Here is How Hebrews Saw Their Indo-European Enemies

Original thread by mer-rekh (@egy_philosopher)

In the story of David and Goliath, two views of Heroism are compared and the readers are treated to, perhaps, one of the most hostile depictions of Homeric warrior culture ever written. Here is how Hebrews saw their Indo-European enemies. [THREAD]

Here is How Hebrews Saw Their Indo-European Enemies

Just at the moment the Greek king Attarissiya was raiding Anatolia and Cyprus, in the 13th and 12th centuries BC, and establishing settlements, the cities around Gaza in southern Canaan were taken and occupied by people whom the Jews called the Philistines.

They had been drawn to the markets and the grassy downland of southern Palestine, where beautiful pear and almond orchards surround the mudbrick villages and where cattle and horses can graze on the clover and young barley of the open plains.

Their lands—Philistia—are now the gentle, hilly farmland of southwestern Israel. “Philistine” in Hebrew means “the invader” or “the roller-in”.

And from the style of their rock-cut chamber tombs, the pottery they made, and from the form of their own names, it is clear that these Philistines were Mycenaean Greeks, cruising the Mediterranean seas, searching out new lands, ready to fight whomever they found there.

The war in Canaan between Greek and Hebrew was long and grievous, but at its symbolic climax, as depicted in the First Book of the Prophet Samuel, the readers are treated to one of the most hostile depictions of Homeric warrior culture ever written.

The Philistines had taken up position on a hillside at Socoh in the rolling agricultural country of the Judean foothills a few miles west of Bethlehem. A champion came out of the Philistine camp, a man called Goliath, to challenge the Israelites drawn up on the opposite hillside.

Goliath is a huge, clumsy, half-ludicrous, threatening and contemptible figure. He is, even in the earliest and least exaggerated manuscripts, six feet nine inches tall, wearing the full equipment of the Homeric hero:

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a bronze helmet on his head, bronze armor on his chest, bronze greaves on his legs and carrying a sword and dagger of bronze. Everything about him is vast. His armor weighs nearly 140 pounds, the head of his spear fifteen pounds.

Massively overequipped, a cross between Ajax and Desperate Dan, Goliath stands there shouting across the valley at his enemies:

The stolidity of the Greek, his philistinism, his need to spell everything out, to put his own self-aggrandisement into endlessly self-elevating words—all of that comes out of Goliath like the self-proclaiming spout of a whale.

But this is exactly what in the Iliad one Greek warrior after another liked and needed to do. Shouted aggression, the Homeric haka, was the first act of any Greek battle.

“When Saul and the Israelites heard what the Philistine said, they were shaken and dismayed.” It was not in them to make the symmetrical response—you shout at me, I’ll shout at you—which is one of the foundations of the Homeric system.

And so a painful and faintly ludicrous asymmetrical situation developed. “Morning and evening for forty days the Philistine drew near and presented himself,” standing there, twice a day for a month and a half, bellowing across the valley like a giant bronze cuckoo clock.

The shepherd boy David, the youngest of his family, whose brothers are in the Israelite host facing the Philistines, is told by his father, Jesse, to take some loaves and cream cheeses to their commander.

He arrives there and to his amazement sees and hears Goliath shouting away. “Who is he,” David asks, “an uncircumcised Philistine, to defy the army of the living god?”

That is not a Greek question. A Greek would have understood what Goliath was saying, and would have responded by strapping on his armor. Defiance and the locking of horns was no more than a recognition of Homeric reality.

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When Saul, the king of the Jews, finally accepts that David might respond to the challenge of the Greek giant, he tries to dress him in his own armor. David accepts it meekly but then hesitates and proclaims his difference.

“I cannot go with these because I have not tried them.” So he took them off. And he picked up his stick, and chose 5 smooth stones out of the brook, and put them in a shepherd’s bag which he had with him as a pouch. He walked out to meet the Philistine with his sling in his hand.

It is a version of the Homeric arming of the hero and the single-combat meeting of warriors, the monomachia between Paris and Menelaus, Hector and Ajax, Achilles and Hector, which anchors the whole of the Homeric experience.

But this is more like a parody of it than a borrowing. The unprotected boy, with his shepherd’s bag and stick, crouches down in the brook running between the two embattled hillsides, and with his fingers in the water, picks out the plain smoothness of five good stones.

No love affair with bronze, no self-enlargement. In everything David does, and in every lack he suffers, there is one implied and overwhelming fact: the god of the Israelites. In his presence the difference between armor and armorlessness, bronze and flesh, is like smoke in wind.

And the Philistine came on and drew near unto David and the man that bare the shield went before him. And when the Philistine looked about, and saw David, he disdained him; for he was but a youth, and ruddy, and of a fair countenance.

“Am I a dog that you come out against me with sticks?” And he swore at him in the name of his gods. “Come on,” he said, “and I will give your flesh to the birds of the air and the beasts of the field.”

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David told him that he would kill him and cut off his head,
and all the world shall know there is a god in Israel. All those who are gathered here shall see that the LORD saves neither by sword nor spear; the battle is the LORD’s and he will put you all into our power.

And David put his hand in his bag, and took thence a stone, and slang it, and smote the Philistine in his forehead, that the stone sunk into his forehead; and he fell upon his face to the earth.

Is there any wonder that this story has lasted as long as Homer? Those forty days of shouting, all the grandeur of bronze, the whole rhetoric of assertive Homeric heroism, is now clogged with the mud filling Goliath’s mouth and nostrils.

A painting by the young Caravaggio, now in the Prado, of David after the death of Goliath is, in this way, one of the most beautiful commentaries on Homer that has ever been made.

What survives in the painting is the beauty of the boy, his intentness on the knot as he ties a cord around Goliath’s hair, his simplicity, his seriousness, his lack of bombast.

He kneels on the giant Greek chest, from which the head was severed, as if on a workbench, blood just staining his hand, his own face in shadow, a face of humility, the heroism entirely inward.

This is the view of Greek heroism given us by the Hebrew scriptures: weak and bombastic compared to the clarity and strength of the pious mind.

What do you think? Were the Hebrews right?

Source: Why Homer Matters, by Adam Nicolson.

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