The Philistine and the Poet

King David is among the most important characters in the Hebrew scripture, as he represented both an archetypal King and covenant of Yahweh with the Hebrews to possess the southern Levant. David was anointed by Samuel at the command of Yahweh, thus a messiah, and this god-given authority is what made him celebrated as a great king. His story occupies the majority of the books of Samuel, but the first book of Samuel starts not with David, but with Saul. Saul was also anointed by Samuel and was the king of Israel, and his reign was largely successful until Yahweh decided Saul’s violent tendencies made him a problematic avatar, but there is also a lot of fighting with the neighbors.

…And the LORD was very sad he had made Saul king over Israel.

1 Samuel 15:35

The first time we see David, he is identified as the youngest son of Jesse the Bethlahamite. He is anointed by Samuel and hired as Saul’s court musician. and then after the scene where Goliath the Philistine was introduced, David appears again anew, as if he had never been mentioned before. This probably indicates one of those places where several related stories were edited together, and these inconsistencies are the only remaining evidence.

The Philistines were a non-Semitic (probably some variation of Greek) peoples who lived along the southern coast of the Levant. We get our word ‘Palestine’ from this earlier term. There is some indication that they may have been among the mysterious ‘Sea Peoples’ who ravaged post-Bronze Age Egypt and the Levant. In Hebrew scripture, the Philistines were among the major political entities in a persistent state of war with the Israelites. Many Biblical stories deal with some form of conflict with the Philistines, this one is no different.

In the 17th chapter of First Samuel, Saul is seen leading the Israelites out against the Philistines in open battle, each side taking a hill across a large open valley. Neither wants to be in the position of having to fight uphill, so in an attempt to lure their enemies into open combat, Goliath steps into the valley and shouts taunts at the Israelis. The armor and weapons of the Philistine warrior are carefully described: even though the man was quite large, he was still being so heavily burdened by his armor that he had a servant carry his shield. 

A mighty hero named Goliath came out of the Philistine camp. He was from Gath. He was more than nine feet tall. He had a bronze helmet on his head. He wore bronze armor that weighed 125 pounds. On his legs he wore bronze guards. He carried a bronze javelin on his back. His spear was as big as a weaver’s rod. Its iron point weighed 15 pounds. The man who carried his shield walked along in front of him.

1 Samuel 16:4-7

Besides being a giant of a man, he was dressed like a tank and armed like a Titan. None of the Israelites dared to face the man in single combat, so fearsome was his demeanor. Enter David who makes a curious claim before Saul – just as he had confronted bears and lions attacking his flocks, he would attack this wild beast of a man. This was, apparently, his one plan because he forewent the use of armor even though it was offered and he wore it briefly.

“David und Goliath” 1888 Osmar Schindler

As David approached Goliath, the giant taunted him for approaching unarmored, with a stick. David replies with a bit of monologing about how he was going to be doing the smiting and winning, because his god was the “Lord of Armies”. The Hebrew phrase used here also translates to “God of War”, and I think this is probably the most correct translation given its use in the middle of a war.

He said to David, “Why are you coming at me with sticks? Do you think I’m only a dog?” The Philistine cursed David in the name of his gods.  “Come over here,” he said. “I’ll feed your body to the birds and wild animals!” David said to Goliath, “You are coming to fight against me with a sword, a spear and a javelin. But I’m coming against you in the name of the LORD who rules over all. He is the God of War of Israel. He’s the one you have dared to fight against.

1 Samuel 17:43-45

Goliath gets tired of hearing David rage, and begins his attack. Which is, he began to run at David, spear outstretched. All three or four hundred pounds total with armor began to move at top speed toward the diminutive Israelite. Barely able to turn and incapable of stopping, Goliath probably didn’t see approaching shepherd load and fling his sling in a single motion. Like an approaching lion on attack, even if he been able to perceive his doom, he was unable to break from it once he began his run. His own momentum helped to drive the stone further into his own forehead. David didn’t kill Goliath as much as Goliath killed himself by attacking an agent of the God of War.

David expediently beheads Goliath with his own sword, then feels free to take trophies: he grabs the armor, the sword and scabbard, and the head of Goliath, puts the armor in his tent (wait, when did he get a tent?) and presents himself before Saul while carrying Goliath’s head. After he leaves, Saul asks an officer, “Who was that guy?” (Because he certainly couldn’t be expected to remember the singing harpist he would frequently and specifically request in the prior chapter.)

The king said, “Find out whose son that young man is.” After David killed Goliath, he returned to the camp. Then Abner brought him to Saul. David was still carrying Goliath’s head. “Young man, whose son are you?” Saul asked him.
David said, “I’m the son of Jesse from Bethlehem.”

1 Samuel 17: 56-58

Goliath’s sword makes a reappearance later when David is on the run from Saul’s murderous intent. In the story, David hides in a temple where he encounters the priest. David makes up a story about leading a band of warriors on an overnight attack on Philistines so he can beg off enough bread to keep him while he hides. Not only was he given the bread, but also the sword of Goliath, which had been kept in that temple. The priest that helped him was killed by Saul directly, but David escaped and was able to eventually become king. This story is obliquely referenced in the second chapter of Mark. 

David asked Ahimelek, “Don’t you have a spear or sword here? I haven’t brought my sword or any other weapon. That’s because the job the king gave me to do had to be done right away.” The priest replied, “The sword of Goliath, the Philistine, is here. You killed him in the Valley of Elah. His sword is wrapped in a cloth. It’s behind the sacred linen apron. If you want it, take it. It’s the only sword here.” David said, “There isn’t any sword like it. Give it to me.”

1 Samuel 21 8:9

The story of David and Goliath has long been an identifying tale for the Israelites. The term for god in this story, the “God of War”, was used again in Malachai, which was the book celebrating the return of Yahweh worship to the Jerusalem temple after the Persian exile. It was making a direct connection between the god worshiped in the Temple and the god of David, implying a continuity of authority. At the beginning of Malachi 3, we have: “Behold, I am sending My messenger, and he will clear a way before Me.” This passage ends with the attribution: “says the God of War, the God of Israel.” 

That beginning phrase from Malachai 3 was later reflected in the second verse of the Gospel of Mark.

As it is written in the Prophets: “Behold, I send My messenger before You, Who will prepare Your way before You.

Mark 1:2

By association then, the first speaking voice in the Gospel of Mark is thus the God of War, the God of David, King of Israel. The writer of Mark is making a point to tie his story to that of King David, by way of this specific deity reference. The notion that all references to deity in the Bible point to the same one is simplistic in the face of the diverse divinity celebrated in the greater Levant region prior to Christianity. This isn’t a vague handwave to a foreign deity, but a specific naming of a god in a specific context.

The author of Mark is also bringing to reference a connection to David as a messiah. There is a scene in 1st Samuel in which Samuel anoints David before his father and brothers, making his authority as one chosen by Yahweh unquestioned. 

And the LORD said, “Arise, anoint him; for this is the one!” Then Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the midst of his brothers; and the Spirit of the LORD came upon David from that day forward.

1 Samuel 16:12-13

Jesus is similarly anointed by John the Baptist, receiving audible approval from God in Heaven. This scene in Mark is meant to reflect the one from 1st Samuel, deliberately conflating the stories of David with those of Jesus. This is why there is the insistence that Jesus descended from Jesse or was born in Bethlehem, the town of Jesse, in the birth narratives. This conflation also means that John the Baptist is a reflection of Samuel – an elder, widely respected priest of Yah.


One response to “The Philistine and the Poet”

  1. A good, concise summary.

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