Bible archaeology: the Duel

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Assyrian archers

Ancient warfare

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


Different types of shields used in ancient warfare: Bible archaeology


Development of the bow and arrow are weapons of war in ancient Bible lands

Bow & arrow

World's most beautiful weapon?

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

Slings in warfare

Michelangelo's 'David', head

David's lateral thinking

Boy using a sling to throw a stone

David, boy warrior






Duels in Bible warfare

David and Goliath

When David fought Goliath (I Samuel 17), the Philistine and Israeli armies were standing ready for battle on opposite hills beside a stream. Goliath, the Philistine champion, shouted jeeringly across the stream to the Israeli army, taunting them to send their finest warrior to do battle with him. 

At first sight this looks like bravado, but Goliath is not just being provocative. He is following a specific ritual, offering a solution to the confrontation. This solution, however, seems to have been unknown to the Israelites. As Goliath says:

'Why are you come out to set your battle in array? Am not I a Philistine, and you servants to Saul? Choose a man for you, and let him come down to me.'

Goliath is suggesting a duel, between himself and a representative of Israel, 
instead of battle between the two armies. He presents the conditions of the contest:

'If he be able to fight with me, and to kill me, then will we be your servants: but if I prevail against him, and kill him, then shall ye be our servants, and serve us.'

For this duel to take place, both sides must accept that their fate will be decided by the outcome of the contest. So when David kills Goliath, the Bible says:

'And when the Philistines saw their champion was dead, they fled.'

Technically it should have ended there, but the Bible records that the tribes of Israel 
gave chase, and inflicted heavy casualties on the Philistines.

Two other duels

The story of David and Goliath is presented in detail. But there are other duels in the Bible, such as in II Samuel 21: 18-19:

'There was again a battle with the Philistines at Gob: then Sibbecai the Hushathite slew Saph, who was of the sons of the giant. And there was again a battle ... where Elhanan the son of Jaareloregim, a Bethlehemite, slew the brother of Goliath the Gittite, the staff of whose spear was like a weaver's beam.'

Or I Chronicles 11:23:

'And he killed an Egyptian, a man of great stature, five cubits high; and in the Egyptian's hand was a spear like a weaver's beam; but Benaiah went against him with a staff, and plucked the spear out of the Egyptian's hand, and slew him with his own spear.'

Abner versus Joab

The pool of GibeonPerhaps the most interesting of the other duel stories deals with the vicious clash 
between the House of David and the House of Saul. Men of valour from both royal 
households met to fight. 

Here is the Biblical description, which appears in II Samuel 2:12-17:

'And Abner the son of Ner, and the servants of Ish-bosheth the son of Saul, went out from Mahanaim to Gibeon. And Joab the son of Zeruiah, and the servants of David, went out, and met together by the pool of Gibeon: and they sat down, the one on the one side of the pool, and the other on the other side of the pool. And Abner said to Joab, 'Let the young men now arise and have a contest before us.' And Joab said, 'Let them come forward.' 

So they came forward and were counted as they passed by, twelve for Benjamin and Ishbaal son of Saul, and twelve of the servants of David. And they caught every one his fellow by the head, and thrust his sword in his fellow's side; so they fell down together: wherefore that place was called Helkath-hazzurim, which is in Gibeon. 

The battle was very fierce that day; and Abner and the men of Israel were beaten by the servants of David.'

The term 'young men' is the literal translation of the Hebrew Ne`arim. But in its military context, Ne`arim means picked troops, like the crack unit of Canaanite mercenaries serving in the army of Rameses II at the Battle of Kadesh, who were called Ne`arun.

Facing each other across Gibeon's pool, therefore, were not a group of high-spirited youngsters but the most highly skilled professional soldiers of both sides. And the 'game' they played was no game but a group of serious duels in the full technical sense of the term. 

Grasping the head of one's adversary with one hand and stabbing his side by a short sword with the other was one of the accepted tactics, as we see in the relief of about this period on the orthostat from Tell Halaf (Biblical Gozan)

Orthostat from the palace of Kapara at Tell Halaf, 10th century BC

Orthostat from the palace of Kapara at Tell Halaf, 10th century BC

What almost certainly happened was that the two armies met at Gibeon, and one commander, Abner, suggested to his rival commander, Joab, to hold dueling contests between the picked men of both sides instead of pitting their entire force against each other. Abner made the request. But only after Joab had agreed did the duels begin. The result is indecisive, for the contestants 'fell down together.' 

No clear winner?

And this explains the next part of the story - 'The battle was very fierce that day.' 

The duels had been fought, neither contestant had won, and so there was no alternative 
but to send both armies into battle.There is a striking similarity between the duel of Sinuhe the Egyptian with the 'mighty man of Retenu' and the contest between David and Goliath. The parallel is close, right down to the prior negotiation, the combat, and the result. 

This suggests that the duel, as a method of war, was quite 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 dual was an effort to secure a military decision without the heavy bloodshed of a full-scale battle.

See Bible Top Ten Warriors for the Bible's most valiant soldiers.


See other fascinating links between 
Archaeology and the Bible


War  - Old Testament  - Archaeology of The Bible - Bible  Study Resource
The Duel in ancient warfare: David v. Goliath, Abner v. Joab

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