How Tall Was Goliath?

October 28, 2010

David defeats the much larger Goliath with a shepherd’s sling. The story is well known, and it seems like this is a simple question: how tall was Goliath? In most of our Bibles, 1 Samuel 17:4 reads “six cubits and a span.” A cubit is the measurement from the elbow to the tip of one’s fingers (approximately 18 inches) and a span is about half a cubit. That gives Goliath’s height as 9 foot 9 inches.

That measurement has at least the problem of precision. I suspect that if we went around measuring people from elbow to finger tip, we might find some variation in numbers. The truth is that ancient measurements were not standardized. The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary cautions:

It is almost impossible to translate ancient measures precisely into modern metrological terms. Regardless of how precisely stated, most modern equivalents have a margin of error extending to ±5 percent or even greater, and ancient measures were never able to achieve either the degree of precision or of standardization that characterize modern measures. (6:899)

In other words, the measurement is not as precise as saying 9 foot 9 inches sounds to us. To make matters worse, I would suggest that it was a measurement taken on a battlefield and not the precise kind of measurements of the doctor’s office or the coroner’s autopsy table. All of us have probably had the experience of stepping things off to get a rough idea versus getting out a tape measure and getting a more exact measure. Even rough measurements serve a purpose. The height of Goliath may be a rough measurement, but serves the purpose of designating Goliath as a formidable opponent.

In addition, what was measured? Are we looking at a measurement from Goliath’s foot to the top of his head or could it include his footwear and helmet? The tallest man in the modern period was Robert Pershing Wadlow who was 8 foot 11.1 inches. That gets us close to Goliath’s height, although 10 inches short. But given what has been said about precision of measurements and questions about what was measured, we may be much closer to Wadlow’s height than we might at first think. But there is an alternate reading for Goliath’s height.

The reading of “six cubits and a span” is from the Masoretic Text. The Masoretes were Jewish scribes who copied and preserved the text from the 7th to the 10 centuries A.D. The other witnesses that we have to the text of the Old Testament include the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) and the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Septuagint was translated between 3rd and 2nd centuries B.C. The Dead Sea Scrolls date between 150 B.C. and 70 A.D.

The Septuagint and Dead Sea Scrolls give “four cubits and a span” for Goliath’s height in 1 Samuel 17:4. That would make Goliath’s height 6 foot 9 inches. Josephus, the first century Jewish historian, also records the account of David and Goliath in his Antiquities of the Jews (6.170) and also gives “four cubits and a span” as Goliath’s height.

Does that mean the Bible has errors? The short answer is no. Conservative Bible believing people who claim that the Bible is without error are referring to the original autographs. The autograph is the text as it was originally penned by the inspired writer. We acknowledge that small textual variations have occurred with hand copying. None of these textual variants would change doctrine. We have enough textual evidence to be certain about what was written.

In other words, the real question is which number did the author of 1 Samuel write “six cubits and a span” or “four cubits and a span.”

How tall would David have been? David would likely have been about 5 foot 2 inches given the average stature of the time period. A Goliath at 6 foot 9 inches would have been an imposing opponent. Think about the arms length advantage that height would give when fighting with a sword. (By the way, that height could make it into the NBA too — the average height is around 6 foot 7 inches.)

Which answer is correct? That is obviously a judgment call. I think the shorter height reading is likely correct. The ESV gives the higher number in the text and the lower number in the footnote. The NET Bible reads “ close to seven foot tall” and explains in a footnote the alternatives.

A skeptic might say 9 foot 9 inches is an impossible height. I think there are solid answers for all kinds of skepticism. We have seen that even with the traditional number of six cubits and a span, it is not as precise as we might at first think. In other words, even the traditional number may in reality be closer to the height of known individuals. And it may be that the reading of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Septuagint reflect the original reading. This may be just one more case where additional information helps.


A World of Moral Consequences

October 26, 2010

The Picture of Dorian Gray is a gothic novel by Oscar Wilde. Dorian Gray is a nineteenth century English gentleman having his portrait painted by artist Basil Hallward. During a sitting for the portrait, Dorian meets Basil’s friend, Lord Henry Wotton. Dorian is such a handsome young man and the portrait captures him so well, that Dorian laments that the picture will stay young, while he will grow old, horrible, and dreadful. He would give anything for it to be the other way.

Henry Wotton befriends Dorian and leads him down a path of hedonism. Wotton’s philosophy is: “The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it.” Under this influence, Dorian cruelly breaks a young woman’s heart. Upon returning home, he sees the portrait has changed. He sees cruelty around the mouth that he hadn’t seen before. He hides the portrait because of what it now reveals about himself.

Years pass, and the portrait keeps a record of his soul. Dorian appears young and good, but the rumors about him swirl. The hidden portrait reveals the truth. Basil visits Dorian and learns the terrible secret. In a fit of passion Dorian stabs and kills Basil. In the aftermath, Dorian fears discovery of his crime. The novel states:

It was imagination that set remorse to dog the feet of sin…. In the common world of fact the wicked were not punished, nor the good rewarded. Success was given to the strong, failure thrust upon the weak.

The quote raises the question of whether there are moral consequences in our world. By the way, the wisdom literature of the Bible wrestles with the same thing. Proverbs gives the general truth that it is better to be righteous (Proverbs 4:18), but even the wisdom literature (especially Ecclesiastes) knows that sometimes it appears that the wicked prosper (Ecclesiastes 7:15, 8:10).

We may ask: Why doesn’t God punish us immediately for every sin? Wouldn’t it be fairer and clearer, if like rats in a maze we were zapped at every wrong turn? I suspect that God doesn’t do that because He wants more than people who negotiate moral choices correctly. A constantly zapped people might make the right choices, but would they love the good, and more importantly would they love God?

Interestingly enough, The Picture of Dorian Gray does give an answer to the assertion that the wicked are not punished. It vividly describes the ruin on the inside even if the world does not see the condition of the soul. Moral consequences exist even if they do not seem to work out perfectly in this life. Righteousness produces a different kind of person than wickedness. The general truths of wisdom can be observed in this life, even if we struggle with some exceptions: “The wage of the righteous leads to life, the gain of the wicked to sin” (Proverbs 10:16, ESV). Like it or not, we live in a world of moral consequences.


Necessary Trials

October 20, 2010

Peter acknowledges the reality and grief caused by trials (1 Peter 1:6). He makes an interesting observation about them with this phrase — “if necessary.” What are necessary trials?

What if we began each day with the opportunity to opt in our out of trials? My guess is that all of us would opt out. But many trials do not give us a choice. Illnesses and injuries are the kind of trials that once we have the problem, we can’t opt out of it. We must see the illness or injury through. It is like being on the first big hill of a roller coaster and saying, “I want off.” The only way off is to finish the ride.

But some trials do have an opt out possibility, and I think it is those trials with which Peter is concerned. They are the trials in which to stop the pain the Christian might be tempted to compromise or abandon his faith. Peter provides us with a number of scenarios in his letter that fit these situations.

Peter pictures Christians who are slandered (2:15), mistreated (2:18, 3:17), and maligned (4:4). He uses the example of Christ’s suffering to prepare these Christians for their own trials (2:21, 3:18, 4:1). He warns them “do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you” (4:12).

So what is a necessary trial? It is one in which to be true to our faith and to Jesus, we must suffer the trial. We must do good even if someone is doing evil to us. We must not revile if reviled. Evil is overcome by good not by returning evil in kind. We must maintain the integrity of our faith at all costs.

What happens when we endure trials with faith? Peter compares our faith to gold that is tested in the fire. When gold is put in the fire, what is really gold remains, the impurities are burned off. Such testing proves gold’s genuineness, but it also makes it more pure. The same thing happens to faith when it is tested by trials. Faith that can face the test is genuine faith. Faith that is tested is stronger, purer faith.

None of this sounds pleasant, but Peter reminds us that trials are temporary — “for a little while” (1:6). Trials may have seasons to them. I trust God to prevent me from being tempted beyond what I can bear (1 Corinthians 10:13). But anything we experience in this life is temporary in comparison to eternity. Heaven is worth it all.

May our faith be found genuine when faced with necessary trials.


The Ways of God

October 18, 2010

Herod does violence to the church. He kills James, the Apostle. He imprisons Peter desiring to execute him. Reading it again (Acts 12:1-19) reminds me of my questions:

  • Why, Lord, did you allow Herod Agrippa I to do violence to some of the church? Why those particular people and not others? 12:1
  • Why did you allow James, the Apostle, to be killed by Herod?12:2
  • Why did you allow Peter to be arrested? 12:3
  • Why did you wait to rescue Peter until the night before he was to be executed? Why not sooner, and why didn’t you rescue James? 12:6
  • Why, Lord, did you allow the sentries to be executed by Herod for their failure to keep an angel from rescuing Peter? (This one reminds me that even when God intervenes, bad things can follow from evil people.) 12:19

My questions do not arise from doubt. I understand the broad answers to the questions of evil and suffering. Evil occurs because in order for God to create beings with free will, sin has to be a possible choice. God didn’t immediately bring an end to sin and evil in order to mount a rescue – a plan of redemption. Sin’s entrance into the world brought about a curse that includes hardship and suffering as possibilities. Those are the broad brush strokes of an answer.

Yet, I can relate to Job asking, “Why me?” It seems that the answer Job received is the basic answer we receive for many of our whys. Knowledge of such things is beyond our pay grade. We don’t have the wisdom and power to run the universe. (See Job 38-41.)

But my whys go beyond the text of Acts 12. Rereading Acts 12 just reminds me of these unanswered questions. I ask why for cases in the lives of people I know and my own life. I’ve reached some conclusions. Good people suffer. Faith tested grows stronger. I believe God loves us enough to hear our whys and our faithful laments. Even when I don’t totally understand, I am convinced of God’s power and love and await the world to come when God will wipe away all tears.

The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law. (Deuteronomy 29:29, ESV)

I don’t have an answer for all my whys, but I trust God even when I don’t completely understand all the ways of God.


Wrapped In Hope

October 14, 2010

Peter wrote to Christians in Asia Minor who were experiencing trials. They were like “exiles” (1:1) in their own home towns. They felt the tension of being in the world but not of the world. Interestingly enough, Peter’s first discussion of trials in this letter is wrapped in a message about hope.

Hope deals with what is yet unseen. It is more than just wishful thinking as we will see, but it still deals with what has not yet arrived on the scene. (See 1 Peter 1:8) We love Jesus even though we do yet see him. We rejoice even though the salvation of our souls has not yet completely arrived. Hope aids us on our journey into the unknown. Without hope, we might be overwhelmed with discouragement and be defeated by the Evil One.

Although hope leads us into the unseen, hope is grounded in something very sure. The basis of hope is the resurrection of Jesus Christ. (See 1 Peter 1:3) I trust in the historicity of that event — Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection — because of the eyewitness testimony. I am convinced by the great transformation of their lives. Even the persecutor of the church, Saul of Tarsus, was converted. Old Testament prophecies pointed to this event. Historical sources outside the New Testament confirm the basic storyline of the narrative. The message of Jesus provides the basis of my hope.

Hope also has security. What we hope for is guarded in heaven. It is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading. (See 1 Peter 1:4) I have witnessed on TV the destruction of the tallest buildings in our land. Vandals have defaced important places, and I’ve seen the ravages of time bring fading glory to special places in my life. But my inheritance will experience none of those things. It is guarded by God.

But this security has a second part. Christians are also guarded by God through faith. (See 1 Peter 1:5) The fact that we are guarded through faith means that the protection continues only as long as we continue in faith. Yes, I can fall away from God, but that doesn’t minimize the protection. I know that I won’t be tempted beyond what I can bear (1 Corinthians 10:13). I believe God will provide the strength for me to face all situations (Philippians 4:13). And I know that no one can take my inheritance from me (Romans 8:37-39).

Trials are real and painful (1 Peter 1:6-7). Yet they are not the last word. Peter’s message about trials is wrapped in hope.


What Spills Out

October 12, 2010

A man had a short temper. He seemed nice enough until he lost his temper, and then, he could inflict emotional pain with his words. The outbursts would come with the frustrations and accidents of life, and those kinds of moments always come. In his book, After You Believe, N.T. Wright tells this story.

A famous preacher had a friend who was well known for his short temper. One day, at a party, he asked this friend to help him serve some drinks. The preacher himself poured the drinks, deliberately filling several glasses a bit too full. He then passed the tray to his friend. As they walked into the room to distribute the drinks, he accidentally-on-purpose bumped into the friend, causing the tray to jiggle and some of the drinks to flow over the brim and spill. “There you are, you see,” said the preacher. “When you’re jolted, what spills out is whatever is filling you.”

When you are jolted, what spills out reveals your character. In a discussion about unclean foods, Jesus makes the same point.

And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” (Mark 7:20–23, ESV)

That is why Jesus talks about trees and their fruit. (Matthew 7:15-20, 12:33-37). A good tree produces good fruit, and a bad tree produces bad fruit. Somehow, I don’t think Jesus is giving a lesson on tending orchards. He instructs us to “make the tree good.” Jesus’ solution for behavior (“fruit” in Jesus’ parable) is to transform us on the inside (“make the tree good”). When our character is transformed to be more Christ-like, we don’t have to worry much about the actions that spring from such character. After all, good trees (people) produce good fruit (behavior).

This really is God’s plan. When Jeremiah prophesies of the new covenant, it is about “the law written on hearts” (Jeremiah 31:33). When Paul writes of the big picture of what it is all about, he says, “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers” (Romans 8:29, ESV, my emphasis). We are to be like Jesus.

Character transformation is a lifelong process. We must cooperate with God to allow Him to change us on the inside. It takes God’s word. It takes prayer. It takes effort. It takes time. When you are jolted, what spills out?


The Path to Understanding

October 7, 2010

A few years ago, I found the Bible I had as a teen-ager. I was interested in the notes that I had placed in it. Bible knowledge is not gained in a day. It takes a lifetime of study. Matters that today I probably wouldn’t need any help finding were concepts that back then I understood very imperfectly. For example in a note, I misspelled the word “Pentateuch”—a word which means 5 scrolls and is normally applied to the first five books of the Old Testament. I don’t believe that 1 Timothy has 15 chapters the last time I looked, but I have a written note for 1 Timothy 15.

Understanding takes time and repetition. I compare it to a net. The first time through a book of the Bible the mesh on the net is extremely course. Many things get by us. We struggle to understand. But as we continue to read, the mesh gets finer, and we notice and understand more and more. Alexander Campbell noted the same thing in his publication called the Christian Baptist. After observing that God revealed Himself in understandable language and that our approach to the Bible should be the same as for understanding any other book. He wrote:

You will then take, say, a New Testament, and sit down with a pencil or pen in your hand. Begin with Matthew’s gospel; read the whole of it at one reading, or two; mark on the margin every sentence you think you do not understand. Turn back again; read it a second time, in less portions at once than in the first reading; cancel such marks as you have made which noted passages, that, on the first reading appeared to you dark or difficult to understand, but on the second reading opened to your view. Then read Mark, Luke, and John, in the same manner, as they all treat upon the same subject. After having read each evangelist in this way, read them all in succession a third time. At this time you will no doubt be able to cancel many of your marks.

[Then] read Acts of the Apostles, which is the key to all the Epistles; then the Epistles in a similar manner; always before reading an epistle, read every thing said about the people addressed in the epistle, which you find in the Acts of the Apostles. This is the course which we would take to understand any book. You will no doubt see, from what you read, the necessity of accompanying all your readings with supplications to the Father of Lights….In pursuing this plan, we have no doubt, in getting even three times through the New Testament, that you will understand much more of the christian religion than a learned divine would teach you in seven years.
Christian Baptist 1 (December 1, 1823)

Be patient with yourself. Learning takes time. Be assured that God has written an understandable message. What you first do not understand will become clearer in time. Read, pray, think. The path to understanding is taken one step at a time.