True Underdog

I’m certain a multitude of you are familiar with the story of David and Goliath. Here’s an excerpt from a source which I will explain later:

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

Over the centuries, numerous battles have been fought for control of the region because the valleys rising from the Mediterranenean plain offer those on the coast a clear path to the cities of Hebron, Bethlehem, and Jerusalem in the Judadean highlands. The most important valley is Aijalon, in the north. But the most storied is the Elah. The Elah was where Saladin faced off against the Knights of the Crusades in the twelfth century. It played a central role in the Maccabean wars 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 of Israel squared off against the armies of the Philistines.

The Philistines were from Crete. They were a seafaring people who had moved to Palestine and settled along the coast. The Israelites were clustered in the mountains, under the leadership of King Saul. In the second half of the eleventh century BCE, the Philistines began moving east, winding their way upstream along the floor of the Elah Valley. Their goal was to capture the mountain ridge near Bethlehem and split Saul’s kingdom in two. The Philistines were battle-tested and dangerous, and the sworn enemies of the Israelites. Alarmed, Saul gathered his men and hastened down from the mountains to confront them.

The Philistines set up camp along the southern ridge of the Elah. The Israelites pitched their tents on the other side, along the northern ridge, which left the two armies looking across the ravine at each other. Neither dared to move. To attack meant descending down the hill and then making a suicidal climb up the enemy’s ridge on the other side. Finally, the Philistines had enough. They sent their 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 body armor. 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: ‘Choose you a man and let him come down to me! If he prevail in battle against me and strike 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 terrifying opponent? Then, a shepherd boy who had come down from Bethlehem to bring food to his brothers stepped forward and volunteered. Saul objected: ‘You cannot go against this Philistine to do battle with him, for you are a lad and he is a man of war from his youth.’ But the shepherd was adamant. He had faced more ferocious opponents than this, he argued. ‘When the lion or the bear would come and carry off a sheep from the herd,’ he told Saul, ‘I would go after him and strike him down and rescue it from his clutches.’ Saul had no other options. He relented, and the shepherd boy ran down the hill toward the giant standing in the valley. ‘Come to me, that I may give your flesh to the birds of the heavens and the beasts of the field,’ the giant cried out when he saw his opponent approach. Thus began one of history’s most famous battles. The giant’s name was Goliath. The shepherd boy’s name was David.”

This was how it all began. A battle between two seemingly polar opposites in terms of strength, power, might, and skill. You have Goliath, an absolute giant who was trained to fight from birth, and then you have David, a young shepherd boy (which was one of the lowest occupations back then) who claims that he killed lions and wolves. Who do you think would win?

Here’s how it all played out. Goliath was offended when he saw David walk down the hill, looking at his staff and saying, “Am I a dog, that you should come to me with sticks?” While the giant was mocking him, David took a stone and put it into the leather poach of a a sling, and fires the rock at Goliath’s forehead. Boom. The stone hit him square in the head, making him fall unconscious. David then “runs toward him, seizes the giant’s sword, and cuts off his head.” The Philistines were so afraid that “their warrior was dead, and they fled.”

How is this all possible? How could a shepherd boy who couldn’t have weighed more than 150 pounds take on a brute of a man with spears and swords and armor that probably weighed more than David himself? This type of story is what popular culture likes to call “an underdog story” – a battle that was won by someone who shouldn’t have won at all. This is how I interpreted this story, but as Malcolm Gladwell states in his new book David and Goliath, we all got the story wrong.

Since this is Gladwell’s book, I feel he deserves the honor of explaining how we all messed up the legendary story of David and Goliath. Here is a video of Gladwell speaking at a TED talk, where he tells the story perfectly.

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