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Re-imagining David and Goliath: Foreheads, Legs, and Sling Stones

David and Goliath 2Imagination has a good deal to do with how the story of David & Goliath is used in modern times, even among scholars and in commentaries. Given its status as one of the most repeated lessons in Sunday School, right up there with the prodigal son and the Good Samaritan, we are not lacking for imaginative accounts of the event.

Don’t believe me? Consider Dave and the Giant Pickle by Veggie Tales where the entire story is reduced to a lesson in self-esteem with the tagline, “Little guys can do big things too!” Self-esteem is the last thing that the story of David and Goliath is about… but let’s take a few days getting there. The journey is worth it.

David and goliath 1Now, I won’t take issue with the role of imagination in coming to grips with stories like David and Goliath, but I will argue for coming to the story with well informed imaginations. We need to read with imaginations shaped by the historical realities of Ancient Near Eastern warfare, biblical languages, and the challenges of the ancient texts in which the story is preserved for us.

A number of years ago, during a course lecture, Dr. Gordon Hugenberger[1] challenged the traditional reading of the David and Goliath story by suggesting that David struck Goliath in the leg and not in the head.

As I sat listening, I was doing what you are probably doing now… laughing with incredulity (inside my head, of course). To be honest, I missed some of his arguments for this, being too busy beginning my own investigation right there in class, trying to prove him wrong… (Laptops and Bible study programs! Where would I be without them?)

The problem was that it didn’t take long before my resistance began to crumble. The evidence was overwhelming to me, and, the more I studied, the more convinced I became that Dr. Hugenberger was correct.

Indeed, I have found that one of the greatest hindrances to being convinced among those with whom I have shared the data that I will share over several coming posts is the refusal to believe that so many could be so wrong for so long.[2]

Today, let me merely try to convince you that an issue exists, that a puzzle needs solving. Let’s look at the text itself.

In 1978, Ariella Deem proposed an alternative rendering for מצחוmitscho in 1 Samuel 17:49, suggesting that it was not Goliath’s forehead that David struck, but one of his greaves.[3]The word that we commonly translate “forehead” in 1 Samuel 17:49 is the same word used to describe the bronze greaves on Goliath’s “forelegs” in 1 Samuel 17:6.

The confusion over this simple fact runs deep even among well-versed scholars.

If you choose to believe me upfront that they are the same, you may skip a somewhat technical discussion in the numbered paragraphs below and just cut to the end. If not, try to follow me as I describe how this issue was overlooked for so long.

In our text, a comedy of errors coalesced to confuse what, perhaps, should have been a basic story. Scholars should have seen the link between מצחתmitschat in 1 Samuel 17:6 and מצחוmitscho in 1 Samuel 17:49, but, in light of the Greek and Syriac interpretations,[4] two things sent them off track.

1. Unlike English, where gender has to do with male and female, EVERY noun in Hebrew has “gender.” Every noun is either masculine or feminine. Gender for most Hebrew nouns has to do with spelling patterns, not manliness or womanliness. In our passages, מצחתmitschat “greave of” in 1 Samuel 17:6 appears feminine and מצחוmitscho proposed “forehead” in 1 Samuel 17:49 appears masculine. So, while no other evidence has ever been discovered to verify the existence of a feminine מצחהmitschah greave, a rather strange article of war to a Hebrew, the existence of one was proposed and clung to early on. While greave is a technical term in our language, a familiar piece of armor with established vocabulary, I propose that the Hebrew term applied for the greaves in 1 Samuel 17:6 is more akin to a term like, “fronty-thingies.” I do not believe that a technical term מצחהmitschah greave actually existed.

2. Around the time of David, a shift begins to take place in the spelling of the Hebrew language. While Hebrew traditionally did not record vowels, being comprised only of consonants, a series of consonants began to represent long vowels. So texts began appearing, and being re-written to include long O and long U sounds with וwaw (W). It only makes sense if you play with the sounds a bit.

3. In our text in 1 Samuel 17:6 the phrase מצחתmitschat for Goliath’s “greaves” is actually missing one of these consonant letters… the one that would distinguish מצחתmitschat “greave of” from מצחותmitschot “greaves of.” This happens a lot in older texts. It is called “defective spelling.” So, unless Goliath only wore one greave, our text, when spelled out in full should make a “feminine” plural מצחותmitschot greaves of, as in greaves of bronze upon his legs.

So, why does this matter?

4. It matters because the masculine word מֵצַח mātsach forehead, when it occurs in the plural, is spelled like a feminine; it is spelled מצחותmitschot. In Ezekiel 9:4, the angelic inscriber is sent to mark על־מצחות al-mitschot “upon the foreheads” of those who mourn over the sins of the city. The plural form of the word we translate forehead in 1 Samuel 17:49 is identical to the word we have translated greaves in 1 Samuel 17:6—a word that is only used 13x in the whole Old Testament… 14x if you count 1 Samuel 17:6… which I do.

Given the repetition, one is left with a serious translation decision.

Should we suggest that Goliath wore one feminine greave of bronze, and was, thus, struck upon his masculine forehead?  (Not likely)

Should one suggest that there is a defective spelling and propose that Goliath wore two greaves of bronze (YES!) and that both the masculine forehead and the unequaled feminine greave both have identical plurals?  (Not likely)

Should one suggest that both greaves and forehead have the same Hebrew word standing behind them, each receiving different translations?  (This would preserve the traditional position through new reasoning.)

Finally, should one suggest that Goliath was not actually struck upon his forehead, but upon one of his greaves, shattering his leg, perhaps, and deliberately driving him to his face in prostration before his competitor, just as Dagon, his god, had fallen prostrate before the Ark of YHWH several chapters earlier? (I Samuel 5:1-5)

There are other factors to consider in making the final translation, but past scholarly habit and Sunday school flannel graphs should not be among them.


[1] Gordon-Conwell professor and Pastor of Park Street Church in Boston Massachusetts.

[2]Peter Ackroyd, The First Book of Samuel (1971); Joyce Baldwin, 1 and 2 Samuel: an Introduction and Commentary (1988); Robert D. Bergen, 1 and 2 Samuel (NAC 7; 1996); Keith Bodner, 1 Samuel: A Narrative Commentary (2008); Tony Cartledge, 1 & 2 Samuel (2001); S. Goldman, Samuel (1951); Robert P. Gordon, I & II Samuel: A Commentary (1986); Hans Wilhelm Hertzberg, I & II Samuel: A Commentary (1964); Henry Preserved Smith, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Books of Samuel (ICC; 1904); Ralph W. Klein, I Samuel (WBC 10; 1983);  John Mauchline, 1 and 2 Samuel (NCB; 1971); Bruce C. Birch, 1 and 2 Books of Samuel (NIC 2; 1998); David Toshio Tsumura, The First Book of Samuel (2007) 464-65; Ronald F. Youngblood, I and 2 Samuel (EBC 3).

[3] Ariella Deem, “…and the Stone Sank into His Forehead: a Note on 1 Samuel xvii 49,” VT 28 (1978) 349-51.

[4] The LXX’s rendering καὶ ἐπάταξεν τὸν ἀλλόφυλον ἐπὶ τὸ μέτωπον αὐτοῦ, καὶ διέδυ ὁ λίθος διὰ τῆς περικεφαλαίας εἰς τὸ μέτωπον αὐτοῦand he smote the Philistine on his forehead and the stone penetrated through the helmet into his forehead, leaves little doubt as to its translator’s agreement with this interpretation of the Hebrew, as does the Syriac’s paraphrase, saying that the stone struck Goliath between the eyes;

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