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Goliath’s Height: How Tall Was He?

Goliath’s Height: How Tall Was He?

There are two different biblical traditions on Goliath's height. Exactly how tall was he?
There are two different biblical traditions on Goliath’s height. Exactly how tall was he?

Did you know that there are two different biblical traditions for Goliath’s height? The Hebrew text (MT) of 1 Samuel 17:4 lists Goliath’s height at “six cubits and a span,” while a copy of the book of Samuel from the Dead Sea Scrolls (4QSam[a]) along with copies of the Septuagint (LXX), list Goliath’s height at “4 cubits and a span.” For all you mathematicians that may be reading this, that is a two cubit difference. “Great,” you might say, “what exactly is a cubit?” A cubit is the distance between the elbow and the tip of the middle finger, or roughly, 18 inches. We have to add the word “roughly” because, quite obviously, the length from one person’s elbow to the tip of their middle finger may be shorter or longer than that of someone else. To add to the confusion, in the ancient Near East, some countries had what was known as the “royal cubit,” as well as the “common cubit,” which would be a bit shorter. Royal cubits varied from country to country. For example, the royal cubit in Egypt was 20.65 inches, while in Babylonia it was 19.8 inches (Clyde E. Billington, “GOLIATH AND THE EXODUS GIANTS: HOW TALL WERE THEY?,” JETS, 50/3, 2007, pp. 489-508). Depending on the size of an individual, the common cubit would be even less than the royal cubit. Given that the common height of an ancient Israelite was somewhere between 5 feet and 5 feet 3 inches, this could make the common cubit somewhere between 16-17 inches. Billington notes that an 18 inch cubit would mean the person was about 5 feet 8 inches (taller than most Israelites of this period).

Goliath's height was either 4 or 6 cubits and a span. A span is the length between the thumb and the little finer with the hand spread as far apart as possible.
Goliath’s height was either 4 or 6 cubits and a span. A span is the length between the thumb and the little finger with the hand spread as far apart as possible.

These various measurements of the cubit are only the beginning of the uncertainty regarding Goliath’s height, because we also must consider how long a “span” is. In the ancient world, a span was the distance between the tip of the thumb and the little finger when the hand was spread apart. Billington estimates that a person who is 5 feet tall would have a span of about 7 1/2 inches. At 6 feet tall, my own span measures 8 3/10 inches. Like a cubit, the length of a span depends on the size of the person. Two spans are usually considered to make a cubit, although they are in fact a little short of a cubit. By using the conventional 18 inch cubit and 9 inch span (both of which seem too large for an ancient Israelite), Goliath’s height either comes to 9 feet 9 inches (MT), or 6 feet 9 inches (4QSam[a] and LXX). These are the heights we frequently hear referenced by pastors and teachers when commenting on 1 Samuel 17:4. However, if we adjust the size of the cubit and span to what would be more likely for an ancient Israelite, then, according to Billing, 16.5 inches would be a reasonable cubit and 7.5 inches would equal a span. Some quick calculations make Goliath’s height, according to the MT, to be about 8 feet 9 inches (8.875), and according to 4QSam(a) and the LXX to be about 6 feet 1 inch (6.125). This second figure seems impossibly low for a “giant” like Goliath and we might be tempted to automatically throw it out as a possibility. However, two considerations should be borne in mind. First, we should not judge Goliath’s height based on modern standards, but rather on ancient Near Eastern standards. Today someone who is 6 feet or taller is a common occurrence, but remember, most people in the ancient world were nearly 9 inches to 1 foot smaller. Second, it is important to examine the textual evidence for each reading. In other words, which reading, “4 cubits and a span,” or “6 cubits and a span,” seems to have the most solid evidence for being the original reading?

Illustration of David Killing Goliath by Anton Robert Leinweber --- Image by © Lebrecht Authors/Lebrecht Music & Arts/Corbis
Illustration of David Killing Goliath by Anton Robert Leinweber — Image by © Lebrecht Authors/Lebrecht Music & Arts/Corbis

To summarize, we have seen that Goliath’s height depends on the size of both the cubit and the span, and which reading of the text is the most reliable. This means that Goliath’s actual height could have been anywhere between 6 feet 1 inch and 9 feet 9 inches. Before continuing, when seeking the truth about Goliath’s height, we should caution ourselves concerning our own prejudices. For some, a person 9’9″ is out of the realm of reality, and they would therefore be inclined to the “more reasonable” reading of 6′ 9″ – 6’1″. Others, however, raised on the traditional story of David defeating the giant Goliath, would almost consider it a sacrilege to suggest that Goliath might be in the 6 foot range, as opposed to the 9 foot range. Whichever way our prejudices run, they do not help us get at the truth of Goliath’s height. Only by examining the evidence, which includes the height of people in the ancient world, the relative lengths of a cubit and span, and the textual evidence for the most reliable reading, will we be be able to come to a conclusion that seems plausible.

Which Reading of 1 Samuel 17:4 is the Most Reliable?

The Masoretic text is the traditional Hebrew text copied by scribes known as the Masoretes.
The Masoretic text is the traditional Hebrew text copied by scribes known as the Masoretes.

Our English Bibles traditionally follow the reading of the Hebrew manuscripts known as the Masoretic text (MT). As a result, I find myself partial to the MT. Anytime there is a suggested reading that is different, I want to hang on to the reading of the MT. Why? It is no doubt a very reliable tradition of the text so that’s one reason. But I must admit that the other is, because I’m used to the readings found in the MT (which admittedly is not a good reason). On this particular passage, however, bible scholar, J. Daniel Hays argues in a very convincing way for the reading found in one of the Dead Sea Scrolls (4QSam[a]) and the Septuagint (LXX). In other words, he argues that the text should read “4 cubits and a span” (you can find one of his articles, a response to Billington, here). His reasons are summarized below.

  1. The earliest Hebrew manuscript, 4QSam(a), which dates to the middle of the first century BC, reads “4 cubits and a span.” Hays points out that this particular manuscript is 1,000 years older than our earliest copy of the MT (935 AD), although he admits that the reading “6 cubits and a span” found in the MT goes back to at least 200 AD.
  2. “The major early Septuagint texts all have this reading.” Hays also notes that Josephus refers to Goliath’s height as “4 cubits and a span.”
  3. Hays points out the well-known fact that the MT of 1&2 Samuel has a number of scribal errors. Furthermore, although 1 Chronicles does not include the story of David and Goliath, he notes that where 1 Chronicles is parallel with 1&2 Samuel, Chronicles always agrees with the reading of 4QSam(a) and the LXX when it differs from the MT. Hays also argues that it is much easier to explain how “4 cubits” was changed to “6 cubits” rather than the other way around. The word for “cubit” in verse 4 and “hundred”in verse 7 look very similar in Hebrew. Hays says that a scribe copying the manuscript accidentally looked down at verse 7 and saw the number “6” (as in six hundred) and copied it into verse 4. This is a well-known copying mistake called “parablepsis” (“a looking by the side”).
  4. The story never refers to Goliath as a giant. This is an interesting observation frequently overlooked. Although the story clearly does reference Goliath’s size, which would be intimidating whether 4 or 6 cubits is the correct reading, it does not focus on it. I will have more to say about this below.
  5. Some argue that the weight of Goliath’s weaponry and armor better fits someone who is 6 cubits rather than 4. However, Hays goes to great lengths to demonstrate that regular-sized people (e.g., in the military) often carry this kind of weight.
  6. Saul’s answer to David as to why he cannot fight him references Goliath’s skill as a warrior, not his height.
  7. Some argue against the “4 cubits and a span” reading by saying if Saul was “head and shoulders” taller than anyone else in Israel, and the average Israelite was 5 feet to 5‘3″, then Saul would be nearly as tall as Goliath. Hays says that this is precisely the point! Tall Saul should have been the one to face tall Goliath. The interest of the story is to demonstrate Saul’s fear and lack of faith, as he was the most likely candidate to confront Goliath.

Conclusion: Goliath’s Height

Photos such as these found on the internet are bogus. No archaeologists in the Middle East have ever uncovered a human of this size. Goliath was a descendant of the Nephilim but his height was not the exaggerated height shown here.
Photos such as these found on the internet are bogus. No archaeologists in the Middle East have ever uncovered a human of this size. Goliath may have been a descendant of the Nephilim  (he is called a “rapha” in 2 Sam. 21), but his height did not consist of the exaggerated height shown here.

Although I have always been inclined toward the reading of the MT, as noted above, I must admit that Hays presents some strong arguments. The most convincing to me include what he calls “the external evidence.” This concerns the textual evidence. The fact that 4QSam(a) is earlier than the MT and that it, and Chronicles, and the LXX, always agree with each other whenever there is a variant is compelling. The well-known problems of scribal errors in the MT of Samuel also contributes to this, as does the fact that parablepsis is a plausible argument for how the reading got changed. Furthermore, Josephus, living in the first century AD is also a witness to the reading “4 cubits and a span.”

Hay’s “internal evidence” includes examining the text which involves a discussion of Goliath’s armor and the fact that he is never mentioned as a giant. This was interesting and I agree with Hays to a point on this. However, while 1 Samuel 17 does not call Goliath a giant, there are two other passages that infer he was a descendant of the Nephilim. Joshua 11:22 speaks about the conquest of the land, especially focusing on the Anakim (descendants of the Nephilim, see my other related posts here and here). This passage states that the Anakim only remained in Gaza, Gath, and Ashdod (all Philistine cities!). It should be recalled that Goliath is from Gath. The description of his tall stature certainly suggests a connection with the descendants of the Nephilim. Furthermore, 2 Samuel 21:15-22 relates four stories of Philistines who are killed by David’s men. Each one is said to be related to the “giant” (the word is “rapha” which is the singular of Rephaim). This reference is to Goliath and here he is associated with the Rephaim, who were also considered to be descendants of the Nephilim. Therefore, although the story in 1 Samuel 17 may not refer to Goliath as a “giant,” it seems certain that other passages indicate he was a descendant of the Nephilim. However, I still believe the “external evidence” that Hays produces argues for the “4 cubits and a span” reading. Goliath could be a descendant of the Nephilim without being over 9 feet tall. Considering the average height of an Israelite at this time, someone who is roughly 6 1/2 feet would certainly be an intimidating presence.

Finally, in spite of all of the fantastic (trick) photography on the internet, no remains of people who were 9-10 feet tall have ever been found in the Middle East. These pictures of so-called Nephilim are dubious (see photo above on left). Since the average height in the ancient Near East was between 5 feet and 5’3,” and since archaeology seems to confirm this (at least to this point), and since the textual evidence leans toward the reading of “4 cubits and a span,” I conclude that Goliath was most probably on the taller side of the 6-foot range, as opposed to the 9-foot range of the MT.

Giants or Canaanites? The Conquest

Giants or Canaanites? The Conquest

Was Joshua's primary goal to conquer the Canaanites or the giants in Canaan?
Was Joshua’s primary goal to destroy the Canaanites or the bloodline of the giants in Canaan?

Who was the conquest of Canaan aimed at? Most would respond that the Bible teaches that it was designed to destroy the Canaanites. The word “Canaanite,” can be used as a generic term for the inhabitants of Canaan (e.g., Gen. 10:19; 12:6), or it can refer to one group among others in Canaan (see e.g., the various lists of the inhabitants of Canaan in Gen. 15:19-21; Deut. 7:1-2). In his recent book, The Unseen Realm, Dr. Michael Heiser argues that the main enemy of Canaan was not the various Canaanite peoples themselves, but the descendants of the Nephilim (KJV–“giants”) who are variously called the Rephaim, the Anakim, and a few other names as well (see e.g., Deut. 2:11, 20). Heiser insists that it is not the Canaanites, per se, that the conquest is targeting, but rather, “In the view of the biblical writers, Israel is at war with enemies spawned by rival divine beings” (Unseen Realm, p. 203). In other words, the Conquest of Canaan was more than a physical battle between Israel and the Canaanites, it was a spiritual battle between Yahweh and the gods of Canaan (including those peoples descended from the bloodline of the Nephilim). At first glance, some may scoff that this is just some sensationalist approach to the problem of the Conquest designed to sell books. However, Heiser is no amateur seeking to make a quick buck. Instead, he is a well-known and respected scholar of the Hebrew Bible and ancient Semitic languages. He is also a scholar in residence for Logos/Faithlife and I have previously reviewed his mobile ed course on Biblical Interpretation (see here, here, and here) which is a very helpful introduction on the hermeneutics of Scripture. Furthermore, Heiser himself states that his proposed interpretation of the Conquest is not “. . . an excuse for a reading of the text that is cartoonish or bizarre” (p. 211). The rest of this article will examine Dr. Heiser’s views on the motive behind the Conquest of Canaan, noting their strengths and weaknesses.

Ḥērem and the Giants of Canaan: Heiser’s View

giants
When the Israelite spies return from Canaan they give a bad report to the people saying, “There we saw the giants (the descendants of Anak came from the giants); and we were like grasshoppers in our own sight, and so we were in their sight.” (Num. 13:33–NKJV)

Ḥērem or, kherem (the spelling Heiser employs), is the Hebrew word translated as “utterly destroy” in English translations (see e.g., Deut. 7:2). Heiser defines it this way: “The idea of kherem is broader than warfare. Fundamental to the concept is a sanctioning of some person or thing because it is forbidden either due to an accursed status or due to Yahweh’s exclusive ownership and use” (p. 203). In other words, the concept of ḥērem has cultic connotations. By that I mean something that is taken out of the natural realm and devoted or set apart to Yahweh. This sets the Conquest of Canaan in an atmosphere of spiritual warfare. Some scholars, including Heiser, refer to it as “Holy War.” The key passage for Heiser regarding the Conquest’s focus on the descendants of the giants (Nephilim) is Numbers 13:32-33. According to his understanding of this passage, “. . . it is much more coherent to read the statement as indicating that the Israelite spies saw unusually tall people groups everywhere they went in the land” (p. 204). Heiser does not believe that there were vast numbers of giant clan members, but that they were scattered throughout the Canaanite population. He contends that, “. . . kharam in the conquest accounts is used only of assaults in cities or locales that overlap with giant clan population clusters” (p. 205). He notes that the one exception to this is Deuteronomy 7:1-2 (I will return to this passage later). Other passages which seem to lend strong support for Heiser’s view include Deuteronomy 9:1-2 and Joshua 11:21-22, which are interpreted by some to indicate that the Anakim existed in large numbers throughout Canaan. Heiser is more cautious stating that these passages, do not “. . . require the conclusion that Anakim are to be equated with the entire population of Canaan. Rather, it could just as well mean that wherever (author’s emphasis using italics) Anakim were encountered within Canaan they were eliminated” (p. 205, n. 8).

In the interests of not overextending our discussion here, I have chosen a statement by Heiser that summarizes his position. He states, “The point of this brief reconstruction is not that Israelites took only the lives of the remnant of the giant clans. Others were certainly slain. The point is that the rationale for kherem annihilation was the specific elimination of the descendants of the Nephilim” (pp. 210-211).

Ḥēreming” the Giants: Strengths and Weaknesses

417i-jxItJL._SX337_BO1,204,203,200_I would like to begin this section by acknowledging my indebtedness to Dr. Heiser. His book, The Unseen Realm, has truly opened my eyes to many of the things in Scripture regarding the spiritual realm that I did not take seriously enough, or did not understand. Furthermore, I was almost completely ignorant of the connection between the Conquest of Canaan and the Giant clans, and Heiser’s treatment of this topic has greatly enhanced my understanding. Having made these acknowledgments, I am not fully convinced of his thesis for reasons I will outline below.

There are a few passages where Heiser must make assumptions in order for his interpretation to work. These include:

  1. Deuteronomy 7:1-2 which uses the word ḥērem in relation to the Canaanites and other people groups of Canaan without any reference to the giant clans. Heiser notes this exception and offers an explanation, which is possible, but I need more convincing (see p. 205 for his explanation).
  2. Jericho and Ai were put under ḥērem according to Joshua 6:18, 21; 8:26), but there is no word of giant clans. In a footnote on these passages Heiser states, “Since these locations were put under kherem (when others were not), we have to conclude that some Anakim were known to live in these cities based on the wording of Num. 13:28-29 (p. 206, n. 10). This explanation is definitely a leap in logic. It is possible, but by no means demonstrable that we have to conclude Anakim were in these cities.

My other concern is that Heiser does not address the curse of Noah on Canaan in Genesis 9:25. In my understanding, this curse provides the foundation for the why the land of Canaan will eventually be given to Abraham’s descendants and why the Canaanite peoples are to be destroyed. There is no hint of the Nephilim or their descendants in this passage. Therefore, although it is clear from later passages that the giant clans fall under the ḥērem, the curse on Canaan explains why the Canaanite peoples are to be destroyed. Unfortunately Dr. Heiser does not mention this passage in his book, nor can I find any reference to it on his website (drmsh.com). This seems to be a serious hole in his argument and I would love to hear his interpretation of this passage and how he sees it fitting into his overall understanding of the Conquest.

In conclusion, The Unseen Realm, is a very thought-provoking and eye-opening read. Although I am not fully convinced of every argument made, I have greatly benefitted from Dr. Heiser’s insights and highly recommend this book to those who want a deeper understanding of the Bible’s teaching on the spiritual realm. For those who would like to hear some introductory lectures on this topic by Dr. Heiser, I have included some youtube links below.

Divine Council Intro

The Divine Council Worldview

Dr. Darrell Bock and Dr. Michael S. Heiser discuss The Unseen Realm