Excerpts for David and Goliath : Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants

David and Goliath

Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants

By Malcolm Gladwell

Little, Brown and Company

Copyright © 2013 Malcolm Gladwell
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-316-20436-1


At the heart of ancient Palestine is the region known as the Shephelah, a seriesof ridges and valleys connecting the Judaean Mountains to the east with thewide, flat expanse of the Mediterranean plain. It is an area of breathtakingbeauty, home to vineyards and wheat fields and forests of sycamore andterebinth. It is also of great strategic importance.

Over the centuries, numerous battles have been fought for control of the regionbecause the valleys rising from the Mediterranean plain offer those on the coasta clear path to the cities of Hebron, Bethlehem, and Jerusalem in the Judaeanhighlands. The most important valley is Aijalon, in the north. But the moststoried is the Elah. The Elah was where Saladin faced off against the Knights ofthe Crusades in the twelfth century. It played a central role in the Maccabeanwars with Syria more than a thousand years before that, and, most famously,during the days of the Old Testament, it was where the fledgling Kingdom ofIsrael squared off against the armies of the Philistines.

The Philistines were from Crete. They were a seafaring people who had moved toPalestine and settled along the coast. The Israelites were clustered in themountains, under the leadership of King Saul. In the second half of the eleventhcentury bce, the Philistines began moving east, winding their way upstream alongthe floor of the Elah Valley. Their goal was to capture the mountain ridge nearBethlehem and split Saul's kingdom in two. The Philistines were battle-testedand dangerous, and the sworn enemies of the Israelites. Alarmed, Saul gatheredhis men and hastened down from the mountains to confront them.

The Philistines set up camp along the southern ridge of the Elah. The Israelitespitched their tents on the other side, along the northern ridge, which left thetwo armies looking across the ravine at each other. Neither dared to move. Toattack meant descending down the hill and then making a suicidal climb up theenemy's ridge on the other side. Finally, the Philistines had enough. They senttheir greatest warrior down into the valley to resolve the deadlock one on one.

He was a giant, six foot nine at least, wearing a bronze helmet and full bodyarmor. He carried a javelin, a spear, and a sword. An attendant preceded him,carrying a large shield. The giant faced the Israelites and shouted out: "Chooseyou a man and let him come down to me! If he prevail in battle against me andstrike me down, we shall be slaves to you. But if I prevail and strike him down,you will be slaves to us and serve us."

In the Israelite camp, no one moved. Who could win against such a terrifyingopponent? Then, a shepherd boy who had come down from Bethlehem to bring food tohis brothers stepped forward and volunteered. Saul objected: "You cannot goagainst this Philistine to do battle with him, for you are a lad and he is a manof war from his youth." But the shepherd was adamant. He had faced moreferocious opponents than this, he argued. "When the lion or the bear would comeand carry off a sheep from the herd," he told Saul, "I would go after him andstrike him down and rescue it from his clutches." Saul had no other options. Herelented, and the shepherd boy ran down the hill toward the giant standing inthe valley. "Come to me, that I may give your flesh to the birds of the heavensand the beasts of the field," the giant cried out when he saw his opponentapproach. Thus began one of history's most famous battles. The giant's name wasGoliath. The shepherd boy's name was David.


David and Goliath is a book about what happens when ordinary peopleconfront giants. By "giants," I mean powerful opponents of all kinds—fromarmies and mighty warriors to disability, misfortune, and oppression. Eachchapter tells the story of a different person—famous or unknown, ordinaryor brilliant—who has faced an outsize challenge and been forced torespond. Should I play by the rules or follow my own instincts? Shall Ipersevere or give up? Should I strike back or forgive?

Through these stories, I want to explore two ideas. The first is that much ofwhat we consider valuable in our world arises out of these kinds of lopsidedconflicts, because the act of facing overwhelming odds produces greatness andbeauty. And second, that we consistently get these kinds of conflicts wrong. Wemisread them. We misinterpret them. Giants are not what we think they are. Thesame qualities that appear to give them strength are often the sources of greatweakness. And the fact of being an underdog can change people in waysthat we often fail to appreciate: it can open doors and create opportunities andeducate and enlighten and make possible what might otherwise have seemedunthinkable. We need a better guide to facing giants—and there is nobetter place to start that journey than with the epic confrontation betweenDavid and Goliath three thousand years ago in the Valley of Elah.

When Goliath shouted out to the Israelites, he was asking for what was known as"single combat." This was a common practice in the ancient world. Two sides in aconflict would seek to avoid the heavy bloodshed of open battle by choosing onewarrior to represent each in a duel. For example, the first-century bce Romanhistorian Quintus Claudius Quadrigarius tells of an epic battle in which a Gaulwarrior began mocking his Roman opponents. "This immediately aroused the greatindignation of one Titus Manlius, a youth of the highest birth," Quadrigariuswrites. Titus challenged the Gaul to a duel:

He stepped forward, and would not suffer Roman valour to be shamefully tarnishedby a Gaul. Armed with a legionary's shield and a Spanish sword, he confrontedthe Gaul. Their fight took place on the very bridge [over the Anio River] in thepresence of both armies, amid great apprehension. Thus they confronted eachother: the Gaul, according to his method of fighting, with shield advanced andawaiting an attack; Manlius, relying on courage rather than skill, struck shieldagainst shield and threw the Gaul off balance. While the Gaul was trying toregain the same position, Manlius again struck shield against shield and againforced the man to change his ground. In this fashion he slipped under the Gaul'ssword and stabbed him in the chest with his Spanish blade.... After he had slainhim, Manlius cut off the Gaul's head, tore off his tongue and put it, covered asit was with blood, around his own neck.

This is what Goliath was expecting—a warrior like himself to come forwardfor hand-to-hand combat. It never occurred to him that the battle would befought on anything other than those terms, and he prepared accordingly. Toprotect himself against blows to the body, he wore an elaborate tunic made up ofhundreds of overlapping bronze fishlike scales. It covered his arms and reachedto his knees and probably weighed more than a hundred pounds. He had bronze shinguards protecting his legs, with attached bronze plates covering his feet. Hewore a heavy metal helmet. He had three separate weapons, all optimized forclose combat. He held a thrusting javelin made entirely of bronze, which wascapable of penetrating a shield or even armor. He had a sword on his hip. And ashis primary option, he carried a special kind of short-range spear with a metalshaft as "thick as a weaver's beam." It had a cord attached to it and anelaborate set of weights that allowed it to be released with extraordinary forceand accuracy. As the historian Moshe Garsiel writes, "To the Israelites, thisextraordinary spear, with its heavy shaft plus long and heavy iron blade, whenhurled by Goliath's strong arm, seemed capable of piercing any bronze shield andbronze armor together." Can you see why no Israelite would come forward to fightGoliath?

Then David appears. Saul tries to give him his own sword and armor so at leasthe'll have a fighting chance. David refuses. "I cannot walk in these," he says,"for I am unused to it." Instead he reaches down and picks up five smoothstones, and puts them in his shoulder bag. Then he descends into the valley,carrying his shepherd's staff. Goliath looks at the boy coming toward him and isinsulted. He was expecting to do battle with a seasoned warrior. Instead he seesa shepherd—a boy from one of the lowliest of all professions—whoseems to want to use his shepherd's staff as a cudgel against Goliath's sword."Am I a dog," Goliath says, gesturing at the staff, "that you should come to mewith sticks?"

What happens next is a matter of legend. David puts one of his stones into theleather pouch of a sling, and he fires at Goliath's exposed forehead. Goliathfalls, stunned. David runs toward him, seizes the giant's sword, and cuts offhis head. "The Philistines saw that their warrior was dead," the biblicalaccount reads, "and they fled."

The battle is won miraculously by an underdog who, by all expectations, shouldnot have won at all. This is the way we have told one another the story over themany centuries since. It is how the phrase "David and Goliath" has come to beembedded in our language—as a metaphor for improbable victory. And theproblem with that version of the events is that almost everything about it iswrong.


Ancient armies had three kinds of warriors. The first was cavalry—armedmen on horseback or in chariots. The second was infantry—foot soldierswearing armor and carrying swords and shields. The third were projectilewarriors, or what today would be called artillery: archers and, most important,slingers. Slingers had a leather pouch attached on two sides by a long strand ofrope. They would put a rock or a lead ball into the pouch, swing it around inincreasingly wider and faster circles, and then release one end of the rope,hurling the rock forward.

Slinging took an extraordinary amount of skill and practice. But in experiencedhands, the sling was a devastating weapon. Paintings from medieval times showslingers hitting birds in midflight. Irish slingers were said to be able to hita coin from as far away as they could see it, and in the Old Testament Book ofJudges, slingers are described as being accurate within a "hair's breadth." Anexperienced slinger could kill or seriously injure a target at a distance of upto two hundred yards. [The modern world record for slinging a stone was set in1981 by Larry Bray: 437 meters. Obviously, at that distance, accuracy suffers.]The Romans even had a special set of tongs made just to remove stones that hadbeen embedded in some poor soldier's body by a sling. Imagine standing in frontof a Major League Baseball pitcher as he aims a baseball at your head. That'swhat facing a slinger was like—only what was being thrown was not a ballof cork and leather but a solid rock.

The historian Baruch Halpern argues that the sling was of such importance inancient warfare that the three kinds of warriors balanced one another, like eachgesture in the game of rock, paper, scissors. With their long pikes and armor,infantry could stand up to cavalry. Cavalry could, in turn, defeat projectilewarriors, because the horses moved too quickly for artillery to take proper aim.And projectile warriors were deadly against infantry, because a big lumberingsoldier, weighed down with armor, was a sitting duck for a slinger who waslaunching projectiles from a hundred yards away. "This is why the Athenianexpedition to Sicily failed in the Peloponnesian War," Halpern writes."Thucydides describes at length how Athens's heavy infantry was decimated in themountains by local light infantry, principally using the sling."

Goliath is heavy infantry. He thinks that he is going to be engaged in a duelwith another heavy-infantryman, in the same manner as Titus Manlius's fight withthe Gaul. When he says, "Come to me, that I may give your flesh to the birds ofthe heavens and the beasts of the field," the key phrase is "come to me." Hemeans come right up to me so that we can fight at close quarters. When Saultries to dress David in armor and give him a sword, he is operating under thesame assumption. He assumes David is going to fight Goliath hand to hand.

David, however, has no intention of honoring the rituals of single combat. Whenhe tells Saul that he has killed bears and lions as a shepherd, he does so notjust as testimony to his courage but to make another point as well: that heintends to fight Goliath the same way he has learned to fight wildanimals—as a projectile warrior.

He runs toward Goliath, because without armor he has speed andmaneuverability. He puts a rock into his sling, and whips it around and around,faster and faster at six or seven revolutions per second, aiming his projectileat Goliath's forehead—the giant's only point of vulnerability. EitanHirsch, a ballistics expert with the Israeli Defense Forces, recently did aseries of calculations showing that a typical-size stone hurled by an expertslinger at a distance of thirty-five meters would have hit Goliath's head with avelocity of thirty-four meters per second—more than enough to penetratehis skull and render him unconscious or dead. In terms of stopping power, thatis equivalent to a fair-size modern handgun. "We find," Hirsch writes, "thatDavid could have slung and hit Goliath in little more than one second—atime so brief that Goliath would not have been able to protect himself andduring which he would be stationary for all practical purposes."

What could Goliath do? He was carrying over a hundred pounds of armor. He wasprepared for a battle at close range, where he could stand, immobile, wardingoff blows with his armor and delivering a mighty thrust of his spear. He watchedDavid approach, first with scorn, then with surprise, and then with what canonly have been horror—as it dawned on him that the battle he was expectinghad suddenly changed shape.

"You come against me with sword and spear and javelin," David said to Goliath,"but I come against you in the name of the Lord Almighty, the God of the armiesof Israel, whom you have defied. This day the Lord will deliver you into myhands, and I'll strike you down and cut off your head.... All those gatheredhere will know that it is not by sword or spear that the Lord saves; for thebattle is the Lord, and he will give all of you into our hands."

Twice David mentions Goliath's sword and spear, as if to emphasize howprofoundly different his intentions are. Then he reaches into his shepherd's bagfor a stone, and at that point no one watching from the ridges on either side ofthe valley would have considered David's victory improbable. David was aslinger, and slingers beat infantry, hands down.

"Goliath had as much chance against David," the historian Robert Dohrenwendwrites, "as any Bronze Age warrior with a sword would have had against an[opponent] armed with a .45 automatic pistol."


Why has there been so much misunderstanding around that day in the Valley ofElah? On one level, the duel reveals the folly of our assumptions about power.The reason King Saul is skeptical of David's chances is that David is small andGoliath is large. Saul thinks of power in terms of physical might. He doesn'tappreciate that power can come in other forms as well—in breaking rules,in substituting speed and surprise for strength. Saul is not alone in makingthis mistake. In the pages that follow, I'm going to argue that we continue tomake that error today, in ways that have consequences for everything from how weeducate our children to how we fight crime and disorder.

But there's a second, deeper issue here. Saul and the Israelites think they knowwho Goliath is. They size him up and jump to conclusions about what they thinkhe is capable of. But they do not really see him. The truth is that Goliath'sbehavior is puzzling. He is supposed to be a mighty warrior. But he's not actinglike one. He comes down to the valley floor accompanied by an attendant—aservant walking before him, carrying a shield. Shield bearers in ancient timesoften accompanied archers into battle because a soldier using a bow and arrowhad no free hand to carry any kind of protection on his own. But why doesGoliath, a man calling for sword-on-sword single combat, need to be assisted bya third party carrying an archer's shield?


Excerpted from David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell. Copyright © 2013 Malcolm Gladwell. Excerpted by permission of Little, Brown and Company.
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