Goliath. The giant champion of the Philistines is a well known figure in western culture. The image of David taking on Goliath is a common metaphor for unlikely victories by underdogs. In addition to having entered into popular culture, the incident remains a regular staple of bible lessons for all ages. One aspect of the passage provides a simple example of the value of textual criticism.
In brief there is an issue with Goliath’s height. In the KJV (and other versions) the height of Goliath is given as “6 cubits and a span” which is around 9 foot and 9 inches. Some spend energy trying to explain how Goliath could possibly be an effective warrior at such a height (given most people of extreme height are plagued with health issues). Secondly, following the lead of E.W. Bullinger, some find significance in the number 6 as representative of flesh.1 However this measurement of Goliath’s height is a simple reminder of the value of appropriate scholarship.
There is good earlier evidence that Goliath was around 7-foot high.
- The LXX says “his height was four cubits and a span”2
- Josephus (who I suspect was at times prone to some exaggeration) similarly records Goliath was “a man of vast bulk, for he was of four cubits and a span in tallness”.3
- Finally, the Dead Sea Scrolls version of 1Samuel known as 4QSama also has this measurement.4
We don’t know when the higher measurement arose. It is contained in the Latin Vulgate which was circa 400AD so by this time there was a 6 cubits and a span reading somewhere. The 9 foot plus reading became standard via the Masoretic Text – for which despite its undoubted age has as its earliest major copies the Allepo Codex (circa 915AD?) and Leningrad Codex (circa 1009AD).5 However, the witness of the three early texts point very strongly to a height just under 7 foot.
Now this fact doesn’t destroy the impact and value of the story. As the Lexham Bible Dictionary points out, “either way, Goliath would have stood considerably taller than the average young Hebrew man, who is estimated to have stood at 5.5 feet (Heiser, “Clash,” 33)”6 Of course Saul himself was head and shoulders taller than the people and clearly was failing to live up to the national expectation of going out to war at the front of the army.
“Your word is absolutely pure and your servant loves it!” was the Psalmist’s exclamation in Psa 119:140. The inspiration of the bible is an interesting and at times controversial subject, more so than perhaps it should be. Personally, I subscribe to the common Christadelphian statement of faith which includes as it’s foundation clause that the scriptures are “without error in all parts of them, except such as may be due to errors of transcription of translation”.7
Some errors of transcription are well known and have been for a length of time. A particularly well known one is the Comma Johanneum, the inclusion of a Trinitarian formula in 1 John 5:8-9 within the Textus Receptus, which forms the basis of some translations including the KJV. Ultimately the passage was identified as spurious by appropriate textual criticism. This demonstrates that we cannot rely on any work of man to convey the truth of God’s word as originally given.
We should have a keen interest in searching out the truth and not making (or continuing with) assumptions around the text. With the increasing availability of modern translations such discrepancies are evident to equipped readers. E.g. both the NET and ESV make reference to the earlier texts and shorter height of Goliath. High quality study tools and information are readily available to western believers, we should make use of them in our quest to “search out the matter” and rightly divide the word of truth.
- (2001). The Christadelphian, 132(electronic ed.), 84.
- Brenton, L. C. L. (1870). The Septuagint Version of the Old Testament: English Translation (1 Kgdms 17:4). London: Samuel Bagster and Sons.
- Josephus, F., & Whiston, W. (1987). The works of Josephus: complete and unabridged. Peabody: Hendrickson.
- McCarter, P. K., Jr. (2008). I Samuel: a new translation with introduction, notes and commentary (Vol. 8, p. 286). New Haven; London: Yale University Press.
- Revell, E. J. (1992). Masoretic Text. In D. N. Freedman (Ed.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (Vol. 4, p. 599). New York: Doubleday.
- Abernathy, B., & Krijgsman, M. (2012, 2013, 2014, 2015). Goliath. In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, … W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.
- The Birmingham Amended Statement of Faith. (1997). (electronic ed.). Birmingham, UK: The Christadelphian.