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Debunking the Debunkers

Posted By on November 4, 2013

by Teri Ong

My husband recently told me about an internet presentation that was forwarded to him by an old friend. The presentation was on the Biblical story of David and Goliath. The presenter’s point of view was that people for thousands of years have taken the beloved story at face value and have ascribed to David hero status that he does not deserve. He goes on to give “evidence” that David was not the underdog in the battle. After all, he was small but speedy. He had good eyesight. He was young and able. He had the better weapon– a projectile that could speedily take out an opponent at a great distance.

The presenter puts these facts in contrast to Goliath’s status, making some personal suppositions about Goliath in the process. Goliath was old and infirm– so infirm that he had to have someone lead him by the hand to where the battle was to take place. He was very large, which was actually a disadvantage since he could not move around very nimbly. His size was probably due to a debilitating pituitary tumor. He had a large sword, but a sword must be used at close range. And so the presenter goes to great lengths to dismantle the historic as well as the spiritual power of the David and Goliath story.

As my husband described this to me, my mind immediately went to some favorite passages in C. S. Lewis’s treatise on modern education, The Abolition of Man.  Lewis describes two “educators,” who he names Gaius and Titius, whose educational aim was to “debunk” certain types of literature that give rise to certain types of feelings or sentiments. Lewis speculates about a variety of purposes that Titius and Gaius might have had in promoting their brand of skepticism, and then goes on to show that no matter how much they attempt to be cooly rational in their approach,

“Their skepticism about values is on the surface: it is for use on other people’s values: about the values current in their own set they are not nearly skeptical enough… A great many who ‘debunk’ traditional or (as they would say) ‘sentimental’ values have in the background values of their own which they believe to be immune from the debunking process.” (AOM p. 43)

I could similarly speculate about the David and Goliath man, Malcolm Gladwell. He obviously has some underlying purpose for wanting to once and for all debunk one of the best known and best loved stories in the Bible. He confesses that he is angry that he believed in the “underdog” theory for so many years of his life. Perhaps his is a simple attack on the truth of God’s Book. Perhaps he wants to take down the hero status of other victorious underdogs by making us believe that giants aren’t really that tough. Perhaps he wants people to appreciate him for his powers of astute analysis and his courage in debunking the iconic story. It doesn’t really matter.

I believe the story and the traditional understanding of it stand as firmly today as they did a year or a century or ten or twenty centuries ago. We need not give up the Biblical archetypes of all the other “underdog” stories in the world on the word of Gladwell.

David DID have the advantage over the giant Goliath, but it was not because of his size, speed, or the superiority of his weaponry. It was because he faithfully served and trusted God. That is the point! (1 Sam 17:26, 37, 47) 1 Sam 17:44-47 summarizes David’s thoughts on the matter:

45 Then David said to the Philistine, “You come to me with a sword, a spear, and a javelin, but I come to you in the name of the LORD of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have taunted. 46 “This day the LORD will deliver you up into my hands, and I will strike you down and remove your head from you. And I will give the dead bodies of the army of the Philistines this day to the birds of the sky and the wild beasts of the earth, that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, 47 and that all this assembly may know that the LORD does not deliver by sword or by spear; for the battle is the LORD’S and He will give you into our hands.” NASU

 

But even from a human perspective, Gladwell misses on several points.

1) Goliath was called the Philistines’ “champion.” (1Sam 17:4) It is not likely that the entire Philistine army would place their money on a man, even a man of gigantic stature, if he was so feeble he could hardly walk. Yet they offered to become the slaves of the Israelites if the Israelite combatant could kill Goliath. Obviously, they believed their wager was a safe one. Goliath stood erect at about nine feet, nine inches tall. His armor weighed 125 pounds and his spear weighed 15 pounds. A feeble, decrepit person does not even stand up under that much armor, let alone walk into a battle situation! Gladwell compares Goliath with Andre the Giant who played the giant in the film The Princess Bride. He theorizes that Goliath suffered from acromegaly like Andre did. But Andre, as big as he was, could not carry a small, nineteen year old girl without great pain. “Buttercup” had to be in a special harness so that Andre did not have to bear her weight in the final scene. The Bible records that Goliath was going twice a day for forty days down into the valley and back up to the Philistine camp carrying at least 150 pounds. (1 Sam 17:16) How many strong, healthy hikers carry packs up and down hill weighing that much?

And what about the armor bearer? Doesn’t that prove Goliath needed physical assistance because of his infirmity? Gladwell says that Goliath was led by the hand to the place of the challenge. The Bible account does not say he was led by the hand. It says that an armor bearer carried his shield. (17:41) Goliath was carrying “a dagger, a spear and a sword.” (17:45) David had to pull the sword out of its sheath to cut off Goliath’s head, but if Goliath had a spear in one hand and a dagger in the other, he did not have a hand available for his shield. That the armor bearer went in front of him doesn’t prove he was feeble and had bad eye sight; it proves he had the good sense to put his shield where it needed to be– in front of him.

2) The entire camp of Israelite soldiers was afraid of Goliath. “When Saul and all Israel heard these words from the Philistine, they lost their courage and were terrified.” (17:11) If there was nothing fearsome about Goliath, there should have been more than a few experienced soldiers in the Israeli army who would have conspired to take him on. If he was known to be susceptible to defeat by projectiles from a distance, surely someone would have tried taking him out with a bow and arrow.  King Saul, the Israelite who stood head and shoulders above the general populous, was eventually killed by an archer (1 Sam 31). But not one person on the Israeli side was willing to take the risk.

Gladwell makes the point that ancient armies had cavalrymen (fighters on horseback), infantry (hand-to-hand fighters), and artillery (archers and slingers). The writer of Judges records,

16 Among all this people there were seven hundred chosen men lefthanded; every one could sling stones at an hair breadth, and not miss. (Judges 20:16)

Even if only a few of them were present in Saul’s army at this time, one of those crack shots should have been willing to take out Goliath. But no one was!

When David volunteered to fight Goliath, everyone, including the king and David’s own brothers were astonished. No one thought David’s youthful exuberance was a good match for Goliath’s experience as a warrior. (17:33) No one thought, “Yeah, go take down the old fool!” They thought David was the fool. These were experienced military men who had experience with all sorts of strategies, and none of them thought he had a chance.

3) King Saul thought David needed protection from Goliath’s “projectile” weaponry– the immense spear. Spears are for throwing; they are for killing people at a distance. Saul knew that; eventually he would throw one at David himself. Saul tried to protect David by giving him the royal armor. David rejected it because he wasn’t used to it and couldn’t move freely in it. But nonetheless, David was willing to take on Goliath in hand-to-hand combat. The Bible record states that David put on Saul’s armor and would have gone out that way except that he was not comfortable in the untried armor. David stated in giving his credentials to Saul that he had previously taken down a lion by grabbing it by the beard (17:35). His prowess in close range combat was not a matter of pride, however. He attributed his victory over the lion and over a bear to the power of God being with him. (17:37)

David, in rejecting the close range option, made it so that if Goliath were to hit David with his spear, he would have to aim at a moving target– no easy task. But so did David. Goliath was on the move when David took aim. (17:48) Even though Goliath was well covered in armor and not moving as quickly as David, he had enough forward motion that when David’s stone hit him in his bare forehead, he fell face down. (17:49) A relatively stationary, upright target would have fallen backwards from the forward force of the stone. And if we are to believe Gladwell, an extra dense stone fired from a rapidly rotating sling could be as powerful at a bullet from a 45 mm handgun. So much for the feeble giant theory!

Another “misconception” Gladwell tries to debunk is that David was at a disadvantage because he was using a “pull back” style slingshot which is limited in range and power. The only “misconception” here is that there are very many people who don’t understand that David was using a rotating sling. Every Sunday school child for generations who has ever sung “Only a Boy Named David” knows that “the sling went round and round.” Well-known depictions by famous artists including Rembrandt and Durer show David with a rotating sling. David is not thought to be the unlikely hero because we imagine he had a different style weapon than he truly had.

Gladwell makes the point that Goliath told David to come to him, proving that Goliath couldn’t get around very well, but in 1 Samuel 17:48 we read, “And it came to pass, when the Philistine arose, and came and drew nigh to meet David, that David hasted, and ran toward the army to meet the Philistine.” They were both clearly on the move toward each other.

4) The Philistines were shocked by David’s victory. If they had any sense that David had the upper hand militarily, they would have prepared themselves to attack Israel after Goliath died. They could have had the advantage during Israel’s victory celebration. But they did not attack; they ran away! They were decidedly NOT expecting their hero, their champion, their warrior to fall in combat. A whole army does not experience “shock and awe” if they have an inkling that their man is not all he’s cracked up to be– if they are trying to put one over on the opposition. (17:51-53)

 

The facts of the story remain. Goliath in his gigantic pride cursed the God of Heaven in the name of the Philistine gods. (17:43) David, the inexperienced youth, challenged the champion in the name of Jehovah (17:47) From a spiritual standpoint the superior, gigantic God of the universe took on the inferior, puny gods of human invention. But from a human standpoint the underdog David defeated the colossus against insuperable odds. Both lessons stand as examples. (I Cor. 10:11) They prove to us the valid sentiment expressed in Ps 20:6-9

 

6 Now I know that the LORD saves His anointed;

He will answer him from His holy heaven

With the saving strength of His right hand.

7 Some boast in chariots and some in horses,

But we will boast in the name of the LORD, our God.

8 They have bowed down and fallen,

But we have risen and stood upright.

9 Save, O LORD; May the King answer us in the day we call.

 

Gladwell concludes his presentation stating that many giants aren’t so big after all. He seems to be encouraging present-day Davids to take on the fearsome but feeble giants in the world, but he is encouraging them to do it in their human strength. Anyone who is tempted to follow his advice should read Judges 16:18-21. When we try to do big things in our human strength apart from the power of God, we are no better than bald Samsons trying to throw off the ropes of folly.

With the 17th century poet Thomas Traherne, I would ask, “Can you be righteous unless you be just in rendering to things their due esteem?” (Centuries of Meditations i.12) David is a hero because he fearlessly took on a giant who was defying his God. That is an example to esteem.

When encountering Biblical debunkers remember the Apostle Paul’s analysis:

For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened.  Professing to be wise, they became fools… (Romans 1:21-22 NASU)

References:

Lewis, C. S. The Abolition of Man. Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1996 ed.

Gladwell, Malcolm. David and Goliath. (15 minute presentation on TED Channel on the internet based on his newly published book, accessed Nov. 4, 2013)


Comments

One Response to “Debunking the Debunkers”

  1. Mary Brown says:

    Great, detailed, accurate and encouraging rebutal of the humanistic, false teaching of this book. Truly, God’s strength is made perfect in our weakness, and this all to His Glory!

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