Professor in Prison: Why Five Stones?

As regular readers know, I've been helping lead a weekly bible class at a local prison. I've shared a few stories from the study, the most popular being this one.

One of the things that I've tried to downplay in the study is my status and title of "college professor" and "Dr. Beck." I just want to be Richard. But the guys in the study keep calling me "Professor" and "Dr. Beck."

I was recently lamenting about this with Jana. But she said something that really helped me. "You know," she said, "a lot of those guys never got a chance to go to college. You going out there, I bet, makes them feel a little like they are getting to take a college class." Jana's wise in this way. Her words made me realize that I didn't have to feel embarrassed by my title. In fact, it could be a location of grace.

Not that I play this up (and it helps that I don't really look like a professor). I just feel more comfortable if the guys want to call me "Professor" or "Doctor."

But here's the best thing about being a professor in prison: I've become a sort of answer engine. I'm their Google. At the end of every study a bunch of the guys will come up to me and ask questions. Mostly about the bible. If I can't answer right away I go off to find an answer and return with it next week. And the questions they ask are all over the place. Here's a recent one that was great fun to look into:

With the study over, one of the guys comes up to me after class and asks: "Professor, I have a question for you."

"Great. What is it?"

"Why did David, when he went out to fight Goliath, take five stones from the stream?"

"Why did David take five stones?"

"Yes. Why five stones? If David trusted God wouldn't he have taken only one stone into battle?"
I'd never thought about that. And by the way, these are the sort of questions I get a lot. The guys don't often ask about huge theological questions like the problem of evil or predestination and free will. They ask these midrash-like questions about small textual details and anomalies. Questions about why, if David was trusting in God, he took five rather than one stone into battle.

Well, I didn't have an answer. So I did a little research. You'll be surprised to know that there has been a bit of discussion on this subject. Who knew? One of the more interesting answers is based on this text:
2 Samuel 21.18-22
In the course of time, there was another battle with the Philistines, at Gob. At that time Sibbekai the Hushathite killed Saph, one of the descendants of Rapha.

In another battle with the Philistines at Gob, Elhanan son of Jair the Bethlehemite killed the brother of Goliath the Gittite, who had a spear with a shaft like a weaver’s rod.

In still another battle, which took place at Gath, there was a huge man with six fingers on each hand and six toes on each foot—twenty-four in all. He also was descended from Rapha. When he taunted Israel, Jonathan son of Shimeah, David’s brother, killed him.

These four were descendants of Rapha in Gath, and they fell at the hands of David and his men.
As we read here, there seem to have been five giants from Gath. Goliath and these four (one of whom, it seems, had six fingers on each hand and six toes on each foot). The four giants from Gath read about in 2 Samuel 21 are all "descendants of Rapha." And one of them was "the brother of Goliath." If we speculate a bit--And who doesn't like some good midrash speculation?--we might weave all this together to come up with an answer as to why David picked up five rather than one stone. Specifically, he might have picked up five stones because Goliath had four giant brothers. Or, at the very least, one giant brother and three giant cousins.

David went down to battle with five stones prepared to whip the whole lot of them. Five stones for five related Philistine giants.

Such are the things I research being a professor in prison.

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30 thoughts on “Professor in Prison: Why Five Stones?”

  1. God bless you, Dr. Beck, for honoring the questions of these men, to the extent that you follow-through with a well-researched answer.

    I suspect that their reference to your professional title in addressing you goes beyond their sense of being a student, though from what I read here at ET, you are indeed a gifted teacher.  Could it not also be a gesture of respect, gratitude and trust?  There are plenty of people I know with credentials in whom I am unwilling to place my trust (or to voluntarily place myself in a subservient role).  Asking a question of someone reveals a vulnerability; that is really remarkable, given the setting you're in with these men, that you have established a relationship of trust with them.

    I so admire what you are doing in this prison ministry.  Thanks for sharing your experiences here on the blog.

  2. It's an interesting idea. However, if you read 2 Samuel 21 in the original or in any translation except the NIV*, it clearly states Elhanan killed Goliath of Gath himself. This is one of those passages that preserves a second and contradictory tradition about a famous event — the killing of Goliath in this instance. Some think that the story of Elhanan, David's man, killing Goliath was probably the original one, and the tradition crediting David himself was a later development.**
    *This is one of many instances in which the NIV translators upheld their creed of biblical inerrancy by changing the meaning of the text itself to hide inconsistencies. Adding "brother" into the text is pure invention on their part.**Any decent study Bible will show you that the David and Goliath contains narrative discontinuities, some of which are absent from the LXX and almost certainly a later addition to the Masoretic Hebrew text that Protestant Bibles use.

  3. Both Hebrew and LXX identify the man killed by Elhanan was Goliath himself. Maybe someone was trying to harmonise the texts. I imagine the translators had some theological problem with what they read, and changed it. These things happen!

  4. Yeah, you hold him down while I cut his head off!

    Makes you wonder why we teach these stories to children... ;-)

  5. The story in 2 Sam has David as an old enough man to get exhausted in battle (and have his men say that he was now retired from fighting), and the story we all know about David and Goliath has David as a boy.  Is it possible that the Goliath in 2 Sam is the son of the one David killed?  (I don't know, just asking).  Also, the Hebrew does have the word "brother" in the parallel text in 1 Chronicles 20, so calling it an invention isn't quite fair.

  6. For those following along:

    1 Chronicles 20.5
    In another battle with
    the Philistines, Elhanan son of Jair killed Lahmi the brother of
    the Gittite, who had a spear with a shaft like a weaver’s rod.

    2 Samuel 21.1In another battle with the Philistines at Gob, Elhanan son of Jair the Bethlehemite killed [the brother of] Goliath the Gittite, who had a spear with a shaft like a weaver’s rod.

    In 2 Sam. 21 the phrase "the brother of" isn't in the Hebrew, but it is in 1 Chron. 20.

  7. This is an excellent examination into a possible (maybe even likely) answer, but it has me thinking along more personal lines.  Let's say, for the sake of argument, Goliath's tall relatives were away from the field that day.  Is it possible David took one stone because he trusted God and the other four because he didn't trust himself?

    What I'm getting at is the pattern I see in my own life of saying, "God, I know you can do this" and while thinking "I have to have a back-up plan."  If I were stepping out to hurl stones at a mountain of a man, I'd probably take twenty-five -- I'd be unsure my aim was true and hope I could get them all off before I was split in half.

    Again, it's a personal illumination -- a comment on an area I'm looking to grow -- but one that throws a different spin on the story.

  8. Do you have lightbulb jokes in the States? 

    The format is: "How many [potentially humorous category of people] does it take to change a lightbulb?  Answer: Unexpected number  - followed a punchline explanation.

    My two favourites are:

    How many psychologists do you need to change a lightbulb?

    Answer: Only one, but the lightbulb has to really want to change.


    How many women suffering from PMT does it take to change a lightbulb?

    Answer: Seventeen

    Why seventeen?


    (Oh boy, am I asking for trouble...)

    Anyway, now I have a new one:

    How many smooth stones selected from a stream does it take to kill a giant?

    Answer: Five - one for the giant and the other four for his older brothers.

    My pastor once gave me some very good advice when I was in a very vulnerable and powerless work situation:  'Don't start something unless you're prepared to finish it.  Choose your battles wisely and plan them thoroughly.' 

    I wonder how that advice would be received by your friend...

  9. Thanks, Richard. That man is a very careful student of the scriptures! You got some sharp students out there. Keep up the good work!

  10. Yep, the upcoming generation of the Biblically literate are now gaming on Assassin's Creed.

    BTW, one your psych majors (she said she graduates this spring) was my cashier today at  HEB. Very sweet young lady.

  11. I believe you are correct in your answer and also commend you on your ministry. I also worked as a counselor in a prison and generally the average IQ of my clients was well above that of the average college student. A lot of my clients were extremely intelligent, and were either kicked out or dropped out of school, because there was no provisions made in their schools for extremely intelligent or gifted students, so they hit the streets and became social predators. Having been labeled outcasts in school, they assumed the role of social outcasts in the greater society, outsiders looking in, wolves stalking sheep...

  12. (I literally LOL'd at the PMT one.  I'm telling that one to my wife tomorrow!)

    Us Yanks love the lightbulb jokes as well.  The possibilities are endless. 

    How many Universalists does it take to change a lightbulb?

    Who needs a lightbulb when the light of God is in everyone!

    ...sorry I tried :)

  13. No Richard, you have to teach the entire Word of God to Children, including all of its sodomy and incest and violence.  Revelation 22:19 says so. 

    (Sorry, was that too snarky?)  :)

  14. The Chronicler, who wrote long after Samual was written and used it as a source, basically played the same game the NIV translators did. Using the Hebrew text of Samuel, he took the word Bet-Lahmi ("the Bethlehemite"), removed the article and changed bet to 'et so that "Lahmi" became a person's name (even though the word Lahmi by itself means "bread" and is never attested as a name).

    Then he changed the direct object particle to "brother" (written in Hebrew, they look very similar), and bam, you have "Elhanan son of Jair killed Lahmi brother of Goliath" instead of the original phrase "Elhanan son of Jair the Bethlehemite killed Goliath".

  15. I'm fascinated by how such a simple and odd little question opened up all this interesting stuff regarding the biblical text.

  16. I find it interesting that even some of the authors of the Bible themselves (i.e. the Chronicler) struggled with the little issues and oddities they encountered just like we do today, and found different ways of dealing with them.

  17. 5 in the OT always refers to God's Covenant with Abraham as articulated in the Pentateuch -  Five stones representing the five books of Moses. 

  18. My friend what you have understood about the five stones is truly remarkable, there are only few Christians where God entrusted such revelation, and usually they're those who did'nt went to theology schools.. I'd be glad to subscribe on your posts..

  19. you have to understand God's word deals with every reader differently, if you think five stones means "IT JUST DOES" then that's it.. that's yours but that doesn't mean it's the same for others..

  20. No need for specifics, but to me.. David picking up five stone means, he wasn't just referring to winning the battle against Goliath.. but it's a prophecy that he will will eventually win the war..

  21. Absolutely truth, One thing my Grandfather come up with also was on the day David slew Goliath the one thing that aided in the Davids Victory was the Giant was over Confident! Usually a Philistine soldier always had a face shield. The Scripture tells us that the stone found its landing place in the one place that usually was protected. Just some thought. I appreciate your commitment to finding truth. Good research.

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