Malcolm Gladwell’s TED Talk on David and Goliath

gladwell-ted

Malcolm Gladwell delivered a TED Talk in 2013 on the subject of the biblical narrative of David versus Goliath (1 Samuel 17): “The unheard story of David and Goliath”. This is also the subject of a chapter in his 2013 book, Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants.

After providing a vivid description of the David and Goliath story, Malcolm Gladwell states:

“Everything I thought I knew about that story turned out to be wrong.”

What in particular does Gladwell claim to discover about the David and Goliath story?

1. David wasn’t the underdog. Given the accuracy and power of the slingshot, David’s weaponry was far superior to the heavily armed and armoured Goliath. As Gladwell says, Goliath – weighed down by his armour – was a “sitting duck”.

2. Goliath had a disability. Gladwell takes note of (a) Goliath’s need for an attendant to guide him out to the battleground; (b) Goliath’s slowness; (c) Goliath’s comment that David came to him with sticks, plural (when David only held the one ‘stick’, his slingshot); and (d) his gigantic stature. Gladwell argues that all are these factors are explained if Goliath had acromegaly, a type of giantism that is caused by a tumor on the pituitary gland, and which sometimes impairs vision.

Now Gladwell is plausibly right about the first point. A skilled wielder of the slingshot would, contrary to appearances, have had the advantage over an armoured man carrying sword and javelin.

But acromegaly? Gladwell does mention that this has been a ‘speculation’ by various writers. But how much of a speculation? In fact, the factors he lists do not provide a very good case at all. It was quite normal for a heroic warrior to have an attendant – as shield-bearer. Further, the story’s description of Goliath’s slowness is part of an extended contrast in the narrative between David and Goliath, involving David’s lack of armour, youth, and faith versus the giant’s heavy armour, experience, and impiety. The story makes a similar contrast when it describes David’s “sticks” in contradistinction to Goliath’s more conventional metal weapons.

Lastly, the diagnosis of acromegaly is little more than wild guessing.

1. At 6 3/4-feet tall, Goliath was only about 1 1/2 feet taller than your average Philistine man of the time. While Goliath would certainly have been one of the tallest Philistines, it is not at all clear that his stature would have involved any medical abnormality;

2. The details of the story are historically dubious. For example, in 2 Samuel 21, it is “Elhanan” who kills Goliath of Gath, not David. The story may not originally have even been about David. So when modern analysts attempt to draw inferences from the story as though it were realistic history, they do so on very shaky grounds;

3. The story in 1 Samuel 17 emphasizes theological reasons for David’s victory (David has faith in his god Yahweh, while Goliath mocks this god). To treat such a story as good data for a modern medical diagnosis is, therefore, very misguided.

So while the narrative in 1 Samuel 17 might suggest that David was a cunning chap when he brought a slingshot into a one-on-one fight, there are no good grounds to conclude that the narrative presents Goliath as anything but a mighty foe.

See also: Diagnosing Goliath: Gigantism, Acromegaly, Pituitary Tumours, etc

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