cult, the Jews would have probably been forgotten by now, along with all the Jewish and Christian mythology that followed, and who knows how all this would have turned out?

    How many OTHER little tribes and peoples in the Americas and Europe and the mid-east, and Asia and Africa ALSO had rich, complex, subtle, beautiful literature and mythology? And which were all swept away by wars and invasions so today we don’t know anything about them, but we fixate on just ONE tribe’s stories over and over and OVER again?

    If Jesus’ little band of followers hadn’t succeeeded in marketing their particular mystical martyr, the artists and poets and screenwriters might have given us dramas and poems and sculpture of and paintings of lots of OTHER characters and stories from cults and religions we’ve never even HEARD of.

  • plnelson, “we fixate on just ONE tribe’s stories over and over and OVER again?”

    Interesting point. I think the pervasivness of these monotheistic patriarchal tribal desert religions relys on their continuing zealous brutality. I blame Constantine for Romanizing Christianity and then sending it out to conquer the known world. Then all that burning at the stake, millions burned to death for failure to adhere to the one true faith, the iron maiden, kidnapped children sent to mission schools, Potlatches raided, Totem poles burned. Crusaders going door to door embued with rightiousness. I just wonder if Christianity didn’t develop its aggressive nature by riding with the Roman Legions. They seem like a fitting vehicle for a brutal desert cult.

  • chilton1

    peggysue on Michaelangelo’s David: “His physical perfection is heroic if not divine.�

    or Joseph Heller’s David- ”It may be a good piece of work, taken all in all, but it just isn’t me’

    (he is uncircumcised!)

  • chilton1, good point… ur.. observation

    As I was tending to my bible reading last night I noticed the maps in the back of my 1961 Revised Standard. On the map, CANNAN and the Tribal Allotments, I noticed that PHILISTIA, which I’m assuming was home to the Philistines, was located on what is now the GAZA STRIP. So it looks like Goliath came out of Gaza. In the story of David and Goliath, Goliath is a fully armed member of a military force and David is a stone throwing kid. Today the tables are turned and Israel has the fully equipped military and Gaza has the stone throwing kids. Maybe the message of the story is… beware the stone throwing kid.

    to see map of CANNAN and the Tribal Allotments..


  • As for my own personal David and Goliath Story I’ve never shied away from unlikely causes but probably my most dramatic was going up against the United States of America by blockading a logging road in the Nez Perce National Forest in North Central Idaho. (And this is why I have an Earth First! David refrigerator magnet). We dug in and locked down with a banner that read “Not One More Roadâ€? knowing we’d get hauled off to jail and boy did we ever. We got hit with county, state and federal charges and jail. We lost a million dollar civil suit to the road contractors. We weren’t quite as successful against our giant as David going up against Goliath but if the cause is righteous enough it almost doesn’t matter. It just feels really good to do it even when you lose. Maybe my David story relates more to David’s dream to build a temple and his failure to do so as Martin Luther King Jr. refers to in his sermon “Unfulfilled Dreamsâ€?.

    ML King says: “David, as you know was a great king. And one thing that was foremost in David’s mind and in his heart was to build a great temple�…

    King refers to I Kings: 8 “And it was in the heart of David my father to build a house for the name of the Lord God of Israel. And the Lord said unto David my father, “Whereas it was in thine heart to build a house unto my name, thou didst well that it was within thine heart�.�

    He continues, “each one of you this morning in some way is building some kind of temple. The struggle is always there. It gets discouraging sometimes. Some of us are trying to build a temple of peace. We speak out against war, we protest, but it seems your head is going against a concrete wall�…

    And the thing that makes me happy is that I can hear a voice crying through the vista of time, saying: “It may not come today or it may not come tomorrow, but it is well that it is in thine heart.

    We didn’t stop the clearcuts in the Nez Perce but we did slow them down in the bigger picture… for a while. It is a constant battle. But it sure made our hearts feel good.

    King’s sermon Unfullfilled Dreams…


  • But the thing that really interests me about David is the dynamic in his life between Art and Politics. He was a singer-songwriter, a harpest, and a dancing Shepard boy with a deadly aim whose tortured destiny it was to be King of Israel, a warrior King. His best friend Jonathan dies in battle, he sends Bathsheba’s husband on a suicide mission so he can have her, his own favored son goes into battle against him and is slain. There is a legacy of battle and bloodshed that follow him to this day. But there is his other legacy. His songs. In the face of all that disfunctional bloodshed he wrote things like this…

    from the King James…

    The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want.

    He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:

    He leadeth me beside the still waters.

    He restoreth my soul:

    He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His name’ sake.

    Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,

    I will fear no evil: For thou art with me;

    Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.

    Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies;

    Thou annointest my head with oil; My cup runneth over.

    Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,

    and I will dwell in the House of the Lord forever.

  • joshua hendrickson


    hear hear!

    and Peggysue,

    in regards to your reaction to Pinelson’s post,

    hear hear!

    So much of mythology and/or tribal lore is fascinating in so many ways. A pity, really, that so many millions still take it literally, giving rise to a host of problems.

    As a wise man once said, “Make mistakes, by all means, make mistakes, but by all means, make new mistakes!”

    What I wouldn’t give to see the human race start making some new mistakes in the name of religious belief, instead of the same old ones again and again….

  • joshua hendrickson

    By the way,

    the David and Goliath metaphor seems strained today. Israel these days seems to me to be on the side of the one true Goliath—the United States—and the true believers—the Muslims—are David.

    (Though let me make perfectly clear that I support neither faction in this conflict, since religions are all foolish and destructive in my eyes.)

    I’m sure my take on the metaphor can be challenged by many people out there in Open Source Land (Jdyer, where are you?), and I welcome those challenges as an opportunity to debate and to learn.

  • fiddlesticks

    Chris Hedges as a guest?

    Oh boy. I can see it coming, another Israel bashing program.

    Congratulations Christopher, you have done it again.

  • Joshua– why, in your simple comparison, are the United States and Israel not seen as “true believers”?

  • scribe5

    “Joshua– why, in your simple comparison, are the United States and Israel not seen as “true believersâ€?? ”

    Because if we were a nation of “true believers” you wouldn’t be free to speak, or wrtie freely, trust me.

    Beasides, as a Jew did you ever see two Jews agree on anything?

  • Brendan

    Whoah, let me put the brakes on for a second. In the show we’re actually talking about David and Goliath, not using David and Goliath to metaphorically talk about Israel and Hezbollah. Seriously. David. Like the biblical David, he of the Michelangelo statue. What do you guys think about him?

  • fiddlesticks

    “Whoah, let me put the brakes on for a second. In the show we’re actually talking about David and Goliath, not using David and Goliath to metaphorically talk about Israel and Hezbollah. Seriously. David. Like the biblical David, he of the Michelangelo statue. What do you guys think about him?”

    I like the way he danced naked before the lord and pissed his wife off!

    That’s my favorite moment in the story.

  • zeke

    My sense is that most of the metaphors and allegories will assign the roles of David and Goliath to others–whether individuals or countries. But I am wondering if there isn’t also something of both of them inside each of us? Perhaps Dr Pauker will address this aspect directly.

  • Ben

    At the end of the day, I think we love the image of a smaller person throwing stones at a more powerful foe. The famous images of standing against the tanks from Tiananmen Square echoes the same feelings pretty strong.

  • tommy higbee

    Goliath was not from Gaza … but you’re close. The 5 cities of the Philistines (“Lords” of the Philistines) are listed in the Bible as Gaza, Gath, Ashdod, Ashkelon, and Ekron. Some things just don’t change….

    Was David a murderer and an adulterer? He was guilty of both one time, as a result of the Bathsheba incident. But he paid for both, having not just one but two sons rebel against him. Fortunately, he was old the second time, and the son, Adonijah, didn’t feel the need to kill him. He figured David was about ready to die anyway.

    But even though he was guilty of both, that’s not who he WAS. He stood for much more. You could argue he was one of the first Renaissance men: artistic, creative, a great leader, a hero in battle, strong in his faith. But in spite of all that, he stumbled — badly.

    Which is one reason he’s larger than life. Not only is he a hero in conventional ways, but even his fall just made him a better example of Redemption.

    In a way, it’s the fact that he did these horrible things that makes it possible for us not-so-larger-than-life people able to identify with him.

  • andrew wiggin

    Have you ever read the novel ‘ Giant Killer’, written by Elmer Davis who – in addition to being a great journalist – was a classical scholar. He noticed an obscure verse that seemed to indicate David did not in fact kill Goliath but rather came upon his body, took credit for the deed and used the kudos he gained to worm his way to supreme power in the kingdom. I find this a plausible alternative story, one that fits well with his later behavior. (I don’t recall Davis mentioning the authorship of the psalms but I wouldn’t be surprised if David hired – or conscripted – a staff of ghostwriters.) Politics doesn’t change much over the millennia.

  • nother

    I enjoyed reading your posts on this thread Peggysue, esp. your own personal story. You helped me think about the subject in varied terms.

  • Thanks nother, I guess this topic awakened my latent Christian upbring. I had a great Sunday school teacher as a kid. She really brought the old stories to life (though I don’t recall her mentioning about the 200 foreskins) I enjoyed this show very much.

  • Peregrinator

    David certainly would seem to make for a heroic figure, though horribly conflicted as evidenced by the seemingly unrequited same-sex love relationship he had with Jonathan, who was obviously deeply in love with David in more than a platonic way. But as DAvid was violent and murderous, hecould never be any hero of mine since he did not wage peace.

  • chilton1

    Peregrinator – you judge him from a time and place where our own violence and murderousness is safely distanced and barely televised- are we any different?

    David wanted Bathsheba – he killed her husband. We want oil, cheap shoes…

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