There are certain stories and passages in the Bible that are real fan favorites: the Garden of Eden story, the Ten Commandments, and the Nativity are all narratives that steal the limelight. Among these is the story of David and Goliath, in which a young shepherd boy bests a Philistine giant and forces the Philistines to retreat. This family-friendly underdog story has inspired generations of readers, movie makers, and cultural critics. New archaeological research, however, suggests that Goliath may not have been much of a giant after all.
In the Bible, the setting for the iconic duel is the Valley of Elah, a shallow valley about 16 miles to the southwest of Jerusalem. According to 1 Samuel, the Israelites were encamped there, facing the Philistines in a standoff. Twice a day for 40 days Goliath, the Philistine champion, would leave the encampment to challenge the Israelites to send a representative to engage in one-on-one combat. The winner would determine the outcome of the war.
The natural candidate was Saul, who was not just the tallest member of the group but also their king. Saul was something of a coward and refused to accept the challenge, and David volunteered to fight Goliath instead. Declining to accept Saul’s reluctant offer of armor, David went out into the field of battle armed only with his shepherd’s staff, a slingshot and some stones he had taken from a stream. Proclaiming that the battle’s outcome is God’s, David launched a pebble at Goliath’s forehead, and the giant dropped dead onto the ground. David decapitated his corpse and the Philistines fled. The battle is won and David is on the path to becoming Israel’s most famous king.
What makes the story so compelling, as Malcolm Gladwell has argued, is the contrast between the two fighters. David is still a boy and Goliath is a literal giant. A text of 1 Samuel found among the Dead Sea Scrolls (the oldest physical manuscripts of the Bible) gives his height as “four cubits and a span” (usually estimated to be 2.38 meters or 7 feet 10 inches). This measurement is supported by the Greek translation of the Bible, known as the Septuagint, and the writings of a first century Jewish historian named Josephus. The Masoretic text, the authoritative Hebrew version of the Bible, reads “six cubits and a span” but most scholars think that this version is later. Interestingly, Goliath is the only person whose height is recorded in the Hebrew Bible.
In a recent presentation at the annual (this year, online) meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR), Jeffrey Chadwick, Jerusalem Center professor of archaeology and Near Eastern studies at Brigham Young University, argued that there’s a symbolic meaning to Goliath’s height. Chadwick studies metrics and, in particular, how to deduce exactly how long ancient measurements are in their modern equivalents.
The question of exactly how long a “span” actually was is somewhat contested in modern scholarship. The issue isn’t helped by the fact that there were likely to have been small regional variations. Chadwick’s study of ancient structures and recurring patterns of measurements leads him to conclude that the length of a cubit was 1.77 feet while a span was 0.72 feet.
More important, during his recent participation in excavations at Tell es-Safi (Gath) in Israel, a Philistine-controlled city that the Bible names as Goliath’s hometown, Chadwick noticed something interesting. The 10th century B.C. fortification wall in the northern part of the lower city measured precisely four cubits and a span (2.38 meters or 7 foot 10 inches) in width. At every point along the 131-foot stretch that Chadwick and his team excavated they found this same measurement.
Chadwick hypothesizes that the tradition relating to Goliath’s height may be related to the width of the Gath city walls and, thus, serve more as a symbol of Philistine strength and military power than an actual description of the height of their champion. As the writers of this story did not actually have access to Goliath’s corpse (especially after David had desecrated it and taken the head back to Jerusalem) it’s likely that the height ascribed to him in the Bible has some other significance. Chadwick suggests that the author of 1 Samuel may “have been metaphorically describing the champion as being comparable to the size and strength of the Philistine capital’s city wall.”
None of this proves or disproves the historical veracity of the David and Goliath story. The existence of King David and, if he did exist, the extent of his authority and character of his reign are hotly contested points among Biblical scholars and archaeologists. But if Chadwick is correct then the legend of the Philistine giant just got even murkier.