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The Sunday Sermon. Did David Cheat?

My companion in debauchery, and very wise friend here lent me a book this week, a return match for a detective novel I thought would interest him. I think it might be the defining feature of all my friends, they are the people you turn up with a book for and their eyes light up. The book Carter brought was by Malcolm Gladwell,David and Goliath. You can read a review of it here, since this isn’t strictly a book review, although I would recommend it. 

Gladwell is exploring the theme of how the little man, the underdog, the David, succeeds in various endeavours, and it makes it a rather positive, life affirming book. It opens, unsurprisingly with the story of David and Goliath, the story of the little shepherd boy and the Philistine Hero. Its become short hand for anyone succeeding against the odds, of any campaign where the ordinary person takes on the “big guys”. Hollywood especially loves this, from the Mighty Ducks to Unforgiven give them a hero who succeeds against all the odds and they will give you 90 minutes of dollar churning sentimentality in return.

Except, Glaldwell makes clear in his opening chapter that the sling shot was a very dangerous weapon. Tests have been done on the kind bronze age people would have used and the stones move with the speed of a bullet out of a handgun. He describes how the armies were divided into cavalry, infantry and artillery, and for the army of Saul the artillery would have been using sling shots. For those who struggle with the fact the Bible is history and poetry, myth and ethical treatise the reality of how the people of the near east battled may not seem relevent. Gladwell however looks at the facts we know of the people of this time. It is generally accepted that a group of semi nomadic peoples, probably Canaanite in origin settled down, after defeating various other powers in the region, particularly the Philistines and the Assyrians. 

What I find odd about Gladwells exploration is that he describes how important men with sling shots were to the battle tactics of the time, and yet assumes Saul was unaware of this. He posits a thyroid problem for Goliath, causing his height and slow movements, he quotes the bit from the Bible where David rejects the armour and sword of Saul, and yet somehow no one seems to be able to think, hmmm sling shots, we use those all the time.

We like the picture of David, the little shepherd boy defeating the barbarian giant in a way no one would have expected, but how realistic is that? Yes, he was a shepherd but as he makes clear this meant he was used to using his sling shot to defend his flock. Armies of the time were not professional in the modern sense, they were made up of farmers, potters, weavers, and yes, shepherds. Of all the trades that made up an army which would be expected to have skill with a sling shot? Furthermore Gladwell repeats the idea that a shepherd was a lowly, looked down upon job. This seems unlikely for a nomadic people reliant on keeping their animals with them. It may well have been a job given to the young, as happens in some societies today, however it is considered a responsible position that confers some form on rights, as well as responsibilities.

The usual interpretation of the David and Goliath story is that he somehow cheated. That he fooled everyone into believing he was going to go into armed combat and through guile defeated Goliath. However for this interpretation to be true then everyone in the Israelite army, from Saul downwards, had to forget their artillery, why they had one,  and who would be skilled and experienced with a sling shot. David even tells them of his skills, how he has brought down lions and bears with his sling. Could this in fact be someone showing they are qualified to be an artillery man, experienced in a way they are familiar with in using a weapon that they all know?

This matters, to me at least, because over and over again people seem to make the mistake of Gladwell, assuming people of the past, of another country, of another faith, are somehow stupider than them. Gladwell was able to see the power of the artillery, yet, somehow no one on the Israeli side was? In fact worse than this the entire army was willing to risk not only the life of a young boy, but their own by sending someone completely unsuitable into combat. This is also something I see all too often, those “others” not having the same humanity, the same compassion, the same care and concern for others than us civilised folks do.

when someone attacks a Muslim for believing in a “medieval text” (yes I know their history was wrong) or a Christian for believing in a bronze age text they seem to think this is a killer argument. These people were different to me, therefore they are inferior, less able to comprehend the things a modern person can. That is not only an exceptionally arrogant stance to take but it is one that leads down very worrying roads. The atheist who calls the Koran medieval may not add “and written by unenlightened savages” but it’s contained in their criticism, and if you condemn one group of people who are different to you as savages it is far too easy to condemn another group.

Did David cheat? If he did so I think it is far more believable that it was with the knowledge of Saul, a tactical decision to change the rules and send in someone skilled and appropriate for the task in hand. If that sounds like too modern an interpretation of events I have to ask why you think the mere passage of years confers wisdom and judgement?



3 comments on “The Sunday Sermon. Did David Cheat?

  1. cartertheblogger
    January 11, 2015

    Shepherds would be young, because, with or without dogs, they would need to be able to roam with their flocks. The idea that a change of agricultural style, roaming with flocks of animals, bred a new type of warrior, fleet of foot, mobile, and capable of winning battles by evading close combat, hitting and running, seems to me so credible and believable. Of course, we’re so obsessed with the idea that ‘ancients’ could not see beyond literal meanings that we can;t see that David’sstory is significant asa metaphor about change and adaptation, not just a tale of how one boy won an improbable fight.


    • jemima2013
      January 11, 2015

      knowing it makes sense to you means so much 🙂

      Oddly Gladwell talks about guerilla tactics being deliberately chosen in the book, and in his sporting examples of course the coaches knew they needed different tactics to win. Its just that strange idea that people a long time ago somehow were less intelligent than we were, or couldn’t do things deliberately after assessing the situation.
      Wild speculation here but we know some of Samuel and Kings is history, some more the nature of “urban legends” i wonder how much the story of the shepherd boy who became king is a memory of how those change in tactics led to the establishment of the jewish state?


  2. Pingback: #FoxNewsFacts and illegal snowmen. | Sometimes, it's just a cigar

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