There is no more famous story in the Hebrew Bible than the story of David and Goliath. This narrative has shaped western culture for millennia. Not surprisingly, it can be found vividly retold in every illustrated children’s Bible on the market. But like most Biblical accounts that are told to children, the account of David and Goliath often gets misconstrued in order to make for a better bedtime story or moralistic fable. It is neither of these, however.
It’s often the stories that we think we are most familiar with that we usually get wrong. This is compounded when we factor in traditional English translations we may have grown up with, which actually obscure key points in the original Inspired text. Let’s look at one example.
When we first are introduced to the Philistine champion, Goliath, we are given a detailed description of this imposing warrior including the following physical attribute:
“A champion named Goliath, who was from Gath, came out of the Philistine camp. He was over nine feet tall.” (1Samuel 17:4 NIV)
A footnote in the NIV text gives the literal Hebrew measurment “six cubits and a span“. A cubit was roughly the average length of the distance between the elbow and the fingertips; a span, the distance between the tip of the thumb and the tip of the pinky. Thus “six cubits and a span” is about 3 meters, or 9 feet give or take. That’s one tall Philistine!
The tallest human in modern recorded history was Robert Wadlow, who was 8’11”. But like most humans who exceed 7ft, his frame made it difficult for him to move with any agility and due to his many health problems, sadly, he died at an early age.
Thus, for Goliath to be this tall AND carry the equiptment he is listed as being fitted with, his physiology would have to have been miraculously sustained somehow. Of course, given that miracles can and do happen in Scripture (and today as well!), this doesn’t mean that this account is automatically impossible. But a good rule of Biblical interpretation is to not multiply the miraculous unless we absolutely have to according to the text.
Here’s where Biblical scholarship and text-criticism comes into play though!
You see, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible (known as the “Septuagint” or LXX for short) that dates back before the time of Jesus has always read “four cubits and a span” in 1Samuel 17:4 rather than “six cubits and a span.”
But the tendancy among translators has usually been to go with the wording found in the oldest Hebrew text. This often poses no problem; except for the fact that the oldest Hebrew text known to scholars up until about 70 years ago was the Lenningrad Codex, which dates to about 1000 A.D. (a thousand years after the time of Jesus…who was born a thousand years after the events of 1Samuel 17!)
But in the mid-1940s, the most amazing find in Biblical textual criticism occurred in the Judean desert–the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls! The Dead Sea Scrolls contained, among other things, the entire text of the Hebrew Bible (except the book of Esther). More than that, the scrolls themselves dated to roughly between 100 B.C. and 100 A.D. That’s about 1,000 years older than the oldest known Hebrew manuscripts at the time! [Bonus: You can see them for yourself HERE!]
And lo and behold, what did the Hebrew text of the Dead Sea Scrolls copy of 1Samuel 17:4 say about Goliath’s height? You guessed it, “four cubits and a span“–about 6-and-a-half to 7 feet tall, give or take.
“Wait a minute,” you may be thinking, “That’s not a giant! That’s the size of the average NBA forward! You’re ruining the story!”
I assure you, Goliath was still a giant. The average height of a full-grown Hebrew male around the time of David (~1000 B.C.) was 5’3″. Stand a person who’s 6’7″ next to someone who’s 5’3″ and you’ll see what a giant they are compared to their neighbor!
Fortunately, most modern English translations have taken into account the text-critical findings of the Dead Sea Scrolls (and continue to do so…since not all the scrolls have even been translated yet, much less published). However, tradition is hard to change–especially when you start messing with people’s favorite Bible stories! This is why most translations simply leave the Lenningrad text as the primary reading and put the LXX and DSS readings in a footnote.
So the first thing we need to correct in our reading and retelling of this story is how tall we picture Goliath. There’s no need to try to explain how someone over 9ft tall could be such a formidable warrior.
If it helps, just imagine LeBron James in bronze armor and high-tech weapontry coming at a farm implement-wielding Danny DeVito and you’ll have an idea of the dread the average Israelite solder would’ve felt!
[Click HERE for Part 2: “Where did the stone land?”]