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Slaying a biblically bad idea

How did David defeat Goliath? According to the Bible, it was because God was on his side. But according to Malcolm Gladwell, it was largely because Goliath had a disorder known as acromegaly, a tumor on the pituitary gland.

This disorder, identified in the late 19th century, manifests as gigantism, and it may affect vision. Gladwell lays out his case in his new book, "David and Goliath." Acromegaly could account for Goliath's unusual size, he writes, and the vision problems it can cause could explain a range of details in the Bible: Goliath's slow movements; his request that David come to him rather than the other way around; his need for an attendant to walk with him onto the battlefield; even the fact that Goliath taunts David by saying, "You come against me with sticks?" in the plural, when, in fact, David is carrying but a single stick. This analysis isn't original to Gladwell. Dictionaries of ancient Judaism, biblical commentaries and medical handbooks alike use Goliath as an interesting and well-known example of this potent condition.

But even setting aside the problematic assumption that the biblical story preserves a perfect historical record — a problem exemplified by the fact that the earliest version of the story we have actually has Goliath saying "stick," singular — diagnosing Goliath, and recasting the David and Goliath story, this way is insupportable.

No modern doctor would be content to rely on the scraps of information that pass for evidence here. The hormone tests and magnetic resonance imaging usually used to diagnose the condition are, of course, impossible to perform. Moreover, Goliath presents with only two of many symptoms associated with the condition. He was tall and maybe he didn't see so well; even WebMD wouldn't be so bold as to diagnose with no more than that. This kind of "scientific" analysis fails on its own terms.

And even if we were to discover Goliath's body, exhume it and prove with all our most advanced technology that he did indeed have a tumor on his pituitary gland, it would change nothing about the meaning of the Bible's story and which warrior had the advantage. No one at the time would have viewed Goliath as anything other than fearsome. Being unusually tall would have been seen as a great advantage, particularly for a soldier. As for blurred or distorted vision, this was disabling in the ancient world, as it is today, but it must have been a great deal more common in a society without opticians. Today, 75% of Americans use corrective lenses; how much less noteworthy must Goliath's vision impairment have been in his own time?

The point is this: No contemporary of Goliath would have seen him as disabled — if, in fact, they themselves could see him clearly. What we assess as disability the ancients saw as super-ability. What we interpret as impairment they interpreted as a mark of divine favor. Within the world of the narrative, it's clear that none of the Israelites or Philistines understood the confrontation as one of abled against disabled.

It's telling that of all the biblical verses Gladwell cites, he avoids the one that provides the key to the non-medical readings of the story: "I come against you in the name of the Lord of Hosts." This theological explanation for David's victory may not be accurate; it may have been a matter of fast against slow, nimble against encumbered, innovative against conservative, as Gladwell suggests. But disabling Goliath — and thereby rendering God unnecessary and impotent — is an anachronistic imposition on the ancient text. It produces a creative reading of the story, but it fails to give us what Gladwell claims to be providing: an objective, timeless key to understanding Goliath's defeat.

Reading the text in Gladwell's way is a form of "now-ism": It assumes that we understand the data better than those who are actually providing it for us. It is, unfortunately, symptomatic of numerous medical readings of the Bible. Many characters have been paraded through the amateur physician's consulting room. King Saul wasn't afflicted by an evil spirit from God, he was bipolar; the prophet Ezekiel's terrifying visions were not messages from God, but the result of paranoid schizophrenia; and Job's painful boils were no divine punishment but merely hyperimmunoglobulin E syndrome, commonly known as "Job's disease."

The attempt to diagnose historical and literary figures using modern medicine obscures the fact that the significance of their physical characteristics has to be evaluated in context. The overconfident giant to be slain here is surely the short-sighted arrogance of modern diagnostics.

Joel Baden, associate professor of Old Testament at Yale University, is the author of "The Historical David: The Real Life of an Invented Hero." Candida Moss is professor of New Testament and early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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