The Power of Point of View

Point of View in the David and Goliath Narrative (1 Sam 17): Part 2

55ed41c336by JESSE C. LONG JR.   In a previous post, I presented an analysis of the opening scenes of the David and Goliath story (Masoretic Text), which highlights the artistry in the narrative in the use of point of view to create contrast between Saul and David. Character divergence is indirectly crafted by introducing Goliath through the point of view of Saul and the army of Israel. They see (vv. 4-7) and hear (vv. 8-10) the giant, which generates fear among them (vv. 11). In a masterful stroke, David in one verse (v. 23) both sees (hinneh clause with repetition from the description of Goliath in v. 4) and hears the Philistine. Whereas the men of Israel flee in fear (v. 24), in the verses that follow David responds to the challenge.

For the implied author of 1 Samuel, a core attribute in the characterization of David involves the nature of his heart. Rejecting Jesse’s oldest son Eliab, in Bethlehem Yahweh informs Samuel, “the LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart” (1 Sam 16:7; NRSV unless otherwise indicated). In an earlier scene, Samuel revealed to Saul that Yahweh had rejected him as king and chosen “a man after his own heart” (13:14); however, when David is introduced nothing is said about David’s heart. The narrator instead gives an external view, that the young shepherd “was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome” (16:12; cf. 17:42). The next statement about David’s heart, ironically, comes from Eliab who alleges that David has an “evil heart” (17:28). Keith Bodner (2003) maintains that Eliab’s charge indirectly calls attention to David’s “problematic heart” (58), but what has Yahweh seen that is noteworthy in David’s heart? In other words, what is the text’s ideological point of view with respect to David’s heart?

Consistent with the indirect nature of David’s introduction, the narrator rarely gives a direct, inside view of David, in contrast with other characters. In 1 Sam 16-18, inside views are given for Samuel (16:6, also with an interior monologue), Saul and all Israel (17:11, 24), Eliab (v. 28), Goliath (v. 42), Jonathan (18:1, 3), and Saul’s daughter (v. 28). In particular, the depiction of Saul includes inside views (16:21; 17:11; 18:8, 12, 15, 29) and interior monologues (18:11, 17, 21), which situate him as one who in fear of David schemes to eliminate him. By contrast, the narrator only gives two inside views of David. In 17:23, “David heard [the Philistine],” a comment that stands over against the statement in 17:11 that Saul and all Israel heard Goliath. At that point, however, the narrator adds that “they were dismayed and greatly afraid.” No similar statement (i.e., that David was a man of fear, or of faith) is made about David. The second inside view appears in 18:26 where the narrator says that “it pleased David well to be the king’s son-in-law,” leaving a gap with respect to the reason he was pleased.

Even though the implied author creates proximity to David on the spatial and informational point of view planes,[*] the fact that the narrator gives few inside views of the protagonist creates some distance between the reader and David on the psychological plane. This markedly indirect presentation has the effect of creating a more real, more human character, as readers are invited to evaluate for themselves his actions and speeches. Nevertheless, the indirection and corresponding distance do not mean that readers can’t know something of David’s heart. In the David and Goliath narrative, readers are led to merge with David on the ideological point of view plane, with implications for understanding what the implied author is indirectly communicating about the underlying man.

With more “showing” than “telling,” character profiles on the ideological plane in Hebrew narrative come into view primarily in what characters do and say (for the ideological plane, see Yamasaki 2012, 98-105). While David’s response to the Philistine challenge in contrast with Saul in 1 Sam 17 positions him as a man of faith, his ideological stance emerges in dialogue with repetition. When David restates Goliath’s challenge (“I defy [חרף] the ranks of Israel!” [v. 10, italics added], which the men of Israel repeat [v. 25]), he reframes the Philistine’s words with, “Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy [חרף] the armies of the living God?” (v. 26, italics added), a perspective David repeats (with חרף) in verses 36 and 45. For David, the “uncircumcised Philistine” (which with naming also reflects his view that Goliath is an outsider) has challenged not just Israel, but the God of Israel (see Esler, 2011, 201-02).

A character’s ideological profile may or may not reflect the stance of the composition, which in Hebrew narrative surfaces occasionally in direct statement but more often by inference and through design in narrative discourse (i.e., how the story is told). David’s response to the challenge and the way subsequent events place him in proximity to the throne draw readers into the story. Along the way, evaluative signals in the narrative expression indicate that aspects of David’s ideological profile reflect the stance of the implied author. Through allusion and narrator-character discourse, the implied author leads an implied audience to adopt David’s ideological point of view that Goliath has challenged not just the army of Israel, but Israel’s God.

Allusion to the story of Joseph in 17:17-18, where Jesse (like Jacob, Gen. 37:14) sends David to see about his brothers, situates David on the ideological plane as a reliable character and establishes a frame for interpreting statements in the story about David’s successes. The affirmations by characters and by the narrator that Yahweh was with David and he was successful in everything that he did (18:5, 12, 14-15, 28, 30; cf. 16:13, 18) parallel similar claims about Joseph (Gen 39:2-3, 21, 23; Alter 1999, 114, 117; cf. 2 Kings 18:7).

Narrator-character discourse corroborates this reading. In this narrative, the statements that Yahweh was with David, first from the young servant in 16:18 and then in the narrator’s voice in 18:12, 14, 28 (e.g., “David had success in all his undertakings; for the LORD was with him” [v. 14]), resonate with David’s ideological stance. In 17:37, David says to Saul, “The LORD who delivered me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear will deliver me [italics added] from the hand of this Philistine.” Saul responds, “Go, and the LORD be with you [italics added]!” Both David and the narrator believe that Yahweh is with David.

At the same time, David emerges from this story as a complex character whose words and actions at times are fraught with ambiguity. In his first words in scripture, which Robert Alter (1981, 182-83) maintains are always important in characterization, David verbalizes two questions: 1) “What shall be done for the man who kills this Philistine, and takes away the reproach [חרפה] from Israel?” and 2) “Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy [חרף] the armies of the living God?” (17:26). Even though the second calls attention to David’s attitude toward the God of Israel (above), the first appears to offset that impulse with his curiosity about the reward. Moreover, David has three conversations about the reward (vv. 25, 27, 30), before he challenges the giant! While חרפה and חרף tie the two queries together, the corresponding gap regarding his underlying motivation may be filled with, either, conjecture about how he would become king or avarice and ambition. The inside view that David was pleased to become son-in-law to the king (18:26) maintains this ambiguity.

Character actions bolster the view that David’s first words reflect competing motivations that are all-too-human. Repetition of the word “hand” (vv. 22, 37 [3x], 40 [2x], 46, 47, 49, 50, 57) calls attention to what David does. David has a staff (v. 40), sling (v. 40), stone (v. 49), but no sword (v. 50) in his hand. When at the end of the story, he emerges with the head of the Philistine in his hand (v. 57), a careful reader recognizes that his words have come to pass: “This very day the Lord will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you down and cut off your head” (v. 46). Since there was no sword in David’s hand, however, he took Goliath’s sword to cut off his head, killing him a second time (vv. 50-51; cf. v. 49). This introduces a motif that will epitomize David in the story that follows. When he selects the stones from the Elah brook to kill Goliath, there may already be seeds in his heart that will mature into his downfall. In the larger narrative, the sword will never depart from David’s house, for striking down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and taking his wife (2 Sam 12:9-10).

In the story of David and Goliath, the narrator establishes David as the point of view character (through concurrence on the spatial, informational, and ideological planes; see Yamasaki 2012, 106-16) with enough distance on the psychological plane and ambiguity in speech and actions to introduce character complexities that will play out in the larger narrative. At the same time, design in the narrative discourse indicates particular affinity with David’s ideological point of view, which reaches a crescendo when David says: “This very day [Yahweh] will deliver you into my hand . . . , so that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel, and that all this assembly may know that [Yahweh] does not save by sword and spear; for the battle is [Yahweh’s] and he will give you into our hand” (vv. 46-47). With this rather sophisticated literary strategy, the implied author has crafted a narrative designed to show David’s underlying heart. Masterfully, the text does so in a way that leads the reader to merge with David and adopt his point of view—that the God of Israel saves!


[*] With respect to the spatial point of view, for example, David is at the head of seven clauses in verses 15-30 (in one as the pronoun “he” [הו‍א] in first position). In these verses, no other character(s) is placed in more than two such positions (see Yamasaki 2012, 23-28). As to the informational plane, the reader has overheard Jesse’s instructions to his son (vv. 17-18), of which Eliab must have been unaware when he charged that David was just coming to see the battle (v. 28). This convergence on the informational plane between the reader and David (along with the narrator’s insertion, after recounting David’s actions, of “as Jesse had commanded him” in v. 20) has the effect of creating empathy for David and undermining Eliab’s accusation.


Works Cited

Alter, Robert. 1981. The Art of Biblical Narrative. New York: Basic Books, 1981.

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

Bodner, Keith. 2003. “Eliab and the Deuteronomist.” JSOT 28.1:55-71.

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

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








1 Response »

  1. Thanks for an interesting reading, I had missed the first post when it came out. I think you provide a good illustration of how attention to point of view can add sharpness to literary reading of even a familiar (and much studied) narrative.

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