Why Did David Pick Up 5 Stones?
Ask almost any Christian: “How did young David defeat Goliath, the giant warrior?” Probably about 99 times out of 100 you’ll get an answer something like: “Because David had great faith in God.” Those who answer like this assume, like the Philistines, that David did not have the power or skill to win a battle with Goliath straight up, but that he needed divine intervention to claim victory.
A Giant Question
This simple interpretation would have us believe that David was just a small, weak shepherd boy who never stood a chance against the giant but for God’s lethal intervention. We are supposed to believe that David was an “underdog” who had no business challenging Goliath. Some would even have us further believe that God’s lethal intervention came as an inevitable result of David’s strong faith that God would intervene. David believed so strongly (whatever that means) that God would, so God did. The strength of David’s faith supposedly crossed some special spiritual line, which then triggered God’s brutal response.
And yet David picked up 5 stones (1 Samuel 17:40).
If his faith was so great, why pick up more than 1?
The Four Brothers Hypothesis
One answer I’ve heard repeatedly, one that continues to delight me, is that David picked up 5 stones because Goliath had 4 brothers. So David not only trusted that God would slay Goliath, but he also came prepared for God to slay 4 more giants as well. The cocksure faith this hypothesis assumes David had amuses me. And the mathematical specificity of David’s great faith tingles my thinking chambers. How deliciously perfect: 5 stones to slay 5 giants. How superb to wield a faith so acute that one could even plan for God’s meticulous intervention with such tight specificity.
But is this why David picked up 5 stones?
I don’t think so. None of the texts actually specify that Goliath had 4 brothers. He certainly had one (I Chronicles 20:5), and he had some sons (2 Samuel 21:22). The idea that David had four brothers gets projected into the story. Plus, even if he really did have 4 brothers, or even 4 relatives, the text doesn’t indicate that they were present at the battle.
This doesn’t mean they weren’t there. I mean, maybe they really did exist and really were right there, close by, watching the fight. But we have no textual evidence of this. Plus, knowing what I know about shame/honor cultures, attacking David for winning the battle would be considered deeply dishonorable and would go against the whole point of having this type of representative battle in the first place. Which is not to say Goliath’s relatives wouldn’t do it—people do actually do deplorable things like this—but the more I learn about these types of cultures the more untenable this hypothesis becomes.
Folks get so transfixed by the four brothers hypothesis, thought, that these facts seem to leave them undeterred. Few interpretive ideas have prompted more passionate defenders than this idea that David picked up 5 stones to slay 5 potential enemies. But if you can push past the cognitive tickle of this beautiful hypothesis, I think you’ll see its deeper flaws. Here are two:
First, why pick up any stones at all if “faith slays the giant”? Peter didn’t need to pick up stones, a sling, a sword, a hand grenade, a machine gun, or anything when he confronted Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:4-10), they just simply fell down and died. If this story is really about David’s faith, are we to conclude that his faith was not as strong as Peter’s? Are we to assume there’s some kind of spectrum for measuring one’s faith and that warriors ought to arm themselves according to where they land on this scale? Like, maybe, if David came with greater faith than what he had he could have simply brought a squirt gun into battle instead of a sling? This whole quantitative faith enterprise should strike us as silly, of course, thereby prompting us to consider a different explanation.
Second, would the God revealed in Jesus-Christ-crucified kill David’s enemy for David? Would the God revealed in Christ dying on the cross for his enemies also, then, kill someone’s enemy because they had faith that God would? More bluntly, would God kill? Of course, I believe David and the Israelites thought that God would, back when Israel still lived in darkness (Matthew 4:16) and saw only shadows of what God was like (Hebrews 10:1, Colossians 2:17), but now that God’s full radiance itself has come into the world in Jesus (Hebrews 1:1-3), I think we see that the God who dies for his enemies (Romans 5:8) would not have killed Goliath for David, or even for Israel. The God who rejects the lex talionis of the Old Testament (“eye for eye, and tooth for tooth,” see Matthew 5:38, Exodus 21:24) in favor of pacifism (Matthew 5:39-48) could not, with integrity, kill an enemy no matter how great David’s faith was. Either killing can be holy or it cannot. Jesus seems to suggest killing cannot be holy, and therefore not worthy of the Lord.
What About David’s Speech to the Crowd?
Just when I come marching onto the stage shouting, “God did not kill Goliath,” here comes David, about to throw the giant down, shouting to the crowd: “it is not by sword or spear that the Lord saves; for the battle is the Lord’s, and he will give all of you into our hands” (1 Samuel 17:47).
I admit, given this speech, it seems the Lord defeats Goliath.
But this pre-battle speech needs to be read not as David’s theology, but as a tactical speech, totally strategic and political. David says it is not by weapons that God saves, but yet he uses a weapon to bring the giant down. So, as theology, this battle cry reeks of incoherence. But as a battle strategy the speech is brilliant. It’s grandstanding with a purpose. David is confident that he, himself, is going to beat the giant. Yet he also knows how the battle looks to the ignorant masses. So he gives a speech that plays on their ignorance, which will ultimately serve Israel well upon his victory. He says, basically, “if little ol’ me can defeat this giant you will know there must be a powerful, invisible God on our side, and you will have no chance against us.” Plus, if the Israelite God can empower a young and small Israelite to conquer a giant, what might that God do through one of the bigger Israelite warriors? Sure enough, David wins and the Philistines immediately turn and run like scared little children.
If Not Faith, How Did David Actually Beat the Giant?
David tells us himself why he believes he can beat Goliath. When the king (Saul) and everyone else doubted David, David assures them, saying:
“Your servant has been keeping his father’s sheep. When a lion or a bear came and carried off a sheep from the flock, I went after it, struck it and rescued the sheep from its mouth. When it turned on me, I seized it by its hair, struck it and killed it. Your servant has killed both the lion and the bear; this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them, because he has defied the armies of the living God.” 1 Samuel 17:34–36
Notice how David points to his extensive experience conquering beasts that were far bigger and more ferocious than Goliath. He even highlights some specific techniques that he favors. So when David entered the battle ring, he knew what he was doing. He understood the challenge and he understood his abilities. He was confident. It was not his faith but his skills and his expertise that would allow him to take the giant down.
In fact, fighters in that time period used this sling system regularly, suggesting its effectiveness in the hands of a trained marksman. According to Andrews and Bergen, “Excavations in Israel have revealed hundreds of sling stones… typically the size of tennis balls and weigh about a pound each. An accomplished warrior could sling a stone this size at a rate of 100 to 150 miles an hour, making it a very lethal weapon (I & II Samuel, Holman Old Testament Commentary, p.127).
The story implies that David was in fact such a skilled marksman. He was a Benjemite, who were known for their talented slinging abilities (Judges 20:16). Furthermore, Phil Farver notes, “picking smooth stones showed wisdom on David’s part (I Samuel 17:40). He demonstrated that he knew the weapons he chose, how to use them and what they could accomplish. The smoothness showed that the stones had gone through a refining process by being tumbled around, tossed to and fro, in the stream and polished, ready to be used. The smoothness also guaranteed a faster, straighter flight from sling to target, generating more force against that intended target (Farver, Five Smooth Stones: Proven Steps for Positive Success, 27-28).
Who was the real underdog?
This fact, that he picked up 5 stones, is a “tell” in the story. It shows us that the “David’s Faith Hypothesis” should be discarded along with the “4 Brothers Hypothesis.” Don’t get me wrong, there is much to like about the the “Faith” interpretation—I held it myself for many years. And David’s faith did play a key role in the story, which I will discuss below. But I now think the story tells us something completely different, and more enlightening: God did not intervene. David was able to defeat Goliath because David had the right training, experience, and knowledge. It was David’s skills and abilities, which he learned on his own, that gave him the unexpected advantage over his enemy.
In other words, David was the favorite all along.
Goliath never stood a chance.
Is the David & Goliath Story Really About Faith?
Traditionally the story is told that David defeated Goliath because of his great faith, and that everyone else in the story did not have a faith strong enough to do so. But I would argue that the story is more about David’s faithfulness than his faith. It seems to me that David challenged Goliath because of his faithfulness, then ultimately defeated him because of his skill. That is, it was David’s faithfulness that prompted him to fight Goliath to begin with, but it was his skill that brought him victory.
This becomes clear when we see the self-centered ways all the other characters in the story interpret the situation:
Saul: “What does this say about me as king that Goliath so thoroughly terrorizes my people?”
(1 Samuel 17:11, 25)
Eliab: “What does it say about me that my little brother David appears willing to fight the giant?”
(1 Samuel 17:28)
Goliath: “What does it say about me as a warrior that they send a young boy out to fight?”
(1 Samuel 17:43 — “Am I a dog that you come at me with sticks?”)
— but notice how different David’s interpretation is —
David: “What does it say about Yahweh that Goliath thinks he can threaten Yahweh’s people?”
(1 Samuel 17:26 — “Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?”)
Faith is trust that God will remain loyal to his promises and to his commitment to his people. Faithfulness is our loyalty and commitment to God. David had great faith in God, sure. But this story is more about David’s great faithfulness to God, which prompted him to confront the giant. The other characters in the story showed no faithfulness to God at all, but were instead preoccupied with themselves.
The David story, rather than being a story of what God does for those with faith, shows us what faithfulness looks like, and what the faithful can do with wisdom and skill. It models for us the significance of developing skills and mastering one’s abilities, of building real competence and confidence. Don’t stand around waiting for God to act, or for God to win your battles for you: don’t stand around watching for what God might do: rather, show God what you can do. Gain wisdom, gather knowledge, develop skills, give the Lord something to use as he rumbles through the earth unfolding his glorious will.
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For more reflections on this, consider Chandler Vinson’s article HERE.