The Human Faces of God: slaying a tall tale with a slingshot

Review: The Human Faces of God: What Scripture Reveals When It Gets God Wrong (and Why Inerrancy Tries to Hide It)
Author: Thom Stark
Wipf and Stock, 2010
Chapter 7: “The Shepherd and the Giant”

Chapter 7 features a critical analysis of the story of David and Goliath. Stark makes note of several features of the story seldom called to our attention by our Sunday School teachers. He begins by showing why scholars believe that the story in 1 Samuel 17 was inserted much later (probably post-exile) than the rest of the book was written (probably pre-exile).

For one thing, 1 Samuel 17 shows a completely different “origin story” for David’s introduction to Saul’s court. In the previous chapter (ch. 16), Saul specifically asks Jesse to send David into his service and is so impacted by David’s skills with the lyre that he notifies Jesse he is making David one of his retainers; yet in the very next chapter, Saul is pictured trying to figure out where this young fellow from the fields came from, asking his name and inquiring about his father’s name and residence. There are apologetic attempts at reconciling these, of course, but the very fact that such attempts have to be made reveals the enterprise to be a clean-up operation.

There are more compelling reasons to view 1 Samuel 17 as a later interpolation. One of those reasons that Stark discusses at some length is particularly interesting: did you ever notice 2 Samuel 21.19?

…and Elhanan son of Jaare-oregim, the Bethlehemite, killed Goliath the Gittite, the shaft of whose spear was like a weaver’s beam.

Let it be noted that we don’t just have a Philistine hero named Goliath in both passages, nor just a Philistine hero named Goliath who was of prodigious size, nor even just a Philistine hero of prodigious size named Goliath who was from Gath (which is what “Gittite” means), but a Philistine hero of prodigious size named Goliath who was from Gath and who was slain by a Bethlehemite. The only difference, apart from the time frame (2 Samuel dates from the end of David’s reign) is who that Bethlehemite was: David or Elhanan. This doublet appears to be a clincher for what is already good evidence that 1 Samuel 17 was inserted, not seamlessly, as a “royal apologia” for David, whose prowess as a warrior was already thought to have been evident at an early age, long after the rest of Samuel was written (1 and 2 Samuel were originally one book). At this point, a savvy apologist will invite us to contrast 2 Samuel 21.19 cited above with 1 Chronicles 20.5:

…and Elhanan son of Jair killed Lahmi the brother of Goliath the Gittite, the shaft of whose spear was like a weaver’s beam.

Interestingly, here it is in inerrancy apologists’ best interest to point out a contradiction between the two passages, because they can say that the error lies in a copyist’s mistake of 2 Samuel (it is not for naught that they uphold inerrancy “in the original manuscripts”). Stark carefully explains the textual relationship between these two passages that in Hebrew are almost verbatim but for a couple very small differences. He shows why, rather than a textual corruption in 2 Samuel 21.19, a better explanation is that the post-exilic Chronicler’s thoroughgoing practice of ameliorating David’s character and reputation motivated his co-opting and conscious edit of 2 Samuel’s account. Painstakingly, Stark details the Chronicler’s ingenious solution: simply change a letter here, add a letter there, and “of Bethlehem” becomes “[direct object marker] Lahmi”. Voilà! Elhanan is now said to have slain the brother of Goliath the Gittite, named “Lahmi”. The Chronicler has handily reconciled his history of David’s reign with the folk tale of the defeat of Goliath that had probably already been attributed to a Bethlehemite more famous than Elhanan, a story so popular that it got grafted into 1 Samuel, lack of continuity with the previous chapter notwithstanding. Unfortunately, the Chronicler’s convenient solution stands out like a sore thumb: 1) lahmi ‘my bread’ is nowhere else used as a personal name and 2) it is a Semitic and not a Philistine word.

For Stark, attributing the legendary defeat of the large Philistine champion to David, as done in the full-fledged story wedged between 1 Samuel 16 and 18 and in 1 Chronicles 20’s “correction” of the contradictory blurb from 2 Samuel, is a clear example of post-exilic “propaganda”. Telling the story of young George Washington and the cherry tree, another tale of dubious historicity, can be a harmless illustration of, say, Washington’s character as it was perceived by those who knew him; we get propaganda when an inaccurate story is made an official story by people in power who stand the chance of benefiting by it politically. Stark believes that the Chronicler wished to help perpetuate a belief in a mythically ideal Davidic kingdom for some political or religious purpose. More for the sake of other readers than for me (I have my own guesses), I wish Stark had gone further into describing how the Chronicler expected his exaltation of David to yield more prestige or influence. Despite subtitling the chapter “Government Propaganda”, even Stark admits at the end that the “government conspiracy” implied in the term propaganda may be reading too much intrigue into what might have amounted to mundane hero worship. Stark’s characteristic honesty in presenting his case is commendable, but confusing here in a chapter otherwise pervaded by the supposition that it was a piece of propaganda.  Which leads me to my final criticism of the chapter.

Stark explained in the preface that most of this book was comprised of revised and edited versions of posts that originally appeared on his blog. I could be wrong, but this chapter stands out to me as the most obvious example of a one-off post that was incorporated into the book, since it doesn’t seem to have been as well integrated as some of the other chapters (how’s that for some source criticism?). This isn’t to say that this chapter didn’t belong in the book: rather, I find that the book’s central contention, that the Bible is an argument with itself, would have been better served were his criticism of the David and Goliath story employed more consciously as an example of that theme rather than, as it seemed to me, primarily put to work as evidence that the story as we know it is simply a retrofitted political puff piece on King David. That is, Stark makes it clear from the subtitle and introduction of the chapter that he intends to discuss David and Goliath in order to indict the story as political propaganda, using the various fascinating conflicts between the Samuels and 1 Chronicles merely as evidence of the main story’s historical illegitimacy. At any rate, I can’t imagine but that it will seem this way to his target audience, who already fear that biblical criticism is just an excuse to rip things out of the Bible. I tend to think that if Stark had been slightly more aware of that concern, he would have revised the original post a bit to more clearly recapitulate the “Bible as internal argument” theme, more self-consciously bringing home the point I believe he most wanted his readers to take away: that very human tendencies such as hero veneration and government propaganda have helped give rise to The Argument between biblical sources that we see when we discard inerrancy as a presupposition.

Nevertheless, this chapter is both entertaining and persuasive of the nuts and bolts of the critical view of David/Goliath/Elhanan held by most biblical scholarship today.

Tagged with:
Recent Posts:
  • So how do you go about teaching this to the kids. As you know, the instigator to my recurring doubt is having to discuss the Bible with my kids (which I haven’t done in about a year, actually, and try to not look at what my daughter brings home from Sunday School for fear it will put an end to my church attendance.

    • LAC, I’m not sure I’ll change much about how the story is presented to my kids. Its historicity is, to my mind, completely irrelevant as long as we don’t bother teaching it as history. My children love the Greek myths we read to them, the majority of which are moralistic, and they know that those stories aren’t historical. I can’t think of many character morals that Sunday School teachers draw from this story that don’t hold. Similarly, I don’t hesitate to tell my kids the probably apocryphal story of George Washington and the cherry tree, only not as history, nor as a personal claim about George Washington’s character, but because it illustrates his reputation among his peers.

      That said, more troubling to me are stories like Noah’s Flood, which while not incapable of presenting positive values, presents many more values that I reject. I don’t intentionally mention either historicity or lack thereof when discussing these stories, but when they ask (as only my son has so far), “Did that really happen?” I have taken to starting off with “It’s hard to say…” and then explaining that this is what early believers in God believed happened, and that it was a story they passed down because it demonstrated values X and Y that we can agree about. When they’re a bit older, I’ll be able to point out value Z that Christianity has since modified or rejected in some way; nowadays, and in large part because of Stark’s book, I actually look forward to those conversations — a 180° turn for me, let me tell you. 🙂

  • phil_style

    I can’t help suspect that these folks who were trying to paint David in a good light (by editing the text) could have done the job better by whitewashing some of the quite embarrassing stories about David that remain…

    • Well, consider the fact that it wouldn’t have worked very well for the David/Goliath story to have been inserted into Chronicles: it styles itself as an official account of the reigns of the kings of Judah, beginning with David. The Book of Samuel presents an amazingly balanced account of David, including both his triumphs and his scandals. It makes the most sense for post-exile Jews to insert a traditional story into a well-established, pre-exile text than to try to remove whole swaths of material and hope no one noticed.

      • phil_style

        yes, my brain was jumping there anyways, and it does seem the simpler explanation.

  • Paul D.

    Another curious item in the whole David story is the part where 1 Samuel mentions that there were only two swords in all of Israel because the Philistines would not permit them to have blacksmiths. This strongly suggests that Israel, rather than being an independent monarchy, was a vassal of Philistia, and that the story evolved or was altered to omit that fact and portray early monarchic Israel as an independent, united kingdom.

    (It’s also worth noting that archaeologists still haven’t found evidence for David’s great kingdom as portrayed in the Bible.)