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In 1 Samuel 17, David intends to battle against Goliath and ultimately wins by slinging a single stone into his forehead before decapitating him. As Wikipedia can confirm, there are multiple accounts regarding the height of Goliath, but there doesn't seem to be a canonical source that indicates an accurate height. Is there a canonical reference to Goliath's height?

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4 Answers 4

According to a NET Bible note:

Heb “his height was six cubits and a span” (cf. KJV, NASB, NRSV). A cubit was approximately eighteen inches, a span nine inches. So, according to the Hebrew tradition, Goliath was about nine feet, nine inches tall (cf. NIV, CEV, NLT “over nine feet”; NCV “nine feet, four inches”; TEV “nearly 3 metres”). However, some Greek witnesses, Josephus, and a manuscript of 1 Samuel from Qumran read “four cubits and a span” here, that is, about six feet, nine inches (cf. NAB “six and a half feet”). This seems more reasonable; it is likely that Goliath’s height was exaggerated as the story was retold. See P. K. McCarter, I Samuel (AB), 286, 291.

So the first point of confusion is that the text might have been changed as it was copied by scribes over time. (This is actually somewhat rare. The Dead Sea Scrolls strongly support the Masoretic manuscripts that were the result of centuries of copies made by hand.) So the text might have originally read "four cubits and a span" rather then "six cubits and a span" due to the story being exaggerated.

The second point of confusion is that the cubit has several definitions over the years. It's a non-standard unit of measure that corresponds to the length of the human forearm. Similarly, a span was designed to be about the width of a splayed, human hand. However, according to Wikipedia:

In ancient times, a span was considered to be half a cubit.

As noted above, the approximate length of a cubit is 18 inches and a span is half that. So if you take the Masoretic text as gospel (so to speak), that works out to being 9' 9". But if you follow Josephus, it would be more like 6' 9". That's still very tall by modern standards.

Summary

There's considerable uncertainty about the text and some uncertainty about the units of measure, but the NET Bible rendering seems appropriate and conservative:

Then 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.—1st Samuel 17:4 (NET)

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Depends on what "canonical" is. The sources are:

  1. QSam 4 (Qumeran text)
  2. Septuagint
  3. Masoretic

QSam 4 and the Septuagint read "four cubits" in Hebrew and Greek respectively. The Masoretic Hebrew texts on which the King James and later translations are based all have "six cubits". Most people do not consider either QSam 4 or the Septuagint as "canonical".

It also depends on what you mean by "accurate". In general, the ancients did not have ready access to standards and the same terms were used for different standards, so accuracy was usually relative to some locally accepted standard. So for us, the stated measurements give some range of possibilities but not something precise according to our modern ideas of precision.

Four cubits was an adequate height for Goliath with respect to pre-exilic standards of nutrition and possible use of the larger Sumerian cubit. By Second Temple times there might have been pressure to revise the text to maintain the same height according to the Roman cubit which was nearly 20% shorter, or the same impression of height relative to a better nourished population.

Another reason to make it six cubits is the meter and alliteration of I Samuel 17:4:

v'yetse ish habenayim (And a warrior went out)

mimahanot plishtim (read "plishtayim" - from the camp of Philistine)

Galyat shemo, mi Gat gov'ho (Goliath his name, from Gat his height)

shesh amot v'zeret (six cubits and a span)

"arba" (four) wouldn't have the same alliteration as "shesh" (six) with "ish", "plish" and "shmo". I wonder if it wasn't a children's rhyme that got elided into the text.

The discrepancy between the older Qsam 4 source and the Masoretic text could also be explained by the fact that Saul was himself "a head above the rest "(1 Samuel 9:2), so Goliath had to be taller than that, and four cubits just does not sound high enough to meet that requirement, even if it was the original wording. A Hasmonean or Pharisaic editing from four cubits to six might have sounded more accurate to most people and thereby helped the these parties in their arguments against the general veracity of the Sadducee transmission of the tradition. (The identification of the Qumran texts with the Sadducee priests deposed by the Hamoneans was made by Prof. Rachel Elior of the Hebrew university.)

In any event, we understand the impression that the text intended to give the reader.

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Is there a canonical reference to Goliath's height?

As others have said, there cannot be a canonical reference to Goliath's height because measures were not standardized and there is no conclusive evidence to calibrate the measurements given beyond giving us a rough range.

As a matter of speculation, however, I favour understanding Goliath to be towards the top end of the range we have, for the following reasons:

  1. His armour weighed 5,000 shekels (or about 55kg) which seems to be far higher than the weight of a typical suit of armour for a person of normal size. The surface area of a man twice the height of another would be roughly four times, so a 9' Goliath would have roughly twice the surface of a 6-7' man, and of course the extra weight would require a much stronger man to be able to move with it on (never mind fight).
  2. The reaction of the Israelites to Goliath seems a little extreme for a man who is merely tall - on the other hand a man above 9' and built like an ox may have been a truly terrifying sight:

    All the men of Israel, when they saw the man, fled from him and were much afraid. ESV

  3. There "is irrefutable evidence" of a man as tall as 8'11" (and strong evidence that there have, in the more distant past, existed humans much bigger even than that) - so such a height is clearly not beyond the limits of credibility.

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Excellent additions! I don't know why, but this sentence from Wikipedia strikes me as very funny: "Wadlow is sometimes known as the Alton Giant or Giant of Illinois because he was born and grew up in Alton, Illinois." –  Jon Ericson Apr 13 '12 at 19:01
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+1 on point #2. I've always read that story with the Israel's reaction in mind. I'm assuming that the Israel's camp had battle tested warriors. They're not going to run away from someone that's 6'10''. –  rexposadas Apr 29 '12 at 5:39

With 4 cubits and a span I arrive at about 2.34 m, which would amount to even more than 7' 8''.

We have to consider the older cubit (of Salomon's time and before), not the later and shorter cubit of the time the Chronicles were written.

1 Kings 6:2 Solomon Builds the Temple ... Now the house which King Solomon built for the Lord, its length was sixty cubits, its width twenty, and its height thirty cubits.

Ezekiel 43:13 Dimensions of the Altar These are the measurements of the altar in cubits (the cubit is one cubit and a handbreadth)

2 Chronicles 3:3 This is the foundation which Solomon laid for building the house of God: The length was sixty cubits (by cubits according to the former measure) and the width twenty cubits.

old cubit = new cubit + handbreadth

0.52 m = 0.45 m + 0.07 m (approximately)

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