None of the scenes of single-handed combat in Homer’s epic of war or in Vergil’s Roman successor has achieved the mythic universality of this historical, biblical tale. One reason is that it is much simpler and more naïve. Both Achilles’ fight with Hector in the Iliad and Aeneas’s climactic defeat of Turnus in the Aeneid are psychologically and artistically complex. Achilles and Hector, kings of the Greeks and the Trojans, and “Trojan” Aeneas and Turnus king of the indigenous Sabines, are evenly matched in their social status and military prowess. The deaths of Hector and Turnus both have tragic overtones. They participate in the grandeur of the epic milieu from which they spring. No Greek or Roman epic poet would dream of matching a shepherd against a giant. As against the tragic endings of the Homeric and Vergilian epics of war, the slaying of the hulking Goliath by the youthful shepherd is a straightforward happy dénouement.
At the same time, all is not quite what it seems, and we know that. It is not the uneven conquest of a Philistine champion by an anonymous boy that it looks like on the surface. Few are taken in. It is not about a habiru, a socially marginal migrant, taking on a terrifying tyrant, and anyone who has read the preceding chapters of 1 Samuel knows that. In this story, a secretly anointed king throws down the gauntlet to a representative member of the most God-mocked tribe in sacred scripture.
…You don’t have to know God’s injunction to Samuel, “Man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (16:7 ESV), to intuit that this is what the story is about. It is the secret of its universal, mythic appeal, because everyone knows that appearances are deceptive and because everyone likes it that way. Or, they’d like to like it that way.
The truth that Plato wrote a philosophy to expound is told in 1 Sam. 17 as an adventure story. But Platonists are not all that sure that the deceptiveness of appearance is amiable. It is a conundrum for them, and a tragedy: Socrates was a martyr to truth over the common opinions of the Athenian jurors, their susceptibility to false appearances. Whereas, for the Bible, the deceptiveness of appearance is weighted to winning: it launches the heart to triumph over the appearance. It is because we yearn to believe that “strength is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9) that the inspired authority of scripture is humanly gripping. That weakness is deceptive is what launches the underdog to victory. This is why David is a great comic hero, and the biblical vision is ultimately a comedy.