Old Testament,  Textual Criticism

How Tall was the Giant Goliath?

David killing Goliath with a sling is one of the most beloved and well-known Bible stories. In fact, sports announcers will still sometimes use the phrase, “It is a David versus Goliath story” to describe an underdog taking down the favorite. Those who grew up in church quickly became familiar with the story of the little boy David killing the mighty Philistine giant, Goliath.

However, some of the details of the David vs. Goliath story need fleshing out. For one thing, it is likely that although he fought for the Philistines, Goliath likely was a descendant of Anak. Another issue is whether Goliath would qualify as a giant or not. This is actually a bit of a text-critical issue in the book of Samuel! Compare the following English translations.

CSBThen a champion named Goliath, from Gath, came out from the Philistine camp. He was nine feet, nine inches tall.
NETThen a champion came out from the camp of the Philistines. His name was Goliath; he was from Gath. He was close to seven feet tall.

There is a two-foot difference in the height of Goliath between the CSB and the NET translations. The issue is that the Masoretic Text gives Goliath’s height as “six cubits and a span” whereas the Greek rendering of 1 Samuel 17:4 gives Goliath’s height as “four cubits and a span.” A cubit is the length of a forearm (usually about 18 inches), and a span is about half a cubit. This accounts for a 36 inch discrepancy.

The External Evidence for the Height of Goliath

To make things more interesting, Josephus and a Hebrew scroll from the Dead Sea Scroll collection also give Goliath a height of four cubits. The external evidence for the height of Goliath is therefore as follows.

6 Cubits and a Span (~3m)4 Cubits and a Span (~2m)
Masoretic Text, VulgateLXX, Josephus (Ant. 6.171), 4QSama

Although the shorter height of Goliath is found in the DSS, this particular scroll is worthy of further examination. First of all, 4QSama is fragmentary, and so much of the section in 1 Samuel 17 is missing. For example, in 1 Samuel 17:1-4 in 4QSama only 20% of the text is visible, so the majority is a reconstruction. Although much of the text is missing, it does appear that this Hebrew text provides a positive reading of ארבע, the Hebrew word for four, instead of the reading for six (see photo below).

Photo of 4QSama with four cubit reading of height of Goliath

Although 4QSama provides Hebrew evidence which corroborates the LXX reading, this does not mean that this is necessarily a stronger reading. In fact, scholars are unified in their opinion that 4QSama is a unique scroll which provides unique challenges. 4QSama often will agree with the LXX against the MT, but it will also at times agree with the MT against the LXX. And to top it all off, there are completely unique readings in 4QSama which do not agree with MT or LXX!

All this demonstrates that 4QSama cannot be thought of as a simple Hebrew textual witness. In fact, Alexander Rofé, from Hebrew University, has argued that 4QSama should be retitled Midrash Sefer Shemuel, since the scroll functions more like a commentary than a strict preservation of the biblical text. I think the viewpoint of Rofé makes a lot of sense given the evidence, and so we should be careful putting too much weight on the four cubit reading (though, it is still important!).

The Internal Evidence for the Height of Goliath

When considering the height of Goliath, we also need to consider the internal evidence. We are told that Goliath wore a coat of mail that weighed 5,000 shekels of bronze (1 Sam 17:5). If the shekel is .403 ounces, then this would mean Goliath was wearing 126 LBS of armor!

Additionally, since the head of his spear weighed 600 shekels of iron, his spear would have weighed at least 16 LBS. By way of comparison in Track and Field, the javelin that is thrown is typically less than 2 LBS. The Greek dory spear was 2 to 4 LBS, and the Roman pilum spear was typically between 2 to 5 LBS. Goliath’s spearhead appears all the more remarkable when compared with the spearhead of Ishbi-benob, who had a 300 shekel (8 LBS) spearhead, which was deemed to be large (2 Sam 21:16)!

Given the significant weight of Goliath’s equipment, it seems more consistent to see Goliath as a 9 foot giant, rather than a 6 foot strong man.

How Tall was Goliath?

The external evidence for the height of Goliath could admittedly go either way. However, I think the 4QSama scroll is less decisive than people often claim. It has some unique challenges. In the end, it seems to me that the internal evidence gives more credence to the giant stature of Goliath, who as a Nephilim, would have made Israel feel like grasshoppers in his site (cf. Num 13:33). It seems much more likely that a scribe changed the reading from six cubits to four cubits so that the story would be more believable, or that Saul would be viewed as more of a coward.

Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He loves studying the Bible and helping others understand it. He also runs The Bible Sojourner podcast and Youtube channel.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *