David and Alexander the Great

You might have heard of “David and Goliath,” but few have heard of “David and Alexander the Great.” David was from the 10th century BCE, while Alexander was from the 4th century BCE. David was the king of Israel, and Alexander, originally from Macedonia, was the king of the Hellenistic kingdom. Geographically and chronologically, these two individuals have no connection. So you may wonder why anyone would write about “David and Alexander the Great.” But there is an intriguing story that connects the two individuals.

image sources: left – Alexander the Great in the Alexander Mosaic at the National Archaeological Museum, Naples, Italy; right – David by Michelangelo

Alexander’s Story

In terms of being a brave military leader, Alexander to David are comparable. However, that is not enough to discuss the connection between David and Alexander. The most detailed account of Alexander as a military leader is found in the Anabasis of Alexander, written by a writer named Arrian in the 2nd century. It contains a story remarkably similar to the story of David in 2 Sam 23:13-17. The following is the first section of Arrian’s Anabasis, Book 6, Ch. 26.

Here I have resolved not to pass over in silence the most noble deed perhaps ever performed by Alexander, which occurred either in this land or, according to the assertion of some other authors, still earlier, among the Parapamisadians. The army was continuing its march through the sand, though the heat of the sun was already scorching, because it was necessary to reach water before halting. They were far on the journey, and Alexander himself, though oppressed with thirst, was nevertheless with great pain and difficulty leading the army on foot, so that his soldiers, as is usual in such a case, might more patiently bear their hardships by the equalization of the distress. At this time some of the light-armed soldiers, starting away from the army in quest of water, found some collected in a shallow cleft, a small and mean spring. Collecting this water with difficulty, they came with all speed to Alexander, as if they were bringing him some great boon. As soon as they approached the king, they poured the water into a helmet and carried it to him. He took it, and commending the men who brought it, immediately poured it upon the ground in the sight of all. As a result of this action, the entire army was re-invigorated to so great a degree that any one would have imagined that the water poured away by Alexander had furnished a draught to every man. This deed beyond all others I commend as evidence of Alexander’s power of endurance and self-control, as well as of his skill in managing an army.

source: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/46976/46976-h/46976-h.htm#Page_358

Isn’t this interesting? This story is incredibly similar to 2 Sam 23:13-17. (If you don’t remember the biblical account please read it first). Let’s compare the two accounts.

  1. Both David and Alexander are kings and act as military commanders.
  2. Both stories assume a situation where they suffer from a lack of water during military operations.
  3. Both stories depict a few brave soldiers bringing water for their commander at the risk of their lives.
  4. Both stories show the commander pouring water on the ground instead of drinking it alone, even when he is suffering from thirst.

The commonalities of these two stories are surprising. It’s as if one writer imitated the other.

Of course, there are apparent differences. Alexander did not drink the water thinking that, when all his soldiers were suffering from heat and thirst, drinking water alone would lower morale. On the other hand, David poured the water, not as a means to boost morale. Instead, his action was an act of faith: “The LORD forbid that I should do this. Can I drink the blood of the men who went at the risk of their lives?” (NRSV). David’s action was to give a drink offering to God. The same event is attested in Gen 35:14, where Jacob pours out his drink offering on the ground. The water was worth the lives of his soldiers, so David considered the water not as mere water but as an “offering.” He believed that only God could receive such a valuable offering (A. Anderson, 2 Samuel, Word Biblical Commentary vol. 11). Furthermore, the mention of David’s deed in 2 Sam 23:13-17 is only secondary in its context. 2 Sam 23 is a collection of stories about his warriors, not David himself. In contrast, the story of Alexander in the Anabasis is centered around Alexander himself.

Rising Questions

Despite some differences, however, it cannot be denied that these two stories utilize the same subject matter. The fact that some reports from the Bible are found even in secular stories like Anabasis that have no connection to the Scriptures raises several questions. Let’s ask and answer them together.

  1. Which text is the original?
    • None of the texts in the Hebrew Bible were written after the Common Era. Arrian lived in the 2nd century CE, so the recording period of the Book of Samuel predates Anabasis. However, we should not conclude that Alexander’s story imitated the Book of Samuel. Arrian’s text was based on the lost writings of Callisthenes, a person who lived in the Ptolemaic era, the 4th century BCE. In other words, Callisthenes was a contemporary of Alexander, so his record is likely to have been based on facts. On the other hand, 2 Sam 23:13-17 is a story that was inserted as an appendix in later times. The possibility that Callisthenes imitated the Book of Samuel is almost none, whereas the possibility that a Jewish author from the Hellenistic period added the passage in question after encountering stories about Alexander is quite high.
  2. If Arrian’s Anabasis is the original, should we necessarily consider his account as historically factual and view 2 Sam 23:13-17 as a mere imitation of “Anabasis”? 
    • I do not think so. Ancient “historical books” were not necessarily based on strict historical facts, unlike modern history. They were literary works that could freely include fictional stories for specific political propaganda. Some of the accounts of Alexander the Great are undoubtedly based on historical facts, but it is difficult to consider every detail as historical facts, especially minute stories that clearly praise his greatness, like pouring water to boost morale. In other words, Callisthenes, referred to by Arrius, could have consulted extant stories of ancient figures that he knew at the time. So it is possible to believe that the same content appears in both texts, not simply because a Jewish scribe imitated Callisthenes, but because the scribe also knew the story that Callisthenes knew.
  3. If the account in 2 Sam 23:13-17 is not a historical record, then what meaning does this passage have?
    • Ultimately, for the majority of Christians, the historicity of the Bible is important, so if the historicity of this passage is challenged, its meaning is also called into question. Therefore, this question is related to a fundamental understanding of what kind of book the Bible is. Is the concept that the Bible’s accounts must be based on historical fact correct?
  4. Does the Bible have to be based on historical facts?
    • As an ancient document, the Bible was written within a framework that ancient people could accept and understand. In other words, even if the Bible is not based on historical facts, it would have been accepted as a document that conveyed truth to ancient people. The Bible would have been overlooked and gradually disappeared if it had not been meaningful to the first readers or audiences. What is important is what the Bible is trying to tell us, or what truths we can discover through appropriate interpretations within it, not the text’s historicity.

Closing Words

The story of David in 2 Sam 23:13-17 may have been based on a common theme used in earlier stories or directly borrowed from Alexander’s story. Whichever is the case, the text is likely not based on a historical fact. If your Christian faith is based on the historicity of the biblical text, then you must unconditionally believe every record in the Bible as a historical fact to uphold that faith. However, such an attitude would pay the price of historical distortion. For example, 2 Sam 23:13-17 has similarities with Alexander’s story, and you have no choice but believe that it is just a coincidence or that Calisthenes imitated the Bible. Some may argue that it is the essence of faith, but I believe it is an act of self-protection rather than faith because such an action makes whatever you do, choose, or believe correct, never wrong. Such a psychological defense mechanism denies factual evidence or logical conclusions. From a broader perspective, safeguarding your faith with such an attitude is like building a house on sand. To build a house of faith on solid rock, we must first recognize that the Bible is not a “historical book.” Moreover, we need to develop proper theological thinking skills to interpret ancient documents in the modern world.

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