The biblical hero David and the Philistine anti-hero Goliath are meeting up in the 21st century tonight, courtesy of the popular reality television show, “Survivor: David vs. Goliath.” Set in Fiji, the 37th season of the “Survivor” series features a team of underdog “Davids” that will take on the top-dog “Goliaths.”
“Survivor” premiered on CBS 18 years ago. Sixteen men and women were dropped off on a remote island in the South China Sea and divided into two tribes to compete against one another for the necessities needed to survive: a tarp, fishing gear or food. The successful completion of grueling challenges — like standing on one foot on a pole in the middle of the ocean in a torrential downpour — allowed the winners immunity from being voted off the island. All seasons of “Survivor,” whether “Survivor: Koah Rong — Brains vs. Brawn vs. Beauty”; or “Millennials vs. Gen X” are variations on the theme of David vs. Goliath and not just because of the underdog analogy. King David gamed the show before “Survivor” was a show. He was the ultimate Survivor.
Let’s go back to Survivor: the Prequel, 3,000 years ago in the Iron Age.
King Saul is on the throne of the nascent Israelite nation. Two tribes — the Philistines on the coast of the Mediterranean, and the Israelites in the inland hill country — are involved in battles for land and dominance. The Philistines not only have the invincible Goliath, but they also have more sophisticated iron weapons. They are outwitting, outsmarting and outplaying their Israelite neighbors.
Then along comes young David, a shepherd boy, the youngest of eight boys, and with a pebble and slingshot, courage and brains, he fells the giant. After that, our hero David is catapulted into King Saul’s inner chambers, where not only is he the head of the army but also, the lyre player who can soothe the king’s headaches. Taking advantage of his current MVP status, David makes strategic alliances with Saul’s son Jonathan and daughter Michal, both of whom, the Bible says, “loved” David.
In present-day “Survivor,” judicious alliances are crucial to protect against being voted out by tribal council and to have a shot at the $1 million prize.
David’s popularity is a threat to Saul’s rule, and so Saul offers David a deal: he can have Michal as his wife, if he brings back 100 Philistine foreskins. Instead of being killed, as Saul had assumed he would be, David returns not with 100 but with 200 Philistine foreskins. Now, this upstart has not only won the people’s respect and gratitude after the Goliath challenge, but also the hand of the daughter of the king. Michal may have preferred an engagement ring, but there’s nothing like enemy foreskins to prove a man’s devotion.
The king’s daughter/a harpoon — the “Survivor” reward challenge parallel is easy to see.
However, killing Goliath, gathering foreskins, marrying the king’s daughter, being popular amongst the common folk and being devious puts an even huger target on David’s back. David is a threat to Saul’s reign, and he has to go. When King Saul’s goons come to David and Michal’s house with the intention of killing him, Michal places her family idols in the bed and covers them up to look like a human form, asleep, stalling the henchmen by telling them that David is ill. Meanwhile, David has escaped out the window and is on the run.
On “Survivor,” the physically powerful men and women who machete coconuts and make fire face a similar bias. When it comes to individual “immunity challenges,” as the show calls the tests the contestants face alone after they compete as members of a group, they are more likely to win and remain safe. Consequently, they face the biggest risk of being voted off the show early, when they must compete as part of a winning or losing group. However, if they were part of the team that found a hidden “immunity idol” — a small talisman that reflects the location or culture of that season of “Survivor” — they can use it at tribal council to avoid being voted out. Survivors in past seasons have cunningly created fake idols so that an unsuspecting player would find it and use it, only to discover it wasn’t real and therefore, had no powers of protection. They could have been taking a page out of Michal’s playbook.
Upon his escape, David takes refuge in Philistine territory. To prove his loyalty, David and his guys say they are raiding the Israelite tribes, but actually raid other local tribes and deliver the spoils to the Philistine king.
Survivors employ similar tactics. Alliances are created and re-aligned with regularity — your enemy, the one you fought so hard to eliminate, is now high-fiving you. Of course you don’t inform your original alliance of your new loyalty. Blindside.
King Saul and his sons — the true heirs — are threats to David’s ambition to become king, and they all have to go, one way or another. Somehow, though not by David’s hand — technically — in battles between the Israelites and the Philistines, Saul and his sons are conveniently killed. It is then an open field for David to swoop in as savior/survivor and be crowned King of Israel.
“Survivor” opens with two teams, sometimes three. Those two or three teams are whittled down as persons are voted out. Then, the remnants of the teams merge as one.
Likewise, once he becomes king, David brings together the northern and southern tribes in Israel so they can work together as a team under a united monarchy. After David’s death, his son King Solomon takes over and builds the first temple in Jerusalem. But when Solomon’s son takes over, the kingdom splits once more into north and south.
In the end, David built a united kingdom for a brief moment. But David’s legacy has endured well beyond the original united Israel and the Iron Age. For all his flaws, and there were many, and despite the odds against him, and there were many, David prevailed. With guts and determination and luck and courage, the least likely person can overcome disadvantages to win it all and be crowned survivor.
Let’s see what happens Sept. 26, when the successful Goliaths — including professional wrestler John Hennigan and filmmaker Mike White — take on the Davids of the world.
Angela Himsel, a frequent contributor, is the author of the new memoir “A River Could Be a Tree” (Fig Tree Books)