The Power of Point of View

Point of View in the David and Goliath Narrative (1 Sam 17)

55ed41c336by JESSE LONG JR.   After reading Perspective Criticism (Yamasaki 2012) last fall, I set out to analyze the story of David and Goliath from the perspective of point of view. While I had addressed point of view in an article on the Jacob and Esau narrative (Long 2012), Gary Yamasaki’s significant work further stimulated my interest in this important aspect of biblical storytelling. The following discussion represents a summary of a work in progress, addressing point of view in the opening scenes of the story, which function, at least in part, to establish the contrast between Saul and David, a contrast that drives the larger narrative.

The narrator begins the story by setting the scene (vv. 1-3) and carefully painting a word picture of the threatening giant Goliath (vv. 4-7), the detail of which is rare in Hebrew storytelling. This description introduces point of view, an important aspect of the story from a literary perspective. Spatially, the introductory scene opens with a bird’s eye view of the field of battle, with Israel on one side of the valley and the Philistines on the other (v. 1-3, broad summary on the temporal plane). The narrator’s camera then moves to a position within the ranks of Israel (“And the man-in-between-the-two [’ish habbenayim] came out from the camp of the Philistines . . .”), from which point the reader with Israel views the Philistine champion (vv. 4-7, tight summary with closer proximity on the temporal plane). [[’ish habbenayim (literally, “the-man-in-between-the two,” usually translated “champion”) only occurs in verses four and twenty-three in the Hebrew Bible. For the proposal that the phrase refers to Goliath’s elite status as a chariot warrior, “the one in between” in a three man chariot crew, consistent with Philistine praxis ca. 1200 BCE, see Zorn 2010. The fact that this epithet only occurs in this story calls attention to its literary function in the narrative (see below).]]  The giant then “stood and called out to the ranks of Israel,” the dialogue of which follows now in a scenic representation (vv. 8-10). That Goliath is being portrayed from the point of view of Saul and Israel becomes clear when the narrator gives the inside, psychological perspective that “Saul and all Israel heard these words [italics added] of the Philistine and were dismayed and greatly afraid” (v. 11). A similar statement is made in verse twenty-four, only that when the men of Israel “see the man [italics added] they flee and are greatly afraid.” The narrator has crafted a scene in which, with Saul and Israel, the reader both sees and hears the Philistine challenge (i.e., creating convergence on the informational point of view plane between Saul/Israel and the implied audience).

In the verses which follow (vv. 12-18), David is introduced, retarding the action, and his father sends him with provisions to his brothers who are in camp with Saul, an apparent allusion to Jacob sending Joseph to bring word back about his brothers (Gen 37:12-14). The affirmations in the following chapter that David is successful in everything that he does (18:5, 12, 14, 30; cf. 16:19) resonate with similar claims in Gen 39:3, 23 (Alter 1999, 114, 117). These allusions indirectly situate David as a Joseph-like, reliable character through whom the God of Israel is at work, with implications for determining the storyteller’s ideological point of view in the scenes which follow.

The storyteller returns to the Elah Valley with a summary statement that Saul and Israel were engaged in battle against the Philistines (v. 19). The camera then moves to David in Bethlehem (v. 20) who leaves his sheep with a “keeper” and makes his way to Saul’s encampment, arriving as the army goes out with a shout (a statement which resonates with the comment in verse twenty-three that David “hears” Goliath). In the next verse (v. 21), the spatial perspective moves back to a broader view with the statement that the two armies drew up in battle formation against each other, and then moves in again on David (v. 22) as he leaves his gifts with the “keeper” of the baggage and runs (later also running to meet Goliath, v. 48) to greet his brothers. These in-and-out shifts in point of view create the experience of the protagonist’s arrival as the armies are moving into battle formation, more so than if there were a simple statement to that effect.

While David converses with his brothers, the narrator reports, “Behold, the man-in-between-the-two [’ish habbenayim], the Philistine of Gath, Goliath by name, came up out of the ranks of the Philistines and spoke the same words as before. And David heard him” (v. 23). In a brilliant stroke, the narrator in one verse portrays David as both seeing and hearing the Philistine. With the word henneh (i.e., “behold” in KJV, ESV, etc.), the narrator signals that what follows reflects David’s psychological point of view (see Berlin 1983, 62-63). This is followed by ’ish habbenayim (“the-man-in-between-the-two”), his name, and hometown, repeated almost verbatim from verse four. The repetition of these details with henneh has the literary effect (synecdoche) of conjuring up the visual image of Goliath as described in the opening scene. David sees Goliath as does Israel and Saul. The narrator adds that Goliath spoke as before, “and David heard him.” On the informational point of view plane, there is convergence. Along with Saul, Israel, and the implied audience, David sees and hears the Philistine champion.

The storyteller then avers, “All the Israelites, when they saw the man [italics added], fled from him and were very much afraid” (v. 24). In verse eleven the narrator reported, “When Saul and all Israel heard these words [italics added] of the Philistine, they were dismayed and greatly afraid.” Saul and Israel see and hear Goliath, and they cower in fear. David also sees and hears, but no such inside-view statement is made about David, reflecting the storyteller’s choice of showing over telling in the protagonist’s characterization. Nevertheless, the contrast between the reigning king and his anointed replacement has been established. The scenes which follow portray David as a man of faith, not fear, and as one who with a heart for God (cf. 1 Sam 13:14; 16:7) is worthy to become the king of Israel.

Additional note: Johan Lust argues that verses eleven and twenty-four are in contradiction, one indicating that hearing, the other that seeing the Philistine generated fright. Since verses twelve through thirty-one are missing in LXX (which in 1 Sam 17 is 46% shorter than MT), he contends that an editor inserted one story into another but was unable to escape “major contradictions” (Lust 1986, 12-13). His view represents a trend in modern scholarship (see, e.g., Esler 2011, 180-82). Point-of-view analysis of the story of David and Goliath, however, demonstrates that verses twenty-three and twenty-four are one of the more creative features of the story, commenting indirectly on verses one through eleven. This is a strong argument in favor of MT as the original text.


Alter, Robert. 1999. The David Story: A Translation with Commentary of 1 and 2 Samuel. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Berlin, Adele. 1983. Poetics and Interpretation of Biblical Narrative. Bible and Literature Series, vol 9. Sheffield: The Almond Press. Repr., Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 1999.

Esler, Philip F. 2011. Sex, Wives, and Warriors: Reading Biblical Narrative with Its Ancient Audience. Eugene, Ore.: Cascade Books.

Long, Jesse C., Jr. 2012. “Wrestling with God to Win: A Literary Reading of the Story of Jacob at the Jabbok in Honor of Don Williams.” Stone Campbell Journal 15:1: 47-61.

Lust, Johan. 1986. “The Story of David and Goliath in Hebrew and Greek.” Pages 5-18 in The Story of David and Goliath: Textual and Literary Criticism, Papers of a Joint Research Volume. Dominique Barthélemy, David W. Gooding, Johan Lust, and Emanuel Tov. Fribourg and Göttingen: Éditions Universitaires Fribourg Suisse, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht Göttingen.

Yamasaki, Gary. 2012. Perspective Criticism: Point of View and Evaluative Guidance in Biblical Narrative. Eugene, Ore.: Cascade Books.

Zorn, Jeffrey R. 2010. “Reconsidering Goliath: An Iron I Philistine Chariot Warrior.” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 360: 1-22.

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