Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Six-Fingered Giant (II Samuel 21:20)

How many fingers and toes did Goliath have? 24 (II Samuel 21:20)

II Samuel includes a list of four Israelite warriors who defeated Philistine giants during David’s reign (II Samuel 21:15-22). At the outset, the king is said to be “weary” (II Samuel 21:15 NASB) so it is perhaps not surprising that the Bible’s most famous giant killer does not square off against these giants. Instead, the king’s men, Abishai (II Samuel 21:15-17), Sibbecai (II Samuel 21:18), Elhanan (II Samuel 21:19) and David’s nephew Jonathan (II Samuel 21:20-21) are each credited with felling Philistines.

Giants were rare even in biblical times. The word translated “giant” is rapha. It is used only eight times in the Bible, seven appearing in this chapter and its parallel in I Chronicles (II Samuel 21:16, 18, 20, 22; I Chronicles 20:4, 6, 8). The last occurrence is a proper name (I Chronicles 8:2).

The passage is merely a recap and as such details of the battles are scarce. Though hailing from Gath, the last giant is most likely not Goliath as the question and some tradition presumes. The final adversary, defeated by David’s nephew Jonathan, does, however, stand out, even amongst giants. Unlike the first three giants, he is unnamed and is instead identified by a curious digital structure.

There was war at Gath again, where there was a man of great stature who had six fingers on each hand and six toes on each foot, twenty-four in number; and he also had been born to the giant. When he defied Israel, Jonathan the son of Shimei, David’s brother, struck him down. (II Samuel 21:20-21 NASB)
Like a pulp villain, the final foe is a six-fingered giant (II Samuel 21:20; I Chronicles 20:6).

Robert D. Bergen (b. 1954) summarizes:

The fourth Philistine was killed in “another battle, which took place at Gath” (II Samuel 21:20), in the heart of Philistine territory. At that location David’s nephew, “Jonathan son of Shimea” (II Samuel 21:21) slew “a hug man with sin fingers on each hand and six toes on each foot” (II Samuel 21:20). This individual, who had the unusual condition known as hexadigitation, was killed when “he taunted Israel.” He too was one of the descendants of Rapha. (Bergen, 1, 2 Samuel (New American Commentary: Vol. 7), 450)
Hans Wilhelm Hertzberg (1895-1965) adds:
The last-named giant, whose name is unknown, is described as an abnormal and therefore uncanny man who is also apparently particularly large. His conqueror is a nephew of David’s, unknown elsewhere (II Samuel 13:3, 32). It is hardly possible to identify him with Jonathan the son of Shammah from the list of the thirty in II Samuel 23:33, as the latter is not a Bethlehemite. It is remarkable that all those named here should come from Bethlehem (or its neighbourhood), so that the whole passage seems to be a page from the honours list of Bethlehem, which is added here to give higher praise to David of Bethlehem. (Hertzberg, I and II Samuel: A Commentary (Old Testament Library), 388)
The giant has sexdactyly (also known hexadactyly or more generically as polydactyly), a genetic condition in which a person has six fingers on one or both hands or six toes on one or both feet. Possessing a supernumerary finger or toe is not particularly uncommon, occurring one in every 500 to 1000 births. In fact, this genetically inheritable condition is actually autosomal-dominant though the trait has obviously not become predominant. Some populations feature a larger proportion of six-fingered people. In most cases, the extra digit has limited or no mobility and is therefore surgically removed shortly after birth. Having 24 working digits is extremely rare. Former Major League pitcher Antonio Alfonseca (b. 1972) is one such case, though he asserted that his extra fingers had little affect on his pitching as they seldom contacted the ball. In 2011, the New York Daily News profiled a Cuban named Yoandri Hernandez Garrido, nicknamed “Twenty-four”, who parlayed his extra digits into cash by using his enhanced grip to easily scale palm trees to acquire coconuts and posing for photographs with tourists in Baracoa.

Have you ever met a giant? Has someone ever fought a battle for you when you were too weary to fight yourself? What is your most distinguishing physical feature? Would having additional digits be a benefit or a detriment? Why was this detail about the giant included? How would the original audience have perceived the adversary’s appearance?

Superstitiously, polydactyly has been associated with proof of good (kings, divine blessing, quasi-divine attributes), evil (witches, the offspring of the watchers in I Enoch) and more recently inbreeding (some Appalachian towns are known “Six Finger [insert town here]”).

The original audience likely saw the giant polydactyly as the ultimate in intimidation. Stephen J. Andrews (b. 1954) explains, “A person with four extra digits was very unusual, and this would have made him seem especially formidable (Andrews, I & II Samuel (Holman Old Testament Commentary), 348).”

Renowned composer Dennis Jernigan (b. 1959) adds:

The..last giant, unlike his kinsmen Goliath, Ishbi-Benob, Saph, and Lahmi, is given no name in the Bible. Instead, he is identified by an unusual physical characteristic that today is known as polydactyly: Rather than having five fingers or five toes, he had six. This trait must have made him seem more extraordinary and more fearsome to others of his day than even his great height did. (Jernigan, Giant Killers: Crushing Strongholds, Securing Freedom in Your Life)
Peter R. Ackroyd (1917-2005) writes bluntly, “The giant mentioned here is also a monster in having excess fingers and toes (Ackroyd, The Second Book of Samuel (Cambridge Bible Commentaries on the New English Bible), 203).”

Though writing in the days before political correctness, Ackroyd hits the nail on the head - to his enemies, the man was perceived as a monster. And yet somehow, presumably through divine intervention, the monster was defeated.

What was more intimidating: the man’s size or his extra fingers and toes? (In Princess Bride terms, would you rather battle Fezzik or Count Rugen?) Why is the giant unnamed? Can you name your most imposing adversary? What is the fight of your life? Do you have faith that ,with God’s help, you can defeat it?

“He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.” - Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), Beyond Good and Evil, p. 146

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