The Deaths of Goliath

Years after David became king, stories were told of his elite soldiers. The feats some of them performed, the daring combats they won, were captured in the bible. Second Samuel 21 tells of how different Israelite champions slayed Philistine giants. Many readers are unaware of this section, and even those who get here tend to skim. However, buried in the middle there is a small, but hugely important statement.

Then there was another battle with the Philistines at Gob; and Elhanan son of Jaare-oregim, the Bethlehemite, killed Goliath of Gath. The shaft of his spear was like a weaver’s beam.

—2 Samuel 21.19

According to this account, Goliath was killed by a man named Elhanan, long after David had become king. This is in direct contradiction to the story in 1 Samuel 17.

And there came out from the camp of the Philistines a champion named Goliath of Gath, whose height was six cubits and a span. He had a helmet of bronze on his head, and he was armored with a coat of mail; the weight of the coat was five thousand shekels of bronze. He had greaves of bronze on his legs and a javelin of bronze slung between his shoulders. The shaft of his spear was like a weaver’s beam, and his spear’s head weighed six hundred shekels of iron; and his shield-bearer went before him. [...] When the Philistine drew nearer to meet David, David ran quickly towards the battle line to meet the Philistine. David put his hand in his bag, took out a stone, slung it, and struck the Philistine on his forehead; the stone sank into his forehead, and he fell face down on the ground. So David prevailed over the Philistine with a sling and a stone, striking down the Philistine and killing him.

—1 Samuel 17.4-7,48-50

That these two passages have in mind the exact same Philistine giant is plain; he has the same name, is from the same town, and wields the same weapon.

  • 1 Sam 17.4,7: named Goliath of Gath (גָּלְיָ֥ת שְׁמ֖וֹ מִגַּ֑ת) [...] The shaft of his spear was like a weaver’s beam. (וְחֵ֣ץ חֲנִית֗וֹ כִּמְנוֹר֙ אֹֽרְגִ֔ים)
  • 2 Sam 21.19: Goliath of Gath (גָּלְיָ֣ת הַגִּתִּ֔י). The shaft of his spear was like a weaver’s beam. (וְעֵ֣ץ חֲנִית֔וֹ כִּמְנ֖וֹר אֹרְגִֽים)

An ancient explanation is that Elhanan is, in fact, another name for David himself. This claim is not taken seriously by most scholars. First, the text of 2 Sam 21 doesn’t identify Elhanan with David, even when David has just been mentioned. Second, the story takes place after David has been king for some time, not when he is a youth. Third, the Book of Chronicles actually tells the story of Elhanan differently:

Elhanan son of Jair killed Lahmi, the brother of Goliath of Gath. The shaft of his spear was like a weaver’s beam.

—1 Chronicles 20.5

Chronicles was written at least a full century after 1 and 2 Samuel were. This casts doubt on the reliability of its version of the story. Yet, the mere fact that its version has Elhanan kill Goliath’s brother instead of Goliath himself shows even the earlier readers recognize a problem between 1 Sam 17 and 2 Sam 21.

How, then, did Goliath’s death wind up attributed to both David and Elhanan?

Halpern represents perhaps a majority of current scholars in assuming that the most likely explanation is that “storytellers displaced the deed from the otherwise obscure Elhanan onto the more famous character, David.”1
A second way [to approach the contradiction] is to believe that there are two variant traditions of who killed Goliath—David or Elhanan—and that 2 Sam. 21:19 is the more plausible tradition. It would be more natural for a heroic incident like this to be transferred from a minor person to a national hero, from a GI to a general, rather than vice versa. The Chronicler, when confronted with these variant traditions, harmonized them by making Elhanan the executioner of Goliath’s brother.2

Coming from this direction, it appears the story developed in three stages. First, Elhanan went into the books as the hero who killed Goliath. Later, this achievement was attributed to Elhanan’s king, David, and was pushed back in time to become David’s entry onto Israel’s political stage while he was still a young man. Finally, the Chronicler noticed the contradiction, and revised Elhanan’s story so that he killed Goliath’s brother rather than Goliath himself. David was the national hero of Israel, not Elhanan, so it only made sense to ‘correct’ the story about Elhanan.

There is one thought to consider. The redaction made by the Chronicler clearly shows the earliest readers of the Book of Samuel did not follow the Elhanan=David idea, but modern defenders of biblical authority raise a legitimate question: how do we know that 1 Chr 20.5 is the redacted text, and not that 2 Sam 21.19 suffered an error of some kind? Could it not be that both texts originally said Elhanan killed Goliath’s brother, and a scribe made a mistake in 2 Sam 21.19, accidentally writing that he killed Goliath himself?

There is some merit to this. Like all ancient texts, no printing press existed, so the reproduction of books was done entirely by hand. As copies were made, people would take them to other communities. If errors were made during the process of writing a new copy, and the new copy was taken off to another community, that community would never be aware any changes had crept in; their only knowledge would be of the errant text.

While 1 Chr 30.5 identifies Elhanan’s father as Jair, 2 Sam 21.19 identifies him as Jaare-oregim. The word oregim means ‘weavers’. Evidently, a scribe making a copy of the Book of Samuel read the word from the end of the next sentence (‘the shaft of his spear was like a weaver’s beam’) and duplicated it in a different part of the sentence, which falls under a category of copyist errors called haplography.

Yet, this doesn’t explain the other extensive differences between the two verses:

If 1 Chr 20.5 represents the original wording, and 2 Sam 21.19 is the one in error, a scribe would have had to make several inexplicable mistakes. This begs the question of why such errors only occurred at the exact place in this passage where it would just happen to result in major contradictions with 1 Sam 16-18. It’s too convenient.

The corresponding verse in 1 Chronicles 20:5 neatly resolves the difficulty, by having Elhanan kill not Goliath but “Lahmi the brother of Goliath”—and for that reason the verse is held suspect by most commentators.3

Instead, if 2 Sam 21.19 represents the original wording, and 1 Chr 20.5 is the result of deliberate redaction by a scribe motivated to harmonize contradictions with 1 Sam 16-18, it is much easier to explain how the scribal ‘error’ was so localized.

Omitting the fragment “-oregim” from the name of Elhanan’s father and dropping the definite article and initial consonant from the place name of “Bethlehem,” the Chronicler reads “Elhanan son of Jair killed Lahmi the brother of Goliath the Gittite.” The Chronicler thus preserves the tradition of David’s defeat of Goliath.4
The name Lahmi is actually the second part of the word “Bethlehemite” (Hebrew: beth-lahmi). The Chronicler’s solution to the contradiction, therefore, was to invent a brother for Goliath. He then made up a name for him out of the word “Bethlehemite” from 2 Sam. 19:21.5

There are other problems with the story in 1 Sam 16-18 that this explanation doesn’t account for.

  • David was made Saul’s personal armor-bearer, and so was a vital member of his court during wartime (16.14-23). During war with the Philistines, David is inexplicably working at his father’s home instead of fulfilling his duty as armor-bearer (17.14-15,20-22).
  • Jesse, his sons Eliab, Adinadab, Shammah, his next four sons, and then his son David are introduced to the reader (16.1-13). They are introduced just one chapter later as if for the first time, in the same sequence (17.12-14).
  • Goliath is introduced to the reader (17.4), then introduced later in the same chapter as if for the first time (17.23).
  • The text says David killed Goliath with only a stone, and no sword (17.50), but immediately backtracks and says that David rushed Goliath while he was stunned by the stone and killed him with his own sword (17.51).
  • Saul chose David, by name, to be his personal musician and armor-bearer, and ‘loved him greatly’ (16.14-23), yet when David kills Goliath, Saul has no idea who David is and must be introduced to him all over again (17.55-58).

We need to adjust our theory outlined above. Instead of Elhanan’s story merely being attributed to David and expanded into a larger tale, it was actually attributed to David and told in different versions. One version was incorporated as 1 Sam 16-18. Another version, with different details, was later inserted throughout, causing internal contradictions in the narration. How can we tell which parts of the story are the earlier narrative told in 1 Sam 16-18, and which parts come from the later interpolation?

At some point early in this process for the Book of Samuel,6 a scribe decided to insert the alternate version of David’s fight with Goliath into the version already in Samuel. All subsequent copies of Samuel made from this copy-with-interpolations would also contain the interpolations with few people realizing it. Meanwhile, off in other communities, copies of Samuel existed that had been made before the interpolations.

Today, the interpolated version of Samuel serves as the basis for most English translations of the Bible. It’s the only version most readers know. However, 1 Sam 16-18 is only half as long in ancient Greek copies of the book; it contains the non-interpolated version of David’s battle with Goliath.7

In this telling, Israel goes to war with the Philistines, and David goes with the army as would be expected of the king’s personally chosen armor-bearer. He hears Goliath’s challenge and offers to kill him. Saul suggests David wear his armor, but David declines when it doesn’t fit properly. David confronts Goliath, stuns him with a stone, then cuts the giant’s head off with his own sword. David takes Goliath’s head to Jerusalem, where the people of the city give him greater praise than they give Saul, sparking Saul’s resentment.

The elements of the story that are missing include David running errands for his father, David’s brother rebuking him, the second introduction of Goliath, the statement of David killing Goliath with only the stone, and Saul asking for the identity of the young man who killed the giant. When these elements, missing from the Greek, are read as a separate account, they form a mostly cohesive story. The two versions follow the same broad strokes, but we now know which is the story used originally by the book and which is the interpolated story.8

First Sam 17 refers to David’s enemy as ‘the Philistine’ nearly thirty times, but as ‘Goliath’ only twice, in the two introductions of the character to the reader. McKenzie sees this as evidence that David’s story originated independently from Elhanan’s, and David battled with an unnamed Philistine champion. Only at a later time was the giant, for whatever reason, given the identity and weaponry of Elhanan’s foe.9

There are other puzzling elements of the Goliath story, but we can now say we have a strong sense of how the legend changed and developed, with multiple versions making their way into the Bible.


1 Iain Provan, Phil Long, Tremper Longman, A Biblical History of Israel, 224.

2 Victor Hamilton, Handbook on the Historical Books, 262.

3 Provan et al., Ibid.

4 Paul Hooker, First and Second Chronicles, 84. At this point, astute readers might realize that Chronicles actually omits David’s battle with Goliath. As Hooker points out, this is because the Chronicler doesn’t describe David’s life before he became king. The Book of Chronicles begins with several chapters of genealogy, the last being King Saul’s genealogy. Just after that, the beginning of its narrative is Saul’s death and David’s accession. The story of David’s combat with Goliath is left out because everything before David became king was left out.

5 Steven McKenzie, King David: A Biography, 76.

6 Samuel-Kings was completed during the Babylonian exile, since the narrative concludes before the exile has ended. The interpolation must have been made prior to the translation of Hebrew scriptures into Greek during the middle of the Second Temple period. The best we can do, then, is narrow down the time of the interpolation to the early Second Temple period; cf. Raymond Person, The Deuteronomic History and the Book of Chronicles, 19 fn53.

7 Stanley Isser, The Sword of Goliath, 30-34, examines the theories of different scholars from the twentieth century on how the text of 1 Sam 16-18 came to be as it is in the different manuscript traditions. One suggests the ‘interpolations’ were actually the original story, expanded with another version, then expunged in Greek copies. Another suggests the common, long story is in fact all original, with the shorter version of the chapters in the Greek representing attempts to trim the story down. As seen above, I take the position that the shorter Greek text version of 1 Sam 16-18 contains the original version of the story (or close to it), while the additional paragraphs in other manuscript traditions represent interpolations.

8 The original version of 1 Sam 16-18 was something close to: 16.1-23; 17.1-11, 32-36, 37b-40, 42-49, 51-54; 18.6-8b, 9, 12a, 13-16, 20-21a, 22-26a, 27-29a.

9 McKenzie, Ibid.