How did David defeat Goliath?
“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” (1 Samuel 17:49). The biblical story of a lowly shepherd with no military training or experience and yet capable of defeating and killing a mighty warrior serves as a metaphor for facing and overcoming seemingly impossible odds.
In European art, David is often portrayed as carrying a sling, even when it is the only thing he has, as demonstrated by Michelangelo’s masterpiece—the nude statue of David outside the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. The larger-than-life marble hero carries a sling over his left shoulder while holding a stone in his right hand.
How realistic is the biblical narrative? How were slings made in antiquity? What ammunition did they use? And what do we know about the real-life capabilities of slings and their usefulness in combat?
Boyd Seevers and Victoria Parrott answer these questions in their article “Taking a Sling: How David Defeated Goliath,” published in the Fall 2022 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review. They provide a technical description of the weapon and discuss the different techniques. Although slings were very common across the ancient world, hardly any examples have survived in the archaeological record. Luckily, ancient artistic representations offer some clues.
Possibly the oldest depiction of slings comes from the mortuary temple of Ramesses III at Medinet Habu (across the Nile from Luxor), where large wall reliefs celebrate the pharaoh’s deeds, including the battles against the coalition of the so-called Sea Peoples, who invaded Egypt’s Mediterranean coast in about 1190 BCE. A section of the northern outer wall of the temple shows the Egyptian navy engaged with the invaders, who are identified by their characteristic feathered headdresses. Atop every Egyptian ship’s mast, in the crow’s nest, is an Egyptian slinger launching projectiles at the enemy.
As for slinging techniques, “some pictures appear to show slingers whirling the sling horizontally over their heads, as depicted in an early 12th-century BCE relief from the mortuary temple of Ramesses III at Medinet Habu. By contrast, other pictures seem to show slingers whirling their slings vertically at their sides,” write Seevers and Parrott. The latter technique is well illustrated in the gypsum reliefs from the Southwest Palace of the Assyrian capital of Nineveh. Celebrating Sennacherib’s military exploits, some of the reliefs show Assyrian slingers among the Assyrian infantry during Sennacherib’s 701 BCE siege of the fortified Judahite city of Lachish. It seems that at least six different techniques can be used to launch stones from a sling.
Like in the biblical story of David and Goliath, the most common and most readily available type of projectile was a simple fieldstone or a pebble collected from a riverbed. But because fieldstones tend to be irregular in shape, which causes the projectile to curve during flight, people often shaped sling ammunition. “Shaped, spherical sling stones first appear in the Early Bronze Age (c. 3300–2000 BCE). In Israel, these were typically fashioned from locally available flint or limestone, usually to a size of 2–3 inches in diameter (about the size of a plum or baseball). During the later Hellenistic and Roman periods, sling pellets were also molded from lead.” This ammunition was usually shaped like an almond, as demonstrated by the examples from Cyprus shown here. These projectiles often featured symbols or inscriptions that mocked or taunted the enemy with phrases like “Take that!” or “for Pompey’s backside.” The advantage of such ammunition was its regular size, shape, and weight.
We don’t need to go any further than the story of David and Goliath to appreciate the effectiveness of the ancient sling. Although concise, the biblical account accurately reports that the throw’s force was such that “the stone sank into [Goliath’s] forehead.” The impact did not kill Goliath immediately (David actually finished off the Philistine giant with his own sword) but it did incapacitate him, and the internal damage caused by the blow would have caused the giant’s death eventually.
The famous silver plate discovered in 1902 at Karavas, Cyprus, illustrates the biblical story, starting with the initial encounter between David and Goliath in the Valley of Elah (top register), where the sitting figure in the middle represents the river from which David collected his stones. In the center, both combatants engage using their respective weapons, followed by their respective armies. The bottom register shows David decapitating Goliath, while his sling and remaining three stones lay on the ground behind him. Manufactured sometime around 620 CE, the plate is now on display in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Greek and Roman authors attest to the capabilities of slingers as part of ancient armies. From their witnesses and modern testing, it appears that “practiced slingers could have had military effectiveness as far away as 200–400 yards,” conclude Seevers and Parrott. Slings could be highly accurate and potentially lethal at shorter distances (up to 70 yards) and also allowed slingers the advantage of maintaining a safe distance from infantrymen armed with shorter-range weapons like the javelin. And that is how the lowly, untrained shepherd was able to defeat the seasoned and more heavily armed Philistine warrior.
To further explore the capabilities of ancient slingers and how their humble weapons compared to other ancient weaponry, read Boyd Seevers and Victoria Parrott’s article “Taking a Sling: How David Defeated Goliath,” published in the Fall 2022 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
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