The Wartburg Project

April 28th, 2021

69. How tall was Goliath?

How tall was Goliath? The height given in many translations and commentaries, over nine feet tall, seems too tall to be credible.

Like many questions that come our way, this question, which at first seems to be very simple, turns out to be much more complicated than expected.

Both the question and the answer seem to be very simple. The Hebrew text of 1 Samuel 17:4 says that Goliath was six cubits and a span tall. The standard default value for the cubit used by most translations is 18 inches. A span is half a cubit. The height of Goliath using this as the standard for the calculation would be 117 inches, or 9 feet, 9 inches. Since the EHV regularly uses the default translation of 18 inches for a cubit, that is what we have used as our starting point for this verse in the study Bible.

4A challenger who represented the Philistines came out from the camp of the Philistines. He was named Goliath of Gath. He was nine feet, nine inches tall.c

It seems that the solution is pretty straight forward, but a look at this revised footnote in the EHV study Bible is the first indication things are not so simple.

c17:4 Hebrew six cubits and a span. A Hebrew Dead Sea Scroll, some Greek manuscripts, and the historian Josephus have the variant four cubits and a span, that is, six feet, nine inches, for Goliath’s height. A typical Israelite teenager, like David, was probably in the 5-foot-2 range, and Saul, who was a head taller, would be more than 6 feet tall. But if David’s cubit was about 16 inches long rather than the default value of 18 inches, Goliath was considerably shorter than 9-foot-nine. This complicated question is discussed in detail in Wartburg Project FAQ 69.

The problem is that the ancient cubit did not have a set standardized value. Eighteen inches is an estimate not a precise value. This is what Appendix 3 of the EHV study Bible says about the cubit:

Ancient measurements were not based on a universal standard, but varied depending on the body size of the measurer or on the size of the container used to make the measurement, so all measurements in the EHV are approximate. Calculations are also rounded off.

A cubit was the distance from the fingertip to the elbow. Scholars use a standard cubit of 18 inches, but the cubit of a typical 6-foot-tall man is 19½ inches. There also was a long cubit of about 21 inches.

A span is the distance from the tip of the little finger to the tip of the thumb with the hand spread out. Scholars use a span of 9 inches, but the span of a typical 6-foot-tall man is 10 inches.

David was probably much closer to 5' 3" than to 6 feet, so his cubit would be considerably shorter than 18 inches, probably 16 inches or even less. We do not know the source of the measurement of Goliath. Did it come from Philistine pre-battle hype, or, as seems more likely, did David or one of the Israelite bystanders do a measurement of the fallen Goliath before David reduced his height by a foot or so? If Goliath was measured by an Israelite who had a cubit 16 inches long, Goliath’s height would translate into about 104 inches, 8' 8''. This falls into the range of the largest known modern giants. If the measurer had a cubit of 15 inches, the height would be about 97 inches, about 8' 1".

That brings us back to the variant reading of the Greek Old Testament: 4 cubits and a span = 6' 9" if one uses 18-inch cubits. Many interpreters suggest that the reading of the Septuagint was an attempt by the translator to make Goliath’s height more reasonable, but if this was so, he botched the job. If Saul, who was a head taller than other Israelites, was in the 6 foot to 6' 6" range, a 6' 9" Goliath, while formidable, would not be a wonder.

But there is another plausible explanation of the Greek reading. The translator thought that his readers in Egypt, who were familiar with an Egyptian royal cubit of about 21 inches, would not have been familiar with the shorter Israelite cubit and would have been misled by the figure in the Hebrew text. So he translated the data into Egyptian cubits. At 4 cubits and a span in Egyptian royal cubits, Goliath would have been about 94 inches, 7 feet 11 inches tall. This is close to the 8 feet 2 inches obtained by assuming that Goliath was measured using a 7½ inch span for David. Incidentally, another LXX translator (Codex Venetus) of 1 Samuel 17 opted for 5 Egyptian cubits and a span.

All the ancient scribes and their readers understood that all measurements made with the ad hoc standards based on variable body size were approximations which varied with time, place, and person. This was true also of English measurements until relatively recently. The height of horses was measured in “hands.” so two different-sized farmers could come up with different sizes for the same horse. The “hand” is now standardized as four inches. The “foot” is now standardized at 12 inches, but only a small minority of the world’s population have feet that long. The twelve-inch foot supposedly is based on the physique of Henry VIII.

Using the 18-inch cubit works reasonably well for approximating the size of large buildings, which were laid out with project-specific measuring lines or rods. In fact, this 18-inch standard splits the difference between 16-inch de facto cubits and 20-inch royal cubits. It also has the virtue of making the math easy: 2 cubits = 1 yard; 1 cubit = 1 ½ feet. But for real-life, on-the-spot measurements of medium-sized objects, the people involved had to choose the real-life cubit or span of one of the participants. What was important was not the precise size of the cubit, but that the same cubit was used when buying and when selling things.

Using the average size of Israelite men of the period, which is based on skeleton size, it is likely that David’s cubit was less than 18 inches, so Goliath was probably less than nine feet tall but more than eight feet tall. The only people who would need a precise measurement of Goliath were his tailor and undertaker (if he had one). The easiest way to take a measurement of a prone person was to place your two spans side-by-side on one end of the person and to keep leap-frogging your spans over the person until you reached the other end. No more precision than that was necessary.

Misunderstandings or unclarity due to shifting standard of measurement are not just an ancient phenomenon. They continued into modern times. For example, there is a psychological trait called the Napoleon Complex, a popular belief that short men tend to compensate for their lack of height through domineering behavior and aggression. It is named after the French general and emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, who is characterized as an egotist of small stature and fiery temper. The egotist and fiery temper part seem to be correct but what about the small stature?

Was Napoleon really short? It seems he was probably of average height. Three French sources—his valet Constant, General Gourgaud, and his personal physician Francesco Antommarchi—said that Napoleon's height was just over 5 pieds 2 pouces. Literally translated, this would be 5 feet, 2 inches, a diminutive height for an imposing general. But the French “inch” was about 1.066 times larger than then the English inch. This would make Napoleon’s height about 5' 6", not far from the period’s average adult male height. The notion of Napoleon’s small stature seems to have been derived from the way he was portrayed in British political cartoons, which pictured him as a temperamental child. This was perhaps psychologically true but not true by the yardstick.

This article provides another example of the many difficulties confronting Bible translators, which create discrepancies between translations. These discrepancies are not necessarily mistakes but derive from different evaluations of the underlying data. Even if two interpreters both accept six cubits and a span as the correct reading for Goliath’s height, they may come up with different translations of his height, based on different estimates for the size of a cubit. It is important to remember that all modern measurements used in Bible translations are estimates, not mathematically precise measurements.