Last week the world gaped in horror at a photo posted to Instagram by Jihadist Khaled Sharrouf. The photo depicts Sharrouf’s seven year old son proudly holding up the decapitated head of a Syrian soldier. The moral judgment was unequivocal. “Appalling!” “Disgusting!” “Evil!”
This moral revulsion provides an opportune time to turn to one of the most familiar stories in the Bible, one that has provided fodder for countless Sunday school lessons. As you might have guessed, I speak of David’s defeat of Goliath in 1 Samuel 17. While we don’t know David’s age, he is described as a “youth” (KJV) or “little more than a boy” (NIV) (v. 42). Both of these are translations of the Hebrew “na`ar” . (Cf. “na’ar,” Expository Dictionary of Bible Words, ed. Stephen Renn (Hendrickson, 2005), p. 176.)
So how old was David, exactly? We don’t know, but we can make a ballpark guess. David was the youngest of eight sons, the eldest three of whom had followed their father into battle (vv. 12-14), a fact that suggests the youngest five were not yet of battle age. This would suggest that David was perhaps 12 or 13 years old. One can surmise that he was not a diminutive child given that Saul, an individual of formidable size, attempts to dress David in his own tunic (v. 38), not to mention David’s impressive claim to have defeated both lion and bear (v. 36). Regardless, even if David was a formidable young man, he was still likely in his pre-teen or early teen years.
After David defeats Goliath he beheads the man (v. 51) and then brings the head to Jerusalem (v. 54), presumably as a macabre trophy.
So it is likely that David was about 5-6 years older than the son of Khaled Sharrouf. With this in mind, let’s revisit the horror of witnessing Sharrouf’s son carrying the Syrian soldier’s head. Would our moral assessment have changed if the boy had been 12 or 13? Or would we still consider that an act of indefensible barbarism?
And the issue is not merely about the involvement of children. In our day and age we generally consider the desecration of corpses (whether of civilians or soldiers) to be morally indefensible. And that includes the beheading of corpses whilst treating the head as a trophy.
This leaves us with some important questions. Does this divergence between our sensibilities and those of the ancient Israelites reflect merely culturally relative differences? If so, then it follows that we might be mistaken to extend a moral censure to the practice in contemporary Syria. But if we insist that the desecration of corpses in this manner is objectively morally wrong how should we think of the practice in ancient Israel?
Add to that the moral complications with including minors — whether 7 or 13 — in battle and 1 Samuel 17 becomes very morally problematic indeed.