The biblical story of David and Goliath is probably the most well-known underdog story in the world.
Goliath is a 6-foot-9 giant warrior who battles a much-smaller shepherd boy, David. David shoots him with a stone and a sling right between the eyes, Goliath topples over, and David kills him.
But for centuries, we may have been telling the story wrong. At the very least, we’ve been leaving out some critical facts that paint a more sympathetic picture of Goliath.
In Malcolm Gladwell’s book, “David & Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants,” Gladwell proposes that Goliath may have actually been the underdog, not David.
David and Goliath is “a metaphor for improbable victories,” Gladwell explained during a Ted Talk in September. “Why do we call David an underdog? Well, we call him an underdog because he’s a kid, a little kid, and Goliath is this big, strong giant.
“We also call him an underdog because Goliath is an experienced warrior, and David is just a shepherd. But most importantly, we call him an underdog because Goliath is outfitted with all of this modern weaponry, this glittering coat of armour and a sword and a javelin and a spear, and all David has is this sling.”
The first mistake history has made when retelling the tale of David and Goliath is to assume that David was a helpless boy who only had a wimpy slingshot to protect himself, Gladwell said.
That’s because there were three types of warriors in ancient times: people who fought with slings and archery (David), foot soldiers who were good at up-close combat with swords (Goliath), and people on horseback.
Goliath was a foot soldier; David was a slinger. When put this way, and you note that Goliath and David were fighting from somewhat of a distance, it makes David’s weapon choice seem smart. He’s good at attacking with accuracy from afar.
It also makes you understand why Goliath was in trouble the moment David whipped out his sling. If David never got close to him, how could he attack and defeat him?
“Goliath is a sitting duck. He doesn’t have a chance,” Gladwell concludes.
From Gladwell’s talk:
[Goliath’s] expectation when he challenges the Israelites to a duel is that he’s going to be fighting another heavy infantryman. When he says, “Come to me that I might feed your flesh to the birds of the heavens and the beasts of the field,” the key phrase is “Come to me.” Come up to me because we’re going to fight, hand to hand, like this. Saul has the same expectation. David says, “I want to fight Goliath,” and Saul tries to give him his armour, because Saul is thinking, “Oh, when you say ‘fight Goliath,’ you mean ‘fight him in hand-to-hand combat,’ infantry on infantry.”
But David has absolutely no expectation. He’s not going to fight him that way. Why would he? He’s a shepherd. He’s spent his entire career using a sling to defend his flock against lions and wolves. That’s where his strength lies. So here he is, this shepherd, experienced in the use of a devastating weapon, up against this lumbering giant weighed down by a hundred pounds of armour and these incredibly heavy weapons that are useful only in short-range combat. Goliath is a sitting duck. He doesn’t have a chance.
Here’s the 15 minute Ted Talk about why Goliath is actually the underdog:
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