Another Myth Deconstructed

Earlier I wrote about how the fable of the Tortoise and the Hare requires that the hare be lazy and distracted for the Tortoise to win and that the moral we teach from it is not correct; slow and steady does not always win the race. Today I’d like to deconstruct another misunderstood myth; David and Goliath.

First, let me state that the tale as it is told in the Old Testament seems pretty much correct. Goliath was a big dude with lots of armor and David was a lightweight with no armor. Goliath had a spear, shield and a sword and was wearing a helmet; David had a sling and a small sword. Pretty uneven match-up you might say and if you’re talking about a close-quarters combat scenario you would be correct, but here’s where interpreting this story from a twenty-first century CE perspective gets you in trouble. David and Goliath didn’t do close combat. It never came to that because David dropped Goliath with a stone to the forehead before the latter could even get within spear throwing range. It wasn’t a miracle; it was, in fact, an expected outcome when a skilled slinger faces a heavy infantryman.

A little study of history will educate us on the use of the sling by shepherds to defend their flocks as well as bringing down running rabbits and other such “food” animals. That’s how good slingers were in the times BCE and the early days of CE. In fact, slingers could reach out farther than the short bows of the day would send an arrow. The slingers of the Balearic Islands (aka Majorca) became some of the best mercenaries for the Carthaginian and then the Roman Army. When Hannibal challenged Rome he took 2,000 slingers with him. A slinger was not considered qualified unless he could hit a torso at 100 paces. Slings came in different lengths for hurling stones or lead pellets at speeds that could penetrate leather and some bronze armor. Researchers have discovered that rocks and lead pellets loosed by a sling had the same stopping power as today’s .44 Magnum pistol. The rocks traveled at speeds approaching 100 miles per hour. So, Goliath had little chance unless he could close the distance between himself and David before David could use his sling. That, obviously, didn’t happen and the rest is a history story from which we all take the wrong moral.

The moral we should take is that no matter how big, armored or strong you may be you are still vulnerable to a well-trained adversary using weapons of distance regardless of how simple those weapons may seem. The navies of the world discovered this when Billy Mitchell sunk battleships with airplanes and if the admirals could have they would have claimed divine intervention on the part of the airplanes as an excuse, just as David’s defeat of Goliath was claimed as a triumph for the God of the Israelites over the gods of the Philistines. As it was, the generals and admirals just court-martialed Mitchell and went on believing in the invincibility of the battleship until Pearl Harbor.

One of the greatest Playboy cartoons of all time (at least for us pilot types) was one which depicts an F-4 Fighter-bomber nose down in a rice paddy with smoke rising to the sky. Two pilots, one with a gathered parachute in his arms and the other arms akimbo, are glaring at this rice paddy worker who is protesting, ” No, no, it wasn’t I who threw the stone that brought down your great bird.”

David refused armor because slingers didn’t wear armor. They traveled light, the first Balearic slingers actually went into combat nude. The Carthaginians did eventually convince them to wear short tunics and carry small swords. Interestingly, although the Balearic slingers were more than a thousand years after David we are told that David was similarly outfitted. So, Saul’s offer of his magnificent armor makes a good story but it would only have hindered David’s use of his weapon. It appears this story might have been written for consumption at a different time since anyone in the time of David up through the first century CE would have understood the natural advantage a slinger enjoyed over a heavy infantryman at distance.

Now this story is told from David’s perspective but let’s consider it from Goliath’s. He challenged the Israelites to send out a champion and do single combat with him. All the infantrymen in the Israelite army cowered and none would face Goliath, would you? So, Goliath’s standing out there in front of the Philistine army when out steps David from the ranks of the Israelites. Would you like to know what went through Goliath’s mind? I can tell you for it’s the same thought that goes through the mind of a helicopter pilot when he looks up and sees a MiG silhouetted on the horizon: “Oh, S**T!!!” See, Goliath was now between that proverbial rock and hard place. If this was a skilled slinger in front of him he was done for, but he couldn’t back down for he had issued the challenge to all comers. He expected another infantryman to face him but, instead, he got a slinger. I suspect all the soldiers in the Philistine army also realized just how perilous was Goliath’s position. The outcome was no surprise; Certainly not to those familiar with BCE battle tactics. So the little guy defeats the big guy because of divine intervention isn’t really what’s going on; little guy defeats big guy because little guy has a weapon that big guy doesn’t and it allows little guy, who is skilled in the use of that weapon, never to close with big guy. In military parlance David’s sling is referred to as a stand-off weapon. You never have to close with the enemy to disable or kill him. Vegas would have given odds significantly favoring David.

There are other stories in the Bible like this one. I have a particular theory about the battle of Jericho. These are stories that would have you believe Yahweh directly intervened, but if you know the actual history of place and time they are simply stories of expected outcome. Now, if you want to claim it was Yahweh who allowed the protagonists to screw their courage to the sticking-place (I still have no idea what that means) in order to prevail, then maybe that’s the lesson of the stories. In other words, ” Look to Yahweh for the courage needed to face adversity,” but it seems to me that “God helps those who help themselves” is also at play as well.

For us the moral of this story is; things we think we know aren’t always exactly right. Dig down, do some research, put yourself in Hawkeye’s moccasins and walk aways. You’ll see things differently and that difference might just be the answer you’re searching for.


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