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The Height of Goliath

Updated: Jan 22, 2023



The story of David and Goliath is one of the most well-known stories throughout the world. It tells of a young and unknown Hebrew shepherd who has no battle experience fighting against a Philistine giant, the champion of Gath, a slayer of men. One of the most fascinating areas of study that I have ever done is on the height of Goliath in 1 Samuel 17:4. We picture him as being over 9 feet tall, which is almost impossible to comprehend, but what if a textual variant has caused us to exaggerate his height to make the story more compelling? Now as we explore this subject, let me say right at the beginning: the height of Goliath does not change the meaning of the story, rather I believe it adds more to the story. Likewise, this does not undermine the inspiration or preservation of God’s Word. We have the original reading plus an additional reading. It’s our job as scholars and theologians to determine which reading is correct.


Manuscript Tradition


The height of Goliath is dependent upon which manuscript tradition you are reading. Within our manuscript tradition the height of Goliath ranges from 6 feet 6 inches to 9 feet 9 inches. The Hebrew manuscripts – also known as the Masoretic Text (MT) – contain the height we are most familiar with, while the Septuagint – the Greek translation of the Old Testament – and the Dead Sea Scrolls contain a textual variant that gives us a more reasonable height.

The Hebrew reads as follows: שֵׁ֥שׁ אַמֹּ֖ות וָזָֽרֶת׃ – translated as, "six cubits and a span."



Hebrew - Masoretic Text: "six cubits and a span"


A cubit is a unit of measurement that spans from a person’s elbow to their fingertips – the standardized cubit is roughly 18 inches. Therefore, if Goliath was “six cubits and a span” within the MT that equals out to be roughly 9'6" to 9'9". However, the Greek Septuagint (LXX) reads differently from the Hebrew (MT). The LXX reads as follow: τεσσάρων πήχεων καὶ σπιθαμῆς – translated as "four cubits and a span.”



Greek Septuagint: "four cubits and a span"



Therefore, the LXX gives us a height that is about 36 inches shorter than the MT, which equals to about 6'6" to 6'9".



4QSamA: "four..."


Likewise, there is a Hebrew scroll that agrees with the LXX reading known as 4QSamA. However, 4QSamA is a unique scroll in and of itself. If you know the story, the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1946/1947 in caves near the Dead Sea. The scrolls belonged to a Jewish sect of scribes – most likely the Essences – that was founded during the end of the 2nd century BC and abandoned in 68 AD with the First Jewish-Roman War. The scroll known as 4SamQA was found in Cave 4 – the fourth cave excavated – in 1952. 4QSamA was a scroll written in Hebrew dating to the Herodian Period (50-25 BC) and contains fragments of 1 & 2 Samuel. One of the fragments (pictured above) contains 1 Samuel 17:3-6, and it reads in the Hebrew: ארבע — the Hebrew word four — agreeing with the LXX reading of four cubits and a span — 6’6” to 6’9”.

However, 4QSamA is unique in its reading as it will often agree with the LXX reading against the MT. But at other times it will agree with the MT reading against the LXX. And to top it off, 4QSamA even has its own unique material that isn't found in either the LXX or MT. Therefore, when we look at this scroll we must realize that it may bring clarity or it may bring confusion. But we know, “God is not a God of confusion but of peace” (1 Corinthians 14:33a).


This is where the confession helps: “The Old Testament in Hebrew (which was the native language of the people of God of old), and the New Testament in Greek (which at the time of the writing of it was most generally known to the nations), being immediately inspired by God, and by His singular care and providence kept pure in all ages, are therefore authentic; so as in all controversies of religion, the church is finally to appeal to them.” – 2LCF 1.8


That is to say, the autograph – the original copy – of 1 Samuel contained one of these two readings, and that reading was inspired and preserved by God. I am not arguing that we lost the original reading, rather we must discern which one is the authentic and original reading.


With that being said, the agreement between the LXX and 4QSamA is not seen as being conclusive of Goliath being a 6'6" or 6'9" strongman against being a 9' giant. The argument against the LXX and 4QSamA is two-fold. First, as stated in the confession, the original autograph was written in Hebrew. The LXX is a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible that took place in 70 BC, while the events of 1 Samuel happened 900 years prior. There tends to be more confidence in the MT for the original reading than in the LXX. Secondly, though 4QSamA is written in Hebrew it dates shortly after the LXX, and because of its tendency to follow the LXX along with its unique readings throughout 1 & 2 Samuel the scroll is believed to be unreliable. Actually, some scholars – such as Alexander Rofé of Hebrew University – argue that the scroll reads more like a Midrash (Jewish interpretation and commentary) than a Hebrew textual witness.


With that in mind, seeking the correct height becomes one of hermeneutics and interpretation.


Hermeneutical Approach


To provide a simple definition, hermeneutics speak to scripture interpreting scripture. Or as the 2LCF 1.9 puts it:


The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself; and therefore when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which are not many, but one), it must be searched by other places that speak more clearly.


Therefore, if we are to determine the correct reading of 1 Samuel 17:4, we must look to other places in scripture first to determine if any more revelation is given on this particular subject. First, we must observe that in 1 Samuel 17 Goliath is never called a giant — Hebrew: nephilim or raphaim — but he is referred to as a giant here because of his size and passages found elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible.


In 2 Samuel 21:16-22 and 1 Chronicles 20:4-8, we see Goliath and his brothers referred to as giants and being descended from giants (raphah). The term used for giants is derived from the word Rephaim and Rephaites, who were a people group that dwelled in the land of Canaan that was promised to Abraham in Genesis 15:17-21. They appear again several times throughout the books Deuteronomy and Joshua. In Deuteronomy 3:11, Og the king of Bashan is described as the last of the Rephaim in the land, and his bed was thirteen feet long and six feet wide. If one was to do the math and scale up from an average size man who sleeps on a modern king size bed to the size of Og's bed, we could estimate that Og was about 8' tall; however, this is guess work at best. But we see from Og that the Rephaim were tall and strong, and their name became synonymous with giants in the Old Testament.


Likewise, the LXX either calls them gigas (giants) or titanes (titans), which demonstrates that by at least 70 BC there was an understanding among certain Jews that these were in fact giants. However, we must be aware of the Enochic tradition and its influence around this time. The Books of Enoch were apocalyptic literature, and they popularized the interpretation that nephilim were giants. If you saw the 2014 Russell Crowe film, Noah, then you have been exposed to the Enochic tradition as it was based on the book of Third Enoch and not on the Genesis account.


This raises the question then, who were the Nephilim? The Nephilim only appear twice in the Old Testament record, and they both appear in the writings of Moses: Genesis 6:1-4 & Numbers 13:33. Now, the Enochic Tradition suggests that the Nephilim were giants, and they descended from the cohabitation of humans and fallen angels. But I don't believe that is the correct interpretation. Rather, Moses is demythologizing the Nephilim. Genesis 6:4 makes clear that the Nephilim were on the earth before the sons of God cohabitated with the daughters of man, and they were also there afterwards. Meaning, they were not the result of cohabitation between fallen angels and humanity. Rather, the Nephilim were men from ancient mythologies, which is why he calls them mighty men (Hb: gibborim) and men of renown. Moses is saying to his readers, whoever the Nephilim were — these mighty men — they have nothing to do with this story. They are not demigods and they do not come from the cohabitation of human and angels. So at least from a proper interpretation of Genesis 6, Nephilim were not giants who came from the cohabitation of humans and angels.


However, what about Numbers 13:33? This passage comes in the context of the 12 spies reporting what they had observed in the Land of Canaan before Moses and Aaron and all the congregation of the people of Israel. The bad report that ten of the spies gave reads as follows:


"So they brought to the people of Israel a bad report of the land that they had spied out, saying, “The land, through which we have gone to spy it out, is a land that devours its inhabitants, and all the people that we saw in it are of great height. And there we saw the Nephilim (the sons of Anak, who come from the Nephilim), and we seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.


Upon first inspection, it would seem as though this passage is clearly stating that the Nephilim were giants, and the sons of Anak. But we must remember who is speaking in this particular passage. It is not Moses, nor Aaron, nor Joshua, nor Caleb; it is the ten spies who fear the inhabitants of the Land of Canaan. They fear for their lives and drive fear into the hearts of the people of Israel, and it causes Israel to doubt God and not enter into the land. Number 13:32-33 are recording the words of the ten spies report. I would suggest then that they are using the mythology of the Nephilim — the same mythology that Moses demythologized in Genesis 6:1-4 — to scare Israel into remaining in the wilderness and thus disobeying God. Therefore, the description of the Nephilim may have been greatly exaggerated in order to scare Israel from entering the Land of Canaan. However, on an interesting note, it seems as though the Nephilim — sons of Anak — were the gold standard of giants as all other giants, such as the Rephaim, were compared to them (Deuteronomy 2:10-11).


All that to say, hermeneutically there is no way to establish the size of the two races of giants within the biblical text, apart from one obscured text about the size of Og's bed. What we can say conclusively is that Goliath and other Raphaim were taller and stronger than the average Israelite soldier, which brings us to another important hermeneutical point.



How tall was King Saul? While we're not given an exact height, we are told in 1 Samuel 9:2 — From his shoulders upward he was taller than any of the people. That is to say, he was the tallest man in all of Israel and the heads of everyone else reached only to his shoulder or below. So it is safe to say that Saul was a very tall man in his day and among his people; likewise, this would have put him well over 6' in height. But here is the important distinction between six cubits and four cubits. If Goliath was six cubits and a span then he, too, would have towered over Saul. However, if he was four cubits and a span then Saul would have been his equal. This detail would drastically change the interpretation of Saul's actions, especially in comparison to David.


Interpretation


As we begin to interpret the passage, we need to be careful to not prioritize our reading based on believability. I'll be honest, I tend to lean towards the reading of four cubits and a span, and yet fully understand why others want to prioritize the MT reading. The argument for one reading over the other becomes two sides of the same coin. Those who prioritize the MT reading suggest that a scribe may have changed the reading from six cubits to four cubits in order to make the story more believable. But that argument works the other way as well, a scribe may have changed the reading from four cubits to six cubits in order to make the story more remarkable.


In all honesty, I do not believe the height of Goliath changes the interpretation around God and David, but it does change how we would view and interpret Saul. In fact, the same argument is made both positively for and negatively against the reading found in LXX and 4QSamA. Those who argue against the LXX-4QSamA reading state that along with attempting to make the story more believable, the scribes are also attempting to make Saul look more cowardly. And as a proponent of the LXX-4QSamA reading, that is exactly why I believe four cubits is the original reading.


Leading up to the introduction, selection, and coronation of Saul as the first king of Israel, the people of Israel longed for a king who would fight on their behalf. This is exactly what we read in 1 Samuel 8:19-20 — "There shall be a king over us...and our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles." That is to say, the king would be the champion of Israel and fight on their behalf. Then we come to 1 Samuel 17 and see the challenge made to Saul and to all Israel:


He stood and shouted to the ranks of Israel, “Why have you come out to draw up for battle? Am I not a Philistine, and are you not servants of Saul? Choose a man for yourselves, and let him come down to me. If he is able to fight with me and kill me, then we will be your servants. But if I prevail against him and kill him, then you shall be our servants and serve us.” And the Philistine said, “I defy the ranks of Israel this day. Give me a man, that we may fight together.” When Saul and all Israel heard these words of the Philistine, they were dismayed and greatly afraid.

— 1 Samuel 17:8-11


But the man who is to fight for them has already been chosen by virtue of being king, and yet he is dismayed and greatly afraid. Now, this would make sense if Goliath is truly six cubits and a span. However, when reading the first book of Samuel there are two characteristics about Saul that are made exuberantly clear: his abundance of height and his deficiency in courage — which stems from a lack of true, genuine faith. Therefore, I believe the correct interpretation is of Saul and Goliath being of similar height with each standing between six to seven feet. But not only are they similar in stature, they are both the champions of their nations. Israel wanted a king who would fight on their behalf, and they had a king who was a physical match to Goliath. However, Saul is afraid like everyone else and the next time he is mentioned he is found hiding in his tent and trying to persuade David away from going down into the valley and fighting Goliath. Therefore, while Goliath is blaspheming Yahweh and challenging Israel, Saul is hiding in his tent for forty days. So, I would conjecture that four cubits seems to be the more natural reading when considering First Samuel as a whole, and six cubits seems to be the textual variant — whether intentional to make the story more remarkable or accidentally from a scribal error.


Now, I would argue that this fact doesn't make the story any less remarkable. In fact, if we look at the world population today the average man stands at 5'6", and in the U.S. the average man stands at around 5'9". Now, if you stood me — an average sized, 5'10" man — next to an NBA or NFL player they would appear to be giants or titans. However, because of modern technology and television and through our constant exposure to these abnormally large humans, we no longer think of them as being giants (at least until you're standing next to them in-person). We don't see them as being atypical because our constant exposure to them makes us forget that only a small percentage of the population possess the genetics to be a NBA player or a NFL lineman. They may be prototypical for the NBA and NFL, but they are atypical in comparison to the world just as giants were in the ancient Near East. Now imagine if you will, a man the size of Lebron James — 6'9" and 250 lbs — who has spent his entire life training and fighting battles, and you send him out to fight the average sized man. We would describe that man as a giant, and we would be terrified of him. This is the exact reason that we have weight classes in combat sports. No one wants to watch Brock Lesnar fight Conor McGregor, especially when McGregor was a featherweight.


Theological Interpretation: Saul & David


Now, I believe that the reading of four cubits greatly elevates and highlights the difference between Saul and David. Remember, this narrative takes place after Saul has been rejected as king twice (1 Samuel 13 &15), David has been anointed the new king of Israel (1 Samuel 16:12-13), and the Spirit of Yahweh rushed upon David and departed from Saul (1 Samuel 16:13-14). First Samuel 17 then highlights the many differences between Saul and David.


As we have already examined, Saul is an impressive looking man who is the physical equal of Goliath. But listen to how David is described in comparison to Goliath, and if in comparison to Goliath then also in comparison to Saul:


And David said to Saul, “Let no man's heart fail because of him. Your servant will go and fight with this Philistine.” And Saul said to David, “You are not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him, for you are but a youth, and he has been a man of war from his youth.”

— 1 Samuel 17:32-33


Unlike the popular bible story told to children in Sunday School, David is probably around nineteen years of age just under the fighting age of twenty. Saul's argument against David going and fighting Goliath is based upon him not being of age to fight and having no military experience. He is then compared to Goliath who has been a man of war since he was David's age. David is too young and too inexperience to go and fight this man of war, but Saul isn't. To this point in First Samuel, we have already read of Saul's military victories and might. But David dismisses Saul's reasoning by providing evidence of his battle experience saying:


“Your servant used to keep sheep for his father. And when there came a lion, or a bear, and took a lamb from the flock, I went after him and struck him and delivered it out of his mouth. And if he arose against me, I caught him by his beard and struck him and killed him. Your servant has struck down both lions and bears, and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them, for he has defied the armies of the living God.” And David said, “The Lord who delivered me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine.” And Saul said to David, “Go, and the Lord be with you!”

1 Samuel 17:34-37


The size difference doesn't scare David as he has fought off lions and bears, but as we have already seen it does scare Saul. Likewise, Saul has listened to Goliath blaspheme Yahweh for 40 days, but within hours of being on the battlefield David wants to kill this Philistine for defying and blaspheming God. Finally, he goes into battle because of his trust in Yahweh. He doesn't go by his own might or under his own power. He goes into battle led by the one whose Spirit now rests upon him.


It is the possession of Yahweh's Spirit that sets David apart from Saul. But David is then compared to Goliath. David does not possess the physical characteristics nor the experience to defeat Goliath. He doesn't even possess the correct fighting gear. Saul has him put on his armor, helmet, coat of mail and sword — which would be an official endorsement of David as Israel's champion and a transfer of power — but David does not go out to battle in them as they are unfamiliar to him. Instead, "he took his staff in his hand and chose five smooth stones from the brook and put them in his shepherd's pouch. His sling was in his hand, and he approached the Philistine."


But while he may not be the correct height, or have the experience, or possess the correct weapons, what he does possess is the anointing of Yahweh's Spirit, and that is all he needed to conquer and silence this giant.That is to say, whether Goliath is 6' 6" or 9' 9", the narrative is about faith. And ultimately, the narrative typifies Christ defeating the devil and sin and death, and then inviting us into the battle with him (vv. 51-52). Ultimately, I do not believe the height of Goliath changes our theological understanding of the text. However, I do believe four cubits and a span is the more natural and hermeneutically sound reading, but I am willing to be gracious to anyone who disagrees.



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