A lesson in perspective and touching base with reality.
Everyone knows the story of David and Goliath from the Bible, right? It’s the story of the Hebrew boy, David, future king of Israel, miraculously defeating the giant Goliath of the enemy Philistine army in one-on-one combat.
The story has been relayed time and again from pulpits by preachers and from podiums by inspirational speakers as one of the most obvious lessons in all of history and folklore. Its popular account usually goes something like this: A young shepherd boy heroically volunteers to go up against an impossibly superior foe in single combat in a last-ditch effort to save his homeland from a bitter war with an invading army. The boy is hopelessly outmatched by a superior enemy. He has only a sling (a mere toy, we are sometimes given to believe) and few pebbles, while the giant he faces not only towers over him but carries far superior weaponry. Due to the boy’s extreme courage and virtue, he is blessed by God and, amazingly, he is victorious in the battle. Thus, this story is handed down as absolute proof: If your virtue is pure and you are on the side of “right,” divine forces will make you invincible against desperate odds.
The lesson is unmistakably plain.
… or is it?
Is the supposedly obvious lesson the real one? Or is there another lesson that we can learn by digging more deeply into this story? Read on and we will explore an alternative interpretation of the event.
All we have of the encounter itself is a brief description. The entire incident begins and ends on a single page. But, using a little knowledge of the history of warfare and comparative weaponry, we can take another look at this story and get a clearer perspective than the standard meaning that gets interpreted to us as a matter of course from pulpits and podiums by those who wish to present their particular message.
When we apply some analysis to the weapons available to the two combatants and the modes of warfare used at the time that this encounter occurred, we see one thing that is almost certain: It is certainly true that in terms of weaponry, one of these two men had an overwhelming advantage against his foe, and the other had a practically insurmountable handicap. But the advantage is not in the direction that most people who tell this story would have you believe.
David had a sling and he knew how to use it.
This was a common skill among shepherds at the time. The militia of sheep herding nations often employed slingers. And in properly skilled hands, a sling can be a devastating weapon.
Think of an ordinary baseball pitcher. He throws a grapefruit-sized ball at a speed of 90 mph with just his arm. Now imagine a smaller but perhaps heavier and certainly much more dense stone being thrown with the leveraged benefit of a sling.
In our modern analysis, the sling and stone is a largely underrated and often overlooked weapon of ancient times, partly because it requires such great skill that its use is uncommon in the modern world. But think of the world of the ancient shepherd. His only job is to watch his flock; he is most likely illiterate and, even if he could read, books are almost nonexistent. This adds up to the fact that he has a lot of time on his hands — time to practice firing stones at targets in the field, which, in turn, is a highly useful ability for doing his job and even for feeding himself. Both modern tests and ancient records indicate that the maximum range of a skilled slinger may have been as much as 400 yards (almost a quarter mile) with a sufficiently dense projectile. And at closer range, in properly skilled hands, it could be as accurate as an arrow fired from a bow.
The most common throwing range for accuracy was probably about 50 yards. A skilled slinger would have been capable of hitting a squirrel (or the forehead of a lion, if need be) at that range with a projectile that was both more dense and traveling at a much greater velocity than a baseball thrown by a professional pitcher. Accounts by Roman and Greek historians say that slingers routinely delivered lethal blows at great distances even through armor. And a sling-thrown stone encountering an unarmored skull or other body part would go right through.
Now, in the case of David and Goliath, the distance was possibly even less than 50 yards because Goliath was taunting David to join him in close combat. So, when David let loose his projectile, the impact on his foe was not entirely unlike getting hit with a .45 caliber bullet fired from a gun.
On the other hand, what did Goliath have? He had armor and a helmet, and he had a sword and shield, all of which would have been entirely useless against a foe who was standing off at a distance appropriate for firing a sling. He certainly couldn’t get near enough to David with his sword to even be a threat. His attempt to guard with a shield against a fast-moving projectile of unknown trajectory would have been futile. And the stone even encountering a shielded skull would have almost certainly delivered a concussion-inducing and probably fatal blow at short range.
Yes, one of these two combatants had the clear advantage in his arsenal of weapons, but it’s not the one who many popularizers of this story would have you believe. As soon as David, the professional sling wielder, stepped out onto the field with his “little sling” and his handfull of stones, Goliath didn’t stand a chance.
So … what are our new lessons from this story?
Develop your skills.
The first lesson is for those who, like David, or Goliath, for that matter, find themselves to be participants in an important activity in life. And, of course, that includes all of us at various times in our lives, both at crucial junctures and even in our daily actions. Develop your skills. Know your resources and understand how to use them. Apply your ability properly in the right situation. An overwhelming advantage derives from an overwhelmingly skilled application of the proper resources, not from merely being the little guy on the “right” side.
Faith, hope, and prayer might help you determine your goals in Life. They may help set your focus. But they can only ever be just a start. Develop yourself — body, mind, and spirit. A sling wielder in an ancient militia wasn’t just a kid who had played around with a sling and a few stones. He had spent years in daily practice, exercising his ability and using it in his life’s work. And a lumbering giant might be able to crush a foe who is foolish enough to approach him on the giant’s own terms. But it’s the person who has superior tools and skills who has the advantage.
It’s still an extremely compelling lesson to take away from the story of this famous encounter. It’s not necessarily the one that you heard told from your preacher’s pulpit, but it is one that you can apply to many aspects of your own daily life.
There’s more to consider!
Some people, perhaps even after evaluating the above interpretation of the event and of the weapons involved, still consider the encounter to have been heavily weighted in Goliath’s favor. They argue that the encounter was one of close combat, not a situation to which a sling is well suited. They point out that Goliath would have been a moving target, his large size enabling him to run rapidly towards David. They say the fact that David only picked up five stones for the battle is an indication that he knew that any more would be useless as Goliath closed on him rapidly, holding his shield in defense against David’s little stones. And so they conclude that yes, indeed, it would have been a miracle for David to not only survive intact but to decisively win the battle.
So what lesson are we left with here really?
Don’t just accept anyone’s interpretation at face value.
Perhaps the most important lesson on this page applies to you, right here and now, even as a passive reader of this site, regardless of your other activities or ambitions in life: Don’t take people’s stories or interpretations at face value and without question.
No matter how apparently holy or venerable the source, no matter how revered or apparently honorable the storyteller, there is always more to a story than the first-glance, obvious, or “literal” interpretation of it. At best, there is always more to know in terms of facts about the situation, event, lesson, or principle. And at worst, perhaps someone who got his hands on the story before you has given it a twist in his telling or description of it in order to fulfill his own agenda or lead you to his own personal interpretation of an issue.
Use the faculties of your own mind. Analyze what you’re being told, even if it’s given to you as a “Sacred Truth” — in fact, especially if it’s given to you as a “Sacred Truth.” There is almost certainly more that you can add to the lesson by understanding context, comparing facts against the real world, and applying logical analysis to it.