Why does David fight with five smooth stones?

Let’s try to soulfully read the account of David and Goliath, bringing together the flesh of the text in its historical context with the spirit of the account, or the general concepts expressed in it. Flesh corresponds to details and observations and fast processing, spirit corresponds to generalities and formal elements (like numerical systems) and slow processing, and soul brings it all together into a coherent and single whole.

Here are relevant excerpts from 1 Samuel 17 with my own contextual notes in parenthesis:

A champion named Goliath, who was from Gath, came out of the Philistine camp. His height was six cubits (elbows to middle fingers) and a span (pinky to thumb). He had a bronze helmet on his head and wore a coat of scale armor of bronze weighing five thousand shekels (a Hebrew shekel was 20 gerah, but a Babylonian shekel was 24 giru, because Babylon used a proto-base 12 while the Hebrew system was a proto-base 10, and all those over the age of 20 are to pay half a sheckel or 10 giru in tax when Moses does a census in Exodus 30); 6 on his legs he wore bronze greaves, and a bronze javelin was slung on his back. His spear shaft was like a weaver’s rod, and its iron point weighed six hundred shekels. His shield bearer went ahead of him.

For forty days (40 suggests the length of a generation, and draws to mind the desert wandering generation and the death of Moses, whose ‘generation’ didn’t enter the promised land) the Philistine came forward every morning and evening and took his stand.

Now Jesse said to his son David, “Take this ephah (10 omers) of roasted grain and these ten loaves of bread for your brothers and hurry to their camp. Take along these ten cheeses to the commander of their unit. See how your brothers are and bring back some assurance from them.

The king will give great wealth to the man who kills him. He will also give him his daughter in marriage and will exempt his family from taxes in Israel.

Then Saul dressed David in his own tunic. He put a coat of armor on him and a bronze helmet on his head. David fastened on his sword over the tunic and tried walking around, because he was not used to them.

“I cannot go in these,” he said to Saul, “because I am not used to them.” So he took them off. Then he took his staff in his hand, chose five smooth stones from the stream, put them in the pouch of his shepherd’s bag and, with his sling in his hand, approached the Philistine.

David said to the Philistine, “You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the Lord Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. 46 This day the Lord will deliver you into my hands, and I’ll strike you down and cut off your head. This very day I will give the carcasses of the Philistine army to the birds and the wild animals, and the whole world will know that there is a God in Israel. 47 All those gathered here will know that it is not by sword or spear that the Lord saves; for the battle is the Lord’s, and he will give all of you into our hands.”

As the Philistine moved closer to attack him, David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet him. Reaching into his bag and taking out a stone, he slung it and struck the Philistine on the forehead. (Note that teffilin are still placed on the forehead in accordance with Deuteronomy 6:8, and this stands in for the entirety of the 5 books of Torah by extension). The stone sank into his forehead, and he fell facedown on the ground.

And then there’s this from 2 Samuel 21

2 Samuel 21

… In still another battle, which took place at Gath, there was a huge man with six fingers on each hand and six toes on each foot — twenty-four in all. He also was descended from Rapha. When he taunted Israel, Jonathan son of Shimeah, David’s brother, killed him. These four were descendants of Rapha in Gath, and they fell at the hands of David and his men. (Note that the Philistines had a Pentapolis, a set of 5 cities, according to Judges 3:3, and Goliath has 4 brothers.)

So what are these texts talking about?

Here’s a bit more context. The Philistine Pentapolis was conquered by Assyria and held by it for centuries, well before the Hebrew Bible reached its current form during the Babylonian exile. Assyria was to Babylon what Rome was to Greece: a massive Empire that culturally emulated and venerated its spiritual predecessor. The glory that was Babylon, the grandeur that was Assyria. So Babylonian stories and administration played a big role in Assyrian economic management, astronomy, political legitimation and time keeping. Their base-60 number system remains with us in the mathematics of circles. Note that 60 is five twelves. We have 60 seconds in a minute, 60 minutes in an hour and 2 times 12 hours in a day thanks to them. We also have 360 degrees in our circles thanks to them. And it is a pain in the neck to do calculations of time as a result, even today, in base 10. Just imagine if we had a base 10 time system! Or better, just imagine if we did our math with 12’s instead of 10s. That was basically how the Babylonians-Assyrians and their vassals, like the Philistines, would have done it.

Now when discussing sexigesimal (base-60) systems and all of these groupings by twelve, people will sometimes point out that base 10 is superior for a simple reason: we have 10 fingers! If we had 12 fingers it would make more sense to have a more 12-based system, people intuitively suggest. Notice, however, that you can count to twelve using one hand: just count by moving your thumb from one knuckle to the next. And then you can use the five fingers on your other hand to count which twelve you’re on. Base-60 naturally combines the use of your two hands for tracking numbers, counting up in 5 groups of 12. This is just one of many things that make base-60 extremely useful, especially in a world without calculators. Notice as well that you can do a lot more fractional work with 60 and 12: 60 factors into 5*3*2*2, so you can easily work with halves, thirds, quarters and other fractional divisions very quickly. Plus, everyone is walking around with a great base-60 hand-abacus! Nonetheless, if you’re used to working in 10s like the ancient Hebrews were, and a lot of your thinking and symbolism build on this, working in base-60 really threatens you with cultural assimilation. Mathematical training deeply structures our fast processing systems, and you can feel the friction whenever you interact with someone who uses metric instead of whatever the hell we use in the US. (Although there are 12 inches in a foot…) I still remember crazy rants in the newspaper out in South Dakota from people who saw the incursion of metric as a threat to our own God-given measurement system. (Seriously, it was a formative memory from my childhood. My parents thought metric was a good idea, because my dad is a doctor so he has to work with it all the time. Metric to English conversions create higher rates of scientific error and all kinds of other administrative headaches for us.)

Anyway, back to the ancient world. The Philistines slowly lost their distinctive identity and were absorbed into the Assyrian Empire when they were eventually conquered. They had bigger weapons than the Hebrew-speakers, but the Hebrew-speakers had a more deeply engrained and dense system for bringing together spirit and flesh at national scale. Not only did they work in 10s, but they had the 5 books of the Torah. And perhaps in light of Matthew’s own five-fold division, we might note that as one hand seeks another, and as one line of Hebrew poetry seeks a comparing and contrasting partner, and as a second Temple followed the first, that this first 5 was seeking another 5. At least the author of Matthew’s Gospel presumably thought so: it is important to understand Matthew as a new covenant, a new Torah, centered on the new ‘law’ (or better, teaching) of Matthew 5–7.

So while the Philistine Pentapolis was eventually eradicated and assimilated by Assyria, the same can’t really be said of the Torah-centered community that was captured by the Assyrians and carried into Babylon, either the first or the second time. The first group persist as Samaritans even until today. What lies at the core of their capacity to outlast Babylon and its imitator Assyria and its imitator the Philistine Pentapolis? Simple. They took five smooth stones (the books of Torah) and they embedded them deep in their foreheads, and in the foreheads of those around them. Oh, and they never really got into that base-60 astronomy and time-keeping stuff, which (as Amy Richter shows) was all connected with the Watchers and the Nephilim. What, do you think the Samaritans and Judeans had twelve fingers?

Note as well that the giants here call back to the Nephilim. The story of the Watchers and the Nephilim were understood by Jewish people, including through the Second Temple period when the New Testatment was written, to represent their critical engagement with Babylonian culture, including its offshoot: Assyria. I’ll close with some background from Heiser’s Unseen Realm, chapter 13, here. Other recommended reading on this topic is “Enoch and the Gospel of Matthew,” the dissertation by Amy Richter. She is a body-building Episcopalian priest.

In the last chapter we learned that the New Testament writers partook of the intellectual climate of their own Jewish community, a community that flourished in the period between the Old and New Testament. It might seem unnecessary to mention this, given the enthusiasm many Bible readers have today for tapping into the Jewish mind to understand the words of Jesus and the apostles. When it comes to Genesis 6:1–4 , though, that enthusiasm often sours, since the result doesn’t support the most comfortable modern Christian interpretation. The truth is that the writers of the New Testament knew nothing of the Sethite view, nor of any view that makes the sons of God in Genesis 6:1–4 humans. Our goal in this chapter is to revisit the passage and dig deeper. When we take it on its own terms, we can determine its character and meaning.

THE ANCIENT NEAR EASTERN CONTEXT

That Genesis 1–11 has many connections to Mesopotamian literature is not disputed by scholars, evangelical or otherwise. The story of creation, the genealogies before the flood, the flood itself, and the tower of Babel incident all have secure connections to Mesopotamian material that is much older than the Old Testament. 1 Genesis 6:1–4 , too, has deep Mesopotamian roots that, until very recently, have not been fully recognized or appreciated. Jewish literature like 1 Enoch that retold the story shows a keen awareness of that Mesopotamian context. This awareness shows us that Jewish thinkers of the Second Temple period understood, correctly, that the story involved divine beings and giant offspring. That understanding is essential to grasping what the biblical writers were trying to communicate. Genesis 6:1–4 is a polemic; it is a literary and theological effort to undermine the credibility of Mesopotamian gods and other aspects of that culture’s worldview. Biblical writers do this frequently. The strategy often involves borrowing lines and motifs from the literature of the target civilization to articulate correct theology about Yahweh and to show contempt for other gods.

Genesis 6:1–4 is a case study in this technique. Mesopotamia had several versions of the story of a catastrophic flood, complete with a large boat that saves animals and humans. They include mention of a group of sages (the apkallus ), possessors of great knowledge, in the period before the flood. These apkallus were divine beings. Many apkallus were considered evil; those apkallus are integral to Mesopotamian demonology. After the flood, offspring of the apkallus were said to be human in descent (i.e., having a human parent) and “two-thirds apkallu .” In other words, the apkallus mated with human women and produced quasi-divine offspring. The parallels to Genesis 6:1–4 are impossible to miss. The “two-thirds divine” description is especially noteworthy, since it precisely matches the description of the Mesopotamian hero Gilgamesh. Recent critical work on the cuneiform tablets of the Epic of Gilgamesh has revealed that Gilgamesh was considered a giant who retained knowledge from before the flood.

Other connections: In the Mesopotamian flood story found in a text now known as the Erra Epic , the Babylonian high god Marduk punishes the evil apkallus with banishment to the subterranean waters deep inside the earth, which were known as Apsu. The Apsu was also considered part of the underworld. Marduk commanded that they never come up again. The parallels are clear and unmistakable. The banishment of these sinister divine beings to beneath the earth is significant. In the last chapter, I noted that this element of the story, found in 2 Peter and Jude, is not found in the Old Testament. The presence of this item in books like 1 Enoch and, subsequently, in the New Testament, is a clear indication that Jewish writers between the testaments were aware of the Mesopotamian context of Genesis 6:1–4 . There are two other features to highlight in our discussion before we discuss what it all means.

THE SONS OF GOD: Watchers, Sons of Heaven, Holy Ones

The divine transgression before the flood is retold in several Jewish texts from the intertestamental period. At least one has the divine offenders coming to earth to “fix” the mess that was humankind — to provide direction and leadership through their knowledge. They were trying to help, but once they had assumed flesh, they failed to resist its urges. The more common version of events, one with a more sinister flavor, is found in 1 Enoch 6–11 . This is the reading that informed Peter and Jude. The story begins very much like Genesis 6 : And when the sons of men had multiplied, in those days, beautiful and comely daughters were born to them. And the watchers, the sons of heaven, saw them and desired them. And they said to one another, “Come, let us choose for ourselves wives from the daughters of men, and let us beget for ourselves children.” The account has the Watchers descending to Mount Hermon, a site that will factor into the biblical epic in unexpected ways. Watcher, the English translation of Aramaic ʿir , is not new to us.

In an earlier chapter about how God and his council participate together in decision making, we looked at part of Daniel 4 , one of the sections of Daniel written in Aramaic, not Hebrew. Daniel 4 is the only biblical passage to specifically use the term watcher to describe the divine “holy ones” of Yahweh’s council. The geographical context of Daniel is of course Babylon ( Dan 1:1–7 ), which is in Mesopotamia. The offspring of the Watchers (sons of God) in 1 Enoch were giants ( 1 Enoch 7 ). Some fragments of 1 Enoch among the Dead Sea Scrolls give names for some of the giants. Other texts that retell the story and are thus related to 1 Enoch do the same. The most startling of these is known today by scholars as The Book of Giants . It exists only in fragments, but names of several giants, offspring of the Watchers, have survived. One of the names is Gilgamesh, the main character of the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh .

Figurines of apkallus , the Mesopotamian counterparts to the sons of God, are known through the work of Mesopotamian archaeologists. They were buried in rows of boxes as parts of foundation walls for Mesopotamian buildings to ward off evil powers. These boxes were referred to by Mesopotamians as mats-tsarey , which means “watchers.” The connection is explicit and direct.

THE NEPHILIM

One of the great debates over Genesis 6:1–4 is the meaning of the word nephilim . We’ve seen from the Mesopotamian context that the apkallus were divine, mated with human women, and produced giant offspring. We’ve also seen that Jewish thinkers in the Second Temple period viewed the offspring of Genesis 6:1–4 in the same way — as giants. Any analysis of the term nephilim must account for, not ignore or violate, these contexts. Interpretation of the term nephilim must also account for another Jewish phenomenon between the testaments — translation of the Old Testament into Greek. I speak here of the Septuagint. The word nephilim occurs twice in the Hebrew Bible ( Gen 6:4 ; Num 13:33 ). In both cases the Septuagint translated the term with gigas (“giant”). Given the backdrop we’ve covered, it would seem obvious that nephilim ought to be understood as “giants.” But many commentators resist the rendering, arguing that it should be read as “fallen ones” or “those who fall upon” (a battle expression). These options are based on the idea that the word derives from the Hebrew verb n-p-l ( naphal , “to fall”). More importantly, those who argue that nephilim should be translated with one of these expressions rather than “giants” do so to avoid the quasi-divine nature of the Nephilim. That in turn makes it easier for them to argue that the sons of God were human. In reality, it doesn’t matter whether “fallen ones” is the translation. In both the Mesopotamian context and the context of later Second Temple Jewish thought, their fathers are divine and the nephilim (however translated) are still described as giants . Consequently, insisting that the name means “fallen” produces no argument to counter a supernatural interpretation.”

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Daniel Heck

Daniel Heck

Community Organizer. Enemy Lover. Pastor. Practices honest, serious, loving and fun discourse. (Yes, still just practicing.) Author of According to Folly, etc.