TextWho Really Killed Goliath? Knowledge of scribal mistakes may provide a better solution to the historical puzzle of who killed Goliath in 2 Samuel 21:19. Kaspars OzoliņšMarch 8, 2022 ShareFacebookTwitterLinkedInPrint Level One of the more puzzling verses in the Old Testament is 2 Samuel 21:19. This verse is situated in the context of a brief epilogue to David’s reign, after his return from fleeing from his son Absalom (2 Sam 15–19). Here’s the verse in the ESV, “And there was again war with the Philistines at Gob, and Elhanan the son of Jaare-oregim, the Bethlehemite, struck down Goliath the Gittite, the shaft of whose spear was like a weaver’s beam.” On the face of it, this verse seems to flatly contradict the famous story of David killing Goliath recounted in 1 Samuel 17. Further Problems Things get even more confusing when we examine the parallel passage in 1 Chronicles 20:5 (much of Samuel-Kings is paralleled in the book of Chronicles): “And there was again war with the Philistines, and Elhanan the son of Jair struck down Lahmi the brother of Goliath the Gittite, the shaft of whose spear was like a weaver’s beam.” This verse, quite distinctly, claims that it was Goliath’s brother who was killed by Elhanan. English Bible footnotes sometimes hint that the text of 1 Chronicles may solve the problem. The ESV note at 2 Samuel 21:19 reads, “Contrast 1 Chronicles 20:5, which may preserve the original reading.” In this case, the full solution is probably more complex and involves scribes making mistakes in both verses. Unfortunately, the Dead Sea Scrolls don’t offer us much help, since there is a gap at exactly this verse in 1QSam. Likewise, the versions don’t seem to offer us any particularly helpful insights, since they broadly agree with each respective verse in the Hebrew Masoretic tradition. In the history of scholarship, the tendency has been for conservative scholars to claim that Chronicles has the original text here (as in the ESV note), with the understanding that Samuel’s text has somehow been corrupted over time. By contrast, non-confessional scholars view the verse in 2 Samuel as retaining the original wording, whereas Chronicles is seen as having been deliberately altered in order to “harmonize” the contradiction with the story of David in 1 Samuel 17. The basic idea is that the oldest tradition is assumed to have preserved the story of an otherwise unknown Elhanan who killed Goliath, while later traditions deliberately attributed this heroic deed to David to shore up the reputation of Israel’s greatest king. A Closer Look at the Text When we juxtapose the Hebrew words in the problematic portions of the two verses side-by-side, interesting features emerge. To appreciate this, we can set the English to follow the Hebrew word order of verb-subject-object (color coded as blue-yellow-red). 2 Sam. 21:19And (he) struckElhanan son ofJaare-oregimthe Beth-lehemite —Goliath the Gittite wayyakelḥānān benyaʿrê ͗ōrĕḡîmbêthallaḥmî ͗ētgolyat haggittî1 Chron. 20:5And (he) struckElhanan son ofJaur —Lahmibrother ofGoliath the Gittite wayyakelḥānān benyāʿûr ͗ētlaḥmî ͗ăḥîgolyat haggittîThe key differences between the two verses are marked in bold The two main problems that require attention are (1) the identity of the Israelite hero and (2) the identity of the Philistine giant. The Hero’s Name The first problem is the easier one to solve. Notice that the family (or patronymic) name of the hero, Elhanan, differs slightly in both verses. In 1 Chronicles 20:5 he is Jaur but in 2 Samuel 21:19 he is Jaare-oregim.1There is more to say about the Jaare/Jaur/Jair name but the textual history is too much to get into for this article. The word “oregim” ( ͗ōrĕḡîm) actually means “weavers” and it is found at the end of both verses as a description of the spear carried by the giant whom Elhanan slew: “…the shaft of whose spear was like a weaver’s ( ͗ōrĕḡîm) beam.” For this and other reasons, it is likely that Elhanan’s father (or ancestor) did not bear such a compound name and that this extra ͗ōrĕḡîm has crept into the text of 2 Samuel 21:19 from the end of the verse through a series of scribal mistakes. The Giant’s Name The real difficulty, as mentioned above, is the identity of the Philistine giant. Because of the way the Hebrew text is laid out, this problem partly intersects with the issue we just addressed: the identity of Elhanan. In Samuel, Elhanan is identified as a Bethlehemite, but not in Chronicles. Conversely, in Chronicles, the giant’s name is given as “Lahmi,” whereas in Samuel, this name is missing. Notice further that these two features occur in precisely the same position in the Hebrew text, and that both words look very similar: Chronicles has “Lahmi” laḥmî (presumably the giant’s name), while Samuel has “[Beth-]lehemite” [bêt] hallaḥmî. The longer form is what’s called a “gentilic,” a place name assigned to an individual (like “American” or “European”). In forms of this type of word, the second half normally bears the Hebrew definite article ha-. This leaves us with three possibilities: (1) “Lahmi”really was the name of the Philistine giant, and therefore “Bethlehemite”has later crept into the text of Samuel; (2) Elhanan really was a Bethlehemite, and therefore we have a scribal error at Chronicles (i.e., “Lahmi” wasn’t the name of the Philistine giant); or (3) both were true: Elhanan was a Bethlehemite, and “Lahmi” really was the name of the giant he slew. One way to decide between these three options is to consider whether we have any evidence elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible about the identity of the Israelite hero and/or the Philistine giant. It turns out that in another list of David’s mighty men in 2 Samuel 23 (and in its parallel in 1 Chronicles 11), the same Elhanan shows up, and the text there explicitly mentions that he comes from Bethlehem. This is therefore very likely the same Elhanan as our giant-slaying hero. (Nowhere else in the Hebrew Bible do we find the name Elhanan.) If Elhanan really was a Bethlehemite, then what should we make of the Philistine giant’s name “Lahmi”? Let’s recall a few things about this name: (1) it only occurs in the Chronicles parallel; (2) it occurs in precisely the same place that the word “[Beth-]lehemite” is found in the Samuel text; and (3) it looks very similar to it in Hebrew (הלחמי vs. לחמי), differing in only one letter. The two even sound similar (hallaḥmî vs. laḥmî). On balance, these three factors (and others) should make us seriously consider the possibility that the name “Lahmi” has accidentally entered the text of Chronicles as a scribal confusion of the second half of the name “Bethlehemite.” One Last Problem With all this, however, the apparent contradiction still remains in place. Elhanan the Bethlehemite slew Goliath. A couple of clarifications should be given at this point. Notice from the chart that the word ͗ēt (which has no equivalent in English) is a way that Biblical Hebrew marks the direct object (the word that receives the action of a verb: “John hit the ball”). In our texts, the word ͗ēt precedes the name of the individual Elhanan killed. Although it occurs in each verse, its placement differs. The ͗ēt of 2 Samuel 21:19 is paralleled by “brother of” ͗ăḥî in Chronicles. Visually, both words look very similar in Hebrew (את vs. אחי), even though they have very different meanings. Conversely, the direct object marker ( ͗ēt) of 1 Chronicles 20:5 is paralleled by the very similar-sounding word for “house of” (bêt), which occurs as the first half of the gentilic “Beth-[lehemite]” discussed earlier. Related The Bible and Slavery in Colonial AmericaMark A. NollHow Bible Software Solves Differences in Versification for YouRick BrannanA Case for the Longer Ending of MarkJames Snapp Jr. When you think about it, the same three factors mentioned above are at play here: (1) “brother of” ( ͗ăḥî) is found only in Chronicles, whereas we find the direct object marker ( ͗ēt) in Samuel; (2) both words occur in the same place in the text when we align the two verses; (3) both words strikingly resemble each other visually. This same kind of complementary distribution, where two similar-looking words occur at the same point in the text, should make us suspect that one of these words is a scribal alteration of the other. So, was the direct object marker ͗ēt deliberately changed to “brother of” ͗ăḥî in Chronicles by a scribe in order to avoid an embarrassing contradiction? Or, instead, was this simply an accidental visual oversight, in which a scribe misread “brother of” ͗ăḥî (אחי) as the direct object marker ͗ēt (את) in Samuel? We ought to favor the second explanation for at least two reasons: (1) visually similar words are most naturally explained as accidental (not deliberate) scribal errors; (2) scribes who copied Samuel apparently were not bothered by the resulting contradiction! Putting It All Together A translation of the text of 2 Samuel 21:19, highlighting the suggested changes, would read as follows: “And there was again war with the Philistines at Gob, and Elhanan the son of Yaur, the Bethlehemite, struck down the brother of Goliath the Gittite, the shaft of whose spear was like a weaver’s beam.” We can now put all the steps together, for both verses, and show the progression in the following table. 2 Samuel 21:191 Chronicles 20:5Original…and Elhanan the son of Jaur, the Bethlehemite, struck down the brother of Goliath the Gittite, the shaft of whose spear was like a weaver’s beamStep 1An extra oregim appears after “Yaur” in 2 Sam.…and Elhanan the son of Jaare-oregim, the Bethlehemite, struck down the brother of Goliath the Gittite, the shaft of whose spear was like a weaver’s (oregim) beamStep 2“brother of” is misread in 2 Sam. and “Bethlehemite” is misread in 1 Chron.…and Elhanan the son of Jaare-oregim, the Bethlehemite, struck down Goliath the Gittite, the shaft of whose spear was like a weaver’s beam…and Elhanan the son of Jaur, struck down Lahmi the brother of Goliath the Gittite, the shaft of whose spear was like a weaver’s beam Lessons Learned As can be seen, the textual issues involved are complex. Given the arguments outlined above, however, one plausible historical reconstruction is that Elhanan the Bethlehemite actually killed the brother of Goliath, whose name we aren’t given. That this giant was unnamed is not unusual, since the very next mini episode in 2 Samuel 21:20–21 mentions another giant (this time slain by Jonathan the son of Shimei), who is likewise left unnamed in the narrative. One should always pay attention to text-critical issues before resorting to other types of higher criticism. Finally, we can draw several important lessons from this solution. First, one should always pay attention to text-critical issues (what is sometimes called lower criticism) before resorting to other types of higher criticism (such as the claim that we are dealing here with two different, and contradictory, sources or traditions). Second, only in limited cases did scribes make deliberate changes when copying the text in front of them, so we should be cautious before making such claims unless there is very good evidence. As can be seen from this example, even minor differences in wording and spelling can sometimes make a big difference. The way we engage with and approach text-critical details in Holy Scripture is important and ought to be characterized by a degree of editorial constraint, in proportion to the evidence we actually possess. The reconstruction proposed here is an attempt to provide a possible solution to a significant issue. This article is a summary of the author’s much more detailed argument published in the journal Vetus Testamentum. Kaspars Ozoliņš Kaspars Ozoliņš (PhD, University of California, Los Angeles) is Assistant Professor of Old Testament Interpretation at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a former Research Associate at Tyndale House, Cambridge where he worked on Northwest Semitic philology (chiefly Ugaritic and Biblical Hebrew). View all posts Notes1There is more to say about the Jaare/Jaur/Jair name but the textual history is too much to get into for this article.