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Slings in ancient warfare: David and Goliath: what archaeology tells us about the Bible story

Slings in warfare

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Helmets

Different types of armour in the ancient lands of the Bible: archaeology

Armor

Different types of shields used in ancient warfare: Bible archaeology

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David and Goliath

Bible Study Resource

Why is the story of David and Goliath so popular? Because it has a surprise ending. Nobody hearing the story for the first time would expect puny little David to flatten the giant Goliath. Surely a young, almost unarmed boy would stand no chance against a seasoned, well-armed Philistine warrior like Golith? 

But no. David only seemed to be weak. He carried a weapon that the Israelites would use again and again to defeat armies with better armor and more soldiers: the sling, which could operate beyond the range of other weapons.

How did this happen? Imagine yourself on a wide, sloping piece of land at the entrance of the Valley of Elah. It is a good position, barring the advance of the Philistines into the mountains. This time the Israelite forces are prepared: they have a well-organized, fortified camp, suitable for a long campaign. The camp is skillfully laid out with areas for training, equipment and supplies, but the Israelites are still atBoy hurling a slingshot stone a disadvantage. They lack iron weapons – while the Philistines have plenty. This was a continual problem for the Israelites. The Philistines had barred them from smelting metals, particularly iron, so Israelite weapons were always improvised and inferior.

The champion of the enemy army was Goliath (see Ancient Warfare for the rules of settling a dispute with a champion). Unlike the Philistines shown on Egyptian reliefs, Goliath did not carry a bow. Perhaps if he had, there would never have been a David and Goliath story. For it was his choice of weapons and armor that proved his downfall – and David’s good fortune. 

The champions face each other

The Philistine and Israelite armies were ranged against each other in battle array on opposite hills. Goliath came out into the open, shouting contemptuously to the Israeli army and demanding they send a warrior to do battle with him. Sumo wrestler with small boy

This was a recognised strategy, and there was a specific intent behind his words. He was offering the army of Israel a method of war which was common in ancient times – see a clip of the duel in the film ‘Troy‘, where Achilles engages in single combat with Boagrius. 

Goliath shouted: “Why do you come out and line up for battle? Am I not a Philistine, and are you not the servants of Saul? Choose a man and have him come down to me.” Goliath was suggesting a contest between him and a representative of Israel, two men of valor, instead of a battle between the two armies. A duel took place in accordance with the prior agreement of the two armies, both accepting the condition that their fate would be decided by the outcome of the contest. 

They stuck to their agreement, too. When David slayed his adversary, the Bible says: “And when the Philistines saw their champion was dead, they fled.” 

The duel, as a method of war, was common in Canaan long before the arrival of the Philistines. But it probably went out of practice over the years and was reintroduced by the Aegeans. The reason for the duel was the desire of commanders to secure a military decision without the heavy bloodshed of a full-scale battle. 

Warrior's weapons

Goliath was well-armed. He had a spear, a thrusting sword, and a third weapon, possibly a scimitar. He was clad in full Homeric armor. This is why he needed to invite David to approach him – he was weighed down by all his heavy equipment. 

 David was without armor. He did not even carry a shield. He had only a staff and a sling – the weapons that were familiar to him. The sling had originally been devised by shepherds to scare predators away from their flocks. Gradually it appeared on the battlefield. It allowed a missile to be thrown from a considerable distance, in any terrain. You could use it to fire up a slope, so it became important for armies attacking fortified cities. It was easy to make, and the ammunition lay at your feet. 

 The reader of the Bible story (see the text below) at first thinks David is at a disadvantage. But the sling allowed him to operate beyond the range of Goliath’s weapons. The image at right from Tell Halaf shows a warrior using the sling, which was made up of a leather pad attached to two thongs. Normally, a warrior would not use stones picked up from the ground. Round metal pellets gave a better shot.Pile of excavated sling-stones

David’s other key weapon was his ability to improvise. He refused to abide by the rules, and fought as it were from outside the ring. Possibly his greatest advantage was his complete disregard for, or ignorance of, the accepted way of doing things. 

Armor

 
Goliath was already a lumbering giant. Now he was weighed down under an enormous load of metal armor: full body armor for the front and back of the body, underpadding, greaves, boots, shield and helmet.. His body may have been protected, but he certainly lacked one of David's assets, which was mobility. See an ancient piece of scale armor below.

 Ancient scale armor

David, on the other hand, rejected the offer of armor Saul made to him. He knew it was too heavy, too awkward, too restricting. He was used to fighting – and winning – without it. What he had instead – and what Goliath lacked - was ease of movement, mobility. If you click on the image below, taken from the movie 'Troy', the enlargement will show the many thick metal plates that formed a warrior's armor. It protected him, but weighed him down and made him clumsy as well.

Still from the movie 'Troy' showing details of armor worn at the time David also has the element of surprise. Goliath was expecting a traditional fight between two seasoned warriors, not that deadly stone that came hurtling towards him. Chaim Herzog and Mordechai Gichon, in their excellent book ‘Battles of the Bible’, suggest that Goliath’s inability to react quickly to David’s missile may have been due to poor eyesight, which is common in tall, strong people. 

The odds were stacked against David – or were they? He had the advantage of speed and agility, both of them assets on any battlefield. Goliath, on the other hand, was weighed down by his armor and weapons. Maybe David had the advantage all along.

The story of David and Goliath delighted the Israelites, whose weapons and numbers were always inferior to their enemy’s. If David could turn disadvantages into advantages, perhaps they could too.


Bible text: 1 Samuel 17

Well-armed soldier of Sennacherib's army 4 A champion named Goliath, who was from Gath, came out of the Philistine camp. He was over nine feet tall.
5 He had a bronze helmet on his head and wore a coat of scale armor of bronze weighing five thousand shekels;
6 on his legs he wore bronze greaves, and a bronze javelin was slung on his back.
7 His spear shaft was like a weaver’s rod, and its iron point weighed six hundred shekels. His shield bearer went ahead of him.
8 Goliath stood and shouted to the ranks of Israel, “Why do you come out and line up for battle? Am I not a Philistine, and are you not the servants of Saul? Choose a man and have him come down to me.
9 If he is able to fight and kill me, we will become your subjects; but if I overcome him and kill him, you will become our subjects and serve us.”
10 Then the Philistine said, “This day I defy the ranks of Israel! Give me a man and let us fight each other.”
11 On hearing the Philistine’s words, Saul and all the Israelites were dismayed and terrified.

21 Israel and the Philistines were drawing up their lines facing each other.
22 David left his things with the keeper of supplies, ran to the battle lines and greeted his brothers.
23 As he was talking withthem, Goliath, the Philistine champion from Gath, stepped out from his lines and shouted his usual defiance, and David heard it.
24 When the Israelites saw the man, they all ran from him in great fear.
25 Now the Israelites had been saying, “Do you see how this man keeps coming out? He comes out to defy Israel. The king will give great wealth to the man who kills him. He will also give him his daughter in marriage and will exempt his father’s family from taxes in Israel.”
26 David asked the men standing near him, “What will be done for the man who kills this Philistine and removes this disgrace from Israel? Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?”
27 They repeated to him what they had been saying and told him, “This is what will be done for the man who kills him.”
28 When Eliab, David’s oldest brother, heard him speaking with the men, he burned with anger at him and asked, “Why have you come down here? And with whom did you leave those few sheep in the desert? I know how conceited you are and how wicked your heart is; you came down only to watch the battle.”
29 “Now what have I done?” said David. “Can’t I even speak?”
30 This orthostat from Carchemish shows a warrior with spear, shield and a heavy helmet decorated with what appears to be a plume of feathers He then turned away to someone else and brought up the same matter, and the men answered him as before.
31 What David said was overheard and reported to Saul, and Saul sent for him.
32 David said to Saul, “Let no one lose heart on account of this Philistine; your servant will go and fight him.”
33 Saul replied, “You are not able to go out against this Philistine and fight him; you are only a boy, and he has been a fighting man from his youth.”
34 But David said to Saul, “Your servant has been keeping his father’s sheep. When a lion or a bear came and carried off a sheep from the flock,
35 I went after it, struck it and rescued the sheep from its mouth. When it turned on me, I seized it by its hair, struck it and killed it.
36 Your servant has killed both the lion and the bear; this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them, because he has defied the armies of the living God.
37 The Lord who delivered me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine.” Saul said to David, “Go, and the Lord be with you.” 
38 Then Saul dressed David in his own tunic. He put a coat of armor on him and a bronze helmet on his head.
39 David fastened on his sword over the tunic and tried walking around, because he was not used to them.”I cannot go in these,” he said to Saul, “because I am not used to them.” So he took them off.
40 Then he took his staff in his hand, chose five smooth stones from the stream, put them in the pouch of his shepherd’s bag and, with his sling in his hand, approached the Philistine.
41 Meanwhile, the Philistine, with his shield bearer in front of him, kept coming closer to David.
42 He looked David over and saw that he was only a boy, ruddy and handsome, and he despised him.
43 He said to David, “Am I a dog, that you come at me with sticks?” And the Philistine cursed David by his gods.
44 “Come here,” he said, “and I’ll give your flesh to the birds of the air and the beasts of the field!” 
45 David said to the Philistine, “You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the Lord Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. 46 This day the Lord will hand you over to me, and I’ll strike you down and cut off your head. Today I will give the carcasses of the Philistine army to the birds of the air and the beasts of the earth, and the whole world will know that there is a God in Israel.
47 All those gathered here will know that it is not by sword or spear that the Lord saves; for the battle is the Lord’s, and he will give all of you into our hands.”
48 As the Philistine moved closer to attack him, David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet him.
49 Reaching into his bag and taking out a stone, he slung it and struck the Philistine on the forehead. The stone sank into his forehead, and he fell facedown on the ground.
50 So David triumphed over the Philistine with a sling and a stone; without a sword in his hand he struck down the Philistine and killed him.
51 David ran and stood over him. He took hold of the Philistine’s sword and drew it from the scabbard. After he killed him, he cut off his head with the sword. 


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Bible Study Resource for Archaeology
David and Goliath: Warriors face to face; weapons; armor; the battle; the Bible text

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