Did David’s Stone Hit Goliath On the Forehead or On the Leg?

David and Goliath sculptureWhen I attended the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) Annual Conference last month, I heard a good argument about the David and Goliath narrative from Gregory T.K. Wong, in his paper, “A Farewell to Arms: The Rhetoric of Arms and the Death of Goliath” (17 November 2011).

Wong’s point of departure is Ariella Deem’s argument in Vetus Testamentum 28.3 (1978: 349-351) that the מצח which is the target of David’s smooth stone (1 Sam 17.49) does not refer to Goliath’s “forehead” as is usually thought, but to Goliath’s “greave” (one of the two pieces of armour covering each of his lower legs). Both meanings, “forehead” and “greave”, are possible for מצח. Wong’s central argument stems from his observation that if מצח in  Sam. 17.49 were to mean “forehead” then the sole exception to the recurrence of each of the items of armour listed in 1 Sam. 17.5-7 in the remainder of the chapter would be the מצחת (“greaves”). Wong argues that, contrary to commentators who have viewed the list of armour as somewhat arbitrary, the narrator crafted his list deliberately, in the knowledge that he would refer to each item later in the narrative. The narrator’s emphasis on Goliath’s armour, as Fokkelman has also argued, emphasises the pride and confidence the Philistine had placed in his own arms, and contrasts with David’s confidence in Yahweh and rejection of any armour. Ironically, Goliath’s armour turns out to be the precise source of Goliath’s downfall, when David aims at the Achilles heel in Goliath’s armour – his greaves.

Wong also argues that the reason that Goliath’s חרב (“sword”) is absent from the list in 1 Sam. 17.5-7, yet present in the narrative, is that David uses “his” (Goliath’s?) sword to kill Goliath. The narrator did not include it in the list of armour on which Goliath relied, because David also relies on it.

It’s a plausible and logically argued interpretation. In support, it would be unusual that the same author would have used the rare term for “greaves” in 17.6, but would have intended for his readers to understand the same word in a different sense when it later appeared (albeit in the singular) in 17.49. And the recurrence in the ensuing narrative of each item in the list of armour may well have been to emphasise Goliath’s misplaced trust and pride. On the other hand, the translation of מצח as “forehead” might itself connote Goliath’s pride, and its overcoming by David’s well-aimed stone. For מצח has the connotation in a handful of the extant Hebrew passages of “brazen” or “arrogant”, in particular where the proud forehead is about to receive its comeuppance (e.g. Isaiah 48.4; Jeremiah 3.3; Ezekiel 3.7, 8, 9). In addition, for what it is worth, none of the ancient Versions translate מצח as “greave”. Wong has raised a good argument for intepreting מצח this way, but the issue may be irresolvable.

One point is also worth noting: If there is a thematic design to the narrative along the lines Wong contends, then this is a good example where a narrator’s careful design coincides with later additions from a different author (as evident in the comparison between LXX and MT 1 Sam 17). Too often people argue for the narrative unity of a passage as though that also deals with the issue of diachronic disunity. But if Wong’s thesis is correct, or if there is some other unified design to the chapter, the example shows that a demonstration of narrative unity does not necessarily negate the presence of disunity resulting from diachronic developments.

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