Today, in 1 Samuel 17, we arrive at the famed account of David vs. Goliath. Everyone knows the story. Everyone loves the story. But not everyone knows there is more to this story than meets the eye.
If you ask 100 children in Sunday School, “Who killed Goliath?” you will probably get as many loud screams, “David!” But careful Bible readers know there is another apparent answer buried in Samuel. Consider two passages, side-by-side.
I Sam 17:50 records that “David prevailed over…Goliath and killed him…”
II Sam 21:19 says that “Elhanan…killed Goliath the Gittite.”
Uh oh. What do we do with this “contradiction?” Do we ignore it? Do we chuck our Bibles in frustration? Do we give up the faith? We all know that Goliath is dead, but Bible-believing Baptists want to know whodunit.
Critics love to point out problem passages like this. Good scholars welcome the challenge. This is why we need seminaries, theologians, pastors, and authors. We need men and women who study Scripture carefully and who can help us read it and defend it with confidence.
Before I unravel the David vs. Elhanan mystery, let me explain why we have many of these issues in the first place.
The Bible: A Real Book
The Bible is both an amazing book and an old one. It was originally written down by the authors under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. (We call these first texts the autographs.) These were then painstakingly transcribed by hand. (We call these copies the manuscripts.) The work of passing on and preserving God’s word required hundreds of scribes and took place over thousands of years.
When you get that many quills and scrolls involved, not to mention humans, there are bound to be some hiccups in the copying process. To be clear, the Bible cannot contradict itself, but copyists can. The good news is this: God has given us so many copies, we know what and where these issues are. In His providence, we can faithfully represent the original autographs with unparalleled accuracy even in our English versions. In short, the Bible we hold in our hands is the word of God!
We don’t always know why a scribe copied incorrectly. Maybe he lost his place, maybe his quill dripped, or maybe his kids were screaming while he was working. For whatever reason, we do find variations in letters or words. (These are called textual variants.) Some are flipped. Some are dropped. Some are added. But most are obvious. Scholar Daniel B. Wallace explains:
What if someone copied the Preamble to the US Constitution and wrote Onion” instead of “Union”? Accidentally closing the top of a “U” to make an “O” would be easy to do. The result would be “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Onion….” Is that a meaningful sentence? Yes, it is grammatically correct and can be understood. But it is easy to see how that came to be and why it’s not the best reading.
This kind of thing did happen when manuscripts were copied. While there are quite a few of these textual variants, spelling errors make up more than 70%.
Let me say it again: we know about these issues, not because we have so few manuscripts but because we have so many. As my seminary professor used to say, we have 103% of the Bible. When scholars do the hard work of translating a new English version, they must decide which manuscripts they will rely on. This is why many Bibles include helpful footnotes that explain, “Some manuscripts read…” The translators are pointing out one of these textual variants.
When it comes to manuscript hiccups, keep three facts in mind: 1) These are not new. 2) There are reasonable explanations. 3) They do not impact essential doctrine.
So, Who Killed Goliath?
Unless David and Elhanan are two names for the same guy (unlikely) or there are two giants named Goliath (also unlikely), how do we reconcile these passages?
Whenever we find two passages at odds, we should look for a third. It’s best to interpret Scripture with Scripture. We don’t always have that, but this time, we do. Many of the stories of Samuel-Kings are also found in the pages of Chronicles. In general, Samuel-Kings are one account of David, Chronicles another.
Why did God give us two records of David’s kingship? As Deuteronomy 17:6 states, an Old Testament fact was confirmed: “on the basis of two or three witnesses.” The story of a lion-killing shepherd-boy from a Podunk town called Bethlehem who became king of Israel sounds like a legend. But we have two Old Testament books to confirm it. The two accounts, while not identical, do corroborate one another. (While I’m on the topic, what does this say about Jesus? Instead of two accounts or three, we have four gospels! Jesus’s life and miracles are quadruply confirmed through Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Praise God!)
When we look at Chronicles, then, we find the answer to this small Goliath mystery. I Chronicles 20:5 states, “Elhanan the son of Jair killed Lahmi the brother of Goliath.” To his credit, Elhanan did kill a giant – just a less famous one.
Most likely, when II Samuel 21 was copied, a scribe left off the phrase, “Lahmi the brother of.” The correct reading has been preserved for us in I Chronicles.
With the screams of 100 children, we can confidently say that David killed Goliath! Not only that, but we can also say, as our doctrinal statement does,
“The Bible is a perfect treasure of divine instruction. It has God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter. Therefore, all Scripture is totally true and trustworthy.”