In the famous narrative, young David slays Goliath, the giant Philistine warrior, using a round pebble he collected from a brook.1 But a closer look at the story reveals some surprises. Here are a few:

Goliath’s Taunts and Curses

Goliath appeared every day, calling for a single Israelite to take him on. His huge size and fierce appearance struck terror in their hearts: “Saul and all Israel heard these words of the Philistine, and they were panic stricken and very much afraid.”2 This went on for 40 days, as no one had the courage to confront Goliath.

This begs an important question: Who said that Israelites had to agree to his “offer” of one-to-one combat? Both the Israelites and the Philistines had large armies facing each other on opposing mountains. Why did the Israelites not reject Goliath’s proposal and opt for battle on their own terms?

Goliath wasn’t satisfied with silently displaying his towering stature and imposing armor, he also repeatedly taunted and cursed the Israelites and David.3 It seems clear that those profanities were directed at the G‑d of Israel, as David himself acknowledged: “For he taunted the armies of the living G‑d.”4

Now, it is not uncommon for soldiers to hurl insults at their enemies, but here it seems to play an oversized role. And why turn a battle over land into a religious dispute?

Saul’s Prize

In desperation, King Saul offered a huge reward to anyone who would take down Goliath: his daughter’s hand in marriage, great wealth, and much more.5 Was no one motivated to fight for his king and country, to the extent that he had to offer a reward?

Even more staggering, even with that enormous prize, not a single person was willing to do so. Indeed, David was amazed when he was told about the offer,6 because he found it incredible that there were still no takers.

Goliath’s Fall

When David sprinted towards Goliath, the giant stayed put, sensing no danger at all. Surely Goliath had heard of a slingshot. Why was he not more cautious?

This problem led modern researchers to come up with all kinds of explanations, including that Goliath had a congenital eye problem, or that the sun was in his eyes. But surely, all that makes no sense: why would the Israelites fear someone half blind, and who would stand facing the enemy with the sun in his eyes?

Fleeing Philistines

After Goliath was struck down, the Philistines fled. This was a complete breach of the deal, namely that whichever side prevailed would be declared the victor: “If he is able to fight with me and kill me, we shall be slaves to you, but if I overcome him, and kill him, you shall be slaves to us and serve us.”7

No one would be shocked that the Philistines failed to keep their promise – we would expect no less – but why did they flee? They had a large and capable army behind Goliath; why didn’t they show up to fight?

To the Temple

The story ends with Goliath’s head and weapons being brought to Jerusalem.8 The Temple had not yet been built, and commentaries explain that it refers to Nob, then the site of the Tabernacle.9 Either way, it seems surprising to bring such gory items to the holiest place on earth. In fact, it was forbidden to even use metal objects to cut the stones during the construction of the altar, so as to separate the Temple from any symbol of violence.10

Battle of Ideas

We need to understand that the confrontation between the Philistines and the Israelites was primarily a battle for the supremacy of values.

The Philistines took the position that physical power reigned supreme. Their symbol was therefore Goliath – a giant hulk of a man, a warrior of monstrous proportions. The story11 describes in terrifying detail the enormous weapons that Goliath carried, emphasizing that for him it was all about the physical dimensions.

In contrast, the Israelites held spiritual strength in the highest regard. Little David and his puny stone in his humble sling perfectly represented the orientation that – in the words of the prophet Zachariah12 – “Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the L‑rd Almighty.” Which is why the story highlights that David was wearing no armor13 and carried no sword.14

The contrast could not have been greater.

Goliath’s constant taunting was therefore of central import. He was mocking, trying to delegitimize the Israelites’ ideals. The Philistines considered the Israelites’ worship of an invisible deity ridiculous. They were convinced that if they could incontrovertibly demonstrate that their way—of power and strength—was right, then the Israelites would be rendered powerless.

Of course, the Israelites could have rejected Goliath’s proposition and pursued a conventional battle, but the altercation was not primarily about the battlefield. It was overwhelmingly a challenge to the value system that the Israelites represented. The Philistines were not looking to kill as many people as possible; they just demanded capitulation to the ideas they championed.

Decline and Renewal

The combat between David and Goliath took place during the waning days of King Saul’s kingship, after he had already been discredited by the prophet Samuel. Saul had been notified that in the eyes of G‑d his reign was over, and that he was set to be replaced. Once an immense leader, who stood head and shoulder above everyone else,15 Saul was now a shrunken figure. As a result, the once-galvanized Israelites were unsure of themselves, hence the prolonged period of hesitation, and the ensuing panic in the face of Goliath’s taunts and threats.

No one was ready to stand up to Goliath, because Saul and his army were beginning to lose their conviction, and therefore their nerve. As such, Saul felt compelled to offer rewards to motivate someone to step up. But even the huge reward did not inspire a single person to volunteer, because something had gone wrong at the heart of the Israelite camp.

At the time of this story, however, David had already been chosen as Saul’s successor – even though it had not yet been made public. David, who retained the moral clarity of the Jewish People, stepped forward and declared: “This day, the L‑rd will deliver you into my hand … and all the earth shall know that Israel has a G‑d. And all this assembly shall know that not with sword and javelin does the L‑rd save, for the battle is the L‑rd's, and He will deliver you into our hand.”16

With his brave act, the Philistine idol was crushed, and with it everything it stood for. Goliath was shown to be a physical giant, but a spiritual lilliputian. He was so obsessed with his massive physique that he forgot to fear a small stone; so captivated by the fearsome size of his weapons that he overlooked the young lad about to slay him.

By losing Goliath, the Philistines had also lost the argument. They fled in disgrace, seeing all they stood for turned to rubble.

Having proven the supremacy of Judaic ideals of morality and spirituality, the trophies of that battle were brought to Jerusalem as a testament to all that the Holy Temple stood for. Goliath’s sword was more than just a relic of an important battle; it was a symbol of the bankruptcy of Philistine values.

Little David

The real story is between a physical giant and a spiritual giant. And as we know, it didn’t end well for the physical giant.

On several occasions, David is referred to as “the little one.” When the great prophet Samuel came to visit Yishai, David’s father, in search of a future king, Yishai didn’t even bother introducing him to David – the youngest of eight. Only upon inquiry did Yishai say, “there remains the little one,” referring to David.

In our story, too, when David comes to bring food for his older brothers who are fighting in Saul’s army, we are told “and David is the little one.” David’s small physical stature was the perfect contrast to Goliath’s physical largeness. Little David had a big heart, because in his mind were big ideas. Those ideas included that their world has a Creator, and that this Creator has a moral purpose for his creations.

When those ideas were pitted against the Philistines’ hedonism and materialism, the power of the spirit prevailed decisively. And, so, the world learned a vital lesson that changed the course of history. The Philistines can keep their giant and his oversized armor and diabolical weapons. We’ll follow the Almighty and His prophets, who taught the value of justice, charity, and faith.