Scott Derrickson’s Goliath: Respecting the Original

Dwayne Johnson aka Goliath
Dwayne Johnson aka Goliath

In an article on Scott Derrickson’s forthcoming movie adaptation of the David and Goliath story, Carmen Andrés – former editor of US Mennonite Brethren magazine, CL: Christian Leader –  hopes that the director will “respect the original story”.

What does she mean by respecting the original story? She gives some examples that, presumably, demonstrate the opposite of respect. One of these is the typical “Sunday School version” of the story, where the details are “watered down to a rated-G status”. The problem with such adaptations, according to Carmen, is of “losing important aspects of the stories (like the fact that David wasn’t a pudgy little boy but robust and accustomed to violence)”.

However, we might wonder why respecting the original is regarded as a worthwhile project at all, let alone in contemporary movie-making.

And if we do attempt to “respect the original” story of David and Goliath, what could this possibly mean?

For when it comes to the David and Goliath story, “respecting the original” is more problematic than Carmen appears to assume. A major problem with respecting the original David and Goliath story is that it exists in two quite distinct sets of manuscripts, as preserved by the Greek Septuagint (LXX) and the Hebrew Masoretic Text (MT) of the Old Testament. Which one should we use? Which one is “original”? I think that the Hebrew (MT) version conflates two different versions of the David and Goliath story, only one of which is recorded in LXX. That is, in addition to the version of the David and Goliath story told in LXX, the MT adds further details from a second version of the David and Goliath story.  But opinion is admittedly divided as to which of these textual traditions is “original” (i.e. did MT conflate two stories, or did LXX trim down the story to make it more consistent?). As an added complication, if MT conflated the version of the story found in LXX with another story, it does not necessarily make the LXX version earlier , or “more original”, than the version found only in MT. “Originality” is starting to get complicated.

It is, however, the MT which forms the basis of most English bibles today. Thus, 1 Samuel 17 is based on the MT version of David and Goliath, with a few adjustments made in light of the other available textual traditions. Now, the decision to favour the MT has a long history, but what is decisive for modern English translations is a decision to favour the MT in the sixteenth century AD. So it seems that a decision made in the sixteenth century has made the MT the “original” version of the story for most English readers. In fact, this seems to be what Carmen herself means by the “original” biblical version. For Carmen mentions David as a shepherd boy fighting Goliath, a tradition not “originally” in LXX. For only in MT is David still a shepherd boy when he fights Goliath . So here, “originality” is something that was decided some 2000 years after the first manuscripts of the story of David and Goliath were written. Respecting the “original” is now getting very complicated.

Let’s take particular note of Carmen’s claim that in the “original”, “David wasn’t a pudgy little boy but robust and accustomed to violence”. Indeed, in both the LXX and MT versions, we read that David was already serving in King Saul’s court. However, only in MT do we read that David was, at the time of fighting Goliath, a shepherd boy in his father’s service. The reason for MT’s unique understanding is that the text has joined or conflated the LXX version of the story (in which David serves in King David’s court) with another version of the story (in which David is only ever a shepherd boy). Therefore, the “Sunday School” picture of David as a weak shepherd boy might be an attempt to provide a coherent account of what is, in MT, an inconsistency-ridden story. We get something very similar to this in church nativity plays which are performed each Christmas. In these plays, the “wise men” are usually on stage with the “shepherds” – something that in fact occurs in neither Gospel version of the birth of Jesus (because Matthew only has wise men and Luke only has shepherds).

But what would the movie look like if director Scott Derrickson really were to respect the “original” MT version of the story? Let’s imagine how an adaptation of the David and Goliath story would “faithfully” follow this “original” …

Scene 1. (LXX) We would see King Saul taking David into his service and making him his armour bearer. Goliath – standing at an impressive 6′ 9″ – would challenge Israel in the hearing of Saul and David (1 Samuel 16.1 – 17.11)

Scene 2. (addition to MT) David would suddenly switch to being a young shepherd boy. He would only arrive at the battle scene after Goliath’s challenge, and in order to bring his older brothers some food (1 Sam. 17.12-31)

Scene 3. (LXX) David would switch to becoming Saul’s armour bearer again, and recount how he used to kill lions and bears with his bare hands, back in the days when he was a shepherd boy. David would volunteer to confront Goliath, and kill him with his slingshot (1 Sam. 17.32-49)

Scene 4. (addition to MT) David would switch to a young shepherd boy again. A narrator would proclaim (a little on the late side) that David defeated Goliath without any sword in his hand. In this scene, the dead Goliath would grow to a superhuman 10-feet tall (1 Sam. 17.50; cf. MT 17.4)

Scene 5. (LXX) David would take the giant’s sword in his hand and chop off Goliath’s head, taking the head to Jerusalem – ignoring any Jebusites currently in residency there (1 Sam. 17.51-54)

Scene 6. (addition to MT) Saul would not recognise the boy, because he hadn’t been in his service as his armour bearer. David would return from battle for a second time, this time as a shepherd boy. David would have the head of Goliath in his hand, which for some reason was no longer in Jerusalem (maybe the Jebusites gave it back?). Saul would ask “who the hell are you?”, as though he had never seen him before, and David would introduce himself to Saul as though the man and boy had never met (1 Sam. 17.55-58).

Now – I’d pay good money to see a biblically “faithful” and “original” screenplay like that! It would be surreal.

But there’s another problem with treating this “literal” version as the original version: these contradictions were not generally pointed out until the modern era. Until about the seventeenth century ago, interpreters never read this story in such a disjunctive way; they tended to read it as a unified story, despite the contradictions. In fact, the MT was probably even composed as a unified story, just not according to the standards of unity that we might follow. The author wasn’t silly after all, and he composed/compiled a story that has captured imaginations for two millennia. But it seems that our so-called “literal”, “original” version was never written the way we might now read it in Scenes 1 to 6 above.

So – can we go back to the more harmonistic version underlying LXX, and call that the “original”? The problem is: why start here? It seems rather arbitrary, doesn’t it, when the LXX version probably relies on even earlier literary or oral tellings of David and Goliath? Even within the canon there is a rival account of “Elhanan” (not David) versus Goliath (2 Samuel 21.19),which many scholars suggest reflects an earlier (more “original”) version of the story. Perhaps an earlier version involved not Goliath at all, but King Saul himself – described as “head and shoulders” taller than every other Israelite – that is, about Goliath’s height in the LXX. Was the “original” version an account of the contest between David and Saul to obtain the crown in Israel? As Claude Lévi-Strauss wrote in respect of the Bororo myth, perhaps the David and Goliath story has never been a unity or a complete myth, but, “simply a transformation, to a greater or lesser extent, of other myths” (The Raw and the Cooked, p. 1). Perhaps, as Lévi-Strauss notes elsewhere, the case is that “there is no single ‘true’ version of which all the others are but copies or distortions. Every version belongs to the myth” (“The Structural Study of Myth”, p. 218).

But what all these fruitless searches for an “original” does show is that Scott Derrickson is following a long tradition of rewriting the David and Goliath story (… or the Elhanan and Goliath story, or the David and Saul story, perhaps). Paradoxically, in not being faithful to an “original”, in rewriting and reperforming the story of David and Goliath again, Derrickson may in fact be more faithful to the (ever-changing) David and Goliath tradition, re-enlivening it for a new audience.

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