It’s a classic underdog tale: David, a young shepherd armed only with a sling, beats Goliath, the mighty warrior. The story has transcended its biblical origins to become a common shorthand for unlikely victory. But, asks Malcolm Gladwell, is that really what the David and Goliath story is about?
So I wanted to tell a story that really obsessed me when I was writing my new book, and it’s a story of something that happened 3,000 years ago, when the Kingdom of Israel was in its infancy. And it takes place in an area called the Shephelah in what is now Israel.
And the reason the story obsessed me is that I thought I understood it, and then I went back over it and I realized that I didn’t understand it at all.
Ancient Palestine had a — along its eastern border, there’s a mountain range. Still same is true of Israel today. And in the mountain range are all of the ancient cities of that region, so Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Hebron. And then there’s a coastal plain along the Mediterranean, where Tel Aviv is now. And connecting the mountain range with the coastal plain is an area called the Shephelah, which is a series of valleys and ridges that run east to west, and you can follow the Shephelah, go through the Shephelah to get from the coastal plain to the mountains. And the Shephelah, if you’ve been to Israel, you’ll know it’s just about the most beautiful part of Israel. It’s gorgeous, with forests of oak and wheat fields and vineyards.
But more importantly, though, in the history of that region, it’s served, it’s had a real strategic function, and that is, it is the means by which hostile armies on the coastal plain find their way, get up into the mountains and threaten those living in the mountains. And 3,000 years ago, that’s exactly what happens.
The Philistines, who are the biggest of enemies of the Kingdom of Israel, are living in the coastal plain. They’re originally from Crete. They’re a seafaring people. And they may start to make their way through one of the valleys of the Shephelah up into the mountains, because what they want to do is occupy the highland area right by Bethlehem and split the Kingdom of Israel in two.
And the Kingdom of Israel, which is headed by King Saul, obviously catches wind of this, and Saul brings his army down from the mountains and he confronts the Philistines in the Valley of Elah, one of the most beautiful of the valleys of the Shephelah. And the Israelites dig in along the northern ridge, and the Philistines dig in along the southern ridge, and the two armies just sit there for weeks and stare at each other, because they’re deadlocked. Neither can attack the other, because to attack the other side you’ve got to come down the mountain into the valley and then up the other side, and you’re completely exposed.
So finally, to break the deadlock, the Philistines send their mightiest warrior down into the valley floor, and he calls out and he says to the Israelites, “Send your mightiest warrior down, and we’ll have this out, just the two of us.”
This was a tradition in ancient warfare called single combat. It was a way of settling disputes without incurring the bloodshed of a major battle. And the Philistine who is sent down, their mighty warrior, is a giant. He’s 6 foot 9. He’s outfitted head to toe in this glittering bronze armor, and he’s got a sword and he’s got a javelin and he’s got his spear. He is absolutely terrifying. And he’s so terrifying that none of the Israelite soldiers want to fight him. It’s a death wish, right? There’s no way they think they can take him.
And finally the only person who will come forward is this young shepherd boy, and he goes up to Saul and he says, “I’ll fight him.”
And Saul says, “You can’t fight him. That’s ridiculous. You’re this kid. This is this mighty warrior.”
But the shepherd is adamant. He says, “No, no, no, you don’t understand, I have been defending my flock against lions and wolves for years. I think I can do it.”
And Saul has no choice. He’s got no one else who’s come forward. So he says, “All right.” And then he turns to the kid, and he says, “But you’ve got to wear this armor. You can’t go as you are.”
So he tries to give the shepherd his armor, and the shepherd says, “No.” He says, “I can’t wear this stuff.” The Biblical verse is, “I cannot wear this for I have not proved it,” meaning, “I’ve never worn armor before. You’ve got to be crazy.”
So he reaches down instead on the ground and picks up five stones and puts them in his shepherd’s bag and starts to walk down the mountainside to meet the giant. And the giant sees this figure approaching, and calls out, “Come to me so I can feed your flesh to the birds of the heavens and the beasts of the field.” He issues this kind of taunt towards this person coming to fight him. And the shepherd draws closer and closer, and the giant sees that he’s carrying a staff. That’s all he’s carrying. Instead of a weapon, just this shepherd’s staff, and he says — he’s insulted — “Am I a dog that you would come to me with sticks?”
And the shepherd boy takes one of his stones out of his pocket, puts it in his sling and rolls it around and lets it fly and it hits the giant right between the eyes — right here, in his most vulnerable spot — and he falls down either dead or unconscious, and the shepherd boy runs up and takes his sword and cuts off his head, and the Philistines see this and they turn and they just run.
And of course, the name of the giant is Goliath and the name of the shepherd boy is David, and the reason that story has obsessed me over the course of writing my book is that everything I thought I knew about that story turned out to be wrong.
So David, in that story, is supposed to be the underdog, right? In fact, that term, David and Goliath, has entered our language as a metaphor for improbable victories by some weak party over someone far stronger. Now why do we call David an underdog? Well, we call him an underdog because he’s a kid, a little kid, and Goliath is this big, strong giant. We also call him an underdog because Goliath is an experienced warrior, and David is just a shepherd. But most importantly, we call him an underdog because all he has is — it’s that Goliath is outfitted with all of this modern weaponry, this glittering coat of armor and a sword and a javelin and a spear, and all David has is this sling.
Well, let’s start there with the phrase “All David has is this sling,” because that’s the first mistake that we make. In ancient warfare, there are three kinds of warriors. There’s cavalry, men on horseback and with chariots. There’s heavy infantry, which are foot soldiers, armed foot soldiers with swords and shields and some kind of armor. And there’s artillery, and artillery are archers, but, more importantly, slingers. And a slinger is someone who has a leather pouch with two long cords attached to it, and they put a projectile, either a rock or a lead ball, inside the pouch, and they whirl it around like this and they let one of the cords go, and the effect is to send the projectile forward towards its target. That’s what David has, and it’s important to understand that that sling is not a slingshot. It’s not this, right? It’s not a child’s toy. It’s in fact an incredibly devastating weapon.