David and Goliath
by Malcolm Gladwell

  • History
  • Ashto = 7/10
  • Jonesy = 8/10

What You Will Learn from David and Goliath

David and Goliath is an investigation into what happens when the ‘underdog’ is forced to face an outsize challenge. In this book, Malcolm Gladwell asks us to reconsider how we perceive obstacles and disadvantages in our lives. He argues that the same qualities and traits that appear to give the ‘giants’ their strength are also their weak points. Drawn from history and psychology, Gladwell uses a compelling narrative to reshape the way we see the world around us and practise what might otherwise have seemed unthinkable.

We do need a better guide to face our giants, and there is no better place to start that journey than with the epic confrontation between David and Goliath 3,000 years ago in the Valley of Elah.


The Battle Set Up

In the 11th Century BC, the Israelites were clustered in the mountains under the leadership of King Saul. The Philistines from Crete had taken to sea, landed in Palestine, and began moving East, winding their way upstream along the floor of the Elah Valley – with the goal of capturing the mountain ridge near Bethlehem and splitting Saul’s kingdom in half. The Philistines were battle-tested and dangerous, and the sworn enemies of the Israelites. Alarmed, Saul gathered his men and hastened down from the mountains to confront them. The Philistines set up camp along the southern ridge of the Elah. The Israelites pitched their tents on the other side, along the northern ridge, which left the two armies looking across the ravine at each other. Neither dared to move. To attack meant descending down the hill and then making a suicidal climb up the enemy’s ridge on the other side.

Finally, the Philistines had enough. They sent their greatest warrior down into the valley to resolve the deadlock one-on-one. He was a giant, six foot nine at least, wearing a bronze helmet and full body armor. He carried a javelin, a spear, and a sword. An attendant preceded him, carrying a large shield. The giant faced the Israelites and shouted out: ‘Choose you a man and let him come down to me! If he prevails in a battle against me and strikes me down, we shall be slaves to you. But if I prevail and strike him down, you will be slaves to us and serve us.’ In the Israelite camp, no one moved. Who could win against such a terrifying opponent?

Then, a shepherd boy who had come down from Bethlehem to bring food to his brothers stepped forward and volunteered. Saul objected: ‘You cannot go against this Philistine to do battle with him, for you are a lad and he is a man of war from his youth.’ But the shepherd was adamant. He had faced more ferocious opponents than this, he argued. ‘When the lion or the bear would come and carry off a sheep from the herd,’ he told Saul, ‘I would go after him and strike him down and rescue it from his clutches.’ Saul had no other options. He relented, and the shepherd boy ran down the hill toward the giant standing in the valley.

‘Come to me, that I may give your flesh to the birds of the heavens and the beasts of the field,’ the giant cried out when he saw his opponent approach. Thus began one of history’s most famous battles. The giant’s name was Goliath. The shepherd boy’s name was David.


The Current Version of David and Goliath

Goliath asked for what was known as single combat, a common practice in the ancient world. Two sides in a conflict would seek to avoid the heavy bloodshed of open battle by choosing one warrior to represent each in a duel. This is what Goliath was expecting – a warrior like himself to come forward for hand-to-hand combat. It never occurred to him that the battle would be fought on anything other than those terms. To protect himself against blows to the body, he wore an elaborate tunic made up of hundreds of overlapping bronze fishlike scales. It covered his arms and reached to his knees and probably weighed more than a hundred pounds. He had bronze shin guards protecting his legs, with attached bronze plates covering his feet. He wore a heavy metal helmet.

Goliath also had three separate weapons, all optimised for close combat. He held a thrusting javelin made entirely of bronze, which was capable of penetrating a shield or even armor. He had a sword on his hip. And as his primary option, he carried a special kind of short-range spear with a metal shaft as ‘thick as a weaver’s beam.’ It had a cord attached to it and an elaborate set of weights that allowed it to be released with extraordinary force and accuracy. As the historian, Moshe Garsiel writes, ‘To the Israelites, this extraordinary spear, with its heavy shaft plus long and heavy iron blade, when hurled by Goliath’s strong arm, seemed capable of piercing any bronze shield and bronze armor together.’ Can you see why no Israelite would come forward to fight Goliath?

Then David appeared. Saul tried to give him his own sword and armor so at least he’d have a fighting chance. David refused. ‘I cannot walk in these,’ he said, ‘for I am unused to it.’ Instead, he reached down and picked up five smooth stones, and put them in his shoulder bag. Then he descended into the valley, carrying his shepherd’s staff.

Goliath looked at the boy coming toward him and was insulted. He was expecting to do battle with a seasoned warrior. Instead, he saw a shepherd – a boy from one of the lowliest of all professions – who seemed to want to use his shepherd’s staff as a cudgel against Goliath’s sword. ‘Am I a dog,’ Goliath said, gesturing at the staff, ‘that you should come to me with sticks?’ What happened next was a matter of legend. David put one of his stones into the leather pouch of a sling, and he fired at Goliath’s exposed forehead. Goliath fell, stunned. David ran toward him, seized the giant’s sword, and cut off his head. ‘The Philistines saw that their warrior was dead,’ the biblical account reads, ‘and they fled.’ The battle was won miraculously by an underdog who, by all expectations, shouldn’t have won at all.

This is the way we have told one another the story over the many centuries since. It’s how the phrase ‘David and Goliath’ has come to be embedded in our language – as a metaphor for an improbable victory. However, the problem with that version of the events is that almost everything about it is wrong.


Gladwell’s Interpretation of the Battle

Ancient armies had three kinds of warriors. The first was cavalry: armed men on horseback or in chariots. The second was infantry: foot soldiers wearing armor and carrying swords and shields. The third were projectile warriors (or what today would be called artillery): archers and slingers.

Slingers had a leather pouch attached on two sides by a long strand of rope. They would put a rock or a lead ball into the pouch, swing it around in increasingly wider and faster circles, and then release one end of the rope, hurling the rock forward. Slinging took an extraordinary amount of skill and practice. But in experienced hands, the sling was a devastating weapon. An experienced slinger could kill or seriously injure a target at a distance of up to 200 yards. Imagine standing in front of a Major League Baseball pitcher as he aims a baseball at your head. That’s what facing a slinger was like – only what was being thrown was solid rock.

With their long pikes and armor, infantry could stand up to cavalry. Cavalry could, in turn, defeat projectile warriors, because the horses moved too quickly for artillery to take proper aim. And projectile warriors were deadly against infantry, because a big lumbering soldier, weighed down with armor, was a sitting duck for a slinger who was launching projectiles from a hundred yards away.

Goliath was a heavy infantry. He thought that he was going to be engaged in a duel with another heavy infantryman. When Saul tried to dress David in armor and give him a sword, he was operating under the same assumption. He assumed David was going to fight Goliath hand to hand. David, however, had no intention of honouring the rituals of single combat. When he told Saul that he had killed bears and lions as a shepherd, he didn’t say it just as a testimony to his courage; but to make another point as well. David intended to fight Goliath the same way he had learned to fight wild animals.

He ran toward Goliath because without armor he had speed and maneuverability. He put a rock into his sling and whipped it around and around, faster and faster at six or seven revolutions per second, aiming his projectile at Goliath’s forehead – the giant’s only point of vulnerability.

Eitan Hirsch, a ballistics expert with the Israeli Defense Forces, recently did a series of calculations showing that a typical-size stone hurled by an expert slinger at a distance of 35 meters would have hit Goliath’s head with a velocity of 34 meters per second. This would’ve been more than enough to penetrate his skull and render him unconscious or dead. In terms of stopping power, that is equivalent to a fair-sized modern handgun.

What could Goliath do? He was carrying over a hundred pounds of armor, prepared for a battle at close range, where he could stand, immobile, warding off blows with his armor and delivering a mighty thrust of his spear. He watched David approach, first with scorn, then with surprise, and then with what can only have been horror – as it dawned on him that the battle he was expecting had suddenly changed shape.

‘You come against me with sword and spear and javelin,’ David said to Goliath, ‘But I come against you in the name of the Lord Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This day the Lord will deliver you into my hands, and I’ll strike you down and cut off your head. All those gathered here will know that it is not by sword or spear that the Lord saves; for the battle is the Lord, and he will give all of you into our hands.’ Twice David mentioned Goliath’s sword and spear as if to emphasise how profoundly different his intentions were. Then he reached into his shepherd’s bag for a stone, and at that point, no one watching from the ridges on either side of the valley would have considered David’s victory improbable.

David was a slinger, and slingers beat infantry, hands down. ‘Goliath had as much chance against David,’ the historian Robert Dohrenwend writes, ‘as any Bronze Age warrior with a sword would have had against an (opponent) armed with a .45 automatic pistol. Goliath was a Giant but he’d brought a spear to a sling fight. Just like someone fighting with samurai swords against a rifle – the samurai brought a knife to a gun fight and it was clear who was going to come out on top.’


How Goliath’s Strength Was Actually a Weakness

Why has there been so much misunderstanding around that day in the Valley of Elah? On one level, the duel reveals the folly of our assumptions about power. The reason King Saul was skeptical of David’s chances was that David was small and Goliath was large. Saul thought of power in terms of physical might. He didn’t appreciate that power could come in other forms as well: in breaking rules, in substituting speed and surprise for strength. Saul wasn’t alone in making this mistake. We continue to make that error today, in ways that have consequences for everything from how we educate our children to how we fight crime and disorder.

But there’s a second, deeper issue here. Saul and the Israelites thought they know who Goliath is. They size him up and jump to conclusions about what they think he is capable of. But they don’t really see him. The truth is that Goliath’s behavior is puzzling. He is supposed to be a mighty warrior. But he’s not acting like one.

He comes down to the valley floor accompanied by an attendant – a servant walking before him, carrying a shield. Shield bearers in ancient times often accompanied archers into battle because a soldier using a bow and arrow had no free hand to carry any kind of protection on his own. But why did Goliath, a man calling for sword-on-sword single combat, need to be assisted by a third party carrying an archer’s shield? What’s more, why did he say to David, ‘Come to me’? Why couldn’t Goliath go to David? The biblical account emphasises how slowly Goliath moved, which is an odd thing to say about someone who was alleged to be a battle hero of infinite strength.

In any case, why didn’t Goliath respond much sooner to the sight of David coming down the hillside without any sword or shield, or armor? When he first saw David, his first reaction was feeling insulted, when he should be terrified. He seemed oblivious to what’s happening around him. There is even that strange comment after he finally spotted David with his shepherd’s staff: ‘Am I a dog that you should come to me with sticks?’ Sticks? David was holding only one stick.

Goliath’s medical condition

What many medical experts now believe, in fact, is that Goliath had a serious medical condition. He looked and sounded like someone suffering from what is called acromegaly – a disease caused by a benign tumor of the pituitary gland. The tumor causes an overproduction of human growth hormone, which would explain Goliath’s extraordinary size. And furthermore, one of the common side effects of acromegaly is vision problems. Pituitary tumors can grow to the point where they compress the nerves leading to the eyes, often resulting in severely restricted sight and diplopia (double vision).

Why was Goliath led onto the valley floor by an attendant? Because the attendant was his visual guide. Why did he move so slowly? Because the world around him was a blur. Why did it take him so long to understand that David had changed the rules? Because he didn’t see David until David was up close. ‘Come to me, that I may give your flesh to the birds of the heavens and the beasts of the field,’ he shouted out. In that request, there was a hint of his vulnerability.


Conclusion of David and Goliath

What the Israelites saw, from high on the ridge, was an intimidating giant. In reality, the very thing that gave the giant his size was also the source of his greatest weakness. There is an important lesson in that for battles with all kinds of giants. The powerful and the strong are not always what they seem. David came running toward Goliath, powered by courage and faith. Goliath was blind to his approach, too big and slow and blurry-eyed to comprehend the way the tables had been turned. All these years, we’ve been telling these kinds of stories wrong. In this book, Malcolm Gladwell tries to get them right.

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