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Saul and Goliath: The Tale of the Tape

According to the Masoretic Text, Goliath’s height was “six cubits and a span” (1 Sam 17:4), or slightly over nine feet tall. However, Josephus, the Septuagint, and the Dead Sea Scrolls Hebrew text of 1 Samuel both give a more modest “four cubits and a span.” J. Daniel Hays (“Reconsidering Goliath’s Height,” JETS 48/4 [December 2005] 701-14) cogently argues that this variant reading is in fact correct on both text-critical and literary grounds.

Ancient Israel used the “common” Egyptian cubit of approximately 17.5 inches or about 444.5 mm (R. B. Y. Scott, “The Hebrew Cubit,” JBL 77/3 [Sep 1958] 205–14). Thus, Goliath stood approximately 6′ 7″ (200 cm)  tall. This would have seemed exceptionally tall to the average Israelite soldier. According to military historian Richard Gabriel,

The ancient soldier was shorter and weighed less than his modern counterpart, varying in average height from 5.4 to 5.7 feet, or about the same height as the average adult male in the nineteenth-century industrial West. (Soldiers’ Lives Through History – the Ancient World [Greenwood Press, 2007] 10)

To someone standing 5′ 5″ to 5′ 9″ (165–174 cm) tall, Goliath may well have fallen into the category of “giant.” He would have been about a foot taller and had a weight advantage of perhaps 80 pounds (36 kg).

But Goliath was not the only tall fellow in the valley of Elah. According to 1 Samuel 9:2, Saul “stood head and shoulders above everyone else.” This may well be hyperbole, but at any rate Saul is also remembered as being unusually tall. A normally proportioned adult male stands eight “head units” tall. To be literally “head and shoulders” above someone, a man would have to be taller by 1.33 head units, or about 11 inches (28 cm) taller given the average height range Gabriel has provided.

In other words, Saul may have been roughly the same height as Goliath—most likely a bit shorter, but at least possibly an inch taller.

Saul also possessed impressive armor. We’re never told precisely what his armor was like, as is the case with Goliath (vv. 5-7), but it included a helmet, a mail coat, and a sword. We do know that David found it cumbersome to wear when Saul insisted he put it on (vv. 38-39).

When Goliath demands an Israelite champion to fight with him (vv. 8-10), Saul ought to have accepted the challenge. After all, hadn’t God anointed him to “save [Israel] from the hand of their enemies all around” (10:1)? Wasn’t that what the people wanted when they demanded Samuel find them a king—”that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles” (8:19-20)? Like Goliath, Saul was large and well-armed. And yet Saul’s reaction to Goliath’s trash talk is not resolute action but dismay and fear (17:11). This was supposed to be the story of “Saul and Goliath,” but nobody remembers it that way because Saul flaked out.

When Samuel went to Bethlehem looking for Israel’s next king, he first considered anointing David’s eldest brother, Eliab. But God advised him, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature…for the LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart” (1 Sam 16:7). So Samuel anointed instead the youngest son of Jesse, and in the valley of Elah it was the unarmored shepherd with his staff and his sling who slew the Philistine, not the tall, heavily armed, regal figure who was supposed to be Israel’s champion.

In God’s economy, the real “champion” is often someone who doesn’t seem terribly impressive on the surface, and those who put their hopes on an outwardly appealing figure are likely to end up “in distress,” “in debt,” and “discontented” (1 Sam 22:2).

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