When people look at Michelangelo’s David, few see the shepherd boy described in 1Sam 17 or in countless children’s stories. Although certainly youthful, this David’s impressive physique and confident bearing combine with a forceful expression to capture the moment he makes the decision to take on the warrior Goliath. He looks composed and resolute—like a future king—and in this presentation he becomes a representative of the republic of Florence and a protector of that city.
Though not sculpted in marble, the biblical David is also definitely shaped into the image of an ideal king. Nowhere does the construction of his legend show as clearly as in the mythical tale of David and Goliath. Set in a time of war, with opposing armies camped on different hillsides (1Sam 17:1-3), the story of the daily goading of the powerful Philistine (1Sam 17:8-10) builds a tense atmosphere (1Sam 17:11, 1Sam 17:16). A terrified Israel cowers and no one steps forward to meet the challenge. The boy David emerges as a hero not because of his stature or his strength. In fact, the story goes to great lengths to demonstrate that he lacks both by presenting him as physically incapable of wearing the mantle, helmet, armor, or sword of King Saul (1Sam 17:38-39). Instead, he comes to victory with meager tools (1Sam 17:40) along with the bravado of youth and a strong conviction that God will deliver Israel (1Sam 17:46-47).
Much like the short films now used to introduce presidential candidates to the American voting public, the encounter with the champion Goliath initiates a campaign narrative for David that extends until he becomes king of all Israel (2Sam 5:1-5). This story transforms David into the embodiment of an idealized Israel—courageous, faithful, and trusting that a small nation could be victorious over its far more powerful neighbors. Such political stories often take on a mythic hue. The legend of George Washington cutting down the cherry tree, for instance, serves to underscore the importance of an honest character in the office of the president. Here, David’s exemplary bravery inaugurates a storyline of destiny. Who other than such a man should rule Israel?
More critical readers recognize the apocryphal nature of this tale. Not only is it one of two accounts of how David came into the service of Saul (the other being as a musician, 1Sam 16:18-23), it also conflicts with 2Sam 21:19, which states that a fighter named Elhanan defeated Goliath in a different battle. In order to depose a successful sitting king and all of his heirs, David needed a compelling biography. Here, he gets it by demonstrating prowess in the art of war (see 1Sam 18:5-8, 1Sam 18:30 also). Further, he wins the right to marry into the family of the king (1Sam 17:25, 1Sam 18:17-29).
For the biblical writers, David becomes not only the first true king but also the model for what all kings should be and what the Messiah will be. The backstory they create underscores that role by showing that David, like Israel, can slay giants against all odds.