How many of you remember learning about the David & Goliath story as a young kid in Sunday School? It’s one of the coolest stories in the Bible, simply because it’s an underdog who defeats a Philistine giant. Everyone cheers for the underdog, right? Being a short person myself (currently 5’8″ and shrinking I think), cheering for the little guy was something with which I could always identify. Well, what’s neat about this story is that you can pin-point where it took place.
The story takes place in 1 Samuel 17. The setting is the Elah Valley in the Shephelah (or Judean lowlands). When I take groups to the Elah Valley, besides driving through parts of the valley itself, the best vantage point is to view the valley from the heights of Tel Azekah, an ancient city that stands about 350 feet above the valley to the west. Right below Azekah (excavated 100 years ago, but with an Israeli team now returning to the site this past summer) to the east, was Ephes Dammim where the Philistines positioned themselves, while the Israelites camped near Socoh further east along the valley. In fact, on a clear day, one can see the outskirts of Bethlehem nestled high on the Judean ridge about 12 miles to the east. This was where David, as a small boy, was shepherding his father’s flocks. It would be from the fields of Bethlehem that David would be summoned by his father to carry care packages for his older brothers positioned near Socoh against the formidable Philistines.
Given the role of historical geography that specifically looks at the text of Scripture for hints of geographic markers, remarkably the text of I Samuel 17 offers just this. As we know the “battle” between David and Goliath took place within the context of the Elah Valley itself, the question is where in the valley. Believe it or not, the text gives us a geographical hint!
In Hebrew, there are two primary words that are translated as valley in our English Bibles. One is the Hebrew word emeq (also spelled emek). This word is used in reference to valleys that are relatively broad or wide. For instance, the Jezreel Valley to the north is referred to by Israelis as simply “The Emeq” because of the valley’s width.
However, a second Hebrew word for valley is gai. In contrast to emeq, this word implies a narrow valley. The word is used elsewhere in Joshua 7 & 8 in reference to the position of the ambush team that invaded the city if Ai. The word is also used in reference to the Valley of Hinnom in the Hebrew Scriptures. The Greek translation of the “valley of Hinnom” is Gehenna, or namely, the “narrow valley” of Hinnom. And indeed, the Gehanna Valley is a narrow valley to the west of Mt. Zion today and eventually bends around to the south of the City of David itself.
So when we return to the story of 1 Samuel, whereas 17:2 uses emeq to define this regional valley (also in 17:19), 17:3 uses gai to describe the specific location of the battle. The text says that the Israelites positioned themselves “on one side of the gai, with the Philistines on the other side” of the gai. Looking at the topography of the Elah Valley today, there seems to be only one place where the valley becomes literally narrow (just as the Hebrew word gai implies). It’s location is to the east around a bend in the broader valley of Elah. The map I provided points out specifically where I suggest David defeated Goliath, the Philistine giant. Other geographic markers given in the beginning of the story (e.g. Ephes Dammim, between Socoh and Azekah) seems to suggest the location of the Philistine camp as they awaited an Israelites to confront Goliath. It was here where they camped for the 40 days leading up to the great battle in the gai or narrow bend of Elah.
Now while we can’t be certain beyond a shadow of a doubt that the narrow bend in the valley (gai) was the place of victory for David, it’s a strong possibility that it is based on the Hebrew text. To stand in a place overlooking this gai is pretty impressive when one considers that it was here that God provided victory in convincing fashion for the little guy, this underdog named David, who went out to meet Goliath in the strength of the “name of the Lord Almighty.” (17:45). After Goliath lost his head, literally, the Israelites pursue the rest of the Philistines and chase them westward through the broader parts of the valley all the way to the gates of Gath and Ekron.
Incidentally, it’s sometimes fun to try and find smooth stones the a part of the Elah Valley where buses were allowed to stop along side the road to allow people to find a few smooth stones. Unfortunately, while busses are no longer allowed to stop for safety reasons in the wider part of the valley, it’s most likely in the wrong place anyway to look for the stones gathered by David. It doesn’t matter though, since I already found the other four authentic stones David didn’t have to use and dropped somewhere on the battlefield. These stones are on display in my pastor’s office. I’m just kidding, of course. 🙂
Isn’t 1 Samuel 17 a great story though, especially when the text gives us a hint where it all took place? I think so.