Most people – whether they’re Christians, Jews, those of other religions and even atheists – know the biblical story of David and Goliath … the most famous ‘the bigger they are, the harder they fall’ underdog tale around. While the Philistines who Goliath allegedly fought for are known to have lived in in Canaan from the 12th through the 5th centuries BCE and biblical archeologists and historians have found some evidence supporting the existence of David, the whole Goliath the giant part remains heavily mythological. What shred of hope he may have had to prove he was indeed a giant took another stone to the head recently when an archeologist uncovered not a skeleton but a measurement that possibly shrinks Goliath’s size on a technicality.
“The Philistines occupied one hill and the Israelites another, with the valley between them. A champion named Goliath, who was from Gath, came out of the Philistine camp. His height was four cubits and a span.”
1 Samuel 17
At the recent American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) 2020 Virtual Annual Meeting, archaeologist Jeffrey Chadwick of Brigham Young University revealed in his presentation new information on the ancient measurements of cubits and spans used so often in the Hebrew Bible. The accepted equivalence of ‘four cubits and a span’ to today’s measurements has been 2.38 meters, or 7 feet, 10 inches, making Goliath a giant even by NBA standards. That measurement used the Egyptian cubit (52.5 cm or 1.7 feet). However, Chadwick explains in Science News a discrepancy in those numbers which first became evident during 2019 excavations of Gath, the home of Goliath, at the Tell es-Safi site in Israel.
“Buildings at Gath and several dozen other cities from ancient Israel and nearby kingdoms of Judah and Philistia, excavated by other teams, were constructed based on three primary measurements, Chadwick has found. Those include a 54-centimeter cubit (versus the 52.5-centimeter Egyptian cubit), a 38-centimeter short cubit and a 22-centimeter span that corresponds to the distance across an adult’s outstretched hand.”
In particular, Chadwick was interested in the size of the pillars at the city gates which allowed access into Gath and other cities. The pillars would have been the same width as the walls protecting the city. He found that el-Tell, the site of the biblical city of Bethdaida, had four inner gate pillars measuring 2.38 meters wide, or four 54-centimeter cubits and a 22-centimeter span. He then measured the walls of Gath and found them to be the same — 2.38 meters wide, or four cubits and a span. What does this all mean?
“The ancient writer used a real architectural metric from that time to describe Goliath’s height, likely to indicate that he was as big and strong as his city’s walls.”
According to Chadwick’s theory, the writer of the David and Goliath story in the Book of Samuel may have used poetic license rather than exact measurements in describing the height of the Philistine, making him merely a metaphorical giant who was more likely just a big guy relative to the rest of the Philistines. While some biblical scholars agree that “four cubits and a span” was a common metaphor used at the time to describe something that was ‘big and strong’, this doesn’t prove or disprove it as the height of Goliath. Obviously, more research is necessary.
Speaking of biblical poetic license, some scholars believe the killer of Goliath as Elhanan, son of Jair, who is credited with it later in the book – a story that has been interpreted as being the brother of Goliath to protect the more famous David story.
The bigger these biblical stories are, the harder they fall.