Goliath May Have Been Bigger Than We Thought

Goliath1

In King David’s story there are five passages that contain giants in the narrative. The most famous one is 1 Samuel 17 that tells the story of Goliath. In fact, that story is so famous, it seems that some Christians think he’s the only giant in the Bible! Others say he wasn’t much of a giant at all. That’s because there are textual problems with the sources we have for the English text of the Old Testament.

In 1 Samuel 17:4, Goliath is described as being “6 cubits and a span.” Scholarly consensus describes the “cubit” as being approximately 18 inches, measured by the distance between an average man’s elbow and forefinger. A “span” is about half of that length, which is about the distance of an outstretched hand, or 9 inches. So by these standards, Goliath’s “6 cubits and a span” was about 9 feet, 9 inches tall.

But there is a problem with that measurement. The 6 1/2 cubit dimension is taken from the Hebrew Masoretic Texts (MT), which are not always the most reliable in their transmission history. Some scholars point out that the Septuagint (LXX), the Dead Sea Scrolls, and Josephus after them describe Goliath at only “4 cubits and a span,” which would make him more like 6 feet, 9 inches tall. According to archeological estimates of discovered remains in Canaan, the average Jew was about 5 feet, 6 inches tall.[1] This shorter version of Goliath would still be a tall man compared to the average ancient Jew, but not at all the supernatural monstrosity of 9 feet, 9 inches tall.

But scholar Clyde Billington has pointed out that the DSS and Josephus may have taken their cue from the LXX, which was translated in Egypt. Egypt’s royal cubit was consistently at 20.65 inches.[2] It is entirely reasonable that the LXX translators would adjust the Biblical numbers to coincide with their own definitions of measurement. Using the Egyptian cubit would make Goliath’s height from the LXX come out to just over 9 feet tall – the same height as in the MT 7 feet 9 inches, not as tall as the MT, but a giant nonetheless. (Update: 7/8/15 thanks to Andy Doerksen).

A further complication arises when one considers the fact that Moses had been raised and educated as royalty in Egypt. So he and the Exodus Israelites no doubt used the Egyptian royal cubit in their measurements. The question then is whether or not the original Hebrew text translated that cubit measurement to the smaller Mesopotamian/Levantine common cubit.

There is an indication in other Biblical texts of the awareness of this cubit difference. The writer of the Chronicles (written much later in Israel’s history during the exile) makes this distinction when describing the dimensions of Solomon’s temple. He writes, “the length, in cubits of the old standard, was sixty cubits, and the breadth twenty cubits” (2 Chron. 3:3). Ezekiel describing the measurements of the temple in his vision also makes this distinction of cubit difference as well when he writes, “the altar by cubits (the cubit being a cubit and a handbreadth)” (Ezek. 43:13). He later calls this a “long cubit” (Ezek. 41:8). So these parentheticals written by authors around the time of the exile indicate that during that time, there was still an awareness of the older longer Egyptian royal cubit as if they had been still using it up until that date.[3]

If we apply this longer cubit measurement to Goliath’s 6 cubits and a span, we get a height of about 10 1/2 feet tall![4] And the Egyptian warrior that was killed by Benaiah (1 Chron. 11:23) 8 feet 6 inches tall. Remember Og of Bashan, whose bed was 9 cubits long? (Deut. 3:11). That might make his bed approximately 15 1/2 feet long and Og about 13 to 14 feet tall (The longer cubit however is most likely not being used in reference to Og’s height since the text says it is measuring “according to the common cubit” as opposed to the royal cubit).

Whichever way one measures a cubit, Goliath was a giant.

You can read my novel about Goliath and the five other giant Rephaim assassins who sought to kill King David. I kid you not. It’s in the Bible. Check it out below.

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[1] G. Ernest Wright, “Troglodytes and Giants in Palestine,” Journal of Biblical Literature 57:3 (Sept 1938): 305-309.
[2] Clyde E. Billington, “Goliath and The Exodus Giants: How Tall Were They?” JETS, 50/3 (September 2007) 489-508.
[3] Conservative scholars claim that Moses wrote the Pentateuch during the time of the Exodus, so that would most likely mean that the older longer cubit was used in those texts. Critical scholars claim that Moses did not write the Pentateuch, but that it was mostly written and/or compiled during the time of the Exile which would mean they most likely used the newer shorter cubit in the Pentateuch, but then made some reference to that older cubit in Chronicles and Ezekiel to remind their readers of the changeover. However, this does not change the fact that the longer cubit was still being used long past the time of the exile.
[4] If this is the case, then the Septuagint translators misunderstood the cubit of the Hebrew text as being the smaller cubit, when in fact it was the larger Egyptian cubit. They would then be translating the number incorrectly downward.

5 comments on “Goliath May Have Been Bigger Than We Thought

  • andydoerksen says:

    Hello, Mr. Godawa. I’m unsure why you believe that “Using the Egyptian cubit would make Goliath’s height from the LXX come out to just over 9 feet tall – the same height as in the MT.”

    I think your math is off. You said the Egyptian cubit was “consistently at 20.65 inches”; if “4 cubits and a span” = 4.5 cubits, then 4.5 x 20.65 = 92.925 inches. Divided by 12, that’s 7′ 7″, more than 2 feet *shorter* than the MT’s 9’9″…?

    There’s still a problem with the manuscript transmission. (And I’m saying that as an ironclad believer in the full inerrancy of the original autographs. I’m only talking about later transmission here, not what God originally inspired the writer of 1 Sam. to put down.)

    Reply
    • You’re right, Andy. My math was off. Good catch. I will make note of that. I will add one minor difference: 7.74 is actually closer to 7′ 9″ because .75 of a foot translates to 9 inches.

      Reply

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