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A Requiem for Goliath

The Philistine giant also had a mother

Anne Roiphe
April 14, 2021
Federico Vespignani
Federico Vespignani
Federico Vespignani
Federico Vespignani

Who mourns for Goliath? There he is, long legs akimbo, head in the dirt, bugs crawling on his lips. The club that was intended for his enemy’s head lies a few feet away, where his arm had flung it in a last gesture of defiance. In the trees at the side of the field, the crows and the sparrows, the bees and the grasshoppers are singing out the word to all God’s creation. Won, win, kill, won, win, kill, caw, cackle, trill, the field trembles with the sound of surprise.

The boy, not yet a man, but with broad shoulders and a set to his jaw that promised success, stood above his victim and felt a peculiar lightness in his head. How close he had come to death. It made the hand that clutched his slingshot tremble. God had been with him, but had he deserved the favor? Maybe yes? Maybe no? The Jews came up beside him cheering and lifted him up on their shoulders. Still a boy, a golden boy, he smiled and waved at the Jewish army arrayed across the field. But he worried. What next? What else? The smell of blood was in the air. The hum of insects flying here and there, back and forth was incessant. Victory was his, belonged to the Jews for now. But what next? When would it be his turn to lie in the grass, blood staining the dirt, breath fading away? Thou shalt not kill said the Lord, but He didn’t mean it. Did He?

The Jews embraced David and the king himself kissed him on both cheeks. David blushed with pleasure or shame or both.

And the days of Goliath had ended. And the story of David had begun. It had begun in blood. It had begun in battle. And when desire struck it would continue in deceit and lust and harm and death.

Goliath’s mother wept over the body of her child, her enormous child. We could create a river that would circle the globe with the tears of mothers. That river would grow so deep, flood the plains, lap at the peaks of mountains, that history itself might drown in its embrace.

“We won’t go to war no more, no more,” sang the children around the campfire, their marshmallows charred and glowing on long sticks. But it wasn’t up to them. A few yards farther into the wood, an owl swooped down and sank his claws into the back of the small skull of a weasel, whose death would go unremarked by kith or kin, unnoticed by man or woman, by dog or fox, by star or moon. Did someone bury Goliath? Or was he left to decompose in the heat of summer or the chill of wind and rain?

Before the rock came through the air and ripped through the bones of Goliath’s skull, had he known love, before that had he caressed a big girl with the smell of grass on her skin? Is there a way we can give him back his life, write an opera about him, compose a symphony in his honor, open a school with his name carved in stone above the doors? Of course not.

We could make up a birthday for Goliath and give each other presents of cookies and cakes, giant ones, to mark his death every year. But we won’t. The defeated don’t get cookies and cake. The winner of the battle celebrates and the loser waits his turn for revenge. And so it will go until the end of time.

Animals who have long sharp teeth pierce the skin of their enemies. Animals with poison in their glands destroy their enemies with a quick snap of their jaws. Animals who slither, crawl, or jump from high rocks kill because they do not like vegetables. They run fast, dive low, soar up, swim wide rivers, sun themselves on boulders, and sleep in dark caves or high up on tree limbs. Man is foe and prey, and we are left to wonder why the warm earth, the plains, the mountains, the rivers, and the oceans were designed so that the weeping of creatures would echo in the sky and the prospect of a blood-stained death would stalk us all?

And so when the rock from David’s slingshot pierced Goliath’s brow, did anyone on the battlefield understand that Jews would pay a price for this victory in subsequent defeats? Was God pleased or was he ashamed of his creation? Or had he moved on to another planet, galaxies away, leaving us to our own devices, which became elaborate enough to destroy the very ground beneath our feet, making us not only the enemy of the tribe next door but the destroyer of life itself, of every living thing.

What if David had sat down on the grass in the middle of the field and told Goliath stories about the beginning of time, the names of the stars, the path of birds, the games of children: What if David had told Goliath of strange urges that brought men to seek women, women to seek men, humans of all kinds to embrace one another? What if David had brought to Goliath the gentleness of a finger tracing a line on the back of a partner who moves closer and closer?

Of course—that would be boring and the Philistines and the Jews and both their peoples would have vanished from the face of the earth, leaving behind a few marks worn into rocks and rivers full of small disappointments.

As it is, we are prepared for tears even before the enemy appears on the horizon. Even after thousands of years have passed. A remembering nation has drawers and closets stacked to the ceiling with slingshots, because who knows when Goliath will walk the earth again.

Anne Roiphe is a novelist and a journalist.