When Samuel anoints David in Bethlehem, God tells the prophet not to focus on outward appearances. When Samuel assumes that David’s eldest brother Eliav will be the anointed one, “the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For [the Lord] does not [see] as a human being sees: a human sees by the eyes, but the Lord sees into the heart’” (1 Samuel 16:7). But when David comes from tending his father’s sheep, Scripture says that “he was ruddy and had beautiful eyes and was good to look at, and the Lord said, ‘Rise, anoint him, for this is he’” (1 Sam 16:12). The first divine word to Samuel specifies that God does not favor outward appearances, but the second seems to suggest that God chooses David based on his favorable appearance. Which is it? Is there a contradiction in these verses? The resolution resides in the original Hebrew language, which shows that David is not chosen due to any physical indication of military prowess or royal distinction, but because of the content of his heart.
When Samuel assumes that Eliav should be king based on his firstborn status and imposing physique, God tells the prophet, “Do not look on his appearance (מראהו; marehu) or on the height of his stature (גבה קומתו; gevoha qomato), because I have rejected him. For [the Lord] does not [see] as a human being sees: a human sees by the eyes, but the Lord sees into the heart’” (1 Samuel 16:7). The reference to Eliav’s “height” (גבה; gavoha) anticipates the forthcoming description of Goliath: “his height (גבהו; gavho) was six cubits and a span” (1 Sam 17:4). This language also recalls the description of Israel’s first king, Saul, who was “taller (ויגבה; va’yigbah) than any of the people from his shoulders upward” (1 Sam 10:23; cf. 9:2). In light of the impending encounter with the giant Philistine, one might expect the exceptionally tall Saul to engage in battle, or that God would appoint Eliav for leadership, but the divine decision to anoint David is not based on physical stature.
While David is not as tall as his older brother or Saul, the Bible still states that the young shepherd had “beautiful eyes and was good to look at” (1 Sam 16:12). Doesn’t this description suggest that the boy’s outward appearance plays a role in his anointing? David’s appearance is significant, but not because it reflects conventional assumptions about militarism, masculinity, or kingship. In fact, David’s “beautiful eyes” (יפה עינים; yepheh eynayim) recalls a Hebrew idiom used elsewhere of an aesthetically striking woman. In its description of Laban’s daughters, Genesis states, “The eyes of Leah (ועיני לאה; ve’eyney Leah) were weak, but Rachel was beautiful (יפה; yapheh) in countenance and pretty in appearance (ויפת מראה; viphat mareh)” (Gen 29:17). For David to have beautiful eyes suggests that his features were “pretty” (יפה), an outward appearance normally indicative of femininity according to aesthetic conventions in the ancient Near East (cf. Gen 12:12-14; Deut 21:11; 1 Sam 25:3; 2 Sam 13:1; 14:27; 1 Kgs 1:3-4; Est 2:7; Job 42:15; Prov 11:22; Song 1:8; 5:9; 6:1; 7:1; Amos 8:13).
This is why Scripture says that when Goliath “saw David, he disesteemed him because he was a boy [who] was ruddy with a pretty appearance (יפה מראה; yepheh mareh)” (1 Sam 17:42). Goliath is not threatened by David’s delicate façade, but the colossus doesn’t know that God looks to the core. Before going into battle, David had said to Saul, “Let no one’s heart (לב; lev) fail because of [Goliath]. Your servant will go and fight with the Philistine” (1 Sam 17:32). While the physically imposing Philistine may scoff at the beautiful shepherd boy, God knows that David has the strongest heart of anyone in Israel. A close reading of biblical Hebrew reveals that there is no contradiction in the Lord’s choosing David as king: while Samuel assumes that kingship should be based on height and strength—like that of Eliav, Saul, or Goliath—God chooses David even though he does not have these outward bodily indicators; instead, Heaven appoints human beings based on the inward heart.