Goliath: The Not-So-Tall Giant

Today I’m featuring a guest post from my good friend David Harrison. David is currently finishing up undergraduate studies at Southeastern Bible College (my alma mater) where he is majoring in Bible and Theology and minoring in Apologetics. David plans to be involved in God’s glorious work of missions after he finishes his degree by serving the persecuted Church (learn more here) or reaching unreached or unengaged people groups. I know David as a dear brother and close friend (learn more here). He passionately loves the Gospel, cares deeply for his brothers and sisters, and is one who displays the humility of Jesus in ways where others so easily fall short (I bet he’ll hate I said this…). David constantly speaks and shows the Word to his community of faith around him. I cannot recall too many conversations where we failed to discuss something bible-related.  His friendship has always refreshed me and encouraged me on in deeper commitment to Christ. In this post, David argues that we should rethink how tall Goliath actually is. Maybe he is not so tall after all. Enjoy!

The story of David and Goliath is a familiar story to the regular churchgoer. This remarkable story is taught in Sunday school, vacation bible school, and as a bed time story.  Over the years, this story has become so familiar that much of it goes unchallenged. How tall was Goliath really? What evidence supports the traditional view of his height? Such questions are unfamiliar with today’s readers but are important questions for Old Testament scholars when dealing with manuscript variations. Traditionally, Goliath is said to have been around ten feet tall, but evidence seems to say otherwise. While Goliath is not a threat to the Israelites anymore, his height is still debated in modern scholarship. However, upon further investigation, Goliath does not seem to be a “huge giant” after all, and therefore, his height should be reconsidered.

Most translations give Goliath a height of “six cubits and a span.” In ancient times, a cubit was the length of a man’s forearm from the elbow to the tip of his middle finger and was usually about eighteen inches. In addition, a span was the distance measured by the stretch of the hand from fingertip to fingertip, usually nine inches. Therefore, based on these estimations, Goliath would have been over nine feet tall. However, some texts assign a much smaller height to Goliath.[1] As a matter of fact, the best and earliest manuscripts, both Hebrew and Greek,attribute Goliath to be “four cubits and a span.” This would roughly be around seven feet. It is true that some early Greek manuscripts give Goliath a height of “six cubits and a span”, but the textual evidence still favors the shorter height, because both the earliest Hebrew and Greek manuscripts contain the shorter rendering of Goliath’s height. Why then do most English Bibles favor a ten- foot- tall Goliath? Most English Bibles are based on the Masoretic Text, and the earliest Masoretic Text manuscript evidence for first Samuel is the Aleppo Codex, produced in 935 A.D. Likewise, the Leningrad Codex, the major Hebrew text on which most English Old Testament versions are based, was completed in 1010 A.D. Both of these Hebrew manuscripts give Goliath a height of “six cubits and a span”.  However, the Masoretic Text is not the earliest manuscript available.The oldest Hebrew manuscript that supports a shorter Goliath is the Dead Sea scrolls, which dates to around 50 B.C. The Dead Sea scrolls record Goliath being “four cubits and a span.” Based on the Hebrew manuscript evidence, no ten foot tall Goliath existed until the Aleppo Codex in 935 A.D, which came almost a thousand years after the Dead Sea scrolls. Furthermore, the oldest Greek manuscript agrees with the Dead Sea scrolls. The LXX, completed no later than mid-2nd century B.C., describes Goliath as “four cubits and a span.” More manuscripts support this,[2] but it suffices to say that both of the earliest Greek and earliest Hebrew manuscripts support a shorter Goliath. The NET translation follows the earlier manuscripts instead of the Masoretic text: “Then a champion came out from the camp of the Philistines. His name was Goliath; he was from Gath. He was close to seven feet tall.” (1 Samuel 17:4, NET).

Next, it is interesting to notice the comment Saul makes concerning Goliath. When Saul counsels David, Saul is not troubled by Goliaths’ height but by his years of experience in battle (1 Sam. 17:33, ESV). This occasion could indirectly hint to Goliath’s height. In ancient times, the king was the one who lead the army into battle, but Saul failed to do this. Also, the author of first Samuel makes the comment that he was taller than his own people (1 Sam. 9:2). Therefore, Saul himself was probably over 6 feet and not much shorter than Goliath. He was the likely candidate who should have fought Goliath, not David.However, Saul lets a little shepherd boy, who wouldn’t be much taller than 5 feet[3], take his place in this fight, but ironically, David will later take his place on the throne. It is likely that Saul would have commented on Goliath’s height, if it was indeed extraordinary, but Saul makes no mention of it when describing Goliath. Therefore, it is possible that this is an indirect statement that hints to a shorter Goliath.

Some have objected that a seven-foot-tall warrior would not be able to carry the weapons Goliath carried. Is this objection credible? A couple of answers can be given for this objection. First, being taller does not necessarily imply being stronger. Second, Goliath’s armor could have been carried. In today’s measurement, 6000 shekels is the equivalent of about 125 pounds. Carrying 125 pounds of armor would not be a problem for a seven-foot-man who has been a warrior since his youth. In fact, because of Goliath’s war experience and training, the reader would expect this well-built war machine to carry 125 pounds of armor fairly easily.
Scholars remain unsure over what to do with the two heights of Goliath in the ancient manuscripts. Most English Bible translations still follow the traditional reading and list Goliath as nine feet, nine inches or as “six cubits and a span.” However, after considering Goliath’s height, the evidence is on the side of the shorter Goliath rather than a 10 foot tall giant. In conclusion, the textual evidence is clearly on the side of the shorter Goliath; the text itself gives indirect hints to a shorter height, and after scrutiny the objections for a tall Goliath fall apart.

[1] NET, LXX , Josephus,4 Q 51 ( dead sea scroll manuscript of 1 Sam. 17)

[2]LXX ,4QSama,Josephus. Lucian recension, Codex Vaticanus, Codex Alexandrinus

[3] Archaeological findings show that the average Israelite was only about five feet, two inches.


4 responses to “Goliath: The Not-So-Tall Giant

  1. Pingback: Monogenes: One and Only or Only Begotten? « Austin's Blog·

  2. I don’t agree with your short Goliath idea for the following reasons:
    1) Saul was so frightened by Goliath he refused to fight him yet Saul was 6’6″ to 7 feet tall himself. I sam 9:2 And he had a son, whose name was Saul, a choice young man, and a goodly: and there was not among the children of Israel a goodlier person than he: from his shoulders and upward he was higher than any of the people. The average person was said to be 5’5″ yet Saul was head and shoulders taller than the 2nd tallest person in all of Israel.
    If Saul was taller than Goliath why would he be afraid?
    2) You forget about all the armor that Goliath was wearing. He had 6 pieces of equipment which he carried.
    1) brass helmet 20 pounds
    2) spear 15 spear head 7 pounds for weavers beam 22 total
    3) Greaves 15 pounds
    4) scale armor 125 up to 225 pounds a shekel of iron weights more than shekel of brass
    5) Sword 15-20 pounds
    6) Gorgot 15 pounds

    This armor would weigh from 210 to over 300 pounds.

    3) You are correct that the oldest known manuscripts put Goliath at 4 cubits and a span. However three reasons cause me do doubt the claims of these manuscripts.
    1) the oral traditions put him at 6 cubits and a span
    2) It is harder to believe that a man that is 6 foot 9 could posses the strength to fight carrying 200 to 300 pounds of gear.
    3) The 70 scholars were commission by the Greeks and it is just as likely that they changed the size of Goliath so David would not compete with the Greek heroes so they downplayed his accomplishments.

    Most Goliath skeptics also say that Goliath suffered from Acromegaly. That caused unusual height however these people are so weak most cannot walk without assistance let alone fight and carry armor.

    In conclusion I heed the warning of 2 Peter 3:4 Scripture expressly condemns uniformitarianism in 2 Peter 3:4. Peter prophesied that this erroneous view would be adopted in the last days by scoffers—men walking after their own lusts—who imagine that “all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation.” The apostle Peter goes on to write, “For this they willfully forget: that by the word of God the heavens were of old, and the earth standing out of water and in the water, by which the world that then existed perished, being flooded with water”

    The Bible describes the supernatural and when we begin to question what is described based on our small window of experience we begin to doubt the entire word of God including the resurrection of his Son Yeshua.

    • Hey Neo,
      Thank you both for your insights and for reading my article. I apologize that it took me so long to respond. During my school semester I usually do not get the time I want to investigate and research things. So, thank you for your patience. Also, I have considered your responses, but I am still not persuaded. Here, I hope to answer some of your objections and further elaborate on why I still hold to my original proposition.
      1. Your first objection /question was why would Saul be afraid of Goliath if he was taller than Goliath?

      I do not believe that Saul was taller than Goliath, but even if Saul was taller than Goliath, there are many reasons he could have been afraid. We don’t have to assume that the only reason was because of Goliath’s height. Like I said before, the text actually gives us a reason (1 Sam. 17:33). So, why does the text even mention Goliath’s height then? Well, compared to the average Israelite, a 6’9 or 7 foot warrior would intimidate anybody. But notice that Saul is not intimidated by his height but by his training (1 Sam. 17:33). The average height of people in the ANE (Ancient Near East) was between 5’0- 5’3. During the patriarchal period, it was said to be closer to 5’0 (Victor Matthews, Manners and Customs in the Bible, 3), and based on gravesites in the NT era, the people were slightly taller, around 5’6 (Peter Connolly, Living in the Times of Jesus of Nazareth, 51). Thus, during David’s time, this would put the average person somewhere between 5’1-5’4. If this is the case, then Saul would have been close to 6’2-6’6. Once again, he would not have been taller than Goliath. However, Saul’s size would make him a competent enemy for Goliath. In fact, the role of the king was to go out before us and fight our battles” (1 Sam 8:19–20). Furthermore, Saul had armor to match Goliath (1 Sam 17:38-39). Therefore, Saul was the only rational choice to fight Goliath. He was the king, was taller than the rest, and he had armor. Yet, Saul doesn’t fight. Why ? Because he is scared. Of what? Of Goliath’s military training (1 Sam 17:33). Because Saul does not mention Goliath’s height, or his armor, it appears that the only area where Saul cannot match Goliath is his training. Ironically, a little shepherd boy who is short, and not well armored (actually doesn’t even use Saul’s armor) goes out to fight Goliath. The narrative reveals a blow to Saul’s character. Saul was the ideal man for the battle yet David ends up fighting Goliath. In fact, the story isn’t really about David and Goliath. It is about David and Saul.

      The whole book of Samuel is constantly contrasting the two. For example, as you pointed out in 1 Sam 9, Saul is introduced as tall man. Remember how David is introduced? When David is described, there is no mention of his height. In fact, after God tells Samuel to go anoint a new king (1 Sam 16:3), He reminds him that the Lord does not see as man does. Man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart (v.7). This is just one contrast between David and Saul. Throughout the book of 1 Samuel, these two figures are contrasted. So, since the story is about David and Saul, the text shows us the different ways these two figures handled the challenge from Goliath. Once again, the story reveals the drastic difference between Saul’s fear and David’s courage. Thus, in my opinion, the shorter reading of Goliath fits better with the literary and theological context of the book of Samuel because it highlights that it was Saul’s responsibility to go out and fight Goliath since he matched Goliath in role, height, and armor.

      2. Your second argument is more of an assumption than an argument. The assumption is that strength is proportional to height. But this is simply false. Just because Goliath is shorter does not mean he was weaker. At one time, America’s strongest man was Shane Hammon. Shane is only 5’9 tall. This proves that strength is not always proportional to height. Therefore, your second argument is irrelevant to our discussion and does not weaken my original hypothesis.
      Furthermore, in order to carry such armor, one does not need god-like powers. Marines carry over 130 pounds into battle. In today’s age, guys like Flozell Adams or T. J. Barnes could easily carry close to 200 pounds, and if Zydrunas Savickas can deadlift 1155 pounds, I do not think 200 pounds of armor will give him any trouble. Besides, your weight calculation of Goliath’s armor is mere speculative. Nowhere does it explicitly say the helmet was 20 pounds nor does it give us any hints like some other things (i.e. coat of mail- 600 hundred shekels of bronze). The armor had to meet three criteria: protection, lightness, and freedom of movement (Klein, 1 Samuel WBC, 175). A 20 pound helmet sounds a little bit hard to maneuver. Plus, the spear did not weigh a total of 22 pounds. The text says that his spear was like a weaver’s beam and not that it weighed the same as a weaver’s beam. Most scholars (see Klein, 1 Samuel (WBC), 176; Robert Bergen, 1, 2 Samuel (NAC), 189; Ronald F. Youngblood, “1, 2 Samuel,” in EBC 3.695; Joyce Baldwin, 1 and 2 Samuel (TOTC), 126; and McCarter, 1 Samuel, 292–93) agree that the verse (v.7) has nothing to do with the size of his spear. Instead, as Yagael Yadin points out, the narrator is describing a looped cord or rope that was attached to the spear that enabled a warrior to throw it harder and further. This looped cord looked somewhat like the cord loops of a weaver’s beam; thus the analogy (Yagael Yadin, The Art of Warfare in Biblical Lands in the Light of Archaeological Study, 149). The greaves could have been supplied with leather lining for comfort, which would make it weigh less than 15 pounds. Additionally, Gorget seems to have been a mistranslation of the KJV. Most contemporary translations or lexicons do not agree with the translation of the KJV on this. The word כִּידוֹן should be translated as javelin, or scimitar (see HALOT, BDB, CHALOT and ESV, NET, NASB, etc.). Adding up the weight, the overall armor would be less than 200 pounds (approx. 160-200 pounds). I will admit that because of how far we are removed from biblical times, it can be hard to find exact measurements and determine an exact answer. However, in the end, I do not think that the weight of his armor creates a problem to my hypothesis. Even if we assumed that all your measurements are correct, it would be almost irrelevant to my argument because strength is not based on height. During the Highland Games, some men toss a wooden pole that can weigh up to 150 pounds. I am sure a 15 pound spear would not be a problem for Goliath. Once again, since Goliath was a warrior since his youth, the armor would not have been a big obstacle for him. Therefore, I fail to see how your appeal for a taller Goliath solves the problem of Goliath’s armor weight.

      3. I do not find your textual reasons sufficient enough to answer the manuscript evidence supporting a shorter Goliath. Could you explain what you mean by oral traditions put him at 6 cubits and a span? Which traditions are you referring to? Are you referring to the MT tradition? If so, then of course they put him at 6 cubits and a span. But this tradition appears later than other traditions. Are you referring to the Targums which also reflect the proto-MT? Furthermore, there are good explanations why the MT tradition eventually came to read “six cubits and a span.” Did all traditions put him at 6 cubits and a span? No. Oral traditions which are related to the written traditions, do not all agree with the MT. There are better and earlier traditions that disagree with the MT. Therefore, to say that oral traditions put him at 6 cubits and a span is to assume that the MT is not only the standard but the only tradition available. This is a false assumption. Before you can state that the oral traditions put him at 6 cubits and a span, you have to show which traditions do this. Thus, your statement is a little misleading.
      Why does the MT disagree with the DSS/LXX? Well, it is possible, even plausible, that the reading of the MT may have resulted from a copyist mistake known as parablepsis. As Richard Hays points out, “The Hebrew word in verse 4 for cubit (אמות) is very similar to the word in verse 7 for hundred (מאות). Thus it is possible, and even plausible, that the scribe’s eye dropped to verse 7 and picked up the six from “six hundred” and miscopied it into verse four, changing four cubits to six cubits” (Hays, JETS 48, 706). Overall, your oral tradition argument would be good if there were no other traditions to compete with, but we know this is not the case.

      Let me also take the time to expand my textual arguments. Once again the oldest Hebrew text on this passage (4QSam), the major LXX codices (Vaticanus and Alexandrinus), the Lucian recension, and Josephus have the “shorter” reading. Interestingly, both the 4QSam and the Vaticanus are approximately 23 verses shorter than the MT. Alexandrinus matches the MT by including these verses. However, even though the Alexandrinus follows the MT tradition of 1 Sam 17-18, it still retains the reading “four cubits and a span.” Alexandrinus resists the MT tradition on this particular reading yet follows the MT tradition in almost everything else. The Lucian recension does the same thing. It follows the longer form of 1 Sam 17-18 but nonetheless disagrees with the MT tradition about Goliath’s height. I find this to be interesting. Overall, the textual evidence for the variant reading of “four cubits and a span” is stronger. Another interesting fact is that the scribe of 1-2 Chronicles follows the 4QSam/ LXX (see J. A. Thompson, 1, 2 Chronicles (NAC) 22-23; Martin Hengel, The Septuagint as Christian Scripture, 84-85). In other words, the MT in 1-2 Chronicles disagrees with the MT in 1-2 Samuel but agrees with the reading in 4QSama and/or the LXX.
      Why does this scribe/ these scribes do this? I think it is because he/they believed the 4QSam/LXX tradition to be closer to the original or a superior text to the MT. It appears that the MT had some sloppy scribes somewhere in its transmission process. Others have noted the MT textual issues in 1 Samuel as well. Mary J. Evans states, “the Masoretic Text (MT) seems to have suffered from transmission problems in a number of instances” (1 and 2 Samuel, NIBC, 3). James W. Flanagan writes that the Hebrew text of 1–2 Samuel is “considered one of the most disturbed in the Hebrew Bible” (“Samuel, Book of 1–2, ” ABD 5.957). Bruce K. Waltke comments, “The text preserved by the Masoretes of these books suffered more than usual from corrupting influences” (“The Textual Criticism of the Old Testament,” in EBC 1.222).Therefore, in my opinion 4QSam is a superior, dependable, and trustworthy text because both the author of Chronicles and the translators of the LXX used it (or some vorlage similar to it) as the standard. If this 1–2 Chronicles scribe follows the 4QSam/LXX tradition on certain texts, maybe we should listen to him.

      Next, you mentioned that the scholars intentionally changed the size as to not compete with the Greek heroes. First off, what evidence do you have that they were commissioned by the Greeks? I am not denying this but simply want some evidence. Furthermore, the history of the Septuagint is not that simple. Even though the Letter of Aristeas describes how the Septuagint was formed, some question this letter as an authentic account for its origins. So, are you equating “commissioned by the Greeks” with “it was produced according to Pharoah Ptolemy II request”? I am looking for a little bit of clarification from you. Again, what evidence exists that they did change the text? None. Your supposition would be difficult to prove because we don’t have any older Greek manuscript of 1 Sam 17. You offer an answer but your answer cannot be verified. Also, even if commissioned by the Greeks, why would the translators (most likely Hellenistic Jews) have the audacity to tamper with Scripture in that way? You don’t just “change” something that you believe is God’s Word. Ironically, I feel like that is your charge against me. You fear that my view of this story is somehow tampering with God’s Word (i.e. the scoffer comment you made), or that my view is somehow “less” miraculous or questioning the supernatural. I assure you that those are not the intentions of my article. Are you saying that just because my Goliath is a little shorter than the traditional view, it interrupts the miraculous? How exactly does a 10 foot Goliath make the story miraculous but a 7 foot Goliath doesn’t? If anything, it is just as likely that the “scribe would want to enhance the miraculous nature of the story and increase the height” (Hays, JETS 48, 706).

      Additionally, I do not see why David competing against the Greek heroes would have been a problem. They would not have been far removed from Imperial Cult worship—a time when emperors and benefactors of the city were deified and worshipped as gods (Julius Caesar, Nero, Claudius, Titus, etc.). In other words, if they did not want anybody competing with the Greek heroes then why did they venerate emperors who share the same shrines as these heroes? Besides, your theory doesn’t answer why the 4QSam has the same reading. If the LXX has been changed by the Greeks for various reasons, why does the oldest Hebrew text read the same way? Was it also changed? If the LXX was indeed changed by the Greeks then we would expect the DSS text to disagree with the LXX but this is not the case. I think there is a simpler solution. The LXX wasn’t changed and the harmony between the 4QSam and the LXX proves it. Finally, if the Greeks did want to make sure that nobody competed against their Greek heroes (and I gave you a couple of reasons why this is unlikely), then they would have to minimize the height of other giants in the Bible as well. Why decrease Goliath’s height but not the others? Why don’t the translators decrease the size of the five cubit Egyptian who lost to Benaiah (1 Chr. 11:23)? Isn’t Benaiah competing against the Greek heroes? Why is only the David vs. Goliath fight tampered with? Wouldn’t this be inconsistent on the translators’ part? For them to be consistent, wouldn’t they have to change every cubit that threatens or competes against the Greek heroes?

      Like I said before, I think there are simpler answers to these questions, and I hope that this response has fairly answered some of your questions as well as solidified my proposal of a shorter Goliath. The simpler solution is this: based on literary, theological, and textual reasons, the most likely original reading of Goliath’s height was “four cubits and a span.” By the way, I do not think that questioning some supernatural events is the same as questioning all supernatural events or that it has to lead there; nor, do I believe that it will ultimately lead to doubting the entire Word of God including the resurrection. This is a stretch and doesn’t follow (non sequitur). Don’t hear me say that I am denying the supernatural. I believe in it, but to be honest, I fail to see how a 7 foot Goliath makes the story less miraculous/supernatural. Either way, my article is not about denying the supernatural vs. affirming the supernatural. It is about what the actual reading of the text most likely is, and I hope that these reasons will affirm why I still hold to my original position. Once again, thank you again for your patience Neo.

    • Very well said. A very detailed spiritual scriptural answer. I will use it in my bible studies

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