Of all his outstanding military successes, the most memorable victory of the Israelite King David was his one-to-one contest with Goliath, the Philistine ‘champion’ of Gath, in c.1012BC. The event is presented in popular folk history as the epitome of the defeat of the military ‘giant’ by the young and inexperienced ‘underdog’. In reality, the truth is rather different.
Contrary to popular belief, the Bible does not suggest that David was a ‘boy’. While both Saul and Goliath looked on David as young and inexperienced, he was probably a young man in his twenties when he defeated Goliath. Although the youngest of eight sons, he is not described as a child. Indeed, we are told that David was ‘a brave man and a warrior’, and a ‘fine-looking man’ who had killed a bear by seizing its fur and striking it dead. He had already served as Saul’s trusted armour-bearer when he challenged the Philistine ‘champion’ to a single-handed combat. Immediately after his successful confrontation with Goliath, Saul gave David a high rank in the Israelite army, commanding a thousand men.
David’s chosen weapon – a sling – is often likened to a child’s toy catapult. But the sling shot was a very accurate and effective piece of military equipment in David’s day, and David was evidently well trained in its use (even if Goliath sneered that, without the heavy armour that kings wore, his adversary appeared to be ‘little more than a boy’). In reality, David was able to strike a deadly blow before coming within range of Saul’s spear and javelin. In later times, all front rank auxiliary soldiers of the Roman army were armed with slingshots. They launched the first wave of missiles well before the next rank of soldiers was close enough to throw their spears and javelins at the enemy.
After David’s defeat of Goliath struck terror into the Philistines, the Israelites pursued their foe all the way to Gath, where the demoralised enemy regrouped behind the safety of their city walls. Having fallen out of favour, David spent sixteen months fighting as a mercenary soldier under the pay of King Achish of Gath immediately before his former employer, King Saul, was killed by the Philistines at the Battle of Gilboa. The Philistines were eventually defeated by David’s army eight years later at Baal Perazim, and David conquered Gath shortly afterwards. Later, David counted ‘Gittites’ (men from Gath) among his friends and employed six hundred Gittites as merceneries in his army.
After the death of King Solomon, Solomon’s son Rehoboam renewed the fortifications at Gath, but it was captured by King Hazael of Damascus in 811 BC. The walls of Gath were demolished by King Uzziah of Judah in c.760BC, and it was conquered by King Sargon of Assyria shortly afterwards.
Excavations since 1996 at Tell es-Safi, in the Elah Valley half way between Jerusalem and Ashkelon, have revealed remains of the ancient city of Gath. Gath (meaning a ‘winepress’) was situated on a well-defended white chalk cliff overlooking a fertile valley where many vines grew, and remains of a winepress cut into the rock can be seen nearby. Evidence of the repeated destruction and re-building of Gath’s fortifications during the Late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age confirms the sequence of events recorded in the Bible narrative.
Measurements: Height 5.1cm with a weight of 145 gr