Who killed Goliath? The answer to this question is not difficult. It is not difficult because the answer is right there in the Bible. The answer is found in 2 Samuel 21:19:
“Then there was another battle with the Philistines at Gob; and Elhanan son of Jaare-oregim, the Bethlehemite, killed Goliath the Gittite, the shaft of whose spear was like a weaver’s beam” (2 Samuel 21:19 NRSV).
There you have it! Elhanan killed Goliath. The Bible says so and that settles it.
But the answer to the question “who killed Goliath” is not as easy as it seems. Several years ago, a group of international Old Testament scholars met in Paris at a two-day conference to discuss this issue. The topic of the conference was “Who Killed Goliath.” Scholar after scholar presented papers on different aspects of this issue. After two days of discussion, those scholars concluded that it was impossible to decide who killed Goliath.
The reason for this lack of a definite answer is because there is another passage that says that someone else killed Goliath. That passage is found in 1 Samuel 17:49-50:
“David put his hand in his bag, took out a stone, slung it, and struck the Philistine on his forehead; the stone sank into his forehead, and he fell face down on the ground. So David prevailed over the Philistine with a sling and a stone, striking down the Philistine and killing him; there was no sword in David’s hand” (1 Samuel 17:49-50 NRSV).
So, according to the Bible, two people killed Goliath: Elhanan and David. But how can this be? The story of David killing Goliath is well known by most people, because it is the story of the weak overcoming the strong, the story of an underdog who gained a victory notwithstanding the seemingly unsurmountable odds of success.
Most people who read the Bible are familiar with the story of David and Goliath, however, most of them have never noticed the glaring inconsistency present in the Biblical text. The reason for the unfamiliarity with this Biblical inconsistency is that most people read the Bible superficially. In addition, most readers of the Bible have a preconceived idea of what the story says, since it is common knowledge that David killed Goliath.
Who was Elhanan? The answer to this question is complicated because there are two Elhanans mentioned in the Bible. The first person who bears this name is Elhanan, the son of Jaare-oregim, a man from Bethlehem. This Elhanan was the one who according to 2 Samuel 21:19 killed Goliath. Many scholars believe that the name Jaare-oregim is corrupt and that it should be read Jair and that the word ’oregîm describes his trade, “weaver.”
The other Elhanan was the son of Dodo, a man from Bethlehem, a man listed among David’s thirty warriors (2 Samuel 23:24; 1 Chronicles 11:26). Some scholars have identified the two Elhanans as the same individual and that Elhanan served among the “Thirty,” a group of elite warriors who served in David’s army as high-ranking officials. They were known for their acts of heroism in battle.
There are four different ways of interpreting the contradictory information of who killed Goliath. These four theories are attempts at explaining the differences between 1 and 2 Samuel and the evidence concerning the death of Goliath.
The first explanation is that one of David’s warriors, Elhanan, killed Goliath and that David received the credit for what one of his warriors had done. This is a possibility because generally, the commander of an army receives the credit for the victory soldiers achieve on the battlefield. This can be seen in the case of Dwight Eisenhower who, as the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, received the credit for the Allied victory on the coast of Normandy.
The same thing happened in the Bible. For instance, 1 Chronicles 18:12 says that “Abishai son of Zeruiah killed eighteen thousand Edomites in the Valley of Salt.” 2 Samuel 23:18 says that Abishai, the son of Zeruiah, “was chief of the Thirty.”
This means that as the commander of David’s warriors, Abishai led the army against the Edomites and conquered them. However, the Bible gives David the credit for defeating the Edomites. 2 Samuel 8:13 reads: “David won a name for himself. When he returned, he killed eighteen thousand Edomites in the Valley of Salt.” Thus, although it was Abishai who led the army and conquered the Edomites, it was David as king and the supreme commander of the army who received the credit for defeating the Edomites.
Although the explanation that it was Elhanan who killed Goliath and that it was David who received the credit is possible, there are two problems with this theory. The first problem is that the dates of the two events are separated by many years. According to 1 Samuel 17:49-50, David killed Goliath in his youth, many years before he became the king of a united monarchy. According to 2 Samuel 21:19, Elhanan killed Goliath several years after David became the king of Judah and Israel.
The second problem with this view is that David’s fame as a warrior in Israel rested on his fighting against the Philistines. Thus, the killing of Goliath increased David’s fame in Israel and became one of the key factors for his selection as king of Judah and Israel (2 Samuel 5:1-2).
The second explanation for the discrepancy of who killed Goliath, David or Elhanan, is based on the theory that David and Elhanan were the same person. This view was advanced by John Bright in his book A History of Israel, 3rd Edition (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1981), 191-92.
John Bright based his view on the fact that many kings in Judah had two names: their given name and their throne name. One example of kings having a throne name is the case of Jehoahaz, the son of Josiah, who became the new king of Judah after the death of his father (2 Kings 23:30). Jehoahaz was his throne name; Shallum was his given name (1 Chronicles 3:15; Jeremiah 22:11). Another example was Eliakim. When he became king of Judah he assumed the name of Jehoiakim (2 Kings 23:34).
On the basis of kings having two names, John Bright (p. 192) wrote: “It is not impossible that Elhanan . . . and David were the same person, the latter name being perhaps an appellation or a throne name.”
Although this explanation is attractive, there are two problems with this view. The first problem, as mentioned above, is that the date for the two events are separated by many years. The second problem is that 1 Samuel 21:19 seems to indicate that Elhanan was a warrior in David’s army. If this is true, then Elhanan and David were two different individuals.
In my next post I will discuss explanations three and four and present my conclusion on who killed Goliath.
NOTE: For other studies on David and Goliath, read my post Studies on David and Goliath.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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