Children enjoy the story of the boy David fighting Goliath, but it is good for adults to revisit things they first encountered in childhood and explore them again.
Goliath was not an enormous giant, but certainly he was a head taller than the average man. 3,000 years ago the average height for a warrior was around 5-foot to 5-foot 3-inches. Some on the taller side might have been 5-foot 6-inches to 5-foot 9-inches.
The oldest surviving version of the story is the Greek translation of the Book of Samuel, called the Septuagint. This was the most commonly used version at the time of Jesus. It says Goliath was “four cubits and a span,” (a cubit was about 18 inches and a span about 9 inches) so around 6-foot 9-inches tall.
The oldest Hebrew version of 1 Samuel 17:3-4 from Qumran (the Dead Sea Scrolls find), agrees with the Septuagint. So does the oldest Greek version of the Christian Bible (fourth century AD), as well as the first century Jewish historian, Josephus.
From where did the idea come that he was 9-foot 9-inches (or “six cubits and a span”)? An alternate Jewish story was used in Jerome’s fourth century Latin translation, but the earliest copy in Hebrew of this alternative is in the Aleppo manuscript, produced in 935 AD (Professor Daniel Hays).
The English translation called the King James Version (KJV) was produced in 1611, and the translators borrowed the 9-foot 9-inches figure thinking it was correct.
So the KJV — the most influential in our history — is not based on what we now know to be the oldest texts. The oldest versions puts Goliath around 6-foot 9-inches, not 9-foot 9-inches.
Some say the bronze armor of 125-130 pounds required a ten foot giant. But the average U.S. Marine often goes into battle with 130-plus pounds of gear.
The KJV also said his spear’s shaft was “like a weaver’s beam,” implying a huge size. Yigael Yadin showed this was a misunderstanding of a Hebrew word that actually referred to the leather thong on part of the spear, which when flicked gave added momentum and range to the throw. The looped cord looked like the looped cords on a weaver’s beam.
For many generations artists followed the KJV description and drew pictures of an enormous giant in illustrated Bibles. People with certain medical disorders can grow much taller than other people, however their height is not generally matched with athletic prowess.
Still, 6-foot 9-inches was extremely tall 3,000 years ago. David was a youth, so he may have been shorter than 5’ tall, at an enormous disadvantage in any match of physical strength.
Goliath was a Philistine champion, fighting to dominate the territory. Could anyone on the Israelite side match him in height? Yes, one man. Surprisingly this was King Saul.
First Samuel 9:2 says “from the shoulders up” Saul was taller than other Israelites, that is, he came the closest to Goliath in height. And Saul was the only Israelite with body armor of comparable quality to Goliath’s. Therefore Saul should have been the champion who represented Israel.
Why did Saul fear this combat? Goliath was trained in the art of warfare since his youth (17:33). Saul feared his skill and training, not his size.
The implied criticism is that Saul failed to place his trust in God for both protection and assistance. Had he done so, it is implied that God would have honored him and given him the victory.
Instead, a mere boy took his place. Maybe an older boy, a teenager, but still not the best picture of Israelite manhood. A mismatch with incredible bravery.
David had earlier risked his life to stand up to a Syrian brown bear and a lion, using an inexpensive but deadly weapon — the sling — in order to protect his father’s sheep. Shepherd slingers in the Balearic Islands a generation ago showed they could hit a predator at over 100 feet, sending a stone with deadly accuracy (Foster Grunfeld, “The Unsung Sling” in The Quarterly
Journal of Military History, 1996).
But David also used cunning, advancing sideways, distracting Goliath with a staff, as though approaching for hand-to-hand combat. Meanwhile he hid the sling behind him while advancing within range of Goliath’s throw. The great warrior could have impaled David with his spear but missed his opportunity.
Is there a lesson for us? David could not offer everything that Saul could offer in size and experience, but he offered what he had for God’s use, trusting in God to take care of the outcome.
The Rev. Mark Koonz is pastor of Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Walla Walla. Email him at EmmanuelOffice@wwelc.org or call him at 509-525-6872. Pastors in the U-B circulation area are encouraged to write 500- to 700-word columns. Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.