A comparison of the two verses raises two questions: First, who is the Israelite hero, and secondly, who is the Philistine giant?
The first problem is somewhat easier to solve. Notice that the family name of the hero, Elhanan, differs slightly in both verses. The second half of a name is missing in 1 Chronicles 20:5: ͗ōrəḡîm. This word actually means ‘weavers’ and it is found at the end of both verses in Samuel and Chronicles as a descriptor of the spear carried by the giant whom Elhanan slew (‘…the shaft of whose spear was like a weaver’s [ ͗ōrəḡîm] beam’). For this and other reasons, it is likely that Elhanan’s father (or ancestor) did not bear such a compound name and that this extra ōrəḡîm has crept into the text of Samuel by a process called homoioteleuton (a scribal error caused by visual oversight of two similar endings). When this happens, a scribe skips over part of the text because they see words or word endings which look similar.
The second question, the identity of the Philistine giant, is harder to untangle. Because of the way the Hebrew text is laid out, this problem partly overlaps with the issue we just addressed: the identity of Elhanan. Notice that in Samuel, Elhanan is identified as a Bethlehemite, but not in Chronicles. Conversely, in Chronicles, the giant’s name is given as ‘Lahmi’, whereas in Samuel, this name is missing. Notice further that these two features occur in precisely the same position in the Hebrew text, and that both words look very similar: Chronicles has laḥmî ‘Lahmi’ (presumably the giant’s name), while Samuel has [bêṯ] hallaḥmî ‘[Beth-]lehemite’. The full form bêṯ hallaḥmî is technically called a gentilic (a place name assigned to an individual) and in a form of this type, the second half normally bears the definite article ha-.
Three possible answers
These names leave us with three possibilities: (1) ‘Lahmi’ really was the name of the Philistine giant, and therefore ‘Bethlehemite’ has later crept into the text of Samuel, (2) Elhanan really was a Bethlehemite, and therefore we have a scribal error at Chronicles (i.e., ‘Lahmi’ wasn’t the name of the Philistine giant), or (3) both were true: Elhanan was a Bethlehemite, and ‘Lahmi’ really was the name of the giant he slew.
One way to adjudicate between these three options is to consider whether we have any evidence elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible about the identity of the Israelite hero and/or the Philistine giant. It turns out that in another list of David’s mighty men, a few chapters later in 2 Samuel 23 (and in its parallel in 1 Chronicles 11), the same Elhanan shows up, and the text there explicitly mentions that he comes from Bethlehem. This is therefore very likely the same Elhanan as our giant-slaying hero. (Nowhere else in the Hebrew Bible do we see the name Elhanan appear.)
If Elhanan really was a Bethlehemite, then what should we make of the Philistine giant’s name ‘Lahmi’? Could it be a Philistine name? Although we don’t know much about the language(s) the Philistines spoke (we haven’t yet discovered any written records from them), it is likely that they were part of invading ‘Sea peoples’ who entered the land of Israel in the late second millennium, BC. These were non-Semitic speaking peoples, yet it is interesting to note that the putative name ‘Lahmi’ contains a sound (the ‘h’, phonetically /ħ/) which is very characteristic of Semitic languages yet is not found in other Ancient Near Eastern languages.
Let’s recall a few other things about this name: (1) it only occurs in the Chronicles parallel, (2) it occurs in precisely the same place that the word ‘[Beth-]lehemite’ is found in the Samuel text, (3) it looks very similar in terms of its visual look in Hebrew (הלחמי vs. לחמי) and even its sound (hallaḥmî vs. laḥmî). On balance, these three factors should make us seriously consider the possibility that the name ‘Lahmi’ has accidentally entered the text of Chronicles as a scribal confusion of the (second half of the) place-name ‘Bethlehemite’.
So who killed Goliath?
With all this, however, we are still left with uncertainty as to the identity of Goliath’s killer. A couple of clarifications should be given at this point. Notice from the chart that the word ͗ēṯ (which has no equivalent in English) is a marker in Biblical Hebrew of the direct object (the word(s) which receive the action of a verb: ‘John hit the ball’). In the texts we’re looking at, the word ͗ēṯ precedes the name of the individual whom Elhanan killed. Notice that although it occurs in each verse, its placement in both differs. The ͗ēṯ of 2 Samuel 21:19 is paralleled by ͗ăḥî ‘brother of’ in Chronicles. Visually, both words look very similar in Hebrew (את vs. אחי), even though they have very different meanings. Conversely, the ͗ēṯ of 1 Chronicles 20:5 is paralleled by the very similar-sounding bêṯ (‘house of’), which occurs as the first half of the gentilic ‘Beth-[lehemite]’ discussed earlier.
When you think about it, the same three factors mentioned above are at play here: (1) ͗ăḥî ‘brother of’ is found only in Chronicles, whereas we find ͗ēṯ (a sign of the direct object) in Samuel, (2) both ͗ēṯ and ͗ăḥî occur in the same place in the text when we align both verses, (3) both ͗ēṯ (את) and ͗ăḥî (אחי) strikingly resemble each other visually. This same kind of complementary distribution should make us suspect that one of these words may be some kind of scribal alteration of the other. So was ͗ēṯ deliberately changed to ͗ăḥî ‘brother of’ in Chronicles by some scribe in order to avoid an embarrassing contradiction? Or, instead, was this simply an accidental visual oversight, in which a scribe misread ͗ăḥî (אחי) ‘brother of’ as ͗ēṯ (את) in Samuel? We ought to favour the latter, for at least two reasons: (1) visually similar words are most naturally explained as accidental (not deliberate) scribal errors, (2) scribes who copied Samuel apparently were not bothered by the resulting contradiction.
As can be seen, the textual issues involved here are quite complex. Given the arguments outlined above, however, one plausible option is that Elhanan the Bethlehemite actually killed the brother of Goliath, who himself was left unnamed. That this giant was unnamed should not be seen as something unusual, since the very next mini-episode in 2 Samuel 21:20–21 mentions another giant (this time slain by Jonathan the son of Shimei), who is likewise not given a name in the narrative.
We can also draw several important lessons from this text. Firstly, we needn’t be too alarmed by textual difficulties like this. Many of these issues can be resolved by a careful reading of the text, and one of the tools for this at our disposal is textual criticism. By comparing and examining variant manuscripts and parallel biblical passages, new solutions can be achieved. A related point concerns scribal habits. From what we know about their practices, scribes copying the Hebrew Bible rarely made deliberate changes to their text, and we should therefore be very cautious about claims that we are dealing here with two different, and contradictory, sources or traditions.
In short, even the smallest details of Scripture matter a great deal. In scholarship, one is sometimes surprised at how two seemingly unrelated areas of study can actually intersect and overlap. In the case of this Bible verse, a knowledge of textual criticism was shown to be important in providing a foundation for understanding the biblical names it contains. Through this kind of scholarship, and others, we’re aiming to advance our understanding of the Bible and its world.