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.