David and Goliath, by Antonio Zanchi (1631—1722)

Did David Really Kill Goliath? Challenging the Story of the Valley of Elah — Part I

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The story of David rise to power is very political. The tale of the famous giant-slayer and second king of the Israelites, according to the Hebrew Bible, starts with the slaughter of a tribe – women and men, children and all.  Afterwards, however, it gets convoluted. What happened during the events that transpired at Valley of Elah? But the main question is: did David really kill Goliath at Elah or was it just ancient propaganda?

In order to understand how David came to power one must focus on king Saul and the Amalekites.

A Prophet, a King, and a Deadly Plan

According to Biblical records, the Amalekites, a tribe who lived along the eastern border of Egypt, began making incursions into the southern territory of Israel. These were not small raids that the local militias could deal with but a razzias (great raid), which required a greater military presence. The story goes that because of this, the elders of the southern tribes sent messengers to the prophet Samuel requesting help. It’s written that after hearing their plea, the Samuel visited Saul, first king of the Israelites. Samuel said, “I am the one the Lord sent to anoint you king over his people Israel; so listen now to the message from the Lord.” It was Samuel’s way of reminding the king who was in charge.

Icon of the prophet Samuel from the collection of the Donetsk regional art museum

Icon of the prophet Samuel from the collection of the Donetsk regional art museum.  ( Public Domain )

Samuel instructed Saul to “punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt. Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.’” This would be a holy war and the terms were nonnegotiable. Saul agreed and assembled his personal tribal levies along with Judean militia. Their destination was the city of Amalek.

King Saul with David, by Rembrandt, c. 1650

King Saul with David, by Rembrandt, c. 1650 ( Public Domain )

Once Saul and his forces arrived outside the city during the night, they set up an ambush in the ravine. Before attacking the city, Saul told the local Kenites to flee from the Amalekites, “so that I do not destroy you along with them; for you showed kindness to all the Israelites when they came up out of Egypt.”

Details before and during the battle are silent in ancient writings. However, there are two possibilities as to how it was initiated based on the scant passage. The first possibility is that Amalekites knew the Israelites were coming due to their own scouts in the area. Once Saul discovered that his forces had been spotted, he quickly set up an ambush. Another possibility is that Saul, undetected, set up an ambush and sent a small Israelite detachment towards the city. Upon seeing this, the Amalekites mustered their forces and chased after them, being led to the ravine where the main Israelite force quickly destroyed them. With the main Amalekite forces removed, Saul now had the ability to attack and destroy every Amalekite settlement from Havilah to Shur. Everything that “was despised and weak they totally destroyed.” Not a single soul remained except for King Agag and “the best of the sheep and cattle, the fat calves and lambs—everything that was good.”

The prophet Samuel received news of the Israelites’ return and waited before meeting with Saul. A morning or so later, Samuel awoke and asked the whereabouts of Saul. “Saul has gone to Carmel. There he has set up a monument in his own honor and has turned and gone on down to Gilgal.”

When Saul returned and laid eyes upon Samuel, he was full of joy. He informed Samuel he “carried out the Lord’s instructions.” But Samuel heard the bleating of sheep and the lowing of cattle. He was suspicious and asked Saul where the animals had come from. Saul responded, “The soldiers brought them from the Amalekites; they spared the best of the sheep and cattle to sacrifice to the Lord your God, but we totally destroyed the rest.” Samuel flew into a rage, while Saul continued to justify his conquests. But worst of all, Saul had taken King Agag alive!


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